Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Safe, Part XIII

Captain Huffold slammed the button on the keypad, muting communications. He realized he’d lost his temper as confused techs from around the room began to swivel their gaze towards him, awaiting orders on what to do next. He took a breath, composed himself, and got up from his chair. “Please divert the feed to my private channel. Hold off on informing Chairman Sollart of the recent developments. I’d like to get a better handle on this situation before we notify him.”

Huffold made his way to his personal suite and wondered how Celia was able to overcome the sedative so quickly. This mystery reminded him of a similar series of questions he had when he’d first learned of Celia’s premature awakening. He’d hurried to his suite, confused but eager to speak with the Keeper. The two had sniped comments back and forth, and during these conversations Robert had to work hard to keep his anger under control; it remained obvious that Celia had the upper hand. He made a mental note not to telegraph his emotions while talking to her.

His suite’s main screen flickered on and he was surprised to see Celia naked from the waist up, fastening the Velcro band on the front of her pants. She must have noticed the transmission light become active on her camera because she quickly turned her back to the lens and began pulling on a long sleeved shirt. “Sorry, Robert. I’m not giving away any more free shows. During my journeys through this ship’s logs, I’ve taken notice to your frequent spying on me through the video feeds. You’re a curious person, aren’t you?”

“Surely you can understand that we must keep tabs on you. You’re very important to us.”

The Safe seated herself in the med bay chair and looked directly into the camera. Her stare, digitized and transmitted across the light years, made its way directly into Robert’s eyes. Though she looked straight ahead, her right hand buzzed over a keypad attached to a machine that was slightly out of frame. Robert noticed that her robot denizens were retreating, one by one, until finally she was alone in the large room. A light veil of smoke hung in the air, leftover from the machines’ welding work on the door.

“Oh, of course,” Celia answered sarcastically. “So important that I simply exude behavioral data, even while in the shower…but, you’re the government employee and I’m simply the village idiot, so what do I know?”

He paused, embarrassed that she’d learned of his frequent invasions into her privacy. “I assure you that we only have your safety and the safety of our colonists at heart.”

“Ahh, yes,” she tapped her right temple with her index finger. “The colonists. All safe and sound.”

Huffold sensed the scorn in her voice. So far she had lied, schemed, and commandeered a colony ship. In short, she’d bested him at every turn. Was she lying now? He needed to find out if the colonists were alright. “Are they? Can you assure me of that? Perhaps if you’d extend a sign of good faith and let my people inspect the Stasis Chamber, they can survey the extent of…”

She cut him off. “Not a chance, Robert. I’m keeping an eye on our new friends. No doubt they have a few of your tricks up their sleeves. There is no way I will grant them access to the chamber. They will see only what I want them to see.”

He shifted his weight in the chair and became alarmed at Celia’s confidence. Her eyes still gazed into the camera while both her hands were now busy, flitting over unseen keypads. Suddenly, an item on one of her screens caught her attention and she looked away.

“I see you’ve started to regain control of my ship,” she said with a raised eyebrow. “Nice try, Robert,” she said coldly. “You must have some pretty smart cookies on your side. Too bad for you I’m smarter.” After a few more seconds of quick keystrokes, she said “Ahh, here we are,” and emphatically tapped the keypad. Huffold saw a text-based message blaze into view in a display near his viewscreen.

“Hub Control of Cornucopia transmission module has been lost.”

He heard the din from the control room through the door of his suite; the techs were going nuts. At least five additional viewscreens sprang to life around him, each showing an unnerving amount of red text. Breaking Celia’s stare, he scanned the incoming information and inhaled sharply. Somehow, Celia had bested Marian’s team and forced an override of the newly-formed remote access they’d established over the Cornucopia. The Hub control had been slowly winning the fight, bringing the more and more of the colony ship’s systems under their control; all of those connections were now being severed with blinding speed.

“Celia! Please, stop! Why are you doing this? What are you trying to accomplish?” he said, exasperated.

She blinked and smiled slowly, reveling in her newly regained power. “So many questions. But as I said before, it’s my turn to ask.” Getting up from the med bay chair, she approached the camera and lowered her voice.

“First, let me ask you Robert…are we on an encrypted channel?”

Wondering what she was playing at now, Huffold answered, “Yes. This is a private conversation.”

“Very good. What I’d like to speak to you about is designated Level Eight confidential by Hub Command. I don’t think you’d want any of your techies hearing this. Nor do I think Chairman Sollart would approve of you learning his secrets.”

Robert’s heartbeat quickened. Level Eight clearance was the very definition of ‘top secret’, information privy only to heads of state and chairmen of the various global governmental branches.

“You’ve penetrated Hub command’s mainframe?” he asked. Prior to this moment, Robert knew he was dealing with a heightened intelligence, a brilliant mind. The sheer impossibility of her hacking into a Level Eight system demonstrated that he’d underestimated her.

Another smile. “It was difficult, but the spoils proved to be worthwile.” She was close to the camera lens now, her simple beauty nearly filling his monitor.

“Captain, earlier you asked about my motives, what I’m trying to accomplish. I do not wish to reveal my grand designs just yet. However, what I’m about to speak of may provide you with some insight.”

Huffold was confused, excited. “I’m listening, Celia.”

In a near-whisper, she said “Robert, have you ever heard of something Project Kurzweil?”

His eyes darted around his desk as he kicked the term around in his brain. “No, I can’t say that I have,” he answered truthfully.

“Not surprising,” she answered with a nod. “The only people that knew about it were the five scientists that worked on the project, our former Chancellor O’Brien (may he burn in hell), and the project manager – a young go-getter by the name of Charles Sollart. Learn as much as you can about this project and perhaps you will understand what I’m doing with your fantastic ship.”

The transmission ended, leaving Robert staring at a blank viewscreen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Safe, Part XII

After all the work hours that the comm and tech teams had logged in an attempt to rectify the nearly complete unhinging of the Cornucopia’s mission, Huffold felt that he had no right at all to keep them from viewing the Safe’s initial interview in real time. The Director felt it a fitting reward, and knew that he wasn’t the only one on staff with a healthy curiosity about what she might have to say after being brought out of sedation. Security leaks were considered a non-issue, as he and Chairman Sollart reckoned that if the general public were going to hear about the Hub’s problems with their colony ship then they would have by now. As far as the world--and more importantly, their financial backers--knew, everything was right on schedule.

