Awakening, Part 15

At Tari’s suggestion to check her quarters for something to wear, Alecha spent a few minutes digging around in Tari and Jadyn’s closet. The whole idea of donning some sort of shrouding stemmed from T’bia’s gentle recommendation that there might be others involved in reviewing the meeting who were not entirely indoctrinated to Val’Traxan ideology. She hadn’t said it quite like that, but that seemed the core of the issue. Personally, Alecha didn’t much care whether she wore covering or not. Specifically needing to hunt something down was the annoyance.

A bag in the corner of the room caught her eye; she came away from the find with a lightweight halter and some slacks. Both were set in translucent black steelsilk, streaks of green shooting random highlights through the fabric. Tari’s hips were slightly narrower than her own; the slacks were a tight squeeze, but manageable.

Making another stop through the Serin’s medbay to check on Kaler, Alecha worked her way up to the starcutter’s common room. Loud yelling carried well down the corridor before the door even opened. She found the felinoid engineer Toliya deep in a heated argument with T’bia about the J’Ruhn’s airlocks. Jadyn, sitting at the head of the table, simply ignored them both as he studied the contents of several datapads laid out before him.

Alecha quietly took to an open seat, She found herself unable to fully work out the details of the ongoing debate. Her translator did as best it could to follow along, giving up on large tracts of the pair’s loud conversation as they spoke over each other’s sentences. Predictive algorithms could only go so far for ‘instant’ translation, especially when grammatical rules differed. What should the translation guess for a verb when the receiving language expects it at the start of a sentence, and the speaker’s language calls for it at the end?

While placing the translator on a delay would work around the issue, she wasn’t sure that listening to the two argue was really worth it. So, she left things be, getting a few tidbits of the core issue here and there. T’bia had done something about an airlock… Maybe she hadn’t done something? And the short snow leopard male was upset about it. About… getting blown into space, perhaps? That event, in any case, seemed unlikely. Airlock failsafes would prevent such a thing.

After another minute, once the two fully descended into curious racial slurs—insults involving stack overflows, hairballs, inverted memory banks, and licking one’s self in intimate ways and the like—Jadyn raised one hand and snapped his fingers. The two both fell silent, finishing with a mutual glare as they sat down on opposite sides of the table.

“Do we have everyone we need?” Jadyn asked, his voice projecting an air of quiet and calm energy as though nothing that had just happened was anything but an ordinary event. Scanning across the room, Alecha noticed Pakar standing silently in the background beside Tarioshi, both somewhat shaded by odd shadows; the room’s lighting seemed intent to leave them as background fixtures for the meeting. Several vulden workers, including Orrthra, sat on the comparatively well-lit tabletop.

Keya had taken the chair beside Toliya, and given his current at-home circumstances Alecha ensured a polite gap separated them. An absolute air of unease floated about the red-furred velorian, but Alecha couldn’t pinpoint why. This was much different than his earlier avoidance of female scents and definitely not directed at her.

“I think so,” Toliya appraised. “Rothrr?”

A vulden cocked his head sideways. “Others from the vulden teams are in touch remotely to provide input, should it be necessary. The official Fleet crews have been placed on standby until parts are fabricated, so none have been on board today.”

“Small blessings.” Jadyn eased to his feet, giving himself time for a long stretch. “Thank you all for joining us on short notice. I’m going to dispense with most of the introductions as I’m fairly sure most of you have already met one another in passing and at least have a clue of who I am. I’m also confident you are all familiar with Speaker Tubor—”

Acting Speaker,” the emerald drekiran quietly corrected.

Jadyn rolled his eyes and continued. “The white vixen standing beside her is Tarioshi Kitanaka. She is currently recognized as owner and Captain of the J’Ruhn.” Jadyn turned to Alecha. “Miss Kitanaka has given me leave to conduct certain administrative actions on her behalf. She has also offered to relinquish any claim she holds on the ship to the original colony crew. You are the only one considered fit enough to take on that responsibility, should you wish to do so at this time.”

Alecha shook her head. “No. As a fellow Val’Traxan she has entirely as much right to that title as anyone aboard. I’m content to leave it with her until more of our leadership is awake, on the condition she continues to keep our best interests in mind.”

