Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not Alone

It wasn’t until Alex was halfway down the passageway that the fact their lives were no longer in grave danger hit him square in the chest. It was a strange feeling, the weight of being unable to control a situation was lifted from his shoulders, his heart suddenly that much lighter.

He collapsed onto the couch in the mess, sprawled out across it with a stupid grin on his face. They had made it. They were alive and the Ehom were not going to come kill them, and he could hardly be happier. The stress he’d been stuffing away for the past few months came spilling out in a brief, half-sane fit of giggling.

Carbon had been dialing up food, but glanced over her shoulder at the unusual sound that Alex was making. Her eyebrows and antennae went up with curiosity as he tried to stifle it, only to end up laughing at himself in a much more healthy manner. At the very least, he looked like he was having a good time.

Finished with programming the dispenser, she looked Alex over before crawling on top of him, eliciting a surprised grunt. Carbon nestled down with her face buried in his neck. She sounded so happy when she spoke, “I have missed gravity.”

Alex nodded in agreement. How could someone so small weigh so much? “You know, you’re a lot more hea-uh... Dense. Physically dense. Much more physically dense than I expected. I didn’t expect-”

“You may stop any time you please.” At the very least she was still amused.

“Yeah, I’m going to do that.”

Carbon slid her arms under his, squeezing them together. “You are really much taller than I remember. So very, very tall. As a measure of height.” She teased, a smile in her voice.

Alex chuckled, “I know. The weather is terrible up here.”

She laughed quietly as she pushed herself up and looked down at him, eyes warm with mirth but still serious. “Would you mind if we linked, Alex? It has been a stressful day.”

“I would love to.”

Carbon flipped her antennae over her head and rested the soft tips on his temples. He sank down into the shared space easily this time, the action almost natural now. Alex’s view of their shared space was much more refined now, he had taken to this much more quickly than he had expected to.

The Carbon part was placid but frayed around the edges, composed and disturbed all at once. She seemed embarrassed by this. I have never allowed a machine to use me like that before.

You did well. Alex had never had any problems with letting AI’s use his brain, but the way Carbon put it did make it sound... invasive. Regret radiated from the Alex part, I’m sorry that you had to.

Carbon smoothed out a little and warmed, drawing closer to Alex carefully. It was not as bad as I had feared, though I do not wish to do it again.

You shouldn’t have to. He felt like he smiled, glad to see that she was feeling better.

Her part of the shared space rippled with ease, the frayed edges gone. For the first time in the Alex-Carbon space, she touched him. A smokey, velvety caress that wrapped up him up and held him delicately. It was, in its own way, exhilarating. She seemed to be particularly pleased by that reaction.

She let him go but stayed close, a wash of disappointment hastily hidden though quite obvious on her. What’s wrong?

It is nothing.

Alex let the feeling of skepticism speak for him.

Carbon relented after a moment of deliberation. I had expected you to reciprocate...

I can do that. I’d like to do that. He was very emphatic about this.

She withdrew a little bit, flattered and frustrated. No, you cannot.

Why not? Alex pressed forward, following the Carbon part closely.

She carved a snippet of information from her memory and pressed it into him. That particular action was one-way only, whoever was doing it had to have antennae. Alex found himself disappointed and rather upset. Carbon eased away from him. I should not have done that.

Alex’s reply was hasty but honest. It was wonderful.

She burned with conflicted emotions for a moment, painful for Alex to witness. It all collapsed, leaving Carbon worn down but bemused. I do not know how you can do that.

Do what?

Something that felt a lot like a smirk crossed her presence. Be like that all the time.

Oh, It was hard at first. I got used to it after awhi-

The shipboard alarm went off. It was not loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage, but it was loud enough to wake the dead.

Carbon’s antennae snapped up in surprise, breaking the connection with a sharp metallic pang through both of their heads. She had shifted about and situated herself straddling Alex’s lap, hands on the arm rest on either side of his head, her body arched over his. Very convenient for the link.

