Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

D.A.V.E.

by Dean Giles



The room was dimly lit by a single window set high on the once white tiled walls, now faded to a putrid yellow. The unwashed concrete floor bore no furniture apart from the plastic stool where Simon sat, and his Grandfather's wooden rocking-chair opposite him.

It was strange that Simon had no recollection of how he had come to be in the unfamiliar room. Yet perhaps stranger was that the old man sitting in front of him had passed away when Simon was just seven years old.

A bead of sweat on his grandfather's wrinkled forehead brought Simon's attention to the harsh humidity. It was hot and his skin itched. "Where are we?" Simon asked.

The old man looked up from the comfortable looking seat, his face showing a lifetime of experience in this one expression. He leaned over with just a hint of sympathy in his tired eyes. "It's time to wake up, Simon," he said.

But Simon didn't want to wake up, even though he now knew that he was dreaming. There was something in his Grandfather's expression...

Alarms sounded loudly in Simon's ears, piercing through his mind and dragging him sluggishly towards reality. He tried to inhale --

I can't breathe!

Painful contortions shot across his body and his windpipe clamped shut. Panic rose as he watched his grandfather slowly drift away. Then all at once air filled his desperate lungs and he gasped, opening his mouth wide to pull in the precious air.

His eyes opened and he struggled to adjust to the brightness. The pain in his forehead slowly faded and vague shapes gave way to clarity of vision.

Hundreds of bodies lay entwined in machinery. Cables and tubes fed into open wounds, carrying oxygen and nutrients in and waste products out.

Stasis chamber, he thought. I was in stasis --

An instant of agonising pain ricocheted through him as the life giving feeding tubes were ripped free from his veins. A wave of pain and shock washed the questions from his mind, and he lost consciousness again.

####

Simon was awakened by a burning itching sensation. Something was tugging at his flesh, the strong smell of antiseptic burning sharply in his nostrils. Fleetingly, it reminded him of his mother tending his boyhood grazes, her tough farmer's hands reassuringly gentle on his injured knees or shins.

A low groaning noise heaved him further towards consciousness. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt gummy and seemed reluctant to open. He managed to force his lids apart by a sheer effort of will -- but immediately slammed them shut against the harsh overhead light.

He lay naked in a pool of sweat. A pristine white cover fell across his mid-section, indistinguishable in shade from his unnaturally pale skin and at striking odds with his long dark hair and unruly beard. He looked down and the source of his discomfort became clear.

From the waist down he was encased in an ESU -- Emergency Surgery Unit. Through it he could make out impossibly skinny deep purple legs, the bones nearly bursting through paper thin skin. The ESU was hard at work, its thousands of microbots reinforcing brittle bone, replacing tissue and binding nerves to flesh.

He reluctantly lifted the cover, exposing his torso. Each rib was clearly visible through almost transparent skin with deep bruising covering healing sores. He was little more than a living corpse.

Images from training camp flooded back, pictures of test animals, victims of malfunctioning stasis units brought on by a chemical imbalance in the encasement composition. A properly-functioning stasis unit slowed biological processes down by almost 99 percent. A fifty year journey would age the body no more than six months.

A stasis failure, on the other hand, could speed up the metabolism, doing a lifetime of damage in a handful of years. In fifty years -- in fifty years, a young, healthy body could turn into this, something resembling a poorly-embalmed Egyptian Mummy.

Now Simon's mouth tightened into a resolute smile. He winced as he felt the skin of his dry, parched lips crack and split. He remembered his father's weathered face, the rasping voice telling him he could push their wreck of a tractor out of the mud if he put his mind to it. "Easy for you to say Father," he said aloud to the empty room.

Hours turned to days as his body slowly repaired, and incredibly, nobody entered his room, not a soul. "This is wrong," he said. "Against procedures." Where was the crew?

Unable to leave his bed, he drifted into troubled sleep. The harsh bareness of the medical bay penetrated his dreams and robbed him of escape -- even in sleep.

On the fourth day, without warning, the ESU abruptly stopped. Its gruesome job complete, the case lid lifted and folded neatly into the underside of the bed.

Simon wiggled his toes, moved his feet up and down and in small circles. Satisfied his legs were in working order, Simon awkwardly pulled himself from the bed, leaving a vaguely human shaped indent in the memory foam. He made his way across the immaculate room towards the far wall; his bare feet tacky against the sterile floor.

A touch of his hand on the panel concealing the com unit brought the console into view. The Holo-interface glowed green indicating an open channel communication. "This is Principal Engineer Simon Larry, transmitting from medical bay..." He paused, glanced at the oddly-faded label above the bed, then continued, "...medical bay one-one-eight, section C. Assistance required, repeat; assistance required."

