Across the Void
He was a spark of consciousness in the machine, a glimmering pinpoint of brilliant light wrapped in tubes of dark, cold emptiness and lifeless metal. But he was an important spark. He was the heart of the mechanical beast drifting through the black universe.
As he crept along through the velvet, star-pricked black, sensors reported their findings to him like eyes and ears, their inhuman readings giving him a sense of movement his own senses could never have reported to him in the almost changeless starry womb of interstellar space, and he became aware that something was wrong.
Something did not feel right. But he could not explain it beyond that; nothing more than a fuzzy feeling. Nothing reported itself. System diagnostics weren’t registering anything amiss. Was it a false reading? No. Something was wrong. He knew it like he knew his legs were missing, even if it wasn’t that obvious.
He flexed his arms…not really his arms. The machine provided feedback directly into his brain, making him feel as though his arms had moved. Over time, it slowly reduced the amount of false feedback, increasing the levels of feedback from the machine, integrating him, retraining his brain with new data, a new understanding of the machine that was his body in the void between the stars. Like learning to use new prosthetics.
Knowing something was not quite right, but unable to process what that might be — he wondered if this is what it felt like to be brain damaged, or perhaps drunk. If only he could sit down and think about it for a while, maybe he could figure it out. Maybe he could repair it. He had centuries.
But that fuzzy notion remained. Something he couldn’t understand was wrong. He wondered where the damage was? When it had occurred? Then he realized: if the damage had happened before he became fully integrated with the machine, he would never recognize it as damage. His brain wouldn’t be able to process the data one-way-or-another, except as some weird, unknown signal to which it had never been acclimated nor prepared for.
Did that mean the integration program was broken? Is that what he was…feeling? But system diagnostics were still not registering anything. Numbers and file names flowed across his vision, his false eyes reading more information in various spectra than his real ones ever could have focused on or distinguished.
Unless the diagnostics were the source of the error…or they were failing, too?
The machine registered his panic, altered his brain chemistry, the fibrous metallic microfilaments embedded alongside his organic neurons firing and feeding new information to him: mental strength, discipline, calm. All necessary to keep a human mind sane on a trip like this, with what had been done to it.
The technicians on Earth monitoring the signals the machine was sending back could examine the diagnostics and the data they were receiving, like doctors looking over a sick patient. They could find things wrong he wouldn’t know how to understand or interpret. They could read the machine and his own brain as objective observers.
Perhaps it was even something as simple as a programming adjustment to fix some mild asynchronous communication between his brain and the machine. Something that wasn’t truly a problem so much as…a source of discomfort.
But even with focused tachyon transmission technology sending the data signal at the speed of light, it would be years before anyone on Earth received his signal. And years longer before he received a response.
Radio signals drifted in, early television, processed and fed to him by the dark, cold metal of the machine, on his command. He listened for a time, listening to the history, holding onto the companionship of ghosts out in the dark spaces of the universe. His tiny shifts of movement fed strange new data into his mind as his old body was washed away, his mind retrained to interface with the machine.
But he had centuries. He had been traveling for…more time than he cared to put into perspective. Generations had lived and died already upon Earth while he had drifted past the last of the great gas giants, so very long ago. His systems calibrated, inputs and outputs studied, tweaked, adjusted, reprogrammed, trained on objects long studied, before he was sent out into the deep void of space. And vastly more time had passed since. He wondered what that meant for him. He wondered if Earth still existed. If man still existed. If anyone was still listening.
Thoughts like that were unhelpful. Such thoughts would drive him insane. He put them aside before the machine put them aside for him. It would do so, to protect him, to protect itself.
Eventually, he shut the signal feed off and traveled on, the radiation ghosts of humanity fading away into the background, into history and forever, becoming one with the cosmic background left behind by the moment of Creation.
He studied the vacuum around him and those few lonely objects drifting through it occasionally, pulled and pushed by invisible waves of gravity through the dark stellar wilderness beyond the furthest edges of the Sol system, rare encounters when observed on human timescales. He ran experiments to occupy his time, experiments that were a part of his body now. It was like no motion or activity he could ever describe to any human being.
Thrusters fired for seconds now and then, correcting his course, and it was like muscles twitching briefly across spans of years. He came to understand the scales of time in the void and the empty reaches of space in no way his brothers clinging to the watery blue marble circling near to Sol ever could.
Someday, he would receive a signal…perhaps…a signal from Earth that his systems were fine.
And perhaps that, all that, is what he sensed was wrong.