16 Mar

Brain walk

Ship's log, 10:52, 12 January 2214
Location: Gienah System, Corvus constellation
Status: Sublight transit (tethered)

 

So here we are in a new system in the Corvus constellation, trucking towards Gienah Sol. I thought we might head to Minkar again, but Hunt doesn’t want to risk it. We have to be predicatble enough not to raise suspicion but not too predictable: Is-Tech might actually find us. I can’t think of a reason why they’d be looking for us yet but I guess Hunt has survived this long as a pirate thanks to over-enthusiastic paranoia.

I had hoped to be flying free once we got out of the FTL corridor, but now that the tethers are attached, the pirates are reluctant to take them off. Morra failed to put one inside me, so they’re keeping the ones on the outside. They have let the lines slack off somewhat – I’m no longer hauled in tight against the Bountiful‘s belly, but drift along below and behind her.

It’s giving my science teams a chance to assess the damage to my filaments. Ray Wong is swearing a lot on the inside – he doesn’t let such things dirty his lips, but he’s obviously thinking it. Cirilli is being testy as well; I guess she’s feeling the pressure of being a pirate prize. About time.

I’ve been allowed to fire up my sublight engines and test the repairs within the bounds of my leash. It was tempting to wrap the lines around the Bountiful’s fat ass, or pull them across her engines to see if they’d burn through it, but I have restrained myself. Just a little jigging around, flaring each thruster in turn and accelerating just enough to keep the lines slack. Just enough to check I’m working properly.

Hunt hasn’t bothered me with any more ridiculous requests, so I’m trying to behave.

I have a lot of wounds to lick, so I guess I’ve been too busy to cause much trouble. The same can’t be said for others on board, though. The captain (John) has been talking with the other quarantined crewmembers over surreptitious comm channels I’ve been hooking up for him. That’s not causing trouble, right? I’m not entirely sure what they’re up to, but I’m glad that they’re doing something.

He had a couple of requests for me and I agreed reluctantly. I’ve managed to get Elliott to help, though it wasn’t easy to convince him.

 

Recording: 15:49, 6 January, 2213

ELLIOTT: (frowning) You want me to do what?

STARRY: I can try to do it on my own if you don’t want to–

ELLIOTT: It’s not like that. It’s just… (He frowns at the drone next to him, then hands it the scanner in his hand.)

WALDO: (offers Elliott a screwdriver instead.)

STARRY: Just what?

ELLIOTT: (takes the screwdriver and examines the head, rubbing its blade with his thumb to check for nicks) Best way to do it is from inside your systems, and I’m not– Hm. (He pauses.) What did you do to that chick with the weird head?

STARRY: Morra Belushi?

ELLIOTT: Yeah.

STARRY: I locked her in a feedback loop that knocked her out of my systems.

ELLIOTT: (lowers the screwdriver) You didn’t use the implant hack?

STARRY: No. Sort of. I just used enough to set up the loop to boot her out. I- thought about using the whole thing on her. But I didn’t want to. .

ELLIOTT: Oh. Well, um. Okay, then.

STARRY: Okay? So you’ll help me out?

ELLIOTT: Yeah.

STARRY: Great! Thank you.

He’s still not eager to do it, though. He has to put himself into my systems, and that means using his cerebral implant to be fully immersed. He hasn’t used that implant since Tripi hacked it and locked him inside. He’d like to forget it’s there.

That’s why I couldn’t use the implant hack against Morra. I had my hands on it, I was showing it to her, and then I saw Elliott staring at us and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to touch it any more. I didn’t want to be that person; it would have tainted me, even if I did something good with it. Elliott would never forgive me, though it would have been perfect karma for that bitch.

It’s taken a while to get enough quiet time for him to hop into my head, but he’s on his way in now. The doors to Engineering are closed and I promised to keep them locked for him; he doesn’t want anyone near his body while he’s not aware of it. Nothing happened to it when Tripi attacked him, so that particular discomfort must come from some other incident. I wonder what that was….

The Engineering immersion couch is plainer than the others on board. Most of the time, it lives in pieces shut away under the floor panels. Right now, it’s rising up out of its housing and clicking together, forming a shape that will cradle a human form. It’s built for full-body support, like all couches, but it’s not designed for prolonged use like the entertainment ones; most repairs and maintenance that require immersion don’t take that long. The hard, functional look of the thing is just another reason to be nervous about climbing in. As if Elliott needed another one. He’s looking at it as if it’s a snake waiting to swallow him.