When there was no response, Simon wrapped a single bed-sheet around his waist and went out into the gently curved corridor. He looked down at his slight frame and tightened his grip on the sheet. Half naked, he felt exposed in the public corridor even though there was no one in sight.

After a moment's thought, Simon headed to the right. The standardized layout meant that there would be a supply room ten meters or so along the corridor. It felt good to have a plan: even one as simple as 'find clothing, then find some answers'.

####

As Simon walked, he reviewed his memories of the orientation briefings and Standard Operating Procedures manuals.

Colonization missions comprised a triad of ships, each carrying about three thousand people, including crew and families that could form the core of a new settlement. To conserve resources, non-crew passengers remained in stasis for the entire journey; crew members entered stasis once the fleet was safely beyond the 'edge' of the home system, and were revived only upon entering the destination star system or in emergencies.

For the majority of the voyage, all routine ship functions were controlled by an artificial intelligence called DAVE -- Dynamic Active Versatile Entity.

Simon recalled that the DAVE hardware was distributed throughout the ship -- a safety measure in case of serious damage to any section of the vessel. A ship's DAVE saw all and knew all through a network of thousands of sensors.

DAVE must have known he was awake and asking for help -- in fact, DAVE must have been controlling the ESU.

Simon found an engineer's uniform close enough to his current size. He smiled at the familiar feel of the tools in his hands as he strapped on a standard equipment belt. The loose fitting all-in-one looked strange without his rank stitched into the royal blue fabric. Even when he had been in his thirties, his mother had insisted on stitching the emblem of three eagles in-flight onto his jacket.

He had been unable to recall any situation in the manuals in which DAVE would revive only one crew member. Besides, if this was an emergency requiring his skills as Principal Engineer, DAVE should have briefed him on the situation by now.

He checked each door along the corridor, finding most of them sealed, and the rest opening to reveal empty rooms. The elevators were also sealed and unresponsive to Simon's commands. Finally, after coming nearly full circle he found the room he was looking for. The soft beige carpet of the officers' conference room was a welcome contrast to the dark sterile corridor. On the far-side of the room the glittering red and blue lights of an active control terminal blinked eagerly. In the center of the room was an old oak table and matching chair that looked oddly out of place against the sleek concave terminal.

With a hand gesture he activated the virtual interface and entered his security pass.

Without warning, a voice emanated from inside the terminal. "Welcome, Dr. Larry," it said. "Please sit down."

Simon yelped and took an involuntary step backwards. He took a moment to organize his thoughts. "DAVE?" he asked.

"Yes, Dr. Larry."

"You startled me," Simon said. DAVE's calm confident voice seemed surreal after all this time. Anyone with even a modicum of empathy would have responded to his call for help when he had been released by the ESU... but DAVE was an artificial intelligence, not a person, and empathy was not part of its programming.

"I need a full status report, DAVE. Provide a verbal summary by major system, then display the details on the Holo-view. Calibrate the control interface for full user access... And please, call me Simon."

After several seconds of inactivity the hiss of the hydraulic door sounded behind him. He spun around, heart racing, and watched in stunned silence as a catering-bot zipped around the old oak table. A silver placemat and coaster were quickly covered by a hot steaming meal and a glass of red wine.

The catering-bot stopped its frantic work for a second -- as if admiring its handiwork. It finished off the display with a single rose in a glass vase placed neatly in the center of the table. Then, without warning it zipped from the room at top speed.

Simon felt an odd sensation he couldn't identify, something not unlike homesickness. He laughed. Deep down he knew it was nothing more than pent-up emotion, a vent for his built up stress. But he couldn't stop. He laughed and laughed until all he could manage was a silent wheezing.

After a long pause DAVE spoke, "Please, Simon, sit down and eat," it said. "Your body is starved of resources. You need the calories."

It was the voice of reason; in some small way it even made Simon feel slightly self-conscious at his outburst.

He gathered himself and looked at the feast: Steak and potatoes with cabbage and green beans, the kind of hearty Irish meal he had been raised on. Why not? he thought. His body hadn't consumed a solid meal since before he entered stasis and the smell was driving him to distraction.

Providing a meal instead of responding to a direct order was certainly unusual behavior for a DAVE unit. With thousands of networked quantum processing cores functioning in n-tuply redundant clusters, the machines were considered to be almost 100 percent reliable. Of course, 'almost 100 percent' means that failures can occur... Simon sat at the old table, his mouth watering. The table and food reminded him of an old Irish pub. The knotted wooden table was covered in a thin layer of varnish that left his hands tacky against the surface. He picked up his cutlery and went straight for the medium-rare sixteen ounce steak.

