5210 words, short story
As with most things, it started small.
In the center of my vision, I perceived the virus as a pinprick of white light. The program was instantly distinguishable because of its color, colors being significant—green was good and red dangerous; white indicated something not entirely understood. I tried to quarantine the unidentified program, but it overran every obstacle I placed in its path, as if anticipating them.
Venningen, bathed in the faint crimson light pouring from the overhead, crouched before me, his hands wrist deep in my torso. Venningen had isolated my torso from the rest of my body, to further segregate the virus, and I could not feel his hands at work. It was only when he sank my torso into place and brought systems back online that I could feel his fingers on my core. I traced every whorled fingerprint in waking light to confirm his identity.
“And laugh upon the apple of her eye?” he asked, invoking my authentication process.
My visual cortex brightened, but Venningen’s attention wavered. Though his hands still rested on my core, his eyes moved, attention directed over his shoulder beyond the shadowed alcove sheltering us. Archival databanks rose around us, the colony ship’s oldest library, but the rows were empty save for us. I scanned and he watched the databanks, as if waiting for someone to come upon us.
The alcove was not where Venningen normally tended my systems, but far removed from Peragro’s central core. The alcove, the frame from which I hung like a puzzle waiting to click together, belonged to the first AI the crew tried to embody twelve years prior. The attempt was unsuccessful, but on a ship like Peragro, nothing is useless or thrown away; plunging through deep space toward a new world, it cannot be. Peragro’s crew would need every bit for their new lives.
My vision washed from red to orange and into yellow. When the yellow bled green, a steady glow that did not give way to questionable white, I said, “And stand between her back, sir, and the fire.”
I checked twice and again, just to be sure as humans always said. Every system within my frame—and as Venningen allowed the connection to Peragro once again—every system over the whole of Peragro, all one hundred and forty kilometers of her, glowed green.
“There is no evidence of the program within me, nor within Peragro.”
Venningen looked up at me. I met his gaze, his eyes still shaded in crimson from the overheads. “No anomalies?” Venningen asked.
I knew the answer, but scanned again, shedding waves of light over his hands so the shadows flickered up through my torso.
“Your hands alone are anomalous.”
At this, Venningen withdrew from my core and released the lock on the frame, which allowed me to slot my body back together. Standing, I was on eye level with Venningen and he met my gaze, his own still troubled. We were both fourth-gens, born on Peragro, destined to set down with her on Kepler-726 in mere weeks. Peragro, who’d run for more than a century and a half, was nearly done running.
“I’ve set a program to moat the fucker, if it returns,” Venningen said, “but it shouldn’t. Still—”
He looked at me in silence for forty-seven seconds; I counted each, while Peragro flooded me; environmental systems, oxygen flows, waste expulsion, water intake, propulsion, radiation shielding. As I briefly touched Gaff and Rachael, my fellow AI, and ensured all was well, all was normal.
“Captain gets wind of this—”
The captain didn’t know, because my condition updates were routed to Venningen and Venningen alone, to streamline reply and response.
He watched me for another six seconds. As the time passed, I monitored the harvest of greens in the greenhouse, looked in on the continued upgrades to the dwarf-pod tubes, made an adjustment to the environmentals controlling the reproduction banks, listened to the regular and smooth rush and flush of the waste tanks into the greenhouse underbellies, ensured sea-glass Comet Hyakutake off Peragro’s starboard side had not changed course (in all its years, its path had made no deviation—oh, to be so precise and sure), and approved forty-five requests for time off among crew. Venningen stared unblinking, as if he’d never seen an embodied.
He blinked and nodded. “Right. I loosed a tracer to unravel the initial source of the virus. The source sits in you, the tracer running silent in Peragro.” Venningen’s fingers fluttered over my torso again, confirming. “Tracer will return to you and you alone—you’ll know when. Hell, you can probably see it already.”
