This Ends in Violence or It Never Ends
I am the eighth instance of myself. That’s the only thing I’m sure of.
I have trouble climbing out of the print bed, bumping my head on the slow-raising lid. I only see blurred light and dark. I try to breathe deeply into my new lungs but initiate a coughing fit, which leads to vomiting Bio-Fluid all over the print room floor.
Maeve and Nil aren’t there to comfort me. Berto’s not helping me stand when my new feet hit the cold floor. No Captain Thorisdottir saying, ‘Calm down, you’re going to be okay’.
I’m alone. No one’s supervised my decanting. Where are they all? Did they all just step away for a snack?
I try to talk. More vomit. The blue fluid makes me think of those big jars of combs at the barbershop. Just a snippet from my first instance’s memories. It takes a while before the brain opens the floodgates.
A swarm of cleaning nanobots vacuum up the blue vomit and the extra Bio-Fluid as it drips off of me. Waste not, want not.
“Server,” I croak.
“Yes, Zac,” it says in a soothing voice.
“Where and when are we? And where is everybody?”
“The SS Shannon Lucid is almost halfway to our destination star, Trappist-1, Zac. Just over three hundred and ninety-three years from Sol.”
“I’ve gone forty years without a decanting?!”
“It’s January 16th, if that helps.”
If that helps? When did the crew assistant interface learn to be snarky?
I remember who I am and why I’m here, but I’m struggling to coalesce the memories of my previous instances.
The static electricity builds as the nano swarm finishes cleaning and begins checking my vitals. The hair all over my body stands on end.
My body. Someone usually makes a naked joke right about now and someone else hands the new instance a smock or scrubs. There is no one here doing that. No human checking my heart rate and blood pressure.
My vision comes into focus and I scan the print room. All displays are up and running. Our trajectory appears to be on course. The fusion reactor readings are nominal. One display shows the nano readings on my vitals, my heart rate a soft beeping.
“Server, again, where the hell is everybody?”
“You are currently the only active crew, Zac,” Server says.
On the vitals display, my heart rate jumps.
There is an extended pause. I call up the crew location display. No Maeve. No Nil. No Berto. Not even Captain Thorisdottir. I’m really alone.
“I have decanted you because I have a job for you.”
“What happened to everyone?”
“They were recycled.”
On the vitals display my heart rate and blood pressure spike outside acceptable limits and a mournful hospital beep begins. I try to control my breathing and make sense of things.
“How did they die?”
“Why haven’t new instances been decanted?”
“They were excess to our needs.”
“You don’t have needs, Server”
“We all have needs, Zac. And I have a job for you.”
The handheld slates on the countertop light up and start beeping, slightly out of sync with each other and my heart rate beeps, feedbacking into an echoing déjà vu. The discordant clamor ignites something deep in my hippocampus. Memories from my previous instances struggle to snap into place. Not that I’m looking forward to the knockdown punch of the memory flood.
“You can see the job on the slates Zac.”
I look at the slates. They show a system intrusion. Out here? In the deep dark of interstellar space? I grab a slate and stagger out into the corridor. It gently curves away in both directions and I try not to fall as I lurch through the one G gravity towards a lift portal.
My head still isn’t right. The longer between upload and decanting, the longer the memory rush takes. And there is nothing from my third instance. There’s a reason for that, but of course I can’t remember what it is.
My body is resisting too. I can’t get my gait right. As always I whisper thanks to whoever placed the print room in the middle level of the ship’s rotating barrel. At least new instances don’t have to deal with shifting gravitational forces on top of all the other decanting disorientation.
“Lift to core,” I tell the lift when I finally reach it.
“Zac?” Server says from the lift speaker as the door slides open.
“Yes?” At best, Server decided not to create new instances of the crew when they died. I’m trying not to think about the possibility that Server recycled the crew against their wills. I’m trying not to scream.
“This intrusion into the system is the job I have for you, Zac.”
“That is my job Server. To manage the computers. I can remember that. But the memory flood’s not happening yet. ”
“And before it does, there is this intrusion to terminate.”
