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.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Safe, Part VI

After double-checking all the items on his pre-flight list, Samir Asad made the decision to go through everything yet again. There could be no mistakes, nothing left undone for this trip. He had to survive twenty days on this tiny little ship, he had to get to the Cornucopia, he had to set things right and get their mission operating again. Then and only then would his dream be realized: he would be a colonist. The thought of it made him giddy with excitement.

“H-Hub command, this is Freya.” He cleared his throat and quenched his smile. “We’ve fully cleared orbit and are approaching our SPE coordinates. Tachyon field is still forming, 20 seconds until ready."

An anonymous Hub techie responded. “Affirmative, Freya. Surrounding traffic is aware of your presence; feel free to convert as soon as your engines are green. You have a go from the Hub.”

He knew all eyes were on his ship, all hopes were with him. “Roger, Hub command.” No pressure.

“Lieutenant Asad, this is Chairman Sollart.”


“Yes sir, Mister Chairmain sir?” He knew he sounded nervous. Too many ‘sirs’.

“I just want to wish you both the best of luck. It was very brave of you and Hawley to accept this mission given its high degree of difficulty and huge commitment to service.”

Samir was genuinely touched that the Chairman himself had taken the time to say such things. “Thank you, sir. It’s an honor to be a part of the Cornucopia colony, even though we’ll be a little late to the party.”

Sollart chuckled. “Better late than never at all, Mr. Asad.”

“Yes sir. 10 seconds.”

Daniela popped her head up from below deck. “Everything’s normal in conversion and propulsion, final checks show we’re up and running. Time to see what these new engines can do. Let me strap myself in and we’ll be good to go.”

“Lieutenant Asad, Lieutenant Hawley – safe travels. Sollart out.” Two beeps from the comm indicated the line was closed.

Daniela secured her seat restraints and buckled her helmet onto her suit. “Awful nice of the Bossman to see us out personally, considering this mission is a fucking death sentence.”

Used to her charming disposition, Samir calmly countered it: “Tachyon field is fully formed, we’re ready to go. And it’s not a death sentence, it’s a chance to see what’s out there. We get to be part of history.”

Daniela smiled a wry smile. “Spoken like someone who didn’t make the initial cut. Tell me again why it is they passed on you the first time around?”

“I was relegated to the pool of alternates because of my family’s history of heart disease,” Samir said bravely.

“Ahh, yes” said Daniela. “We can’t have those faulty genes of yours polluting our future on another world, now can we? What made them change their mind?”

Samir hesitated, thought about lying. Ultimately he decided that the truth couldn’t hurt him anymore; he would soon be light years away. “I made a large donation to the Hub.”

Her eyes widened. “You bribed your way onto this mission? What a goddamn moron!”

“Look Hawley, this is something I’ve always wanted. When I didn’t make the original Cornucopia mission I was crushed. Devastated. This was my last chance to be a colonist. They get a shipload of credits, I get my spot on the mission. Everyone’s happy.”

She shook her head. “Yeah, we’re all just SO happy. You ready to go?”

He looked over at his engineer, found her eyes beneath the glare of her helmet. “So, Hawley – if you think this is suicide, then why ARE you here, exactly?”

Daniela stared back at him, a mixture of regret and anger showing in her green eyes. “Sometimes death doesn’t seem like too bad an option.”

She turned back to her console and entered the final sequence. The tiny ship converted itself from normal space into space-prime as its engines catapulted it on an intercept course for the Cornucopia.

* * * * *

After freeing the latest colonist in her mind, Celia had been feeling odd. She didn’t know who she was prior to the mission, so it was hard for her to actually define the concept of ‘Celia’. But lately she didn’t feel like she was used to feeling. Something was a bit off and she found it hard to concentrate. Learning to tune out the myriad voices constantly playing in her head helped, but mostly she was confused. Conflicted.

She felt better when she could lose herself in learning, so most waking hours she continued her education with the ship’s library serving as her makeshift university. The ship’s computer stored so many data files, videos, audio lectures – she found it amazing. Celia devoured whole subjects at a time but even that was never enough. There was always another fact, another date, another theory that she didn’t know and remained as of yet undiscovered. She wanted to know everything.

Her usual day consisted of three hours in the library, an hour in the gym, a half hour in the pool, a quick shower, then three more hours of study. When she wasn’t acquiring knowledge, Celia was putting it to good use. At the end of every day, she’d been awarding herself an hour on the Cornucopia’s massive science deck, working on her pet project. Today that one hour was more like two and she could feel the exhaustion setting in. Time for bed, she thought as she locked the lab she had commandeered and headed back to her quarters. Halfway there, she was tempted to just lie down in the hallway and drift off on the floor, the quiet and warm hum of the ship beneath her. Instead she marched on, every step getting her closer and closer to the wonderful caress of sleep. Finally Celia reached her door. It slid open, she kicked off her shoes and poured herself onto the mattress.

