Forty-Minute Story: Reboot

The Goodtimes Jukebox was fourteen kilometers across and extended three kilometers down into the rocky crust of Titan, Saturn’s great orange moon. Every second of every day it pumped in millions of cubic meters of nitrogen and methane and ethane, churned it through eighty-three kilometers of underground pipes, sifted it through vessel after vessel and unit after unit, and finally spat out its end product.

The machine broadcast happiness, pure human happiness, to the entire solar system. All across the colonies orbiting Neptune, Jupiter, and Venus, on Mars and Luna, and even on good old Earth, 200 billion people went about their daily lives with small smiles of deep, genuine satisfaction, free from anxiety and unhappiness and fear, courtesy of the nonstop stream of 5.6-kHz J-waves broadcast direct from Titan, courtesy of the Goodtimes Jukebox.

Angie Ming was happy, sitting in a small room in the heart of the machine, surrounded by softly pulsing displays and touchscreen controls. She had been happy just about her entire life, even though she was all alone here, a leftover relic from a much larger human staff that had gradually been replaced by robotic attendants. Now she was Chief Operator of an empty room, 59 years old, with no other career prospects in sight.

None of that bothered her in the slightest.

Nor was she worried that she was about to turn off the source of her contentment. Every eleven years, the culmination of a vast internal cycle that no single human any longer fully understood, she would flip the switch and the great machine would take an hour of rest, to reboot and start up fresh for another eleven years of nonstop warm fuzziness.

Angie Ming tapped her screen for the eighth time, laughing quietly at the precautions, as she indicated that yes, she really really did want to do this. The speakers bing-ed softly, the lights flickered, and with a titanic groan that settled into a fourteen-kilometer-wide sigh, the Goodtimes Jukebox turned off its tune.

All of humanity had taken the day off work, she knew, in preparation for this scheduled calamity. They would be hunkered down at home, or in specially designed shelters where they were robotically monitored for signs of suicidal leanings. She herself felt the contentment and certainty gradually drain from her skull, the slow tightening in her chest, the heavier breath, the vast loneliness of the mechanical behemoth that had swallowed her whole. She looked at her reflection on a chrome panel, pinched the strands of gray hair with an uncharacteristic worry. For the first time in eleven years she felt rather than knew that someday – at least half a century distant, to be sure – she would certainly die.

And then she remembered Walter.

Walter, the man who had given her his surname, the man who had given up his teaching job on Io to move with her into this robotic dungeon. Who had held her hand all through the last reboot, who had smiled at her through his own pain with kind gray eyes. Walter, for whom death was no gray-haired abstraction.

Hot tears spilled down her face, and for a miniature eternity she cradled herself in her arms, as human beings were doing all across their far-flung islets of civilization. She rocked forward and back, propelled by the deep-rolling waves of grief, the last real piece of him she had left.

The screen lit up again, and slowly she raised her red eyes to see.

Reboot complete. Reactivate? Y/N

She stared, as if freshly woken from an ancient dream. She lifted her hand but did not touch the screen. She sat this way for a long, long time, feeling the question and its answer circling in her heart.

Reboot complete. Reactivate? Y/N

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