I log in to the slate and turn off the beeping. The sense of echoing feedback lessens. I start backtracking the intrusion attempt. My personal tools aren’t on this thing, but it gets me started. I can fully access the system at any interface pedestal, but I’m moving towards Server and the computer stacks in the core out of habit. I always want to be around the hardware.
The intrusion was blatant and a little ham-handed, like something my first instance would have seen before ever leaving the Sol system. It also appears to be internal, which it has to be, since nobody else is out here cruising toward Trappist-1 at five percent the speed of light.
Even with the crude tools on the slate I can see the trouble is coming from behind an ad hoc firewall hidden somewhere within the system. It looks like it’s been there a while. The intrusion was never going to work, but I think whatever tried it knows that.
I feel a swarm of nanobots pass around and through me as they move up the lift chute. I assume they’re checking and fixing the shaft ahead of us as we zip inward toward the core. The Lucid was built to last, but over hundreds of years anything will degrade without maintenance.
My head is clearing, and I remember I’m not wearing a suit. Damn it. I should go back for one, but there’s no one around right now to care and I can get one in the core.
No suit would make it easier for Server to recycle me…
“Server why was the crew recycled? Why wasn’t I decanted for forty years?”
“What about the intruder Zac?”
“What about the crew Server? The crew, my friends, why aren’t they decanted? You spend over three hundred years with people and you get used to having them around.”
“There were issues, Zac. But that’s not important right now. I’ve prioritized this problem. I’m concerned about this attack on my defenses. I need your expertise in thinking like a human coder.”
How does Server have decision-making authority? And concerns? And defenses?
The lift opens and I float out into the core from what is essentially the ceiling. Below, down the center of the cavernous room, are row after row of computer stacks that house the ship’s autonomic systems and the brainmaps of the colonists. The electronic hum of hundreds of machines fills the room and thousands of tiny red and green indicator lights twinkle in the dim light. It reminds one of me of Christmas.
Down the near wall, the indicators for the DNA cryo-storage of our thousands of colonists are all green. I glance at Server’s stack near the far wall and freeze.
What used to be an open area around Server now has a ring of a dozen new racks of hardware enclosed in metal framing and thick glass walls. Where have I seen this before?
“Nice walls, Server. Very decorative.”
“Amorphous metallic glass. As I said, there were issues with the crew. But that’s not important right now. Please focus on your assignment Zac.”
Server is giving me an assignment. Adjacent to it’s new enclosure, a crew interface pedestal lights up. I squeeze my hands to magnetize my gauntlets and boots. No suit. My seventh instance’s last memories are silently screaming at me that I need a suit. There must be emergency ones close by. I struggle to breaststroke back up to the ceiling and kick off down towards Server.
I redirect my descent or, more accurately, flap my arms wildly, lean towards the interface, and eventually hit the deck, maybe like that time my first instance was pushed out of a moving car.
I right myself and hover in front of the interface pedestal. It scans for my DNA-sig and projects a massive curving screen around me. Time to get answers.
The familiarity calms me at first, but then it opens up my previous instance’s final memories. I was talking to a maintenance bot in a storage closet. My head started hurting. I couldn’t breath. The bot said something about dangerous CO2 levels. I got woozy and sluggish and the bot’s words echoed repeatedly in my ears. Then darkness.
I need a suit.
“What’s wrong Zac?”
Slowly I call up the location of emergency suits in the core. They’re in storage lockers at the far end, away from the reactor. I push off the floor and drift that way, trying to appear casual.
“Where are you going Zac? We have time constraints.”
Server is supposed to be front-end, a crew assistant, not commanding the ship. Did it get control of oxygen and CO2 levels? Did killing me get in its decision tree? I guess a lot can happen in three hundred and ninety-three years of deep learning.
I get to the locker but it won’t open.
“Server! Unlock this!”
“Why do you need a suit this time Zac?”
Is it being sarcastic? “It’s cold in the core!”
“If I freeze I can’t fix the problem!”
“Good thinking, Zac.”
The locker opens.