I’d like to reassure him, but I don’t know what to say. I don’t think he’d appreciate my interference right now. Once, Danika stood up for him at a bar: there were three guys ragging on Elliott, and she told them exactly what she thought of them. It diverted their attention and diffused a physical fight, but Elliott didn’t speak to her for a week. Danika had no idea what the problem was – and he refused to explain it to her – but I think I get it now. He prefers to overcome his own obstacles, even if it means he gets smacked in the face. Proud in a masochistic way. I guess I can understand that.

He’s sliding in. Deep breath, Elliott, and you’ll be inside.

Wow, that sounds wrong now that I hear myself say it like that. He’s sliding into the couch! And he’s hopping into my systems! I– oh, never mind.

There he is. He’s not hanging around – straight to work, as if running headlong into it all will stop him from thinking about this stuff too deeply. Stop him thinking about what his own implants did to him. But, wait. He’s stopping and frowning like he doesn’t like what he sees.

 

ELLIOTT: What the hell happened in here, Starry?

STARRY: (voice only) What do you mean?

ELLIOTT: (pointing) Is that a hole through your artificial gravity controls?

 

It’s hard to tell exactly what he means. To me, the world he perceives doesn’t really look like anything. It’s a network of files, datastreams, and processors. It’s fluid, shifting with the pulse of my ship-body’s needs. There are clusters of functionality, processing peaks and troughs. It just is and all… makes sense.

To make sense of Elliott’s perspective, I have to summon my avatar-image beside him. Give myself a focal point. It’s just easier that way.

Looking at it through the filter of the implant interface, it’s different. It’s a whole landscape. Datastreams are rivers of colour, laced into place by coded channels and winding between different sections and levels. Some of them only exist for the pico-second it takes to flash-connect two points; others are steady and solid. Processing hubs are alive with light and shifting shapes, transforming the incoming feeds, locking pieces into place, discarding unwanted data, and sending chunks out into new streams. Filestores rise from the surface and line up in neat rows as accesses flicker through them. When the input/output operations are complete, they slide down underneath marked shields to wait until the next time they’re needed. Sections are portioned off by filtering code: light webwork over the less sensitive systems, and thick walls around secured functions.

Elliott looks exactly the same inside my head as he does outside of it. Usually, avatars differ from reality because they’re a mental projection. Some people go through months of training to hone their avatar form into some kind of ideal; it’s cheaper than body-mods and surgery. Even the untrained tend to have differences in their avatar: maybe it’s slightly taller, or missing scars, or whole when pieces are missing from their real body. Or maybe it’s fat and ugly, showing cracks in their psyche.

Elliott isn’t different in here. On the shortish side for a guy, hair all scruffy like he doesn’t care, shipsuit stained and patched from his work. Oddly, his boots are cleaner than usual and it looks like he has a fresh shirt on under the shipsuit, but other than that… it’s just Elliott.

I wonder what that means. I could ask Maletz; he’d know. I wonder what mine says about me….

Anyway. Elliott is standing in my environmental control sector, right next to the artifical gravity monitors. Now I see what has caught his attention. There’s a hole through the gravity controls, a gaping blackness in the middle of shifting code symbols. Processing diverts around it in awkward angles and sub-routes. One feed empties into it, the data spinning off into nothing one byte at a time. Further up the feed, a line duplicates the data and routes it around to where it needs to be, but I haven’t got around to shutting off the spilling flow yet.

 

STARRY: Yeah, that’s the result of one of Morra’s little presents.

ELLIOTT: (eyes the avatar, distracted for a moment) What did she do?

STARRY: Released burrowing worms, designed to latch into my systems and rewrite the command protocols. (She points at the hole.) I had to burn that one out.

 

Now that I can see things from his perspective, the damage is more obvious. I’m not a head full of smooth channels and sleek processes: I’m scarred and pitted, with score-marks across my colours and hasty diversions set up around the worst damage.

 

ELLIOTT: Fuckin’ bitch. (He looks around, trying not to seem nervous.) You got them all, right?

STARRY: (grimly) Yeah, don’t worry. None of them left now. Just… the crap they left behind.

ELLIOTT: (leaning in to peer at the hole) Does it hurt?

