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The Public Universal Friend, me, and Tal are selected for the mission of briefing our captain. It seems like the group best suited to give the maximum amount of information with the minimum amount of freaking out. We sit him down at the table in Recreation Ring 2, pour him a glass of Tinera’s sort-of-mostly-successful attempt at making mead, and explain the situation. He’s surprisingly quiet through the explanation, although his intake of alcohol does seem to steadily increase with each piece of new, unwelcome information.
When we’re done, he puts his empty glass down. The Friend refills it. He takes a sip.
“Alright,” he says. “Let’s just make sure I fully understand this situation. So, fundamentally, our AI is broken.”
“And a big part of why it’s broken is because it’s capable of doing things it’s not supposed to do and doesn’t really understand, because it’s using the sleeping brains of colonists to process data by massively overgrowing the synnerves for cerebral stimulation deep into their brains and using the stimulation signal channels and the diagnostic feedback signal channels to, uh… hijack their dreams?”
“Hijacking their dreams is a little simplistic,” the Friend says. “But, um, yes. We think it’s using their brains as peripheral data processors. Which, for obvious reasons, is going to cause a lot of… disjointed and illogical conclusions.”
“And another reason our AI is broken,” Captain Sands continues after a rather large sip of mead, “is that Captain Reimann, presumably upon learning all of this, decided to shut that particular little operation down and both physically and electronically sabotaged several computer functions in order to stop the AI from monitoring or properly defending itself, before entering Chronostasis Ring 1 and starting to destroy the corrupted minds directly with an axe.”
“And another reason that our AI is broken is that the AI itself, using the wildly unpredictable bursts of lateral thinking granted to it by its brain matter, managed to somehow sabotage several of its own emergency response protocols, most notably airlock safety protocols, in order to lock Reimann in Chronostasis Ring 1 alone were he couldn’t seek assistance from the crew or help with his bleeding arm, and died of blood loss.”
“I think the computer said he technically died of infection,” I shrug. “But the blood loss is probably what stopped him before he could make much headway with his mission. The air in that ring was toxic, we’re fairly sure, so the AI might also have found a way to poison him? We don’t have all the information.”
Sands muttered something under his breath that I assume was a particularly strong Tarandran swear word and continued. “And the final reason why the AI is broken is that after Chronostasis Ring 1 separated the two halves of the ship and Captain Kinoshita’s fellow crew died in the back, she future-proofed against her own death not by waking more crew but by giving the AI full power to make critical life-preserving ship decisions without human oversight.”
“Yep,” Tal says. “But I’m pretty sure I’ve fixed all of those. I’m keeping an eye out for more, of course.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Tal. Furthermore, there’s clear evidence of external tampering on our other AI-influenced ring that, judging by the radiation collected on a safety rope abandoned at the site, took place after the ship was launched. The dates are inconclusive but may match up roughly to the loss of the first crew’s secondary assistant engineer Richard Rynn-Hatson, who was lost to space during an external repair, but said assignment was listed as a thruster repair. At no point is any hull panel work for Chronostasis Ring 5 listed, meaning whatever was being done there, whether by Rynn-Hatson or not, was unauthorised.”
“Do we have anything tying Rynn-Hatson to the problems with the aft engine?”
“Um. No,” I say. “But the senior engineer at the time just logged is as unrepairable; there’s no notes about sabotage, which I assume he would have noticed in his inspection. Unless you think he was in on it?”
“The problem with conspiracies, Dr Greaves, is that it very quickly becomes plausible to cover every little inconsistency with ‘oh, those people must have also been in on it’. A shipwide conspiracy isn’t out of the question, but also a bit much to assume.”
I nod. “Why sabotage the engine, anyway? It doesn’t do anything except endanger the journey. If this engineer wanted to scuttle the ship, he’d have just scuttled the ship. He didn’t need to put the course at risk in such a roundabout way.”
“You’re assuming he acted to buy risk. He may have paid with risk to buy time. When did he die in space?”
“Day 7288,” Tal says.
“And when did Reimann start his campaign against the AI?”
“Well, he first started locking Amy out of stuff behind his password on Day 11796.”
“How long between the two events?”
“4 thous – ”
“Oh. Um, just over twelve and one quarter years.”
“Right. So if Rynn-Hatson sabotaged the chronostasis rings on the day he died, then whatever project he was initiating takes that long or less, so there’d be no reason to sabotage the engine for a longer journey. He could’ve just started the project earlier instead.”
“Does any of this matter?” the Friend asks impatiently. “All of the first crew engineers are dead.”
“It matters, doctor, because whatever went on there was very definitely not the stated goal of the javelin project, and if we cannot figure out what Rynn-Hatson was doing and why, we cannot begin to estimate what other crew members might be involved, and several non-engineers from the first crew are very much alive. If we start waking people at the end of our journey and find ourselves with a handful of mad scientists all ready to enact whatever they were trying to build an AI superbrain for, if that’s even what they were trying to do, I’d like to be able to prepare in advance. Anyway. Other unusual factors of the situation – the viability rates. People whose brains have been compromised have cranial ports damaged by the incredibly high volume of synnerves and can be identified by such. They also appeared to match exactly with our ten per cent viability group, until Zale Hemmorin, who had a reported revival chance of sixty nine per cent, presented with one.”
