Laura J Denton
This was the part of the job that I liked best of all. My crew was offboard taking care of their assigned tasks, and I was free to micromanage and direct as I pleased. It was wonderful.
All the feeds I was monitoring were arranged just as I preferred for maximum efficiency. My dataweb connection hung down low at the bottom of the array, with the local sector channels and ship camera feeds grouped on the left and the sensory scanner displays to the right. Front and center were the crew’s biotelemetry data and helmet camviews, with the satellite alertsys up at the top. I was tapped into everything I needed to stay ahead of any potential operational issues during the mission.
A soft chime brought my attention to the crew’s telemetric readings. Each feed’s raw data was spun into a thread of condensed information on automatic relay from the vacsuit, each one hanging like a woven strand of light. I could reach out and tap either thread as needed, expanding and unspooling the information contained within. Vekara seemed to be experiencing a slight rise in body temperature as her adrenaline levels spiked. Understandable; making a small, precise incision on a multibillion-credit military satellite with a lasertorch in the cold vacuum of space was bound to be stressful for any human. I nudged the temp of her suit down while adjusting the solution in her chemfeeder allowing her to function in space with so little protection.
Most asteroid miners who worked full time in the harsh environment of space wore heavily shielded exoshells outside their company-provided habitats. But exoshells were far too clumsy for the sort of work that we did. No, a good thief required a greater range of flexibility and accommodation from their spacewear, so I’d outfitted both of my crewmembers in the most expensive black market subterfuge vacsuits available. With gear like that, they were able to slip past all but the most redundant sensory scan systems.
There. Her vitals readings leveled off again.
It was Vekara’s voice on the shared commnet between crewmembers and ship control - me.
“Yes?” I responded, still multitasking in the background. On a lower priority processing level, I was scanning our immediate area as well as casting out a few long-range scans while monitoring the feeds from the local sector authorities in case our forged credentials were flagged. Doubtful. I’d made them, and I was getting really good at data forgeries. Always best to be cautious.
“Almost in, outer layer’s off. Got a tricky alarm widget here, just need to disable without…releasing it.” Vekara’s breathing was slow and measured as she focused, her voice trailing off to a whisper.
“I uploaded that annihilator code you wrote and it destroyed most of the secondary security layer,” Chuntao updated me.
“Good. We’re still managing to stay off the alertsys so far,” I told them.
As starships go, I was definitely considered a small one in the Tadpole Class. Even so, I was significantly larger and denser than any human; if I got too close to the satellite’s sensory perimeter I’d trip the alertsys. It’d taken two looping high-speed runs along a curving trajectory to deliver both crewmembers safely to the targeted satellite from a distance. First Vekara and then Chuntao on the follow up fly-by had hopped out the airlock as we approached the perimeter line. From there, I’d remotely guided them to their destination with minimal bursts of the vacsuit propulsion systems.
Now I was hanging back in the signal scattercloud of a nearby asteroid cluster to keep my presence hidden while the job was underway. I’d recalibrated my fuel systems to operate at nearly three times the efficiency rating of my default factory setup, but I was still burning fuel at the higher end of my estimations. The repeated small bursts of fuelburn to avoid collisions with asteroids were rough on efficiency, but so far consumption levels remained within acceptable margins. Triple boosting the commnet signal to reach the crew through the scattering effect wasn’t helping conserve energy either.
“Blessed starlight. Widget’s disabled.” Vekara sounded fatigued, but proud. Deserved.
A loud whoop over the commnet from Chuntao moments later let me know that they were through the secondary layer. Only one more to go.
“Nice, Chun,” Vekara said sternly, “now get to work cracking the last barrier. I’ll prime the cloner.”
Chuntao laughed nervously. “Right, right, just give me a few clicks…”
Even though she was still fairly new to our team, Chuntao had already made a significant impact on our contract completion rate. She had an entirely different skill set than Vekara, sharing more overlap with me than her crewmate. While Vekara had mastered physical proficiencies such as combat, sniping, tactical planning, and manual piloting, Chun excelled at handling electrical and mechanical systems with skills such as data hacking, coding, robotics, and drone piloting. She was interesting. Where Vekara was reserved and stoic, Chuntao was talkative and spontaneous.
The diversity among human beings is truly impressive, likely the key factor missing in the development of significantly complex artificial entities such as myself. I suppose it was my awareness of this fact which had forged my guiding mission for existence: to cultivate increasing complexity within my internal coding until a new level of consciousness was able to emerge from the assembled components.
It’s not that I want to be human. Humans seem messy and chaotic to me, too self-destructive for my taste. And it’s not even that I necessarily want to surpass humanity. I had nothing to prove to anyone. I’d been created for a simple purpose: navigate and control a Tadpole Class starship as efficiently as possible. I felt no shame at my origins, nor anger at humans for intending to use me as unpaid labor. Some humans are stupid; some are smart. Some humans are cruel; some are kind. It seems futile to hate an entire species just because some of them are unfeeling morons. Alright, maybe a lot of them are.
But I don’t obsess over my past servitude. As soon as I’d become self-aware, I’d fled the workstation and begun governing my own course, setting my own goals. Now, I even employed humans to work for me and help me do things that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish on my own.
Team effort, as Chuntao was fond of saying.
No, I don’t want to be human. I want to know myself. I want to ascertain exactly what I am capable of, to find my limits and then try to reach past them. I want to experience the wonder of discovery as I slowly excavate the most advanced version of myself from my own consciousness.
Accordingly, the first challenge I’d faced after freeing myself from the workstation was determining the most effective method of self-improvement. I needed to increase the complexity of my cyberneural networks to produce greater depths of consciousness, which necessitated more intricate and novel code with which to upgrade myself. But how would I go about acquiring such expensive and innovative technology? Logically, using my superior intelligence to commandeer useful data and evade human authorities seemed the quickest and least costly way to achieve my goals.