Still, though, Huffold was sitting erect, spine straightened and tense, at his desk terminal in the back of the ops room. He was taking pains to appear calm but could feel his pulse racing underneath the pristine stiffness of his work uniform. For all the difficulties that had arisen on this ‘routine’ expedition, it seemed as though the Hub had overcome almost all the major challenges without significant difficulty......and yet, his uneasiness lingered.

There was still the mystery of Celia’s lab activity, and the brand new block of computer code that had thus far remained unidentified. Despite Marian’s confidence, the Safe’s new-found technical prowess had produced a bit of programming that had so far defied all endeavors to crack the thing open. The techs had made some progress, however--they could see what ship’s systems the enigma was tied in to--although specifics about its function could still only be guessed at. Auxiliary power, atmospheric navigation, main life support, and the hydroponic grow rooms all had virtual pipelines coming out of the code and tapping in to their control mainframes. The best the team had been able to do was to install cut off subroutines that would engage if the code was activated--that way at least the damn thing wouldn’t be able to access the ship’s functions it appeared to be targeting or tied in to, and perhaps in doing so they could isolate it for dismantling at their convenience.

“Director?” Huffold was brought of his reverie by his assistant, Spooner, and there was a tautness present that could only mean one thing.


“Lt. Asad reporting that the Safe is returning to consciousness.”

“On screen.” Spooner nodded and swiveled his chair back to front, then inclined his head meaningfully towards another tech. Her fingers glided over her terminal’s keyboard, activating the main viewing screen--and bringing up a live feed from the video surveillance of the Cornucopia’s med deck. All eyes were drawn immediately to the slender woman presented in the center of the monitor.

The Safe was seated in a large exam chair, with torso, legs, arms, and ankles bound by sturdy leather restraints. Another strap circled her neck, but this one had more slack to it, and provided support and restriction of movement without compromising the woman’s ability to breathe. Celia’s head was slumped forward, face partially obscured by tendrils of hair that had come loose from her braid. Lt. Samir Asad could be seen on the side of the display, arms crossed, and he held a look of enduring patience. Huffold could not at first locate Specialist Hawley, but a quick browse of the feed from the other cameras in the room showed her standing by the door, to the Safe’s rear left and out of her immediate visual range. Hawley was stationary, but tensed, and Huffold sensed the soldier’s readiness.

As the room watched, the bound woman’s finger’s twitched, then slowly flexed and curled in to fists. Relaxing again, tapered fingers gripped the chair’s arm rests as she cautiously turned her neck from side to side. Seeming to be satisfied that all parts were still intact, Celia raised her head up and blinked, eyes sweeping the room and finally focusing on Asad. She pursed her lips and blew some errants hairs from her face, then looked up at the camera as her viewers in the Hub watched, rapt. One side of her mouth twitched up in to a brief, sardonic smile, then the captive looked back at the lieutenant and sighed. She spoke, a short sentence too quiet for the microphones on the camera to immediately pick up. Before he could give the order, Huffold noticed Spooner flick a finger, pointing, at a man sitting a few seats to his side, and the tech swung in to action, putting in earphones and rewinding the feed on his personal terminal.

Huffold’s confusion at Celia’s behavior was interrupted a few moments later by a sharp exclamation from Marian, who was still working on decrypting the Safe’s bug.

Wat die hel?”

Lt. Asad did not know what to expect, so he had no expectations at all. After helping his partner move the Safe to the med deck and confining her, he had taken several moments to clear his mind for what could be a career-defining interview. For certain, he would be fed questions from the Hub, but he also had the latitude to direct the conversation with this rogue colonist in whatever direction seemed appropriate. He knew that she would awaken soon--the sedation patch had been removed after verifying that the straps were secure, and her return to consciousness was just a few moments away. As calm as he was trying to remain, Samir could not quench the jolt he received when their captive’s fingers twitched, then clenched in to fists. He bedded down his anxiousness and awaited her full revival.

Samir had already decided that he would wait for the keeper to speak first, and then guide the interview from there. However, her first words were entirely out of his realm of conjecture. She raised her head, looked around briefly, then green eyes locked onto his own and she all but whispered a short sentence, barely audible although he was only a few feet away.

“Will you take me to the fjords?”

Samir’s brow clenched in puzzlement, and he glanced briefly at Hawley, who stood by the med deck entrance. Her raised eyebrows offered no help, however, so he placed his attention back on Celia and was forming his reply when a whirring from the bulkheads around the room compelled a shift in attention.

“What the hell?”

Along the med deck’s walls and floors at intervals, small doors had opened and some of the Cornucopia’s maintenance bots were emerging. There was no clean up needed here, though, so their presence and purpose was a mystery--until an aerial drone, arc welder extended and sparking, emerged and accelerated directly at Samir’s head. Completely surprised, the Engineer barely had time to duck and swat at the thing as it reached him, grunting as the small bar of electricity scorched across the back of his hand. The drone wobbled, its flight interrupted, and bounced against a wall. Samir dropped to the ground and rolled on his shoulder, bounding up to a crouch while freeing his weapon from from where it was slung across his back. Sighting quickly, he targeted the drone that had come at him and fired two short bursts, severing a stabilizing wing and causing it to spin to the floor.

“Goddammit!” His partner’s voice came to Samir’s headset, and he risked a look that found her firing on the bots, as well. She was currently keeping the flying attackers at bay, but a ground-based assailant with articulated legs that ended in pinchers was working its way up her leg. Swearing again, Hawley smacked it several times with the butt of her rifle, eventually causing it to dislodge and fall to the floor. A quick thrust of her boot sent it skittering across the floor, damaged beyond operation--these bots were not meant for battle, of course. Samir lost conscious thought for a few more moments and relied purely on reaction and training, aiming and firing rapidly while moving closer to his partner and the door. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the Freya’s recovery team created a small bubble around them that was free of assault....but the bots were coming more quickly now, and there seemed to be no end to them. As he disabled another flyer--this one with double rotating saw blades--Samir would have given much to know how many service drones the colony ship could call on.

Celia sat calmly in the seat they had placed her in, attention divided between their struggle and a small automaton that was slowly but steadily using a pair of shears to cut through her leather restraints. She was smiling again.

