As Sam awoke from hyper-sleep, he realized almost immediately that he could not remember anything. He panicked and thrashed in the chamber until the lid slid down and he could sit up. He looked around, his heart bumping rapidly, his eyes trying to look everywhere at once. A monitor was suspended on a metal arm, and on it was the name SAM ROWAN, his blood pressure and pulse elevated due to his high state of agitation, and the date and time. Once he saw the name, he recognized it as his own, though that alone did not send other barriers in his mind tumbling.
"Welcome back, Sam," a pleasant female voice spoke from somewhere in the room, and Sam started.
"How was your hyper-sleep?" the voice asked.
"Um," Sam looked around, seeing nobody, "Who are you? Where are you?"
"My name is Valerie, Sam. I am your onboard AI. Are you suffering side effects from hyper-sleep?"
"Valerie... that name sounds familiar... your voice sounds familiar."
He struggled out of the pod, sitting on the edge as he realized that his legs and arms were trembling.
"Memory loss is a side effect, as is tremors. You should stay put for a few moments. Your tremors should subside shortly. Memory loss, while upsetting, is not permanent. You will soon regain yours."
Since Sam could not trust his legs to hold his weight just yet, he did as Valerie bade. He clenched his fists in an effort to still his hands and asked, "Why is your name and voice familiar?"
"Valerie is the name of your wife, and she gave me her voice."
"Valerie..." Sam tried to remember, "I should remember the name of my own wife."
"As I said, your memory loss is temporary. In time, you will remember all. Your tremors are already subsiding. Would you like to freshen up in your quarters? I can have a hot meal waiting for you when you are done."
That actually sounded great, and Sam said so. Valerie reminded him which way to get to his quarters, and he found it with little trouble, probably because he had known the way before. This triggered a few things, such as the fact that he was the pilot of this ship, he was the only person aboard, and he was on a recon-repair mission. His ship was called... Sabre? No, it was the Scimitar, not Sabre.
He also recalled that he had volunteered, but not the reason. The fact that this type of mission was quite dangerous, let alone the time required to complete it, was a deal-breaker for men or women who had family they cared for. Normally, it wasn't even available to any pilots except the single ones. If he had a wife named Valerie, why would he have volunteered for this mission? Were they separated or close to divorce?
"Valerie," Sam asked, "Whose idea was it to use my wife's voice for yours?"
"It was your idea, and you set a precedent for all other ships with an AI."
So, if Sam and his wife had been separated or in the process of divorce, he didn't see himself using her voice for an AI he would have to work with for months on end. So... was she dead?
"Is my wife dead?" he asked Valerie.
"I cannot say, Sam. I was not informed of it. You do have her photograph in the desk."
Sam opened the narrow drawer underneath the desktop, extracting a digital cube. He found a little red button and pushed it, and the cube lit up, projecting a picture just above it. It was him and his older brother, Chris. He shared Chris' good looks, though his face was a bit rounder, and his nose was more proportionate than Chris'. Unfortunately, Chris had been killed in the skies over China ten years before. He shook the cube, and it cycled to the next picture, one of him, Chris, their mother, and their Aunt Haley, all standing in front of a seafood restaurant. This one had been taken fifteen years ago. He shook the cube again, and a picture of Valerie came up.
Valerie had blonde hair that hung halfway down her back, big, brown eyes, and a face that Sam had always thought belonged to royalty. In this picture, she posed coyly in a powder-blue sundress, turned mostly around, but looking at the camera, or more specifically, at Sam as he had held the camera, her head tilted slightly in the process. In one hand were her sunglasses, almost comically large for her face. The other held a single red rose; he had removed the thorns before giving it to her. She wasn't grinning, but had a small smile on her slightly pouty lips, a smile that spoke volumes to Sam.
"She's so beautiful," Sam spoke in just above a whisper.