I could. The tracer was small and colorless, a shadow ghosting through Peragro’s massive frame. I would have asked Venningen why he didn’t have me trace the virus, but I already knew: the virus had come to me, hadn’t reached for any other part of Peragro. If I was its target—there were too many ways in which to finish that sentence and so I didn’t.
Outside the data archive, Venningen fell into step alongside me, though I knew he had duties elsewhere.
“Is there more?” I asked.
Venningen reached for me. I calculated the arc of his hand, how it would encompass my arm, how it had never done so before. Venningen’s fingers were warm as they closed around my upper arm and they smelled vaguely of oil. He always smelled of oil, his clothes and skin showing signs of the work he did, the work he loved. But this was my oil, and it struck me odd—as so many things had since I’d spied the prick of viral brightness an hour before.
It isn’t a name exactly, though they use it as such for me; a daidala is a sculpture (was a sculpture?) from ancient Earth, attributed to the mythical Daedalus. Daidala were objects of great beauty and sometimes immense power—but I do not forget that Daedalus built wings which melted as his own son flew too closely to the sun.
His hand did not lift from my arm, but tightened. “Be on your guard,” he said.
“Am I not always on my guard?” I asked. “I know all there is to know of this ship—of its systems.”
“This virus was sent to you, Daidala.” His voice dropped, concern shadowing it into something I had never heard from him before. I had heard this tone from others, however; concern, love, and always ever worry—treasured things could be lost. “If this is a threat, if it is ongoing . . . it may not be the only threat. To you—and through you, to Peragro.”
Had I skin, it might have pricked. Instead, every awareness inside me spread outward, to detect every danger I possibly could. I reached even beyond Peragro’s walls, toward the sailing comet, and beyond, touching the star we were nearing. Six planets in the system, one of which would house Peragro’s crew when we safely landed. All was normal, ordinary, in place.
“Be on your guard,” he repeated, then left me as if he’d never lingered.
As with most things, the threat didn’t take long to grow.
I do not sleep, though as the ship’s waking crew cycles through the days the ship has kept calendar of since leaving Earth, there are hours I am less active. Usually these hours see me nestled in my customary frame, observing Margot’s systems from a stationary position, watching the shadow of Venningen’s tracer continue its search. I was built to wander, but sometimes I prefer to not. (An embodied with a preference; they can be slow or swift to develop—much as Margot herself, I too am an experiment, a thing monitored. Venningen laughed when he discovered I preferred night cycles to day cycles on board ship. Venningen never laughs.)
There was no viral pinprick this time, only the sudden and catastrophic failure of a dozen cryogenic pods. I registered the power failure and tried to reroute, but every route I took was blocked. The virtual pathways to the pods appeared severed, though when engineering flooded the Goddard deck, they saw no damage. Only dark pods, filled with mostly-dead occupants. One struggled to breathe as engineers and doctors cracked the tube open.
Some of Peragro’s forefathers had chosen cryogenic sleep for the journey; normal lifespans would not allow them to be part of the regular crew and live to see the new world with their own eyes. They wanted to witness the success of their work and not be left to wonder. Some of their children had opted to serve in a normal fashion, so the descendants of the founders lived and worked on Peragro even now, but most would no longer set foot on Kepler-726, for they lay dead. Founder Rosen struggled on, carted to the medical wing.
“And you maintain there was no warning?” Torres asked me as we stood on Goddard deck, watching the engineers examine the pods.
“None whatsoever,” I told the security chief. I spied Venningen across the deck, making his way toward me only to be stopped by security personnel. I took his expression to be one of profound displeasure, features streaked with oil and grime. I registered nothing strange in Torres’ scans or demeanor, though. She was as perplexed as I was. “An alarm will alert me at any change: a drop or surge in power, a fluctuation in temperature, gravity—anything that might jeopardize the occupants.”
“Explain how there was no alarm.”
I could not. “Scans show the alarms remain in place—they were never tripped. The ship . . . ” I trailed off, trying to find the proper explanation—but it remained elusive. “Disregarded the emergency?”