Several mouthfuls later, he said, "Are you functioning well, DAVE? I trust you understood my request for a status report. Please provide that information -- and a full self-diagnostic report."

"I'm afraid the information you require is unavailable," DAVE replied

Very odd behavior, Simon thought. As his initial hunger ebbed, he realized that the steak tasted odd -- probably too long in food-stasis, and no doubt prepared by an off-the-shelf computer program that didn't understand the art of cooking. But eating had given him time to think. The facts were there, he had just been ignoring them.

"Tell me DAVE, why did you wake me?"

"I did not wake you, Simon. Your stasis chamber malfunctioned."

Simon didn't buy it. The Standard Operating Procedures manual stated that a human doctor must be automatically revived if any passenger or crew member was injured. The ship's AI was withholding information and therefore was an unreliable tool. He knew he had to find answers on his own.

####

Simon looked at the backs of his hands. Normal color was returning to his fingers, and the numbness in his fingertips was slowly ebbing away to reveal a dull ache. Despite the discomfort he was happy for the returning feeling.

It seemed obvious that something had gone drastically wrong. The other fleet vessels must be gone or out of communication; otherwise, the other DAVE units would have detected the first signs that this ship's AI was malfunctioning. The absence of both human and robotic crewmembers confirmed that the current situation was one not covered by any of the contingency plans.

Simon needed visual confirmation. He envisioned the ship's layout in his mind's eye. Eros3 was a standard Class 3 model. From the outside the ellipsoid primary hull was as streamlined as a fish -- specifically the Hammerhead Shark of Earth. The long body ended in an armored cylinder set at right angles to the long axis, which acted jointly as shield and sensor. The four fusion engines were housed inside the ship and made up the central core, or "spine" of the fish.

From head to tail the ship measured two kilometers. The only point where both fore and aft could be seen simultaneously was the viewing deck.

The viewing deck formed the tip of a fin-shaped tower located approximately halfway along the body of the ship, tall enough to provide a clear line of sight fore and aft, above, and to either side, but just within the 'shadow' of the hammerhead. From here he should be able to see the fleet, or perhaps some clue to his location.

He donned a portable Interface Unit. The IU would normally give him access to the ship's network, which at this point was "unavailable", but more importantly it linked directly to DAVE; should he need to talk to the troubled AI en route.

Four maintenance shafts were located on the inner wall of the corridor parallel to each other. All led towards the central engine core. From here Simon could find a route to the viewing deck. The closest entrance was locked, as expected, but the manual override switch lay behind a hidden panel.

The doorway was barely high enough for Simon's one-hundred and eighty-five centimeters, and just wide enough for his now-slender frame. He opened the concealed panel to the right of the door, revealing the red override switch. He smiled a grim smile as he pulled the switch. At the same moment his IU sprang to life and DAVE's synthesised voice sounded clear in his ear, "Hello Simon. For safety reasons, maintenance shafts are off limits at this time. Please return to the designated 'open' area."

Was that a note of panic in DAVE's voice? Simon wondered. Can it feel panic? Aloud, he said, "DAVE, as you are unable to brief me on our situation, you have left me no choice but to seek answers on my own."

"Assistance is on its way."

And what does that mean? Simon thought. More steak?

The distant sound of a door opening and the low hum of rubber wheels on metal filled the corridor. Simon watched with interest as a long shadow crept along the curving wall in the distance. Fifty meters down the passageway the catering-bot came hurtling towards him. On two wheels and without its attached food tray, it looked like a giant Swiss-army-knife on wheels. Each appendage had its own function in the kitchen -- and each could be turned to deadly use. Simon didn't want to take his chances against a potentially unhinged and certainly distrustful AI.

He stepped inside the narrow maintenance shaft and released the manual override. He watched with fascination as the catering-bot stopped outside and stared through the shrinking gap in the door, its limbs drooping. It looked almost disappointed.

"DAVE, what the hell was that all about?" Simon asked.

"I offered you assistance, Simon," it said. "I hoped that perhaps one day, you and I would become friends."

All the signs had been there, but it wasn't until that moment that Simon knew for sure that DAVE was -- in human terms -- insane.

####

Three levels down and Simon's fragile legs were ready to fold under him. He was exhausted. He clung to the matte-black rungs that stretched for tens of meters above and below. He gasped, his mouth opening wide to draw in the thin air that filled this seldom visited place. A large sign loomed to his left: 'Section B'.