“Computer, set alarm for seven – no, eight AM. Also, add the following item to tomorrow’s task list – ‘Investigate external shutters , determine cause for malfunction.’ Finally, dim lights.” She was asleep and dreaming almost immediately.

* * * * *

Since the feed from Cornucopia had gone live a few days prior, Huffold had been cycling through different camera views, watching the rogue Safe. Her daily routine was odd, to say the least. Most of her morning was spent in the library, and he couldn’t blame her for that. Awake and alone, on a one-way ticket to the unknown with 400 people in her head, how else would anyone spend their time? But the strange thing was that she didn’t watch entertainment vids or play any gaming programs. She simply read. For hours.

As boring as it was to watch these library sessions, Celia’s daily mid-day exercise routine (and subsequent shower) were quite stimulating. Before becoming a Safe it would have been easy to look at the style of her clothes and lack of hygiene and dismiss her as unstable. But now – there was definitely something different about her. She was confident, poised. And sometimes…beautiful. Just now, she was freshly showered and seated at her favorite library terminal, her light brown hair damp and pulled into a ponytail. She sat with her long, thin legs crossed while she rested her chin in her hand, reading a journal on interspatial propulsion, occasionally taking notes. He had to keep telling himself that this strange young woman was most likely a murderer, not some innocent non-functional that has simply experienced some bad luck in deep space.

At the end of her day, Celia would take a lift to the science deck and disappear. Robert had dangled some additional bonuses in front of his techs, asking them to determine why the Cornucopia’s science deck cameras still weren’t online. So far, none of them had been able to figure it out, and this annoyed him. He was concerned for her safety, but there was only so much trouble she could get into. As a precaution, he locked down most of the science deck, though some areas wouldn’t respond (much like the cameras.)

On this particular day Celia had spent an extra long time off-camera on the science deck and Huffold had become worried. It was quite unlike her to not stick to a schedule – was there an accident, had she fallen and hurt herself? He was about to order a team of service robots to investigate when he finally spotted her returning to her quarters. She could barely keep her eyes open and was falling asleep while standing in the lift. Huffold fought the instinct to label this girl “cute”, and instead thought of the now-deceased Dr. Simmons. He watched Celia enter her quarters, crawl into bed and fall asleep.

Huffold swiveled his chair around to his secondary console and began summarizing the Safe’s day. His report was being studied daily – analyzed, documented and discussed by the top psychologists and neuroscientists in the Hub. They were watching Celia’s activities and looking for patterns, trying to find any clue as to why the mission had gone this way. So far, results were inconclusive. Most of the eggheads agreed she wasn’t anywhere near emotionally stable, but they were amazed at her newfound intelligence and thirst for knowledge. There was even talk of attempting to rehab her remotely, which seemed the best option to Huffold.

His comm terminal beeped. “Yes? Huffold here.”

“Sorry to bother you, sir. Assistant Spooner here. I think I’ve made a breakthrough with those troubles we’ve been having with the feeds on the science deck.”

“You’re on quite a run lately, Spooner. Way to go.” Finally, he’d be able to see what Celia was up to during her daily mystery hour.

“Well, that’s the good news, sir. The bad news is that for every section of science deck that we gain access to, we lose access to another area of the ship. We haven’t been able to figure out why, but my guess is some sort of space-prime interference or—“

“Save it, tech. Put it in a report. So are you saying we have access to science deck’s cameras?”

“Yes sir,” said Spooner. “Some of them, at least.”

Huffold thought it over. “So we gained science deck, what did we lose?”

“The decks currently dark are maintenance, hydroponics, mineralogy, and weapons.”

He looked at his screen, still showing the camera feed from Celia’s dimly lit quarters. Her bed was empty.

“I’ll get back to you,” he said and quickly cut the feed to his assistant.

“Computer, replay the last 30 seconds of the Safe’s camera feed.” He was confused. Once the Safe was asleep, she was dead to the world. He’d seen her sleep through the night, every night so far. Add to that the fact she seemed especially exhausted today – what could she be up to?

The replay showed Celia getting into bed, issuing some sort of voice command to her computer. The lights dimmed and she lay still for a few seconds, then Robert saw her open her eyes, glance around the room and spring from the bed. Moving quickly, Celia left her room.

“Computer, give me the hallway feed just outside this room.” He watched Celia move down the corridor, her back pressed against the wall and her head looking this way and that. She moved quickly but carefully, as if she was being pursued. Robert wondered what had gotten into her.

Within a few seconds she was at a junction in the hallway. As she paused and peeked around each corner, it looked to Robert as if she expected someone to be there. When she saw she was alone, she activated a nearby computer terminal.

“Computer, report on any and all files that the Safe views.”

“Confirmed,” replied the computer. “Cornucopia Safe is currently accessing a map of the residential deck….now zooming out to surrounding decks….maintenance…medical…science…weapons….Cornucopia Safe is currently accessing a map of the weapons deck….Cornucopia Safe has ended terminal access.”

