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.