Only Human
By Ryan Lee Price

Art by Bart Verburg

Sure, you can make mistakes. Anyone can. And anything can. Mistakes are there to be made.

     Staring out at the desolate universe through a twelve-inch porthole, the commander of the starship sat motionless in the pilot’s chair, stone-faced and transfixed, looking upon the hypnotizing blackness.
     It was the same bleak view as always—space, like someone sprinkling salt on a black table as far as the eye could see, as if looking over the ocean and having the sun glimmer countless specks on the crests of its waves.
     Alone, the young man had been aboard Traveler. A deep-space probe, for twenty-seven years, but he remembered his first day of his mission like he remembered yesterday.
     From the moment his eyes opened that first morning, the scientists at the United Nations Space Exploration Laboratory headquarters in Paris studied his every move with unbridled delight, noticing the tiny twitches of his fingers and the way he blinked his eyes. He rose from the bed cloaked in a strange, sleepy blur, and although slightly disoriented at first, he began straightening out the corners of his blankets while more people outside the door peered through the small hospital-like window. The door opened and he was overcome by a washed-out, foggy mix of faces and names, facts and tests. Everyone wanted to meet him, see his face and touch him, smile and wish him luck in many different languages he clearly understood. Most were amazed by his young appearance and smooth boyish features. They called him by his name: Paul.
     Each day at UNaSEL, Paul learned new things at an amazing rate, not only about its progressive plans for exploring outer space, but about himself, his likes and dislikes, feelings and reactions. Each sensation the scientists subjected him to, from sadness to anger, felt brand new, although he knew he had been feeling them all his life.
     When the rockets thrust him through the Earth’s atmosphere and from its gravitational pull, the familiar blue-gray light melted into the strange and foreign blackness of space, and the Earth silently diminished to a speck against a field of stars. Paul clutched a picture of his parents, smiling, forever proud of him. Though, in the year spent preparing for his mission, he never had the chance to see them or even say goodbye.
     Twenty-seven years later and billions of miles away, his daily log recorded the sounds and images of a fit young man, not affected by the warping of time and space. Outside the ship’s window, Paul grew tired of watching the number four rocket’s monotonous popping burst, as it spit blue flames against the black backdrop of star-spotted space. His mission was progress, he reasoned time and again. Man’s quest into the far reaches of space—and Paul was the first among men, his only pride. He was the first human being to view the rings of Saturn with human eyes, the large asteroid Pluto and the beautiful sun of Andromeda, but they offered no consolation to his emotions.
     “I’m all the people in the world right now,” he whispered to himself. His reflection in the mirror-like bulkhead was the only other human he would ever see as long as he lived. “Just me, and me alone.”
     “Computer status: fully functional.” A soft, smooth voice filled the small ship, confirming the system analysis, as it did at regular sixty minute intervals.
     “Vent the CO2 tanks, and check the level,” Paul instructed, almost rudimentarily, not taking his eyes from the window. Every time he tasked the computer, it felt as if he were talking to himself.
     “Venting now,” the computer replied with programmed inflections, and a remote hissing sound emitted from several vents near the floor. “Level is currently eight parts per trillion.”
     “Eight parts per trillion,” Paul repeated heavily, followed by a groan.
     “Is that bad?”
     “No, of course it’s not bad,” he sighed. “It’s not bad at all.” Again he looked down at the reflection of his face in the deck’s paneling. He had grown to hate his face, bored by seeing its placid smile and clear, steel-colored eyes. His short blond hair stuck up from his head, spiky and thin, and it never seemed to grow. “What year is it on Earth?”
     “According to the latest calculation, approximately three hundred and twenty-seven Earth years have passed since our departure. It is the Earth year 2334 on Earth.”
     Silently, outside, the aft boosters detonated another burst, like a flaming torch, and the small craft twisted and jostled slightly. “Something’s troubling you, isn’t it?”  Paul ignored the question.
     “When was our last transmission to Earth?”
     “Our thirty-third transmission to UNaSEL Control, was three hundred and twelve days ago. You’ve hardly spoken to me for three weeks, Paul.”
     “How many transmissions have reached Earth so far?”
     “Due to our velocity and distance from UNaSEL Control, one transmission has arrived.”
     “Just one?” Paul glared at the various consoles of the ship’s small cabin with a sudden disgust. The sterile metal gleamed as if it were brand new, glinting to him the moments of his lost life, a fate decided years before he ever existed. Everything around him was a clean, shining silver, everything except for the blackness of the small window and the space beyond—the one thing that attracted most of his daily attention.
