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I stare at the screen for several minutes.

I’m not actually going to do it, of course. I dismiss that possibility immediately. For one thing, the AI made the decision to wake a single person instead of a whole crew, and I trust its assessment of what the ship is currently capable of handling a lot more than I trust my own. Any attempt to get it to explain the decision has so far just resulted in gibberish about statistics, but the fact that I don’t understand the decision is even more evidence that I shouldn’t go against it. The AI was built for this kind of thing and I wasn’t.

Also, how selfish would that be? To condemn some other bright-eyed colonist to my fate? To steal five years of their life like that, in this big metal tube with only me for company? I could rouse more company for them, but then I’m just forcing more colonists to endure this. Eventually, I probably will need to rouse someone, when some problem occurs that I don’t have the expertise to fix, but not now. Not yet.

Not just because I’m lonely.

I let myself imagine it, though, for a few minutes. I imagine browsing the list of colonists, choosing the ones I believe to be most suitable, rousing them and explaining the situation, spending the next five years as part of a crew. Longing grows painfully sharp in my stomach. At the same time, the idea of doing that, of picking people from a list like browsing the menu at a restaurant and changing their entire life on a whim, makes me want to throw up.

I shut down the terminal and go to do some gardening until I feel better.

It’s nice to know that that backup does exist in case of an emergency. If an engine breaks down or something, I can get an engineer. That’s certainly a weight off my mind. But while things are going well, I’d do best not to think about it.

Anyway, this whole thing at least explains why I was so high in the list of potential captains despite my abysmal leadership skills. Presumably the convicts were sent as some kind of raw labour force, not intended for leadership positions, and thus would have had their rankings artificially lowered. And yet, at 1,467th in line, I still ranked below 466 of them. I guess the Powers That Be really did take the chances that I was an ecoterrorist saboteur seriously.

Between me, four thousand convicts, and a second crew captain who wasn’t up to the demands of the job and cracked in the most destructive manner possible, this ship is starting to look positively Golgafrinchan. I hope we manage to pull things together when we have a planet under us.

I put gloves on to pick and bury all the ripe lemons (stupid DIVR-32 citrus reaction) when I catch a faint scent of something in the air. Rot. Not compost. Animal, or possibly microbial.

I stare down at the ground under my spade. I do not want to deal with this again, not right now. I throw it down and head for the nearest terminal.

Are any bodies buried in Greenhouse Ring 1?

– To my knowledge, no human bodies are buried in earth anywhere on the Courageous. Five human bodies are in freezer storage in Storage Ring 6. My ability to track ship activity is limited, but would you like to see predictions on when meat scraps may have been buried in Greenhouse Ring 1? This data is inherently unreliable due to my limited sensory capacities. –

I sniff the air. The faint scent of rot lingers outside the greenhouse, too. It’s something else, then.

No. Is anything wrong with the air?

– Several minor mechanical and electrical problems prevent proper monitoring of multiple aspects of air quality. Nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone levels are all within normal parameters in all monitorable areas of the ship. Air pressure and flow rate are within normal parameters in all monitorable areas of the ship. Air temperature and humidity are within normal parameters in all monitorable areas of the ship. Would you like to see the details of air quality data, captain? –

No. What is the current status of the air filters?

– Several filters in the air filtration system require changing. –

They were changed a month ago!

– Thank you, this information is approximately consistent with existing engineering activity logs. –

How can they have degraded so quickly?

– I don’t have certain knowledge on this topic. My conjecture is that some form of contamination within the duct system is prematurely degrading the filters. What is the nature of your air quality complaint? –

I can smell rot. I know there are no more bodies lying around here decomposing, at least not in areas I tend to access.

– This is probably a result of moisture contamination due to existing ruptured cooling veins leaking into the ventilation system. An analysis of a degraded filter using the ship’s medical facilities and remaining science facilities would provide more information. –

How could you not know about a coolant leak?!