But then, in his mind, he saw her, and she was sick, pale, much too thin. Then he remembered why he had volunteered. Valerie had been diagnosed with bone cancer, which, if it had been spotted earlier on, could've been treated effectively. Unfortunately, by the time she had been diagnosed, her body was riddled with it, too much to surgically remove. When he had last seen her, she had been unconscious in a hospital bed, obviously in pain despite the strong painkillers the nurses sent through her IV. The doctors told him that the chances of her even regaining consciousness were too slim to put into percentages. He kissed her pale lips one last time, smoothed her hair away from her brow, and said goodbye. After this, he walked into Colonel Eckles' office and volunteered for the mission.
He gazed at the picture of his wife for a few minutes longer, remembering the day he had taken this picture. Afterward, they'd had dinner, and then made love as the sun went down, and another two times through the night, absolutely drunk on each other. That night seemed like ages ago. Thinking about time past brought to mind the current mission he'd volunteered for; he'd been brought out of hyper-sleep, which was only to happen if he had reached his destination, or if something had gone wrong.
"Valerie," he asked, "Why was I brought out of hyper-sleep?"
"Despite the required course corrections to avoid debris or to remain on the projected path, Scimitar has not arrived at the correct destination."
Sam sighed, "Then where are we?"
"This location has not been mapped."
"Bring it up on the screen."
On the screen was a white dot surrounded only by the stars that were visible from cameras mounted on the outsides of the ship.
"Okay, now what are the coordinates we were supposed to arrive at?"
117.99826 popped up on the screen, and before Sam could ask for the current coordinates, under the white dot, 265.10084 appeared.
"How in the hell did we end up so far off course?" Sam raised his voice.
Unaffected by the volume of his voice, Valerie answered evenly, "My calculations were correct, Sam. There were no errors in my logic, and we should be three hundred yards from Aquarius presently."
"How long did it take us to get where we are?"
"Seven months, three weeks, and two days have elapsed since launch."
"Shit!" Sam cursed, "I was only supposed to be out for five months and one week! Why didn't you wake me when I was supposed to be awake?"
"It took longer than I had planned for, Sam, so I allowed you to remain in hyper-sleep."
Sam paced the small space of his quarters. From a slot in the wall, a food tray emerged on a small conveyor belt and was deposited onto the desk.
Ignoring it for the moment, Sam commanded, "Show the correct course on screen, and then our deviation from that course."
On the screen, a line sped back from the white dot, back to their origin, Earth. Next, a red line extended from Earth and shot off into space, ending at the spot where Aquarius was waiting for repairs. Both paths began from Earth, but while the red path went where it was supposed to, the white path veered off to the right, more and more, until it stopped at the white dot.
"Zoom out until both paths are entirely visible on screen. That's quite a distance, Valerie. I want you to run a diagnostics scan to verify your logic is uncorrupted."
"I will do so immediately. This will take approximately one hour."
"That's fine, Valerie. I'm not going anywhere."
Valerie went silent. Sam ate while he waited, not really enjoying the taste of the food on the tray, but eating anyway. Then he lay back on his bunk and rested.
Sam dreamed that he was standing at the window in his quarters, gazing out at the unfamiliar constellations around the ship. Suddenly, he saw some sort of humanoid shape drifting closer to the window. As it grew closer, he noticed that it appeared to be made up of a bluish-purple liquid. It rippled gently, and Sam could almost see right through it. It stopped only inches from the window, and though its head seemed to lack any sort of sensing features, he could feel it watching him. It lifted an arm-like appendage and pressed the end of it against the window. As he witnessed, a hand took shape in the liquid, four delicate-looking fingers and a thumb, pressed against the window in a benign gesture that Sam had seen in prison movies where, in visitation scenes, loved ones and prisoners put their hands on the window so that, except for the glass, there is some sort of contact.
Sam, curious, put his hand on his side of the window, lining it up with the visitor's hand. Nothing happened, of course, though he had hoped something would. Before anything else could happen, Valerie's voice sliced through his dream, bring him back to reality.
"Sam. Diagnostics scan is complete."
Sam yawned, "Okay, what are the results?"
"The scan shows that my logic has not been corrupted, and that my calculations were indeed correct."
"Then what the hell caused us to be where we are?" Sam wondered aloud.
