This was a submission I made for Machine of Death 2 that didn’t get chosen because it’s kinda crappy!
“There! I told you it was there!” shouted Jacob. He pointed down at the red blip on his console and hopped around enthusiastically. He smashed his palm into a large blue button overhead, and the metal visor shielding the cockpit of his ship slowly slid away revealing the dark, rotating mass of the black hole looming before them. On the outskirts of the swirling arms slowly being sucked into its event horizon, a small glint reflecting the nearby white dwarf shimmered off a panel of glass.
Jacob stood on his toes to get a better glimpse over the console. “It looks like it’s already in a degrading orbit,” he said matter-of-factly. “Can we get any closer, Z?” he asked, turning to his companion.
Zeram’s eyelids blinked quickly over his solid black corneas. He shook his slender, scaled head tightly and typed a few quick strokes with his four fingers into a console located on his left armband. “No further,” said a computerized voice emanating from the ship’s speakers.
Jacob sighed and nodded. He looked back out the window at the ship floating on the outskirts of the event horizon and squinted his eyes. He put his hand to his chin in thought and quickly turned back to Zeram. “We can use the quantum teleporter!” he said emphatically.
Zeram stared straight at Jacob and typed, “Not the mission.”
Jacob rolled his eyes. “Z, how often do you run across an alien spaceship in the middle of nowhere?” Zeram continued staring at him and Jacob looked away sheepishly after a few moments. “Don’t give me that look! You know what I mean. So… How about that quantum entanglement, huh?” He nudged Zeram in whatever passed as a gut for the Dilaxians.
Zeram tilted his head in thought and nodded and typed, “Okay.”
“Then let’s do this!” Jacob replied and an enormous grin came over his face. He popped his hand back up to hit the blue button and the visor expanded back over the cockpit.
The two shipmates headed into the midsection of their ship, where their antiquated quantum chamber resided. Jacob headed to the console and began typing in the necessary spacial relation algorithms to allow them to accurately target a position inside of a much denser gravitational field. He finished quickly and waved Zeram over to double-check the results. Zeram scanned through the equations meticulously for a number of minutes before tapping a few lines on the screen and staring disapprovingly at Jacob.
“Ah, crap,” Jacob muttered. “I see it. Errors in the orbit calculation in relation to the gravitational field. What would I do without you, Z?” He sighed to himself and fixed the few lines, as Zeram nodded his head in approval.
“All right, then! Off we go!” Jacob smiled. Zeram grabbed a tall, thin helmet from the far wall. Jacob pulled a heavily modified helmet off the wall for himself. Jacob’s head being much rounder and wider than a standard Dilaxian head, a number of changes had to be made to Jacob’s helmet in order to interface properly with his human physique.
They pulled the helmets over their heads. Jacob looked over to Zeram and gave a thumbs up. Zeram nodded in return and typed into his armband, activating the quantum chamber.
The world swam before Jacob’s eyes and melted away, revealing the cold, dark interior of the mystery ship. He took his time looking around to get his bearings. Tiny track lights wound their way through the silent, metal corridor and a slowly blinking red light flashed above their heads. He looked to his left and saw Zeram walk towards him.
Zeram typed into his armband and the ship’s voice echoed in Jacob’s head, “Your mission. Your lead.” While Jacob generally enjoyed the feeling of being in two places at once, he had long since decided that he was opposed to the idea of any voice other than his own echoing inside his head. He shook off the quiet discomfort and nodded at Zeram, then began walking down the corridor on the right.
They passed a handful of rooms illuminated with dim, blue light, but there was nothing warranting further investigation. As they were heading towards a large entryway, the ship began to shake, sending the two crashing against the wall. The lights in the rooms they passed flickered off.
“This ship might be closer to the event horizon than I thought,” Jacob said aloud. “Are we sure this place is stable?”
Zeram punched some keys into his armband and tilted his head for a moment before nodding to Jacob. “For now.”
They continued down the corridor through a set of large doors and entered into a wide, open chamber. The blue lights overhead were dim, but provided more visibility than the corridors. The walls were lined with what looked to be dozens of cylindrical pods, each with a window at the top.
Jacob wandered over to one of the pods. On the front was a small panel display that flashed the words ‘WHILE ASLEEP’. It stood a head taller than he was, and he had to go up on his toes to peer inside. He strained to see through the murky, white haze inside. He squinted his eyes before seeing a small face staring back at him. He let out a strained yelp and fell backwards onto the floor, quickly scrambling back up to his feet.
“Problem?” echoed the voice in his head. Jacob looked over to Zeram and nodded his head in the direction of the pod he’d looked into. Zeram walked over to the pod. Being taller than Jacob, he had no trouble looking inside. He stood in front of the pod for a few moments, tilting his head halfway through. When he was done, he typed into his armband.
