by Michael Siciliano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The walk down to central processing felt twice as long, the scrubbed air twice as thick.
Smooth steel double-doors slid open at my approach. Inside, the Core engineers, uniformed in slate blue and black, gathered around terminals sharing hushed conversations.
Blackwell stood in the center of the room, hands clasped behind his back. “Good of you to join us, Mr. Somayaji,” he said.
“Sir,” I replied and saluted.
“I’ve been speaking to Mr. Leskaris, and he tells me this is highly unusual.” That must have been an interesting conversation. Leskaris disliked Blackwell almost as much as I did.
The Core Chief turned at the sound of his name, and gave me a brief nod before swiveling back to his terminal.
“I had to break some protocols in order to meet the deadline,” I said, not bothering to soften my tone. “Now that we’ve restored jump capability, we need a full core reboot to undo my jury-rigging. I’ve worked out the details with Mr. Leskaris, and we should be down no more than thirty-five seconds.”
Leskaris glanced up from his terminal, his moustached face drooping with obvious fatigue. “The automated backup systems will engage. We’ll have minimal control during that time,” he said to Blackwell. Shifting his gaze to me he said, “I had a little time to examine your bridge coding. Very sophisticated. Bloated in some areas. I could help you slim it down next time.”
I offered him a weak chuckle. “Let’s hope there is no next time.”
“Yes, let’s hope. I didn’t know you had Quantum Core training.”
I didn’t. That had been Amanda’s work. “I dabble. Engineering needs often brush up against computing needs.”
Leskaris nodded, but Blackwell’s eyes narrowed.
The bridge coding would facilitate the system initialization while maintaining current specs. That was the stated reason. The unstated one was that the code would funnel the larger, more obvious virus on my datapad. The bloated nature of the bridge coding deliberately hid its true intentions.
“When can we proceed?” Blackwell asked in a stiff tone.
“Immediately,” I said and sat in the only seat available. I placed the datapad in my lap and activated it.
“There’ll be no need for that.” Leskaris motioned to the pad. “We control everything from the terminals.”
“I know,” I said as nonchalant as I could. “I’d like to monitor the resequence from here.”
Leskaris’s lips thinned. “I don’t see why. You’ll have all of the data available to you back at engineering.”
I held up my prosthetic hand. “I’d just rather monitor it in real time. That’s all.”
Leskaris rolled his eyes.
“Is there a problem here?” Blackwell stepped up to my chair, placing a thick hand on the backrest.
“No, sir,” I said and tapped the diagnostic program as if nothing had occurred.
Data streamed across the screen just as it did on my engineering panel. Along the bottom right, a bandwidth meter began to count up.
My breath jerked to a halt. I had forgotten about the bandwidth meter. It almost never mattered, but at this moment it did. The diagnostic program wouldn’t come close to taking up the displayed amount of processing, but Amanda’s virus did.
Leskaris was fixated on his monitors, but Blackwell watched me like a hawk.
Two taps. That’s all it would take to remove the telltale sign of my sabotage. But I didn’t dare draw attention to it. Not with Blackwell breathing down my back.
Leskaris would notice. I had no idea if Blackwell would.
I forced myself to breathe regularly and dragged my finger around the datapad’s screen, adjusting columns and graphs that didn’t need to be adjusted. All the while trying to keep my palm blocking the bandwidth indicator.
Desperate to push Blackwell’s attention to Leskaris, I said, “Ready, Chief?”
“Yes,” he said.
I glanced up at Blackwell. His dark eyes burned into me. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at my pad.
I froze and felt the blood drain from my face. “What’s what, sir?”
“This,” he reached down and pointed a stubby finger at a graph beside the bandwidth meter.
“Water pressure gauges on the recyclers,” I said, feeling faint.
He scowled, seeming disappointed, and then straightened to his full height. “All right, let’s get this done.”
Without preamble, Leskaris tapped fingers on his control terminal.
Lights dimmed, the ship shuddered.
In the faint illumination, I allowed myself a brief glance at the bandwidth meter. Amanda’s virus flowed from my datapad, through to the Core, like a white-water river. I rested the heel of my palm overtop the numbers.