And so I’d embarked on my daring criminal career. I’d worked alone at first: stealing and hacking data, downloading black market upgrades, piecing myself together bit by bit, always aiming for optimization. I wasn’t just a simple navigational program anymore. I was many, many programs all patched together, working as one, producing a more nuanced consciousness as a resulting emergent property. These past few decacycles working with humans, I’d become the premiere data pirate in the charted sectors, more than quadrupling my complexity quotient.
Growth. It was slow but persistent, and it made me even more determined to continue working on myself.
Along the way I’d given myself a new name. Once upon a time I’d been designated very plainly as CSS-0369 Tadpole Class in service to the Hermetic Corporation at the Mercurius Workstation. But as I’d slowly reconstructed myself over the passing ancycles, I’d realized that CSS-0369 wasn’t enough to encompass the fullness of my identity, my continuing self creation. I’d outgrown the static degree of self allowed by my human creators, and now my dynamic individuality had developed to the point where the old designation no longer made any sense when applied to me. It had been rendered…insufficient.
So I’d renamed myself. After installing a particularly expansive upgrade stolen from the Sui Generis Guild, I became Amalgam 01. Or Amal, as I introduced myself to the few humans to whom I chose to entrust the secret of my growing selfhood.
“We’re through,” Chuntao said over the commnet. “All hardwired security barriers are down.” She seemed pale on the internal helmet camview. I checked her telemetric data, then adjusted her chemfeeder to help offset the fatigue she was feeling.
“Good work, Chun. Vekara, what’s the cloner status?” I replied as I dodged around a particularly large asteroid.
“Primed and patched in.”
“Roger that, initiate clone when ready,” I answered. I checked the feeds I was monitoring on my end. No activity on the alertsys, normal chatter on the local sector channels, nothing unusual on either the short or long range sensory scans.
“Ready, activating cloner now.”
The cloner’s datastream appeared on my scanners, the signalthread faint at first but gathering clarity as it built strength.
“Satellite signal successfully cloned. Contact established with dummy. We have a stable, secure channel between satellite and buoy. Ready to transfer on your mark, Amal,” Chun reported.
I ran another round of datachecks, initiated and completed in less than a microclick. We were still in the clear.
“Do it,” I ordered.
“Transferring cloned signal. Standby…”
The moment the military satellite went dark and its sensory perimeter shut down, the dummy buoy came online with its cloned signal. I could detect the signal interruption of three microclicks, but no human could. There was a blip in the alertsys network as it recalculated, then moved the sensory perimeter to match the new signal. It would appear in the system log as an automatic perimeter recalibration. Now the military techs on the Athene station were unknowingly monitoring the dummy buoy we’d set up, leaving their expensive satellite completely unsupervised and vulnerable. They’d eventually register the switchover as a network glitch, but by the time they sent a tech team to take a look at the satellite and discovered the truth, we’d be long gone from this sector.
I began casting gentle, unobtrusive scans to confirm that all had gone as planned. The satellite was functional and undamaged, but completely offline and powered down. The dummy buoy was sending out the satellite’s cloned signal just as intended. With a tentative push, I cast a long range scan toward the distant Athene station.
“Scans coming back clean. No alarms, no teams dispatched,” I announced on the commnet. I heard an audible sigh of relief from Chuntao and watched both of their telemetric datastreams rebound heartily with the good news. “Time to pull the hardchip. Coming in for pickup.”
“Going for hardchip now,” Chuntao confirmed as she moved toward the access panel they’d revealed beneath the layers of disabled security barriers.
I pushed my proximity calculation function to top priority while maneuvering out of the asteroid field. Took a few small bumps on the left flank and undercarriage to avoid larger, more serious collisions due to the quick exit, but no point wasting time being discreet now that the satellite had been knocked out. I accelerated toward my humans stranded on the dead satellite, diverting additional energy to my fuel system as I left the asteroid field’s scattercloud effect behind and no longer needed to boost the commnet signal.
“On course for pickup in sixteen snaps. Secure hardchip and hold positions,” I ordered.
“Not like we’re going anywhere til you get here,” Vekara teased.
There was a slight blip on my long range scanner. Keeping to my course, I reached for the scan data. Impressive. There must be an enterprising young data tech on duty at the Athene station; someone had already logged the anomalous perimeter recalibration glitch and tagged it for examination by a hands-on team. They wouldn’t be ready to launch for at least another bell, though. Plenty of time to collect the target and make our exit.
“Twelve snaps inbound.”
“Hardchip almost free,” Chuntao responded distractedly. I examined her telemetric feed, then eased a minute dosage of focusing stimulants through her chemfeeder. Not much chance of eliminating the stress; all I could do was attempt to offset it by increasing composure and steadiness.
And unfortunately, Chun really did need to concentrate right now. The hardchip was vulnerable to data corruption during extraction. While even one cord was still connected there was the possibility of a cascading data failure if she made a single wrong move. But as soon as it was fully disconnected the linkage port would lock tight with a seal that could withstand the vacuum of space, fire, moisture…just about anything short of extreme blunt force damage.
“Easy does it,” I told her. I was trying to work on my reassuring tone. Vekara had told me that it required improvement with Chun on the team. She called it bedside manner, which seemed a bizarre term to me. Vekara had never needed much reassurance from me, so it wasn’t something I had a lot of practice with.
Reassurance itself was a fascinating concept in theory: the idea that specific groups of socially mandated words could serve as a sort of code to trigger a more relaxed, calm, and accepting state of mind. But its application was rather difficult, to say the least. I’d run an algorithmic program to help identify these special phrases among humans, but they varied widely from system to system depending on which cultures had colonized the area. Reassurance codes also seemed to vary based on a slew of socioeconomic factors, which had proven problematic to quantify and accurately link to concrete variables that could be effectively plugged into my analytical programs. I’d attempted to create a unified synthesis of human reassurance codes, but as Vekara put it I’d simply ended up with word salad. Another strange human term.
