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?”

2 comments:

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  2. Its like working to fix your computer. You have all of the diagnostics running and all you see is little progress bar that keeps filling up. And you swear that its moved backwards a few times while you weren't looking.

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