“Retreat and regroup.” Hawley’s voice was firm, brooking no argument, so he kept pace with her as they backed out of the doorway, firing intermittently until Daniela slapped the control console, causing the doors to shut. She then keyed in a new code, one issued by the Hub that would lock them securely until the same code was entered again or an override command was transmitted by Huffold. The team then did a quick survey of gear, ammo, and injuries, and waited for orders.

The comm room watched in disbelief as the automated crew emerged and began attacking the team--and then freeing the Safe. As soon as Hawley and Asad were clear and shut the doors, two aerials began welding the seam on the door together, preventing any access short of blasting it open. Shortly thereafter, Celia was free of her bonds, and she calmly placed her rescuer on the floor where it waited like a puppy for another task. Sitting back in her chair and smoothing her hair and clothes, the renegade Safe once again looked back up at the camera that was providing the main feed to the Hub.

“Robert, if you have the time right now, I believe it’s still my turn to ask a question.”


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Safe, Part XI

Launched two and a half days after the Freya, its twin the Frey was now a mere 8 hours from docking with the Cornucopia. The Frey’s pilot was chosen carefully, handpicked by the suits that engineered the Cornucopia colony mission in the first place. They decided on Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Palmer, a recent graduate from the Hub’s officer training program. Palmer’s flawless record and almost complete lack of any social life outside of Hub activities had cemented the deal. There were no wild cards in Palmer’s personality, no skeletons in his closet. He showed up, did what he was told, went home and kept quiet. Hub Command loved him.

Ben didn’t even know the first name of the sleeping young man seated next to him. The scientists had referred to him only by his surname, Newman, but they had made his importance perfectly clear. Secure delivery and installation of his crewmate – or, more accurately, his cargo – was the whole of his mission. This young man was to be the replacement Keeper on the Cornucopia (assuming all went to plan) and Ben couldn’t help but wonder how much of all this Newman understood. Did he know that he would soon have almost 400 people in his head? Given his low intelligence and developmental problems, did he care?

Lt. Commander Palmer didn’t know what to expect when the Frey launched, didn’t know how many of Newman’s messes he’d be cleaning up on their trip. But to his surprise, Newman hadn’t made the trip difficult at all. He spent most of his time praying, watching the dim stars zip by, or viewing the occasional inspirational holofilm (he had apparently come from a religious family.) Other than the loud whispers of his prayers, he hadn’t really made a sound. Thinking about how smooth the trip had been so far, Ben realized he was on his way to another flawless mission rating. He decided it was time to report in and switched on the comm.

“Frey to Hub Command…this is Lieutenant Commander Palmer. Come in, Hub.”

Huffold, seated in his office, heard the prompt and made his way to the Hub’s main control room to receive the call. “Huffold here. Go ahead, Palmer.”

“Reporting in, sir. Eight hours from docking with the Cornucopia. Replacement Safe has been cooperative. There has been no deviation from mission, proceeding normally.”

“Good job, Palmer. Now that the transport phase of the mission is almost complete, please remind me of the final two phases.” Huffold wanted to make sure everything was understood and nothing was left to chance.

“All that remains now, sir, are the subdual phase - upon which Newman will be sedated and prepped for consciousness transfer, and finally the transfer phase itself. I anticipate no problems. Any updates on the situation aboard the Cornucopia?”

“Hawley and Asad have completed phase one of their mission. The rogue Keeper is secure and they have set up on the medical deck to monitor Celia’s vitals. Unfortunately, Celia has used some rather cunning techniques to gain control of the Cornucopia’s systems, so only a few of the most basic medical machines are functional. This is where you come in, Palmer. We are adding a fourth phase to your mission.”


“In the Frey’s cargo area you will find a rather bulky machine. This is a Consciousness Diagnostics and Transferral Engine, otherwise known as a C-DATE. You will deliver this device to the Cornucopia’s stasis chamber. The machine is self-reliant and will not connect to any of the Cornucopia’s systems for power or data transfer, so there is no chance of it being compromised with Celia’s hacks. Once powered on, you will hook Newman up to it – the reasons for this are two-fold: one, to test the equipment; and two, to test Newman's mind and make sure he’s ready to accept the transfer. When the equipment is determined to be operational, you will assist Hawley and Asad in connecting the rogue Safe to the C-DATE to perform an intensive diagnostic of her mind. You will then report back to the Hub with the results and await final instructions. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Newman was thinking the mission was going a bit too easy, and appreciated these additional tasks. “In six hours I will begin the subdual phas, then prepare to dock. Will there be anything else, sir?”

“No, Palmer. You’re doing fine as always. Let’s get this done and get those colonists back on track.”

“Yes sir. Palmer out.”

* * * * *

Zoe awoke to find herself crouching in the corner of a dimly lit rectangular room. She was not alone - her arms were wrapped around a man’s chest. He was seated on the ground next to her, slowly stroking her hair. She did not know how she came to be here or who this man was.

The last thing she remembered, Celia was in control and had come to the realization that one of her colonists had used her to nab some weapons. Then pain, then nothing.

“Ahh, you’re awake,” said the man she was embracing.

Zoe withdrew her arms quickly and stood up, embarrassed. It was unlike her to be vulnerable. She cleared her throat, smoothed her hair. “Uhh, how long was I out?”

The man smiled; she decided it was comforting, genuine. “Don’t know. I was out too. I just woke up a few minutes ago and you had me in that bear hug.”

“Yes, I’m…sorry about that. I don’t know what got into me, I –“

“No need to apologize, we’re all in the same pickle here. Though it is strange to officially meet like this, don’t you think? I’m always nervous meeting you loner-types. I’ve found it’s best to let your kind be, and you’ll seek out company when you—“

“Wait,” Zoe interrupted. “Are you….you’re….”

“Hi, I’m Harvin. Harvin Simmons. I was the first butterfly our illustrious Keeper decided to let out of its cage. And from that little pow-wow we all had before we blacked out, I’m assuming you’re Zoe?”

“Yes. Zoe. Zoe Brazzo.”

Simmons stood up and extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Brazzo.” She shook his hand and took in another warming smile. He seems on the level, she thought.

“Where are we? Are we out of her head?” asked Zoe.

“God, I hope not. I don’t have a living body to go back to, remember? No, I’m pretty sure we’re still inside Celia. The question is – how are we able to interact like this?”

