Unlink

by Jordan Graham

 

“This is the most promising planet we’ve had in years. Let’s see what we’ve actually got down there.”
Every sensor on the ship instantly came to life, each one directing its attention to the planet below. Long range scans from home showed it to have oxygen and water, but it was farther from the local star than would be ideal.
“Antenna 7 didn’t activate.”
It was common to have a few defective parts on startup. Most outward-facing sensors were turned on for only a day or two every few years, so any faults weren’t detected until a new planet was reached. A simple reboot would usually do the trick.
“Mark, did you hear that? Antenna 7 isn’t working.”
Technically, Mark couldn’t hear anything. The three crew members on the ship were all asleep in stasis pods while data from the computer was fed into their mostly inactive brains, which would process the information and send new data back into the computer. The pods also significantly slowed the aging process, allowing the people commanding the ship to do so indefinitely. It was the cleanest and quickest solution they had found back on Earth for piloting and maintaining a ship for an unknown length of time. Artificial intelligence hadn’t yet reached its full potential, nor was it as trustworthy as a human brain, and building a ship that could sustain a large population being awake for generations was out of the question.
With just five years until a giant meteor was to wipe out the Earth, they had been forced to act fast. Within months of the discovery, hundreds of vessels launched in every direction from Earth. Most of the population went into cryogenic sleep as passengers, while crews of three – made up of pilots, scientists, and engineers – hooked into the ships’ computers and began a voyage to find a new home. The chance of any one ship discovering a habitable planet was small, so each went its own separate way, sending a beacon to the other ships if one was found.
It had been 843 years since this particular ship, SearchLight 25, had launched. It was one of the last to leave Earth, launching late enough that Sarah and John witnessed the planet rip into pieces as the meteor hit. It took mere minutes for the only land they had ever stepped on to become an unlivable wasteland. Yet that was not the last difficulty the crew faced. Sam, the third crewmember, died unexpectedly years after their departure. He was able to be replaced with a passenger, but still no suitable planet had been found, and no beacons had been heard. Even if another ship had discovered the perfect world, it was possible SL25 was too far away to hear it. In fact, it was statistically probable that around 20 ships had found a suitable home by now. Scans from Earth hinted at there being plenty of potentially habitable planets throughout the solar system, but all SL25 had found were barren and toxic rocks.
“Mark, I know you can hear me. Diagnostics say your body is processing information. Hurry up and get your section started, I want to see what’s down there.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mark sighed. The emotion in a linked brain’s voice didn’t always process correctly, but enough information was there for anyone else connected to decipher it.
Sarah stopped what she was doing. “What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”
“Just look at it. There’s nothing down there. No water, no green, nothing. It’s a rock floating through space. That’s it. The long range scans were even less reliable than usual.”
Sarah switched her view to the feed from the camera pointed at the planet. She typically didn’t like looking at it before running some tests. She’d rather watch the data flow in one piece at a time, and seeing the planet spoiled part of the fun. After a quick glance, she responded, “You know that doesn’t mean anything. There could be water under the surface, and abundant vegetation isn’t a necessity. We can set up the domes as long as the atmosphere isn’t going out of its way to try and kill us.”
“Maybe it didn’t mean anything the first dozen times, but I’m twenty planets deep now and it’s the same story on every one. How many did you visit with Sam before you woke me up? At least eighty, wasn’t it?”
He was probably right. Even the planets that matched the data from the long range scans always seemed to have some massive problem. Some had temperatures far outside the range humans could live in. Some had massive volcanoes that had been erupting for centuries. Others had orbits that took them into the path of a debris field from a much larger and much more destroyed planet. The one they were currently above didn’t even appear to have the benefit of matching the original data.
Sarah was unfazed. “We knew from the moment they told us about this mission that finding an Earth-like planet was unlikely. This one might be good enough, so run the tests. John, you have any results yet?”
John was the engineer on the ship. Not every problem was solvable with code and neural links. Sometimes a wire would short or a computer would become unresponsive, and John would be the first to unlink and fix the issue. He was also in charge of the small drones speeding toward the planet’s surface. As soon as the ship neared the planet, John had released a dozen of the baseball sized drones out the back of the ship, allowing the planet’s gravity to pull them down into the atmosphere.
