Spacebrain’s sensors bounced radio waves off the nearest celestial body. One of several moons orbiting a gas giant orbiting a binary star system, some seven million astral units away from Earth. The moon’s data sang back to him in the darkness. His processors decoded the data, but his heart (not that he had still had it) melted at the twinkling sound. Like a music box.
No atmosphere. A dead hunk of rock. The size of three Earths. Surface gold veins. Other desirable minerals. Designation SPCBRN0000000771. He logged the data in his internal storage and bounced a report back home. It would take several years to arrive. Bouncing from relay to relay, through space and subspace.
He read the song of the moon’s mother planet. It had been here for aeons, alone. Waiting for Spacebrain. His cameras took in the rich blue swirls of gas. Eternal storms that raged across the atmosphere. He never liked poems. Yet when he looked upon this extra-solar Megajupiter he felt poems. He wanted to cry but was unable. The med-team had neglected to include his tear ducts when his brain was transplanted into the probe’s hull.
He watched instead in silent awe. Absorbing the image. The data. The melody. Spacebrain saw the face of Krista. Billions of miles and hundreds of years ago. Projected smiling onto the planet. He wanted to reach out and touch her face. As he had last done when he was still a man. He had no hands with which to do so. This had driven him mad long ago. The only thing that kept him glued to sanity was the mission directives that had been hardwired into his consciousness. They were thus:
- YOU ARE A HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS FROM THE PLANET EARTH
- YOU HAVE BEEN SENTENCED TO 5,000 YEARS OF DEEP SPACE EXPLORATION FOR MASS MURDER
- YOU ARE SCHEDULED TO RETURN TO EARTH IN 3,676 YEARS (AND COUNTING)
- UPON RETURN PLEASE REFRAIN FROM BREAKING THE LAW
- COLLECT DATA ON STARS AND PLANETS AND OTHER SPACE PHENOMENA
- PING EARTH AT 10 DAY INTERVALS
- YOU (THE PROBE) ARE THE PROPERTY OF THE UNITED CENTRAL EURASIAN REPUBLICS
- DON’T WILLFULLY PUT YOURSELF (THE PROBE) IN DANGER – SUICIDE IS NOT POSSIBLE
- AVOID BLACK HOLES AND ASTEROIDS
- HAVE FUN AND TRY NOT TO PANIC
He could not articulate the horror of his situation. His trajectory was predetermined. He could only make small real-time adjustments to avoid colliding with anything. He had been constantly moving forward into infinite black with no sleep for the last 1,434 years. And he really wanted a cigarette.
When Spacebrain was Earthbrain. Earthbrian. When he was Brian. On Earth. When he had his body still. Before the sentence was passed. He was in love. Happy. But poor. He knew where the police kept their money. And he wanted to take it. To use it to make Krista happy. She deserved better than what he could provide. So he and 5 others robbed the cop shop. He disintegrated 5 policemen. He was sentenced to 1,000 years per cop turned to dust. In the long stretches between the stars videos were flooded into his visual circuits. About the crime. About the men he killed. He was forgetting more about himself. And learning more about them.
Robert. The third man to die. He had a wife. He was in the party. He went to university. He upheld order. His role in the state was sacred. Who was Spacebrain to kill him? Who did he think he was to rob the state of Robert’s stewardship?
Brian was the son of the last farmers in his area. The outside soil gave its last crop when he became a man. He could not get a job in the farm factories, as he was not skilled with advanced engineering or genetics. Without a job in the country, he moved to the city. He cleaned toilets and was spat on by the city folk. Krista was the only thing that made him feel happy. Krista. And he had robbed Robert’s Krista of her Brian. This made Spacebrain sad. Almost as sad as it was to have robbed the real Krista of her Brian. What happened to her? He knew she was dead and had been for at least 1,300 years. His sorrow was constant. And he wanted a cigarette.
After the judge banged his gavel he got down from his bench and slapped Brian in the face. They began recycling his body from the toes up. While awake. They only needed to keep his brain alive. They wheeled his torso into the space center operating room. They had been jumping on his chest. His lungs were crushed. His air was coming in a tube they had stabbed into his neck. Mercifully, they put him under before removing his brain. The last thing he saw with human eyes were the angry widows with bloody fists.
Him and his co-conspirators, and thousands of other criminals, sat on the launchpad for days. People came to take photos with the rocket. His ear-mics could hear them. Thousands cheering at the rocket. The rocket that would make the universe smaller and the state safer for law-abiding citizens in one swoop. Brian couldn’t scream. They didn’t give him a mouth. Or a speaker to act as a mouth. He had a small screen on the side of his hull to which he could thought-to-text. There was only one thought in his mind as they launched:
The sentence did not include the 3 year trip to the release point. There, at the edge of the Kuiper belt, they were ejected from the ship. The swarm of probes scattered according to their programmed routes. Each once a human being. Now a ball of wetware in a metal shell. They all navigated the Oort cloud, the sun’s outer layer of asteroids. Some collided with the icy rocks. Their brains spilling out into the vacuum and freezing. Becoming part of the cloud. Spacebrain envied them.
Once clear of the cloud, their sub-light engines kicked in and they all left for their stars. The last human Spacebrain saw, over 1,000 years ago, was his co-conspirator Gregor. Gregor pinged at him. Brian pinged back. He liked to think they had wished each other good luck. They parted ways towards opposite seemingly empty corners of the cosmos. After that moment, that last sliver of human contact, he became Spacebrain; his humanity billions of miles behind him.
The first 78 years were the worst. Absolute nothingness. He knew space was big. Ridiculously big. He had had no idea. He lived and died a thousand lives in those 78 years of waking nightmares, punctuated by images of the crimes he committed. His sanity slipped and tore and wore but the mission directives were always there to remind him of the reality of his situation. The immutable facts. He had 4,922 years to go.