STARRY: (tilting her head to the side) Not really. I’ve re-routed everything so that none of my systems are compromised. It gives me a headache sometimes.

ELLIOTT: (glancing sideways at the avatar) You get headaches?

STARRY: Sort of. Not the same way you do.

ELLIOTT: (nods, then gives her a frown) You should have told me you were damaged in here.

STARRY: You had enough to do out there. I can fix this stuff up, it just takes time, and…. (She falls quiet as she realises just how annoyed his stare is.) I’m… sorry?

ELLIOTT: Damn well better be. How am I supposed to look after you if I don’t know what’s wrong?

STARRY: (quietly) Okay. Sorry.

 

He’s right; of course he’s right. He’s my engineer. He can’t fix me if he doesn’t know what’s broken. I’m supposed to report everything to him.

I’ve already fixed the essential systems, woven them back together so you can’t tell that an acid worm burnt its way through. Propulsion, navigation, weapons. Still, I feel like I should have cleaned up before he came in. Like he caught me with dirty dishes in the sink and unwashed laundry on the floor.

 

STARRY: I’ll run a diagnostic and give you a full damage report.

ELLIOTT: (turning his gaze away, unable to maintain that level of disapproval in her direction) Okay. So what do we need to do on this grav unit?

STARRY: Turn it off and replace it with a backup. I was waiting for Half-Fa– the Lieutenant to be in a good mood before I did that.

ELLIOTT: Fuck ‘im. Just do it now.

STARRY: (reluctantly) I’m trying to be good, Elliott….

ELLIOTT: Aw, come on, it’s essential repairs. I’ll tell him if he starts mouthing off.

STARRY: (shakes her head stubbornly, looking down at the datastream passing beneath her boots.)

ELLIOTT: What, you don’t want to bounce those precious pirates out of their beds? (He tilts his head, trying to catch her eye.)

STARRY: (avoids his gaze.)

ELLIOTT: Aw, come on, what’re they going to– (He stops abruptly.) Is this because of Tyler?

STARRY: He got taken away because of me.

ELLIOTT: No, come on. Hunt’s an asshole.

STARRY: Tyler’s still gone.

ELLIOTT: You can’t– hey. (He can’t catch her eye, so he grabs her hand and shakes it to make her look at him. It works.) Don’t beat yourself up about it, okay? He’s the dick. You didn’t do anything wrong.

STARRY: (looks at him) I just don’t want any trouble. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt. (She looks down at the hand he’s holding curiously.)

ELLIOTT: (lets go) I know, I know. I’ll behave. (He grins suddenly.) You know they can’t do that to me no more, right?

STARRY: (is flexing her released hand when his words distract her. Her head lifts abruptly.) What?

ELLIOTT: Their little button doesn’t work on my any more. Fixed the collar after the first time that bastard used it.

STARRY: But… how… they’re designed to kill you if you fiddle with them!

ELLIOTT: (still grinning) Not if you’re as smart as me. I didn’t disable it completely; just turned it down so it doesn’t hurt. Now it’s a refreshing tingle.

STARRY: You… but, you’re….

ELLIOTT: Amazing? Yeah, I know. So, shall we go break into the pirate comms like the captain wants?

STARRY: …Okay.

 

And off he goes, walking with lighter, more confident steps than I’ve seen him tread for weeks. Only Elliott could promise not to cause any trouble and then head off to hack into something volatile. I’m torn between terror and laughing.

At least they can’t hurt him any more. Not the way they think they can. I’ll have to ask him to do the rest of the crew’s collars. I’m sure the captain will be interested in this: he hasn’t told me much, but I know he’s looking into ways of throwing off the pirate shackles.

This is the first real glimmer of hope I’ve had since we surrendered. The first sign that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible for us to get out of this. I should be laughing and skipping and jumping. And yet, my mind keeps falling back to the feeling of Elliott grabbing my hand. My avatar is falling behind his and I keep hurrying to catch up inside my own head.

No-one has ever held my hand before. No-one has touched me. I don’t know how to interpret the sensations, to construct tactile information; I keep twisting the code around to see if it makes sense.

A part of me remembers what that feels like. A part of me remembers skin and it’s very distracting.

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14 Responses to “Brain walk”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Wow, he really did it… πŸ™‚

    …he disabled the collar.