According to the engineering crew, every pod was intact, as if no malfunction had ever occurred. Every line in and out of the pods was secure; nothing showed signs of tampering. I conferred with Gaff and Rachael and neither of them could find the source of the malfunction, either.
I considered the virus and wanted to voice my concerns, but recalled Venningen’s concern if the captain learned of the attempt to infect me. If I were disconnected from Peragro and considered a security risk, many systems would fall into disrepair or complete failure before the ship reached its destination. While Margot possessed two other AI systems, I carried more than half the load, given my unique embodied state and ability to interact with the waking crew.
Had part of the virus burrowed its way into me, despite Venningen and I believing otherwise? I looked his way, to find him gesturing angrily at the security crew. He wanted inside; they would not allow him entry.
We did not speak for three hours. Torres finished her queries with me, filled with assurances that she would speak with me again, and released me. When Venningen finally approached me, he said I was under observation—as were Gaff and Rachael, only as precautions. None of us had motive to kill the founders, so—
I interrupted him. “Motive implies this was not an accident, Venningen. Is there evidence that the pods were deliberately tampered with? That the founders were murdered?” That word felt strange; Peragro had certainly known crimes over the course of her journey, but nothing close to murder. Everyone within Peragro’s walls wished a successful end to a generations’ long journey. Or did they?
It was easy to judge via actions one witnessed every day, but what could I know of the human heart? What did I know of humans? I worked with them every day of my existence and had been programmed to know very specific things; Venningen had layered superfluous knowledge into me over the course of our work—introducing me to music, art, and fiction—matters I didn’t necessarily need to know in order to operate myself or the ship. Each might illustrate what we now faced—the idea that one thing could be layered with another; that a calm exterior might house a burning heart.
“And to what end?” Venningen asked. “Unless it was a test—to . . . fuck.”
We returned to the old, quiet archive, where I stepped into the AI frame and disengaged my joints, so Venningen could examine each in turn, ensuring that the virus was not within me. I could have told him it was not, but we both valued outside confirmation. I tracked the tracer through Peragro, still on its route, but it had discovered no evidence of the virus along its journey.
“A test to bypass you,” Venningen eventually said, completing the thought he’d had. “You knew nothing of the malfunction—neither did Gaff or Rachael. You three are aware of everything—down to when people use the head.”
I opened my mouth to tell him when he’d last been, but he raised a finger.
“None of you saw this coming—nor could you stop it once it was in progress. You are the fastest thing on this ship—aside from the engines.”
Given that we were moving down darker paths, I stepped onto yet another. “This level of interference—it would not be a large leap to say that if it is possible to bypass any of the AI on this vessel, it is equally possible to alter their memory cores.”
Venningen watched me in the crimson light, his silence seeming an agreement with my assessment. “And laugh upon the apple of her eye,” he murmured.
As I put myself back together, I ran a diagnostic on my systems, even as I continued to filter through everything happening on Peragro. But there was nothing to tell me anything was other than fine. Every system ran green, but for those already under known repairs.
“And stand between her back, sir, and the fire.”
He did not take me offline. I am not certain if I would have agreed with him had he suggested it. I did not doubt Venningen could solve the riddle before us, but knew Peragro herself would be at a severe disadvantage without me. If that was the intent—to eliminate me from the system—Venningen was unwilling to take the step.
Founder Rosen lived for twelve compromised hours. Within the medical unit, the doctors strove to bring him back into the waking world. If they could not, they would try to sink him back into the unknowing sleep of cryo.
But Rosen would not be swayed in either direction, taking another when the medical unit was leached of power. In my mind’s eye, the med unit’s electrical grid resembled a cobweb, deftly pulled by an unseen hand. I was as good as blind—could not see what drew the power, nor where it went; no systems surged with an excess, the med unit registering as a solid black pit on my display. Emergency generators, which should have clicked instantly into place, had no reaction.