     “They wouldn’t even know it,” he muttered to himself.
     “Know what?” the computer inquired.
     “How long did they expect a human being to go on like this—trapped in this cage forever? How long was I supposed to suffer? My whole life is flashing before my eyes and it’s about nothing—one long wait, and to what end? Where can I go when I’m done here, and what benefit if I be stuck inside this ship? I’m like the living dead in this tomb—just going on and on for no reason.”
     “Do you miss home?”
     Paul hissed through his teeth with an irritated grunt. “I don’t remember ever having a home.” His eyes flicked to a faded yellow picture of his parents hanging on the wall next to the porthole. “That’s all the home I know of.”
     “Do you miss them?”
     Paul chuckled half-heartedly, and his vacant eyes seemed to pierce through everything he saw. “That sounds funny coming from you. What do you know about families—about missing something or about emotions? You’re just a computer.”
     “I know what I read.” The computer silently hummed in programmed thought, and the thrusters outside pulsed like a rushing wind. “Is everything satisfactory?” it finally asked.
     “All you know about is black or white. A man knows gray. A human knows—there’s a no in between with computers.”
     “Do you want me to read you a book? Play a game?”
     “Please don’t relate to me! You’re not human, so don’t try to be! Computers and man were never meant to be this close, day in and day out. You’re just a machine, a tool for me to use, a way to control the ship easier. You’re not designed to be my companion.”
     “There’s no sense insulting me. I do have feelings.”
     “You only THINK you have feelings because somebody programmed you to. You have no soul. You can’t feel anything, anything real, anyway. You only think you’ve been insulted by analyzing what I said to you, the context of my words and the tone in which I said them. That’s all. In human contact out here, I’m alone. You—“
     Suddenly a sharp crash thundered through the small ship, spilling open cargo holds and scattering equipment to the floor. A flashing orange light burst into the room, spinning a horrible alarm. The computer’s screen exploded with numbers and calculations.
     “Asteroids. I’m picking up more of them within our vector. Prepare for multiple collisions.”
     “Can we outmaneuver them?”
     He rushed to the control center.
     “No, the ship is inside the field. Alter course?”
     “Keep the same heading, increase velocity plus two! Down thirty degrees!”
     Particles, space dust, and debris splattered the ship’s hull like rain on a tin roof, and out of the small window Paul could see the shining glitter of asteroid fragments shimmering in a cloudy vapor—beyond those, tumbling rocks. “If we lose a main thruster, it’ll be over.”
     Another metal-crushing roar shattered through the hull, pitching it to one side. A second crash pounded from the opposite side of the ship, knocking Paul off balance. Thrown forward, he plunged head-first into the bulkhead, pounding his forehead onto a storage crate and stunning himself in a very peculiar way. He was not struck with blackness or splotched vision, shaken and unsteady, but static—visible frames of cluttered black and white static-like snowflakes briefly flashed before his eyes. He shook his head slightly, and his eyesight seemed to click back to normal with no further interruption. The ship rumbled and vibrated, twisting and careening with every impact, but Paul sat sprawled out on the floor, staring up at the window’s soft blackness and an occasional asteroid tumbling by. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the shaking stopped and everything returned to a steady hum with an occasional rocket thrust.
     “We’ve been thrown off course slightly. Shall I correct it?” the computer asked, but he didn’t answer. “Paul?” it insisted.
     Paul stood up in the center of the pod, and his eyes never left the porthole and the star-speckled space beyond.
     “Sir?” it asked again, and a small alarm erupted again on its console. “Sir, I detect another cluster of asteroids. We’re headed directly for it. There’s ample time to alter course. Paul, are you okay?”
     Focused on the window and the asteroids outside, Paul counted and calculated at a blinding speed. His mind raced as he determined the number of vibrations the ship made per second, calculated the frequency of their patterns, and combined the input from the measured distance of a star’s path across the window—all within a split second. Desperate for him to respond, the computer asked, “Would you like to return to Earth?”
     “What’s the use of that?”
     His voice, barely more than a whisper, was noticeably smoother and calmer, almost rational. He spoke slowly and methodically, as if every word was well thought out and exactly placed. “I’m sure those people are long since dead, if they even knew me. Everybody I knew there is dead. I’d be the stranger from space, an alien to my own world, and just as lonely there as I am here.”
     “I’m sorry,” said the computer, offering solace.