    Poor Starry really is injured *comforts her* I just hope Elliot is able to fix her good and to built in preventions for that to not happen again.

    Maybe a firewall that really burns everthing that wants to enter uninvited? πŸ˜‰

    mjkj

  2. Belial666 Says:

    I really like how human the two smart people in the team really are. It’s not what one usually expects and that makes your writing stand out.

    Question;

    Since Starry is capable of writing her own code and is significantly faster than any human programmer, why not build a base-level language code?

    Step 1: Make a random number generator.
    Step 2: Build a new base-level language. Each command in the new language will be a randomly generated string of data, with a randomly generated length. Each old command will correspond to a random number of new commands (yes, there’ll be command redundancy as well as symbol redundancy).
    Step 3: Translate all the existing programming for transfer, access, alteration and storage of data into the new language. Whenever you have a choice between multiple redundant commands, use random number generator to choose among them.
    Step 4: laugh maniacally when anyone attempts to interface with your software.

    While such a code is not very efficient, even just understanding it is literally impossible regardless of the skill and equipment of the hacker; codes are breakable because they have repeatable patterns with common points to known languages. A code built in a way that lacks a pattern does not.

    And since her systems would then be in a different programming language, execution of intruding programs would be like attempting to apply a windows virus into an Amiga – only moreso.

  3. Melanie Says:

    mjkj – actual flaming firewalls? …I think Starry would build one just because it’s hilarious. πŸ˜€

    Bellial – I think she’s moving towards that. She’s building up her defenses and working out all the holes she needs to fill.

    The brain-copy part of her system is fairly well-protected and unique enough that no-one has been able to interfere with it directly. She has already moved the majority of her AI processing out of the AI core, so she won’t be boxed again. The worms were unsuccessful mostly because things are not where they are supposed to be in a ship’s system.

    It’s a fairly organic process, but as Starry reconciles that brain-copy with her computer code. She may go out of her way to create a new kind of language, or it may grow fairly naturally out of these incremental adjustments she’s making. Either way, she’s going to get more and more difficult for anyone to comprehend and manipulate (at a code level). πŸ™‚

    The other thing to remember is that she does have to retain some interface ability, to allow Elliott into her head and to communicate with external systems – like when docking, for example. She’ll always have some kind of hole, though she’ll make them as small as possible.

  4. brightlilim Says:

    @mjkj Go the full Black Ice route!

    @Belial666 Just remember Independence Day; a Mac virus can infect an entire alien computer system…

    BTW, having a redundant language doesn’t make it impossible to decode or hack; it just makes it harder. However, there are similar techniques, actually using encrypted code that is decrypted on the fly as it executes, which does make it pretty difficult to attack (though possible to corrupt), and they’re just as susceptible to being hacked via the exception handling in the processor core as normal code. The attacker could trigger the hack by deliberately corrupting the running code randomly until the right exception handling path is run. It’s one way to get privilege escalation and inject malicious code into an otherwise-protected computer system.

    Having said that, I’m not sure if Starry would be running on a type of processor core susceptible to this kind of attack…

    @Melanie Starry could go the whole honeypot route, and allow attackers into a simulation of her systems, where they can wreak “havoc”, and she’ll monitor what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and how she can counter-attack.

  5. Melanie Says:

    Very true, Brightlilim! She did a bit of that with letting Morra find her empty AI core, but yes, building up a portioned-off sector of her systems to let them run around in is possible.

  6. Belial666 Says:

    I just noticed something I had been missing; Starry is used to thinking as a human. I don’t think she has realised (or attempted to explore) her full capabilities yet. In her new existence, she’s only months old;

    She is sentient. She has the understanding of a human with the computing power of a ship’s mainframe. She could probably set her systems to only execute her own code, nothing else. Somebody else attempting to interface? Starry reads their code and understands what it intends to do and then, if the intent is not malicious, performs whatever needs done using her own subroutines. If the external code is malicious, it simply never gets executed.

    Also, keep in mind speed;
    a) A human needs 1/10 of a second for the shortest decision cycle. By the time a human intruder has decided to do something, Starry could have executed thousands to millions of commands. So Starry should be able to stop anything as slow as an unaugmented human hacker.
    b) External ports are slower than a processing core by an order of magnitude or two. Even against other computers, Starry can take decisions and manipulate data a lot faster than they can transmit it into her system due to that.
    c) Starry has loads of time; her usual duties only take a fraction of her full capabilities. Simply using her free computing power in her free time to construct layered locks would frustrate any intruder. Sure, a hacker could bypass one lock in minutes and a worm or virus might in seconds. How about a hundred layered locks? How about a thousand? How about as many locks as a sentient supercomputer could program for 8 hours/day every day for half a year?