“Yes,” the doctor says. “He’s still on life support in the medbay, and we’ve run every test. He was definitely one of the AI’s victims.”
“So the ten per cent hypothesis is wrong?”
“Nah,” Tal says. “The math checks out, the ten per cent hypothesis is the only explanation. I think Amy lied about Zale, but I don’t know why.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It might’ve been wrong. It’s based on some unproven assumptions and limited data.”
“What do you think, doctor?” Captain Sands asks.
The Friend shrugs. “It’s entirely possible that the hypothesis was correct for what it was, and this is a new thing. We already know that the AI is wrong about their survival rates, because their survival rates are definitely zero per cent; it’s estimating based on incomplete data and programs written by people who didn’t expect colonists to have their brains entirely filled with synthetic nerves while they were asleep. We know that whatever metrics it’s using drops its projections to ten per cent as a result of the brain hijack, but we don’t know exactly how or where in the process this takes place. Maybe the body’s vitals start to sharply decline a fair while after the hijack, and Zale’s simply a very recent hijack.”
“You think the AI is still hijacking more brains?” Captain Sands asks sharply. “Currently?”
“We have absolutely no idea,” the doctor says.
“It makes sense that it would,” Tal points out. “Aspen lobotomised it a year ago by detaching Chronostasis Ring 1, where most of its brains were. It probably needs more.”
Captain Sands leaps to his feet. His coordination seems perfect, despite the significant quantity of alcohol he’s drunk – probably some high quality genesets in him for that. “You’re telling me that the colonists in our care are in active danger right now and you wanted to wait until everything had calmed down to tell me?!”
“There is nothing that can be done about it,” the doctor says reasonably.
“Nothing that can be done?! Your medical reputation isn’t stellar, doctor, but I didn’t expect you to be so openly apathetic to people actively dying in your care. We’re going to get as many colonists as we possibly can out of reach of that machine. We’ll start revival processes right away; with some good engineering we can double or even triple the ship’s capacity for active crew and – ”
“Whoah, whoah!” I get up, raising my hands in a ‘calm down’ sort of gesture. “C-captain, that’s… that wouldn’t go well. I know it’s important to protect as many colonists as we can, but we’d just be putting people in far more danger if we force the ship to defend itself. If new victims are indistinguishable by revival chance, then we don’t know who in Chronostasis Ring 5 the AI already has and who it doesn’t, meaning that any mass revival plan is going to involve reviving a lot of people with compromised cranial ports.”
“Then that is what will happen. They’re already functionally dead; it is the ones not yet taken that we need to worry about saving.”
“When Reimann started going after people the AI had taken, the AI acted to defend itself in a way that not only killed him but cut off the entire chronostasis ring, cut the ship in half and eventually lead to the death of the entire crew. When we inadvertently started disconnecting people the computer had taken in CR1, the computer tried again to lock down the entire ring, Denish got trapped saving his crewmates’ lives, and we ended up having to jettison the entire ring. You can’t save anyone if you’re forced to jettison them all into space.”
“So you suggest that I do nothing.”
“You have three thousand other colonists to worry about as well.”
“And we left with five thousand. Tell me, Aspen – how many colonists with a chance of survival did you condemn to die in deep space in order to save one blacklaw shipcutter you’d met a few days ago?”
“Fourteen,” Tal chimes in, unhelpfully. “The ring was mostly ten per centers. It would’ve been fifteen if I hadn’t woken up.”
“Fourteen lives for one. Are you happy with that ratio?”
I lift my chin. “I thought it was a lot more at the time,” I tell him, “since we didn’t know about the ten per cent thing. This crew isn’t disposable.”
“Nobody is ever disposable,” the captain agrees, “but we have a duty to the people on this ship, awake and asleep. To grant special privileges to the ones you happened to wake up is hardly fair, is it? How many people who were just as good or better than Denish died that day? And, to bring my point back to our current scenario… how many lives do we risk in a mass revival plan, versus how many we might save?”
“That’s an impossible question,” the doctor points out, “because if we can’t trust the ten per cent hypothesis any more, we have absolutely no idea how many are viable for saving. It could be all the non-ten per centers, it could be nobody.”
“You’re putting the entire ship at an unacceptable risk,” I tell him.
“No, I’m putting a small contingency of crew at a very calculated risk. Whereas you are happy to stand aside and watch your charges slowly die because you’re terrified of a malfunctioning computer. Doctor, how does Celi look? Is ke likely to be fit for full duty soon?”
“Um.” The Friend looks startled by the question. “No. Definitley not. Kes kidney has failed.”
