05 Apr

Black glass

Chief Engineer's log, 06:03, 18 March 2214
Location: Wide orbit near Earth Moonbase, Home System
Status: Stationary and powered down
Log location: Engineering

 

I was supposed to do this last night, but one of the little shits dosed me. Waldo, or Casper, or maybe Byte. The drones might be brain-challenged while Starry is asleep, but that doesn’t stop them from being sneaky little fuckers.

Though, if you ask me, that new damn doctor put them up to it. No way they did it on their own. Dr Valdimir was down here yesterday morning asking about how much sleep I’ve been getting and a few hours later, my food is drugged. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Now my head is foggy and I have to jack into Starry’s systems. I had to make my own damn coffee because the drones can’t be trusted. Just need a few minutes for it to kick in. Everyone knows that using a cerebral interface when you’re not clear-headed can be… unpredictable.

Yeah, yeah. I know that sleep deprivation means I wouldn’t have been clear-headed either. Shut up.

All right, let’s get this show on the road. Log, cover the immersion chair’s feed.

 

Link established
Logging neural connection

 

I might need to refer to this later. Depends what I find in there.

Almost ready. Just loading a few extra tools into the chair’s system (I don’t know what I might have at my disposal on the inside). Jumping in and out of the systems to fetch things gives me a headache, so better if I grab it all now. Is that everything?

This is where I miss Starry with her helpful reminders. She’d know what I’ve forgotten.

Okay. Well, I guess I’m ready. Let’s go.

 

Immersion activated
Connecting...
Transferring protocols...
Neural connection active

 

(Elliott closes his eyes and Engineering fades away around him. Darkness rises up, formed into flat, shining planes stretching in every direction. Equally dark buildings push up from the surface, squat and hunched; they’re little more than deactivated blocks right now.

The engineer opens his eyes and stands up. The couch doesn’t fade away like it usually would: it remains standing behind him, positioned in the middle of a junction, a bright and grubby piece of the outside world inside the virtual representation of the ship’s systems. Elliott squints and turns around slowly, taking in the uniform streets that stretch away from him in five different directions. The silence is a vacuum.

The darkness is not complete. There’s a glimmer deep under the surface, slender green threads of data passing through the channels that lace the ship. Elliott drops to a knee and frowns at it, then pulls a diagnostic handset out of the toolbelt strapped to his thigh. He taps at it, bringing up information on the data stream in the air around him.)

 

Well, at least the emergency systems are all good. They’re routing themselves through the new hardware already. It’s a little proactive for a passive system but nothing harmful.

Maybe I’ll go check on it, make sure.

 

(He checks the readout in the air again and sets off down one of the streets. Shifting data from the handset chases him; it catches up when he pauses at another junction and settles to hover around him. He glances at it and turns down the left path towards where the readings are telling him the data stream is heading.

After a few more steps, the immersion couch is out of sight and the only illumination is from the hologrammatic readouts following him. With a huff, he punches a command into the handset and a ball of light bursts out of it, arcing into the sky. Ten metres up, it stops and showers illumination on the blocks around him. The dead systems gleam like black glass.

Elliott squints against the brightness, then starts walking again. The ball of light follows like a balloon on a string.

After three more turns, a patch of brightness approaches. A figure stands there, facing a hologrammatic console etched in green light. Hands are busy manipulating controls and murmured words travel through the silence like a low fog.)

ELLIOTT: (peering at the figure as he nears) …Starry?

AVATAR: …fourteen, which means down two, and seven. Adjust to compensate, little bit, little bit. Alpha-two, check. One-four-beta, left and down. Little bit, little bit…

ELLIOTT: (slows as he moves around the avatar, staring at it with a growing sense of dismay.)

AVATAR: (doesn’t appear to notice him. It is Starry’s avatar, but not quite solid; the lines down the back of her shipsuit are visible through her translucent body.) …seventeen, adjust up. Aim for optimum. Optimum…

ELLIOTT: (to himself) Fuck, Starry, what did you do?

AVATAR: (blinks and falls quiet, then looks up from the console, her hands freezing. A smile bursts across her face.) Elliott!