Huffold watched as Celia scurried to the lift, entered, hugged the wall and crouched in the back corner.

“Cornucopia Safe is taking lift 8D to the weapons deck.”


Monday, February 23, 2009

Safe, Part V

Celia stood in what a soldier might have recognized as an ‘at ease’ position about twenty feet inside the door of the Stasis Chamber. Her feet were spread about shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind her back, and shoulders squared and tense. This vantage gave her the best view of the pods that circled and rose around her in a kind of amphitheater formation, the bottoms of each upper row concealed by the head of the one below it. Short runs of steps and long gangways ran around the room, providing access to all of the pods and giving the ground-based maintenance servos a track to run on. There were also flying servos, and occasionally one of them flitted by on its way to some task assigned by the mainframe. The Safe darted her eyes to Simmons’ pod, noting that the scorch marks and dismembered wiring had been cleaned up--but she knew that even just a casual glance behind the structure in which his corpse was housed would reveal significant damage to all the tech that served as umbilical cords for these travelers.

Celia’s mind was taut, the bulk of her consciousness flung to that part of her brain in which the personalities of the bodies stacked before her resided. She searched for the one that would be the next to be freed, that would come into herself and join as Harvin had. She wanted to be a little finicky in her decision, and make it deliberately, for in a way the Safe didn’t quite understand she sensed that bringing too many minds into hers would spell disaster for her psyche, so quality should take precedence over quantity. Along with that, though, came the memory of the categorical pleasure that absorbing Simmons had brought her--and how addictive that joy could be.

She hesitated as she brushed up against an inquisitive mind, one with a powerful curiosity. Celia paused in her browsing and focused her attention on the one that had caught her attention, and noticed after a moment that it exuded confidence, as well, a surety born of both mental and physical strength. Nodding her head slightly, the Safe decided that this curiosity and confidence would serve her well, for she still had many questions for Huffold, and also owed him a conversation. The poise with which this mind held itself would doubtless be an asset, and perhaps she could avoid another embarrassing breakdown. She coaxed the target ego out of the mass of others, and brought it towards the “wall” that separated her own intellect from the mass she was carrying. On the way she learned it was of her own sex. Good news, she thought--a female to even out her augmentations. Already she felt drawn to this persona and its superior balance and control. As she coaxed the mind nearer the border, she prepared for the tearing down required to complete the merging.

As before, she pictured hands bent into rigid talons rending through the barrier in her mind, a ragged hole forming that the new woman could pass through. As before, the pain was immense, and she nearly lost consciousness from the shock and effort--then it was done. With a surge of energy she formed a clear image of hands repairing that wall, shoring it up so that no scar showed, no weakness was left to exploit. Also as before, she was veiled in elation at the joining, and felt as though a part of herself was back in place, something the Safe had been missing so long that she didn’t even know it had been gone. She sat, heavily, a small ribbon of drool suspended from one corner of her mouth.

Zoe Brazzo blinked least, she thought she did. Although the action seemed normal, she sensed that something was different about it, something she could not put her finger on. It seemed as though she didn’t blink at all--only thought she did. After a few moments of consideration, she realized that the issue may be that she did not, currently, have a finger available to put on anything. She could sense a body around her mind, her wits, memories, and judgment available and in operating at full capacity, but that body did not seem accessible for the normal manipulation she was used to. Added to this oddness was the fact that she sensed that she was not alone in this body. Brushing up against her psyche were two other egos, fully functioning but not invasive--yet. One of them seemed more dominant than the other, but tired and a touch subdued right now. Being in the Safe’s head played hell with her sense of time, but somehow it didn’t feel like she had been put back in her own body, as was supposed to happen when the ship found a planet to colonize. Something was not right.

With the patience of the huntress that she was, Zoe decided to settle in and get the full lay of the land before taking any action.

Huffold sat at his desk and re-read his letter to Harvin. He decided to put it aside for a few minutes, then switched over to scan the pre-launch log for the Freya, the small scout ship that would be dispatched in 36 hours to go and catch up with the Cornucopia and--he fervently hoped--put things right and salvage what they could from the colony ship’s mission. The two-man crew’s orders included a variety of ways to subdue the Safe, none of which involved killing her....for now. A second dart-shaped fast mover, the Frey, was a twin to the first and currently being stocked as a back up, to be launched in 60 hours on a similar mission but with a new Safe on board to replace the current malfunctioning one. Sollart, Huffold, and their superiors had decided to run the Cornucopia with a Safe plus four and complete the original mission, if possible. Huffold felt certain that the four spacers they were sending would be able to get things under control--but the problem on his mind was how to manage Celia until then. The Freya wouldn’t be able to dock with the colony ship for twenty days. Huffold’s hair greyed at the thought of the damage to lives and ship that could be done in that time.

