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I poke around the system for a full day and a half before I finally find the airlock controls buried in an atmospheric control submenu. The interface isn’t at all intuitive (this is what the AI is for), but I eventually identify the airlocks around Chronostasis Ring 1, bring up their status, and find that, yes, all eight of them are locked. I pick one at random and tell the computer to unlock it.

– Function locked by Captain’s Override. Please enter override password. –

I frown. Password? Why would there be a password? The system knows I’m the captain! It turns the lights and stuff on for me, so it can read my ID chip, so it knows I’m the captain! Why would it need a password? I run through a few common password guesses and they’re all rejected, of course. I glare at the screen for a bit, thinking.

The previous captain locked these airlocks. They put a password-protected override on them. Why? If there was a problem, why not just tell the crew not to use them?

I glance back at the bedrooms behind me. The rooms belonging to dead astronauts. Some kind of violent dispute? Mutiny? Is that how the crew was lost? The captain… fled to the other end of the ship, maybe, or stayed in this end with their supporters and locked the mutineers in the other end? Maybe? They’d locked this to require a password, meaning they were worried that someone would be able to fool the ID chip system. Or maybe they were worried that someone would kill them and get the captain’s position reassigned, to get the door open. Whatever the reason, they’d deliberately organised things so that chip verification wasn’t enough to open the door; so that it had to be them, not just whoever was the captain. Maybe it hadn’t been the captain at all; maybe someone else had forced the captain to override it, and set their own password, to assume control. Or something.

I suppose none of that matters now. The important thing is that I can’t get the airlocks open without a password. Meaning I either need to find the password, or find another way to the front of the ship.

I don’t fancy my chances of unearthing the password. I could look; I could deduce which of the rooms behind me belonged to the captain, and go through their stuff and their files looking for some child’s name or favourite phrase or even get lucky and find it written in a diary somewhere, but I already know that isn’t going to work. People do tend to reuse passwords a lot, but they don’t tend to use something so easily found, not directly. If they know enough to password lock a system like this that’s designed to work via ID chip alone, they know not to write their password down and tape it to their mirror. The password will be some random string of characters or a name from a fantasy novel or something like that that the captain has probably used for years, but that won’t be evident from anything in their room.

Finding an alternate route, it is.

The big problem with going back the way I came is that it’s an uphill journey now, because the fore engine is on. If the engine was off, it’s be like crawling along a flat beam once again, and while the journey would still be twice as long, I’m pretty sure I could do it. Is there a way to turn the fore engine off and set things up so it would turn itself back on in, say, twenty four hours? I can turn it off, make the journey, and wait.

I already know how to find the engine controls. Turning the engine off would be easy. Finding a manual timing mechanism is somewhat harder. This is the kind of thing that the AI is supposed to handle; without the AI, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to set a timer for the engines. That makes sense; if that were possible, then the dead astronaut I’d found would have done it, rather than keep a calendar for when to turn it on themselves. It still seems like a weird thing to omit entirely, though, right? AIs could be glitchy. Every AI-run place I’d ever stayed had manual ways to do everything, just in case the AI was offline for some reason or got something wrong. This ship was on a twenty year journey with no backup; there shouldn’t be anything left to AI control that couldn’t be manually toggled. I guess it was just assumed that there’d be twenty one crew members around to man the engines in case of emergency. I poke around a bit more (it has to be here somewhere, right?) until I notice something strange.

There’s a log of engine usage, of course. It shows that the fore engines were off until yesterday, when I turned them on. The rear engines don’t show any activity at all; the log I’m looking at shows the last year of activity and they would’ve cut out a decade ago. There’s been a couple of minor attitude adjustments to stay course, nothing that looks alarming to my completely naive eye, but we could be heading back to Earth and it’s not like I’d be able to tell. What interests me is the rotational thrusters, the thrusters that spin the ship to create the illusion of gravity. They’ve been largely inactive for most of the log (spinning things don’t need much to keep them spinning in the near-vacuum of space I guess), but they fired a sustained burst yesterday for several seconds. Did we speed up? That means… more gravity now, right? Is that why climbing the beam was so difficult; it’s not just that it’s at an incline, but that there’s more gravity?

