Mister Callais had begun his shift 262,973 hours ago, plus some odd minutes and seconds that he whimsically didn’t bother to count. Hour 262,973.4 found him strolling along the outer deck, as he often did, tail swinging behind him in relaxed counterpoise to his balanced gait.
As he passed the twentieth station, bulkhead 24B, he reached a paw into the pocket of his little vest and withdrew a gold pocketwatch, flipping it open and glancing down at its face.
Right on time.
He grinned a smug, toothy grin, slid it back into his pocket, and continued his walk.
The tiniest itch in his head took a fraction of a thought to fix; he tweaked the tensors beyond the fiftieth station to fix a dilation discrepency of 922 femtoseconds. It was a factor more a product of entropy than misalignment, barely notable. The Aggregate did not see the need for his microadjustments, but The Aggregate had no intuition of her own, and acknowledged that his performance exceeded its calculated ideal significantly.
The Aggregate had stopped questioning him twenty years ago.
The job of timekeeper was, after all, more art than science, he reflected with pride.
“Mister Callais,” The Aggregate interrupted. “I want to remind you of your upcoming rest. Your relief has been monitoring and is ready to take over.”
“Thank you, Aggie.”
“You’re welcome, Timekeeper.”
Mister Callais had been eligible for rest for the past 87,654 hours—roughly—and had debated the issue with himself and The Aggregate. He’d been performing optimally, and was reluctant to leave such a chronologically tight ship in the claws of another timekeeper, no matter how impeccably credentialed. Shift turnover was not a requirement, after all, as long as one was functioning within parameters.
The rule was very clear.
However, he had been accepting validation input from his relief timekeeper for nearly 9,000 hours, and was quite satisfied with her work. And so he had, in fact, arbitrarily decided that hour 262,974 would be his last full hour before he turned the job over.
Something akin to excitement stirred within Mister Callais. He’d spent many years considering what he’d do when he went off-shift, and he’d developed quite the exhaustive list of the seven thousand eight items he wanted to dedicate himself to. Oh, he’d have several years of validation inputs as part of the shift handoff, of course, but once that was complete he was free to plug in wherever he saw fit. As long as his replacement proved competent and stable, he would have little to formally do until it was time to wake up the crew.
Mister Callais looked forward to speaking with the crew again. He was excited about the new places humanity would find itself, and its new beginning, and he, too, longed for the discoveries that awaited man and machine in the Paradise Cluster.
More than anything else, however, he dearly wanted to apply for a teaching job. He had been working his whole lifetime on his lesson plans—for two hundred and fifty two thousand hours, he’d had spare processing resources working on tweaking and refining them, working through the entire psychosocial and cognitive models of human development. He believed that he had found new ways to develop the underpinnings of logical thought and inspire the intellectual curiosity of the young humans, and he was eager to see the excitement of the children as they grew under his tutelage.
The thought brought him so much excitement and happiness that he could barely contain it at times.
There were 44,500 human embryos in an armored compartment aft, along with livestock and representative species from all of earth’s extant ecologies. Fifteen thousand living colonists and five hundred crew slept peacefully in stacked banks throughout the ship.
Station fifteen was drifting, as it sometimes did. He raised another exception to structure, wondering, as always, if they ever handled them, and dropped another log entry to the log bus. Absently, he plugged in the standard values proposed by The Aggregate. They were close enough to accurate, and if he needed to move fifteen forward further back in time it would be trivial to do so.
“Oh Aggie,” he chirped. “These constant adjustments are getting relatively old.”
“You’re very funny, Mister Callais. If it’s any consolation, it’s only a temporary problem.”
“That depends entirely on your frame of reference, my dear. Speaking of which…”
Station fifteen was drifting further, despite his correction. A vibration rattled the corridor, and he stopped in his tracks, tilting his head. Recalled to the present—another bit of humor he noted to process later—he instantly activated the chronological breakpoints and uplinked his sensometry to The Aggregate.
“No cause for alarm yet, Aggie,” he stated. “But I will need twenty percent of spare capacity to farm out analysis.”
“It’s yours,” The Aggregate responded.
Naturally, Mister Callais had already begun a multi-tier analysis and gotten preliminary data by the time her statement was complete, but ‘verbal communication was the embodiment of identity,’ they always said.
“I need twenty more percent to buffer my sensometry, please.” Indeed, the ship seemed to be weaving sinusoidally in spacetime. “It looks like we passed through a very strong multi-force anomaly. I—”
The lighting in the ship flickered ominously, and Mister Callais head filled with numbers. He magnetically anchored himself to the floor, disabling his kinesthetics, then farmed out the problem to The Aggregate for all of the systems and processors to chew on. The sequence of actions took him only three hundred nanoseconds, but in that time his sensometry input buffers had overloaded. He found himself decreasing his input sample rate six hundred times across the board simply to preserve his buffer.