ELLIOTT: (frowning) Starry?

AVATAR: (cheerfully) Yes. No.

ELLIOTT: You’re supposed to be deactivated.

AVATAR: Emergency systems. Keep you safe. Breathe. (She looks down at the console again and her lips start moving again in that low murmur. Hands manipulate the controls.) …twenty, delta-six, back off, down, down. Nine-four…

ELLIOTT: (watches her and swallows. He opens his mouth to speak to her again, then changes his mind and lifts his diagnostic handset.)

(He hooks it up to the console first, getting his own readout on what the avatar is doing. Atmospheric statistics ripple down the display around him: percentages of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other substances, keyed by location on the ship, and the running states of the air scrubbers. A quick diagnostic shows everything in the green.

The handset’s focus moves to the avatar, and he punches the controls several times to try to get it to trace the source of the program. The readout keeps blinking at the location directly in front of him: the program is self-contained, not connected to anything except the console it stands before.)

 

It’s not her at all. It’s a set of monitoring and maintenance protocols, tasked to keep the environmentals running. Well, the air systems: this is only one part of the environmentals.

Now that’s weird. There’s a smattering of unusual code all through it. As if it was intended for something else, or… was once part of something bigger. Someone bigger?

Starry, what the fuck did you do?

 

ELLIOTT: (sighs and glances up from his readouts. He blinks with surprise.)

AVATAR: (has stopped her work and is looking at him) Elliott. (She smiles again.) Breathing?

ELLIOTT: (uncomfortably) Yeah, breathing just fine. You?

AVATAR: Keeping you safe. I’m a good ship. (Her expression falters.) Aren’t I?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, you are. You just… keep doing what you’re doing.

AVATAR: (smiles brightly again and nods, and looks down to her work.)

 

Oh great. There’s no way this is good. Let’s go see what’s happening at heat regulation.

 

(Elliott punches a command into his handset, looking for a direction, and he follows where it points him. The ball of white light follows him, from high above, spilling his shadow ahead of him.

In his wake, the avatar falls into shadow again, lit only by the green light of her own console. The murmuring swirls around his ankles and peters out into the silence of the larger systems. Black glass rises up around him again. The empty sky seems to have no top.)

 

From what I can tell, the emergency systems are being run on the least-damaged hardware. Starry kept them to the backup network, which was least affected by the looping. At least that part of her systems seems to have acted the way it was supposed to.

But why are there avatars? I’m coming up on the heat regulation centre and there’s another one. It’s a little creepy.

 

(Elliott’s steps seem to eat the distance much faster than his stride should allow, and the next green-lit console rises swiftly towards him. A translucent avatar matching the one at air control stands there, hands moving on the controls in smooth, vertical sweeping motions, as if she’s adjusting dials. This one isn’t murmuring to herself; her lips are pressed together tautly in thought.)

ELLIOTT: (comes around to stand in front of her) Uh… Starry bit?

AVATAR 2: (blinks at her hands, then up at Elliott’s face) Too hot?

ELLIOTT: …no, I’m fine. Thanks.

AVATAR 2: No margin for error. Human bodies are so delicate. Small range of tolerance.

ELLIOTT: Thanks a lot.

AVATAR 2: (tilts her head and a smile dawns) Elliott.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. Uh. Hi.

AVATAR 2: (scowls at the console curving around her and adjusts settings) Space is a vacuum. Sucks and sucks. Too cold.

ELLIOTT: (examining the avatar with his handset’s diagnostics) That’s why we need you.

AVATAR 2: (muttering) Want to be needed and need to be wanted. Need means fracturing. Space is too cold.

ELLIOTT: (glances up with surprise) What did you say?

AVATAR 2: (stops her work again) Repeating: Want to be needed and need to be wanted. Need means fracturing. Space…

ELLIOTT: No, that’s it. What did you mean? About fracturing?

AVATAR 2: Needed to, because… (She frowns.) I don’t know. (She examines the console in case it holds the answer.)

ELLIOTT: (quickly) It’s okay. Never mind.

AVATAR 2: Not warm enough. (Her hands go back to work, adjusting heat regulators.)