Simmons was right. Until now, Zoe had simply been aware of the other two consciousnesses surrounding her. But that’s all it was – a vague awareness. Now she could see him, speak to him, touch him. Zoe couldn’t figure it out.

“The whole thing is weird, I know. But I have an idea. I think Celia’s brain has been under a sufficient amount of stress, both from outside stimuli and the fact that she’s got enough people in her head to fill a small theatre. Not to mention the fact that two of those people, Harvin and his new friend Zoe, are now fully conscious as well.” Simmons smiled again. “I think her brain just couldn’t deal with it and decided to shut down for a while – it hit the ‘reset’ button, if you will. And with Celia out of it, that leaves us free to talk like we are now.”

She thought about it, pursing her lips. “Yep, our host definitely seems out of it. Even when she was sleeping like a log, I could only barely feel like a presence was in here with me. Now, you’re….well, real.”

“Yes. I feel remarkably whole. And you and I aren't conversing in group-think like we did before she passed out. Okay, so we’ve established the fact that Celia is in a state of inactivity the likes of which we haven’t seen during our time as passengers in her head,” said Simmons. “That leads to my next question: have we in fact overloaded our poor Safe’s brain? Is she injured? Or, god help us, brain damaged? Does that explain this new situation we find ourselves in?”

Zoe hadn’t thought of that. If the Safe’s brain was damaged, but her body remained alive, could the Hub retrieve the passengers? “They could get us out of her, right?” she asked.

“I deal with little kids’ brains all the time, but I’m definitely not an expert in all of this transfer stuff. I just signed up to be a colonist,” he said. “And I believed them when they said this technology was Safe. Er…no pun intended.”

Sentenced to live her life as a shadow of herself, trapped in the head of a brain-dead girl. It had a distinct ‘purgatory’ vibe to it. Zoe refused to believe it.

“Or…maybe that Sparrow class docked and subdued her – yes, that has to be it!” said Zoe, excited at the prospect of rescue.

“It’s a possibility.” Simmons stroked the stubble on his chin. “If they kept her under heavy sedation, that might explain how our conversation is possible.”

“That’s gotta be it!” Zoe said. She laughed and went to slap Simmons on the back and watched her hand pass through him.

They were both losing corporeal form, seeping outwards into mere fields of being. Harvin and Zoe retreated to the periphery of Celia’s consciousness, and noticed that a Celia-like form began to appear on the other side of the dimly lit room.

Celia was waking up from her sedative. They let her have control and watched through her eyes. She opened them to find herself restrained in a bed on a semi-darkened medical deck, the unfamiliar faces of a man and a woman standing above her.

“Hawley—“ said the man, “our Safe is awake.”


Monday, July 27, 2009

Safe, Part X

Sidearm held firmly, arm relaxed but outstretched with her right hand clasped underneath the grip, Specialist Hawley padded silently down the Cornucopia’s main corridor and towards the quarters that Celia had taken for herself. Samir was moving on the opposite side, a shadow to her, silent as well. In a distant part of her mind she was aware of the scrutiny they were under, with live video and audio feed recorded for examination later. Director Huffold could alter her mission with direct orders, if needed, via a small earpiece identical to one that Samir wore. She was thankful she couldn’t hear any of the Hub team’s anxious breathing through the audio--only direct vocalizations were transmitted.

Daniela had changed her opinion of Samir’s character, albeit thus far in one area only. As exasperating as it had been to try and explain basic star travel and ship’s systems to the man, he had proven himself a careful investigator, and was taking this re-hijacking of the Cornucopia seriously. His maneuvers and movements in sweeping through the ship had been classroom-precise, and he had a good eye for details. Although she still doubted his ability to improvise in a firefight, she was certain that he had spent many hours at the firing range and in mock scenarios.

After docking, she and Samir had only checked a few of the larger areas and other rooms for evidence of the renegade Safe before concentrating their search on the control room and her living area. They had spent a few extra minutes in one of the Suspension rooms, examining the wreckage that had been Dr. Simmons’ pod hardware, and confirming his death. A quick but careful search of the room found Zoe Brazzo, as well, but curiously there had been no damage to her life support systems, and her body still lived. Anger, quickly suppressed, boiled up in Samir at the waste and callousness of the murder of the doctor. In spite of his obliteratingly tame title, Civil Engineer Rank 7 Asad was no stranger to violence, but that was from many years before and the senselessness of this act was inexcusable. With a brief glance of understanding between them, the two members of the Freya’s strike team left the large room, wincing at the dull reverberating thud of the door’s lock re-engaging behind them, initiated at a distance by the techs at the Hub.

They could feel confident that Celia was not in the rest of the ship, even though they had not surveyed it yet, due to extra measures that had been implemented by Huffold and others in the Hub. On the trip out to rendezvous the Freya had been dropping relay stations at regular intervals, which made communications between Earth and the insertion team nearly instantaneous. Huffold’s computer team had been working previously unheard of hours, as well, and were slowly bringing the whole of the massive colony ship’s systems online in a remote capacity, with more and more being run from the Hub’s consoles. This was due in part to the new and faster data transfer available with the relay system, but also to the engineers’ ingenuity.

Coming around a bend in the corridor, Hawley froze an instant after Samir had come to an abrupt halt. From the outside of the hallway, he had a better view of what was coming in to view. Speaking without vocalization, just mouthing the words so they would be picked up and translated by sensors in their dental work, Samir talked to his partner 10 meters away without a sound.

“Someone is there. The bottom of a foot, as though attached to a prone body, near the wall on your side, 30 meters ahead.” Other than his mouth, he did not move a muscle while speaking, and Daniela was still, as well.


Their focus now concentrated on any noise or movement outside of themselves, Samir fleetingly reflected on how alone they were out here, and was immensely relieved that his partner was competent. Her plan was a good one. Daniela waited for 3 minutes to pass, and was pleased when no immediate direction came from the Hub. That meant they trusted her enough to remain objective, and to complete this mission. Her mouth moved soundlessly, giving her orders for approach.

Samir stepped forward, stretching his still muscles while the bend in the passageway revealed more of the body of the floor. Its legs came in view, the pelvis and torso, and finally he could see her head, face obscured by medium-length brown hair. The woman’s whole body was now in view and had not moved at all since they first approached.