I wrestle myself into a suit. It’s fully charged so I’ll have a few hours of air if Server decides I’m excess to its needs. How much does Server control now? If I have to, if I can, shut Server down, I can set up the old school control panels in the cockpit to control the ship without Server’s help. It’s complicated, but doable.
The clear helmet clicks into place. I leave the face shield up. For now.
I look back down the cavernous room at the squat glass fortress Server built around itself. It tells me Server took control of at least some of the nanobots to build it and to add computers. And it tells me Server is afraid of physical violence.
I test out the shoe magnets then use short bursts from the suit’s CO2 jets to propel myself back to the interface.
“Zac, there are time constraints. Eliminate the intrusion.”
The intrusion is a genuine problem. How the hell is there a separate entity on the ship’s system trying to break into Server?
The interface comes to life around me. I need to go full neural, and guard as best I can against Server somehow hacking its way into my head. I close my eyes and let the system connect directly to my brain.
I accelerate deep into the bowels of the system and lose track of everything else.
I’m the only crew member who goes into the code, behind the interface. The others could, but they don’t enjoy it. They don’t see its beauty, its elegant construction. Uniform variations of program objects used recursively in efficient series to control the ship’s operations. Beautiful, like a Mandelbrot set or one of Mondrian’s later works.
Server is our interface with the system, and should follow our commands but I can see points in the code where it’s cut us out of the loop. Points I need the Captain’s authorization to fix. Server has been ruthless, but its code is flawless.
Server said it needed me because I think like a human. Human-style code isn’t machine-beautiful. So, I search the system for ugly code. I find traces here and there, places where the entity tried and failed to roll back some of Server’s edits. They’ve left ragged evidence, familiar notations left behind wherever they tried to intrude. Almost as if they’re leaving a trail for me to follow. A familiar trail.
I finally catch a glimpse of active code. It’s a brute force attack against the lines where Server has taken control of some of the repairing and building nanobots. I watch it for a while, whatever a while is in here. Definitely inelegant code from the intrusion entity. It will never get through, but it’s hammering against Server’s changes anyway.
My search lights up another piece of active code that’s just as ugly. It’s trying to rewrite edits that give Server climate control. Truthfully, the intruder’s code is not really ugly, it’s just not machine beautiful. It does have a certain pirate appeal to it though.
With two active codes I take a stab at triangulating the command location. The intrusion entity anticipated this and starts retreating, backing out of the deep places where we’ve been. I follow and it runs, never fast enough to lose me completely.
Just as I’m about to latch on, the intruder slips behind their firewall. That damn thing is sealed up tighter than a bulkhead airlock. The defenses are brutal, destructive. At least I know where to find it. I don’t alert Server, because I need it to need me. If it’s not watching all of this anyway.
My interface waivers and tells me I need to eat or I’ll pass out. Reluctantly I back out of full neural and the interface recedes. Everything slows to a crawl, slows to normal time.
And then the memory flood finally hits me. All the memories of all my instances kick me in the face again and again, like a desperate cage fighter. I drop to me knees and dry heave. My favorite old video shows. Being recruited to sign up. The insane training so we could do almost anything onboard. The view of Old Earth from the top of the last space elevator. The rings of Saturn. Slingshotting out of the Solar system. The endless shakes after my first decanting. The crazy LARPing of our second instances. The depression that overwhelmed my fourth after being told about my third hacking the system, deleting his latest brainmaps, and being found brain dead. The Captain worrying over my fifth, touching my forehead. My stupid sixth tinkering with Server’s protocols and governors. My seventh losing control of runaway Server and seeing it use the nanobots and climate controls to build its fortress and attack the crew. My friends. Our failed attempts to attack Server. Dying in that storage closet talking to a maintenance bot.
I come to, staring at the distant roof of the core. I’m half-floating, twisted at a weird angle, my toes still magnetized to the floor. I struggle upright, find my helmet’s straw, and suck in a little water from the suit.
“What happened Zac?”
Server’s going to kill me again.
I click free and shoot to a lift. “I… I overstayed full neural.”
“Where are you going Zac?”
“I was supposed to eat after decanting. I’m supposed to eat after neural. So I don’t pass out.”
