Prose Header


by Dean Giles

part 1

The room was dimly lit by a single window set high on the once white-tiled walls, now faded to a putrid yellow. The unwashed concrete floor bore no furniture apart from the plastic stool where Simon sat, and his Grandfather’s wooden rocking-chair opposite him.

It was strange that Simon had no recollection of how he had come to be in the unfamiliar room. Yet perhaps stranger was that the old man sitting in front of him had passed away when Simon was just seven years old.

A bead of sweat on his grandfather’s wrinkled forehead brought Simon’s attention to the harsh humidity. It was hot and his skin itched. “Where are we?” Simon asked.

The old man looked up from the comfortable-looking seat, his face showing a lifetime of experience in this one expression. He leaned over with just a hint of sympathy in his tired eyes. “It’s time to wake up, Simon.”

But Simon didn’t want to wake up, even though he now knew he was dreaming. There was something in his Grandfather’s expression...

Alarms sounded loudly in Simon’s ears, piercing through his mind and dragging him sluggishly towards reality. He tried to inhale... I can’t breathe!

Painful contortions shot across his body and his windpipe clamped shut. Panic rose as he watched his grandfather slowly drift away. Then all at once air filled his desperate lungs and he gasped, opening his mouth wide to pull in the precious air.

His eyes opened and he struggled to adjust to the brightness. The pain in his forehead slowly faded and vague shapes gave way to clarity of vision.

Hundreds of bodies lay entwined in machinery. Cables and tubes fed into open wounds, carrying oxygen and nutrients in and waste products out.

Stasis chamber, he thought. I was in stasis...

An instant of agonising pain ricocheted through him as the life giving feeding tubes were ripped free from his veins. A wave of pain and shock washed the questions from his mind, and he lost consciousness again.

* * *

Simon was awakened by an itching sensation. Something was tugging at his flesh, and the strong smell of antiseptic was burning sharply in his nostrils. It reminded him fleetingly of his mother tending his boyhood grazes, her tough farmer’s hands reassuringly gentle on his injured knees or shins.

A low, groaning noise heaved him further towards consciousness. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt gummy and seemed reluctant to open. He managed to force his lids apart by a sheer effort of will but immediately slammed them shut against the harsh overhead light.

He was lying naked in a pool of sweat. A pristine white cover fell across his mid-section, indistinguishable in shade from his unnaturally pale skin and at striking odds with his long, dark hair and unruly beard. He looked down and the source of his discomfort became clear.

From the waist down he was encased in an ESU — an Emergency Surgery Unit. Through it he could make out impossibly skinny, deep-purple legs. The bones were nearly bursting through paper-thin skin. The ESU was hard at work, its thousands of microbots reinforcing brittle bone, replacing tissue and binding nerves to flesh.

He reluctantly lifted the cover, exposing his torso. Each rib was clearly visible through almost transparent skin with deep bruising covering healing sores. He was little more than a living corpse.

Images from training camp flooded back: pictures of test animals, victims of malfunctioning stasis units brought on by a chemical imbalance in the encasement composition. A properly-functioning stasis unit slowed biological processes down by almost 99 percent. A fifty-year journey would age the body no more than six months.

A stasis failure, on the other hand, could speed up the metabolism, doing a lifetime of damage in a handful of years. In fifty years a young, healthy body could turn into this, something resembling a poorly-embalmed Egyptian Mummy.

Now Simon’s mouth tightened into a resolute smile. He winced as he felt the skin of his dry, parched lips crack and split. He remembered his father’s weathered face, the rasping voice telling him he could push their wreck of a tractor out of the mud if he put his mind to it. “Easy for you to say Father,” he said aloud to the empty room.

Hours turned to days as his body slowly repaired, and incredibly, nobody entered his room, not a soul. “This is wrong,” he said. “Against procedures.” Where was the crew?

Unable to leave his bed, he drifted into troubled sleep. The harsh bareness of the medical bay penetrated his dreams and robbed him of escape — even in sleep.

On the fourth day, without warning, the ESU abruptly stopped. Its gruesome job complete, the case lid lifted and folded neatly into the underside of the bed.

Simon wiggled his toes, moved his feet up and down and in small circles. Satisfied his legs were in working order, Simon awkwardly pulled himself from the bed, leaving a vaguely human shaped indentation in the memory foam. He made his way across the immaculate room towards the far wall, his bare feet tacky against the sterile floor.