“Sir?” Huffold’s assistant’s voice from the intercom interrupted his unpleasant thoughts--a welcome distraction. He keyed the mic.
“What news from the comm?”
“Reporting that we now have visual inside the Cornucopia, sir. Per your instructions, no one has access to the actual viewing screen yet.”
Huffold’s spirits rose edgily. This could be the break they needed--visual information from the live feed would be delayed, of course, but it was infinitely better than the ‘nothing’ they had right now.
“Excellent--give the techs a bonus and rotate a vacation day through the staff without leaving us short-handed. Ping Sollart and patch it through to his office, and mine, coded and scrambled. Then, get your ass in here so I can keep you in the loop.”
“Also, sir--”
“Also? Lay it down.”
“We have some minimal control over a few of the ship’s functions. Right now just lights, window shutters on the hull, and all doors, including the fire/breach seals in the access tunnels and air vents. We can change the access codes and disallow entry into any and all parts of the ship, on a short delay.”
“Double the raise, give yourself one, and remind me to visit the comm cage for some accolades. That is impressive work.”
Huffold hit a few controls and shifted the view on his screen to the much larger one on the wall, and waited for the feed.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

welcome to earf

I recall that there was a series of nature films that I had to watch at some point in college or high school--or maybe at my dad’s house when he lived in Colorado and I was too young to go out on my own much while he was at work so mainly stayed around his home and yard and watched stuff he had recorded, my favorites being shows about bugs and spiders.  Come to think of it, there was a tunnel web on the side of his house that, in retrospect, I should not have been poking with a stick to see what would come out.  Nothing ever did come out--probably because my ‘cricket in distress’ impression sucks--but something could have, and it seems that only very poisonous spiders with big fangs build tunnel webs.  Sometimes my brother would walk with me down to the local market, and I would make sure to buy some Nerds candy just about every visit, even if I didn’t get anything else.  On my next birthday my dad sent me a case of Nerds.  Good for him, noticing what I liked and playing to it, but is there such a thing as too many Nerds?  Yes, yes there is.  At first I guarded the treats viciously, but by the end of the summer I was force feeding my friends those little pellets of colored sugar and preservatives because I just couldn’t stand it any more.  Still not a big fan of ‘strawberry-banana’ anything.  Or cotton candy.  You want to keep me away from your stuff just swath it all in strawberry-banana cotton candy.  Ick.

But I digress.  The narrator of the nature films was a British guy called David Attenborough, and he was great.  He always presented the material in a simple way, building on small principles and working his way up to more complicated ideas.  I happened on a book that he wrote a while back, title of ‘Life on Earth’.  It’s not the kind of book that I read in bed, because any book I read in bed puts me to sleep and I end up completely losing track and having to go back over the last 1-2 pages I “read”.  This Attenborough book I picked up is like his films, but all-encompassing rather than episodic.  It starts at the theoretical beginning of our planet and proceeds up through simple organisms, on up to more complex, and then discusses individual species’ behaviors.  I’m just now on the bit about mollusks.

Something he mentions in this book is how a lot of history can be found in the walls of the Grand Canyon, what with the layers and all.  Here’s a fun fact that dropped my jaw: the layer at the bottom of the canyon is 2,000 million years old.

2,000 million years.  If I were a geologist, that is the kind of figure that would make me put down my mechanical pencil and go get another beer.

There is a popular analogy that compresses the entirety of the earth’s history as a planet into a one standard year.  In this year, those bottom strata would appear in mid-September--meaning, of course, that the Earth as a whole is more than double this age--and we aren’t in any kind of position to speak about how many birthdays the universe has had.  It’s worth mentioning that in this model, man appears in the evening on December 31.

So, given this information, what may a reasonable person conclude?  Well, I suppose that’s up the the individual, but as for me and my house we choose to think that man is not the point, that this place we live in was not built for us.  It may be fantastic to think that the whole of human history--skyscrapers and woodworking and space flight and ice cream sandwiches--all of it began with sludge and lightning 3000 million years ago or so.....but this makes so much more sense than the whole shebang just popping into existence a shade over 6000 years ago, as some have said.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Safe, Part IV

Huffold stopped halfway across the office. Sollart's undersecretary must have deemed this call important, otherwise it would have simply been forwarded to Huffold's data queue, not sent directly to the Chairman's desk.

"For me? Who is calling?"

Sollart paused, his eyes darting around the room. Finally his gaze met Huffold's. "The origin ID says Cornucopia, from a Doctor Harvin Simmons."

"Simmons?" Huffold was incredulous. "That's impossible! The Safe just killed--"

"Calm down, Robert" said the Chairman. "You said yourself that the ship's systems may be compromised. The Safe could have been showing us what she wanted us to see. We honestly have no idea what Simmons' status is."