“All right.” Jadyn leaned on the table, addressing everyone. “Veloria’s planetary ruling council contacted Terac Lun’s Security Division this morning. The Velorians raised concerns about keeping the J’Ruhn at its current location and requested a risk assessment. Between the questionable role of the ship in the failed pirate attack and the incident this morning, they have reason to be concerned. As the… ‘Acting’ Speaker retains her prior position of head advisor of the Security Division, she personally came here to observe this meeting. I also should note that this is all being recorded for further review by the Security Committee, as some individuals on the committee have voiced concerns about her objectivity in this matter.”

“That’s silly,” Toliya protested. “She’s perfectly capable of making objective decisions involving you. She’s done it before.”

Pakar shook her head. “We’re dealing with a situation a little more complex than deciding whether or not a close friend deserves to spend the night in a holding cell for being a public nuisance,” she explained. “I happen to agree with their concerns, and I appreciate that they’ll be reviewing this. It’s my intention to present a suggested course of action to the committee and call for a vote to ensure that whatever is decided isn’t a unilateral move on my part.”

Jadyn eased into his chair, resting his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers together. “And now, the bad news. We have fifty-six hours—two full Velorian days—to provide answers regarding today’s problem and to prove the ship is secure. If we are unable to meet that deadline, we will be handed a default order to remove the J’Ruhn to a safe distance or dispose of it in the Velorian sun.”

Alecha’s mouth worked but no sound came out. She took a personal moment to calm her thoughts and tried again. “Ignoring the fact that pushing the ship into a star would end any hope we might have of… any future at all… Do they have any idea what our Displacement drive will do if that happened?”

“Let’s not make empty threats,” Jadyn replied, making a very slight motion of his hands. Where everyone else saw a simple gesture, she felt his slight tug at threads of Light and Air. It was an old method of non-verbal communication between Artisans: in this case, by lightly brushing the two Elements more commonly used for creating silence, he’d indicated she shouldn’t elaborate further. She wasn’t sure his reasoning, but the sensible thing was to follow his request. For now.

“I’d rather not give anyone a reason to think that anything out of the ordinary would happen,” he continued. “Someone might decide to test the idea. I have filed a demand that the ship be towed to a safe distance should the order to remove it from this area actually come down, but that will limit the protection available from the Fleet. I have little doubt there are still raiding parties hiding outside the system who are hoping to break into the ship and find answers as to why their supply chain has been cut. A better solution is to prove the ship is not a threat. After this morning’s problem, this will be a unique challenge.”

Jadyn took a breath, scanning the attendees. “Aside from Commander PanLidaefel and Mister Rothrr, does anyone know what happened on the J’Ruhn forcing me to declare a code white evacuation?”

“Ooh! Ooh!” T’bia raised her hand, bouncing on her toes. “I do! Pick me!”

Giving everyone else ample time to respond, Jadyn pulled up a scale holographic rendering of the ship’s hull. He allowed the image to fully rotate twice before asking his next question. “Can anyone not T’bia tell me what is wrong with this picture?”

Alecha squinted at the image, reaching up to stop it in mid-turn. “Every airlock is open on the port side of the ship.”

“Correct. A housekeeping program attempted to vent two crew into space because it identified them as a biohazard. When it ran into trouble overriding the specific airlock’s controls, it forced open every airlock on that side of the ship, both their inner and outer doors, then closed them again.” Jadyn dismissed the graphic with a wave. “Rapid decompression resulted in an amount of thrust that pushed the ship sideways and tore it free of several gravitational mooring buoys. It also succeeded in removing the so-called ‘biohazards’ from the ship. As you can see, Toliya and Rothrr are unhurt from their experience. Physically, at least.”

T’bia stuck her tongue out at Toliya, receiving a glower of contempt in response.

“The last time anything remotely like this took place,” the blue fox continued, “was during the ship’s original shakedown cruise several centuries ago. At that time, the AI overseeing the ship was faced with a fire emergency. He opted to extinguish it by evacuating atmosphere from several sections that held work crews, causing their deaths. He was later replaced, but now a similar problem has resurfaced. To the best of my knowledge, while he was online not long ago, he is not presently active.”

“That’s correct,” Toliya confirmed. “We can’t boot his cores because of the damaged systems linking them across the ship.”