Alex’s first reaction was to sit up, smashing his face into hers.

They sat there dazed, alarm blaring about something bad about to happen, clutching their faces in pain.

This is not what freedom was supposed to be like.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Getaway

The ship’s AI borrowed a lot from its pilot. It needed the pilot to know how and where to fly, how to react to the changing universe around it. Deep in Carbon’s brain, it was trying to figure out what that other ship behind it was doing. It was close, too close to safely use the waverider drive.

Carbon had served on a warship. She understood space combat well, and she knew what it looked like when something was coming around with guns hot for a strafing run. The AI knew that now, too.

She had been urging the scoutship forward, sublight engines pushing them along at an achingly slow pace along the planned waveride up until now. But the ship behind them was the enemy and so the safeties switched off and plasma poured through the engine, heating the single drive array to full power.

Behind them, spacetime flexed and the Ehom scow managed to loose a single round before its decks pancaked on each other. The resultant wedge of metal and biological components creased and folded, reactor contents boiling away in space.

This had taken a little more than a second. Long enough for Alex to think that he should probably be strapped in. The engine sounded different, its normal thrum almost sick as he scrambled for his console, cinching the harness down tight.

The display there let him know enough. They were accelerating rapidly and maybe he had cut it a little too close to the star. With a pilot, the AI should be able to correct any deviations quickly enough to keep them on course. They would be out of system in less than a minute and at the globule in less than ten.

Alex was still anxious. A few ships had broken off from the Ehom fleet and were coming around, lining up with their current trajectory - but that’s why he had cut so close to the star. They could pick up a little speed and change course at the same time. It wasn’t perfect, but it would help evade the Ehom.

They were at almost four c when they neared the star, the single engine performance unreasonably sluggish. That would change. Alex caught himself holding his breath with a death grip on the console as his eyes darted between the sensors and their speed and course.

As planned, the Kshlavo dipped further into the star’s gravity well, changing their course and picking up speed rapidly. They skirted the corona, shields protesting but holding. The ship shot away from the star, departing the system seconds later and still accelerating.

The Ehom seemed to have stopped caring, or at least hadn’t pursued them. Good. The engine sounded particularly unhappy now, the previously sick thrum replaced with a slowly rising wail as they cracked 250 c. That probably wasn’t good.

Alex unbuckled himself and went back to Carbon. She looked like most new pilots did on their first waveride, her body twitching randomly and eyes darting around without really seeing. She had a decidedly more panicked air about her, though.

“Alex?” Breathless, a little confused. Definitely worried. “Are you there? Did I see you?”

“I’m here. You’re doing fine. Ehom gave up pursuit.” He settled next to her acceleration chair, careful to not touch her. Input wasn’t sorted out very well for the first few drives, normal contact could be mistaken for sensor data. This could be inconsequential, or it could be very bad. He wasn’t taking chances.

“I am aware. I can see so much.”

“It’s a little overwhelming at first.”

“Yes. It says we should arrive in a few minutes.” She sat there, twitching and breathing slowly.

“About that... the engine sounds a little bit off.”

“Does it?” Her head tilted to the side like she was considering what to have for lunch, then her eyebrows went up. “Oh. It does. It is not going to last much longer.”

“Should we slow down a little?”

“No. The failure will occur at any speed, we will make the best time we can till then.”

“It won’t kill us, right?”

“It will not.”

“Good, that’d be a waste.”

She didn’t say anything. That wasn’t too surprising, he’d lost several conversations when he had been a new pilot. Aside from the ever-increasing wail coming through the door, he actually felt pretty relieved. They’d shaken off the Ehom, were still making good headway and the distress message had sent as planned.

The ship’s alarm went off shortly thereafter, a hollow whump from main engineering a moment later and then the room got very warm. For the first time in forever, gravity tugged Alex to the floor.

