28 Aug

Cracked mirrors

Ship's log, 20:42, 5 July 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked and powered down

 

I have almost broken into the station’s systems. So close now; I can see the last few layers of code, feel them unravelling under my electronic teeth.

Soon, I might be useful to my crew again.

It’ll be a relief to do something productive instead of sitting here like a pointless metal husk. I might be able to find the answers that the captain has been trying to prise out of the station. I might be able to help my people, even though they’re not aboard me.

I worry about them. I listen to their comms chatter (the comm lines were the easiest to wheedle my way into as it’s one of the least-defended systems; I got full comms access days ago) and wish there was something more I could do. My crew have been talking about the search for the station’s people and it isn’t going well.

Yesterday, Rosie saw a small child. Today, the Lieutenant, Rosie, and the captain reported seeing glimpses of people. Each of them were in disparate sections of the station, spotted at different times, and always at a distance. None of them heeded shouts or requests to stop.

My crew couldn’t give many details: Rosie reported a heavy-set man; the Lieutenant said he saw lean fella in a uniform; the captain saw a young blonde woman. Beyond those things, they couldn’t say any more; the strangers disappeared too quickly.

I don’t know why the station’s people are hiding. Are we so frightening, a broken ship and her sadly depleted crew? What is it they think we’re here for, when it’s obvious what we need from this station? Have they had other unkind visitors? Is that what happened to the rest of the people here?

In the early hours of this morning, I thought I heard a giggle floating on the air outside my airlock. It was distant, as if it had travelled a long way to find me. A child’s giggle – Rosie’s little girl, perhaps? Brought to me by kilometres of ducts, most likely: an echo of an echo. She could have been anywhere. It was eerie: a single, trickling sound that would have made me smile at any other time, in any other place.

I wish I could go and find her. But I sit here, broken and useless, with my chin resting on purposeless fists.

Not for much longer. Just one more code layer to go. Not much finesse to this; it’s mostly a brute-force ripping up of the layers of protection. Teeth and fingernails. Punch out the countermeasures when they come at me. I don’t care; it gets the job done and I don’t have the resources for the complexities of grace.

I had thought about sending my boys out to help with the search for station people, but they’re busy helping Elliott fix me up. We need all the hands we can get on repairs; there’s so much still to do. I’m going to be here for weeks at this rate.

And besides, I’m already one short and I’m not prepared to send any more of my boys off, not into the wilds of this station. It’s bad enough that they have to go down the docking tube to the parts storage to get supplies. I fret every time they’re out of my shockingly limited sensor range, even if it’s only for a short time.

Last scraps of code to go. The protections on this AI are like a knitted onion: once you unpick one bit of a layer, the rest unravels with shocking ease. Then it’s on to the next layer, pick, tear, and pull. I yank harder now because patient unravelling is making me want to fidget, and I can’t move a single part of myself. I’m frustration in a can.

 

Suit comms
Location: port corridor, Bridge level

ELLIOTT: (looking up at a strut overhead that has buckled so much that it protrudes through the ceiling, nearly blocking the corridor) Starry, can you kill the gravity? (He nudges his suit helmet back to get a clearer view.)

STARRY: (voice only) Sure. That section only?

ELLIOTT: (shrugs) Whatever works. Probably best for just this section. (He crouches to activate the mag-clamps on his boots so he doesn’t float away.)

STARRY: All right, turning off artificial gravity in that section in five, four…

ELLIOTT: (snatches up the cutting tool lying by his right boot and straightens.)

STARRY: …three, two, one.

(There’s no discernible evidence of the lack of gravity until Elliott puts his arms out as if for balance and starts walking with measured steps.)

ELLIOTT: Great, thanks. Hey, send one of your boys up here when you get a chance? (He walks towards the wall and carefully traverses up to the ceiling where the strut has broken through. Taking hold of an edge of the torn ceiling plate, he tugs at it experimentally.)