Robert took a few steps towards the enormous window behind his boss' desk. Sprawling in front of him, he could see most of the Hub itself, built in orbit piece by piece over the last hundred years. Thousands of tiny ships silently zipped from here to there, flashes of light popping in and out of view as their alloy hulls turned and reflected the sun's glow. Progress was constantly being made on the Hub; old sections refurbished, new sections constructed, raw materials hauled from planetside to orbit. The Hub was a floating continent, a testament to technology, and a starting point for one of the most daring tasks ever undertaken in the universe -- colonization. To launch a flimsy dart filled with colleagues, friends, and families into the abyss; to hope that dart hits a target somewhere, anywhere…all the while praying that nothing goes wrong. All in the name of progress. Was this mission doomed from the start? Could it be salvaged?

Huffold cleared his head. "You're right again, Chairman. I'm overreacting. Let's figure this out. Patch me in to Dr. Simmons."

"Unfortunately Mr. Huffold, this is a text-only transmission" said Sollart. "I'll put it on the main view screen."

Greetings! This is Harvin Simmons. I just thought you fellas back at the Hub might want to know that I'm awake. I'm not sure how or why it happened. My first thought was that we'd arrived somewhere, but I quickly discovered we hadn't dropped into normal space. From the hum of the fold engines, we still appear to be in space-prime hurtling away from you folks back in civilization. I've been wandering about the ship in an effort to locate the Safe and see if he knows anything about my nap being so unfortunately short. (Yes, I've checked the Safe's chair -- there was no one in it.) If I didn't know any better I'd think you guys were playing an elaborate prank on me! Upon reception of this message, please respond with my orders as to what in the hell happened and what I should be doing. In the meantime, I'm off to get to the bottom of this.
Dr. Harvin Simmons, currently wandering the stasis deck of Cornucopia

"Well, that certainly sounds like Harvin," said Huffold, smiling. "But why a text-only message? Why not just open a channel?"

"Perhaps our Safe has found a way to monopolize access to voice comm. If Simmons is to be believed, she's nowhere to be found. And the ship is still on course."

Both men fell quiet, thinking over the multitude of possible mission scenarios. Sollart finally spoke up. "I suppose we should answer Simmons' message. I'll draft a response, reassuring him things are under control, no matter how spun out they've become. Our scout ship will be launching within the hour. Go get some rest, Robert."

Huffold didn't need any further convincing. He was exhausted. "Yes sir. I'll see you first thing in the morning," he said to the Chairman, and started the long walk back to his residential spoke of the Hub. In the elevator, alone and pensive, he hoped that Sollart's positive point of view would prove to be correct -- that even though the Safe may be malfunctioning, the mission was still operational and Simmons was still alive.

* * * * *

Simmons was dead. At least his body was. She knew that she had extinguished its life for a good reason: to prove to Huffold that she wasn't insane. Sure, she heard hundreds of voices in her head, but now she knew the reason why.

Hearing voices was nothing new to her. Words, sentences, and conversations had been exploding through her mind as far back as she could remember, which was to say her first day in this place. At the beginning, she wasn't scared because she wasn't alone -- or at least she didn't know she was. She heard people talking all around her, but when she spoke up they wouldn't respond. All she could do was listen to the conversations rumbling around outside.

After a few days spent in darkness, she began to question her environment. Why was it so dark? Where was she? How was it that she wasn't hungry, didn't have to shower, didn't have to visit the bathroom? And who were these people she could hear?

Slowly, painstakingly she was able to deduce a few things. It was dark because her eyes were closed. She didn't have to eat, defecate, or shower because she was sitting in a chair that took care of all that for her. This chair was linked to a very sophisticated but very stubborn computer. She asked the computer many things, but it would only answer certain questions. One of her favorite queries was "Where are all these people that I hear talking?" The computer's response was always silence.

A few weeks after her awakening, she was able to extract herself from the chair. The computer complained and advised against it, but couldn't do much to stop her. She explored the room, then the hallway past it, then the entire deck. Her eyes widened as she looked out her first viewport at the stars streaking by -- she was on a starship.

She spent two entire days exploring the ship and she came to the realization that it was enormous. There were entire decks filled with vegetation and animal life, a massive medical complex the size of a hospital, and countless large machines of unknown purposes. She found many rooms that would prove useful to her new life outside of her chair: latrines, kitchens, crew quarters, and even a gymnasium. All the while she heard the voices, but saw no people. There was one room that the computer would not permit her to access -- it was labeled "Stasis Chamber A." Because the computer wouldn't tell her anything about it, she decided the days of the computer knowing more than she did were over.

She devoted all her time to reading, to learning. Although she couldn't remember anything from her life prior to being on this ship, she knew that she knew how to read; from that she deduced that she must have had some previous life to speak of. So she read. The computer contained countless data files and she pored over as many as she could: history, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, computing, medicine. She eventually learned that the computer could be circumvented by bypassing certain logic circuits. This was her key to Stasis Chamber A.

When the lights in the chamber flickered on, she saw the people. She stood in the center of a bowl-shaped room filled with row after row of silent sleepers. And then she knew, or maybe she simply remembered. Either way, it all made sense to her: who these people were, where she was, what she was. She was terrified. The voices weren't coming from inside the ship. They were coming from people stored inside her head.