Carbon groaned and pulled her AI off her shoulders, the interface sockets folding closed as she tossed it to the ground. “We are here.”

Alex leaned on the chair, legs wobbly despite the implants to ward off bone and muscle loss. “About time.” He smiled and then broke into a grin. “You did great. Didn’t hit anything.”

She didn’t smile as she unlatched her harness and stood with an involuntary stretch. Carbon turned and almost knocked him off his feet with a hug, arms gripping his chest as she shivered. “Am I still me?”

“Yeah.” He gave her a squeeze, “you’re still you.”

Carbon sighed and rested her head against his neck, shoulders slumping. “Do not make me do that again. Ever.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Leaving Town

“It is, perhaps-” Carbon stopped talking and shifted uncomfortably in her acceleration chair. She likely understood where Alex was going his question about the data throughput of her antennae. “There is no way to truly measure the speed of a biological system.”

“Uh-huh. Let me rephrase that. What’s the throughput on your personal AI’s interface?” Alex double checked their new heading. They’d be crisping in the local stars corona in six days. He discarded the tablet as he left the console, pushing himself over to the storage lockers.

“It is...” she hesitated, and her voice wavered as she continued. “A-about two terabit, per side.”

“Full duplex?” He continued down the row of lockers, grunting unhappily as he closed each door.

Just one word quiet and plaintive, “yes.”

“Super.” Four terabit was a little bit lower than he’d have liked, but given the situation it would do. He was sure it would be fast enough for what he had in mind. Sure enough to give it a try, anyway. Alex lifted a trio of thick cables out of the locker with a grin. Just what he was looking for.

He turned back to find Carbon watching him with no small amount of horror. Her eyes were wide and her antenna curled over the tops of her shoulders, hands grasping the fluffy tips protectively. She knew exactly what he wanted to do, her voice still faint but very insistant. “I cannot.”

He knew what the problem was. Tslao didn’t like machines poking around inside of their brains. The brain and its contents were sacred to them, so they preferred to poke their minds around in the AI. Humans did things a little differently. Alex let the ship’s AI co-opt large portions of his brain through the Amp during waverides. It was easily as accurate as a dedicated navigation AI as well as being significantly faster and cheaper.

“I know you don’t want to but we don’t have many options right now. All you’ll have to do is get indexed, interface with the system and hit the triggers. It’s really easy, there is nothing to worry about.” He smiled - more sadly than he had intended as he lied through his teeth, holding out one end of the data cable.

Carbon pursed her lips and nodded in assent, her eyes trusting him as she took the cable from his hand. It made his deceit all the worse. He might not have been explicitly lying - all she would have to do is sit there and there was no actual threat of damage, but indexing was still an unpleasant experience.

Every now and again Alex would still have nightmares about his indexing. It had all been in his head, but he’d never forget the cold blade buried between his shoulders. How it unzipped his spine and carved away his body, piece by piece. Once the module started writing you had to finish it in one shot. Incomplete indexes were blanked and recycled.

He pushed away, feeding the cable as he went. Out from the compartment, through the main engineering and into the passageway. Alex stopped in the middle, unlatched a floor panel and pressed his palm on the veripad. The armored capsule hissed as the inert gasses inside escaped, the cover sliding out of the way and folding up like origami. The modules - his module and a bypass for Carbon - sat in their cradle, surrounded by blinking lights assuring their continued functionality.

Alex unlatched both of them, pulled his module and gave it a once over. It was about as large as his forearm, the tiny window into the memory gel glowing red. He wrapped his hand around the bottom of the cylinder, fingers finding the scuff where he’d dropped it before he twisted the cap off. It slid apart easily on oiled rails and he flushed the data with the flick of a switch and press of a button.

It went back together just as easily, the memory gel a much more inviting blue now. Unwritten and eager for brain information. He swapped the blank with Carbon’s bypass and plugged the cable in. Everything lit up just like it should, waiting for a fresh imprint.