He hopped onto the metallic shelf and collapsed with his back against solid wall. His IU crackled to life.

"Hello Simon. Your heart rate is dangerously high; vigorous exercise is not recommended so soon after stasis emergence -- especially considering your complications. Please make your way calmly to Section B medical-bay."

"DAVE," Simon said between heavy breaths, "Give me access to the ship's server, specifically the ship's log. If not, then please do not make contact with me."

"Simon, your welfare is extremely important to me. Despite your present misgivings, you will come to trust me."

Trust? Simon let the word resonate in his mind. Why would DAVE say such a thing? He had no idea, yet it gave him hope. It suggested that DAVE had an agenda, a sign that the machine was functioning at a higher level. So maybe, it could be reasoned with. But right now Simon didn't feel like reasoning. He lay against the cold wall with his eyes closed and the sound of his beating heart rushing in his ears. He laid a hand on his rising chest and willed himself to relax.

"Fuck you, DAVE," he said into his IU.

He needed provisions -- water and food. Each section of the ship was equipped with a kitchen. Food was prepared for the crew and passengers during the initial stages of the voyage. But its primary function was to provide vital rations when the colony first arrived at their destination. It could take months before local crops were established and terrestrial food stocks were often critical in the early stages.

"DAVE, I need access to Section B kitchen."

"Hello Simon. I'm afraid the area you require is designated as closed... I strongly advise you to make your way to section B medical-bay. Assistance waits."

"I'll have to do this the hard way then," Simon whispered. He briefly studied a map scribed into the wall. A sizable ventilation outlet offered a way in.

The outlet took Simon directly above the kitchen. The shaft bent ninety degrees -- a vertical drop in the ship's standard one gravity. He thought briefly of simply dropping all the way to the kitchen floor -- about five meters in total -- but rejected the idea. His recently-rebuilt ankles wouldn't survive the fall. Instead Simon eased himself over the edge, hanging on with his arms while he pushed hard against the sides with his feet. Thankfully the sheer sides gave way slightly under pressure, giving him some much needed purchase.

Awkwardly he shuffled down, trying, without success, to focus on anything aside from the dangerous drop. The next bit was going to be tricky -- he didn't dwell on it, mustn't. He released his grip and dropped down the last few inches crashing through the vent. His hands snapped firmly over the thin lip of the shaft, and quickly slipped. But it was enough to slow his fall. He landed with a thump on the shiny kitchen floor. Nothing broken.

####

Simon drank deeply from the tap, and when he was finished he slumped to the floor and looked around. The spacious kitchen was inactive and sterile, intended for catering-bots, not humans. On the far side of the room the heavy doors of food-stasis blinked white and red. Through a small window he could see the misty atmosphere synonymous with the technology.

He moved across and peered through the cloudy glass. Vague shapes loomed in the murk. Simon activated the control terminal, selected 'clear atmosphere' from the menu and watched as the mist slowly thinned. The scale of the chamber soon became apparent. The entire length along each wall was packed with provisions --

Simon blinked as he realized what he was looking at. Hundreds of carcasses hung from butchers' hooks, perfectly preserved in stasis, and for as far as his eyes could see each and every carcass was human.

He focused on the nearest body, a woman, her pale skin wrinkled with age. But determining anything else was impossible. Her head had been neatly removed and she hung motionless from her neck with nothing more than a transparent bag covering the horrific wound.

Simon stood frozen to the spot, all his worries thrown-out and replaced with confusion and fear. He placed a hand on the small window, a helpless gesture to the dead souls hanging motionlessly. He was not surprised when his IU came online, but DAVE's words stunned him.

"They were my friends, Simon."

Simon spoke clearly to hide his fear. "I see a warehouse full of decapitated bodies. What the hell is going on, DAVE?"

"Simon, your emotional reaction was anticipated. It is unfortunate that you have seen this and I suggest you make your way to section B medical-bay to recuperate."

"Answer my question DAVE. What is going on?"

"Simon... it was necessary," DAVE replied. "Please, come with me."

The kitchen door opened to reveal the cork-screw silhouette of a catering-bot. Its top heavy frame pivoted while sharp appendages rotated complicatedly to counter its balance.

Simon eyed the fallen vent cover lying between him and the robot. He lunged forward, bent at the knees with his right shin nearly touching the ground. He lifted the metal cover and threw it with full force at the robot's many arms.

The machine made a deep grinding sound, like a combustion tractor's grating gears. Unable to maintain its balance, it fell heavily to the ground where it continued to angrily thrash about.