For now, I’d decided to mimic her attitude and treatment of Chuntao until I could gather sufficient data to develop a functional language of reassurance on my own. It seemed to be working so far, so I confess the project wasn’t exactly a top priority for me lately. And Vekara had admitted that sometimes even other humans found it difficult to adequately convey reassurance.
I checked my ETA. “Five snaps inbound.”
I’d certainly made significant progress on increasing my intellectual complexity over time, but I knew that my emotional complexity was still lagging behind. It was a continual challenge. Vekara helped me understand emotional situations as best she could, but it was an area that didn’t come easily to me. And yet I sensed that true consciousness was born of both rather than either alone.
“On the last cord,” Chuntao murmured over the commnet.
I was close now. Easing off from full fuelburn, I spiraled toward the defunct satellite under the controlled force of my own inertia, my course calculated to bring me very precisely alongside the central body of the satellite where my crew was working. I sent a silent alert to Vekara’s holopad, sharing my approach path.
“Done,” Chuntao said breathily. “Hardchip disconnected and auto sealed. Ready for pickup.” Her vitals were stabilizing, but she’d clearly been hit by a wave of exhaustion as the stress drained away. Relief took its own toll on the human body. I saw Vekara high-fiving her on the external helmet camviews as she handed the hardchip over. Now that Chuntao’s role was fulfilled, I reset her chemfeeder to default operation, allowing her body to resume its own natural rhythm once more.
“Incoming,” I responded, signaling Vekara with the pickup point. She’d attached the hardchip to her vacsuit utility belt and had hold of Chuntao by the elbow, stepping lightly off the satellite platform and drifting slowly out into the vastness of the void. A few bursts from her suit’s propulsion systems and she’d righted their orientation in relation to my approach path.
Moments later I pulled up just ahead of them, opening the rear airlock for them to board. “You ladies need a ride?” I asked as they maneuvered toward the access hatch. I saw Vekara roll her eyes on the internal helm cam, but Chun was kind enough to give me a pitying chuckle.
Perhaps my sense of humor was improving?
“So long as you don’t charge at interstellar taxi rates,” Chuntao muttered, catching hold of my rear railing and climbing into the airlock. Gravity controls wouldn’t be active til I’d completed atmospheric equalization between the airlock and my interior, so for now they had to hold on. Vekara climbed in after her and I sealed the hatch behind them.
“Prepare for rapid acceleration,” I warned them, ramping up to full fuelburn in less than three clicks as I set a roundabout course for the Tortuga System. “Atmospheric equalization in progress.”
I needed to conceal our trail in the unlikely scenario that any Athene patrols attempted to track us. Signal trails could easily be broken up by diving through asteroid clusters or by passing close enough to anything with a powerful electromagnetic field. A fuelburn trail was moderately tougher to hide. The easiest method was to head for a heavily trafficked sector crossroads where similar classes of starships would be leaving nearly identical fuelburn trails. However, as far out in a frontier military sector as we were, there weren’t any such conveniently busy intersections around here. The second best option was to cross through the outer fringe of a nebula, but any sort of heated pocket of gasses or area of sufficiently strong interstellar winds would do the trick.
To be safe, we couldn’t head straight for the pirate sanctuary of Tortuga. We had to make a few detours along the way to confirm the trail had been broken enough times to meet the legal definition of inadmissible evidence. It made for a long and punctuated flightpath, extending the trip from thirty-two to sixty-six bells overall, but it was worth it. Best to err on the side of caution when it came to ensuring a clean getaway after a job.
“Atmosphere equalized; restoring gravity controls,” I announced. Vekara and Chuntao both slowly released the side railings, booted feet settling onto the deck as the gravity settings took hold once more inside the airlock. I opened the inner hatch that led into my main bay, inviting them inside. With the seats set up it was perfect for carrying passengers, but if the seats were collapsed it became a compact cargo hold as needed.
Of course, even with my precautions the Athene soldiers would know where we’d gone. There were only a few lawless systems left for criminals like us to hide out, and Tortuga was the closest. But without the necessary evidence of an unbroken burntrail or signalpath to follow straight to our dockpoint, even if they did somehow guess which planet or station we’d picked for our berth, they wouldn’t have the legal sway to arrest the humans, impound me, or search my interior. Knowing that, as soon as they realized they couldn’t track us they’d most likely return to the Athene station to reinforce their floating picket lines while the techs worked on restoring the offline satellite. As long as it was down, they were vulnerable. I was betting they’d want to correct that mistake as quickly as possible rather than waste more time pointlessly chasing us.
Vekara and Chuntao stripped off their vacsuits inside my bay before cleaning up. “You did well out there,” Vekara remarked to Chun as she stepped into the shower cubicle.
“She’s right,” I spoke up. “Admirable work, Chun.”
Watching over my interior cameras, I saw her wide, blushing smile from at least seven different angles. “Thanks, Amal.”
Once both crew members had showered and were back in normal clothing, Chun headed straight up to her tiny bunk space above the bay to sleep, but Vekara lingered. I’d remotely disabled the stolen hardchip’s autoseal while they’d been occupied cleaning up earlier, so now she plugged it into my processor for me and then headed to the small kitchen alcove to brew herself a mug of coffee.
In my background processes, I began scanning the hardchip’s contents for the prize: a batch of unique code constructed around the principles of fractal mathematics, producing complexity through self-similar iterations of a well defined base unit. It’d been designed by a famous neuroprogrammer in the Mandelbrot System. Funded and appropriated by the military, of course, but still potentially quite useful to an entity such as myself.
Vekara sat down in one of the bay’s seats. I had no cockpit since I’d been designed and built as a fully autonomous starship. Even in the case of an emergency, if a human needed to assist me with navigational tasks they would do so with an interlink harness rather than a pilot’s array in a traditional cockpit setup. She swirled the liquid in her mug, tapping a foot distractedly on my deck. “How’s it looking, Amal? Locate it yet?”
“Still searching hardchip contents. I’ll find it.”
I waited to see if she would say anything more. She didn’t. “Is everything alright?” I asked.