“You?” came the voice in Jacob’s head. He nodded in return.
“It looks like my species,” Jacob replied quietly.
Zeram walked to the next pod and looked inside, and continued on down the line glancing into ten separate pods. “All you,” the voice said to Jacob. “WHILE ASLEEP.”
Jacob turned his head to the ground and muttered to himself, “What is this place?”
Zeram reached the end of the first line of pods and disappeared around a corner. A few minutes later, the voice in Jacob’s head beckoned him to follow. He found Zeram in a brightly-lit room blanketed with diagrams and equations haphazardly strewn across a few desks and walls.
Jacob sifted through some of the papers, most covered in complex equations with large sections crossed out or scribbled over or left half-finished. “What is all this?” he said, looking around. Zeram shifted some papers and found a small console embedded into one of the tables.
Jacob ran over and shoved his way in front of Zeram. “I know this,” he said. Soon a large panel in the wall slid away revealing a visual display. “Bam!” he said enthusiastically as a bright user interface lit up on the display. Jacob quickly dissected the interface and started playing a video.
A tired, middle-aged man with tousled, graying hair, a patchy, thick beard and small, oval glasses appeared on the screen. He was in the same room that Jacob and Zeram were in now. He cleared his throat before beginning to speak.
“Phase 25 trials completed today. There were, once again, no changes in the results of the subjects,” he said happily. “My hypothesis on modifying the Fate Equation has continually proved correct, no matter the subject matter or the environment.” He paused for a moment, staring into the recorder. “The evidence is overwhelming at this point, but I have one more idea. A great idea. I’m going to start working on it tonight, and hopefully I will have more promising implementation details in a few days.” He smiled a tired smile and the video ended.
Jacob stood transfixed. “He… He looks like me, too. Have you ever seen another one of my race before me, Z?” he asked the Dilaxian. Zeram shook his head and Jacob bit his lower lip. “Let me try to find something from an earlier time period.” He flipped through the interface with incredible speed and another video began playing.
The same man stood before them, but his complexion was much cleaner, his hair well-trimmed and his face shaved. He held a small, steaming cup in one hand. “Now that I’m away from those ingrates, I can finally start Phase 1 of my trials,” he started enthusiastically, taking a sip of his beverage. “My copy of the Machine’s Fate Equation was sloppy and my handwriting is atrocious, but I can piece it together. If Raymond knew I’d copied it off him, he’d have had my head instead of just having me exiled. But these tests will go a long way in proving the true reach of the Machine. Raymond may be content to live in ignorance, but understanding the full extent of the Machine’s abilities is the only way we can truly prove its infallibility.” He placed the cup down on the desk and the video stopped.
“Machine?” the voice said to Jacob. He shrugged at Zeram and flipped through the interface again before finding another video. This one started abruptly. The man had his glasses in his hands and his eyes were faced down at the table as he began to speak.
“It never changes. No matter what I do, no matter which part of the Equation I change, the result remains the same.” He stood still for a few moments before sighing heavily and lifting his head up toward the ceiling and chuckling quietly. “These were the results I was expecting all along. But… I suppose I was expecting some variation. Part of me wanted to believe that there were kinks in the Machine’s armor, waiting to be exposed. But even without them, these results speak to the nature of the Machine. Those who doubted it back on Earth are going to have a hard time saving face when I get back. I just need to find a way out of my exile. I need to buy myself more time…” He trailed off at the last word as it seemed to spark a new thought in his mind.
“This guy is annoyingly vague in all these videos,” Jacob said.
“Private,” the voice in his head replied.
“Yeah, you’re right. I guess the idea of someone else snooping around in his files was kind of outside his realm of thought,” he said sheepishly, then continued searching the interface for more videos.
The next video began playing and the man was back to a more disheveled state. “I’ve plotted a hyperbolic trajectory through the black hole near the white dwarf Erlendine B. While this won’t necessarily give me extra time, it will, in theory, allow me to slow down my own passage through time. When I come out on the other side, those who exiled me from Earth will be gone. I can return without interference and spread my knowledge of the Machine, make the people understand its power,” he stopped and chuckled. “The final trial will be the nail in the proverbial coffin for anyone who–”
The display blanked out and the room went dark for a few seconds before the familiar track lights lit up around the room’s periphery. Jacob banged on the console for a few seconds before letting out an irritated grunt and pounding his right hand on the table in frustration. “It’s not coming back up,” he said, shaking his head.
The ship groaned and lurched beneath their feet, sending Zeram to the floor. Jacob held onto the desk to keep his feet as a batch of papers slid off and fluttered to the floor. The room faded out of view and Jacob saw his own ship for a brief second, before the other ship reappeared. He looked around and saw Zeram getting back to his feet.
“How much longer do we have?” he asked.
Zeram shook his head and typed. “Short,” the voice replied.