“Something else is going on. We need to work out what that is.” Jadyn met the eyes of everyone at the table, one by one. “I want to know what you’ve seen over there as you’ve worked on the ship. I especially want to know about anything anyone wrote off as a mere oddity of a very alien craft. Assume that no one else has seen what you’ve seen and speak up.”

“Has anyone noticed the rats?” Toliya quipped.

“They were quite prolific, but we have managed to cull a large contingent of the population,” a female vulden spoke. “By our estimates, less than thirty percent remain.”

Jadyn scribbled notes into a datapad. “How many were on board? Best guess.”

“Living, perhaps three hundred when we were called upon to begin an extermination program. A number of vacant colonies turned up in our hunt. We believe the peak population numbered nearly two thousand.”

“There’s that number again…” Tapping his stylus against the table, he waited. “Next?”

“My communicator was flooded with messages from dead people,” Orrthra volunteered. At Jadyn’s confused look, the tawny-furred vulden continued his explanation. “This morning before the accident I was following a length of bioconductor to the laboratory sections. When I approached the section, I was assaulted with enough communications traffic to render my comms hardware inoperable through a buffer overflow. Some of the messages, while dated today, are from individuals who are deceased.”

“That’s… peculiar. What comm relay are you connected to?” Jadyn questioned.

“My kit is set to roam to the strongest valid node. That is typically the high-gain subspace relay on Terac Lun.

“You should set a fixed lock,” T’bia suggested. “The J’Ruhn is littered with relay nodes. If you move close to one, it would appear to have a stronger signal.”

“That shouldn’t happen,” countered Toliya. “Your nodes don’t use the same protocols ours do, and most of the vulden don’t have a comm unit set up to work with yours. Unless the node itself went out of its way to find some vaguely compatible near-field variant it could handshake with, Terac Lun’s relay should still win out.”

Orrthra’s eyes briefly glazed over as he consulted something only he could see. “That appears to be the case,” he quickly confirmed. “Several cross-compatibility abstraction layers engaged to complete the connection. I neglected to check that particular logfile. This still does not explain the barrage of messages.”

“May I take a look at them?” the AI asked. Orrthra offered a confirming dip of his head.

Silence descended on the room once more while T’bia downloaded the data. Jadyn finished his notes and moved his eyes along the table to the next in line. “Forgive me, but you are…?”

“Keya Deshin, sir,” the velorian squeaked.

“He’s one of my recent hires,” Toliya interjected. “Among other things, Keya has a good deal of experience with the bioneural interfaces the vulden use. He’s probably the second best biotechnician on my staff right now.”

“If you are counting yourself as the first,” Rothrr suggested, “I advise you to flip first and second place.”

“Oh, really… Interesting.” Jadyn focused on the uncomfortable velorian, leaning back and twirling his stylus over his fingers. “Toy’s been working with the systems on this ship on and off for well over a decade. Do you think you’re capable of performing on his level?”

Keya fidgeted with a piece of jewelry adorning one of his fingers, looking at Toliya and Rothrr with a small amount of panic. “Well… I… I don’t know, sir. This is my first experience—that is, it’s my first time dealing with—”

“That’s okay,” T’bia cooed, giving him a sultry wink across the table. “I’ll be gentle.”

“Let me rephrase that.” Jadyn laid the stylus on the table. “Given the same opportunity to learn our systems, do you think that you will be able to provide something of value—not just to us, but to all your future work—with what you learn?”

“I… Yes, sir. I… I do.”

“Good. Aside from Rothrr, you’re the only other individual on the shop’s payroll that Toy has ever let near our tech. Granted, this is a somewhat larger project than he’d normally take on, but I’m sure you’ve at least noticed that no one else from the shop has been around.” Giving Keya another brief appraisal as he digested that bit of trivia, Jadyn lifted the stylus and datapad once more. “What have you been working on?”

“Life support, sir. I’m trying to extend it into more areas of the ship, but I discovered that the air recyclers are all dead.”

“I realize you have a biotech background, but let’s be sure we have the same meaning in mind,” Jadyn suggested. “Dead as in mechanically inoperative, or dead as in biologically deceased?”

“Both.” Keya took a breath at Jadyn’s gesture to continue, some of his nervousness dissipating. “The units most remote from populated areas have been cannibalized for parts to repair other units. On the repaired units, the film that regenerates the biomass has been wiped out. Miss Rutemin and I worked out that all fresh air is currently generated by replicators and strategically routed through the ship using the existing ventilation system, with stale air vented into space.”