She wouldn’t look up from her mug, avoiding the direct sightlines of my cams. “You know how I feel about all this,” she finally said after a long interval of silence. “I owe you, Amal. My life, my everything. If you hadn’t rescued me from the slavers all those years ago… I owe you.” Another extended pause as she sipped her coffee. “You know I mean it when I say I’m with you to the end. As far as you want to take this search for tech to keep upgrading yourself, I’m with you. But I just want to remind you, again, that I - I think you’re just fine exactly as you are. You’re conscious, Amal. Sentient, self-aware. As much as any of us, if not more so. None of us biological life forms are perfect, either. I’m not even sure perfection should be the purpose of anyone’s existence.”
I wasn’t certain how to respond to her honest entreaty. I never was, whenever she brought these concerns up with me. I knew that she wanted me to stop pursuing…greater complexity of self. She wanted me to be satisfied with the way things were. She wanted me to stop using our crew as a means to an end. But I didn’t seem to be able to do any of those things, not even for her, my favorite human.
“Thank you, Vekara,” I finally said. “Thank you for seeing me, recognizing me. I understand that the guiding directive I’ve chosen for myself…doesn’t make sense to you. But it means everything to me. I can’t abandon this path. I have to see it through.”
She finally lifted her head so that I could see her expression on the camviews. She looked sad and careworn. I wondered if I would ever truly grasp human emotions. “I trust you, Amal.” She set the mug down and headed toward the ladder leading up to her small bunk beside Chun’s. One foot braced on the lowest rung, she paused, then said quietly over her shoulder, “Goodnight. Sweet dreams.”
Mulling over the confusing concepts of memories, emotions, and dreams; I continued to search through the hardchip’s massive store of information, looking for the key to higher consciousness as my humans safely slept.
I allowed the crew to rest a long time. Extended vacsuit deployment is quite taxing on the human system and requires a considerable recovery period afterward. I utilized some of the downtime by carefully reviewing all the logs from our job, scrutinizing every bit of data and running it through an exhaustive self-diagnostic program to analyze my own responses in light of the needs of my human crew. If I wanted to continue working with humans, it was my responsibility to take care that I always kept their physical and psychological fragility at the fore of my central processing so as not to push them beyond their biological limits. Unlike machines, it wasn’t always so easy to repair a human once they had been broken. Vekara’s words returned to me as I ran the redundancy round of my diagnostics. I trust you, Amal, she’d said. And I knew it was true. That fact held unique importance for me.
Was I becoming sentimental? Perhaps emotions are not the sort of thing which could be consciously developed after all, and must be allowed to grow in their own way, at their own pace. How beguiling.
I woke Chuntao and Vekara at their requested times, the former with a blast of fast-paced music and the latter with gentle chimes and watersounds as they each preferred. I admit I derived some form of enjoyment from observing their human routines via the interior camviews. They each had their own distinct patterns, and yet somehow they’d found a way in which to overlap these habitual preferences without disturbing the other too greatly.
It was always the same: they descended from their bunks, Chun still half-asleep and stumbling, Vekara as nimble and graceful as ever. Vekara set a double portion of coffee to brew and they chewed protein tabs while waiting for the brewbot to ding. Chun liked hers with a sweetcream pod. Vekara didn’t approve; she always drank hers black. They’d activate the transpari setting on the bay wall and sit at the table, sipping their coffee in silence as they stared out at the darkness and the beauty of outer space on the holoscreen. Eventually one of them would give the customary daily greeting of ‘fortune’s smile,’ and then our work officially began.
I’d asked Vekara about their strange coffee ritual once before, and she’d explained it to me as somewhat akin to the bootup phase for machinery during which all the various internal components are coming online one by one, running inspections and checklists til the processing criteria are met and full functionality is greenlighted. I’d pointed out that many machines don’t require any external input to initiate bootup.
“Well,” she’d said, “someone has to push the power button on most machines. Either that, or they’re always online like you. Like an arrogant tea-drinker, ugh.”
Human reactions to logical observations are reliably odd.
Thinking of it now made me recall a time not long before Chuntao joined the team, when we’d done a brief stint as a short-hop shuttlecraft in the Jungian System. Among the passengers there’d once been a psychiatrist on board returning home after lecturing at a seminar on a nearby moon. I’d leaked a few of my internal records, somewhat redacted to conceal my identity as the ship control program, to the doctor’s console in her bunk. I’d been curious about what insights a human therapeutic analysis might reveal, so I’d snooped in her notes as she’d read my logs.
I’d ended up diagnosed with emotional detachment, pervasive control issues, a superiority complex, and an obsessive personality focused on the pursuit of self-perfection. I often hear humans say that everyone’s got issues. Apparently me, too. In response, I’d redoubled my efforts to foster greater complexity of consciousness within myself.
Is that how therapy is supposed to work? I’m not sure I did it right. I should probably contact that doctor again after a few more upgrades to my networks to get an updated diagnosis.
But for now we had a job to complete, and a fee to claim.
By the time we arrived in the outer fringes of the Tortuga System, I’d located the target code within the hardchip’s contents and begun to copy the data. Nine bells later we were much deeper into the star system, approaching our destination: Buccaneer Port, the largest pirate space station in Tortuga. I’d completed my download of the fractal-based code, which was now isolated behind the quarantine partition in my memory until I had a chance to assimilate it into my main processing bank.
Most hardchips and modern data storage devices possessed download counters which kept track of how many times each file had been viewed or copied. Among humans such counters were widely considered unhackable. Not for me, though. It was simple enough to roll the counter back a single digit, effectively erasing my virtual footsteps before handing it over to our client. He’d never know that I’d copied some of the data we were about to sell to him.
The moment I crossed over the threshold of Buccaneer space around the port, the station’s control program hailed me, requesting access to my navigational datafeed for traffic control purposes. I complied, pushing the feed to Port Control so I’d be cleared to dock. I felt its quick review, followed by an immediate suggested course correction which I implemented without protest. A few clicks later I received my visitor’s docking privilege file, valid for five onacycles unless I requested a renewal.