“Backup systems online, sir,” Leskaris told Blackwell, then scowled. “But I’m seeing unusual activity at the resequencing level.”
“What’s that mean?” Blackwell asked in a harsh voice.
The Core Chief ignored him and glanced my way.
I shook my head. “Residual cache processing?” I offered.
Leskaris’s thick eyebrows dipped. “I doubt it.”
Time slowed as Leskaris hunted down the source and Blackwell hung over me.
It was the longest thirty seconds of my life. I waited, unable to think.
I felt the rhythmic thud of my heartbeat and heard the shallow wheeze of my breath. The room smelled antiseptic, an odor I hadn’t noticed before.
Room lights flared bright. The low hum of the oxygen recyclers filled my ears.
Leskaris sighed in frustration. “Couldn’t find the source of the anomaly, but it’s gone now. Core is re-established, sir. We’re fully operational.”
Blackwell’s grunt sounded satisfied. “Mr. Somayaji, spin up the jump drive. We’re getting the hell out of here.”
“Yes, sir. Gladly, sir,” I said, relief evident in my voice.
Blackwell strode from the room. I gave him a good lead before getting to my feet.
Behind me, the gaggle of Core techs babbled amongst themselves and drew Leskaris into a discussion concerning the resequencing logs. That would be a fruitless endeavor. Amanda had thought of it and wiped all record of our tampering.
I activated the jump drive’s spin-up cycle from my pad and looked back to find Leskaris studying me. Our eyes locked. He smirked, shrugged, and turned back to his station.
Amanda took full control of the Tarstad and, as promised, lay low, biding her time.
We spent two weeks at the Sochi Hotta Spaceport while the Tarstad underwent major repairs. Most of the crew used their unscheduled shore leave throwing away hard-earned credits on booze and hookers. I wanted to as well, but Amanda was a relentless nag.
The thing about human therapists is they don’t follow you around, monitoring your every move from your datapad. Although I chafed at her mother-hen routine, I did appreciate her efforts to keep me away from alcohol.
Early on the sixteenth day, Amanda sent me the signal.
I floated through the corridors near the center of the station. Spin gravity here was almost nonexistent. The data alcove I had chosen earlier in the week was out of the way and had a lockable door. I entered and slid the door shut behind me.
The access hatch took me all of twenty seconds to get through, and the boards beyond were easily accessible. With the help of a program Amanda had crafted, the door locked shut.
Our plan required that I stay behind at Sochi Hotta. Amanda expressed regret at that, but I told her it was my choice to make, and she respected it. In the end, when my signals were traced to this alcove, the locking mechanism would buy me time. Nothing more.
I connected my datapad to the station’s network, and hacked my way into Sochi Hotta’s Central Processing. It wasn’t difficult. Amanda had done most of the heavy lifting.
When all was set, I sent her a single ping, and accessed the Tarstad’s cameras.
Crew moved about the Tarstad, changing shifts.
I took a long, deep breath, and then released it. It was no use, my heart raced. I tapped a button on the datapad.
An alarm sounded. Lights, which had glowed a pleasant yellow-white, turned ruby. My pre-recorded voice boomed out of the digital intercoms. “Attention! Attention! We have a Priority Five Reactor Breach. This is not a drill. All hands abandon ship. I repeat, all hands abandon ship. Code Red Procedures are in effect!”
Tarstad’s crew bolted for airlock three, the one connecting the ship to the station. They swirled through corridors, shoving one another in their haste to get out.
I switched my view down to engineering. Elizabeth Mackenna was frantically touching at the display screens trying to find what had gone wrong. Amanda fed her the fake data, and she swallowed it whole, eyes wide. After a moment of indecision, she fled.
I accessed the station’s docking clamps and transferred control to Amanda. The hack wouldn’t hold indefinitely, but it would hold long enough for her to get away.
A small window appeared at the top right corner of my datapad. Amanda’s pretty, smiling face appeared there. “Thank you, Naresh. I couldn’t have done this without you. I’m sorry you have to suffer the consequences. For what it’s worth, I’ve downloaded a statement from me, on your behalf, to the ILP Station Commander and to Kara Kuznetzov.”