He shot back down the passageway to find Carbon sitting in her chair, AI clipped to her shoulders and the cable snakeing out from her back. She looked a little pale, gripping the padded armrest tightly. Alex snatched the tablet out of the air and settled next to her.

“Ready?”

Her voice was still uneasy, “as much as I will be.”

“Good. Look, uhm, there’s something I might have glossed over earlier.”

The look of horror started to creep back in. “What is it?”

“There’s no danger, the process is entirely safe! But it is... very unpleasant the first time. The computer will attempt to make a full scan of your brain and this can manifest itself in a variety of ways. There will be pain and your body will stop responding... These are all temporary.”

She whimpered, sinking back into the chair. “If it must be done, it will be.”

“Thank you. It’s a lot like a link, just stay calm and don’t try to fight it. I’ll stay with you, for what that’s worth.” He covered her hand with his and smiled warmly. No one had even offered to stay with him.

She let go of the armrest and gripped his hand, nodding. “Please, start the process.”

Alex steadied the tablet between his thigh and the chair, dialing down to the indexing routine. It was deceptively simple looking. He hit the big ‘begin’ button and watched the progress bar light up. “Started. Should take three minutes.”

“I do not feel anything.” She sounded just a little hopeful.

“Give it time. Don’t try to fight it...”

Carbon exhaled and closed her eyes. She looked placid as the progress bar moved steadily, only the occasional twitch betraying that anything occurring. She jerked upright, sucking in a startled breath. Her hand tightened around his as she looked down, “I cannot feel my legs!”

“Just part of the process. Keep breathing. Abdomen comes next, then torso.”

Her breathing became ragged, each further disappearance marked with a spasm and gasp. Her voice was set on edge now. “How much longer?”

“A minute. Arms next, then head, hearing and vision.”

She just grunted through gritted teeth, eyes rolling back for a moment. Her hand went slack around his. This was about where he had started to come unraveled. Alex reached up to touch her cheek, the last thing she’d feel for about forty five seconds. Carbon just sat there staring forward, breathing evenly.

The tablet beeped and she twitched again, the life back in her body. She muttered something in Tsla and started shivering.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“How?”

“Tell it you want to turn the drive and navigation systems on.”

Carbon closed her eyes and moments later the ship thrummed to life again. “Done.”

“Now... uh, sink into the navigation system. The data from the emergency waveride should be there waiting for you.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment. “Oh. It is incredible.”

“That’s great.” He knew what she was seeing, and it was pretty incredible. But he was feeling a little bit pressured to get going before the Ehom scow started shooting or called in backup. “Just reach out and grab the path and pull us along it.”

She did.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Countdown

Two of the computer cores had turned over their work and the last one was down to four percent remaining, about twelve hours worth of work. The incoming Ehom ship would be within weapons range about five minutes after that. This timing did not make Alex happy.

When the Ehom ship was close enough for the passive sensors to accurately make it out, Alex had actually smiled and sighed with relief. He’d never been so glad to be mistaken for garbage.

The layout of the Ehom ship was consistent with their designs for garbage scows. A long keel jutted out of the bottom, curved forward and spotted with gravity plates. Four small gun ports were fitted along the top and it was very unlikely to have waverider drives. It was probably going to come give them a shove out of the system.

That wasn’t too bad. They would have to recalculate the jump, but they could just wait a few weeks, turn all the systems on and they’d be gone before the Ehom knew what they were doing. If it gave them a shove in system - that is to say, into the local star - this could present a significant problem. Just by heading back to the fleet, it would stay within weapons range the whole time... until they plowed into the star.

The Kshalvo might be able to survive a brief encounter with the scow’s guns, but it would be moments away from having backup. The couple of minutes that it took for the main AI to calculate a short jump would probably ensure their death.