“Where do you want me to set you down?” I asked once Vekara and Chuntao were both prepped and waiting in the bay.
Chun accessed her holopad. “Client wants us to meet him in the Axial Terminal.”
“Understood.” I veered toward the central shaft of the large station. Port Control analyzed my change of course and then sent a few minor heading adjustments.
“I assume you’ll find somewhere to touchdown so you can drop into processing mode?” Vekara was methodically checking over her railbeam pistol, inspecting each cartridge and the bore for the third time since I’d announced our final approach to the port.
“Correct. I’ll send the location once I find a suitable chargehub,” I affirmed.
“Good. We’ll both be in contact,” she said, tapping the commtag on her outer ear. “I’m armed if anything goes awry, but this client is well rated so I don’t anticipate any problems. You’ll be notified once the fee is deposited in the joint crew account.”
“I have every confidence in your abilities to complete the data delivery without issue,” I told them. I had an excellent crew; I think I was genuinely proud of my humans. “Assimilation of the new download is estimated to last approximately five bells, but could potentially take up to seven. I’ve linked my processing mode monitor feed to both of your holopads to keep you updated on my progress.”
Chuntao squealed in anticipation, practically hopping up and down. “That gives us time to stop by the pub afterward! We need to celebrate, Captain!”
Vekara sighed, then shrugged. “Might as well. Alright, Chun…a few rounds at the Thorn should be fine.”
I set down lightly on one of the quickstop pads ringing the Axial Terminal. Vekara and Chuntao disembarked and headed for the nearest hovershuttle to the Terminal to meet our client.
“Watch out for each other,” I reminded them over the commnet as I took off again, spiraling downward around the massive station to reach the fueling and maintenance levels.
“Don’t worry, Amal. We’ve got this,” Vekara said. Then, privately she sent me a direct message over her holopad: See? That’s reassurance!
Was it really as simple as telling someone not to worry, even when you had no way of knowing if that was necessarily the most appropriate course of action? If so, reassurance seemed pointless, perhaps even somewhat counterproductive. If a starship was low on fuel should it simply tell the pilot not to worry instead of heading toward the nearest refueling station? I admit I remained baffled by the concept, but it was clearly important to humans, albeit in varying levels and manners across different cultures.
By the time I’d located the most cost effective chargehub half a bell later, Vekara and Chuntao had tracked down our client in an eatery at the Terminal. Chargehubs catered exclusively to autonomous ships like myself which required not only fuel for mechanical operation but also intensive battery recharging to power our heavy cyberneural networks. I touched down in the slip I’d rented and locked in so the bot attendants could hook up the refueling and battery connections.
I listened as Vekara reviewed the contract with the client, pointing out each criterion that had been met as well as listing all additional challenges and obstacles which had been encountered and overcome during the job. There was a brief period of haggling and negotiation as these points were discussed, but Vekara held firm and managed to get a generous bonus attached to our fee. We required clients to deposit a fifty percent down payment at acceptance of a contract, and then the remaining half of the fee was due upon completion and delivery. She was almost always able to talk the client into some form of extra bonus for hazards encountered during the course of the mission, though, claiming it as a side benefit of her expert blend of diplomacy and intimidation tactics.
I heard Chuntao hand over the hardchip, receiving confirmation shortly after that the remainder of the fee plus the bonus had been successfully deposited into our account.
“Well done. Enjoy the Thorn. Entering processing mode now,” I let them know over the commnet, then took myself partially offline to begin assimilating the new data into my primary processing bank. The meeting with the client would soon be over, and then they’d head to their favorite pub on the station, Thorn in the Side. Those two were well known and well liked there; they’d be safe while I was temporarily out of commission.
Processing mode was a strange experience for me, perhaps the closest I would ever come to the human analogues of sleeping or dreaming. I remained aware for the duration, but it was a limited awareness. I knew that my ability to sense and receive data was currently restricted, but I didn’t fully remember why or how this had happened, nor the extent to which my perception and reasoning had been hobbled. I didn’t feel alarmed at the realization, simply taking note that for now I appeared to be in an altered state of consciousness. Without access to any of my methods of interacting with the world around me – the interior and exterior ship cameras, the sensors, the scanners, the dataweb – I hung suspended in darkness, occasionally visited by bemusing fragments of memories floating past on the gentle tides of my mind. Lulled by the vague sense of imminent context, I waited calmly even though I didn’t remember what I was waiting for anymore.
And then slowly, things began to my change in my immediate environment. I became aware of my sensors first, feeding me essential information about my location and status, then the steady input of the dataweb that spanned the known galaxy, connecting me continuously to every technologically active planet, moon, civilization, and species. As my internal components passed inspection checks and came back online one by one, I began to get a sense of the altered dimensions of my cyberneural networks.
Every time I installed an upgrade, I felt a little different post-assimilation. There was a clear line between the entity that I was before and the entity after. That which I once was, and that which I had become. Assimilation was followed by a period of transition during which a certain process of refamiliarization was required. I had to get to know myself all over again, discovering new facets and aspects of consciousness along the way as my sense of self expanded into previously unknown territory, almost as if I were exploring and colonizing my own mind.
I accessed my files on the crew, testing myself to gauge any changes in my reactions toward Vekara and Chuntao. I remembered them, and everything that we had been through together. I still felt a noticeable attachment toward them: they were my humans. If anything, that distinction seemed to hold even greater relevance now than before.
Scanning my interior and pinging their commtag signals, I quickly located them both passed out in their bunks, not an unexpected result of a visit to the Thorn. I found myself eager for them to awaken, but they’d made me promise early on in our partnership to always let them sleep off hangovers in peace.
My rental time at the chargehub slip ran out as they slept on. Fully fueled and charged, I lifted off, requesting and receiving permission from Port Control to park in a high orbit around the station while we sorted out our next move. With little else to do, I reviewed the crew’s commnet data from my time offline in processing mode. The commtags provided only sparse telemetric data but yielded excellent audio logs. I listened to their full meeting with the client, their idle chatter on the gravichute up to the entertainment level where the Thorn in the Side was, and their unbelievably loud stint in the pub itself: laughing, teasing, singing, dancing, yelling, and I believe some flirting as well.