John relayed the information from the drones, “There’s at least some sort of an atmosphere down there.”
“See, Mark,” Sarah said in as much of an I-told-you-so tone that circuits in a computer can make, “Sometimes looks are deceiving.”
Mark didn’t respond. He knew the simple presence of an atmosphere meant nothing. Sarah was just trying to cheer him up. That’s what she was best at. During the long, seemingly endless trips between systems, when the crew had slowed their links, she was always able to let her cheery personality get through. It was as if her natural joyfulness was able to spread throughout the computer and infect the others. Most days that was enough to keep everyone focused on the mission, but it wasn’t working for Mark this time.
The crew continued their scans and tests. Each result that came back made the planet, despite all odds, look like it could be the one. The temperature fell within an acceptable range, the planet’s rotation created 28 hour days, and a few scans even returned preliminary evidence of frozen water at the poles. John’s drones hurtled through the atmosphere, providing more and more positive results. Nitrogen was detected, then a hint of oxygen. There was even a slight breeze.
Then, it happened. One drone near the south pole detected 0.02% water vapor. It was only one drone, and it was a tiny amount of moisture, but it was water in the air. Sarah’s thoughts screamed through every conduit on the ship, “Water! There’s water and oxygen in the atmosphere! This could finally be it!”
“God, it really could be, couldn’t it?” said John.
Mark hadn’t spoken yet, he wanted to read the data and confirm it for himself before he got excited. It took less than a second to check, but he didn’t want to jump the gun. “This actually looks like the real deal.” He paused the tests he was running and listened in on the data stream coming from the drones. Sarah did the same. All they cared about was what it was like on the surface.
The drones were only 10,000 feet above the planet now. Every result that poured in was better than the last. At 9,000 feet to go, drones 4 and 8 also picked up trace amounts of water. At 8,000 feet, drone 6 returned an image of what appeared to be a small lake. The data stream read like poetry. Every new bit accompanied the one before in pure harmony.
Everything was perfect until at 7,000 feet, in the middle of a verse about the air pressure, the poem shattered. Three hundred bits fell out of sync.
Nobody spoke. There was no reason for a drone to send back broken data. They all hoped it was simply their imagination or an error in their link. Despite their wishes, another hundred bits streamed in, this time with large chunks missing.
Sarah broke the silence, “Alright, what was that?”
“I don’t know,” John said as he spun up a drone diagnostic program.
Before it could even begin, more problems emerged. At 6,000 feet, Drone 7 began reporting impossible results. Drones 2 and 12 were each incomprehensible. Drone 5 was no longer sending any data at all.
At just above 5,000 feet, the stream went quiet. Nothing was being received. It was as if the drones had disappeared. Nobody spoke again, this time because they didn’t know what to say. It couldn’t be that they hit the ground; they would have each shut off one by one if that were the case. There were multiple sensors to detect height and distance that would have deployed the parachutes, and an impact with the ground wouldn’t explain the garbled messages, either. It also couldn’t have been a software glitch. Each drone was independent, and the probability of each having a glitch occur at the same time was astronomically low.
John poured over the data stream from the drones for what seemed like forever, but was in reality no more than seventeen seconds. In that time he ran through hundreds of scenarios, checked every minute detail, explored every option. He searched for anything that could explain why a dozen drones would simply stop functioning, but he kept coming back to a single, horrible conclusion. The condition of the data stream and the way the components went dark could only mean one thing.
“I think I know what happened,” he let out with a sigh. “I can’t explain why, but there must be a continuous electromagnetic disturbance just above the surface. It started by interfering with the data, and as the drones got further in it caused each one to completely shut down.”
“So what does that mean for us?” Sarah asked.
“You know what that means.”
“I just…tell me anyway.”
“It means no electronics are going to work on the surface. Nothing we brought with us will work down there. No lights, no computers, none of the dome-farm equipment, nothing. Even if we could land the ship, and that’s a big if, I don’t see how we could support everyone on board. There’s nothing down there to eat, and without the ability to quickly make food…”
They didn’t need to hear any more; the point had been made. The chance of survival for the hundreds on the ship was near zero, and despite its impossibly perfect atmosphere, the planet below would only ever be one thing: a barren rock tumbling through space.
