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."


Safe, Part I

The problem was straight forward, on it's face as simple as buttering bread: Given the current technology, figure out a way for humans to survive--and thrive, if possible--the gargantuan distances and hefty amount of time needed to make it to a habitable planet. If there were no such planets available in a given time period, one that could be terraformed to suit people would do in a pinch.

As is the way of things, the answer was much more complicated.

After much thought, research, sacrifice, and gobs of cash, it was determined that Homo sapiens could be kept viable for quite some time in suspended animation, as long as there was some sort of monitoring system around to keep vigilance and correct any errors that may occur, as well as make fine adjustments to the sustained controlled environment when necessary. However, although there was computer software sensitive enough to keep tabs on, record information, and suggest adjustments for optimal suspension conditions, it was also determined that no program existed--nor would exist for many years, considering the rate of advancement--that could accurately and consistently make the changes to preserve the lives of the humans that were in suspension. Experiments were undertaken, and although an automated guardian could keep up for quite some time, eventually many small mistakes added up to large, critical errors, and the caretaker's simulated wards' survival rate plummeted as the far side of the Bell curve was explored. Things would be best if the mechanized watchdog was able to work in tandem with another overseer.

After much pondering and even more tinkering, it seemed as though the only construction currently available to handle such a task over time was the human brain--but this was not a solution, but yet another complication, as the only way to keep a human alive to survive the transit was to have them in stasis. If they were in stasis, though, they could not make the minute adjustments. Problem.

Par for the course, something else cropped up, a potentially critical setback. Through more simulations the researchers found that prolonged stasis caused the human intellect to degrade, producing babbling imbeciles--at best--in as short as one year. Another problem.

In this instance, technology, human ingenuity, and a willingness to sacrifice unknowing and uninformed others for the greater good provided the solution. Several discoveries were combined to find the answer.

A breakthrough had been made some years earlier which allowed one's memories--and thus, the bulk of their personality--to be stored electronically, with the best storage device being an organic one, if possible. That is, one's intellect could be extracted and placed into another human for storage, and barriers could be placed in the receiver so that the original and the stored would never mingle. In fact, experiments confirmed that the storage space in a human brain was so large that up to 400 intellects could be extracted, condensed, and stored in one healthy adult with no ill effects on that person. As a point of fact, there was a great benefit, in that the storage person's own wits and wisdom increased exponentially as more psyches were added. Everything has its limits, though, and through more experimentation additional regulations were discovered. Although candidates were rigorously screened for superior health, it seemed that the higher the initial intelligence of a being, the more predisposed they were to insanity, paranoia, schizophrenia, et al. after augmentation with storage personas, traits which were categorically determined to be unwelcome traits in a spacefaring caretaker of other humans and a giant starship.

Therefore, the starting brain power of the storer could not be too high, for it would be added to and increased by predictable levels as storage personalities were added for the trip. According to the researchers the optimal IQ for a 'storage device' was to be no higher than 80, then, to end up at around 135, at a maximum, once all intellects were cached. It was decided, though, by individuals that would, of course, never be the proposed depot, that the body that housed the inferior intellect should never know that: A) They were merely a means to an end and that their upgraded intelligence was artificial and B) Once their job was over and the destination was reached they would be rendered back to their original brainpower and become one that must now be supervised, rather than the other way round. A provision was made that the erstwhile custodians would live out the rest of their lives in comfort, in whatever reasonable way seemed fitting to them.

So, this became the new standard in spacefaring. Large, sturdy colony ships were outfitted with whatever equipment was deemed necessary to settle a new world, and no more than 400 settlers were put on board and in stasis with their intellects drained and condensed for deposit in the steward that was to keep them in trust until arrival on their new home. This keeper, then, was made smarter by the addition of the new personalities--but didn't know that it had ever been any other way in their life, and some memory augmentation was often employed to ensure ignorance. During sleep periods the trustee was put in a modified stasis in order to draw out his life and make any needed bio-repairs to his aging carcass. He would age, but slowly, and in perfect health. During waking periods he would spend his time monitoring the sleepers and the ship, keeping everything in flawless function in conjunction with the programmed attendant. On arrival at the new world, he would benignly have his wards removed and go back to being an idiot. The program's designers thought it the perfect plan, given the current resources.

Huffold looked up from his screen, noting the tech at his desk and waiting for the reason for his approach.
"Sir, we've received a transmission from the Cornucopia."
"They've only been out for 4 months. Chances aren't worth mentioning that they would have found a suitable planet to colonize within the distance they've traveled. Is it an automated message or voluntary?" While speaking Huffold's hands were working, fingers darting over his interface and bringing up specifications on the colony ship and it's monitoring network to his readout screen.
"Human-generated, sir, and personal."
"All systems read normal on our readout, 397 bodies breathing in stoppage, functioning as expected and the ship shows no red lights. There's only one human awake on that boat that could've sent a missive, and they are not supposed to know how."
"Let it out, techie."
"Sir, we've received a message from the Cornucopia's Safe. She's become aware, and has some rather awkward questions."