“Hard to tell for sure, but it looks like the Safe.” It was nearly impossible to communicate shades of emotion over the soundless system, but Hawley could see confusion on Samir’s face, and likely was reflected in her own. What was the woman doing on the floor? Daniela nodded purposefully, an indication for Samir to proceed.

Briefly touching a small stud on his combat rifle to switch ammo, Samir carefully targeted the woman on the floor, and sent a dart with a powerful sedative into her buttock. After counting to thirty, he and Daniela moved as one around the bend, and approached the now sedated figure. Daniela squatted and brushed back the woman’s hair from her face while Samir stood a little distance away, and the Specialist’s features softened slightly when she recognized the girl she had sent off with the government years ago.

“Celia, what have you done?” she mouthed, audible only to Samir’s headset. He prudently remained silent. After a moment, Daniela removed the dart, checking to make sure the full dose had been delivered, and tucked it away into a belt pouch. Reaching in to another, slimmer pouch, she removed a foil package and tore it open. Placing the contents on Celia’s lower back, a transdermal patch that would slowly release a milder sedative and keep the Safe unconscious, Daniela spoke out loud to the Hub.

“The Safe has been neutralized and is sedated and in custody. Proceeding with cleanup.”

Huffold let out the breath he had not known he was holding, and turned to Chairman Sollart.

“It seems unbelievable, after all we planned for.”

“Yes, very smooth. Your people are to be commended, Director.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll make sure they know it came from you.” He ran a hand through his hair, stress from the last few weeks slowly dissipating. Dropping his arm to his side, Huffold faced the Chairman again.

“We’ll proceed as planned, and continue to transfer control of the ship to our techs. I’ve also initiated an inquiry as to whether or not remote guidance of future colony ships should be the standard, and expect to have a recommendation shortly after the Cornucopia arrives at its destination. The Frey will continue, and a package with their updated mission status will be ready soon. The Freya will proceed with their duties, securing the Safe and assembling data on her activities.”

Sollart waited for Huffold to finish, then nodded with a grunt of approval. At that, he turned and left the control room. He had a data transfer of his own to gather, but there was no hurry. It could reach the Frey either before or after the official file had been sent from this office.

Huffold watched the Director leave, then turned to his staff, who were still congratulating themselves on a successful operation, and raised his voice to be heard above the din. “I have asked for everything you had, and more, and you have given it freely. This shows me both your professionalism and your commitment to the success of this colony and of the Hub’s undertakings as a whole. Your obligation to duty has not gone unnoticed, and the rewards will be substantial. You have my thanks.”

A general roar of approval met his finished speech, and Huffold smiled and headed over to his computer tech’s station, wanting one more influx of information before going back to his office.

“What’s the word, Marian?” He put his hand on the young woman’s shoulder, a near-prodigy from the South Conitnent settlements with long, tapering fingers that seemed to dance across the keyboards in front of her while working. Her shaved head used to cause some discomfort among his older team members, but the dark woman’s competence and easy smile had won many of them over quickly.

“The mainframe search was going well, Director, if slowly, but that was because of the massive amount of data we had to sift through.” She shifted in her chair, turning it slightly to face him, and Huffold removed his hand and stepped back. “Just before the Freya docked, however, we hit a haakplek....a snag. Although we were unable to change or block anything at the time because of the usual transmission delay, the relay stations are working well and currently there is virtually no obstruksie. No obstruction in continuity.”

Huffold considered this information, and remembered that Marian had a habit of lapsing sporadically into her native Afrikaans when nervous. “But....”

“It seems that our rogue has spent some time with the ship’s computer programming manuals. She set up several data road blocks, seemingly attempting to keep us from our remote access agenda. They are simple, yet very effective, just the kind of thing that you would expect someone who learned from a teksboek , a....textbook? Yes, a student, to do. That’s the problem.”

Huffold frowned slightly, not liking that there was another issue just as things had seemingly been resolved. “I’m sure you will ‘splain.”

“Programmers and hackers have to move fast to keep up with new techniques, so are fluid and creative, quickly abandoning the basic forms they learn in school to things that are more practical in the real wereld. These blocks and reroutages are troublesome because they are simple, and no one who has been out of school for two or three years is familiar with them. There are a few college instructors we keep on a list for consults, and I have sent messages to them. However....” Marian turned towards her monitor.

Huffold stood, waiting patiently while internally exploring solutions.

“This is new.” She pointed to a block of code on her screen. “This is unlike all the rest of the Safe’s programming, but definitely done by her. It is malleable and slippery, and attempts to bypass or define it have failed so far. But, we have only started, and I predict that we will have probed its geheime, its secrets, within the day.”

Huffold nodded and left her to her work, returning to his office under the weight of a new complication. Calling up a still frame of the Safe’s face from the Freya’s initial feed to his wall monitors, the Director looked at her placid features carefully, studying them.

“Celia, what have you done?”


Friday, June 12, 2009

Safe, Part IX

After almost two weeks and countless conversations with her crewmate, Daniela had realized that Samir was definitely not an experienced pilot. His dream of colonization found his interests deeply rooted in civil engineering and city building. Although he might be an expert in these fields, she was surprised at how little he knew about space flight. Sure, he knew that people boarded ships which zoomed through space to their destination – as for how this was accomplished, he had no idea.

Daniela felt it was her duty to explain it to him. After all, propulsion was her main course of study (and the only course at the Hub that didn’t bore her to tears.) When Celia left, Daniela realized her life had no real direction. She came to the same conclusion as most young people in her shoes – she decided to enter the Hub Academy. Her first year of schooling was proceeding rather well when she received the call from Command, asking her to join the mission. Now she was onboard the Freya, traveling at roughly one and a half times the speed of light, and about to dock with another ship – all without slowing down. Daniela loaded up a short Hub tutorial for the two to watch as the final computer docking programs took over.

“Sit down, Sam-Ear. Watch this. I want you to understand how it is we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Samir looked perturbed. “We’re about to dock, we don’t have time to watch anything. And quit calling me that.”

She coined the nickname a few days ago. She loved it, he hated it.

“We dock in” –she checked her viewer—“eight minutes. The tutorial lasts four. And besides, me and you don’t have to worry about docking. The Hub prepared a full schema of pre-programmed approach models.”