– The coolant leak is a known minor/moderate engineering issue. If it is leaking into the ventilation system it will be upgraded to a moderate issue. –

You didn’t tell me about it.

– The leak is logged as an engineering and quality of life issue. Would you like to see a full list of pending engineering tasks, engineer Greaves? –


– Would you like to see a full list of pending quality of life tasks, maintenance officer Greaves? –

Am I being sassed? Is the AI a smartarse?

No. You told me that there were no more important things that needed fixing.

– Apologies for contradiction, captain, but I do not provide assessments on ‘importance’ unless directly asked. Issue importance and prioritisation is a task better suited to the crew. I have told you that no critical tasks remain, which is accurate. –

I roll my eyes and huff off to find some gloves and a breathing mask, before pulling out an air filter. It’s colonised with some kind of mould, even though it’s supposed to be dry and treated with antifungal compounds. There’s plenty of uncolonised paper, but I’m reluctant to take a glove off and touch it to find out if it’s noticeably wet. I use a clean kitchen knife to hack off some filter and bring it to the medbay.

Okay, I’ve got some filter. There’s some mould on it. What should I do?

– Analysis of your background suggests a high probability of familiarity with bioassays and water quality testing. Would this be an accurate assumption to make about you? –

Yeah, but only simple stuff. Childhood chores.

– Fortunately, the initial analyses require only basic laboratory technician skills! If more detailed analysis is required, I can provide whatever detailed instruction is necessary. First, you will need the equipment and facilities in Laboratory Ring 2. –

The AI walks me through isolating some mould, some chemical assays for the filter itself, and extracting DNA for species identification (which I managed to fuck up three times, somehow, but eventually I get a decently clean sample into the thermal cycler). The computer says that PCR takes hours, which sounds weird to me but I don’t know anything about PCR, so we have time to sit around and speculate wildly about what we’re actually going to find.

Are we in trouble?

– There are a great many dangers to the ship at all times, but if you are referring to the filtration problem specifically, I do not know. Identification of the mould on the filters will determine whether or not it is certainly pathogenic or potentially pathogenic, and thus determine how to reclassify the severity of this issue. –

Not pathogenic’ isn’t an option?

– There is no microorganism in any biosphere that is not potentially pathogenic to humans in sufficient numbers. Furthermore, whatever is on those filters has evolved a resistance to the antifungal treatments on the filters, as well as – assuming our conjecture about a coolant leak being their water source is correct – resistance to the antimicrobials in the coolant fluid and possibly the ability to metabolise coolant compounds. Even if everything we find is considered harmless on Earth, we cannot assume the same of this adapted strain. Furthermore, this analysis is unlikely to give us a complete picture of the species present. Different filters are likely to have different microbial communities. –

So what’s the point of this genetic analysis?

– This analysis will flag any pathogens that were on that particular filter, as well as allow an analysis on the specific resistance methods and metabolisation methods, if any, that have evolved in the community. These data will assist in appropriate reclassification of the severity of the issue as well as inform the best strategies for system cleaning and prevention of reinfection. Would you like me to add a general infection diagnostic schedule to your medical routines to screen for the most likely symptoms of fungal infections, captain? –

Yeah, you should probably do that.

– To clarify: this is a ‘yes’? –


– This has been added to your medical schedule. Reminder: you have not confirmed the completion of your physiotherapy exercises for today. –

Yeah, well, if a freaky space mould all mutated by cosmic radiation gets in my brain and turns me into some kind of space zombie that shambles around the ship eating colonists for the next five years, at least I won’t have to worry about physio any more.

– That is a funny joke, captain! 🙂 Rest assured that the radiation shielding of the Courageous is not compromised. And fortunately for you, the human brain is a complex thing; while several million infections have been identified that can significantly affect human disposition and behaviour, the extensive damage required to turn you into a ‘space zombie’ would almost certainly kill you before you had too long to suffer or harm static colonists. The metabolic and endocrine effects alone would likely to be very hazardous to your health, and loss of physical sensation and coordination are almost universal symptoms of the more severe behaviour-altering infections, as are hydrophobia and extreme loss of appetite, all of which are extremely hazardous conditions for somebody living alone. In a ‘brain zombie’ scenario, you would very likely die within hours, and would almost certainly not last longer than three days. It is very unlikely that you would be able to harm a single colonist. –

How likely is that scenario?

