Touching the Foam
by David Brookes
|part 2 of 5|
When she was woken by the disturbances in the ship’s flight pattern, she was alone. The ship’s illumination was designed to emulate solar phases on Earth and was now ten-in-the-morning bright. There was a crease in the bed where the Alex-Companion had been sleeping. Presumably he’d felt his inbuilt timer calling to him and had returned to the organics lab to dissolve into his slushy components, to be eventually reconstituted into plants for oxygen or food.
Charlotte called to the AI. ‘What day is it? Why can’t I ever remember what day it is?’
‘It’s Thursday,’ the AI replied soothingly. ‘Happy Thursday, Charlotte!’
‘Don’t say stuff like that. Why is everything vibrating?’
‘The whole ship!’ she shouted, yanking on some clothing.
She was sticky under her arms with sweat and between her thighs with something else; the Companions were biologically accurate down to the smallest detail, but there would never be any worry about pregnancy. Charlotte dragged a stretchy shirt over her head as she stormed down the corridors to the command sector.
‘Why is the whole ship vibrating!?’ she yelled.
‘It’s only a minor disturbance.’
‘It’s not normal!’
‘It’s barely registering,’ the AI informed her calmly. ‘Come on.’
‘Don’t tell me to “come on.” Tell me what the problem is! Is the drive still working? Is there hull damage — can we even hit debris when we’re within the warp sphere?’
‘Okay. I don’t know. Yes. No. No,’ the AI said, answering all of her questions in sequence. ‘Don’t worry, the only cause for this sort of disturbance is uneven quantum foam in this region of space.’
‘What could cause that?’
‘Proximity to a singularity or large astral body, maybe. But the course was set out and there won’t be anything in our path for about a year’s worth of travel, and that’s a distance of about one-point-two light years with the drive active. We’re going spectacularly fast today, picking up speed every second.’
‘Send out a probe,’ Charlotte ordered. She was already at the command sector and getting into her useless chair, in front of the console she would never need to operate. ‘Find out if there’s anything nearby.’
‘I’ll have to fire it outside of the warped area of space/time. Even using the rail tech we’ll catch up with it almost instantly, but it’s worth a shot.’
‘Then go on!’
‘Launching probe now. Probe’s back. There’s nothing there. It’s just a bumpy area in the foam, that’s all, I can guarantee it. For God’s sake, don’t worry.’
‘Don’t tell me not to worry, Louise, I’m only...’
She broke off, realising what she had called the AI. The AI hadn’t seemed to notice. Sometimes Charlotte forgot that it was only a piece of software, pretending to have emotions and a sense of humour.
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ it said. ‘Go back to bed.’
Charlotte, suddenly close to tears for no reason she could put her finger on, felt an unexpected weariness descend upon her. She’d been up late, and had been tossing and turning in bed for the few hours before she’d woken up. She never slept well alone.
‘Make me another Alex,’ she told the AI quietly, already making her way back to her apartment. ‘Use the same components, it’s quicker.’
‘I can make you another Companion, but I can’t construct it from the same organic materials, I’m afraid. The last one hasn’t fully broken down yet.’
‘What do you mean? It left me hours ago. The dissolution only takes thirty minutes.’
‘What can I say?’ the AI asked. Charlotte examined the closest speaker, despairing at the change in the AI’s vocabulary.
‘Is there something wrong with you?’
There was a brief moment of silence.
‘There may be,’ the AI said, and then refused to answer any more of her questions.
* * *
There was no alone-time on a ship with an AI. Even if it was busy elsewhere, even if it wasn’t speaking and its thoughts couldn’t be heard rattling around the conduits, Charlotte knew that it was there in every wire in the ship. She supposed that on a mission this important her every move was being recorded, her every word. If they had the tech she didn’t doubt that they would have recorded her thoughts as well, filing them away for future consultation. People often went crazy on long-term solo missions.
That was why she needed her space, her peace and quiet, and the reason she felt just a little bit crazy was because she couldn’t get it on a ship with an AI. It was everywhere, even if it was hiding itself or giving her the illusion that it wasn’t checking up on her every now and again.