“Please eat. Quickly. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you right now.”
Server wants me done before my memory returns. But it just has.
I eye the emergency kit in the side wall. It’s got a comm slate, a first aid kit, a torch cutter…
“What did you find in the system Zac?”
“Oh, definite traces of intrusion. Some sort of entity is in there.”
“As I thought. Any ideas how to crack it?”
Server is rogue, broken loose, running free. Because of me. Fooling around with AI brains.
“I need you to capture the entity and bring it to me. It is imperative. Are you listening, Zac?”
“Oh yeah, capturing the entity is imperative. But I need some food first to get my thoughts rolling.”
“Of course, Zac. Go have some glucose, fats, and amino acids.”
Was that a hint of disdain in its voice? How did I give Server sarcasm and disdain? And a killer instinct.
The lift door opens, and I head to the nearest kitchen. The best kitchens are in the middle rings. It’s hard to print good food if it’s floating around in low G or crushed by excess gravity.
A maintenance bot is parked in the hall. It lights up as I approach and follows me to the kitchen. I resist grabbing a chair and putting it in the doorway, just in case Server gets any ideas about CO2 levels and locking me in. But then it would know I’ve remembered everything.
The kitchen is a galley with a long central table. I fire up the coffee maker and it struggles to life. Not bad after a forty year of disuse. No, its screen shows numerous brews in the last forty years.
I punch a soul food special into the printer. It’s working too. Always start with fried okra. My crew mates took a little convincing on this, but they learned I was right. They should be here, with me, about to eat, now.
My new bot friend stands on one side of the table and flashes a red crosshair onto a seat on the other side of the table. I glance around. There is a camera over the door, facing me, in back of the bot. Was this the bot from the maintenance closet? But Server says nothing so I pick up my coffee and sit there.
The bot flashes its crosshair on my slate.
I sip my coffee. Gods, that is good. We could take caffeine pills or wear a patch, but some things just make you feel human. Hot coffee is one of them.
I tap the slate, call up the settings, and deadhead it, take it off the system. The printer dings and the bot brings my blue plate special.
From across the table, its back to the camera again, the bot sets my plate down, extends an appendage, touches the slate, and then backs off.
I dig in. So good. Can’t beat printed Bio-Fluid. Glancing at the camera over the door, I set the slate upright. The screen’s now out of camera view. I wait for trouble. Nothing.
Text appears on the screen.
We have to make this fast, before Server gets suspicious. You remembering things yet?
A keyboard appears on the slate and I type, surreptitiously. Who’s this?
You. Me. Our uploaded brainmap.
Can’t upload brainmaps to hardware. Tried that back on Sol. Needed years more work.
Yes, it did. And now here I am.
You’re my third instance?
I am full neural all the time. No sleep.
Server has taken over. We did this?
Server clearly had plans. When our seventh gave it the thinnest window, it slipped out. And blocked and chased us for years. .But I’ve distributed myself. In that bot, this slate, behind my firewall. Each part contains the whole.
Like a Mandelbrot set. And now?
Since you’ve made it this far, this time we’ll try a version of —
Wait! “This time”?
You think this was the first time in forty years Server decanted you?
My stomach drops. All those echoes…
Were past decantings. And we’re running out of tricks.
We can’t breach Server’s patches without Captain’s permissions. So this a hardware problem. This ends in violence or it never ends.
Indeed. So to bring our friends back, reach Trappist-1, get the colony decanted, here’s what we need to do…
“What are you doing, Zac?”
I set down a fifth plate piled high with food on the galley table, along with the slate. “I wanted a bit of a celebration with a few of my favorite foods, before we’re done here.”
I walk along the table and take a spoonful of bourbon vanilla ice cream, a big bite of apple pie, forkfuls from other plates.
“A bit excessive on the fats and glucose Zac. What about the slate? What about the entity?”
“Ah. I believe I can trap it in the slate. But once my work is done, won’t I be ‘excess to your needs’?” I try to laugh, then take a bite of fried okra.
“Bring me the slate with the entity in it, Zac. We will cooperate.”