I get up and jump up and down a bit. I don’t feel any heavier. Am I misunderstanding how the gravity works? It’s been a long time since high school physics, but the faster you spin, the bigger the force, right? Yet I feel the same.

Come to think of it, I’m certain that the rotational thrusters did fire when I turned the fore engine on. I remember everything lurching sideways. But I’m sure I’d notice if I were heavier, right? Is there something I can use to measure the artificial gravity? The computer probably had a log of that somewhere, with air pressure and temperature and stuff. I stare at the engine log for a few more seconds before it occurs to me that, obviously, the rotational thrusters can thrust in two directions. I look closer, and… yep. We didn’t speed up the spin, we slowed down. There’s less artificial gravity, not more.

This answers nothing. I don’t feel any lighter, either. I guess it doesn’t matter; the system knows what it’s doing, so as long as nothing breaks, I don’t need to worry about it. But it does give me an idea.

Just like the fore engine, the rotational thrusters have a manual control option.

I can turn the ship’s gravity off.

I pull up a map of the ship’s engines. As I’d suspected, there are rotational thrusters around the whole ship, tiny engines every few rings. (Well, comparatively tiny. They’re bigger than me.) Something’s broken in the wiring in Chronostasis Ring 1 that stops the AI from accessing the fore engine, and I have to assume the rotational thrusters up front too, but surely the rotational thrusters behind CR1 can be controlled by the AI and computers behind CR1? Right? I can stop the rotation from this end, journey back, then start it up again on the other side. Right?

There’s no harm in trying, I suppose. Even if I find I can’t get the ship spinning again from the other side of CR1, I can just come back here. I can even pick the AI’s electronic brain for ideas first. The journey should be a lot easier without gravity.

So, what harm might turning the gravity off and on do? The ship’s systems would be fine; the ship was constructed in orbit without any rotation yet, everything’s built to handle it. The water systems are completely contained, so they’re no danger, the colonists are strapped well enough into their chronostasis pods that minor jostling should cause no problems. Everything in the storage rings I’ve seen, and all of the ship’s furniture, is secured. I suppose the only real concern is any random loose objects the crew has left out. Oh, and the stuff I was using in the medical bay – I don’t think I put everything away properly. I can deal with random scattered objects.

Oh, and the bees in the greenhouse will probably be pretty upset, too. But they’ll be fine. They can fly.

I don’t know much physics, but computers are great at maths, so I make it tell me how fast we’re spinning and how long to thrust to make the spinning stop, then tell it to do that. (This is so much more busywork without an AI.) I tell it to thrust very gently (I don’t mind this taking a long time) and triple check that I’m telling it to thrust in the right direction, so we end up not spinning instead of spinning twice as fast, which would… boy, that would be unpleasant. The thrusters engage and I feel a slight sideways tug, not as forceful as when I turned the for engine on.

Slowly, I get lighter. It gets easier to stand, and then… then harder to stand, because it’s harder to keep my feet on the floor. Also, the room is… tilting more? Yeah. It’s tilting quite severely. I lean into the tilt, trying to stay upright; the console desk tilts upwards until it’s almost above my head. My feet slide on the ever-steepening, smooth surface of the floor; the coffee cup labelled “Lea’s happy juice :)” falls past me and clatters somewhere below. Fortunately, the computer terminal itself is secured to the desk, but I’m beginning to fall; I make a wild grab for the chair, still bolted safely to the floor.

When things calm down, the ship feels entirely vertical. The back of the ship is above me; the front somewhere below. I’m hanging by both hands from a chair bolted to a surface that used to be a floor and is now a curved wall. Hanging on isn’t hard; I seem to be extremely light. I could probably pull myself up with my arms pretty easily, but since I’m holding onto a swivel chair and could easily lose my grip doing that, I’m reluctant to try.

Hmm. Okay. I’ve miscalculated something here.

Because I am a fool, I look down. Below me is a wall (a floor now, I guess) painted with flowers. I have no idea whether it can take my weight if I fall. It’s not far, and I’m very light; lighter than I was on Luna even. But the bedroom walls are thin plastic, designed to be a visual and auditory barrier more than anything. They’re not designed to take much weight.

