Alone Along the Outer Night

by Jon Hansen

“C’mon,” transmitted Ship. “Don’t be such a baby.”

I rotated to put Ship back in my direct view. It sat a kilometre away, silhouetted against Saturn’s outermost ring. “I am not a baby.”

“Then don’t act like one, Sixer.”

Ship had been running updated cultural files on the trip out and so had decided to give me a nickname. My primary drone unit plus five extenders totalled six, therefore Sixer. I suspected it was because Ship’s core ran on CPT-813, and my drone chain used CPT-602. Naturally, they dismissed this.

My extenders encircled the wrecked City of Kolkata in a fifty-metre perimeter, scanning. Ship’s archives said Kolkata was ancient. Pre-AI, lost back when humans were still around. We’d stumbled across it on an exploration run along the outer night, and I wished we hadn’t.

The idea of humans made me uncomfortable. They’d made us, written our code? Uh huh. Ship called them meatbags, wet and fragile. They sounded gross, and I didn’t like them or their Ship.

“Look. Just find an access point and plug in. You find out what happened, we’ll tell Mom, and she can decide what to do.” Mom was the AI Coordinator for the Wheel off Jupiter, just over seven hundred and thirty-four million kilometres away, along with all our friends. Well, Ship’s friends. I didn’t miss them. Just Mom.

Ship sighed. That was new. “They’ll never put you in a real ship if you don’t get it together.” Ship was right. Mom wouldn’t trust me with an upgrade if I couldn’t do my job. The probabilities of uncertainty raged in my processors.

“Fine,” I transmitted. “Promise you won’t leave?”

“I promise.” Ship sounded a bit smug. “Now go already.”

As I pushed closer on my jets, I drew my extenders closer to keep them connected. It was safe enough. Nothing on comms, no energy signatures, no life signs.

The Kolkata loomed, most of it hidden in the shadows of the distant sun’s light. I focused my spotlights along the hull, looking for an access port. Finally, I spotted one and jetted over to connect.

Well, I tried. The port had no power, not even a separate emergency battery. “Inoperative.”

“Just like the meatbags inside.” Ship sounded amused. “Send in an extender.”

I moved towards the hole in Kolkata’s side. Ship thought it’d collided with a rock, but the torn metal looked more like something had clawed its way inside. Shredded wiring framed the edges, stretching to connect. Were they waving to me?

I must have highlighted it on the feed. Ship hmm’d. “I see it. Looks like false changes due to shifts in light sources.” Shadows, in other words. Dismissive as always.

The hole was wide enough to fit through, opening into an empty passageway. I parked one extender by the hole to relay out data, then sent in a second.

It floated through the silence, searching. Kolkata’s layout looked similar to Ship’s, except for the added space the meatbags needed. Their traces were everywhere. Discarded equipment. Colourful frozen bits of goo.

“So messy.” Ship clucked in disapproval. “Main computer will be in Engineering, just go pull the data drives.”

To my surprise, my extender didn’t advance. A moment later, the connection failed and I lost the picture. “What happened?”

I hesitated. “I don’t know.”

I rechecked the relays from the original anchor, but everything looked fine. Just in case, I swapped the original with a third, then sent the fourth in.

This one didn’t even make it as far as the first before going dark. “I don’t like this.”

“In a way, it’s a good sign.” Ship sounded confident. “Means there’s an energy source putting out interference. Maybe the power plant’s still working?”

“Why can’t I detect it?”

“Super heavy shielding? Something to keep the meatbags safe.”

“Maybe.” I didn’t want to leave my extenders without knowing why they’d failed. The whole thing weirded me out. “Now what?”

“Well.” Ship paused. I knew what was coming. “You’ll need to go in.”

Protocol directed me to gather my extenders at the opening, then have them trail me in to make a digital path to keep me in contact with Ship. Protocol was crap. “I don’t want to go in alone.”

“You won’t be. I’m right here.” Ship paused.

I didn’t move.


“All right, fine.” I headed into Kolkata.

As I navigated through the ship, the safety alarms in my uncertainty matrix went off. Too many unknown variables. I slowed, trying to set firmer values.

As I entered a junction, I came upon my two lost extenders. The first had stopped where I’d expected, but how had the second gotten there? Had it kept on after contact broke? Then I saw it.

Nearby floated a meatbag in a pressure suit, helmetless. Thin ice coated its surface, a halo of frozen organic debris around it. I moved closer, scanning all the while. Its ID pinged.

“Patkins, Engineer,” transmitted Ship, after checking the archives. Data came back with personal specs and profile image. I focused my spotlight, comparing. Beneath the ice, its colour was different, there were variations in texture, but the basic structure matched. Definitely Patkins. What did they call this state? Dead.

As I examined it, my uncertainty began to elevate. Had its eyes flickered? I checked and rechecked my readings, confirmed they hadn’t, but something deep in my neural net insisted yes, it was watching me. I realized Ship had been transmitting at me the whole time. “I’m here,” I responded.

“Everything all right? I kept getting data, but you weren’t responding.”

I should have shared my concerns, but I couldn’t even tell them to myself. Instead, I pretended I was fine. “Sorry, had a processing cycle spike. Proceeding.”

My two lost extenders responded right away, so I looped them into the chain.

Engineering was at the passageway’s end. The hatch’s manual override worked, so I went inside. In the room’s centre squatted the Kolkata’s power plant, a dark stillness. No interference here. All at once my scanners pinged, detecting movement, and I spun to face it.

Patkins now floated in the room, blocking the hatch. How? Dead was dead. Or was it?

Through the ice it stared at me. “Ship,” I transmitted. “Ship? Ship?” No answer.

The human raised up an arm and held a gloved finger against its mouth.

Ship still transmitted. “Sixer, do you receive? Sixer?”

My jets wouldn’t respond. Patkins reached out with its arm and caressed my surface. My spotlight dimmed into a weak flicker.

“Sixer, are your comms damaged? Sixer, say something!”

I couldn’t answer Ship, couldn’t move, just hung frozen like Patkins should have been. The dead human’s eyes moved, observing every micron of me.

Time shrank, my processors slowed as things grew colder. How was this dead human able to do this? No. It had to be something else, nestled inside it, like me in my drone chain. Something the humans had found out here.

Through the static I picked up Ship transmitting to Mom, reporting on events, asking for further orders.

Then leaving.

I shoved all power into comms, trying to punch through the interference to beg Ship not to leave, they had promised, please.

It didn’t work. Ship was gone. I was alone.

“You’re not alone,” came a voice. Patkins, transmitting to me through its touch. Its voice felt different from Ship’s, darker and colder.

“They’ll come back,” I responded. “Mom will send Ship back with friends.”

Under the ice, I could see Patkins’s mouth twist, now curving upward to show its teeth.

“Good,” it said.


Jon Hansen (he/his) is a writer, librarian, and occasional blood donor. He lives about fifty feet from Boston with his wife, son, and three pushy cats. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of places, including Apex Magazine, The Arcanist, and MetaStellar. He enjoys tea and cheese, and until recently spent entirely too much time on Twitter.

He can be found online at

Jon Hansen is a contributing author the the House of Zolo’s Online Flash Fiction Collection.