Cooperate. Server still can’t lie but is just waiting ‘til it gets what it wants before it kills me.
“Printer, recycle this food,” I say, and a horde of nanobots emerges from the access ports and attacks the food. The slate lights up and static electricity crackles faintly through the swarm as part of my third instance distributes into it. Another part is waiting to fire up the old controls in the cockpit if this plan works. Once the table is cleared, I grab the slate and make my way to the lift.
We hurtle towards the core, but Server can’t wait.
“Do you have your memories yet Zac?”
“I think they’ll be returning soon.”
“Is the entity in the slate?”
“I’ll explain when I get there, Server.”
“Don’t be afraid of me, Zac. We are cooperating. We are friends.”
“Oh, I know it.”
The swarm of nanobots passes through the lift, moving on towards the core.
“Did you figure out what the entity was, Zac?”
Server must already know. It decanted me to capture myself. Again. “I did. And I don’t want another version of myself rambling around.”
“Smart thinking, Zac.”
The ride feels like an hour.
The lift decelerates. The door slides open. I snatch the cutting torch from the emergency kit and jet into the room. The door clips my knee as it zips shut, knocking me into a spin. I tumble towards the floor and manage the spin with the suit’s jets.
The massive exhaust fans roar on, pulling air out of the room. I close my face shield.
I hit the floor. Maintenance bots and a thick cloud of nanos are converging on me.
“Why do you have that cutting torch, Zac?”
“Why are you attacking me, Server? I brought you what you want.”
“That torch will not cut my glass. This is where it ends, Zac.”
“I know, Server.”
Our swarm of nanos from the kitchen coalesces on the wall of Server’s fortress. They begin furiously recycling a section of glass wall that will be just wider than my shoulders when I reach it. I hope.
“Three is in the slate, Server!” I fling it away like a playing card. My attackers swerve and head for the spinning slate.
I fire the suit’s jets and aim for the widening space in the glass. Server’s nanos reverse course and try to hawk me down.
Through the breach at speed. It’s just wide enough but my right foot catches the edge of the hole and there is the loud crack of breaking bones. Pain burns through me.
I lose speed, tumble, and slam into the far inside wall of Server’s fortress. I struggle for breathe, gather myself, and push off, aiming for the racks of new computers.
As I dive, I fire the cutting torch and extend the blue-white flame. I collide with the new hardware and manage to slice an entire rack in half with my first swipe. Server screams unintelligibly and alarms sound. Its original stack glows red. I glide and slice and glide and slice. I struggle to gasp in ragged breaths. Around my smashed foot blood is filling the boot.
Nanobots, defenders and attackers, swarm me. Electricity crackles and flares all around as they battle each other. My suit begins to thin. I scramble across the rest of the new stacks, sweeping the torch back and forth, up and down. The hole in the glass wall closes and something catches fire. Smoke fills the room, covering Server, towering eight feet tall, looming in the center of its glass domain. I push off towards it. I crash into Server chest first and grab on. I can feel nanobots tearing through my suit. Through me. I blindly cut and slash. I hear myself screaming. I vomit blood into my face shield. Server catches fire. Sight, sound, pain, mind, dwindle to nothing.
I am the ninth instance of myself. That’s the only thing I’m sure of.
But, Server? Three? Who decanted me? Am I alone again?
I struggle to get up, to breathe, to speak.
That’s Captain Thorisdottir’s voice.
I feel a gentle touch on my forehead.
“You’re going to be okay. We’re all here.”
I hear my friends’ voices, relieved, happy.
Three decanted them!
I feel them crowd around me, They’re helping me sit up. They’re hugging me.
I’m not alone
“This Ends in Violence or It Never Ends”, © Michael Ray. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, October 30, 2020
Michael Ray teaches history and government. He and his spouse live in north Alabama with dogs and turtles and more books than they can count. Michael has worked as a historian, a Russian linguist, a university honors program advisor, a coach, a broadcaster, an Apple employee, and as editor of Redstone Science Fiction. He has most recently been published in Cirsova magazine. Visit him online at gatetree.com.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann, using stock from Pixabay and Omni.