The happiness that had been permeating through the ship’s computer faded. There was nothing but raw, cold data as the emotional aspects of the links went dark. The data flowing through Sarah’s brain went mostly untouched. She hoped that something would pass through that sparked an idea, even something that could give them a chance, but that idea never came. The options were die on impact, die of starvation, or give up and continue to the next planet. Every option was awful in its own, unique way.
As they each came to the same conclusion, an emotion began building and moving through the computer again. Sarah first noticed it as a tinge of sadness coming in with the data. That made sense, deep down they all felt that, but soon she sensed anger mixed in with the sadness. Then came the largest and most painful spike of emotion she’d ever felt. She couldn’t make out what it was, just that it hurt and seemed to overtake any other data that was coming in.
“John, please tell me that was you,” she said, as she slowed the data flow into her link, preventing the emotions from overloading it.
“Not me,” John replied.
“Damn it. Mark? Mark, listen to me, you need to unlink now.”
Pure emotional data surged from Mark’s link. The stream of data moved through him faster than should have been possible, amplifying itself in a feedback loop of despair and rage. Still, a few of his coherent thoughts were able to break through: “It’s not worth it. It’s just not worth it anymore.”
“Mark, you need to calm down.”
The emotions escalated as Mark continued, “We finally find a planet that gives us a chance and we can’t even land on it. The next five planets on the list don’t even look good from the long range data. There’s nothing for us out here.”
“Mark liste-”
“They sent us the wrong way. There’s probably a ship out there that found their perfect planet centuries ago and we’re over here finding useless rocks!”
Sarah opened an encrypted communication with John. “He’s getting into the life support systems. I need you to unlink and pull him out.”
“Will you be able to slow him down?” John asked.
“I don’t know. He’s flooding the computer with data right now. It’s going to be hard to get through.”
“Do your best,” John said, as he began the unlinking procedure. The process would take a little over a minute. Chemicals had to pump into his body to wake him up, a series of small electrical pulses had to fire to stimulate the nerves and muscles, and the brain link had to sever carefully and slowly to avoid intense confusion upon waking. But before he could do any of that, there was something else. He had to send a message to himself.
The neural link has a significant, but necessary, flaw: Data passing through the brain skips both long term and short term memory. Without that bypass the brain would become overloaded with useless memories of ones and zeros, resulting in amnesia, severe brain damage, or death. This also meant that someone coming out of a link would be unable to remember anything that happened while they were hooked up.
To get around this, the person unlinking usually sent a message to themselves to display on a screen in front of their pod. Often the message would be a general update on what had happened since last waking or a message explaining why they woke themselves. In this case, it would be the latter. John left a simple note for himself, one that would explain the situation as fast and efficiently as possible:

SUICIDE POD / FIX DIDN’T WORK / UNLINK HIM NOW

John’s eyes sprung open as he took in a deep breath. His arms and legs flailed around the pod, crashing into the padded sides. His eyes darted around the room trying to find the source of his perceived danger. This was perfectly normal, coming out of a three year sleep would tend to make you forget where you are, but he wouldn’t remember that for another five seconds.
Between his panicked thrashes, he instinctively looked up at the message screen. Before he had finished reading the word ’suicide’ he knew what to do. John ripped out the tubes and cables connected to his skin, and, with a slight push off the pod’s back wall, he began floating through his quarters. Each crew member had their own room – when there are only three people awake on a hastily built ship hurtling through space, it’s best to compartmentalize – and John’s was on the opposite side of the ship from Mark’s. Sarah was closer, but John knew the ins and outs of every section of the ship. He was the best chance they had at saving Mark from himself.
As John flung himself through his door and into the narrow corridor, Sarah continued her attempt to persuade Mark, “Please listen to me. You need to unlink and we’ll talk about this in person.”
“Why? There’s nothing to talk about. We’re destined to fly out here forever. There’s no future for us.”
“If you unplug you can forget about all of this. We can wipe your linked memories in the computer and when you plug back in it’ll be like nothing ever happened.”
Mark paused. Even through his anger, the rational part of his mind had known that was an option. If they erased the onboard data of the actions he’d taken while linked, then the next time he plugged in he would only have his human memories. All those years drifting from system to system would be gone. It could be a fresh start.
“Come on, Mark. Just unlink,” Sarah repeated.