A low moan echoed through the corridors. They looked at each other before Jacob broke out of the room running in the direction of the noise. He passed by a number of doors and stopped, trying to pin down where the noise had come from when he heard it again two doors down. He entered and found a man pinned to the floor by an overturned bookshelf. He scrambled into the room and yelled out for Zeram to follow him.
“Hey, are you all right?” Jacob said to the man lying on the floor as he tried to gain some leverage on the bookshelf. He moaned again and opened his eyes, looking in Jacob’s direction.
“You…” the man said quietly. “You came back,” he said smiling.
Jacob stopped pushing at the bookshelf and looked down at the man incredulously. He began to open his mouth when Zeram ran in and the two of them managed to get the bookshelf back into its upright position. The man writhed on the floor a bit, books sliding off on either side of his body as he struggled into a sitting position. He appeared to have nothing more than bruises, however.
“Him,” Zeram typed and pointed at the man.
“You’re the one from the videos,” Jacob replied. “You’re the same as me.” He reached his hand down and helped the man get up to his feet. Zeram found his glasses on the floor and handed them to him. One of the lenses had cracked and popped out of the frame. The man sighed and tried to wear them, squinting one eye and then the other, before finally dropping them back on the floor.
“What do you mean I ‘came back’?” Jacob finally asked the man from behind. The man spun around to look Jacob over, sizing him up and down, examining him.
“How long ago did this one find you?” he said, pointing to Zeram.
“How do you… What does that even have to do with what I’m asking?” Jacob said, clearly agitated.
The man turned to Zeram and asked the same question, “How long ago did you find him?” Zeram tilted his head and stared the man in the eyes. “Not the talkative type, I see.”
“If you’re really the same species as I am, you wouldn’t be able to hear Z anyway. Our ears can’t pick up the frequency of his voice. He can understand you just fine, though,” Jacob stated.
“I figured as much. So how doeshe communicate to you?” the man asked.
“Our ship has a translation system. He types into his armband and the ship tells me what he’s saying,” Jacob replied. “It’s a bit rudimentary and he has to be very terse with his phrasing, but it works for our purposes.”
“Interesting,” the man replied. “Where did you learn to speak English?”
“What does…” Jacob started saying, shaking his head. “When I woke up, there were a lot of things I intrinsically knew. Language, science, math and the like. I don’t remember anything else,” Jacob responded.
“Hmm,” the man pondered and turned back to Zeram. “Back to the original question: Do you know how long ago you found him?”
Zeram typed into his armband.
“He says that without knowing your units of measurement, there’s no way to do a meaningful conversion,” Jacob said. “Not in quite so many words, though.”
“Hmm,” the man said, bringing his hand to his chin. “That is indeed a bit of a conundrum. It appears the last surge knocked my computers offline, as well.”
“That would likely be the result of your ship’s orbit quickly degrading into the event horizon of the black hole you’re currently orbiting,” Jacob said curtly. “I’m surprised your ship has any power left at all.”
“I’ve only maintained the systems I need for my research on the Machine,” the man responded quickly.
“The one from your videos?” Jacob pried.
The man paused before replying. “Yes,” he said, pausing again. “It has been the focus of my research for the last half of my life.”
“Equation”, echoed in Jacob’s head as Zeram finished typing.
“The… what did you call it? Fate Equation?” Jacob asked.
“Yes,” the man said with a heavy sigh. “The algorithm the Machine uses to provide its results. Many people scoffed at the results, despite them being proven time and time again. I have been attempting to put the argument to rest once and for all. That’s why my final trial was completely unlike the ones that came before.” He started walking out the door and motioned for them to follow.
“Fate is such an indecipherable thing. Do you know why I’m here?” the man asked.
“Um,” Jacob thought back. “A bunch of ingrates exiled you?”
The man laughed loud and hard, pausing to catch his breath when he was through. “That is indeed what set me on this path. They didn’t agree about the ends justifying my means, or that the ends in this case were even a necessity. Foolish of them, but nevertheless, I meant more specifically: Why am I near this black hole?”
“You were looking to get back home,” Jacob replied. “I get the sense that falling into the event horizon wasn’t on the agenda.”
The man let out a low grunt. “To say the least.”
“Er, sorry,” Jacob apologized.
“I made this maneuver for two reasons. One was to remove my enemies back home without the need for useless confrontation,” the man responded. “The other was you.” He led them through a wide doorway into a large hangar where two smaller spacecraft were parked.
Jacob’s throat tightened. “This is like the ship the Dilaxians found me in.”
“Well, that wasn’t quite part of the plan, either” the man replied quietly.
“How long was I here with you? Why don’t I remember this place?” Jacob asked desperately. “Why did you send me away?”
“You need to understand the nature of my trials and of the Machine,” the man said. “It predicts exactly how a man will die.”