A touch of his hand on the panel concealing the com unit brought the console into view. The holo-interface glowed green, indicating an open channel communication. “This is Principal Engineer, Simon Larry, transmitting from medical bay...” He paused, glanced at the oddly faded label above the bed, then continued, “Medical bay one-one-eight, section C. Assistance required, repeat; assistance required.”

When there was no response, Simon wrapped a single bed sheet around his waist and went out into the gently curved corridor. Simon looked down at his slight frame and tightened his grip on the sheet. Half naked, he felt exposed in the public corridor even though there was no one in sight.

After a moment’s thought he headed to the right. The standardized layout meant that there would be a supply room ten meters or so along the corridor. It felt good to have a plan: even one as simple as ‘find clothing, then find some answers.’

* * *

As Simon walked, he reviewed his memories of the orientation briefings and Standard Operating Procedures manuals.

Colonization missions comprised a triad of ships, each carrying about three thousand people, including crew and families that could form the core of a new settlement. To conserve resources, non-crew passengers remained in stasis for the entire journey; crew members entered stasis once the fleet was safely beyond the ‘edge’ of the home system, and were revived only upon entering the destination star system or in emergencies.

For the majority of the voyage, all routine ship functions were controlled by an artificial intelligence called DAVE — Dynamic Active Versatile Entity.

Simon recalled that the DAVE hardware was distributed throughout the ship — a safety measure in case of serious damage to any section of the vessel. A ship’s DAVE saw all and knew all through a network of thousands of sensors. DAVE must have known he was awake and asking for help — in fact, DAVE must have been controlling the ESU.

Simon found an engineer’s uniform close enough to his current size. He smiled at the familiar feel of the tools in his hands as he strapped on a standard equipment belt. The loose-fitting all-in-one looked strange without his rank stitched into the royal blue fabric. Even when he had been in his thirties, his mother had insisted on stitching the emblem of three eagles in flight onto his jacket.

He had been unable to recall any situation in the manuals in which DAVE would revive only one crew member. Besides, if this was an emergency requiring his skills as Principal Engineer, DAVE should have briefed him on the situation by now.

He checked each door along the corridor, finding most of them sealed, and the rest opening to reveal empty rooms. The elevators were also sealed and unresponsive to Simon’s commands.

Finally, after coming nearly full circle he found the room he was looking for. The soft beige carpet of the officers’ conference room was a welcome contrast to the dark, sterile corridor. On the far-side of the room the glittering red and blue lights of an active control terminal blinked eagerly. In the center of the room were an old oak table and matching chair that looked oddly out of place against the sleek concave terminal.

With a hand gesture he activated the virtual interface and entered his security pass.

Without warning, a voice emanated from inside the terminal. “Welcome, Dr. Larry,” it said. “Please sit down.”

Simon yelped and took an involuntary step backwards. He took a moment to organize his thoughts. “DAVE?” he asked.

“Yes, Dr. Larry.”

“You startled me,” Simon said. DAVE’s calm confident voice seemed surreal after all this time. Anyone with even a modicum of empathy would have responded to his call for help when he had been released by the ESU. But DAVE was an artificial intelligence, not a person, and empathy was not part of its programming.

“I need a full status report, DAVE. Provide a verbal summary by major system, then display the details on the holo-view. Calibrate the control interface for full user access... And please, call me Simon.”

After several seconds of inactivity the hiss of the hydraulic door sounded behind him. He spun around, heart racing, and watched in stunned silence as a catering-bot zipped around the old oak table. A silver placemat and coaster were quickly covered by a hot steaming meal and a glass of red wine.

The catering-bot stopped its frantic work for a second — as if admiring its handiwork. It finished off the display with a single rose in a glass vase placed neatly in the center of the table. Then, without warning it zipped from the room at top speed.

Simon felt an odd sensation he couldn’t identify, something not unlike homesickness. He laughed. Deep down he knew it was nothing more than pent-up emotion, a venting of his built-up stress. But he couldn’t stop. He laughed and laughed until all he could manage was a silent wheezing.

After a long pause DAVE spoke, “Please, Simon, sit down and eat. Your body is starved of resources. You need the calories.”

It was the voice of reason; in some small way it even made Simon feel slightly self-conscious at his outburst. He gathered himself and looked at the feast: Steak and potatoes with cabbage and green beans, the kind of hearty Irish meal he had been raised on. Why not? he thought. His body hadn’t consumed a solid meal since before he entered stasis and the smell was driving him to distraction.

Providing a meal instead of responding to a direct order was certainly unusual behavior for a DAVE unit. With thousands of networked quantum processing cores functioning in n-tuply redundant clusters, the machines were considered to be almost 100 percent reliable. Of course, ‘almost 100 percent’ means that failures can occur...