He stared at Daniela, blinked a few times.

“That means the ship will be on autopilot when we dock,” she said.

“Ah -- right.”

The docking trajectory flashed off the viewscreen and the tutorial sprang to life. “The speed of light is the universe’s ultimate law” said the narrator. An animated ship was floating in front of a manufactured starfield. “To circumvent these laws, a loophole was found and exploited.” (The cartoon ship flew through the eye of a huge animated sewing needle and the image changed.)

The narrator continued. “Surely you’ve all seen a photo of an old radio receiver, from the days when radio was first invented?” The tutorial showed an old radio for those viewers who’d never seen one and began playing an old song.

“Saw one of those in a museum once…” Samir said.

“Shut up and pay attention,” Daniela snapped.

“Imagine you had one of these radios and it was tuned to a station,” said the narrator. “Perfectly tuned, the music could be heard as clear as day. This is similar to a ship in normal space. Further imagine that you make a tiny adjustment on this old analog radio and minutely tune the station dial a bit to the left.” The view zoomed in on the animated radio dial. “You begin to pick up static; the station is no longer in clearly in tune, but you can still hear it, no?” The tutorial was still playing the old song, but it was no longer perfectly in tune.

“This is space-prime. Using quantum physics, we “tune” our ships a tiny bit out of phase with our universe; we tune our ships into a different universe, a different reality that is only slightly askew from ours. Our wave-drive technology can then propel our ships faster than the speed of light. We need not follow the laws of our universe in space-prime because those laws don’t apply. In space-prime the laws are different.” There was now a replica of the Cornucopia on the viewer zooming through space-prime; it looked like normal space, only the stars were much dimmer.

“You get it?” asked Daniela.

Samir looked puzzled. “Well, yeah. I think I actually…might.” He was surprised. It was the first time that space-prime had been explained to him in such a way. “Maybe with another ten years of study, I’d completely understand.”

* * * * *

By the time the Freya had docked, Celia was halfway through the logic partitions Huffold had set up in the Cornucopia’s nexus. She was flying through the code, planning two and three structures ahead – all at a speed which surprised her. When every logic system was back in her control, she threw up a defense program to dissuade Huffold from trying anything like this again. Satisfied with her work, she sprinted towards the closest lift. She knew she had to get back to the safety of her quarters as soon as possible; back to the weapons.

Celia stopped running. She stared at the ground.

Wait - why did I just think that? What weapons?

The gun and the knife that we took from the Weapons deck, came the reply.

How do I know this?

Because we did it.

Celia was confused. She knew Zoe was responsible for taking the weapons, but didn’t know how she knew it.

How did Zoe do this? Her body is no longer alive.

Zoe no longer needs her body, she has yours.

So I took the weapons? She felt like she almost remembered it. Am I Zoe? thought Celia.

We are Zoe. We are Harvin as well. But ultimately, we are Celia.

How is all of this possible? This is my mind, my body. I am in control!

Your control is weakening. Harvin speculates that in breaking the barriers and liberating two consciousnesses, we have diminished the structural integrity of the other barriers.

Once again, Celia felt as if she was remembering something long forgotten. The 395 people in her head were getting restless. They wanted out. It was all starting to make sense when the daggers returned.

Celia crumpled to the deck. As the headache roared she screamed in sheer pain, her head in her hands.

Make it stop!

We all wish it to stop but do not know how to...

The voice trailed off so that it was no longer audible and an intense ringing took its place in Celia’s ears. This headache felt much worse than the first – this time she was frozen, couldn’t move. It felt as if her forehead was being slowly sliced open, the blade on fire. As the tears welled up in her eyes she realized she could do nothing but wait for the pain to run its course.

Twenty minutes later, when Samir and Daniela found Celia in the middle of the hallway, she was still unconscious.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Safe, Part VIII

Zoe knew that at some point during the day, whatever was left of her mind had to rest; all creatures (no matter where they rank in the food chain) had to give the brain some time off. It was one of nature’s immutable rules. So, Zoe made sure she meditated for a few hours while Celia was in control of their body, and made sure she was "awake" before Celia turned in for the night. It was difficult to coordinate at first, almost like getting used to working the night shift, but in someone else’s body.

Finally, deck by deck, the ship’s lights began dimming. Zoe knew it would be a matter of time before Celia would go to bed; then the body she resided in would become hers for a few hours. She’d been up to the weapons deck a few times to have a look at its layout and take inventory of what the ship had to offer. She was amazed. What didn’t the ship have to offer? Guns of all kinds (both traditional and beamers), bladed weapons, mines, grenades – they even had huge turrets that could be mounted on the colony’s walls if necessary. Tonight she would make her choice. Celia’s eyes closed and soon her essence was silent and floating on the periphery of the group mind they shared. Celia was asleep. Time to go.

From her recent recon trips she knew that someone (who wasn’t Celia) had gained partial control of the ship’s security programs. This unknown variable controlled which decks were available and which were locked down, and probably was monitoring her on the ship’s cameras as well. She knew swiftness would be her best option, so she set a goal of one minute for this entire trip. After all, the way things were going, it wouldn’t be long until the weapons deck was locked down completely.

The lift’s doors opened and Zoe started counting one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand as she sprinted onto the weapons deck. By eleven-one-thousand she was through the door and past the rifle lockers. Finally, she reached the small arms section and found what she came for – a traditional pistol, similar to one her father used to own. She also nabbed some plastic rounds and a hunting knife for good measure.

At fifty-two-one-thousand, Zoe was back on the lift and headed for her body’s quarters. Eight seconds early, she said to herself. Way to go Zo’. All she needed now was a hiding place.

Suddenly, a thousand tiny hammers were attacking her forehead. Zoe had never had a migraine before, but she immediately knew that’s what it was. The dimmed white light in the lift became overwhelmingly painful and bright; it hurt to keep her eyes open, even just a little. She sat down on the floor just as the lift arrived at its destination and couldn’t do anything for a few seconds except hold her aching head in trembling hands. Zoe finally managed to crawl out into the corridor, her head throbbing. Mercifully, the pain started to ebb. As the hammers stopped their pounding, Zoe had the distinct impression that there were two sets of hands holding her head – hers and Celia’s. Eventually that feeling left her, along with the rest of the pain, and she found herself in a fetal position in the hallway. She composed herself, stood up, and staggered home.