“WHILE ASLEEP,” Zeram sent to Jacob.
“The phrases on the pods,” Jacob said softly.
The man lowered his eyes. “Yes. ‘WHILE ASLEEP’,” he replied. “That is the judgment the Machine passed down on me.”
“But the kids in those pods…” Jacob started.
“Are also me,” the man cut in. “You are also me.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” Jacob said, resting his hand on the wall.
“The trials were my attempts to trick the Machine into predicting a different fate for an individual. To see to what length one would have to go to break the Fate Equation. But as I predicted, no matter what I changed, the result always remained the same,” the man replied triumphantly. “But the people on Earth don’t care for hard-won facts and pages and pages of proofs. They only respond to visual stimuli. So I decided to try one last thing before going home.”
“I’m older than the others,” Jacob suddenly realized. “The one I saw in the pod was just a kid.”
The man nodded in return. “Before I entered my trajectory, I loaded one of the clones into one of these ships on a higher, reverse trajectory. The idea being that when we both finally met as our trajectories crossed, you’d have gone through lesser time dilation, and be an older and more suitable host.”
“A suitable host for what?” Jacob asked.
“Me, of course,” the man replied cooly. “By transferring my consciousness into your body, I could show up back on Earth having not aged a single day. I would store my current body in stasis to prove the transfer happened. That’s the visual stimulus to capture their attention. The coup de grace would be when I took the test and the result was still the same. No matter what these people have thought, there would be no disproving the Machine’s power after that.”
“You bred me so you could take over my body?” Jacob said, taken aback. “Did you ever stop to think that it was already occupied?”
“Trust me, this has been a great debate for many decades back home. The mere fact that I was exiled for this practice should paint a pretty clear picture of which side of the fence I belong,” the man replied casually.
Jacob began to reply, but the man put his hand up and cut him off. “But even though fate has led you back here, I’ve already lost my chance. The power systems for the main labs are all offline. There’s no possible way for me to perform the transfer even if I wanted to. No harm will come to you here.”
“Very reassuring,” Jacob replied.
The man chuckled and continued. “The real root of the problem with clones is that they need to be grown in realtime, otherwise a whole host of issues arises with tissues not being fully developed, organs growing incomplete or missing completely, or the body just falling apart completely within days. My last batch of trials started roughly 12 years ago,” he said, stopping himself. “The equivalent of 1/7th of a human lifespan in somewhat more tangible terms,” he added, nodding to Zeram.
“In contrast, you look to be around 20 years old now. I sent you out only a few weeks ago before I entered the gravitational field of the black hole, but it would appear you’ve been gone for the equivalent of many years,” the man finished, captivated.
Zeram began typing furiously into his armpad and the voices ricocheted around Jacob’s head madly. He waited until Zeram was done before beginning to talk. “Z says they found me light years from this place. This is the first time he’s been anywhere near here. Sounds like your trajectory calculations were a bit off.”
“My one fatal flaw,” the man laughed. “I fear my desire to resolve my life’s work caused me to miss some errors in calculating my very close orbit to the event horizon.”
Zeram began to type but he stopped when Jacob quickly said, “Don’t say a word, Z.”
“I came in too steep and was never able to escape. I spent too much power compensating at the end, and had to shut down nearly all of the systems onboard the ship. The degrading orbit is slowly taking care of the rest,” the man finished.
Then he started laughing. Slowly, at first, then faster and louder until he was on the brink of tears. “I just realized,” he said, wiping away the tears. “I spent my entire life in defense of the Machine’s results, and here I am about to be torn apart by a black hole.” He sighed deeply. “And ‘WHILE ASLEEP’ sounded so nice.”
Jacob began to speak but the ship rocked back and forth again, knocking them all to the ground. A siren began blaring and a loud hiss echoed through the hallway.
“What is that?” Jacob yelled over the siren.
The man laughed again and raced down the hallway. Jacob looked over at Zeram and shrugged and ran after the man. He led them back to the large chamber containing the pods. The lights in the room were out and the displays on the pods were off.
“The failsafe has triggered,” the man said. “There isn’t enough power to keep them online, so it put them in stasis. They’re asleep. They’re all asleep,” he said, laughing.
“How much time, Z?” Jacob shouted.
Zeram punched a few keys on his armband then responded. “None.”
“The life support system is offline,” the man said to no one in particular. “The oxygen will slowly dissipate and when it gets low enough, I’ll pass out.” He grinned widely. “For all intents and purposes, I’ll be–”
The ship rocked again. It quickly melted away from Jacob’s sight, and he and Zeram were back in the quantum chamber. They slowly pulled their helmets off and stored them back on the wall. They walked back silently to the cockpit. Jacob raised the visor to get a clear view of the only human ship he’d ever see, floating closer and closer to the event horizon of the black hole.