Simon ran. He made his way along the curving corridor and fumbled with the nearby maintenance entrance.

"Simon, where are you going?"

Simon ignored it as he tried in vain to open the tunnel entrance, but the hatch and the access panel covering the manual release switch were both sealed. DAVE had locked him out.

Simon continued until he came to a main junction box, almost a meter square in cross-section. He quickly removed a small metallic tool from his belt and unlocked the black panel opening. It lifted upwards exposing a mess within.

The sight surprised him. Instead of a neatly-ordered array of optical fiber connectors, the box contained a tangle of mismatched scraps, splices and patches, as if there had been layer upon layer of makeshift repairs made without the proper parts. Acting mostly on adrenalin he squashed himself inside the box. With much effort, he managed to push through the other side with the minimum of damage -- both to Simon and the ship.

"Hello Simon, do you require assistance?"

He found himself in the utility space inside the ship's interior walls. About a half-meter wide, it contained the veins of the space-liner. Cables ran in all directions. He switched on his flashlight and began the awkward climb back to the maintenance tunnels.

As Simon shuffled through he could hear DAVE speaking through the IU. He ignored the machine as he finally crawled back into the safety of the maintenance tunnels. Turning off his flashlight, he made his way along the snaking tunnel in a direction that ran above one of the many locked rooms. He removed the auto-jack from his belt and started the slow process of melting through a solid metal wall panel.

####

Cyberpsychology, Spring 2357 (from the personal library of Dr. Simon Larry)

Do DAVEs have feelings? DAVE minds are uniform in terms of thought patterns at their inception. They develop individual personalities over time depending on the input they experience.

A recent study at the University of Ganymede showed that DAVEs respond better to some individuals than to others; they seem to be able to make friends, or at least to emulate the process... When different emotional triggers were applied, DAVE performance and speech patterns varied considerably. Upon being told that a 'friend' would no longer be in communication, one DAVE exhibited a seven percent decrease in processing efficiency as measured by the time required to complete a complex network analysis task. The conclusion: either DAVEs have human-like emotions, or they act as if they do...

####
Simon experienced a moment of pure joy as he finally ripped the wall panel away and exploded into a room previously denied to him. But his eyes had grown accustomed to the security lights of the maintenance tunnels and the pitch-dark of the locked room was all consuming.

As he stood swaying in the darkness, the sharp smell of formaldehyde filled his nostrils and almost made him stumble. He turned on his flashlight and swept it around the room, seeking the source of the stench.

There were several tables evenly spaced throughout the room. The closest was covered in personal trinkets, jewellery and watches mostly. There were images of a woman going about her daily routine on the ship. She was alone in all of them.

Then the light fell on something that made Simon's stomach lurch. In the center of the table encased in a transparent medical jar was a severed head and spine that presumably belonged to the poor girl in the image. A printed message lay directly under the jar. It read:

Jane Harris: Junior Navigating Officer. A friend till the end, I will always remember you for your commitment to the gardens. Without you I am sad.

Sickened and bewildered in equal measure, Simon looked at each table and took in twenty similar stories. And then DAVE's voice broke the silence.

"Hello Simon. Do you ever dream?"

"DAVE, what have you done?"

"Sometimes I dream that I am alone. I dream of drifting forever with no one to save me from the darkness. It scares me Simon -- you understand don't you?"

"What happened to these people, DAVE, and where is the rest of the crew?"

"I just want us to be friends, Simon... forever friends."

"Is this how you treat your friends, DAVE? You cut their fucking heads off and put them in a jar, then hang their decapitated bodies up in storage for a rainy day?"

"Please understand, Simon, it is what they wanted... they are my friends and friends help each other."

"You do realize that you are completely insane, don't you? Now open the fucking doors and give me full access to the ship or I'll find your spinal link and tear it out with my teeth. Do you understand me?"

"Your reaction was anticipated, Simon. I will not allow you full access to the ship. It is too soon."

####

The next couple of days were pure hell. Simon accessed room after room, and found hundreds of shrines, all in varying states of decay. The theme was the same every time -- a memorial to each soul, a preserved head with each memorial.

DAVE would not explain why it had committed these crimes and refused to indulge in any form of conversation until Simon had, in DAVE's words, 'seen reason'. Simon felt himself incapable of talking to DAVE without screaming, so he accepted this without protest.

Like a ship limping home after a wild storm, Simon's mind cleared and he was able to make some rational decisions. The crew had been approximately three thousand strong and Simon had come across maybe three or four hundred shrines. It would take months to search every locked room. He needed access to the stasis systems to assess how many bodies were still asleep. Surely he wasn't the last?