Simon sat at the old table, his mouth watering. The table and food reminded him of an old Irish pub. The knotted wooden table was covered in a thin layer of varnish that left his hands tacky against the surface. He picked up his cutlery and went straight for the medium-rare sixteen ounce steak.

Several mouthfuls later, he said, “Are you functioning well, DAVE? I trust you understood my request for a status report. Please provide that information — and a full self-diagnostic report.”

“I’m afraid the information you require is unavailable,” DAVE replied

Very odd behavior, Simon thought. As his initial hunger ebbed, he realized that the steak tasted odd — probably too long in food-stasis, and no doubt prepared by an off-the-shelf computer program that didn’t understand the art of cooking. But eating had given him time to think. The facts were there, he had just been ignoring them.

“Tell me DAVE, why did you wake me?”

“I did not wake you, Simon. Your stasis chamber malfunctioned.”

Simon didn’t buy it. The Standard Operating Procedures manual stated that a human doctor must be automatically revived if any passenger or crew member was injured. The ship’s AI was withholding information and was therefore an unreliable tool. He knew he had to find answers on his own.

* * *

Simon looked at the backs of his hands. Normal color was returning to his fingers, and the numbness in his fingertips was slowly ebbing away to reveal a dull ache. Despite the discomfort he was happy for the returning feeling.

It seemed obvious that something had gone drastically wrong. The other fleet vessels must be gone or out of communication; otherwise, the other DAVE units would have detected the first signs that this ship’s AI was malfunctioning. The absence of both human and robotic crewmembers confirmed that the current situation was one not covered by any of the contingency plans.

Simon needed visual confirmation. He envisioned the ship’s layout in his mind’s eye. Eros3 was a standard Class 3 model. From the outside, the ellipsoid primary hull was as streamlined as a fish — specifically the Hammerhead shark of Earth. The long body ended in an armored cylinder set at right angles to the long axis, which acted jointly as shield and sensor. The four fusion engines were housed inside the ship and made up the central core or “spine” of the fish.

From head to tail the ship measured two kilometers. The only point where both fore and aft could be seen simultaneously was the viewing deck.

The viewing deck formed the tip of a fin-shaped tower located approximately halfway along the body of the ship. The tower was tall enough to provide a clear line of sight fore and aft, above, and to either side, but just within the ‘shadow’ of the hammerhead. From here he should be able to see the fleet or perhaps some clue to his location.

He donned a portable Interface Unit. The IU would normally give him access to the ship’s network, which at this point was “unavailable.” But more importantly it linked directly to DAVE, should he need to talk to the troubled AI en route.

Four maintenance shafts were located on the inner wall of the corridor parallel to each other. All led towards the central engine core. From here Simon could find a route to the viewing deck. The closest entrance was locked, as expected, but the manual override switch lay behind a hidden panel.

The doorway was barely high enough for Simon’s one-hundred and eighty-five centimeters, and just wide enough for his now-slender frame. He opened the concealed panel to the right of the door, revealing the red override switch. He smiled a grim smile as he pulled the switch. At the same moment his IU sprang to life and DAVE’s synthesised voice sounded clear in his ear, “Hello Simon. For safety reasons, maintenance shafts are off limits at this time. Please return to the designated ‘open’ area.”

Was that a note of panic in DAVE’s voice? Simon wondered. Can it feel panic? Aloud, he said, “DAVE, as you are unable to brief me on our situation, you have left me no choice but to seek answers on my own.”

“Assistance is on its way.”

And what does that mean? Simon thought. More steak?

The distant sound of a door opening and the low hum of rubber wheels on metal filled the corridor. Simon watched with interest as a long shadow crept along the curving wall in the distance. Fifty meters down the passageway the catering-bot came hurtling towards him. On two wheels and without its attached food tray, it looked like a giant Swiss-army-knife on wheels. Each appendage had its own function in the kitchen — and each could be turned to deadly use. Simon didn’t want to take his chances against a potentially unhinged and certainly distrustful AI.

He stepped inside the narrow maintenance shaft and released the manual override. He watched with fascination as the catering-bot stopped outside and stared through the shrinking gap in the door, its limbs drooping. It looked almost disappointed.

“DAVE, what the hell was that all about?” Simon asked.

“I offered you assistance, Simon,” it said. “I hoped that perhaps one day, you and I would become friends.”

All the signs had been there, but it wasn’t until that moment that Simon knew for sure that DAVE was — in human terms — insane.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by Dean Giles

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