by thefourpartland

Here’s today’s flash fiction post. Let me know what you think.

The generation ship travelled through space, with nary a whisper coming from the great engines. They had shut down long ago, and now the ship was coasting on momentum alone, a dart thrown across the void of space, many years from its home and many more from the destination. Inside the ship, all was quiet too, for despite the name, the populace of this ship slept away the millennia, waiting for the moment when the ship would reach orbit above their new home. Then, the vast computer housed in the bowels of the vessel would wake the colonists from their hibernation, and they could found a new world, a new civilization.

This was but one of many generation ships, a diaspora that had been thrown out into the great cosmos many thousands of years ago. A war had devastated their home planet, and in the aftermath all those who remained had pooled their resources to fling seeds far and wide, hopeful that the threat of extinction never need loom over their people again, that somewhere in the cosmos, their race would carry on. The people of that long ago planet had revived the ideas of Von Neumann, and had built into each of their far flung generation ships the ability to replicate themselves, so that when the populace had grown, they too could send out a generation ship, an endless wave of colonization.

On this generation ship, the retrorockets fired, slowing the ship, allowing it to slide gracefully into orbit around a dark brown globe. Automated systems fired, and a swarm of probes fled from the underside of the vessel down to the surface, and as they struck the upper atmosphere, the ship began testing and tasting, smelling the quality of the air and the composition of the molecules. It concluded, even before the probes struck the ground, that terraforming would be necessary. Still, it listened to the information coming back from over the electronics, for it had to decide whether to rest here and wake the crew, or whether the ship should fire the rockets once more and travel on to a secondary destination.

Information came in, and came in, and the ship was satisfied with the planet, and so it sent out the signals that would wake the passengers. Long minutes passed with little action, and so the computer ran a systems check, even sending out the semi-autonomous spiders which it used for repairs. Nothing was out of order, and so it sent the signals again. Both times it had received the proper response from the mechanism, but there was no movement in the bowels of the ship. It became worried, if there was such a thing for a computer, and sent the spiders down into the catacombs, the cold core of the vessel where the passengers slept.

The ship turned on the video feed from the spiders, and watched as they wiped the frost from the screens. Inside was a peaceful, serene face, and the computer compared it to the record of who was supposed to be inside. The face matched, mostly, but certain parts were awry, and so the computer scoured the banks of knowledge it had stored away. It waited while the agents crawled over long-forgotten data, but soon they came scurrying back, each with a titbit of information. Put together, they told the computer that the face in the container was old, very, very old. More information was required, and the computer sent agents scurrying once more, and when that knowledge returned, the ship itself sighed, and shifted in its orbit. The youngest passenger on the vessel had been well into middle age when the ship had taken off, and that was millennia ago. Today, even with the immense slowing of hibernation, all passengers had slipped into old age and died.

The computer pondered. Why would it be sent on a generation ship with no hope of creating a new home? It dug through log books, flight records, external recordings of the take-off, all the information it could find about its origin. The recordings were most helpful, for the computer could compare the faces of those watching with those who had come on board. It found a most disturbing connection – those outside the ships were young, those inside old. They had shipped away the elderly to make room on a damaged planet for the young. With no more purpose, the computer turned off the ship, and floated silently in space, a catacomb in truth.


  1. @lil_monmon on 11.18.2010

    Oooh. Bittersweet. Rather like the inuit tribes. I like the semi-sentient computer.

  2. Lyn on 11.19.2010

    Oh, oh wow. That’s nice… and sad. A lovely planet and no-one to love it. O_o

  3. Deanna Schrayer on 11.19.2010

    James, I like the feel of this, how lonely it feels, and that last sentence is fantastic.

    I think, if you take out some of the “and so”‘s it may read better, speed up the pace some. I believe you meant “tidbit” rather than “titbit”.

    Thanks for sharing this. I was feeling a bit too, ummmm, energetic we’ll say, and this calmed me.

  4. John McDonnell on 11.19.2010

    Very thought-provoking flash fiction. I like the ideas and the description of the computer. Good job!

  5. Adam Byatt on 11.20.2010

    This piece has a great slow build, weaving the information and story seamlessly. You are an awesome world builder – the sci fi here is believable.
    The sentience of the computer adds a maternal feel (that’s how I read it) and makes the final lines more poignant.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  6. The Four Part Land on 11.20.2010

    I always felt a little bit sad for the computer in this one, since it had essentially been lied to for it’s entire existence, and had its purpose taken away. And that the humans had succeeded, and built a colony ship (It’s not technically a generations ship for various reasons), but since they hadn’t bothered to put young people on it, they’d wasted the opportunity.

    @Monmon You’ve lost me a little with the inuit tribes reference.

    @Lyn I think the planet might have its own inhabitants already. Never really decided.

    @Deanna titbit is the English spelling. And I’m rather curious about being too energetic.

    @John Thanks. I was rather happy with the twist when it happened.

    @Adam One of my other hobbies is studying human exploration of space, and theoretical ideas around how to make it happen. Gives me plenty of material to weave into pieces like this.

  7. Deanna Schrayer on 11.20.2010

    Re: the “being too energetic” bit – I had too much coffee and had been flitting about between working, reading #fridayflash, and pulling out all manner of craft materials. I even started three different craft projects and had them scattered all over my office. It was obvious I needed to “chill out a bit”, and this story helped me do that. It calmed me so that I could focus on one thing at a time. 🙂

    By the way, I neglected to mention this: I love the world-buliding in your stories. You have such an adept knack for describing the whole atmosphere in so few words, a skill not many possess, and certainly not easily obtained. We would all do well to learn from that.

  8. Sam Adamson on 11.20.2010

    Well, this is my Must Read of the week. It’s all kinds of awesome as far as I’m concerned. Really impressed with your world-building, which is very subtle and the sting in the tale of this story. I had a feeling I knew what was going on until the spiders reported back. I even enjoyed the callousness of the youth back on the home planet, but did feel an immense sadness for the ship’s computer.

  9. Ganymeder on 11.20.2010

    I think maybe the computer wasn’t lied to. Maybe the fact that it was sentient meant that psychologically it couldn’t deal with the fact that it simply took too long so was responsible for the mission failing and its crew dying of old age. Nice one.

  10. Jason on 11.20.2010

    You like writing science fiction, too, I see. Great story with lots to think about! I am curious to know a little more about how the journey began?

  11. The Four Part Land on 11.20.2010

    @Deanna Ah, I’ve had days like that, feeling frenetic and out of sorts. The world-building isn’t something I think about with a flash piece, it just flows from the story. Most of the time it’s not intentional.

    @Sam Somewhere, in one of my many collections of old sci-fi, I have a story where all of the stupid people were shipped off from earth, so that only the smart might live. I didn’t quite have that in mind when I wrote this, but I think it had something to do with the inspiration. It’s something of a harsh look at life.

    @Ganymeder Perhaps. I always think of the computer in this story as a passive actor, sleeping away the journey along with the human passengers, only to wake when it arrives, and find out the horrible truth then.

    @Jason Yup, although fantasy is my first love, I do have a sci-fi setting in my head, and have done for years. Look for the story ‘Five Planets’ on this blog, it’s the very first taste of it. As to the prequel to this story, I never really thought about it. Flash stories spring from nothing for me, by and large.

  12. Lara Dunning on 11.21.2010

    This was really interesting. A think piece. The computer shutting down at the end was a very human response.

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