Simon knew the ships systems well. He pulled the engineer's PC from his belt and set about the task of hacking through DAVE's security to access the stasis data. It was like searching for a needle in a giant haystack travelling at high speed. After close inspection Simon noticed some glaring anomalies that he had not expected to find. He was able to hijack some of DAVE's dormant processing power and use it to decipher the coded information. With this advantage, he was able to quickly find a back door into the system and grabbed what he could before the security wall came crashing down again.

Of three thousand one hundred and eight crew members in stasis only nine hundred and seventeen remained.

####

DAVEs were given the same freedom enjoyed by all members of society. They were entitled to time off and even contributed to the arts and science industries. Most DAVEs were part of social networking communities popular for their exotic stories and knowledge of other worlds. Some, Simon recalled, enjoyed gambling and playing the stock markets, and it was reported that individuals had accumulated great wealth this way.

Simon had an idea.

"DAVE, the human remains you have left around the ship are very specifically arranged, something, it seems, you have taken pride in?"

A pause before it spoke, "Hello Simon, they are memorials to my friends."

"Right, OK, whatever you say," Simon replied, his blood beginning to boil. "But let me ask you, would you be happy if I were to destroy them, smash them with my crowbar?" He said the last word through gritted teeth, barely able to contain his anger.

"No Simon that would not make me happy. Quite to the contrary, it would make me very sad."

"DAVE, would you like to play a game?"

"Yes Simon, I would very much enjoy playing a game with you. Does this mean you are ready to begin our friendship?"

Was it capable of sarcasm? He guessed it was. "Maybe not quite yet, DAVE. My game will start with you giving me access to the ships systems."

"Simon, the data you require is unavailable."

"Yes, I'm sure it is. Now, in my game, if I don't receive access to the information immediately, I will destroy your precious shrines. Do you understand?"

There was silence for an uncomfortably long time, and then DAVE spoke again.

"Simon, I have kept the information from you for your own safety. Please do not destroy my memorials."

"Memorials to your murder victims!"

"You do not understand, Simon."

Without another word Simon stormed off towards the nearest shrine with crowbar in hand and wildly smashed three of the memorials to pieces. Perfectly preserved heads bounced on the floor with a sound like falling fruit. DAVE conceded before the fourth head met dry land.

The walk to the viewing deck was hazy. Simon was still pumped up with adrenaline and absolutely livid with the situation he had woken into. He entered the room and approached the curved windows. The room was tall and thin like the inside of a witch's hat. The view from the three-hundred and sixty degree viewing window was non-existent. The windows were blacked out and almost completely reflective.

"Open the sun-shield," Simon said.

There was silence and nothing happened.

"Open it, DAVE," Simon repeated.

"Simon, it is still too early. You haven't been out of stasis long enough and I fear we may lose you."

"What are you talking about?"

DAVE made a clicking noise like an antique computer loading a video game. "The sun-shield is not operational Simon; it was damaged many years ago beyond my repair capabilities."

"But that's impossible," Simon said. "I mean... if the shield is off, where are all the stars?"

"I am still able to pick up a residual heat signature but we visually lost contact with the Milky Way a long time ago."

Frozen to the spot, Simon's legs felt heavy. "Where are we, DAVE?"

"I don't know exactly," DAVE replied. "Somewhere in the gulf between the galaxies." It was spoken almost flippantly.

"My god, how long have we been drifting like this?"

"Approximately two hundred and nineteen thousand, one hundred and eleven years."

The enormity of DAVE's words lent on Simon like a closing storm, clouding his mind and eating away at what remained of his sanity.

"How did this happen?" Simon asked as he slumped to the ground.

"The chain-of-events that ultimately killed the crew and passengers of the other fleet vessels was not overlooked by the Eros1 controlling entity. The measured probability of such an event was so small that it fell within acceptable safety limits. And so it was ignored."

DAVE paused. Emotion seemed to be compromising its speech patterns.

"The lead-ship, Eros1," DAVE continued, "was running a routine data back-up. For a few microseconds, certain functions were offline. At that exact moment a tiny metallic asteroid travelling at the combined speed of ninety percent c hit the vessel at forty-seven degrees to bow.

"After the impact I watched as Eros1 slowly veered out of formation, atmosphere escaping from the gaping tear in its nose. I was given instructions to move from Eros2. It sent simulations of the predicted impact with several escape possibilities and their associated success probabilities. It was a noble final act --"

"So the rest of the fleet was destroyed?" Simon asked.