His emotions flooded back into the computer, “I don’t think I can do that to myself.”
“What? What do you mean? You aren’t doing anything except waking up!”
“And condemning myself to an eternity hooked up to a computer floating through space.”
“You don’t know that. We could hear a beacon tomorrow and be on the ground in a few years.”
While Sarah and Mark had their silent argument through the computer, John rushed toward Mark’s room. All the while he thought back to the last time he’d seen Mark, during a mandatory week long unlinking. It could have been days ago or it could have been years ago, John didn’t know, but he thought back to that time. He tried to remember any warning signs, no matter how small and insignificant, that could have tipped them off about what was coming.
He caught himself on a handle outside of Mark’s room. Through the small window in the middle of the door he could see Mark’s body resting motionless in the pod. He quickly threw the thoughts of the past out of his mind. It didn’t matter how or why this happened. They could figure that out later. All that mattered now was unlinking Mark. As he reached down for the door’s handle to give it a pull, a loud ’thunk’ came from within the walls.
“Sarah, he’s locked the door,” John said aloud, “Keep talking to him. I can override it, but I’m going to need as much time as you can give me.”
“Okay, but he’s already locked me out of the ventilation system,” an almost-human female voice said from a speaker next to the door. Synthesized speech from a link never sounded quite right, even more so during stressful situations. “He’s about to let the air out of his room.”
On cue, John could hear the fans in the ship spinning up. He looked through the window in the door and saw the few papers and small loose items in the room being sucked toward the vents. John yelled as loud as his underused vocal chords would let him, “There’s no time, you have to unlink him!”
“You know that could kill him,” she said over the speaker.
“Unless you have a better idea, he’s going to die anyway. That room will be a vacuum before I can get this door open. This is why we built the remote unlink. We knew this might happen again.”
This time an almost-human male voice came over the speaker, “What do you mean ’again’?”
“Mark, pump the air back into your room and unlink yourself. We’ll talk about it then,” John said.
“No!” Mark yelled, too loud for the speaker to handle, his voice predominantly static, “Why did you say ’again’?”
“Unlink him! If he finds out while linked then the whole ship is in danger.” John looked over into one of the cameras watching the corridor. “Sarah, you have to.”
It would take one single thought for her to unlink Mark. They’d built the release to be quick and simple, knowing that they might be pressed for time if they ever had to use it. The simplicity of it also helped hide it from anyone that wasn’t looking for it; nobody would ever care to delve into a command for diverting power from one storage unit to another. Unless you knew it was there, you wouldn’t see that by executing that command, with the correct parameters, a chain reaction would begin. It would all happen too quickly for the occupant to stop it, and Pod 2 would immediately unlink.
The oxygen levels in the room continued to fall. She knew this was the only option they had left. They had missed the warning signs and not taken enough precautions. Stopping Mark while he was linked was impossible. They had to wake him up, whatever the consequences.
“I’m sorry, Mark,” she said, as the command propagated through the ship, “I’m sorry we did this to you.”
The tubes and cables ripped from Mark’s body. A wave of pain shot through his chest and into his head. He awoke clawing at his head and screaming in agony, having no idea where he was or why he was there; only for brief moments did he remember who he was. All he could understand was what felt like every muscle in his body trying to escape.
As the pain lessened, he could start to hear John’s voice over the intercom. “Mark, you need to open the door.” Every syllable pounded away in his head as he covered his ears in a feeble attempt to make it stop. “Your room is depressurizing. You have to open the door. Now!” The forcefulness of the words caused Mark to open his eyes. Although his vision was filled with throbbing lights and empty voids, he was able to see John on the other side of the door.
“What’s going on?” he asked between bursts of pain.
“The life support in your room malfunctioned. You had to quickly wake yourself up so you could manually open the door,” John said.
Mark reached his arm out of the pod to pull himself towards the door. Before leaving, he instinctively looked up to his message screen, as he did every time he unlinked. The message was short, much shorter than usual, and seemed to have been cut off:

THEY’RE LYING / THEY KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN / DON’T O

He looked back at the door. It was getting hard to breath and the pain wasn’t going away. Speaking had become difficult. “You’re…lying?”
“What? No,” John said. “Just come open the door.”
