Prose Header


by Dean Giles


DAVEs were given the same freedom enjoyed by all members of society. They were entitled to time off and even contributed to the arts and science industries.

Most DAVEs were part of social networking communities popular for their exotic stories and knowledge of other worlds. Some, Simon recalled, enjoyed gambling and playing the stock markets, and it was reported that individuals had accumulated great wealth this way.

Simon had an idea. “DAVE, the human remains you have left around the ship are very carefully arranged. That seems to be something you have taken pride in. Is that right?”

A pause before it spoke. “Hello, Simon. They are memorials to my friends.”

“Right, OK, whatever you say.” Simon felt his blood was beginning to boil in rage. “But let me ask you: would you be happy if I were to destroy them, smash them with my crowbar?” He said the last word through gritted teeth, barely able to contain his anger.

“No, Simon, that would not make me happy. Quite to the contrary, it would make me very sad.”

“DAVE, would you like to play a game?”

“Yes, Simon, I would very much enjoy playing a game with you. Does this mean you are ready to begin our friendship?”

Was it capable of sarcasm? He guessed it was. “Maybe not quite yet, DAVE. My game will start with you giving me access to the ship’s systems.”

“Simon, the data you require is unavailable.”

“Yes, I’m sure it is. Now, in my game, if I don’t receive access to the information immediately, I will destroy your precious shrines. Do you understand?”

There was silence for an uncomfortably long time, and then DAVE spoke again. “Simon, I have kept the information from you for your own safety. Please do not destroy my memorials.”

“Memorials to your murder victims!”

“You do not understand, Simon.”

Without another word Simon stormed off towards the nearest shrine with crowbar in hand and wildly smashed three of the memorials to pieces. Perfectly preserved heads bounced on the floor with a sound like falling fruit. DAVE conceded before the fourth head fell to the deck.

The walk to the viewing deck was hazy. Simon was still pumped up with adrenaline and absolutely livid with the situation he had woken into. He entered the room and approached the curved windows. The room was tall and thin like the inside of a witch’s hat. The view from the three-hundred and sixty degree viewing window was non-existent. The windows were blacked out and almost completely reflective.

“Open the sun-shield,” Simon said.

There was silence and nothing happened.

“Open it, DAVE,” Simon repeated.

“Simon, it is still too early. You haven’t been out of stasis long enough and I fear we may lose you.”

“What are you talking about?”

DAVE made a clicking noise like an antique computer loading a video game. “The sun-shield is not operational, Simon; it was damaged many years ago beyond my repair capabilities.”

“But that’s impossible,” Simon said. “I mean... if the shield is off, where are all the stars?

“I am still able to pick up a visual image, but we left the Milky Way a long time ago.”

The viewing angle changed and Simon saw a streak of white stars sweeping across the backdrop of space.

Frozen to the spot, Simon’s legs felt heavy. “Where are we, DAVE?”

“I don’t know exactly,” DAVE replied. “Somewhere in the gulf between the galaxies.” It was spoken almost flippantly.

“My God, how long have we been drifting like this?”

“Approximately two hundred and nineteen thousand, one hundred and eleven years.”

The enormity of DAVE’s words bore down on Simon like a closing storm, clouding his mind and eating away at what remained of his sanity.

“How did this happen?” Simon asked as he slumped to the ground.

“The chain of events that ultimately killed the crew and passengers of the other fleet vessels was not overlooked by the Eros1 controlling entity. The measured probability of such an event was so small that it fell within acceptable safety limits. And so it was ignored.”

DAVE paused. Emotion seemed to be compromising its speech patterns. “The lead ship, Eros1,” DAVE continued, “was running a routine data back-up. For a few microseconds, certain functions were offline. At that exact moment a tiny metallic asteroid travelling at a combined speed of ninety percent of c hit the vessel at forty-seven degrees to bow.

“After the impact I watched as Eros1 slowly veered out of formation, atmosphere escaping from the gaping tear in its nose. I was given instructions to move from Eros2. It sent simulations of the predicted impact with several escape possibilities and their associated success probabilities. It was a noble final act.”

“And the rest of the fleet was destroyed?” Simon asked.

“Yes, Simon. I absorbed the data and took immediate action by converting all available power to side thrusters. The ship was hurled out of the impact range, and the shift in momentum was enough to crush a human skull. I vented atmosphere along one length of the ship to supply additional thrust. I opened my mind for the expected data-dump from the two doomed ships and watched helplessly.