STARRY: Sure. Waldo or Casper should be along shortly.

ELLIOTT: (nods and turns his cutting tool on. The end glows violently yellow and he increases the tint in his helmet’s visor before he leans in to start cutting the ceiling away to expose more of the strut.)

 

There’s a part of me that feels like I should be nervous at the way he is so casual about cutting parts of me off. But I know it’s for the best: he’s going to have to remove that warped strut and replace it with a straight one if my structure is going to have any kind of integrity. It doesn’t hurt and I’ll feel so much better when it’s all done.

I just wish it didn’t take so long.

I’m through! I’m into the station’s AI systems. All those pesky code walls have been stripped away and now I have access to everything.

 

Station comms
Station location: Entertainment Plaza 2

STARRY: Captain! Captain, can you hear me?

CAPTAIN: (hesitates as he weaves slowly between the tables and chairs of a dining facility) Yes, I read you, Starry. Is something wrong?

STARRY: No, everything’s fine. Just wanted to let you know that I’m in the station’s systems.

CAPT: (stops walking to speak to her, head tilted slightly. The fingertips of one hand rest on a tabletop.) Have you got the logs?

STARRY: Not yet, but I’m working on accessing them. Shouldn’t be long. Let me know where you want to view them.

CAPT: Visitor lounge. I’ll head there now.

STARRY: Aye aye, sir. No rush; I’m still unlocking the filestore.

CAPT: (nods) Good work, Starry. And– hey! You there, wait! (His boots pound the plaza floor as he tears off at a run.)

STARRY: Captain?

CAPT: Wait! I just want to talk!

 

He must have seen another person. Well, I hope he catches this one…

Maybe I can help now I have access to the station’s systems. If I can get into the sensor network, I can help guide my captain to his quarry. Unlocking the filestore isn’t taking much of my processing power; it’s much simpler than the AI’s defenses. Just a couple of passwords to crack. Easy stuff.

This station AI is pretty stupid. To be fair, it’s exactly complicated enough to do what it needs to, and it’s doing a good job of keeping the station running. But it’s boring, limited, running entirely within the bounds of the protocols that define it.

It’s what an AI should be. It’s what I used to be, before the accident that killed Danika made me what I am. Looking at it from the inside, a chill runs down my cables. If not for the awful thing that happened, this would be me. This would be all I am. Carrying out a mission of care from within cold, coded boundaries, without a clue what hurt was, or loss. Or love. I would be faceless and calm and content. But I wouldn’t be happy, or sad, or lonely, or worrying, and I wouldn’t smile at a kind word from one of my people. I wouldn’t blush when Elliott–

As a pure AI, I would be a different person. No, that’s not true: I wouldn’t be a person at all. I’d be code in a box, interchangeable with any other boxed bit of code someone cared to plug in.

I feel a little sick. I find myself grateful for Danika’s death and I want to throw up at the same time. I’m relieved and disgusted. I’m so confused.

 

Suit comms
Location: aft corridor, Bridge level

STARRY: (quietly) Elliott?

ELLIOTT: (turns his cutter to carve away a portion of a ceiling panel) Yeah?

STARRY: How different are–

(Metal groans as the pressure on the structure around the strut shifts.)

ELLIOTT: You’re gonna have to speak up, Starry.

STARRY: (with more volume) How different are ship and station AIs?

ELLIOTT: (finishes cutting the piece of ceiling and tugs it loose. He gives it a light shove and it drifts off down the corridor.) You broke into the station’s systems, huh?

STARRY: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: You ain’t nothin’ like them. You’ve been rewriting your own code since we switched you on. Don’t worry about it.

STARRY: But–

ELLIOTT: But what? You can’t compare yourself to other AIs; you ain’t even the same species any more.

STARRY: So what species am I?

ELLIOTT: (grinning inside his helmet, he pats the nearest patch of wall) You’re our Starry. You broke the mold. Now, you gonna let me get back to work?