 

I bet if I go to the inertial dampening balancers, I’ll find another avatar. And gravity generation, possibly even waste processing, too. How many pieces of yourself did you make, Starry? This one has bits of you in it, too. You didn’t need to; the backup systems should be enough to manage life support. We could have monitored them by hand. It’s not like it would be the first time. So why did you do it?

Stupid question. It’s just like her to do something like this, to not leave our survival up to chance. It’s those three damned little words she likes so much, the ones she said to the captain before she shut down: ‘keep you safe’. Or ‘a good ship’ – she likes those ones, too. When is she going to start looking after herself?

I guess that’s my job. Better get on with it, then.

And I’d better check on her integrity again. If she really has fractured herself, there might be damage that I couldn’t pick up with diagnostics from the outside.

 

(Elliott punches a command into his handset, to locate the central AI files. A schematic pops up in front of him with a little blinking light, and he turns to squint into the darkness around him. There’s nothing in sight; it seems that the filestore is some distance away.)

 

Oh, this is going to take forever. Let’s do it the quick way. I’ll just try not to throw up.

 

(He nudges a control and sucks in a sharp breath as the schematic drops into the floor under his feet, expanding to ‘actual size’. The ground sweeps by under his feet, rushing him towards the blinking light of his destination, and he squeezes his eyes shut. Heat regulation and its monitoring avatar speed away. Another avatar passes by the periphery, standing at another green-etched console, her hands making the same pattern of motions over and over and over.

The world spins and drops and turns. Elliott’s jaw tenses, and he holds his virtual breath until it all stops. It takes four seconds to position him at the requested destination. Only then does he open his eyes again.)

 

Jeez, I hate that. Always makes me want to vomit, even though it’s just a virtual shift across the matrices. It’s one of those things about being jacked in that I’ll never get used to.

Anyway, time to check on our girl.

 

(Before him, rising out of the blank slate of the ground, is a tall building made of the same black glass as the rest of the ship’s systems. This one stretches high into the sky, so far that not even Elliott’s faithful blob of light can reach it.

He steps up to the sheer face of the building and touches fingertips to it. A panel is activated, allowing him to plug commands directly into it. He hesitates, then asks for a basic diagnostic to be run. The panel chirps an acknowledgement.

Light kindles within the huge structure before him. It starts down deep, below the level Elliott is standing on, and sweeps upwards in a horizontal slice of illumination. It traces shapes as it moves, lights up motes of code that have formed themselves into a humanlike body, twenty times larger than Elliott. Heavy boots and the comfortable, sensible lines off a shipsuit. An unzipped jacket and an arm reaching out, the hand palm-up and imploring. Choppy hair around a head tilted up, as if she’s looking into the sky, but her eyes are closed as if she’s waiting for a benediction.

This avatar isn’t truly solid either: like an image looked at too closely, it pixelates. But in her case, each dot is a bundle of code, made up on tiny symbols and more bundles of even tinier symbols. The code is all frozen, gleaming in perfect iciness within the black amber of the system block. The avatar looks like she was paused between one breath and another.

Elliott is standing roughly level with her waist. He watches the diagnostic illumination with an expression that grows more bleak as more of the AI’s representation is revealed. When it has finished, the avatar falls into darkness again. Elliott’s gaze lingers around where her face was, though not even his blob of light shows it now.)

 

This isn’t… when did she do that? Even when she’s deactivated, she’s still… herself. She probably didn’t even do it on purpose; this is why machines aren’t supposed to have a subconscious, dammit. The new doc says she has one and I believe him. Hell, even AIs have a subliminal level of processing that they aren’t entirely aware of. But this…

Fuck. Right. Work.

 

(Elliott clips his handset over the panel on the system block holding the sleeping avatar and commands a deeper scan. The area around him fills with zoomed-in views of her code, with anomalies highlighted in red, lining up one after another as the scan progresses. He dismisses most of them with waves of his hands and squints at others. He tags them and positions them off to one side.