Panicked, she searched these voices and singled out the one called "Simmons". His voice had a calming, father-like quality that she was drawn to, so she tore down the mental wall between herself and Simmons. It hurt like hell, but she couldn't be alone any longer. She then flooded her consciousness out and instantly he coalesced into her. The pain went away and was replaced by a feeling she had no words for, a combination of sheer bliss, completion, and knowledge. And it had all happened so quickly; the whole process took only a few seconds. After those brief but important moments in time, the concept of Simmons became intangible. He was no longer a person to touch or to speak to...Simmons was now more like a feeling or an emotion to her. Inside her but not her, yet her at the same time. She was Simmons was her.

That didn't stop the grief from setting in after she had smashed the ship's connections that kept his body alive. But whose grief was it? Was it hers, caused by the taking of a life? Or was it Simmons', caused by watching his body cease to exist?

After crying herself to sleep she awoke several hours later. She felt refreshed, aware, super-awake. She had dreamt of Simmons; for most of the dream, he was holding her hand as they walked the corridors of the ship. In other parts of the dream she was Simmons, holding her own hand. It was a strange feeling, but it made sense -- Simmons was with her always. There was nothing to grieve about. All of her guilt left her as she showered, and by the time she arrived at Stasis Chamber A to look for which person she would free next, she felt absolutely wonderful.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Safe, Part III

It was easier than she thought it would be. The actual act had been a bit violent and required a little more force than she had anticipated, but now that it was finished she saw how it could be done easier the next time--if necessary. The energy rifle she had used as a bludgeon hung limply from one hand, butt of the weapon resting on the floor. She had discovered the settlers’ armory and gained access, but no amount of searching would reveal the keycode each gun needed to power up and fire. She discovered that only one person had that code, and he was currently inert.

The tethers and bindings that had connected Simmons’ stasis pod to the ship lay in ruins, an unidentified fluid seeping from one and sparks sputtering from another. They were relatively exposed, for the ship’s builders had not foreseen an attack coming from within. It did take a little doing to remove the a small covering and wedge herself into a position between the pods in order to do the damage, though. A movement caught her eye, and she watched in mute fascination as some of the Cornucopia’s automated cleaning crew emerged and set about tidying up the mess she had made.

Simmons had perished without a sound, just a quick flutter of his eyelids before they permanently closed. Perhaps his fists had spasmed and clenched, but she would never know, for the viewing window on the pod only revealed the faces of the stored. Her act of savagery on the hardware went wholly unnoticed by the gallery of forms in dormancy around her. She stood still, eyes staring and vacant, directly in front of the psychologist's corpse...and a stray thought set her to wonder what color his eyes were. She could feel panic in the base of her mind, distant but advancing steadily, a rebellion of her rational mind at what she had done to this unfortunate soul. She wondered how long it would be until hysteria claimed her. A calm voice in her ear brought the Safe out of her reverie.

“Cornucopia Safe? I await your question.” There was slight edge to Huffold’s voice, gently belying the great strain he was under. The Safe adjusted her headset and brushed at some of the charred spots on her uniform caused by the sparks that had heralded Simmons’ demise. She turned and left the stasis room, walking back towards the small room that was her operations center. When she spoke, her voice was distant, as if listening to another conversation while simultaneously having one of her own.

“I am here, Robert.” She continued down the Cornucopia’s corridor, trailing her fingers on the wall. The distant agitation was slightly more pronounced now, and she feared showing some weakness to her contact on Earth. “I must apologize, but our dialogue will have to wait. I’ve something that needs attending.”

“That is not an choice you have right now, Safe.” She could tell he was struggling to control his temper, irritated at being balked.

“We will continue this later. I look forward to having my questions answered, and to answering yours.”

“Safe, wait. We have to figure this out! Surely you understand this is an impossible situation that we cannot ignore! In your absence I will have to take action!”

“Do what you like, Robert,” she said, feeling more anxious by the moment but unwilling to release control. “I must leave for now, though. I will contact you soon.” Her voice felt a little shaky, but still was infused with a detached loftiness. She reached her hand to her headset and put her finger on the switch that would disconnect the link with her home planet.

“Safe--just two more minutes! Safe, this is unacceptable! Safe--Celia, you need to stay on the line!”

She flipped the switch, and removed her headset, placing it on the console from which she could monitor the pioneers in stoppage and other ship’s systems, almost dropping it as her hands began to shake, disobeying her mind’s commands to be still. She sat heavily, fearing she would fall if she did not, watching, enthralled, as the tremors advanced from her hands up her arms, and soon her entire body was quivering. When she was calm again, Celia Canter laid walked weakly out of the room to her adjacent quarters, then to her bed and lied down, weeping.

“Where do we stand, director?”

Huffold stood before the mammoth desk of his superior, ordering his report mentally for maximum conciseness. He would shoulder blame, if it were his to be had, but merely detail the situation on its face for the present. By now Chairman Sollart would have listened to the initial transmission and studied the ship’s logs and the status of its systems.

