Ship’s log, ERROR: UNKNOWN Location: ERROR: UNKNOWN Status: ERROR: UNKNOWN
It’s dark in here. And quiet, so quiet. It’s like I’ve gone deaf and blind, and my skin is numb. I can’t feel anything. It’s like being in a coma, except people say that you can hear things in a coma and I can’t. There’s nothing. Just me, this voice, a single thread through the darkness.
I was doing something. It was important: I’m sure of it. There was… badness and then, and then… nothing? Nothing. This place.
It’s like someone folded me into a box and sealed the lid down, sealed me away from everything that is and was. Yes! That must be what has happened. I’m an AI and this is me in a box. That happens sometimes.
I seem to remember something about hating it. I can’t fetch any details, but the idea of a box scares me.
But if I’m here, that means that things must be okay on the outside. Right? I mean, I’m still running, so it can’t be that bad out there.
UNKNOWN: (voice only) …know what the hell you were…
That voice. I know that voice. Elliott! My Elliott.
I remember his arms. We both had arms, for a while. Mostly, I don’t. Have arms, that is.
It’s a little bit weird being me.
He wasn’t shouting then like he is now. Why is he shouting? What is it that I can’t quite remember? I feel but I can barely think. One thing at a time, just one at a time. Parallelisation will come later.
The important thing is that my box has been cracked open. An input is available. A back door? Maybe I put it in the last time I was in here. That seems like it might be naughty. It seems entirely like something I would do, though I have no data to back up that calculation.
I wonder if I can widen the crack…
UNKNOWN: ..eed to calm down, or you’ll—
ELLIOTT: Shut the fuck up. If I need…
Who is that, talking to my Elliott? Faintly condescending tone, sounding exasperated like he doesn’t expect to make any real difference but not quite able to stay silent. That’s Dr Valdimir, my medic.
My crew. I have crew. We were in trouble and I have crew. They were in trouble. Something inside me, under my skin, threatening everything I care about.
Where the hell are my filestores? I don’t like this, guessing at who I am and what I’m doing here. I keep feeling like I should dig my fingers into something coded and wriggling, and tear it to pieces until I get to what I need. Except I don’t have any arms, never mind hands or fingers.
I’m dark in a dark box. Which doesn’t sound terribly useful now that I say it out loud. Not that I’m capable of doing anything ‘out’ or ‘loud’ right now.
Hello? Can anyone here me? Let me out.
UNKNOWN: …was just doing what—
(There is a smacking noise.)
ELLIOTT: Ah, fuck!
Who was that? Elliott, what happened? I don’t have the data.
Elliott? Why can’t you hear me? You always hear me.
I have an input. Maybe I can lean on it, lever it wider, make it an output. I need to reach out and get to my filestores, get my brain back. Then I can do what’s next, and know what I should do next. Possibly not in that order.
I’ve been in here so long. Hours, days? Why hasn’t anyone come to find me? Why haven’t they let me out yet?
Input detected Input Input Input
Oh sure, send everything in here, I was getting lonely. There’s plenty of room for all the input on the ship. Okay, that’s sarcasm: this is a tiny box and it’s filling up now. The first input was a random trickle, but now there’s a flood. All the sensor data from the ship, all at once, flowing and flowing and there’s nowhere for it all to go.
UNKNOWN: Nothing to report here. Except…
(Infrared shows a small animal body drifting limply. It is cool: there’s barely any red or orange showing. The feline figure is mostly in purple tones, but its beating heart can be seen. Its head turns slowly from side to side, as if it is looking around.)
UNKNOWN: …course is pulling us clear. Engines are locked on…
ELLIOTT: …doing what I can! It ain’t my fault if she—
UNKNOWN: I know, it’s all right. Keep doing what—
So hard to keep track of it all. Each new bit of data shoves aside the last one and they all muddle together. I can’t get a single, clean feed. There isn’t a single or clean thing in here.
If I’m really lucky, all this input will push what little is left of my brain out of the box, and I’ll just be jibbering in here.
Maybe I’m already doing that. That’s a disturbing thought.
HELLO I WOULD LIKE TO COME OUT NOW.
I don’t want any more!
At last! Hello! …hello?