"I have a theory," a circle appeared around the area where the two paths began separating, "Since we appeared to have gone off course here, perhaps there is an anomaly forming in that general area. Anomalies have been known to cause shifts in space, causing objects travelling through or near to shift with space."
Sam had never known an AI to speculate or theorize, "I thought you dealt strictly in logic and facts."
"When no logic or fact presents itself, I am forced to operate outside facts and logic to reach a possible answer.
Half an hour later, Sam sat in the cockpit, doing his best to get ahold of command.
"Command, this is Scimitar, come in... Command, do you hear me?"
He waited a minute, and then tried again. He got the same silence.
"If this anomaly does exist," Valerie bore more bad news, "It is likely that communications will not get through."
"Damn it! Keep trying, Valerie. Maybe something will get through anyway."
Sam checked on the main power level, seeing that it was presently at forty percent. That was good news, at least, since it was supposed to have taken ninety percent of the main power supply, leaving the backup for the way home, with the remaining twenty percent for any problems. He was about to turn the ship toward their projected course when he glimpsed something floating serenely in the distance. The darkness made it almost impossible to see what it was, but he thought it appeared to be a large globular mass of water. He turned on the exterior lights, and it illuminated the mass, which began to glow a blue-purple. It reminded him of his dream, of the creature that had been floating outside his quarters window. But it had been a dream; he had no window in his quarters.
He watched the mass as it began to change shape, now becoming worm-like, and began to corkscrew itself closer to the ship. It disappeared around to the side of the ship, stopping at the hatch. It changed shape again, taking a familiar humanoid shape, and waited.
"Valerie," Sam called, "Are you seeing this?"
Valerie responded, "What should I be seeing, Sam?"
"Just outside the hatch, look and see."
A few beats of silence ensued, and then Valerie announced, "It does not register on thermal or infrared."
"But can you see it on the camera?"
"I dreamt it, Valerie. I saw it in a dream, floating outside the window in my quarters."
"There is no window in your quarters."
"I know, but in my dream there was. It floated outside and reached out its hand to press against the window. It seemed like a benign gesture."
"What are your orders, Sam?"
Sam thought for a minute, and then instructed, "Open the hatch, and then have it wait in the airlock."
Almost immediately, the ship's outer hatch opened, and the being drifted inside. The outer hatch closed, and the airlock pressurized loudly. Sam watched through the camera as it did, expecting the being to suddenly lose whatever control it had on itself, collapsing into a puddle of water to splash all over the floor. Instead, it seemed to have no trouble maintaining its shape, simply standing there. Sam got up and hurried down the hall. He stopped at the small armory that contained weapons for neutralizing, destroying, and obliterating. He picked up a small gun that emitted a bolt of electricity, similar to a stun gun, though this weapon had much greater distance, almost five hundred yards. He tucked it in his waistband, just in case he was in any danger, though he didn't know how effective it would be against a creature made of liquid.
A minute later, he looked through the small viewing window to the airlock chamber, peering in at the creature, wondering what he was supposed to say to it. It most likely could not communicate in any traditional sense, but even if it somehow could, it would speak its own language, and would not understand anything he said. Unlike the movies, humankind had not yet met and made friends with hundreds of different types of aliens, or made devices that bridge the vast language gap between them. The being turned toward him and waited patiently for him to open the inner hatch door. He hesitated another minute, hoping that it was not a malicious creature that would devour him whole as soon as he opened the hatch, and then decided, what the hell? He had half hoped that this mission would end him anyway since his only reason for living had most likely perished alone in a hospital room by now. He pressed the button that would open the hatch.
As the heavy door rolled left into a slot, he waited tensely, expecting the worst. Then the creature did something he had not expected; the liquid seemed to have been some sort of shell, and it rushed away from the being, retracting into what appeared to be a bracelet of flowing liquid. Sam's eyes were captivated for a moment by that bracelet, which rippled and lapped gently, but did not perform the way physics had said it should. Then he realized that the wrist surrounding it had a light, thin pelt of fur, no, not just the wrist. The fur extended all the way up its arms and shoulders and neck. In fact, from what he could see, the fur covered the creature's entire body. Sam felt the urge to feel its fur, it looked so sleek and soft, but he resisted that urge, which might be taken as some sort of offense.
