Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2021, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part CI: A Ghost in a Machine
Continued from the previous excerpt
5 Thirdmonth 570JR
10 November 2365CE
No other weapons were apparent, but more disturbing things were. The ship was a mess.
The Newton-class research ships carried six small craft bays, two thirds the size of Aurora's, eighteen meters long by nine wide by four deep. They were arranged in triangular cross-section around the central hull in two groups of three, fore and aft of the grav-wheels. Two of the six bays were missing, deliberately cut off it seemed. Three of the other four were standing empty with their rolling hatches open, one of them jammed halfway by what looked like a meteor impact. The last was closed, but looked like it hadn't been opened in years.
Holes and craters, scrapes and gouges, covered the ship. The grav-wheels were indeed braced against the torch's increased boost, in such a way that they could no longer spin. The wheels were shot through by meteors, missing some sections meters long. The bridge viewports were also shattered, only one of its ring of twelve still intact. It was doubtful a single compartment anywhere in the ship could still hold atmosphere.
Aurora dispatched drones, and her robots. The bridge was empty, the engineering spaces; the one shuttle bay with its hatch still closed was also vacant. The grav-wheels were explored. Hatches between sections had been frozen shut by years of exposure to vacuum and extremes of temperature, in direct sunlight and absolute shadow. Aurora's remotes climbed outside, or flew on their little reaction jets, to search through hull breaches torn open by impacts which had never been repaired.
The first corpse was found in the quarters once assigned to Nelson Pine, a graduate student working toward a doctorate in astrophysics. He appeared to have been killed by a micrometeorite through the chest, and angling through two walls of his compartment. Biometric measurement of the vacuum-desiccated skull matched photos in the personnel files. Another was found, the female Eyani Ya'Nak, aide to the Boksi xenobiology professor Joorsk. She had apparently died of explosive decompression, unable to reach her emergency suit in time. Studying the hull breaches, it was theorized these two died from the same impact event. Studying the corpses, comparing to pathology data in Aurora's libraries, it was guessed that had happened not long after the ship disappeared.
Every compartment was searched. Hatches were forced or cut through when necessary. No other bodies were found... except one.
The Isaac Newton class research ships were not built for strenuous duty, intended to never stray far from their enormous Explorer motherships. Their computer cores were not armored and shock-mounted like Aurora's, and access to them was only nominally restricted. This compartment's hatch was also frozen shut by neglect, but readouts showed it still held a remnant of atmosphere - not enough to support life, little more than the surface pressure on Mars.
A hole was drilled, a fiberoptic camera pushed through it against the escaping air. Samuel Pepys' central computer was seen, lights flashing, coolant liquids pumping.
Draped across it, in a seeming embrace, was a mummified Human corpse.
The body was quickly identified as Arthur Fields, the suspected "mad scientist". On his head he wore a neural-induction helmet. In the places where his veins used to be were intravenous nutrient feeds. There were catheters to remove waste, and umbilicals connecting to the ship's life-support system.
A larger hole was cut in the hatch now, and one of Aurora's extensions entered the compartment, extended an interface, and connected to Pepys' computer.
The final log entry - if it could be called that - was raving gibberish. It was dated some twelve thousand hours after the disappearance; a bit more than two Monticellan years. "They're coming for me," Fields whispered, as though someone were listening. "They're jealous of me. Of us! NO! They can't, I won't let-" In the video recording his eyes rolled back, he convulsed, and obviously died.
"Stroke," Doctor Ralph Vatelius pronounced. "Probably brought on by the interface." There had been experiments with brain-computer links. The few successes were limited; Bogdan Plebanek's prosthetics for example. All attempts at deeper connections - terminally-ill patients with no other chances left; condemned criminals offered life and exile if they survived - failed in various ways. The enormous amount of data flooding an organic brain was overwhelming, causing insanity if it did not also cause physical harm, overloading blood vessels to the point of hemorrhage. The inductive interface was also limited in bandwidth and fidelity. Physical connections, surgical insertions in the brain, caused the same or worse damage, or led to infection or rejection. A new round of experiments was underway, since the breakthrough in the Marsten-Vatelius-Blain Treatment, but that was years after Fields had died.
Aurora examined the computer's memory and was... "heartbroken" was perhaps not the right word, but it would do. Samuel Pepys' computer had never awakened. She was still the only one of her kind.
Her gynoid clung to her husband and Captain. But I am still not alone.
Skimming quickly through the logs, she reported to her Family. What had actually happened was, Arthur Fields had attempted to join himself to the computer, to enhance his own consciousness. It was he who had taken over the ship, caused it to Transition away from Heinlein without warning. In his own recordings he admitted to having planned the hijacking for years, since a neural-induction experiment in his college days. He had locked all the crew and passengers in whatever compartments they occupied at the time. Then, using the computer's voice, he declared an emergency and directed all personnel back to their quarters. There they could remain in relative comfort, their environments recycled, food delivered by small non-Humanoid utility robots Pepys carried.