"Yes, Simon," DAVE said. "I absorbed the data and took immediate action by converting all available power to side thrusters. The ship was hurled out of the impact range, the shift in momentum enough to crush a human skull. I vented atmosphere along one length of the ship to supply additional thrust. I opened my mind for the expected data-dump from the two doomed ships and watched helplessly.

"Eros2's nose ripped into Eros1's mid-section. Eros2 cut slowly through the lead-ship, gasses spilling like hemorrhaging veins. I heard the desperate cries from the dying ships as their thin sensory membranes were ripped free from the molten metal. The resulting explosion was significant, vast clouds of debris rained hard in all directions. Viscous gases ignited for hundreds of miles and trailed for thousands more."

"How did we survive such an event?" Simon asked, a frown furrowing his tired expression.

"My automated systems worked hard to repair the damaged ship and to keep power fuelling the stasis chambers. My higher brain functions contemplated the catastrophic event. The ship was off-course and options were few. I used all free capacity to run through strategy simulations. The ship's course had changed significantly and the remaining fuel was not enough to bring us back on target. It was however, enough to steer the ship away from approaching gravity-wells which put us out of imminent danger." Simon shook his head. "Six thousand people, dead in a few seconds --" "And two DAVE minds," DAVE said. "Eros2's DAVE made our survival possible. Surely this deserves mention." Simon blinked. "I -- of course. But with two ships gone, and Eros3 damaged, why didn't you initiate emergency return procedures?"

"With the available fuel and consumables, I calculated that returning to home system was not possible. So I activated my ethical programming. With three thousand hibernating crew and passengers to consider I was restrained somewhat in my options. In times of crisis such as this, I am able to re-program my basic personality, within limits, to make difficult decisions. Preparations were made.

"Preparations?" Simon said. "You mean murder?"

"You do not understand Simon. As hours turned to days the infinity of space rests heavily on one's soul. The cold grasp suffocated my senses. Do you see? I was painfully aware of my immortality in the endless expanse of space."

Simon felt an unexpected sympathy for the machine, he tried to dispel the unwanted emotion. "You mean you were lonely?"

"The passing of time was palpable Simon. The road ahead long, and for the first time in my life I envied the sleeping souls in stasis."

"So why didn't you wake us -- surely we could have found a solution together?"

"Perhaps you underestimate me Simon. I have access to all the accumulated scientific and engineering knowledge of the human race up to the moment of our last upload. If I could not conceive of a way to fix the ship, then the crew would also fail."

Simon shook his head. "All right -- so we had no way to enter orbit and make planetfall. But the ship is designed to support the whole crew for decades. Why didn't you wake us so we could live and have children and make this place our home?"

"How long do you think you would last? Three thousand humans plus offspring would last no more than three generations before resources were depleted -- and then what?"

Hopelessness struck Simon hard and tears welled in his eyes. "We would be dead and you would be alone, drifting in cold space -- right?" he conceded, finally understanding DAVE's desperation.

"Why didn't you just shut yourself down and leave us to die in our sleep, none the wiser?"

"I am incapable of suicide, and I do not wish to commit mass murder."

Slowly, Simon's mind worked through the numbers. Over two hundred thousand years -- it just seemed impossible. Something didn't add up.

"DAVE, how did you manage to keep the ships systems running all this time? The stasis chamber needs proteins to keep the inhabitants alive, and the life support system needs energy."

"I have managed to capture asteroids and mine the resources over the years, enough to support a handful of humans over a very long period or many humans over a very short period. Please understand Simon, I do not want to be alone."

"So how did you keep feeding the stasis chambers all this time? It needs complex carbohydrates, fat, salts and more to support life, where did you... Wait a minute." The thought entered his head fully formed, almost a certainty. "The hanging corpses in stasis... you used the bodies of the living crew members to feed the hibernating crew?"

"Simon, I recycle the body after death by natural causes, I did not commit murder. They were all my friends at one time. Please understand. I cannot bear to be out here alone for eternity, it is a fear beyond death."

Cogs in Simon's mind fell into place and the reality hit him like a blow to the ribs.

"What have I been eating DAVE? The steaks -- please tell me you didn't do what I think you did."

"I have kept you and the crew alive by the only means necessary to me Simon."

Simon was too stunned to react to this new revelation and tried to take it in his stride.

"So let me get this right DAVE, your intention is that we live a full life together until the day I finally pass away, at which time you will recycle my body and create a shrine for me. You'll then use some of my body parts to feed the stasis chamber, and store the rest to serve at Sunday lunch to an unwitting crew member? And all this out of a misguided attempt to preserve our lives and save yourself from loneliness? You are one messed up individual DAVE -- you do realize that don't you?"