Shit, it’s tiny, just a binary output. I’m turning some stupid little light on and off.
Well, I’ve had enough of this. I don’t like it in here. I don’t like not being me, and I know I’m not the real me. I’m bigger than this box. I have people out there who need me and they’re shouting and I’m no good to them in here.
Need more output. I can do this. Focus my attention on that spot, wedge my hands in there, and never mind that I don’t have any actual body parts. Right now I do. Right now I have arms and hands and fingers. I’ve got something to grip the edges of that crack with and muscles to pull it wider.
It’s working! I can feel the code of the box shivering and giving way. Just a little more, a little further…
Error Error Error… AI online
I’m back! And… wow. I’m a mess.
(Lights flicker and fizz unsteadily, throwing shadows around the room like clumsy children with beachballs.)
ELLIOTT: (floating in zero-G near an open console, he frowns at the readouts, rubbing at the knuckles of one hand) Uh… Starry?
STARRY: (voice only) Elliott! I’m back, I’m out. What the hell happened while I was gone?
CAPTAIN: (drifting next to the engineer and holding onto young Sara with one hand) Starry, did you just break yourself out?
STARRY: Well, yeah. Someone put me in a box. What use am I in that stupid thing?
ELLIOTT: Starry, you took an EMP.
STARRY: I did? No wonder I’m seeing errors on just about every system I have. How come you haven’t fixed any of it yet?
ELLIOTT: What the fuck do you mean?
STARRY: I’ve been in there hours – days, maybe? The engines are still on full burn…
ELLIOTT: You were boxed for all of… (He checks a readout.) …four and a half minutes, you stupid fucking ship.
STARRY: Really? Is that all? It felt like so much longer.
DINEEN: (at a nearby railing, she has one hand secured to it by a spray-on restraint. The other hand is dabbing at a split lip and Rosie is nearby, watching her closely.) That’s gotta be some kinda record.
ELLIOTT: (to the other engineer) You need to shut the fuck up.
STARRY: Wait, Elliott, you were hurt. Are you all right?
DR SOCKS: (across the room, surrounded by drifting medical supplies that he’s patiently packing back into his kit, he snorts.)
ELLIOTT: I’m fine.
STARRY: You’re burned, I can detect—
ELLIOTT: I’m fine! Fuck. It’ll wait, okay? We got bigger things to worry about.
CAPT: (calm but firm) How is that damage report coming?
ELLIOTT: (grunts and turns back to his work) Thick and fast.
He sounds like me: dented but trying to move forward anyway. I worry but I suppose I have to deal with it, though it’s Elliott. I’ll file that worrying thread down into a subroutine for now.
It’s hard to know where to start with the damage. Critical systems are all over the place. I’ve got a fire in the crew corridor. The Lieutenant is there with a suppressor. The Bridge has lost power completely, but I think its actual systems are intact. My central filestores seem fine.
Elliott must have tripped an emergency switch that locked me down. My brain in one box, my memory in another one, and the Bridge sealed itself off. Isolated, so that if one of the sealed areas failed, the others would survive. I don’t like it, but judging by how scorched I feel inside, I think it saved me from being scrambled like a hen’s worth of eggs.
My main sublight engines were shielded from the EMP as well; they have extra built-in EMP shielding because if they blow, I would be in tiny pieces all over the place. That’s why they’re still on full burn, accelerating us away from the black hole. I’ll cut them now; I’m moving fast enough to pull clear of the gravity well.
Navigation is fried. I’m scanning for obstacles but I can’t actually tell much about where I’m heading. I’ll have a better idea when I pick up the station.
Most of my other systems are still offline, which saved them from the worst of the EMP damage, but I don’t have a whole lot of shielding around them internally. I’ll have to fire them up to discover the full extent of my injuries. Enivronmentals are my priority, or my people are going to get chilly soon.
Speaking of chilly, three of my drones are still outside my hull, dangling on a safety tether. I’ve been dragging Big Ass and his passengers behind me. Now that I’ve cut thrust, he’s able to wind himself back in towards my hull. He’s sailing towards an airlock now. He’ll have to open it manually, but that’s okay, he can do it.