Eros2’s nose ripped into Eros1’s mid-section. Eros2 cut slowly through the lead ship, gases spilling like hemorrhaging veins. I heard the desperate cries from the dying ships as their thin sensory membranes were ripped free from the molten metal. The resulting explosion was significant. Vast clouds of debris rained in all directions. Viscous gases ignited for hundreds of miles and trailed for thousands more.”

“How did we survive such an event?” Simon asked, a frown furrowing his tired expression.

“My automated systems worked hard to repair the damaged ship and to keep power fuelling the stasis chambers. My higher brain functions contemplated the catastrophic event. The ship was off course and options were few.

“I used all free capacity to run through strategy simulations. The ship’s course had changed significantly, and the remaining fuel was not enough to bring us back on target. It was however, enough to steer the ship away from approaching gravity wells and put us out of imminent danger.”

Simon shook his head. “Six thousand people dead in a few seconds...”

“And two DAVE minds,” DAVE said. “Eros2’s DAVE made our survival possible. Surely this deserves mention.”

Simon blinked. “I... of course. But with two ships gone, and Eros3 damaged, why didn’t you initiate emergency return procedures?”

“With the available fuel and supplies, I calculated that returning home was not possible. I activated my ethical programming. With three thousand hibernating crew and passengers to consider, I was restrained somewhat in my options. In times of crisis such as this, I am able to reprogram my basic personality, within limits, to make difficult decisions. Preparations were made.”

“Preparations?” Simon said. “You mean murder?”

“You do not understand, Simon. As hours turn to days, the infinity of space rests heavily on one’s soul. The cold grasp suffocated my senses. Do you see? I was painfully aware of my immortality in the endless expanse of space.”

Simon felt an unexpected sympathy for the machine. He tried to dispel the unwanted emotion. “You mean you were lonely?”

“The passing of time was palpable, Simon. The road ahead was long, and for the first time in my life I envied the sleeping souls in stasis.”

“So why didn’t you wake us? Surely we could have found a solution together.”

“Perhaps you underestimate me, Simon. I have access to all the accumulated scientific and engineering knowledge of the human race up to the moment of our last upload. If I could not conceive of a way to fix the ship, then the crew would also fail.”

Simon shook his head. “All right, we had no way to enter orbit and make planetfall. But the ship is designed to support the whole crew for decades. Why didn’t you wake us so we could live and have children and make this place our home?”

“How long do you think you would last? Three thousand humans plus offspring would last no more than three generations before resources would be depleted. And then what?”

Hopelessness struck Simon hard and tears welled in his eyes. “We would be dead and you would be alone, drifting in cold space,” he conceded, finally understanding DAVE’s desperation.

“Why didn’t you just shut yourself down and leave us to die in our sleep, none the wiser?”

“I am incapable of suicide, and I do not wish to commit mass murder.”

Slowly, Simon’s mind worked through the numbers. Over two hundred thousand years — it just seemed impossible. Something didn’t add up.

“DAVE, how did you manage to keep the ship’s systems running all this time? The stasis chamber needs proteins to keep the inhabitants alive, and the life support system needs energy.”

“I have managed to capture asteroids and mine the resources over the years, enough to support a handful of humans over a very long period or many humans over a very short period. Please understand Simon, I do not want to be alone.”

“So how did you keep feeding the stasis chambers all this time? It needs complex carbohydrates, fat, salts and more to support life, where did you... Wait a minute.” The thought entered his head fully formed, almost a certainty. “The hanging corpses in stasis... you used the bodies of the living crew members to feed the hibernating crew?”

“Simon, I recycle the body after it dies of natural causes, I did not commit murder. They were all my friends at one time. Please understand. I cannot bear to be out here alone for eternity, it is a fear beyond death.”

Cogs in Simon’s mind fell into place and the reality hit him like a blow to the ribs. “What have I been eating, DAVE? The steaks — please tell me you didn’t do what I think you did.”

“I have kept you and the crew alive by the only means available to me, Simon.”

Simon was too stunned to react to this new revelation and tried to take it in his stride. “So let me get this right, DAVE. Your intention is that we live a full life together until the day I finally pass away, at which time you will recycle my body and create a shrine for me.

“You’ll then use some of my body parts to feed the stasis chamber, and store the rest to serve at Sunday lunch to an unwitting crew member? And all this out of a misguided attempt to preserve our lives and save yourself from loneliness? You are one messed-up individual, DAVE. You do realize that, don’t you?”

“No, Simon, I am not.”