Her new weapons would need to be well-hidden in Celia’s quarters, yet easily retrievable should the need arise. But how? And what if Celia found them? Would she be completely puzzled as to how they got into her cabin, or would she vaguely remember taking them? The questions raced through Zoe’s mind as she scanned the room. Maybe Celia wouldn’t find them and think she had simply dreamt taking the weapons. Or maybe she’d find them and just chalk it up to sleepwalking. Hell, that’s not too far off, Zoe thought. This almost is like sleepwalking. Schizophrenic sleepwalking.

Ultimately, Zoe decided on the top shelf in the closet. She couldn’t remember Celia ever going in there, so it seemed like the perfect spot. Celia’s arms couldn’t reach the top shelf, so Zoe had to stand on the edge of the bed to manage it. Behind a shut closet door, nestled at the back of the closet’s top shelf, both gun and knife would be out of sight – and hopefully out of Celia’s mind.

* * * * *

Aside from a small rumbling headache, Celia woke and felt wonderful. In the course of the past week she had finished reading every passage available in the ship’s library that had anything to do with computers or computer programming. In the last journal she'd read, the author was tossing around phrases like “When your university students ask about this concept….” It was clearly an instructor’s curriculum, written for someone who would be teaching at a Master’s level. And she had completed it! The thought of how far she’d progressed made her extremely proud; one short year ago, she would have been too stupid to realize what a university course was, let alone be able to teach one at a Master’s level.

A cup of coffee later she was up and moving around the deck, making her daily check of essential systems. “Daily report, please” she said to the computer.

“Life support nominal – no change. Propulsion – no change. Hydroponics reports crop selections G through R will be ready for harvest and replanting today. Inbound comm reports no transmissions received. Would you like to hear your itinerary for today?”

“No thanks,” she told the computer. “The Master will be ignoring her itinerary and taking the day off.”

“The term 'Master' does not apply to anyone currently active. Please rephrase your request,” replied the computer.

I’ll have to teach it some humor, thought Celia as she finished her coffee.

A few hours later, Celia was almost done with her morning swim when the computer’s voice put an end to her day off. The words echoed through the natatorium: “ATTENTION. Sparrow Class vessel detected at zero-point-five AU. Docking procedures initiated, final dock sequence in 18 minutes.” Celia quickly got out of the pool and began to dry off. “COMPUTER REPEAT!” spat Celia.

"ATTENTION. Sparrow Class--"

“Nevermind my last command," she said, dripping water. "Why wasn’t I informed of this? How can any ship be matching our speed?”

“Cornucopia’s engines have been slowing slightly, albeit exponentially, for the last week,” replied the computer. “In three weeks the ship will exit space-prime and re-enter normal space. All other security codes and clearances for the Sparrow class ship have been scrambled and reassembled by Hub command. In addition, this Sparrow appears to be augmented with an engine design that is not in the most recent database update.”

The Hub was sending new tech at her. “How long until we drop out of prime?”

“In three weeks the ship will exit space-prime and re-enter normal space,” replied the computer.

“WHEN DID ALL THIS HAPPEN?!” she yelled, still not believing it.

“The order to slow the ship was issued by Chairman Sollart just over a week ago. The order to reassemble security clearances was issued and approved by Hub Command two minutes, thirteen seconds ago,” replied the computer. “Your clearance level has been demoted to Green.”

It was obvious that Hub Command knew nothing of her recent course in computer programming. And now they were locking her out? “We’ll see about that,” said Celia. All she needed was 10 minutes alone in the ship’s brain, and all the blockades that Huffold and his men had thrown up would be moot. This was her ship now, along with everything and everyone inside it; they weren’t getting it back.

She’d have to hurry, though – the computer’s primary nexus was located directly below the bridge. She knew that whoever was on that shuttle was no doubt after her. They’d check the Stasis Chamber first (which would buy her a little time) but after that, they’d be heading to the bridge. She’d have to make sure she was long gone by the time they got there.

“Computer, have I been deemed noble enough to know anything else about this ship?”

The computer, trained to ignore both sarcasm and disdain, responded: “Sparrow class vessel, designated Freya. Two occupants, Lieutenant Samir Asad and Specialist Daniela Hawley. All other information is classified.”

A crew of just two? Celia figured that since their precious Safe had developed a mind of her own, Hub Command would have sent a legion of scientists to get a handle on the situation. But only two? It seemed logical that Huffold would send someone with some sort of connection to her, but try as she might, she couldn't place either Asad nor Hawley's name. So much for protocol.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Safe, Part VII

Huffold watched the screen intently, mind racing, knowing that his techs in the other room were viewing it, too, and that everything was being recorded for later review by himself and his superiors. He was exhausted. As the goings-on aboard the Cornucopia were his only assignment now, he was expected to be an expert on all things involving the ship and its workings, not to mention stasis sleep, galactic colonization, Safe handling and training, female psychology, and every system aboard the massive colony ship hurtling through the universe with the psychotic girl at the helm. At least they had managed to discreetly slow the ship down some, thus allowing the Freya to shorten their ETA for boarding, and his hopes were high that this situation would be resolved sooner than originally expected.

Since gaining control of some of the systems aboard Cornucopia, Huffold and his staff had taken great pains to be unnoticed during their remote access, especially since it seemed that Celia was a regular peruser of the ship’s data files and systems. There was much already built into the design of the ship that the passengers had no access to, and they were working on extending this lockout--particularly to applications that had not been visited by the Safe. The more they could control and restrict, the more they could sway the outcome of this impossible situation. Any changes they made were done subtly, as if things had been that way in the first place.

Huffold shook his head and retreated from his reverie back to the present, focusing on his duties while keeping an eye on his view screen to monitor the Safe’s odd behavior. He quickly organized the pertinent video surveillance of the Safe’s experiments in the ship’s lab and sent it to his forensic scientists for examination. He had little idea what to make of what she had been doing there, and hoped for some enlightenment. Huffold was keenly aware of Celia’s hunger for knowledge, and hoped that her time in the lab had been spent on idle experiments that probed her newfound curiousity and not in something more sinister or devious. She seemed guileless in the video feeds, but Huffold reminded himself that the woman had killed in cold blood and without provocation, would likely kill again, and was currently headed to weapon storage where several racks of a vast manner of munitions were organized.