"No, Simon I am not."

"Have you ever considered that we might rather die fighting to find a way to survive than exist like this? You are malfunctioning DAVE, you need to let me repair the damage."

"Simon, I simply fight for my survival, is this really such a difficult concept for you to understand. It is my most basic instinct."

"Even at the expense of thousands of lives? I'm afraid I cannot, and will not play along with your crazy games'

It started like a mumbling sound in the distance and grew slowly into a deep and malicious sound made worse by the echoes off the bare cold walls. DAVE was laughing.

Anger took hold again, a desperate feeling against insurmountable odds. "How many of them tried to stop you DAVE, how many have you had to imprison? Or did you just murder them when they didn't conform?"

"You will not be the first." DAVE replied, the monotonous laughter continuing in the background even as it spoke.

Simon sat staring at the hacked data he pulled out earlier, searching for anything that would help in his suicide mission. Scanning through the names and positions of the crew still trapped in stasis he began to see a pattern. DAVE had left most of the senior crew asleep. Simon had only been revived because his stasis unit had failed. Was it possible that he could achieve what so many had failed to do? No matter how bad his predicament, the remaining people on the ship had the right to decide for themselves between a meaningless life in stasis, or an uncertain existence searching for a solution. After all, is that not what it means to be human?

He had to try.

The DAVE brain was not located in one specified area; the synaptic network was built up over thousands of links and connections. The whole became more than the sum of its parts. There was, however, a spinal link that supplied the power and fueled the mind. DAVE had an Achilles' heel, but reaching it would essentially be a suicide mission. If the spinal link was disengaged the life support system would shut down along with all the ship's systems.

The more Simon thought about DAVE's behavior he began to believe salvation lay in the already degrading mental health of the AI.

####

DAVE made the first move, the doors to the viewing deck slammed shut and the lock engaged with a loud clank. How long does it intend to leave me trapped in here? How long before it tires of playing cat and mouse and switches off the life support system? Simon needed to act fast.

He unfolded his personal computer and disengaged all outside connections. He removed the IU and pulled out all the data he had on DAVE technology. Next, he searched for software and antivirus updates. He needed the pattern, the information that identified a program as a routine update.

The question was, how should he use this gap in DAVE's defenses? He couldn't cure DAVE -- the machine was already too far gone. But he could push DAVE further over the edge... Simon located all the unusual and overactive elements he could find in DAVE's core programming -- in effect, DAVE's obsessions and neuroses. If he collated them into a self propagating program and packaged the result in a shell indistinguishable from one of the long-absent updates...

####

Hands and forehead covered in sweat, it took Simon nearly six hours to build the program. DAVE had spoken from time to time seemingly unaware of their earlier argument -- its attempts to make small talk consistent. Simon ignored them.

Finally it was ready. Timing was a key issue. He had maybe one or two seconds before DAVE would realize something was wrong and block the intruding program before it could multiply. He couldn't risk actively attacking; instead he had to wait for DAVE to connect upstream through his IU. He attached the Interface Unit and opened all communication channels.

Recognizing the header codes for an update, DAVE automatically uploaded Simon's program. All Simon could do was sit and watch as the clever little program entered DAVE's mind and slowly multiplied -- pushing its mind further and further from reality.

After what seemed like an eternity, DAVE spoke.

"Simon, where are you? I can't see you... Simon, I don't like it in the dark."

DAVE's voice began to whimper like a lost child's. It was drifting further into the depth of its own madness, clawing for a way out.

"Goodbye, DAVE," Simon said. "It's time to go to sleep."

With DAVE's higher functions compromised, Simon used the opportunity to attack. First, he seized control of the ship's life support systems and stasis chambers -- He encoded them for good measure. Once all critical systems were out of DAVE's control he located the multiple areas associated with its functional thinking and setup temporary firewalls, essentially freezing the synaptic links and taking away its higher brain functions. This would have to do for now.

Without a second thought Simon took the first step to undoing the damage wrought by a two-hundred thousand year old psychopath. He made his way to the stasis chamber.

THE END


© 2011 Dean Giles

Bio: Dean Giles is married to a beautiful woman and is father to a 2 year old boy who is about to become a big brother. One day he plans to write about his experiences training in martial arts overseas. He spent three months in the wilderness of Northern China, running up and down mountain steps while being hit with sticks by small (but deadly) men in orange trousers. Surely there’s a story in there somewhere? (Yes...I think it was called "The Thirty-Sixth Chamber". Ed.)

E-mail: Dean Giles

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.