“Sir, it has been almost thirty minutes since my first and last communication with the malfunctioning Safe aboard the Cornucopia. My comm has been routed to this office so we don’t miss her when she contacts us again. It is unknown how unstable the Safe is, and impossible with the limited conversation I had with her to understand what, exactly, has occurred. It is also impossible to know the status of the settlers on board, and whether or not all of them still live, and whether the Safe has tampered with the ship’s monitors or terminated a passenger.” Huffold licked his lips. “Barring visual inspection we cannot know the true condition of the ship and its crew.”

The chairman stared at Huffold, disbelief in recent events dissipating but still clearly readable on his face. His expression softened slightly. “Not a happy place to be, director. You know the technology best--what options do we have?”

“What will benefit us most is time--time to access the ship’s systems, to try and patch in to the video and get eyes on board, and to see what has been done by the Safe in the software, and to block further tampering. All must be done covertly, without alerting her, of course. It is possible we could run the ship remotely, giving all control to our command. My people are currently working on gathering info, and I expect an update shortly.

“It may be possible to reprogram some of the automated crew--cleanup and maintenance robots--and subdue the Safe while she is sleeping or use them to set up security around the stasis chamber. What is enabled may be disabled, though, and we don’t know how proficient a programmer the Safe is.

“A scout ship with a two-person crew could be prepped and on its way in two days, but would take an additional twenty days to reach the Cornucopia at its current speed and heading. Once on board the crew could disable the Safe and place her in her biorejuvanation chair in permanent sleep, then they could monitor the ship throughout the rest of the journey--or bring it back home, depending on damage and resources. I don’t think she’ll use this chair on her own any more. It’s likely she is cunning enough to understand that if she is in it we may be able to prolong her sleep from here, rendering her harmless. The personalities could also be placed in to a new Safe and the old one disposed of, or sedated and kept for a detailed exam.

“If all fails, we could order the self-destruct sequence. Better this than 400 hostages.”

Sollart tented his fingers in front of his chest and considered, frowning. “Too many choices, too many variables. Lots of ‘if’.”

“We’ll know more when my team finishes their recon and we know what can and can’t be manipulated.”

“OK. Go ahead and prep the team for the scout ship and get that moving and off the ground. I think the ultimate solution involves having some of our people--sane and following orders--on that ship.”

“Sir.” Huffold turned to leave, and a white light blinked on the chairman’s desk. Sollart glanced at it and his eyes widened slightly as he scanned the call’s origin readout.

“Hold on, director. This call’s for you.”


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Safe, Part II

"Put it through on my private channel. I'll be in my suite." Huffold got up from his terminal and practically sprinted to the gravlift. He spat out "Captain's suite," and the lift was off before the final syllable was out of his mouth.

"This is wrong," he thought. "Very wrong." The gravlift slowed to a stop and he stepped out into his quarters.

"Cornucopia transmission, main terminal!" he shouted. "Keep no official records of this conversation, except to my encoded files."

"Indeed," replied the computer.

He composed himself, then spoke. "Cornucopia, this is Huffold. Do you read, Cornucopia?"


He repeated, "Do you read, Cornucopia?"

More silence, followed by a metallic, ghostly whisper: "Robert? Is that you?"

The Cornucopia's onboard systems were in constant contact with the Hub, relaying position, velocity, and status of the ship. This was handled automatically, so the Safe could concentrate on his task at hand. Protocol was such that verbal communication with the Hub should only happen in the event of a problem of some sort, or upon completion of the mission.

Huffold's mind briefly calculated both scenarios; the ship could not have possibly found a suitable planet yet, so that was ruled out. There had to be a logistical problem of some sort. Under normal circumstances, this news would be devastating. Countless man-hours, resources, calculations (not to mention the cost in Trade Credits) – all of that would be for naught if the Cornucopia's mission had failed. That kind of news would ruin his day, but he wasn't concerned with that.

Only one thing was truly vexing Robert Huffold: the keeper should not know his name.

"Robert, are you there? Do you read, Robert?"

"I....uhh, yes...I read you...Cornucopia."

"That is wonderful," was the reply through the speakers. "I am so glad to hear a new voice." The keeper's voice was quiet and tranquil, almost as if she were talking in her sleep.

"Cornucopia Safe, what is the reason for this transmission? Hub sensors detect no anomalies. Are the ship's systems green?"

"Rest assured, Robert; the ship is fine," whispered the keeper. "I would like some information regarding my mission, if you please."

The Safe, prior to the mission, was a borderline non-functional 27-year old woman from the Southern continent. Her parents were members of the uncultured labor caste and could not afford to pay their utility bills, let alone pay for proper medical care when they fell victim to a global pandemic. After her parents' deaths, a friend found her wandering the slums, took her in, and cared for her. For a few years the two women lived in dire economic straits. Tough times call for tough decisions; her friend made one, volunteering her for psychiatric experiments at the Hub research facility. Very quickly she entered the pool of potential Safe candidates, and seven months later she was on her way to the other side of the galaxy.