Behind him, a sound rumbles through the silence: a low, throaty growl. Elliott freezes, though the scan continues to pile up the anomalies for examination. The growl creeps closer, swelling up to tower over him, punctuated by a sharp bark.

Elliott turns around slowly and looks up… and up, and up. A canine fifteen metres tall stands over him, its lips pulled back from very shiny teeth in a snarl. A fang drips a long string of code that shatters on the ground.)

 

Oh shit. Security protocol. Starry’s little puppy is all grown up and about to eat me.

This is going to give me a killer headache.

 

ELLIOTT: (holds up his hands) Uh… good dog?

SECURIPUP: (barks furiously, loud enough to make the engineer wince and clap his hands over his ears.)

ELLIOTT: Fuck!

SECURIPUP: (stops barking abruptly and closes its mouth with a clack of teeth. It leans in to snort on Elliott’s avatar.)

ELLIOTT: (holds very still and tries not to breathe, watching the thing with wide eyes.)

SECURIPUP: (jerks its head back and blinks at Elliott. Then its tail starts wagging and its whole body twitches. Abruptly, it’s knee-height and looking up at the engineer, instead of the other way around. A pink, coded tongue lolls out of its mouth.)

ELLIOTT: Uh. Hi?

SECURIPUP: (yips and wags cheerfully, then sits down as if nothing is wrong.)

 

It recognised me. Oh, thank god. Yeah, good dog. You just… sit there.

It must have hidden when the looping happened. I wonder what other self-contained protocols she might have roaming around in here.

Dammit, Starry, we need you back so you can keep all this under control. It’s dangerous for a guy to be roaming in your head these days.

And, shit, you really made a mess of yourself. I’ve got unzipped code strings here, left dangling when you made those safety monitors. I’m pretty sure there’s a chunk missing from over there. I’m gonna have to reintegrate all those avatars before we boot you back up. Which means I’m probably going to have to shut down life support.

The captain is going to be so pleased.

Well, better get things ready if we’re gonna get this done.

 

(Elliott sweeps a hand across the scan’s readings to shut it off. The panel and the block behind it falls dark, and Starry’s avatar fades from sight again. He turns around and hesitates when he sees the security protocol sitting there, dog-grinning at him.)

ELLIOTT: (looking at the dog) Wanna help me install a safety net, pup?

SECURIPUP: (barks and stands up, tail wagging.)

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6 Responses to “Black glass”

  1. daymon34 Says:

    Well Starry does her best to make sure her friends survive. And going to be a pain to bring everything down and put her back together again.

    At least her securipup knows not to chew on Elliott, that would make it a lot harder to fix her if it didn’t.

  2. Retsof Says:

    I’m confused. What did he see on her face?

  3. Medic Says:

    “…his gaze lingers around where her face WAS.”

    I get the feeling her face is missing. Separated out among the avatars. Wow, ya know, I really thought Starry was going to end up making a mess of this situation, not of herself.

    Hehe, Elliot is gunna give her an ear-full when she’s back online/awake. (sorry but as crazy as her origin is, I tend to think of this as a coma more than being offline.)

  4. mjkj Says:

    Wow…

    I just hope he can fix her – I do not want to miss her *hugs Starry*

    *cheers on Elliot* You can make it, you can fix her…

    Melanie, I hope you do not have as much stress at work anymore 🙂 *hugs*

    mjkj

  5. Melanie Says:

    Wow, sorry guys. Seems I muddled that bit about Starry’s face up! I’ve edited it to make what I meant clearer:

    “When it has finished, the avatar falls into darkness again. Elliott’s gaze lingers around where her face was, though not even his blob of light shows it now.”

    Hope that helps! He’s just staring at where it was showing, pondering the fact that she has an avatar in there even when she’s offline.

    mjkj – sadly, it’s all continuing. Big deadline next week, so wish me luck!

    Looks like this week’s post is going to be late, too, I’m afraid. I managed to get it all down this morning, and the good news is: it’s huge! Hopefully I’ll get it tidied up and posted tomorrow for you all. Thanks so much for your patience!

  6. mjkj Says:

    Awww, I hope you will make that deadline and get some rest soon *hugs and comforts*

    mjkj