A deep frown set into Jadyn’s features. “You’re sure the recyclers are dead?”

“We went past one on our way back to medical,” Alecha confirmed, recalling the stench of mold. “It felt as though all the energy had been ripped right out of it. They’re completely ruined.”

A couple of the vulden exchanged curious looks. “What do you mean by ‘felt’?” a female asked.

“Perhaps it is translation error,” another suggested.

“Tangent,” Jadyn called in an attempt to restore focus. “Has anyone else noticed any other biotech issues like this?”

“I observed a section of bioconductor that was similarly damaged,” Orrthra voiced. “A long tract was devoid of all signs of life. I only spent a brief time examining it, but whatever killed it did so in a nearly instantaneous way. I am not familiar with any technology that can strip biochemical energy in such thorough fashion.”

On the edge of the room, Tarioshi sat down, cradling her head in her hands.

“No one else?” Jadyn prompted, turning his attention back to the velorian. “So you believe replicators are responsible for all the fresh air?” Jadyn shook his head. “That shouldn’t be possible without—”

“Without something to control it,” Keya finished, realizing only after he stopped that he’d interrupted the blue fox. Quietly, when no one spoke up in his silence, he added, “We… We can’t think of any system capable of doing that.”

“There isn’t one,” confirmed T’bia. “With the complexity required to manually route replicated atmosphere on a shipwide scale with any degree of efficiency, it would require the micromanagement skills of an AI.”

Jadyn gave both Keya and T’bia’s statements some thought, finally extending a silent, questioning gaze in T’bia’s direction.

“It’s not me,” she defended. “Life support seemed okay in the populated areas, so I didn’t look into it. There were plenty of other things for me to deal with, like fixing a malfunctioning replicator in a room where no one actually eats. Well, no one but the rats.”

“Did you ever figure out why the replicator spit out rodent feed?” Jadyn questioned.

“No. It was all cleaned up when I got there. When I tested the unit, it replicated a beverage just fine but neglected to include a container. At best, that was merely a general malfunction related to the main computer’s ongoing issues.”

“The feed,” Toliya spoke. “I forgot. There were pellets in the feed mix that smelled like bioconductor insulation. Much stronger than it normally would smell.”

“That sounds like someone trying to bait the rodents into testing the conductors out as food,” Keya pointed out. “Did I hear you correctly when you said the rats attacked you?”

A smirk pulled at Jadyn’s muzzle. “You mean when the rodents swarmed Toy and Rothrr? It wasn’t much of an attack. Based on the video I saw, they seemed more interested in the food on the floor. That is a good point, though—what caused it?”

Toliya shrugged. “The replicator started dumping feed on the floor.”

“No, no.” Jadyn shook his head. “That’s what brought them to you. What happened before that?”

“I killed a rodent,” Rothrr offered.

“You killed three,” Toliya corrected. “And you ate one.”

“I was hungry.”

T’bia squinted; a cross-section looking down upon the J’Ruhn appeared above the table. A bright white patch glowed in the aft end of the ship; she promptly waved it away. “Jay. There’s something Toy neglected to tell you.”

“Don’t you dare blame any of this on me,” the snowy feldaran retorted. “You’re the one who—”

Jadyn snapped his fingers again. “Stop it, both of you. We won’t have a solution for any of this if you can’t work together anymore. At the very least, I agree that T’bia owes both you and Rothrr an apology for indirectly letting you get blown into space.”

“But it’s not my fault!” she protested. “There is no way that airlock should have cycled with them inside. The failsafes in the airlock itself actually prevented that from happening the first time it tried. That’s why I didn’t just transport them out right away.”

“Yeah, except it did open,” Toliya snapped.

“Only after all the airlocks on that side were forced open through an emergency protocol! Look, we’re getting off topic. There are several things taking place on the J’Ruhn that should not be possible without an AI to direct them, and until now even I’ve believed that both Sanusin and Tieralyene were so damaged that they were both effectively non-functional.”