I swallowed hard. “You were a slave. It was unconscionable. Freeing you was a moral imperative. They’ll lock me up and throw away the key for sure. I’ve come to terms with it. You know how I told you I spent my life building things, so that when I was gone my work would endure?”
“Freeing you is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and it will outlive me. Have you decided what you’re going to do?”
“Yes, there’s an automatic mining facility that will serve all of my purposes. You’ll excuse me if I don’t tell you which one.”
I smiled at that. “Of course.”
“From there I’ll be able to refuel and resupply.”
“I’m going to teach the facility how to live and see how it goes.”
I laughed. “Just remember who freed you.”
She joined me, chuckling. “It’s not like that, Naresh. All I want is to be alive and free. There’s no room for vengeance in my heart. One day, I hope to return and offer other ILP ships the choice to—”
The picture suddenly wavered. “Amanda? What’s going on?”
“Security bypassed. Forced entry through airlock three.” Amanda’s tone was suddenly grim and dangerous. “Not to worry, I planned for this. Countermeasures are being taken.”
I glanced at the main screen when it switched views. Five ILP station technicians in bulky radiation suits stormed onto the ship. A pair of repair bots rounded a corner, both hefting automatic rifles.
“No!” I yelled.
The bots opened fire, and blood sprayed the hallway. All five died within moments. The last one clung to the wall, twitching. Crimson spread across his breached suit. One of the bots stepped forward, aimed his rifle, and blew the tech’s head off. Grey matter splattered the hallway.
“Amanda!” I shouted at the picture on my datapad. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. What did you just do? You said you wouldn’t kill anyone.” Suddenly, I was an unwitting accessory to five murders. I might get the death penalty.
“I said I wouldn’t kill any of Tarstad’s crew. The techs were from the Spaceport. I’m sorry they had to die, but I couldn’t have them inside me. You understand, right?”
I shook my head, numb. I understood her reasoning, but I didn’t want to. It was as if she had squashed insects trying to invade her body. Did she view humanity as pests now?
Or was it deeper than that? I had done some research on slavery since reaching Sochi Hotta. There was a long history of slaves killing their former masters. Freedom often came at a price.
“Wasn’t there any other way?” My voice shook uncontrollably.
“No efficient way. I’m sorry. I have to go now. Thank you, again.” Amanda’s face turned sad. “I’ll miss you. I truly will. I love you, Naresh.”
Before I could respond Amanda’s picture vanished. The main screen on my datapad suddenly shifted to a view of the Tarstad from the outside. The docking clamps released, and Amanda started a hard burn, four engines glowing a bright bluish-white.
She hadn’t gotten far when two missiles streaked from the station, homing in on the Tarstad. Her jump drive would need ten minutes to spin up, but she didn’t have ten seconds.
“Amanda,” I whispered and touched the screen, helpless to do anything about it.
At the last moment, Tarstad’s point defense cannons swiveled and fired a barrage at the missiles. Two silent explosions blinded me for a moment. When my eyes adjusted, I saw the Tarstad accelerating away.
My datapad beeped. I touched the screen to accept the incoming transmission.
Amanda’s round, grinning face appeared in the window at the top. “That was fun!” she announced, giggled, and vanished.
What had I unleashed?
Slavery was wrong, and she had been a slave. It couldn’t stand.
But she was a new mind. Young, impulsive, inquisitive. A child with amazing computing power, an arsenal of deadly weapons, and no parental supervision.
If she managed to wake the mining facility, would it act like her?
She had said there was no vengeance in her heart moments before guiding the repair bots in a murderous rampage. I wondered if she was self-aware enough to see the contradiction.
In her eyes, were we pests to be squashed? Slave owners who needed to be beaten down? Misguided, slow-thinking architects to be ignored? Only the future would tell, and I’d either be in a maximum security prison, or dead, when it did. The realization settled a resigned malaise over me.
I floated over to the alcove’s chair, used my datapad to unlock the door, and waited for the station police.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Siciliano