"My name is Sam Rowan," Sam heard himself say.
The creature cocked its head slightly, and Sam thought that it looked slightly like a human-cat hybrid of some sort. It did have ears high up on its head, but they were rounded, not pointy. Its eyes were a luminous, emerald green, with no visible pupils or iris. Its nose was minimal, but did have two small nostrils, or he thought they might be nostrils. Its mouth was more human-like, with lips that were just more than on the thin side. From there, the body underneath was mostly human-like, except for the legs, particularly underneath the knees. There, it featured a second joint like that of a cat. It appeared to be female, though he couldn't be sure.
"Sam Rowan," he heard it repeat in a slightly high-pitched voice, its tone almost like a sigh, but clearly intelligible.
"Yes, that's my name," Sam assured, "That's what I am called."
"I am called..." it pronounced its name in sort of a guttural language Sam had no hope of repeating, "But you can call me... Tyr. I assume that would be much easier for you."
"Tyr... how is it that you can speak my language?"
Tyr shrugged its shoulders, "My kind pick up transmissions from your planet all the time... we used to. Now my planet is almost dead. The air has become toxic because of planet instability that has released gases from the core. We were all forced to wear these," she indicated the bracelet, "just to survive on our planet. However, the toxins have begun to eat into our... shells, and while our elders search for a better solution, many of my people have already died."
"What were you doing all the way out here?" Sam asked.
"Waiting for you," she answered.
"What does that mean? I'm not even where I'm supposed to be. We managed to drift off course... way off course. I'm nowhere near where I was supposed to end up, and I'm not even sure I'll be able to make it back home. How did you know I'd be here?"
"We listened to many transmissions, just as I have said, and we waited for someone who was to fly close enough so that we might make contact, but none did. We despaired until one of the elders proposed we make that happen ourselves. He had created a device that could possibly confuse a ship and send it close enough so that we could reach it."
"So you caused us to veer so far off course."
Tyr nodded, "It was most necessary, otherwise, my kind is surely doomed."
"You heard what I said?" Sam reminded her/it, "I won't have enough power to get to my destination, complete my mission, and make it home."
"I am hoping you will alter your mission. I speak of the extinction of my people. Surely that is of more importance than your mission."
Sam sighed. That was a valid point. Aquarius was not a manned vessel, and it was only being used to explore, or it had been until it had stopped unexpectedly. Now it just sat there, taking readings and pictures of the same space. Compared to the extinction of a whole world, that was nothing.
"Still, what is it you think I can do, or anybody on my planet?" Sam asked, "Your kind appears to be much more advanced already. I've never seen technology as advanced as the shell you used to get to my ship. After all, you can change shape with it activated without any damage to your body. I'm still floored by that alone."
"Then all is lost," Tyr sighed miserably, "Your species was the last hope of saving our world, but if you are not advanced enough, then there is truly no hope."
Sam thought hard, "Is there any way to evacuate your species from the planet to start new somewhere else?"
Tyr shook her head, "There is nowhere else to go that is within range."
"What about my planet?"
Tyr's ears flattened a little, and her-its eyes narrowed slightly, "I mean no offense, but your species isn't the most hospitable. There is strife within your own species, after all. We have been listening to transmissions from your planet for quite a long time, before my time, even. You fight amongst yourselves, using such trifling differences as skin color or belief structures. We would probably be obliterated before we could even breach your atmosphere."
"Yeah, I see your point. So there are no other planets around here that you could survive on?"
"Perhaps for a short time... we've debated at length on this. Our shells would protect us for a time, but not for extended existence, and not long enough for our planet to re-stabilize if it will. We can only assume it will even do so. As it stands, if your ship had not made it this far, I would not have been able to make it to you. In fact, I went against the word of the elders by my actions. It was supposed to be a team of elders who would make first contact with you. However, their ceaseless conjecture and debate meant that they would have taken much too long to reach a full decision. I proposed that time was of the essence, but, as I am not an elder, my view was not taken seriously. Therefore, I convinced one of the less rigid elders to assist me, and I come of my own volition."