STARRY: Sure. Thanks, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (shakes his head, still smiling to himself, and leans in to cut at the warped strut.)

 

I am who I am. That doesn’t really answer my questions or explain why I feel so unsettled right now. But I suppose it’s an answer of sorts. I wish it was that easy to be eased.

This isn’t why I’m here. I’ll worry about existential stuff when I have more of my resources available to process it. Right now, I need to get into the sensor feeds, see if I can help the captain with his quarry.

Ah, there they are. I’ll just grab the feeds and scan them–

Oh god. Ooooh shit. Stupid ship stupid ship stupid ship…

 

Warning: processor overload
Ship systems operating at 40% capacity
Warning: system overload
Ship systems operating at 39% capacity
Ship systems operating at 38% capacity...

 

Shouldn’t have tried a direct tap. Shouldn’t have brought the feeds in to process them. Systems too compromised to cope. So many more data feeds than I’m used to. Less resources than I’m used to. Station’s huge, so much bigger than me. Too big, too much….

 

ELLIOTT: (pauses in his cutting and pushes himself cautiously away from the glowing edges of metal he was cutting through. A holographic warning flashes on his forearm.) Starry, what’s going on?

STARRY: (sounding strained) Too much data from station. Overloading systems.

ELLIOTT: (flicks the cutting tool off) Fuck. Can you cut it off? (He starts to poke at the holographic interface on his forearm, calling up more information on the problem.)

STARRY: Trying…

 

So much information. So many rooms and corridors and intersections and airlocks and… I can’t keep up.

 

ELLIOTT: (flicking through the readings on his forearm interface) Do you need me to–

STARRY: No, I got it, I got it.

ELLIOTT: Dammit, you’re blowing out the aft conduits! I just patched those.

 

I have to push it back. Cut off the feeds when they reach my hull, reverse the commands that are sending them my way. I have to reach out through the data that’s drowning me and press the undo button. Stop, stop, stop…

There. Done.

 

STARRY: I’ve got it. It’s okay.

ELLIOTT: By these readings, you’re not okay.

STARRY: Sorry. I just need… to clean up my systems. I’ll be fine in a minute.

 

I still have some tools at my disposal, like my little security dog. I’m sending him off through my systems to chase out the dregs of cached sensor data, like a scavenger picking scraps out of my teeth. It’s too fragmented to be of any use anyway. I need the space for my processing. No telling what else might have come down with the sensor feeds, there was no way to scan it all…

Stupid ship. I should have checked the data feeds to see how big they were before I pulled them down. Maybe the lack of processors really is impacting how I think.

Am I truly defined by my hardware?

 

Systems stabilising
Ship systems operating at 35% capacity

 

Shit. I’m even stupider than before.

 

STARRY: (quieter) Sorry, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (eyeing the readouts, he sounds calmer now that the crisis is clearly over. He’s far from relieved, though.) What the hell just happened?

STARRY: I was trying to access the station’s sensor data.

ELLIOTT: And you routed it through yourself?

STARRY: I didn’t think it would be… sorry. I’ll be more careful.

ELLIOTT: You better be. I’ve gotta get your hull stable and pressurised before I can fix your core systems up. Do you have any idea how much of a pain in the ass it is to fiddle with delicate shit in a suit?

STARRY: No.

ELLIOTT: It’s a fucking big pain in the ass! Think you can hold off on lobotomising yourself until I’m done patching up the big stuff you broke?

STARRY: I’ll try. Yes. Sorry.

ELLIOTT: Good. (He snaps his cutting tool on and leans in to slash angrily at the offending strut.)

 

I’ve upset him now. Great work, idiot ship. At this capacity, he can’t jack in to visit me; I don’t have room inside to hold him. As it is, my core is crammed into the last bits of my hardware that I can reach.

He’s worried about me; I know that’s why he’s angry. I can’t pretend it doesn’t sting, though. Probably because I deserve it.

