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.”