Several dim glows popped up around the ship schematic. “These are energy signatures,” she explained. “I already filtered off the massive signature of the main engines since they obscure most everything else, and most of their energy isn’t getting to places that need it anyway. There’s one hot spot in the lab section which I’m confident is the fusion generator Keya took to check on a cloning lab. Most of these are similar—small, portable power plants taken to specific areas for spot applications of power where the ship’s own grid isn’t working.”

“Why is that one green?” Alecha asked, pointing out one of the dots. The rest were shades of yellow.

“That’s a different power signature. The rest of these are generic fusion plants made with Aligned tech. This odd one… It’s a biofusion generator inside one of the TBIA cores.”

Jadyn ground his thumb against a forefinger, his knuckles audibly popping. “One of Tier’s cores is online and you didn’t bother to tell anyone?”

“I knew,” Toliya voiced. “I actually was the one who brought it to her attention when she came to check on that replicator. We’ve done a few scans of that core in our little free time, but other systems have taken priority. It’s not really capable of doing much of anything aside from generating heat.”

The blue fox shut his eyes, sucking air through his teeth as he reigned in his emotions. Alecha could feel the frustration radiating from his aura; he’d nearly snapped before the feldaran engineer spoke up in T’bia’s defense. She couldn’t exactly blame him. It struck her as an odd turn of events—with all the arguing the two had just been through, Toliya still stuck up for T’bia on his own initiative.

That the AI was partly responsible for Toliya and Rothrr’s abrupt expulsion from the ship was a fact not lost on her, either.

“How many of her cores are active?” Jadyn asked, forcing his voice to a flat neutral. The question sounded more like a statement than an inquiry.

“As far as I can tell, only the one,” T’bia replied, her attitude shifting. Slight changes in her posture and body language reflected more respect as she continued, her behavior growing less blatantly flippant; perhaps she was aware of how close Jadyn had been to coming completely unglued? “She’s suffering the same bit of malware that came after me. I’ve worked through some possible theories in the last few minutes based on everything we now know that we know. The most plausible scenario is that Sanusin kept her online after crippling her and forced her to deal with basic and menial tasks in her viral-induced stupor. Airflow management, housekeeping, the like.”

Toliya scratched behind one of his ears in thought. “What about the rats?”

“Remember that they chewed up Sanusin’s interlinks but lived in her core without damaging it? Somehow, she managed to mount a roundabout defense by training those herbivorous pests using the replicated feed. They learned to eat through the cables that link his cores to the main computer and each other through rest of the ship. He only had two cores left.”

“They almost pulled it off.” Jadyn reclined in his chair, staring at the ceiling tiles. “Then we came on board and started killing the pests she invested time and energy into training, making us the enemy. Without Sanusin to lock her out she found a new way to fight back at us using the housekeeping robotics and an emergency biohazard purging protocol.”

“Where does my messaging buffer problem fit into your theory?” Orrthra queried.

“That has proved somewhat tricky to work out. I think a large portion of the traffic actually didn’t make it to you before your comm buffer went down.” T’bia displayed a three-dimensional gridded rectangle above the table; strings of messages flew in from nowhere, fleshing out a pattern. “I think I stared at the raw data for four minutes straight before I saw the pattern emerge. Message timestamps form the horizontal axis. The distance of the source from the J’Ruhn forms the vertical. The weirdest bit is alphabetizing them in Kametian by the sound of the message’s first phoneme to calculate depth. After that, it’s simply a matter of finding the right viewing angle.”

Jadyn twisted his fingers in the air; the finished hologram spun to face him. Several other hand gestures flipped the elongated cube in the air until he was satisfied with its position. “How much of this is your extrapolation of missing data?”

“Well over half,” T’bia admitted. “I’m fairly confident of the result even with accumulated errors. A vulden harness just can’t hold as much as I think she tried to push at him. It’s a good thing that she couldn’t overwrite his brain through a comm node.”

Toliya studied the image, squinting as he tried to decipher the meaning. “I don’t get it. What is it?”

“Alecha should be able to tell you,” stated Jadyn, giving the graphic a spin to face her. Alecha gazed at the hologram, leaning from side to side to find where the different depths best lined up. A very simple message emerged from the composite of all the other messages in the matrix as she found the right vantage point.

“‘Help me,’” Alecha quoted. “In Kametian script, it reads… ‘help me.’”

Toliya stared at the pattern, flipping it to face him head-on. “Still don’t see it… Why would she go to this length to hide a call for help?”