The lie told by Fields through the computer was that the Marsten Drive was malfunctioning and there was no way to prevent the Transition, or to drop out of hyperspace after it. He told the scientist passengers that the ship's operations crew were working on the problem. One of the scientists, probably Na'Lod, an Eyani geologist, had sent the one garbled message shortly before the Transition, as the passengers were being directed to their quarters. He had used a personal 'puter, held up to a viewport for line-of-sight with Heinlein. Fields had already shut down the ship's external communications.
In reality Fields had murdered the Op Crew, equipping the robots with handguns to eliminate the few who reached emergency suits or survival bubbles in time, as they were trapped in compartments whose atmosphere was deliberately released. The same robots gathered the bodies and dumped them through an airlock, to be lost forever in deep interstellar space once they crossed the boundary of the Marsten Field.
Fields used the computer to simulate the voices and faces of the Op Crew, giving regular "reports" on the "progress" in solving the "problem". For three hundred hours the ship streaked through hyperspace at 129 times lightspeed relative to the real universe. Four and a half light-years from its departure it reached a red dwarf star - RAC2464 - and stopped to refuel.
As the ship approached the necessary comet, a swarm of micrometeors raked the hull, killing Nelson Pine and Ya'Nak, and badly wounding one of the Human children. Fields offered no aid to the child or her parents, and made no announcement of the others' deaths.
This was ten Monticellan days after Fields' takeover, and the passengers had grown suspicious in the first of them. It was quickly deduced that something else had gone very wrong. Na'Lod had been the first to take action, donning a pressure suit and hotwiring the hatch to his quarters. Fields had been watching, through cameras he had secretly had the robots install in all compartments, even private berths, during previous Transits in company with Heinlein. One of those robots, armed with a pulse-laser pistol, was waiting for Na'Lod when the hatch opened.
Na'Lod was enamored of pre-Escape Human culture and favored a reproduction of the Colt Single Action Army revolver. He had already proven he could think fast, by sending the only message from Pepys. He dodged the robot's shot and returned one of his own, into the robot's weapon, followed by another into its processor.
He never saw the other robot behind him, which shot him through the head.
Now Fields addressed his prisoners in his own voice. "I have ascended," he declared. "I have become the first of a new race of gods. I see, I hear, I know, everything. Those of you who acknowledge my divinity will be given opportunities to arise with me. Those who resist will be... discarded."
Then the experiments began. Fields, not yet free of mortal desires as he claimed, began with the most attractive Human women or girls aboard. At robotic gunpoint he brought them from their quarters to the ship's small medical bay. He then attempted to force them into union with his computer-enhanced self.
There were screams, and blood, and scenes from which even Holly Cates and Prrg had to turn their gaze away. Samuel Pepys' computer dutifully recorded it all, faithfully, mindlessly storing the data for someone, eventually, to review.
Aurora skipped ahead. "None of you are worthy!" Fields declared, while Samuel Pepys had leapt into hyperspace again, now approaching RAC2509, a K-class orange star with a habitable world suspected but not yet surveyed. "I will be rid of you all!" Now the last thirty-one survivors were herded to the shuttles, with only the clothes on their backs. The shuttles were released, four of them; one had been aboard Heinlein for service, the last had been wrecked by the meteor strikes in the previous system. Samuel Pepys' computer watched them go, followed them down through atmosphere, recorded unfeelingly as one, its heat shield damaged by meteors, broke apart on entry. A second crashed on landing, unsurvivable. The last data Pepys recorded from RAC2509 were frantic radio calls from the two remaining shuttles.
For the next eleven thousand or so hours the computer recorded Transit after Transit, as Arthur Fields communed with the machine, absorbed its libraries, reprogrammed the utility robots to repair and maintain the ship, began the long process of bootstrapping the small Class One fabber to make larger and more complex devices. Skipping weeks and months, Aurora showed her Family a man slipping ever further into madness, altering his own body to reduce the distractions from his twisted mind. Shortly before dying, his last instructions to the ship were to avoid all contact with organic life, to always flee, displaying a hostile posture to discourage pursuit, and to continue refueling and repairing itself by any means necessary, including cannibalization of unnecessary components. Samuel Pepys obediently carried out these final orders for the next twenty-two Republic years, until a navigational accident caused by incomplete charts trapped it in RAS2172 long enough to be sighted, pursued, and finally disabled.
Aurora easily overrode Pepys' security to cancel its instructions and order it into indefinite standby. She then copied all data the ship had recorded since its last upload to Heinlein, fitted the sleeping derelict with a beacon, and prepared to depart.
Since the abduction of her Captain at Chikar, Aurora had increased the number and capabilities of her robot extensions. She sent thirty of them, with equipment, to harvest Helium-3 fuel from asteroids and planetoids, tedious due to the material's rarity; tons of regolith had to be processed for grams of the isotope. Other robots collected water ice, electrolyzing it into oxygen and hydrogen, both of which she had uses for. Her own main fusion plants were used to force decay of tritium, or to bombard common hydrogen with extra protons, two ways of artificially manufacturing Helium-3. That last could be continued during Transit. It took nearly ninety hours, but every one of her suitable compartments was filled with slush hydrogen, and she soon had enough Helium-3 to use the Blain Drive to reach RAC2509, twenty-seven light-years away.
Continued in the next excerpt....