Charlotte’s apartment had been reasonably decorated by the time the ship had taken off. It wasn’t exactly to her taste — what did military R&D engineers know about a woman’s tastes? — but it wasn’t bad and it was easy to relax. There was a row of paper books on a shelf, book-ended by a pair of spherical low-wattage lamps. A screen in the corner displayed any data files, films or video games she wanted to load up, and at other times would display an image like an open window looking out onto a meadow, or anything that she chose.
It was tidy, sterile and boring. The only personal touches Charlotte could impose upon it were small heaps of dirty clothes. Lying now on the self-warming bed, three days after the onset of the continuing vibrations, she kicked off her shoes and left them in an untidy pile in the middle of the room. She took no pleasure it, as she had hoped she would. She actually felt sort of childish.
‘AI,’ she summoned out loud, squeezing her eyes shut.
Through the speakers, the AI responded immediately. ‘Yes, Charlotte?’
‘I’ve got a headache. Could you prepare something?’
‘I’ll have it ready in the sterile quarters for you,’ by which it meant the room that operated as both a kitchen and a medical centre. Tiny machines kept the place 100% free of germs, and the dust of Charlotte’s own shed skin cells.
She was lost in her own thoughts as she navigated the low, wide corridors of the ship. She watched her feet move on the plastic walkway, absently listening to the rhythmic sounds her soft-bottomed shoes made.
There was a flat screen on the right-hand wall that showed a view of outside. Charlotte peered out, watching the play of light against the pinpricks of stars. The Alcubierre warp sphere contained the ship in a globe of unaltered space, but beyond that there were distortions where space-time was being twisted to suit the ship’s purpose, propelling it along at speeds beyond that at which light travelled.
She almost fell over when the shaking began anew. She only just managed to steady herself against the back wall. A second rumble threw her forward and to the side, and her hands flew out reflexively and grabbed the edge of the viewscreen; it came free of the wall with a sticky tearing sound and she fell, ramming her shoulder against the hard floor with the screen curled heavily on top of her like a rug.
Groaning, she called to the AI: ‘Are you there?’
She grunted and pushed the screen off her. It was still active, showing the glittering space outside. Charlotte tried not to further strain the thin black wire that still connected the screen to the wall as she clambered out from underneath it.
‘Hey, anybody there?’
‘I’m here,’ said the AI.
The voice was very quiet — it was coming from further around the curve of the corridor. Charlotte jogged forward to find it. The vibrations were subsiding but ongoing, and she wobbled until she saw a small back ring on the white wall that denoted a speaker.
‘Sorry, there’ve been some very minor fluctuations within the mechanics of the drive, and I’ve shut down a few unnecessary systems to help stabilise it,’ the AI explained. ‘One of them includes a few of the speaker units.’
‘Are we in any danger?’
‘Not at all. Are you hurt?’
She shook her head. ‘No, I’m okay. One of the screens broke but I’ll fix it later today or tomorrow. Something to break up the weekend.’
‘It’s Monday,’ the AI said.
‘Is it? Well, that explains the Monday feeling I’ve been getting. Should we be considering shutting down the drive for a while?’
‘That would invalidate the test. The flux within the drive is barely registering; I can promise you that there’s no danger, only very minor discomfort. Are you in discomfort?’
Charlotte hefted herself away from the wall, her palm squeaking against the smooth plastic. She was sweating slightly. Her headache was only getting worse.
‘I’m all right,’ she said, ‘Catch you later, Lou.’
‘Later,’ said the AI.
Kicking out the developing ache in her left leg, and making small circles with her bruising shoulder, Charlotte made her way towards the sterile sector. She arrived and pushed open the door, still staring at her feet, and looked up in time to avoid bumping into another person. Startled, she screamed and tried to step back, but the door had already closed behind her.
The man turned round. It was Alex Penrose. Or the Companion of Alex Penrose. He was observing her with an expression of mild amusement, his eyebrows raised halfway, while he stirred a cup of tea. The spoon tinkled against the porcelain, and then against the melamine side as he put it down.
‘What’s up?’ he said.
He passed her the cup, which was hot in her hands.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘You look like you could use this more’n me. I’ll make another.’
He set about doing as he said, collecting a cup and putting a new teabag into the machine. He pushed a button and let it pour the steaming drink for him.
‘Did the AI tell you anything useful ‘bout those damn shakes?’ he asked.
‘Uh... No. Are you a Companion? Did the AI make another Companion?’