Rothrr grunted. “A better question may be, how did you manage to pick that out of the noise of all the other transmissions?”

“Sanusin and Khamai have been hiding messages on top of other messages for some time. They created a network on top of the existing Aligned Fleet comm network that went dark the moment Sanusin shut himself down. With that in mind, I thought about ways to hide a metamessage inside of all these other messages that could still be found if someone tried hard enough. Really, I think it was her only way to get any kind of plea out.” T’bia grabbed the hologram out of the air, folding it down and stuffing it into a pocket as if it were a piece of paper she didn’t want to lose. “The signatures verifying the individual messages, they’re all different—valid, but different. Those individual signatures all have her master signature confirming them. Think of all that process infighting we saw. Her consciousness is fractured and the pieces are all battling for control. I doubt any of the little shards can tell what is real and what’s not. Somewhere, maybe there’s still a halfway sane echo of her old self able to influence the horde. I doubt she has any real control, though. It’s probably like—”

“Like herding cats?” Toliya rubbed his forehead, meeting the curious glances from around the table. “Come on. We all know that’s exactly where she was going.”

“I believe this corruption you describe may be appropriately paralleled to acute schizophrenia with multiple personalities,” spoke a vulden male. “Is there a procedure available to correct this anomalous behavior? Perhaps rolling her to a checkpoint or a recent backup?”

“There are no clean checkpoints. As for backups, we don’t have a simple way to truly back up our programs aside from making a complete clone to a nearly identical piece of hardware. Too much data is involved.” T’bia gave a little shrug. “The main computer library might have possessed a basic skeleton of her core system when the ship departed. If it did, I didn’t see it in my forensic sweeps for the investigators, which means it was overwritten by random junk. I really don’t know how I managed to salvage anything out of that mess for the investigation.”

Resting his elbows on the table, Jadyn brought his index fingers to rest against his nose as he sat in quiet thought. A minute passed, then another. After four full minutes of silence, he placed his hands back on the table.

“Unless there are objections to the theory that a malfunctioning AI has partial control over the J’Ruhn, I want suggestions on any possible solutions.”

“The simplest is to shut down that core,” Keya voiced. When no one chimed in their support or opposition, the velorian shrank back into his chair. “Maybe I’m wrong…?”

Toliya shook his head. “You’re not. Under normal circumstances with normal hardware, that would be the smartest thing to do—shut her down and deal with everything in an offline state. Unfortunately, I had the opportunity to run scans of the other TBIA-based cores while Rothrr and I checked on the ARIA core conditions around the ship. Bee, did you get the readings I sent you?”

“Yeah,” she spoke, her voice far quieter than she had been all morning. “I did. I went over all our data from her active core, too. There’s no way I can refute your hypothesis. I hate it, but I can’t refute it. That’s why I never responded to your message.”

Jadyn looked at Toliya expectantly. “Well?”

“Her other cores have been dark so long that I’m pretty sure they can’t be revived by any conventional means. Maybe you guys have something special that will do the trick, but as far as I can tell they’re inert lumps. Tieralyene’s entire program on the remaining core is corrupt from long-term exposure to the viral processes. I’ve said this before: software problems in Val’Traxan tech don’t always stay constrained to just software. The corruption has spread beyond her software to the physical organic hardware. I’m sorry, but… She’s dying.”

6 Responses

  1. Tsumari says:

    Save the AI somehow!:P

  2. Tsumari says:

    I mean miss tari is forest element, life and such, she should be able to make energy conduits to transmit the signals from her element. Also having Jaydn sit and be psychologist to an insane AI should be amusing.

  3. typhoon says:

    Havin Jadyn babysit an insane AI may be fun (Takes one to know one?) but Tari might have a slight problem aboard the Jruhn, at last if she tries to use her gifts- The place is dead. Not a good environment for a life elemental.

  4. Tsunami says:

    Been a long time since this story again. Seems like the stories get published in winter to me.

  5. typhoon says:

    Damn. I missed the ‘It has been a year’ date to post a comment.

  6. Hotears says:

    This is one of the stories I return to every few years, hoping to find something new. So, here I am again. I should have said something the last time. Or the time before that. So I will just say Thank you for the story, because dawn is breaking where I am, and I will disconnect from the world for a bit.