– Negligible. Such infections are extremely rare, and there is no reason to suspect that one could have made it onto the ship, especially since no such infection was present in either of the previous crews. –

Then why bring it up?!

– Apologies, I appear to have misread your intention in the direction of conversation. You earlier admonished me for not providing appropriate detail on pending non-critical work tasks despite you continually declining offers to see such details, and then indicated concern about mind-altering pathogens as part of a discussion about mould in the ventilation system. If I have improperly predicted the direction and detail that you desire from conversation based on these data, then I apologise. We are still unfamiliar with each other; please rest assured that I will learn more about your desired level and patterns of communication as we continue to converse. –

See, this is why I hate friendly AIs. They’re not convincing like specialist conversational AIs, but they’re not clinical enough to keep you on task and remembering that there’s no one at the other end of the conversation. The end result might come across as passive aggressive, inconsistent, or rude, but however the pieces fall, they’re always infuriating.

Furthermore, the more sophisticated the AI’s language capabilities, the greater the chances for misunderstanding, as I’m already experiencing. (I’m not particularly worried about the AI intentionally trying to deceive me. AIs complex enough to do more than report raw data are technically capable of reporting falsehoods, but aren’t really smart enough to do anything directed with that. An AI designed to make sure factory workers reach certain quotas per day might, say, discover that misreporting their progress increases their output and keep doing it, but complex or long-term deception requires an actual understanding of the concepts that one wants to deceive people about, and the ability to understand that others have minds and predict their thought processes. If you want an AI to lie about something complicated, you need to program it to lie about that specific thing, so that isn’t really an issue here; but alone on a spaceship, unintentional misunderstandings are just as dangerous as deliberate deception.)

There’s probably some way to turn off the friendly little touches in its conversation patterns, but I’m loathe to go messing around in any language settings in case I change something drastic and can no longer communicate well enough with it to get it intelligible again.

It is right in that it should adapt to me over time, especially since we’ll probably be talking a lot on this long and lonely ship. I should just wait for it to naturally become less annoying.

Is there any reason I need to wait for the PCR before getting started on cleanup?

– No. The genetic analysis will provide potential information on the most effective sterilisation procedures and pathogen risks, but basic flushing and filter changes are universal, and I recommend the most PPE that you’re capable of comfortably working in regardless of the results. –

I’ll get started, then. Where’s the coolant leak?

– The coolant leak is in supply lines in Pod Launch Ring 1. –

That’s right up the front of the ship.

– That is correct. –

I bite my lip. Fixing that means another traversal along the ship’s hull. Two traversals; I need to come back afterward. Without the ability to consult the AI during the repair. My muscles are stronger than they were when I’d done it the first time, but my ability to sense pain is back in full force, too; I don’t think I can do the journey on the electrostatic shield lattice with full pain sensing capabilities, not with the ‘slope’ caused by the ship slowing down. I don’t want to take unnecessary painkillers before jumping out into space. If I’m doing this, I’ll need to power down the ship’s rotation again and work in Sideways Land.

A mental image of Captain Kinoshita comes, unbidden, to my mind. Trapped under a crate due to one unlucky slip with nobody to rescue her, making the choice to take a painless death over slow dehydration.

I’ve already taken a few lucky falls monkeying around with the ship’s acceleration and crawling around in places it was far too risky to be. Sooner or later, my luck is going to run out.

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One thought on “012: INFESTATION

  1. Poor Aspen, but I love seeing them is distress!

    Th AI my beloved is like “Oh nice joke!” *explains in details why you are wrong* Also, I love that Aspen’s title changes based on the task! I love this AI!


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