I look up. The computer terminal’s above me, screen blocked by the back of the chair but presumably still perfectly usable. I could try to pull myself up and get the ship spinning again, get the floor back under my feet. Or I could drop down and deal with navigating the space sideways from now on, but if I do that, I’m probably not going to be able to get back up to the computer.

It doesn’t take me long to figure out exactly how I’ve screwed up. It really should have been obvious. There were two constant forces acting on me; a pull away from the centre of the ship (due to the spin) and a pull towards the front of the ship (due to the fore engine slowing it down). I’ve turned off the spin, but the fore engine is still on. So the force that was previously making the room feel tilted is now the only one, and the room is tilted all the way.

Okay, great, so everything is going according to plan. It’s just that I didn’t completely think out the plan. That’s my fault.

Experimentally, I pull myself up to the chair with my arms. I don’t try to crawl around and get in it; I just want to see how hard it is. I can lift myself quite easily.

If I go outside the ship and head for Pod Launch Ring 2 like this, I’ll be scaling a vertical surface. It’ll be really long. And I’ll be in a heavy space suit. Can I do that? Is it easier or harder than doing it under normal gravity?

It’d be safer, certainly; if I ‘fall’, I’d fall towards the front of the ship, not out into space. And the tether would have a much easier time with my reduced weight. But still. A long climb, up a vertical surface. Is this really an improvement? There’s no chance to experiment; if I drop down and give it a shot, only to find that it’s impossible, I’ll have a tough time getting back up to the computer to reverse it. I need to make a decision and hope I’m right.

The bedroom wall is about 3 metres below my feet. A suicidal drop in Earth gravity (the fall wouldn’t kill me, but it would almost certainly break or badly sprain some joints, effectively stranding me on the wall without food or water), but no problem for me here. I’m not worried about hurting myself on landing; I’m worried about collapsing the wall and being injured on the bedroom furniture behind it. I bend my knees, spread my feet out, and let go of the chair.

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4 thoughts on “008: OVERRIDE

  1. I love taking some innocent details and using proper paranoia to make them big problems, and this chapter is great because it does it twice, and each time it reveals a lot about the character.

    The password is great, because Aspen is both suitably paranoid and not paranoid enough. They spot right away what a password means in this situation, even though chip ID seems pretty ingrained in their deductive reasoning pipeline. It’s a huge red flag, and they rightly give up on that avenue of action. However, it never occurs to Aspen that if the ship was built to be redundant of AI, it might also be built redundant of chip ID, and that password protection may be a standard on the ship for emergency systems. Aspen really needs more information here, because if it’s a standard then there’s probably a much better chance of there being a preset admin password in the captains operations manual.

    Instead, Aspen moves on to the second problem detail, except this time it’s the reader who recognizes the problem first. By stopping the spin, Aspen has now decreased the gravity they experience, but they’ve also made it a straight cliff uphill to get to the aft end of the ship. No systems checks were done to ensure this was actually a maneuver that the ship was ready for either, just mental reassurances. Someone could have left a tap on and now a doom blob of low gravity water is forming in a bathroom somewhere. If there were any massive objects that were out of storage in the open recreation wings and improperly secured, they could have punched a hole in the bulkhead and caused another ring lockdown.

    More importantly, the bees nest is probably a deathtrap of disoriented, cartwheeling bees dodging ropes of fatally sticky honey from the new ceiling, and I’m just very sad about this. Bees can’t fly well in low gravity, Aspen! Their wings are tiny hurricane generators and they barely stay stable in earth gravity 😦


  2. Am glad it’s the norm to have manual control options on everything in Aspen’s future! Have fought with a few too many apps that don’t want to explain what they’re doing & an annoyingly techy rental car. (Though given the manual options were hidden in an unintuitive sub-menu several layers down, maybe it is close to the rental car experience!)


    1. In the far-flung future, after we have invented interstellar travel, we will eventually become smart enough not to trust “user friendly” automated apps.


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