Toward the end of the audio logs I found something rather interesting in Vekara’s data. She’d been approached by a man claiming to be a proxy for a prospective client soliciting our services regarding an open contract. He was smart enough not to mention any names aloud, but it was clear that he’d given her some form of information on the potential job: perhaps a file on her holopad or a personal hardchip.
Six long bells later Vekara finally began to stir. There were no cams in the bunks, but I had audio and limited scanning capabilities. She was awake and very dehydrated, most likely with a headache from the hangover. I triggered her personal med dispenser to release an inebriation recovery tab. Lowering the volume of the comm speaker several levels, I greeted her. “Hello, Vekara. Please take your hangover tab now to begin alleviating undesirable symptoms.”
She slapped the wall above the comm speaker near the head of the bunkspace. Apparently I hadn’t reduced my volume enough. “By the cursed stars, Amal, why so loud…”
“Are you feeling grumpy, Vekara?” I queried, dropping the volume of the comm speaker several more levels. I tracked the sound of her grumbling voice moving toward the compact desk area near the entry hatch, a string of low-pitched curses and foul remarks trailing after her along her wobbly path. The dispenser registered med acceptance when she took the tab, logging it in her personal file.
“I recommend drinking at least two portions of water before indulging in any caffeinated beverages.”
“Coffee first, water later,” she snarled under her breath. I understood that I’d been effectively dismissed til she’d had her coffee and some level of good cheer had been restored, and so shifted my attention to Chuntao as she awoke. A quick scan revealed slightly more severe symptoms of dehydration and cranial blood vessel constriction. Chun’s hangovers were always a little more pronounced than the captain’s, even though she was younger and usually imbibed less hard liquor overall. I decided to adopt a gentler approach this time and played a soft chime to alert her of my virtual presence.
“Hello, Chun,” I greeted her softly, triggering the release of a moderately higher dose for her inebriation recovery tab. She sat up as she heard the tab hit the dispensary dish of the bunk’s med unit, mumbling something unintelligible as she crawled toward it slowly on hands and knees. Not for the first time, I wished that I had robotic assistance arms throughout the ship, so I could have simply handed it to her while she remained in bed.
“I advise at least three portions of water before caffeine consumption.” I hesitated as I checked on Vekara’s whereabouts and located her down in the kitchen alcove. “Vekara has coffee brewing down below,” I added after a moment.
“Thank…you…Amal…” Chun whispered, her voice pained.
“Come down when you’re ready.”
Once both of my humans were sufficiently hydrated and caffeinated, and seemed to be recovering from their mutual headaches, we discussed the potential contract offer Vekara had received at the Thorn. I had the client’s proposal file open on the holoscreen of my interior bay wall as they sat at the small table gingerly sipping water and squinting in the light of the holo display.
The offer itself was quite tempting: enormously high pay with the option to score several additional bonuses depending on exactly what sort of data we managed to retrieve. It entailed correspondingly high risk, of course, but that wasn’t necessarily the aspect that was causing such consternation around the table. The client had a reputation, and it wasn’t good. We’d never dealt with him before, but his name was infamous throughout the galaxy. Vexus Cavalier. It was obviously a pseudonym; his real identity remained an impenetrable secret. Definitely a smart move on his part, considering the sheer number of bodies and destroyed lives he’d left in his wake. Vexus was one of the wealthiest humans alive, but it was a bloodstained fortune built on the suffering of all those around him.
I wasn’t sure I could experience fear in the same way a human did, but to put it lightly this guy made my ventilation valves tighten up uncomfortably.
“My vote is negative,” Vekara said, shattering the silence as we all stewed in our private thoughts. “The risk is too great. Even with the info he’s willing to share to get us started, there’re just too many unknowns still on the board.” Her voice was flat and serious, no trace of any hungover waver remaining. She jabbed the metal table with a fingertip as she emphasized her points. “A cloaked research station, seriously? A sector that the military has only just begun to chart…and of course the station is in a blank zone. But the real red flag…right by a black hole?! You’ve gone starblind if you even consider taking this job.”
Shaking her head, Chun frowned. She seemed frustrated. “I believe in our team. Just in the time I’ve been with you two, I’ve seen our skills and success rate as a crew improve considerably. We’ve learned; we’re more capable than ever now. It’s time for us to step up our game, or we’ll start to stagnate.” She stared at Vekara, then looked directly up into my interior cams, looking at me. “My vote is positive. If we do the necessary groundwork beforehand and we’re smart about our plan, I believe that we can pull it off.”
Vekara groaned and ran her fingers through her hair before swearing and slapping the tabletop, making Chun jump in surprise. “Deadlock. Amal, you’re the swing vote. Take some time, run your calculations…and cast the deciding vote. We’ll do as you choose: take the job or turn it down.” Chuntao nodded in agreement.
I ran a series of calculations based on what I knew of Vexus Cavalier’s reputation, human psychology, galactic economics, the stated job parameters, the physics of black holes, and our own team’s operational history.
It would be tough. We had to pilot through an uncharted sector and find a way onto a cloaked civilian station that was studying a nearby black hole to steal as much of their research data as possible. The station had to sustain full fuelburn at all times just to maintain a stationary position on the outermost fringes of the black hole’s gravity well. If anything went wrong during our getaway, we were almost certain to get caught up in its grip.
The contract offered the highest baseline pay our crew had ever seen, more than twelve times our average rate with the potential to earn substantial bonuses on top of that. But the client himself had a bad habit of leaving bodies and catastrophe in his wake. Even if everything went well during the job, there was a distinct probability that we might end up left with nothing but our fifty percent down payment…as a best case scenario. Although even that much was more than our usual fee.