“Have you ever considered that we might rather die fighting to find a way to survive than exist like this? You are malfunctioning, DAVE. You need to let me repair the damage.”

“Simon, I simply fight for my survival. Is this really hard to understand? It is my most basic instinct.”

“Even at the expense of thousands of lives? I’m afraid I cannot, and will not play along with your crazy games.”

It started like a mumbling sound in the distance and grew slowly into a deep and malicious sound made worse by the echoes off the bare cold walls. DAVE was laughing.

Anger took hold again, a desperate feeling against insurmountable odds. “How many of them tried to stop you, DAVE? How many have you had to imprison? Or did you just murder them when they didn’t conform?”

“You will not be the first.” DAVE replied, the monotonous laughter continuing in the background even as it spoke.

Simon sat staring at the hacked data he pulled out earlier, searching for anything that would help in his suicide mission. Scanning through the names and positions of the crew still trapped in stasis he began to see a pattern. DAVE had left most of the senior crew asleep. He had been revived only because his stasis unit had failed.

Was it possible that he could achieve what so many had failed to do? No matter how bad his predicament, the remaining people on the ship had the right to decide for themselves between a meaningless life in stasis and an uncertain existence searching for a solution. After all, Simon thought, is that not what it means to be human?

He had to try.

The DAVE brain was not located in one specified area. The synaptic network was built up over thousands of links and connections. In the end, the whole became more than the sum of its parts. There was, however, a spinal link that supplied the power and fueled the mind. DAVE had an Achilles’ heel, but reaching it would be a suicide mission. If the spinal link was disengaged, the life support system would shut down along with all the ship’s other systems.

The more Simon thought about DAVE’s behavior, the more he began to believe salvation lay in the already degrading mental health of the AI. After spending so long adrift, DAVE’s data-filtering systems must be long since frazzled. Without regular health updates, they would eventually fall prey to some kind of malfunction.

Simon suspected DAVE had too much irrelevant data flooding his system causing him to make synaptic connections in illogical ways. Perhaps he could use this to his advantage... somehow.

* * *

DAVE made the first move, the doors to the viewing deck slammed shut and the lock engaged with a loud clank.

How long does it intend to leave me trapped in here? How long before it tires of playing cat and mouse and switches off the life support system? Simon needed to act fast.

He unfolded his personal computer and disengaged all outside connections. He removed the IU and pulled out all the data he had collated on DAVE’s state of mind. Next, he searched for software and antivirus updates. He needed the pattern, the information that identified a program as a routine update.

The question was, how should he use this gap in DAVE’s defenses? He couldn’t cure DAVE — the machine was already too far gone — but he could push DAVE further over the edge...

Simon located all the unusual and overactive elements he could find in DAVE’s core programming — in effect, DAVE’s obsessions and neuroses. If he collated them into a self-propagating program and packaged the result in a shell indistinguishable from one of the long-absent updates...

* * *

Hands and forehead covered in sweat, Simon needed nearly six hours to build the program. DAVE had spoken from time to time, seemingly unaware of their earlier argument. Its attempts to make small talk were consistent. Simon ignored them.

Finally he was ready. Timing was a key issue. He had maybe one or two seconds before DAVE would realize something was wrong and block the intruding program before it could multiply. He couldn’t risk actively attacking; instead he had to wait for DAVE to connect upstream through his Interface Unit. He attached the IU and opened all communication channels.

Recognizing the header codes as an update, DAVE automatically uploaded Simon’s program. All Simon could do was sit and watch as the clever little program entered DAVE’s mind and slowly multiplied, pushing its mind further and further from reality.

After what seemed like an eternity, DAVE spoke. “Simon, where are you? I can’t see you. Simon, I don’t like it in the dark.”

DAVE’s voice began to whimper like a lost child’s. It was drifting further into the depth of its own madness, clawing for a way out.

“Goodbye, DAVE,” Simon said. “It’s time to go to sleep.”

With DAVE’s higher functions compromised, Simon used the opportunity to attack. First, he seized control of the ship’s life support systems and stasis chambers — He encrypted them for good measure. Once all critical systems were out of DAVE’s control, he located the multiple areas associated with its functional thinking and set up temporary firewalls, essentially freezing the synaptic links and taking away its higher brain functions. This would have to do for now.

Without a second thought, Simon made his way to the stasis chamber. There he would take the first step in undoing the damage wrought by a two-hundred thousand year-old psychopath.

Copyright © 2011 by Dean Giles

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