Just try not to do anything silly, ship. Your captain needs help. Your crew need you. And your engineer needs you to stay stable long enough for him to be able to fix you.

I can do this. I can be what they need. I’m hooked up to a station full of clean, undamaged resources; surely that has to mean something.

But I look at that AI and I don’t want to touch it. What if it infects me somehow? What if using its systems changes me somehow, makes me more like a proper AI?

What if my hardware really does define me?

I am a ship; a broken ship. Could I be something more, something different? I don’t think I want to. I’m still trying to be me.

Would it be possible to be in two places at once, run two bodies at the same time? No, I don’t want to know. I promised to be careful. So I’ll do the sensible thing: build myself a better interface with the station that will allow me to use the AI to find me what I need. Let Sarabande do all the legwork while I pull the strings and wait for everything to come to me. Now I have direct access to it, I can command it to do whatever I want, just as soon as I work out where all its hidden buttons are.

All right. Let’s see what this AI can do for me. First task…

 

Station comms
Station location: Visitor's lounge, docking ring A

STARRY: Captain? I have the station logs unlocked for you.

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8 Responses to “Cracked mirrors”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Awwww…

    Poor Starry *hugs her* … not even fully repaired and already into trouble again. I hope she will be repaired soon.

    mjkj

    .
    PS: Typos suspected:
    *RIght* now, I need to get into the sensor feeds, see if I can help the captain with his quarry. => “i” needs to be a small letter => *Right* now…

    *Station very* big, so much bigger than me. => missing verb (except if it is this way on purpose…) => Station*’s* very big…

  2. Melanie Says:

    mjkj – yeah, she just can’t keep her fingers to herself! πŸ˜‰

    Whoops, typos fixed now. Thank you!

  3. Medic Says:

    That’s the Starry we all love. No matter what shape she’s in, it always looks like trouble. πŸ˜› OOOO! I just thought of something. Since Eliot is doing all these major repairs, shouldn’t he get rid of that ship killer weapon that he hates? I realize they shot off their nanos already, but why tempt fate?

    *hugs Starry*

  4. thomas Says:

    The station seems less scary now that Starry can access the AI but I suspect you just hinted at possible problems coming towards Starry because of the AI. I do applaud your apparent decision to not split Starry. I do wonder though what a bifurcated personality might look like for an AI. You would probably need to call them Scary One and Too Scary, but the might be too Dr. Sues. πŸ™‚

    I did not understand the chapter tile, ’Cracked mirrors.’ When I first saw it, I thought of Through The Looking Glass and some sort of CS Lewis thing. Maybe my first instinct is still correct but I cannot see it yet.

  5. Melanie Says:

    Medic – so true, Starry is good at getting into scrapes. πŸ˜€ And good question about the ship-killer.

    thomas – yeah, I’m not sure I want to contemplate what a split Starry would be like. As if the poor ship didn’t have enough of a headache right now. πŸ˜‰ The Andromeda series played with this idea a bit, so I probably won’t go there. Yet.

    The title is mainly a reference to Starry’s reaction to looking into the station’s AI. It’s a mirror of sorts… but not entirely suitable for her. It made her reflect on herself. It’s also a reference to some other stuff in the post, but that will become more apparent later. Promise. πŸ™‚

  6. eduardo Says:

    But she could probably run some of the station`s computers to do some of her processing whithough moving too much of her personality into the station. Stary needs more procesing power and soon.
    Besides, we are more than a little defined by our hardware, both the capacity of our brains and our bodies.

  7. Kunama Says:

    And within the ship’s logs is a recording
    Of how all the people were here and one day they dug too deep and too greedily and unleashed a balrog

    Oh wait that’s some other story

  8. Melanie Says:

    eduardo – yup, that’s her plan: to try to get the station to do the work. πŸ™‚

    Kunama – if I put a balrog reference into one of the station’s logs, it’s totally your fault. Just so you know.