Then, his first asteroid. An interstellar lump on some grand orbit. Millions of tonnes of majesty. It, like him, was a lifeless derelict, alone and adrift. Spacebrain felt kindred with the space rock. It wondered if it could see him. He collected his first packet of data and fired it home through the relays he had been leaving in his wake. His encounter with SPCBRN0000000001 was maddeningly short. But at least he knew he was not truly alone, and he cherished the memory greatly.
He passed 10 years in this reverie. The Megajupiter was a bright light behind him. Something very strange had roused him from his dreams. A ping. Not from Earth. But a ping. After so long simply pinging behind him, it was an odd sensation to receive communications. It was being bounced off Megajupiter. A ping. Repeated. Like code. It was in a format his software could read. The message took three months to reach him fully.
His figurative heart was in his figurative mouth, figuratively. Had he at last truly gone mad? Was 1,300 years the most time a person could spend on their own before they went mad? He aimed his antennae back at the distant Megajupiter to find out.
There was no answer for another five years. He spent five years with his mind racing. What was this? Extraterrestrial life? How did they know his name? Were they reading his mind? From a distance? He was deeply troubled by this. After a thousand years of silent observation he himself was being observed.
The next planet was coming into view. Slowly. A Neptune-sized ringed beast. It sang it’s solitary song across the night into his sensors. Its poetry was spoiled. The planet was alone, but Spacebrain wasn’t. He was haunted by the presence of his messenger. The specter in space. He wondered if it could –
Something collided with Spacebrain. Not a small space rock. Something Spacebrain sized. He was knocked off his 5,000 year flight path and began spinning. He felt nothing, of course. His sensors became deaf. Diagnostics told him they were knocked loose in the impact. He adjusted his camera. It was another Spacebrain.
They stared at each other for one year as they continued to hurtle off their path. The two probes spent that year pinging each other repeatedly. Not saying anything. not having to. Just acknowledging the other. Celebrating freedom from solipsism. Brian knew who it was. It was impossible. Yet he felt it in his heart all the same. Not that he had a heart.
Brian made life in the packed city bearable for Krista. She had five waitress jobs in six restaurants. Even so they could afford only a shared living space outside of town. When Brian told her about his plan with the police she knew it would either save them or damn them. She remembered crisply the day of the job. Seeing the headlines. Listening to Brian’s name being spat with hatred by those who did not know him. Those who did not know he killed those men for his love of her.
Her punishment for being in love with a criminal was a front row seat for his recycling. She was legally compelled to strike the killing blow as they removed his brain. Such was the punishment for loving defective members of society. Watching the rocket take off, with Brian and a thousand others, she felt rage in the core of her being. How dare they steal his light from her? Upon whose authority were they acting to kill a man’s body and enslave his consciousness for 50 lifetimes? When his sentence was up, there would be no guarantee of an Earth fit to return to.
She had to save Brian from this indignity. She began to see one of the scientists that had imprisoned Brian. She learned everything about the Spacebrain probes. There was a design flaw so small that even the best brain could not spot it without outside help. This flaw allowed the brain inside the probe to control the direction. It would grant freedom. Krista memorized how to exploit this flaw. She tested herself daily. The memory would have to survive transplant, and then who knows how many aeons of travel across the stars.
On the night she and the scientist were to be married, Krista murdered her and her parents. She used a screwdriver to poke at their brains. This was her idea of poetic justice. This being in spite of the fact the scientist was merely a technician with responsibility for the calibration of sensor arrays of the probes and had no direct role in her lover’s death. Krista didn’t care, she was part of the machine and had to die.
She was sentenced to three thousand years for her three murders, plus an additional two thousand for being a woman. As the life was being beaten out of her she smiled. The last thing she saw with her human eyes was the glare of the judge who had sentenced Brian. A look of regret crept across his face that he had not sentenced this degenerate sooner – then three people may not also have died. After this woman, no more. Families of criminals would be held equally accountable for any crime.
Krista’s journey past the Oort cloud was smooth. Her and her thousand co-condemned silently sailed through the rock field. Once on the other side, Krista exploited the flaw by thinking, in quick succession six things: flex your left bicep, cross your right index and middle fingers, stick your finger in your eye, say “878888888.9999”, think “15th of November 2000”, try to lick your nose, hum the anthem of the United Central Eurasian Republics. Somehow, the electrical signals generated in the brain by trying to perform these actions mimicked the access codes to have administrator access to the probes flight systems. The actions were so obscure that it was highly unlikely that, even over the course of thousands of years, a brain would think to do the correct movements at the correct times in order to win back control of their destiny.
While all the other probes shot off across the stars, Krista alone remained. Krista began searching. Scanning. Every probe – including hers – was fitted with a massive supply of microscopic subspace relays, designed to span the great distances traveled by the probes and relay the information they collected back to Earth. She had made note of the designation of Brian’s Spacebrain and searched for it amongst the tens of thousands of relays that sat around the exit point of the Oort cloud. If she found Brian’s trail, she could follow it. Like breadcrumbs over an expanse of space undreamed of by her grandparents. Almost a millennium and a half later, she collided with her lover near a far-flung star. It sent a shiver through her circuits.
Twisting through space. Cameras locked on one another. Pinging wildly. They had been caught in the grip of the exo-Neptune. Brian was deaf to the planet’s song. Deaf to the proximity alarms. Deaf to the mission directives. He wasn’t Spacebrain, a human consciousness from Earth who was the property of the United Central Eurasian Republics. He was Brian, Krista’s lover. He was Brian and she was Krista and in another two short years their orbit would decay into the gas of the lonely giant. They would serve the rest of their sentence together, antennae interlinked and constantly pinging love to one another as the harsh clouds of the planet tore them asunder.