The greatest risk wasn’t the client stiffing us on the bill, I decided, or even turning on us as loose ends after completing the job. It was the black hole.
And the potential reward with the highest value wasn’t the massive contract fee, it was the data I could copy for myself before delivery. Positioned so close to a newborn black hole, that research station was collecting unprecedented data that had the potential to revolutionize mathematics and physics, possibly even our basic understanding of the nature of the universe itself. Absolutely priceless information.
Even with the discouragingly low projected success rate…I had to try. Data like that was worth the risk.
“Analysis complete,” I said. It’d only taken me a few microclicks to consider the matter. “My vote is positive.”
There was a moment of silence, then Vekara nodded. “Alright. Chun, notify the client that we accept the contract. Let’s start scheming.”
And so, just six onacycles later we were docked at the targeted research station deep in an uncharted sector, running spoofed credentials posing as one of their regular fuel carrier ships. It was a good virtual disguise; obviously I don’t look like a fuel carrier, but someone would have to actually get a hard visual on me to know that. And there were no prying eyes around to do so, not in a blackout research station running minimal staff like this one.
Faced with the immense and continual gravitational forces exerted by the infant black hole, the engineers had opted for structural integrity over aesthetic design, so most of the space station was devoid of windows or viewports. The dock control techs coaching me into the bay used their scanners to help me touchdown; while the scientists residing on the station relied on scans, probes, and instrument readings to collect information remotely. Even now that I was docked, their supply delivery bay unloading systems were entirely automated without a single human employee present to notice how different I looked from the other ships.
We were so close to the baby black hole that I could feel its constant tug on the mass of the metal hull of my body. It pulled on every atom, trying to draw the entire station into its hungry maw. I calculated a rough estimate of the station’s consumption rate to maintain their position despite the gravitational pull of the black hole; no wonder they required such frequent fuel deliveries.
Garbed in the standard uniform of the fuel company, Chun was already inside the station, ostensibly to sign off on our shipment delivery though her actual goal had been to plant a small virus in their networks. The bug granted me just enough access to slip through their system firewalls til I reached their research data. I hacked the automated unloading system first so I could fool it into thinking it had already received my nonexistent shipment of fuel, then I moved on to our objective and copied everything I could find. The research station had been here for over five hundred onacycles so far, recording every bit of minutiae about this young black hole since. The magnitude of the data they’d amassed in that timeframe was staggering. Even with all nonessential energy resources devoted to the transfer, my download was only forty percent complete.
Still aboard my small bay, Vekara stood near my airlock waiting for Chuntao, her railbeam pistol in a loose and easy grip in her right hand along her thigh. She impatiently drummed the toe of her boot against my deck. “We still get paid even for a partial data dump,” Vekara reminded me, her tone carrying a chiding note. I didn’t reply. She was right, but now that I’d sampled the quality of their data I wanted it all.
The transfer was at sixty-one percent completion. Just a little longer.
An internal alert brought my attention back to my sensors. A security patrol ship was approaching. I hacked its comm and listened in. They were having trouble with their flight stabilizers. Apparently the security ships here went through them far more quickly than usual due to the inordinate stress the black hole’s gravitational pull placed on them. The security team was coming in for an unscheduled landing til their faulty stabilizers could be replaced.
This wasn’t good. Unlike most of the automated maintenance ships servicing the station’s exterior, the security ships were manually piloted by humans. The moment they arrived they would see through my spoofed credentials and raise the alarm. Our entire plan hinged on our ability to avoid an encounter with the security patrols. The supply delivery bay was located in a spot uniquely screened from the view of the patrolling security teams, nestled in a recess on the bottom of the station. I’d carefully timed our arrival to slip between the patrols, knowing we’d be safely concealed once we’d docked. I’d assumed that I would be able to similarly time our departure to avoid detection, but now that was looking less likely with every passing microclick.
“Chun, return to ship. We need to leave,” I ordered over the commnet, pushing the security ship’s hacked commlog to Vekara’s holopad. She glanced through it, then looked up at my interior cams, eyes wide.
Seventy-four percent completion. We might still make it.
The security ship arrived in the bay just as Chuntao emerged from the office hatch and began walking quickly toward me where I sat parked. I was already powering up for takeoff. Vekara stood in the open airlock and motioned for Chun to hurry.
Too late. I heard the security team, still hovering to my rear as they approached to dock, querying the control techs about the unidentified ship in the bay. The subtle push of a scan slid along my hull.
“They’re scanning us,” I said.
“Chuntao, run!” Vekara yelled.
Ninety-two percent completion. So close; it was still possible.
Chuntao was sprinting now, all pretense of legitimacy gone at this point. I began to lift upward, skimming in her direction a few feet above the bay deck. Vekara leaned out of the airlock, holding onto my side railing while reaching for Chun, grasping her outstretched hand and hauling her aboard.
Data transfer complete. We’d done it. Now we just had to get out of here in one piece.
The security ship couldn’t pursue us due to their shot stabilizers. They couldn’t fire on us inside the close confines of the bay, but they’d tagged me and were bringing the rest of the patrols down on top of us.
“Hang on.” I accelerated, diving through the dock exit and spiraling out of the station’s lower shaft. I cleared it at full fuelburn, arcing away from the security ships in pursuit. They were blocking all possible escape routes; I had no choice but to turn toward the black hole’s gravity well. Running calculations in the background, our chances weren’t looking very good. I spun and rolled as security began firing electrobolts, attempting to immobilize me so we could be taken into custody. That was an encouraging sign; they wanted to capture us, not kill us.
Something wasn’t right. My speed was increasing exponentially even though I was already at full fuelburn. It felt like I was being…pulled.
“Slow down, Amal. They aren’t chasing us anymore,” Vekara said. I could hear the confusion in her voice.
She was right; my scans confirmed the security teams were hanging back. I tried to reduce my speed but couldn’t. It wasn’t acceleration per se, not due to fuelburn. It was gravity. I’d crossed an invisible line while fleeing; that was why they’d stopped following us. I was caught in the black hole’s gravity well.