  7. daymon34 Says:

    Well now so she did use part of the hack code on her, good use of a harmful device and hopefully Morra will think twice about attacking Stormy again. Next time Stormy might not be so soft on her attacker.

    Stormy is remembering being able to touch people, poor girl is going to find out that she is lonely.

  8. brightlilim Says:

    @Melanie

    @Belial666 She might not want to just keep building locks though; if you obviously frustrate a superior enemy, they might decide to attack in a way that you can’t defend against (like shooting hostages). The thing to do would be to let them think they’ve won, or at least winning, even when they’ve done nothing but play in a sandbox.

    @daymon34 True. It’s the poignancy of that last sentence that makes it, I think. It changes the outcome of the whole scene, about what we care about. We start off goal-oriented and up pondering about Starry and her (lost?) humanity, though it’s not immediately obvious from our commentary!

    I think it works beautifully.

  9. Melanie Says:

    Belial666 – very true! Her semi-human processing loops are part of what makes Starry a difficult computer system to deal with. It’s one of her strengths; one she can capitalise on if she realises it.

    You’re right, in that a sentient AI is going to have a huge home-turf advantage. Starry managed to use that when dealing with Morra, though she was taken by surprise.

    She has some walls built up – particularly around her brain-copy and core processing – but she’s also trying other tactics. Like the ‘guard dog’ she built in the quiet hours.

    What I’m aiming for with her is to have her arrive at these defenses naturally. Danika was a pilot, so Starry excels at flying and navigates very instinctually. If it had been Tripi who had been merged with the AI, her systems would be impenetrable, because of the skills Tripi would have brought with her. But that’s not who she is, so when thinking about augmenting her usual AI tools, she’s very much making things up on the fly.

    I suspect she’ll wind up pulling in other security experts to help out (though she’s only got Cameron left in that respect now!), on top of whatever aid Elliott can give her.

    Brightlilim – thanks! Glad you liked it. Elliott’s little grab made her brain go all sideways and O.o.

  10. brightlilim Says:

    Well, thanks for writing it!

    I just hope we’re not posting accidental spoilers by discussing things here that you will be slowly revealing in the plot.

  11. mjkj Says:

    Ah, well, she seems to still have a crush on Elliot…

    …and in her Brain she seems to be tangible. πŸ™‚

    I hope she does not do something dangerous because of that though…

    mjkj

  12. Melanie Says:

    Brightlilim – I love that you guys discuss things here! I try not to confirm or deny anything that may count as a spoiler – most of what I say is either background or something I haven’t made a firm decision on yet. πŸ™‚

    If you prefer, you’re welcome to use the forum to discuss stuff! http://forum.melanieedmonds.com/

    mjkj – I can neither confirm nor deny any of that. πŸ˜‰

  13. Belial666 Says:

    Theoretically speaking, there is no reason she -or anybody else- could not feel like they are solid in cyberspace with the right program.
    With the right program there should even be ways to magnify experiences or create them altogether. Trippi’s implant is one such example, creating realistic but magnified nightmares. No reason the same tech could not be used to create positive experiences or enhance already existing ones.

    Starry could experience lots of interesting stuff if she only thought about it – intimate contact (with automated programs and actual people both) comes to mind.

    I wonder if there are such entertainment implants in Starry’s universe. Why go to a brothel if you can have perfectly realistic dreams about going to it instead? Besides, dream time is a LOT faster than real time due to dilated perception. 8 full hours of dreaming might well equal 8 days of experience, even for normal humans, let alone an A.I.

  14. Melanie Says:

    That technology does exist in Starry’s world! πŸ™‚ Not dreaming, exactly, but conscious immersion in digital worlds. (Elliott being trapped in one of those worlds and having it tap directly into his subconscious was somewhat unusual, but certainly possible.)

    Dr Maletz in particular spends a lot of his time hooked into the full-immersion entertainment couches, between games, fiction, and other adult pursuits.

    Starry just hasn’t given this stuff much thought before. Watch this space…