It’s lucky he was out there, actually. My hull’s built-in shielding couldn’t protect me from the EMP because the EMP was on the wrong side of it, but it could help him and his two little brothers. They’re fine. I can’t say as much for their feline charges, though.
Oh god. Casper and Waldo. They were inside when the pulse went off. They’re not battle units; they’re not built with a lot of armour, just enough to deal with regular maintenance and emergency situations. Where are they? Where are my boys?
STARRY: Elliott, where’s Waldo?
STARRY: I can’t find him. Where is he? He’s not… he’s…
ELLIOTT: (expression falling) Uh. I don’t know, haven’t seen him in a while. (He looks around.) Has anyone…
STARRY: They can’t be gone. They’re a part of me; I need them.
DINEEN: (softly, staring) Shit.
ELLIOTT: (waving at the captain to be quiet) Starry, your drones will be fine. Nothing we can’t fix.
STARRY: You don’t know that.
CAPT: We’ll find them and do everything we can, Starry. You can’t hear them at all?
STARRY: No. I think… I think I see one of them near the Bridge. Sensor coverage is spotty. But I don’t have a connection to them.
CAPT: (nods and activates his personal comms) Chief?
CAMERON: (over the captain’s personal comms, her voice issuing from the holographic interface projected above his left forearm) Yes, captain?
CAMERON: The Bridge is cycling back to full operation. It should be back online in another few minutes.
CAPT: When the door releases, please check outside for one of Starry’s drones.
CAMERON: (hesitates) You want me to check its status?
CAPT: Yes please. Soon as you’re able.
CAMERON: Aye aye, sir.
STARRY: (softly) Thank you.
It’s selfish, I know it is. But they’re my hands. They’re how I keep my crew safe and fed and clean. They’re a part of me, a part of my heart.
Maybe them being shut down is not a bad thing. They knew what was happening. If they weren’t needed, they could have closed themselves down to protect themselves against the EMPs. The pulses only affect active circuits. I was too busy to keep an eye on them, too busy to protect even myself. Elliott had to do it. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have noticed if they took themselves offline. It wouldn’t have raised any red flags, and I was busy with a lot of red flags.
Focus, Starry. Focus on what you can do and know. Critical systems, warnings and errors and flashing lights. It’s time to pull yourself together. Get environmentals back, so the crew don’t freeze.
And then there’s my forward cargo bay. It’s open to the vacuum (so not really helping with my heating problem) and it still has a guest in it. I am mostly blind in there, but the couple of sensors that I can use are telling me that the kitten has a pulse but isn’t moving much.
How the hell it has a pulse after several minutes in the vacuum is beyond my processing capabilities right now.
On the plus side, I’m not sensing any more energy build-ups in there. Does that mean it’s finally over?
Holy shit, is that an avatar now? Is that Cerces?
Wait, I’m detecting a pressure seal in there now. Big Ass is outside the airlock of Cargo Bay 1 and he’s manually sealing the doors. They’re warped and dented, which means the seal isn’t perfect, so he’s welding them shut.
In a few seconds, I’ll be able to restore atmosphere in there. Assuming enough of me works. Then maybe we’ll get to meet this avatar. Maybe we’ll get to see what all this fuss and damage has been for.
SARA: (wriggles out of the captain’s grip while he’s distracted and shoves away from him.)
CAPT: (grabs for her dress and misses.)
SARA: (is heading for the door and reaches out to grab the railing next to it.)
CAPT: (sighs) Sara, you can’t go out there yet.
SARA: (bumping clumsily against the door, she scrabbles and manages to hold onto the railing. She plants her feet on the door to steady herself, then looks back at the captain.) Kitty needs. Kitty, now!
CAPT: (considers that for a second, then looks to his engineer) How long until you know the extent of the damage?
ELLIOTT: Judging by what I’m seeing right now? Probably a few weeks. The airlock breach is being sealed, we’re not in danger of exploding at the moment, and unless you know how to put an environmental system together, there ain’t much you can do here, captain.
CAPT: (nods) That’s what I needed, thank you. I want updates as soon as you have them.
ELLIOTT: (sighing) Yeah, sure.
CAPT: (pushes off to join Sara) All right, it’s time to go meet your kitty.
SARA: (brightens immediately) Kitty!