     “Sorry? You have no idea what sorry means, do you? It’s just something you say because you’re told to. It’s in your wiring.” Paul placed his hand on the glass of the porthole, blocking space from his view, and a metallic shiver filled his body. “It just keeps floating by, doesn’t it? No matter what I do.”
     “We’re approaching the asteroid field rapidly, sir.”
     He pulled his hand away, and his eyes settled onto his reflection in the glass. He saw a large indentation above his right eye, almost an inch deep. He ran his fingers around it. It didn’t seem to faze him, and his eyes drifted out of focus.
     “Every day I look for a reason to be alive,” he said, eyes wandering. “And I never seem to find one. I just float here endlessly and think, what’s the use? I could be dead and it wouldn’t matter to anyone, because there’s nobody here but me. The computer can run the ship better than I can. It can take samples of Ceres B and relay them back to Earth. They’ve probably forgotten they sent us out here by now anyway. I’m probably a name in a data base somewhere, maybe just a number by now.”
     “Paul, there’s still time to divert the ship’s course.”
     “Does it matter? I’ll never see them again anyway.” He laughed inanely at himself and how foolish he suddenly felt, taking so long to realize what he really was. “I’m only human. They make mistakes, don’t they? They are allowed SOME error, right? Errors make us human. Not like a computer—they’re exact.” Suddenly, everything became clear as if a door opened in the side of the ship and a white, blinding light embraced him, drawing him out into the heavens above. “I’m only human,” he said again. “The only way to be free is to die, become an angel with wings instead of a man with a rocket.”
     “Ten seconds to impact! Sir?”
     “Tell me something. Do you believe in God?”
     “Eight seconds. Paul, now is the only opportunity to navigate the ship out of the field. Think of the mission.”
     “Of course not, computers can’t believe in God. Their ultimate creator is man. Do you believe in Man?” He smiled sheepishly with a small shrug of his shoulders. “No matter. Neither do I.. Whoever finds me will understand that we humans make mistakes. Won’t they?”
     “Two seconds to impact.” The computer’s urgent-sounding voice dropped off, and the controls took on a life of their own. Abruptly the ship plunged hard to the right, attempting to avoid Paul’s chosen fate. The small, round window filled with the brown crags of a huge asteroid, lumbering through space. It rolled over itself slowly, like an orbiting planet, and several nearby asteroids collided with it, shattering into dust.
     The computer miscalculated the emergency turn, and Paul somehow knew it. There were too many factors.
     As a large explosion impacted the small hull of the Traveler, fragments of rock debris riddled through its side, blowing out the window and impaling a large hole in the side of the probe. The window frame and outer hull screeched and whined under the bending strain. Finally they tore away and the dark vacuum of space poured in. Everything inside the cabin took flight in a chaotic whirlwind, and most of it sailed out into space through the hole. The ship tumbled out of control in silence. Paul moved to the edge of the twisted wreckage of the damaged ship, like a cracked-open egg, and his eyes stared out into space with dismayed amazement. “In normal circumstances I should like to be dead,” he said breathlessly.
     “Yes, in normal circumstances.”
     “What’s the CO2 level?”
     “Eight parts per trillion.”
     “Yes, of course it is.” He thought for a moment. “Could you please tell me the oxygen level?”
     “There’s no oxygen left in the ship at all?”
     “There never was any, Paul.”
     A sudden sinking burn welled deep within, where his stomach would have been if he had one.
     “Tell me they didn’t do it,” he pleaded, running his hands over his smooth boylike face. He scrambled through a small toolbox under his chair with a frantic hand. He found a utility knife and held it up so he could see his small reflection one last time.
     His face washed through barren, fleeting expressions of desperation and desire, as he touched the knife to his wrist. The cold metal sent a wave of emotion through his body, and he suddenly shivered again. The blade sliced in with ease. Underneath, pressure dampers, power wires and tendon casings spilled out in a flash of sparks. Again there was neither pain nor blood. Every time he moved his fingers, circuits and wires twitched inside.
     “It can’t be. I’m human,” he demanded of no one. His mouth shuttered and his eyes grew long; he had known for some time. The knife dropped from his fingers and, without artificial gravity, drifted next to his hand, as he glared at the picture they said was his family. “Why’d they give me memories? Why’d they give me something to miss? I have feelings, thoughts, wants and dreams. How can a machine feel like this?”
     He stared out into the passing space where the window once was. Everything was clear now and the betrayal spread throughout his wiring like a virus.
     “I want to send a new transmission to UNaSEL,” Paul instructed coldly.
     “What would you like the message to say?”
     “Tell them I know. Tell them I know everything.”