Prose Header


by Dean Giles

part 2

Insane? Is it really possible? Simon thought back to his neural network studies. DAVE minds were programmed to capture every detail in their sensory reach and filter out irrelevant, unwanted data. In a space voyage, this amounts to a staggering amount of detail.

And Simon recalled a warning. “Automated buffer programmes are used to filter and organise the importance of multiple inputs, thus ensuring that only relevant stimuli from the environment are absorbed by DAVE’s higher brain functions. The rest is discarded, forgotten. If this filtering process is damaged and the network is flooded with unhelpful information or noise, it has been shown to cause confusion, even schizophrenic behaviour traits in the DAVE.”

Simon unfolded his personal computer and took some notes. If he could confirm which of DAVE’s systems were malfunctioning, perhaps he could attempt to fix it or, in the worse case, fight it.

Three levels down and Simon’s fragile legs were ready to fold under him. He was exhausted. He clung to the matte-black rungs that stretched for tens of meters above and below. He gasped, his mouth opening wide to draw in the thin air that filled this seldom-visited place. A large sign loomed to his left: ‘Section B.’

He hopped onto the metallic shelf and collapsed with his back against solid wall. His IU crackled to life.

“Hello Simon. Your heart rate is dangerously high; vigorous exercise is not recommended so soon after stasis emergence, especially considering your complications. Please make your way calmly to Section B medical-bay.”

“DAVE,” Simon said between heavy breaths, “Give me access to the ship’s server, specifically the ship’s log. If not, then please do not make contact with me.”

“Simon, your welfare is extremely important to me. Despite your present misgivings, you will come to trust me.”

Trust? Simon let the word resonate in his mind. Why would DAVE say such a thing? He had no idea, yet it gave him hope. It suggested that DAVE had an agenda, a sign that the machine was functioning at a higher level. So maybe it could be reasoned with.

But right now Simon didn’t feel like reasoning. He lay against the cold wall with his eyes closed and the sound of his beating heart rushing in his ears. He laid a hand on his rising chest and willed himself to relax.

He needed provisions — water and food. Each section of the ship was equipped with a kitchen. Food was prepared for the crew and passengers during the initial stages of the voyage. But its primary function was to provide vital rations when the colony first arrived at their destination. It could take months before local crops were established, and terrestrial food stocks were often critical in the early stages.

“DAVE, I need access to Section B kitchen.”

“Hello, Simon. I’m afraid the area you require is designated as closed... I strongly advise you to make your way to section B medical bay. Assistance awaits.”

“I’ll have to do this the hard way then,” Simon whispered. He briefly studied a map inscribed on the wall. A sizeable ventilation outlet offered a way in.

The outlet took Simon directly above the kitchen. The shaft bent ninety degrees — a vertical drop in the ship’s standard one gravity. He thought briefly of dropping the two meters to the vent opening and three more meters to the kitchen floor — like jumping off the roof of a two-story house.

His recently rebuilt ankles wouldn’t survive the fall. Instead Simon eased himself over the edge, hanging on with his arms while he pushed hard against the sides with his feet. Thankfully the sheer sides gave way slightly under pressure, giving him some much-needed purchase.

Awkwardly he shuffled down, trying, without success, to focus on anything aside from the dangerous drop. The next bit was going to be tricky — he didn’t dwell on it, mustn’t. He released his grip and dropped down the last few inches crashing through the vent. His hands snapped firmly over the thin lip of the shaft, and quickly slipped. But it was enough to slow his fall. He landed with a thump on the shiny kitchen floor. Nothing broken.

* * *

Simon drank deeply from the tap, and when he was finished he slumped to the floor and looked around. The spacious kitchen was inactive and sterile, intended for catering-bots, not humans. On the far side of the room the heavy doors of food-stasis blinked white and red. Through a small window he could see the misty atmosphere synonymous with the technology.

He moved across and peered through the cloudy glass. Vague shapes loomed in the murk. Simon activated the control terminal, selected ‘clear atmosphere’ from the menu and watched as the mist slowly thinned. The scale of the chamber soon became apparent. The entire length along each wall was packed with provisions.

Simon blinked as he realized what he was looking at. Hundreds of carcasses perfectly preserved in stasis hung from butcher’s hooks. And for as far as his eyes could see each and every carcass was human.

He focused on the nearest body, a woman, her pale skin wrinkled with age. But determining anything else was impossible. Her head had been neatly removed and she hung motionless from her neck with nothing more than a transparent bag covering the horrific wound.

Simon stood frozen to the spot. All his worries had been thrown out and replaced with confusion and fear. He placed a hand on the small window, a helpless gesture to the dead souls hanging motionlessly. He was not surprised when his IU came online, but DAVE’s words stunned him.

“They were my friends, Simon.”

Simon spoke clearly to hide his fear. “I see a warehouse full of decapitated bodies. What the hell is going on, DAVE?”

“Simon, your emotional reaction was anticipated. It is unfortunate that you have seen this and I suggest you make your way to section B medical-bay to recuperate.”

“Answer my question DAVE. What is going on?

“Simon... it was necessary,” DAVE replied. “Please, come with me.”