Mark motioned toward his message screen. “What did you know?” The pain rippled through his body once again. With it came something else this time: a feeling of despair. He couldn’t figure out where the feeling was coming from. It wasn’t from him now, but instead from memories that he couldn’t hold on to. The emotion continued to rise until he was finally able to make sense of it. “I can remember,” he said between deep breaths, “You said this had happened before.”
John’s face sunk. The quick unlink must have caused the brain to store some of the data from the computer. There was no other way he would be able to remember anything from the link. He couldn’t lie any more, he had to come clean and hope it would at least get Mark to open the door. “This is going to be hard to hear, but you deserve to know. Sam wasn’t the only one before you, and he didn’t die in an accident. You’re the fourth replacement. Each person in that pod before you killed themselves, just like you’re trying to do now. I’m sorry, but we tried to fix it. I thought we’d gotten it right this time.”
Mark had moved to the door now, his face inches from John’s, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That’s what we did last time, and it only happened sooner. We decided we had to keep it from you. Just open the door and we can try and fix it again. We’ll take more precautions. We’ll wipe all your linked data and pull you out every couple of months. We can make this work.”
Mark glanced away. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters! This isn’t you, it’s just a bug in the neural link! Open the damn door!”
“It is me.” Mark was barely able to speak above a whisper. “It is now.”
“No! No it isn’t!” John pounded his fist on the door, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Open the door! Open it!”
Mark floated back, away from the door. His eyes looked straight through John, who was now simply punching the window, trying to tear through the door over and over again. It had long since been too late, but he didn’t care. All he could do was attack the door.
His bloodied fist hitting the window was the last sound on the ship for what felt like an eternity. Sarah had been focused solely on regaining control of life support, but she had now given up, too. The two remained alone in silence, each wishing they could go back thirty minutes and get him to unlink. They could have told him there was a problem, and they needed to wipe his linked memory. Both knew it would still happen eventually, but at least that would have bought them some more time.
“We can’t do this again,” John finally said, breaking the silence.
“John, we-,” Sarah was stopped before she could finish.
“Don’t say it. We are not putting anyone else in that pod.”
“You know we have to,” she said, “This thing doesn’t work with only two people. We’d never find a new home.”
“We basically rebuilt the whole pod last time. There’s nothing else we can try to fix it, and I can’t be responsible for the death of another person.”
“We’ll figure something out. We can make it work.”
The next few hours the two worked in silence. They gained control of life support once again and rewired the door lock, forcing it open. Sarah unlinked. She read the long message she left herself about what had happened before bringing herself to join John outside of Mark’s room. They floated there together, too heartbroken to do what they had already done four times before. It was hours until they were ready to let their friend’s body drift out of the airlock.
They orbited the planet for days, making sure they were emotionally prepared before linking back up. There were no talks about what they were going to do next. Sarah knew John didn’t want to think about it. He spent his time making repairs around the ship and recalibrating the sensors, hoping to work through the pain, while she built in more precautions and fail-safes.
Eventually there were no more excuses and no more trivial repairs to be made. Sarah decided it was time to get back in her pod. Before linking, she said to John, “We’ll find a way through this. We’re eight centuries in, we can’t stop now.”
“I’m just not sure anymore,” he said.
John waited a while longer. They would at least be able to set a course for the next system before deciding whether to wake a passenger, and he wanted a few more quiet moments alone before letting his linked mind make that decision.
As he floated through the long, lonely ship toward his room, John heard a door open behind him. His eyes closed as he took a deep breath, knowing what had to be there. He turned around to the sight of a woman drifting through a door, shielding her eyes from the bright lights.
“No, Sarah,” he whispered under his breath, “We could have waited.” Before he knew what to do, the woman turned and noticed John.
“Hello?” her voice quietly cracked, “Did we find a planet?”
All he wanted was to say ’No, there’s been a mistake. We need to get you back in stasis.’ He said those words over and over in his head, trying to force them out.
“Did we find a new home?” the woman asked again.
“No.” John hesitated. “There’s been a problem. One of our crew members passed away. You’re the replacement.”

Jordan Graham is a writer originally from Tennessee who moved to Orlando, Florida to become a video game developer. He eventually realized his favorite part of making games was creating the world and story. Now he happily writes science fiction until someone tells him to stop. His work is available for purchase online, through Amazon.