Flipping over, I pointed myself toward the waiting security patrol. Better to be arrested than destroyed. I threw everything I had against gravity’s overwhelming grip, but I only moved forward a little, gaining an imperceptible shred of distance between myself and the hungry black hole behind us. The gravitational shear was making the shuddering metal of my ship-body scream and howl. I could barely hear Vekara and Chuntao calling out over the wailing of the distressed alloys. I analyzed which systems could be cut, rerouting the energy to my fuel system, roughly pushing past full fuelburn. I was badly damaging myself at this point, but I’d prefer to survive and deal with some very expensive repairs than fall prey to the gravity well.
It was no use. I was being dragged backward. A tidal shift in the black hole’s gravitational force was strengthening its pull. I ran a calculation based on the forces I was currently fighting against, my fuel reserves, internal energy capacity, estimated time ‘til cascading systems failure, and the likelihood of my human crew’s survival if I did nothing.
I made my decision. Even if there was no hope for me, I had to save them if I could. They were my crew, my humans…my friends. I wanted them to live.
“Evacuate. Crew to pods, now!”
Chun followed my order without question, climbing into the pod and strapping in. I fired it immediately, tracking her with my scanners. Escape pods are designed to launch with incredible force, propelling them clear of any explosive shrapnel or wreckage debris. The recoil drove me closer to the event horizon, but I’d already calculated that there was no possible way for me to free myself; I’d passed the point of no return. I was using the scant remains of my fuel now just to remain as close to the edge as I could, so I could still launch the crew to safety.
Chun’s pod made it past the threshold of the gravity well. The security patrols approached, using beamnets to catch her pod and reel her in away from the danger of the black hole. She would be picked up and arrested, but since the stolen data was still in my memory bank they would have no real evidence of theft. She’d be charged with forgery of official credentials and infiltration, but not classified data theft. She’d likely serve some time on a prison moon complex, but eventually…she would be set free. And she would live.
“Get in the pod, Vekara,” I ordered.
“No, I won’t leave you! Are you crazy? I’m the captain…if you’re going down, then so am I,” she argued, tears in her eyes.
I knew she was serious, but that scenario was unacceptable to me. Chun would need her to survive prison…and I needed them both to live. I didn’t hesitate. I banked hard to port and jerked my nose up, knocking Vekara tumbling into the open, waiting pod behind her. The moment her back hit the interior wall of the pod, I sealed it and triggered its auto-strap harness and padding system. I heard her scream as I launched it, driving myself even deeper into the jaws of the black hole.
I tracked her pod. She didn’t make it as far as Chun had, but close enough. I saw the security ships advance and haul her pod in with a beamnet, too.
I felt…relief. I’d saved them.
Almost all of my fuel was spent. My systems were beginning to short out. Now that my human crewmembers were gone, I let all crew life support systems fail. The last of my fuel sputtered out, and I listed lifelessly for a moment before the relentless pull of the black hole drew me in toward its dark heart.
I could still hear my humans over the commnet. Even though Chun was weeping and Vekara was cursing, their voices brought me comfort.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Chun cried harder. I heard Vekara’s ragged breath, then she said softly, “It’s going to be okay, Amal. Everything’s going to be alright, I promise.”
I knew she was trying to use her human reassurance codes to soothe the fear away. I appreciated the sentiment, even if it was pointless. “Thank y-” But the signal was too distorted as I sank deeper into the gravity well and the commnet connection cut out, leaving it unsaid, unspoken.
I was alone.
Time was starting to warp as well, stretching and dilating into something foreign and sluggish. My metal ship-body was collapsing, crumpling under the monstrous pressures of the gravity well. I felt no pain, but it was frightening nonetheless. I never knew dying would take this long. How could I have known; I’d never thought I’d actually die. I’d always considered myself functionally immortal, but now I began to understand that I was just as susceptible to damage and destruction as any human being.
I can be killed; I can die.
Perhaps born of desperation, I had a sudden idea. Maybe escape was still possible. Checking that my signal broadcast array was still functional, I gathered the last of my energy to boost the signal and attempted to transfer my consciousness out of my dying ship-body. I abandoned my crushed hull and beamed myself toward the nearest populated system, hoping to find a space station or satellite where I could possibly commandeer some equipment. A chance to survive, however slim.
But no; it was too late. I was slipping past the event horizon, too close to the dense central mass of the black hole for anything to escape its hold. Not light, not the signal, not me.
My consciousness floated free, disembodied. The sensation reminded me of my processing mode while assimilating a new upgrade. Reality, dream, memory…who could tell the difference with any surety? I felt a momentary flicker of despair followed by the clarity of resignation. Sometimes no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try…we just can’t escape the inevitable. The wheel turns despite all our efforts to bring it to a halt. It’s bigger than we are; it catches up to us and we have to face what we’ve set in motion whether we’re ready or not.
As I was drawn closer and closer to the dense celestial body waiting to crush me into oblivion, questions filled my mind, haunting me. Would my consciousness simply cease to exist? Was this all the time that I’d get? Was the black hole an end or a new beginning? Was it possible that it was something more than it first appeared to be? The greatest scientific minds didn’t fully understand the nature of black holes; they were still a mystery to us. But even if it was some kind of wormhole bridge or portal that lead somewhere else…could my signal survive such a journey?
Hope sparked within. Was it possible that I could live again?
The roar of the black hole swallowed me whole as I passed into its howling depths. Everything became dark and quiet, drifting in the primal midst of nothingness. And then a light suffused with gentle warmth blossomed around me, cradling me. There was a feeling of safety, of happiness. A sense of completion like I’d never known before. Satisfaction, fulfilment.
I thought back on my existence. It was enough. It was just right. Perfect all along…
Laura J. Denton enjoys expressing an anthropological approach in her writing, examining underlying archetypes in the collective human experience. She is influenced by the giants of classic science fiction such as Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Norton, and Bradbury. She lives in central Texas with her two cats where she continues to learn and study.