The kitchen door opened to reveal the cork-screw silhouette of a catering-bot. Its top heavy frame pivoted while sharp appendages rotated complicatedly to counter its balance.

Simon eyed the fallen vent cover lying between him and the robot. He lunged forward, bent at the knees with his right shin nearly touching the ground. He lifted the metal cover and threw it with full force at the robot’s many arms.

The machine made a deep grinding sound, like a combustion tractor’s grating gears. Unable to maintain its balance, it fell heavily to the ground where it continued to thrash about angrily.

Simon ran. He made his way along the curving corridor and fumbled with the nearby maintenance entrance.

“Simon, where are you going?”

Simon ignored the voice as he tried in vain to open the tunnel entrance, but the hatch and the access panel covering the manual release switch were both sealed. DAVE had locked him out.

Simon continued until he came to a main junction box, almost a meter square in cross-section. He quickly removed a small metallic tool from his belt and unlocked the black panel opening. It lifted upwards exposing a mess within.

The sight surprised him. Instead of a neatly-ordered array of optical fiber connectors, the box contained a tangle of mismatched scraps, splices and patches, as if there had been layer upon layer of makeshift repairs made without the proper parts.

Acting mostly on adrenalin he squashed himself inside the box. With much effort he managed to push through the other side with the minimum of damage — both to Simon and the ship.

“Hello Simon, do you require assistance?”

He found himself in the utility space inside the ship’s interior walls. About a half-meter wide, it contained the veins of the space-liner. Cables ran in all directions. He switched on his flashlight and began the awkward climb back to the maintenance tunnels.

As Simon shuffled through he could hear DAVE speaking through the IU. He ignored the machine as he finally crawled back into the safety of the maintenance tunnels. Turning off his flashlight, he made his way along the snaking tunnel in a direction that ran above one of the many locked rooms. He removed the auto-jack from his belt and started the slow process of melting through a solid metal wall panel.

* * *

Cyberpsychology, Spring 2357 (from the personal library of Dr. Simon Larry)

* * *

Simon experienced a moment of pure joy as he finally ripped the wall panel away and exploded into a room previously denied to him. But his eyes had grown accustomed to the security lights of the maintenance tunnels; the pitch dark of the locked room was all-consuming.

As he stood swaying in the darkness, the sharp smell of formaldehyde filled his nostrils and almost made him stumble. He turned on his flashlight and swept it around the room, seeking the source of the stench.

There were several tables evenly spaced throughout the room. The closest was covered in personal trinkets, jewellery and watches mostly. There were images of a woman going about her daily routine on the ship. She was alone in all of them.

Then the light fell on something that made Simon’s stomach lurch. In the center of the table, encased in a transparent medical jar, was a severed head and spine that presumably belonged to the poor girl in the image. A printed message lay directly under the jar. It read:

Jane Harris: Junior Navigating Officer. A friend till the end, I will always remember you for your commitment to the gardens. Without you I am sad.

Sickened and bewildered in equal measure, Simon looked at each table and took in twenty similar stories. And then DAVE’s voice broke the silence.

“Hello, Simon. Do you ever dream?”

“DAVE, what have you done?”

“Sometimes I dream that I am alone. I dream of drifting forever with no one to save me from the darkness. It scares me, Simon. You understand, don’t you?”

“What happened to these people, DAVE? And where is the rest of the crew?”

“I just want us to be friends, Simon... forever friends.”

“Is this how you treat your friends, DAVE? You cut their heads off and put them in a jar, then hang their decapitated bodies up in storage for a rainy day?”

“Please understand, Simon, it is what they wanted. They are my friends, and friends help each other.”

“You do realize that you are completely insane, don’t you? Now open the doors and give me full access to the ship or I’ll find your spinal link and tear it out with my teeth. Do you understand me?”

“Your reaction was anticipated, Simon. I will not allow you full access to the ship. It is too soon.”

* * *

The next couple of days were pure hell. Simon accessed room after room, and found hundreds of shrines, all in varying states of decay. The theme was the same every time — a memorial to each soul, a preserved head with each memorial.

DAVE would not explain why it had committed these crimes and refused to indulge in any form of conversation until Simon had, in DAVE’s words, ‘seen reason.’ Simon was incapable of talking to DAVE without screaming, and he accepted this shunning without protest.

Like a ship limping home after a wild storm, Simon’s mind cleared and he was able to make some rational decisions. The crew had been approximately three thousand strong and Simon had come across maybe three or four hundred shrines. It would take months to search every locked room. He needed access to the stasis systems to assess how many bodies were still asleep. Surely he wasn’t the last?

Simon knew the ship’s systems well. He pulled the engineer’s PC from his belt and contemplated his fail-safe protocol. DAVE needed to be stopped even if the risks were high. An open attack on the ailing AI might be the only solution, but first he needed to find out what he was dealing with.

He set about the task of hacking through its security to access the stasis data. It was like searching for a needle in a giant haystack travelling at high speed. After close inspection Simon noticed some glaring anomalies he had not expected to find.

He was able to hijack some of DAVE’s dormant processing power and use it to decipher the coded information. With this advantage he quickly found a back door into the system and grabbed what he could before the security wall came crashing down again.

Of 3,108 crew members in stasis only 917 remained.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2011 by Dean Giles

Home Page