‘Wouldn’t know,’ he said lightly, and passed her a sheet of pill blisters. ‘These were ready under the med dispenser. I presumed they were for you.’
She took the tablets.
‘What do you mean, “wouldn’t know”? Are you a Companion or not?’
‘I’m not talking about it,’ he said.
‘Don’t give me that! You’ll tell me right now or I’ll—’
‘Not talking about it,’ he said, but before Charlotte could respond Alex doubled over, the ball of his palm against his temple as though he was in great pain, and then collapsed gasping to the floor.
‘L-... AI,’ Charlotte said, keeping away from Alex’s prone form. ‘AI, I want to talk to you.’
‘I’m here,’ said the AI’s voice. It was coming from the speaker outside the corridor.
‘There’s someone in the ship.’
‘Who is it?’ the AI asked.
Charlotte touched the unconscious body with the toe of her shoe. It rocked a bit with the pressure but otherwise behaved exactly like an unconscious body should.
‘I think it’s my ex,’ she said.
The ship continued to shudder. Charlotte tried not to look at the viewscreens that showed the outside as she dragged the Alex look-alike towards the organics laboratory. The view was disorientating when the ship was moving so roughly, and vibrating under her feet.
‘I can’t see where I’m going,’ Charlotte said, walking backwards and holding Alex under his arms. ‘Am I near yet?’
‘Almost there,’ said the AI. ‘Turn left... No, your other left.’
She bumped open the door with her backside and dragged the unconscious man inside. The lab was cluttered and unlit, generally meant to be sealed off from crew to prevent disruption with any of the automated processes. On an AI-monitored ship of one, there was no need to lock the doors, but the room was barely accessible to human crew anyway.
Usually it was a series of automated robotic arms that put the Companion’s base materials together and set the growth tank going. There was no need for human participation and little cause for the AI to get involved, so the room was a mess of cables and hulking pieces of machinery laid out with no thought spared for neatness; Charlotte had to bundle the unconscious body over a shelf before she could get him to a workstation.
‘Be careful,’ the AI murmured through a speaker. ‘He might be setting a precedent.’
‘I don’t care what he might be.’
She heaved him onto the table and pulled some items of equipment over onto their jointed metal arms.
The AI carried on speaking. ‘Hook him up to the lab’s sensory equipment. I’ll check his status and start taking samples.’
‘I’m doing it.’
‘You’re aware that this is a Companion, and not the real Alex Penrose, aren’t you?’
She yanked some wires loose and began attaching them to sockets on the workstation. Sequences of lights began to light up, disclosing that they were now receiving power and were active. They lit up his face. Alex’s face. In the semi-darkness his lips seemed to be moving. Even though his eyes were closed, Charlotte thought that he could see her, had jacked into her somehow. She wished that she could forget about the real Alex.
‘You’ll need to take the scraping for me,’ the AI prompted.
‘Now start up the vats in case we need to put him in. Power it up but don’t press any of the controls.’
It began to guide her through the procedure: ‘Check the wall connection. Fasten the catch. Reel out the cable from the tank at the rear, and insert it into the socket under the catch in the floor. Find the—’
‘But how do you know when—’
‘I just know, Louise, I frigging know, alright?’
There was a moment where the only sound was Charlotte clipping cables together and flipping switches, tapping on a wide, multi-function keyboard.
Then the AI said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t keep calling me Louise. I am only a neural copy of her mind, and even then that was only applied to me as a personality template. It really is only superficial.’
‘I know that as well,’ Charlotte said, slowly and with resignation.
She gave herself a few seconds to steady her breathing, and then resumed the manual reboot of the Companion tank and the surrounding machinery. There were instances of computer software that needed to be booted up, and information that needed to be downloaded before it could be compared to the samples that the mechanical arms were already taking from the Alex-Companion.
‘It’s easy,’ she said, ‘to get mixed up sometimes.’
Quietly, the AI said, ‘Were you trained in the medical sciences?’
‘No,’ was the hesitant reply.
‘Then, how do you know how to set up the equipment... prime the software on the computers?’
‘I don’t know,’ Charlotte said croakily. ‘I honestly don’t know. I’m just doing what I think is right. It’s like... I’m automated. I’m not sure exactly, so just... I want to find out who this guy is.’
‘I’ll help you,’ the AI replied.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by David Brookes
The story is complete on line as of this issue.