“Wait,” I say, “we’re talking organ failure?”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” the Friend assures me. “Ke has two of them. Plenty of people do perfectly fine with just one kidney, and once we set up base on Hylara, a new one can be grown. The problem is that post-chronostasis organ failure is a really, really bad sign. The damage that causes it is usually generalised. We can’t consider them to have survived revival yet. More organs could fail, and while we have some replacements and bionics in stock, neither Lina nor this Friend are surgeons. Besides, if a complicated organ like the heart fails, we simply don’t have the stocks or facilities on board to do anything. We cannot grow new hearts here. Captain, it is simply absurd to suggest that Celi go on a revival mission. This Friend completely forbids it as kes doctor.”
“Relax, doctor. I wasn’t going to suggest sending Celi go on a revival mission.”
“He’s checking to see if ke will be able to do your job,” I say through gritted teeth, “because he’s trying to decide if it’s safe to send you on the revival mission.”
“I was considering Lina, actually,” Captain Sands says. (It’s really annoying how I’m pissed off enough to be barely holding together and this man who’s been guzzling homemade mead is completely cmposed. Whatever alcohol resistance geneset he has simply is not fair.) “One of the doctors will need to be involved, obviously. And I think, perhaps… Aspen, you’ve spoken positively about Tinera taking charge in a crisis situation. And Denish, since you say he saved his crewmates last time, and he seems to be a whiz with his toold when something goes wrong with the chronostasis pods if Zale’s revival is anything to go by.”
“Lina, Tinera, and Denish?” I ask. “You don’t want to send Sunset? Or Renn? Or Sam?”
“This is something that should be done as quickly as possible, not whenever the doctors see fit to release us from medical observation.”
“Send me, then.”
“Nonsense, you’re my second in command! I need you here to question absolutely every decision I make. You’re doing such a good job at that today.”
“Aspen,” the Friend says, “it’s fine.”
“It’s not fine.”
“It is what it is. This mission is stupid and shouldn’t be happening at all, but if we’re doing it, it’s a good team selection. We’re all far more experienced at this sort of revival work than the newcomers, and those three have the right skill set.”
“You know perfectly well that’s not why he – ”
“Do you think a different team would be better?” the Friend asks.
“Excellent.” Captain Sands claps me on the back. “thank you for your invaluable advice, all of you. Any other new information?”
“Well, I have these,” I say, pulling out Kinoshita’s notebooks. “Found them while cleaning the habitation rings. I believe them to be senior psychologist Dr Keiko Kinoshita’s case notes. They could be very illuminating on the history of the ship, but I can’t read Japanese, unfortunately. I was going to see if the computer could translate them.”
“Fantastic find, Aspen! I’m sure it can. The psychologist’s case notes, you say?”
“We should probably have our professional psychologist do it, then. He’s likely to understand them better than the rest of us. I’ll give them to Renn.” He holds his hand out for the notebooks.
His hand doesn’t move.
I hand them over.
“Wonderful! Wonderful work, everyone. Thanks for keeping me up to date.” He heads back toward the medbay and I watch him go.
The Friend clears its throat. “Aspen, are you feeling alright?”
“Of course. I’m fine. Why.”
“This Friend has never seen you get that angry at somebody that quickly.”
“Or, like… at all,” Tal adds. “You’re normally way more chill than this.”
“I know we hoped he wouldn’t take rash action,” the Friend adds, “but surely you knew this sort of plan was a possibility.”
“Of course,” I say. But it’s different knowing that our new captain will take risks for quick results, and knowing that he doesn’t value my crew as highly as the newcomers, than it is seeing him actually go through with putting them in danger.
If he gets any of my crew killed on this stupid CR5 rescue mission, he is going to regret it. He is going to regret it every single day for the rest of his life.
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2 thoughts on “059: RESPONSIBILITY”
“Whereas you are happy to stand aside and watch your charges slowly die because you’re terrified of a malfunctioning computer.” You mean the computer that already killed one captain? That computer, right? And if too many potential computer victims get taken away, then it might move on to one of the other rings. At least right now, the problem is sort of contained.
How about we also inform the other members of the crews that were just revived and see what they think. They’re the only ones who might be able to get through to Sands that maybe this is too hasty. The notebook could provide a lot of insight that could mean this entire plan to revive more colonists needs to be reevaluated.
I personally want to know about that thing with the hull, and figure out what that’s all about.
“Aspen, you’ve spoken positively about Tinera taking charge in a crisis situation.” Yeah, I’m sure they remember that time you purposefully twisted their words to justify her not being second in command anymore.
“Nonsense, you’re my second in command! I need you here to question absolutely every decision I make. You’re doing such a good job at that today.” You’re not really listening to them though. And this feels like a sarcastic jab. What an asshole. Also, Sands really should go because if there’s a concern that anyone on this mission will die, then Sands should go down with the ship like any good captain.
Is he going to start doing engineer things? The thing he was revived for? Because he doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of that, but maybe that’s all in the background. Mostly he’s just being a dick.
I, like Aspen, am now also quite angry. Can’t say I didn’t see something like this coming, but damn. Hate it when you try to do the reasonable thing and then the other person reacts to that by being unreasonable.