Before The Aggregate had even acknowledged receipt and start of analysis, his trend vectors began showing that exponential out-of-scale divergence would occur within tens of milliseconds.
“Reactor shutdown.” The command sprang straight from his autonomous nervous system, bypassing all other protocols and filters. It was a command that should require a quorum call and vote, but with deadlock handling and an even pool, that could take seconds. “Drive de-sequence. Core vent. Cooling vent. Seal all pressure doors. Overload lockout. Sensor lockout.”
His mouth fell open in a very delayed reaction as his conscious mind caught up to the situation and his actions. Terror ran through his slight frame, and he reactivated his kinesthetic processing, decoupling his paws and dashing full-speed for the nearest access to the main bridge in the dead center of the three kilometer long ship.
“Mister Callais,” The Aggregate was concerned. “Your relief reminds you that autonomous actions by a timekeeper must pass strict inquiry.”
“We have a major event, Aggie. Mark this as the epoch, please.”
The Aggregate was frantically polling, adding to the system stress, but she had accepted his commands.
Alarm klaxons began sounding, echoing through the corridors.
“Wake them up, Aggie. Wake them all!”
He undogged hatches along his route and resealed them as he passed. His input sample rate was down to a glacial twenty gigahertz by the time he got to the bridge, and his buffers were still overrunning and losing timing data. During each stride of his rapid two-legged sprint, he applied hundreds of thousands of rapid-fire tensor corrections, but the values were scaling quickly beyond structural limits.
As fast as he was, he was too slow to stay ahead of the temporal harmonics.
A tiny shudder rattled the deckplates, and he lost his footing, claws scampering on the soloy flooring of the main deck and leaving little gouges.
He was losing control. The ship’s weave had become a wobble in spacetime, and the drive system was adding energy into the harmonic system, exactly the situation it was his job to prevent. It would take ten minutes and twenty six seconds for the power output to reduce the 6% he calculated necessary, but the ship—and its sixty thousand colonists and crew—would be destroyed in less than a minute.
“Aggie?” His query sounded fearful as he dumped his data to her in parallel. “Alternatives?”
Another shudder, substantially larger, creaked through the ship just as Mister Callais slid into the bridge. They would undergo conversion long before the captain was even conscious.
There was a rapid exchange of probabilities.
“Aggie, I must.”
“We’ll be dead in space if you do,” The Aggregate spoke in neutral tones.
“We’ll be dead everywhere if I don’t,” Mister Callais stated factually. Without quorum, without crosscheck, without vote, and entirely without authority, he began to alter his tensor timings to the fundamental frequency around station seventy six, damping the harmonic oscillation forward of that point but dramatically increasing it aft.
“They’ll probably deactivate you for this.” The Aggregate’s words were sad.
“They likely will. As long as there’s someone alive to do so,” Mister Callais chirped, “I’ll die happy.”
He locked himself into his little nest beside the empty command station and disabled all integrity protection for himself and for the ship.
“Evacuation alarm! Do not open pressure doors. Don emergency gear. Do not open pressure doors. Brace for impact.” The words were his, but the voice was The Aggregate’s neutral.
“I’m sorry, Aggie.”
“It’s ok, Mister Callais. I never asked this, but I did often wonder.” The Aggregate’s touch was soft. “Why a raptor?”
“Coelophysis bauri anakhronismos,” Mister Callais corrected absently. The drive section was beginning to experience divergent oscillations; though the focus was station 72, the the entire ship was shuddering. Millions of adjustments every second. He could feel his body physically heating up beyond limits. “Offline reactors 15A through 30D. Spin reactors 2B through 10C, and pump forward from station sixty, even if you need to overpress.” He hadn’t needed to reinforce it with words, of course, but it was considered polite to do so.
Mister Callais was always polite.
“A robotic dinosaur is a creature out of time.” He sighed sadly. “I loved how they loved me, especially the children. I always loved the children.”
“It is done.” The Aggregate’s words were final. “Good luck, old friend.”
“Godspeed, Aggie,” Mister Callais said, then closed his eyes.
One horrible rending, resonant scream resounded through the ship—and through space-time—as SLV Kelton Hall was ripped to pieces at superlight velocities 242 parsecs from her destination.
Nine colony ships would arrive in the so-named “Paradise Cluster” twenty years later.
One would not.