It’s not that Alex didn’t have confidence in his piloting skills. He was reasonably sure he could fly rings around most of the Ehom fleet with sublight engines, but that was when his Amp was working. Right now, all he had was a backup control console tucked away in the workshop between main engineering and the sublight engine compartment. It used a pair of joysticks with a neural wreath for instrumentation. That was fine for puttering around, but not for dodging incoming fire.

Alex ended up watching the clock, against his better judgement and Carbon’s many attempts to distract him. He pried the computer core loose from the quick-weld and sat there in the mess, eye-to-light with it, constantly checking its progress bar. It was the watched pot that would never boil.

With an hour left, Carbon returned from a debris check in the engineering compartment and slipped her arms around his neck, looking at the tablet over his shoulder. “Come along. We need to make final preparations for the waveride.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” He got up from the table and tucked the tablet under his arm. There really was nothing left to do. They had checked and rechecked everything several times already. All the systems that could be tested at low power were green. There was an encrypted message for help in the FTL Comm buffer that would send automatically when the drive was used. All they had to do was strap in and wait.

Which was precisely what they did. There was an acceleration chair for Carbon to use along the aft wall and the foldout control console for Alex embedded in the wall across from it. The console looked rickety, as though it might snap closed at any moment and mangle his lower body.

“It’s almost there.” He said, holding the tablet up over his shoulder in what he thought was her direction. Alex left it there and snugged the neural wreath down over his head. It was similar technology to the Amp, but much less flexible. It could only provide a simple overlay for his senses, in this case alarms and false hologram instruments were being beamed directly into his brain.

“It is.” Dry. She’d heard him say that a dozen times in the last few hours.

His eyes darted up just in time to catch the last few seconds burn off, then it stitched the separately complied segments up. Integrity check and green light. The Ehom ship in his passive sensors shifted to yellow as thought to tell him it could be dangerous soon.

A finger slid across the console to bring the navigation subsystem online and feed it the freshly compiled waveride course so that it would be ready to go when everything else came on.

A great big red light came up in his field of vision.

Alex snapped the tablet out of the air and drilled down into the navigation system with a staccato series of taps that were much harder than necessary. He read the machine’s statement, at first uncomprehending and then simply enraged.

Error: Waveride path is outside safety parameters for single drive operation. Recalculate path with wider margin around local star or override and execute manually.

If he could have, Alex would have snapped the tablet in half. Tablets were more durable than he was, so he opted for a long and creative string of explatives instead.

“What is wrong?” Carbon didn’t sound worried yet, but there was a definite ring of concern in her voice.

“Waveride’s bad. We-” Alarms started going off in his head, passive sensors showing the Ehom ship in red now. His fingers danced across the console, silencing the alarm. Had he screwed up? He would have been able to make that waveride with his Amp, he knew that. His aim was good. “We were going to go too close to the star. Can’t force the ride without my Amp.”

“There is a way to bypass...” She trailed off, lost in thought for a moment before making a quiet, helpless noise.

It pained him to hear that, but Alex knew what she meant by it. There were ways that the AI could be fooled into thinking someone with an Amp was making the decision, but it would a day of operation at full power. No time for that now, the Ehom ship had overshot them during as it decelerated and was turning towards them, lining up to give them a shove towards the cleansing fire of the local star.

No, Alex corrected himself. It wasn’t the Amp that mattered. That was just the physical bridge between the meat and the machine. It was the index module that let the computer understand how to work with a specific individuals brain and acted as a sort of unforgable key. Carbon didn’t have one because she didn’t have an Amp. But she did have a neural interface.

“Your personal AI? Does it have a physical port we could connect to the AI?” She hadn’t been using the slick, shoulder mounted device much lately, but Alex remembered it clearly.

“Yes. I have installed a standard kR-33, why?” The ship rocked gently, the kinetic buffers flaring to life and arresting most of the sudden change of direction onboard.

Alex leveled his gaze on her antenna, currently plastered down against her head with worry. “What do you suppose the throughput on those are?”