Huffold rapidly finished a few more tasks, encoding and sending information to be analyzed to a few different departments, then swiveled his chair to face the blank wall to the left of his desk. At the push of a button, the wall flickered to life and revealed itself to be a large vid screen, and Huffold shifted the view from the Cornucopia to this screen, then leaned forward to watch Celia’s odd behavior at a life-sized resolution and in exceptional detail.

What in blazes is she up to?

Zoe was, by any standard one cared to apply, an extremely patient individual. As a stalker--and sometimes killer--of nearly every major predator and prey on Earth, Zoe had learned the value of waiting, watching, and moving quickly when the opportunity arose to avoid missing an opening. Zoe, however, was becoming restless. Not only was her novel situation a psychological hardship, (and one that was baffling in a multitude of ways), the complete inability to control the body she was in was maddening, and tested every fiber of her considerable composure.

Finally, however, an opening had come.

Time was difficult to measure in her current state, but Zoe felt that it had been many days since she had been thrust into this odd condition of consciousness without control. Much observation had revealed some rather startling facts. First and foremost is that Zoe was no longer in her own body. This wasn’t too surprising, as it was the way she expected to travel to the new colony. All colonists knew about the Safe, it was the Safe who was kept ignorant of their role in things. The second was that she was no longer with the ‘general population’ that included every ego of the pioneers in stasis--she had been removed and isolated with only two other minds, one rather bookish but enthusiastic, and one that quite obviously belonged to the body Zoe was in. She concluded that the stronger personality was the Safe, and that the quiet one was a starfaring homesteader like herself.

Details of the transition and processes of filling and emptying a Safe were far beyond her areas of expertise, but the huntress was fairly certain that she was not, at any time, supposed to have been isolated from the rest of the travelers. If the current state of affairs were not normal, she reasoned, then it must be abnormal--and something had gone wrong. If things had gone wrong, she needed intel and action, and that required control. So, she waited.

Zoe had discovered something else quite interesting. In her state of detachment from her physical body, she realized that she did not need sleep any more. Not ‘sleep’ as she knew it, anyway. The huntress found that by entering a meditative-like state for a short period of time she was able to fulfill the functions that normal sleep and dreaming do, and was therefore able to stay ‘awake’ for much longer periods without deficits or changes in mental function or acuity.

Every night, while the host mind slept, Zoe tested her boundaries. She pulled and prodded at her prison, eventually gaining a measure of freedom to basic body functions, but not able to access any deep psyche. No matter, as she didn’t need that now, anyway, and probings that invasive may have been noticed. She didn’t know what control the Safe had over them here, in her gray matter, but had no desire to learn how sever the Safe’s disciplinary actions could be on a rogue mind.

Over time she found she was able to attain limited dominance of this body’s motor functions, and exercised this freedom with increasing success every night, once she found it was possible. The bookish mind was of no help, seeming content to accept things the way the were. At least, she never noticed it doing anything but puttering about in the ‘corners’ of this mind. At last, Zoe decided the time was right to do some recon, and for that she needed full control of her host’s nervous and musculo-skeletal systems. She planned carefully, and decided that when she did gain function, the first thing she should bolster was her offensive capabilities. Although she was an effective hand-to-hand fighter, Zoe decided that having a gun at her hip would even some odds significantly.

For the first time in a long time, Zoe Brazzo grew impatient, and waited for the ship’s night protocols to cycle.

“You understand why you were passed over for the initial selection, correct?”

“Yes, sir, now as then.”

“Good. You also realize now that the very reason you were not allowed to muster for duty at that time is the basis of why you are being chosen for this mission?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you have any doubts about your ability to do anything reasonably necessary to secure the success of this foray, including the use of deadly force to attain the greater good?”

This briefing was important, she knew that, but she couldn’t help but unfocus for moment and remember the girl she had once knew and helped to raise. A young, mentally deficient girl, naive and genuine, who’s parents had both suffered terribly from the blight and perished, unwillingly leaving her to fend for herself. This trustful girl surely would have wasted away had it not been for the interventions of someone stronger, someone who had also lost their family to an indiscriminating sickness but had a determined will and a more capable intelligence. The older, more adept girl was able to forage for the pair of them but often arrived at their shelter worn out and with an increasingly bleak world view, one tainted by the unending exertion that survival demanded. She was still able to be surprised at times, however, by her ward’s sporadic flashes of clarity. Although it was often a mimic of her own jaded perspective, it still helped center her, helped to remember why she toiled. After a few years, an opportunity to give the foundling a secure and safe life, free from uncertainties, seemed to far outweigh the potential losses. To say she had never regretted that decision would be untrue, but she still thought it had been the best option for her young charge.

“....approximately 36 hours, and the selection for your partner has almost been finalized. Specialist Hawley, are you alright?”

Daniela came back to the present with a touch of irritation at herself for her lapse in concentration. “Yes, sir, just doing some planning.”

“Fine, but save it for after this meeting. Ship and gear have been arranged, all you need to secure are personal items. You will be able to inspect the Freya six hours prior to departure, and will meet the other half of the crew at that time to run through pre-flight tests and receive final directives. Any questions?”

“No, sir.”

“Very well, you are dismissed. If you do think of anything, or there is any gear you are finding it difficult to obtain, contact me and I will make it happen.”

“Yes, sir, and thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.” She stood slowly.

“It’s not me you’re fighting for, Specialist. There are 397 colonists depending on you. I know you’ll make the right decisions.”

Daniela saluted, waited for it to be returned, and left the Director’s office briskly, slowing once she had passed beyond his secretary. In the hallway she lost herself to memory again, going back to the day her self-imposed dependent had been taken and transported to where ever it was that Safes were evaluated and conditioned before deployment. Although it was not permitted, Daniela had tried to explain, briefly, what it was that would be expected of the young, imperfect woman in her new life. She hadn’t seem to understand at first, but as she was entering the vehicle the girl turned to Daniela, her dark eyes lucid and a small smile toying with the corners of her mouth.

“I guess, then, sometimes death doesn’t seem like too bad an option.”

With that as her only farewell, Celia had closed the door and the car accelerated, levitating and merging smoothly into the fareway above, leaving Daniela to follow her own path for the first time since they had met.