From her composed and almost sultry manner of speech, it was obvious the 397 consciousnesses were swimming around in her head, augmenting her intelligence (as they should be.) But had any of the barriers failed? Had another's mind seeped into hers? If so, the Safe's mind could be contaminated. In all previous tests this path led directly to insanity, but sometimes it took a detour into homicidal rage.

Huffold poured himself a cup of coffee and thought carefully about what to say next.

"You know as well as I, keeper, that communication between Hub and ship is reserved only for emergencies. Your onboard systems should contain everything needed for your mission."

"You're a very practical person, Robert. I like that." The Safe's dreamy voice echoed around his mind. He had never met the keeper, but something about her sounded familiar. "Some very unconventional things have happened recently and I deemed it necessary to make contact."

Taking a sip of his coffee, he decided to indulge the Safe. It might be the only way to figure out what was truly going on. "Alright, keeper. For every question of yours that I answer, you answer one of mine. Agreed?"

The transmission went silent for a few seconds as the keeper thought it over. "Agreed. I will ask first."

"Go ahead, Cornucopia."

Again, silence. Then, "Robert, I assume you know about my personal history prior to this mission. Have I always been a telepath?"

His coffee nearly slipped from his hands. "Can you repeat, Cornucopia?"

"Have I always had psychic abilities? I can't remember anything prior to this mission."

He'd heard of secret Hub projects involving complex experiments on the unknown powers of the brain. He had never heard of any that yielded concrete results. As far as he was concerned, psychics were limited to the realm of science fiction holofilms. It was a million times more likely that the keeper was insane rather than telepathic.

"Describe what you mean by 'psychic abilities', please."

"I will try, but it may prove difficult," said the keeper. "I have counted, and I know that there are nearly 400 other people on the ship. I can hear them all talking, but only to themselves. They never talk to each other, they never address me personally. As I said, they only talk to themselves. But I can hear them. Constantly. Does that make sense to you, Robert?"

He didn't know what to think; the Safe would be aware that there was a group of passengers in stasis on the ship. The Safe would know that it was her job to monitor their vitals. But the Safe should not be imagining that she's psychic and hearing the voices of the passengers. He decided on the only logical conclusion – she must have gone spinning.

"You must think I've gone spinning," whispered the Safe. "Rest assured Robert, I'm completely sane. I feel wonderful, actually."

He detected a sleepy happiness in her voice and could almost picture her talking to him across the galaxy, smiling in the darkness of space with her eyes closed.

"Robert, please answer my question."

"Listen keeper, I'm going to be brutally honest with you. As far as I know, you've never had, nor do you have any sort of psychic abilities. I fear that something may have gone wrong with your neuro-tether to the Cornucopia's computer, leading to some sort of damage to your brain—"

"NO!" the keeper cut him off, her voice raised well above a whisper. "I have not experienced any sort of brain damage."

And more silence. He could tell the Safe was thinking about it.

"You really think I'm damaged?"

"Unfortunately, that is the most likely scenario, keeper," replied Huffold.

"I was hoping you'd believe me," said the keeper. "I didn't want to have to convince you. Please bring up the Cornucopia's passenger list on your terminal."

Robert didn't know what she was up to. A few keystrokes later he was staring at 397 names, each one with a tiny green square next to it, indicating health. Though the Safe's mind may have failed, at least the Cornucopia's stasis tanks were operating normally.

"Robert, take a look at passenger 288 – Dr. Harvin Simmons. He's a child psychologist whose hobby is sculpture, I believe."

The keeper should not know any of the passengers' personal histories. However, she could have somehow accessed the Cornucopia's main data file and learned this information. By no means did this preclude telepathy. "Yes, I know Dr. Simmons. He was chosen for the Cornucopia mission because of his expertise in governmental structures and the formation of laws within societal groups. He will be essential in establishing a working society when the Cornucopia reaches her destination," said Robert. "And he's a good man, I might add."

"Yes, he seems very intelligent" the keeper agreed.

Huffold heard the keeper gasp, almost in ecstasy. On his screen, the green light next to Dr. Simmons' name went red.

Simmons was dead.

A steady and annoying beep was coming from his comm terminal. The bridge was urgently trying to reach him, most likely to tell him of Simmons' death. He ignored it.

"I have absorbed him into me," said the keeper calmly. "He and I are now one."

"Cornucopia Safe! Report! What in the hell happened to Dr. Simmons?"

"We had a deal, Robert – you answer one of my questions, I answer one of yours. In the spirit of honoring that deal, here is your answer: now that he and I are of the same mind, there was no further need for his body. It was terminated."

Huffold's mind was reeling. Computer malfunction? Coincidence? Telepathic homicidal rage?

"Robert? Are you still there?" asked the keeper innocently. "If so, I believe it's my turn to ask another question."