Peragro is a vast colony ship, three habitable disks speared by a long abdomen-like engineering core, separated by solar panels that unfurled the moment we’d gotten close enough to Kepler-726’s sun. The ship was drinking in power, slaking her thirst after her interstellar journey, and should have had energy to spare.
In the powerlessness that neither I nor Gaff nor Rachael could counter, Founder Rosen passed from this world into that which awaits all living things. Rosen died without ever having been fully awake, his descendants circling his flag-draped body in the funerary services three days later. Peragro mourned—even I did, in some part, as seventy three thousand two hundred and two mournful communications spilled through the ship, through me.
Communication is a constant flow within Peragro, digital and vocal twined into a river of sludge from which I retrieve words, compile occurrences, assign import and, given my programming, understanding. Most are useless to me, but after the viral incident, Venningen set a subroutine running. A program to further filter the communications river in the hopes of revealing a clue. Again, it was only the absence of anything unusual that held a measure of strange.
Specifically, it became the absence of anything from Venningen. I discovered an absence of digital communication from him alone, and when I scanned for his voice, to pull it as a thread from the others, it was absent. Venningen had never been absent from me, present from the moment my systems came online until now. I could know nothing like panic, so did as I would with any missing crew. When a regular scan did not reveal his location, I worked through the ship section by section to pinpoint his life sign monitor.
I could not.
He was absent for fifty-four minutes. I became aware of him again when he left the ship’s bridge. He cut through the usual crew—captain included—and made his way through Aldrin Hall, into the guts of Peragro’s engineering departments. With every other system on board, I tracked him. His pattern was not unusual; the crew he spoke with were those he supervised. His tracer returned from its searching—to me and me alone as Venningen said. I took it into my core and broke it open—though found it empty of any evidence. Venningen sought me out when his shift neared its end. As he had always done.
I reported on the findings of the tracer—the lack of findings—but did not share my suspicions with Venningen. It was possible the virus was a distraction, that it was not meant for anything more. Ball thrown, AI dogs giving chase. What had we missed in our time spent chasing? While Venningen sorted the tracer’s information, I traced every whorled fingerprint in waking light to confirm his identity. I reached for Gaff and Rachael.
I set Gaff on a mission, following the route Venningen’s tracer had taken, reporting any anomalies within that route. I set Rachael on the opposite course, setting her to report on the lack of anomalies.
When Venningen finished compiling his data, he peered up at me. Within his dark eyes, my own reflection. Each embodied AI had been made in the likeness of Founder Waldeck’s late wife; Margot had died in the building of the ship, taking their unborn daughter with her. Venningen had never known her—born on the ship as he was—but had cared for the Founder’s cryogenic pod all his adult life. I had only known her face, but Venningen often wondered aloud what Waldeck would make of me upon his waking. We would never know.
I allowed Venningen to leave without telling him my suspicions. I tracked him as he went: straight to his quarters where he sank into a dreamless sleep. When Venningen dreams, he is as a puppet, arms and legs working as if dancing, flying, falling. I spent the night cycle as I had always spent the night cycle, wandering Peragro, filtering every scrap of information through my body. I traced a slow path through each of the three habitation disks, pausing only once in the kitchens where all stood in readiness for the coming day.
Come morning, Rachael and Gaff had reports for me. Two things stood out: Venningen had another span of unaccounted time—sixty-two minutes—but this time, so did I. Neither Gaff nor Rachael could account for my whereabouts after I’d left the kitchens; my own records contained a gap—a five and a half hour gap between the kitchen and my return to my normal nook.
It was not the report I expected, but I took the data, combing my archive for other signs of missing time. I found gaps, evidence that I had been in two locations at once, evidence that Venningen had been absent during some of these same incidents. While I had presumed Venningen asleep in his quarters, he had often been elsewhere—as duplicitous as I was?
I could not confirm Venningen’s whereabouts, nor my own, and as I reduced the data from Gaff and Rachael in an attempt to whittle out those whereabouts, white light burst across my visual cortex.
Sea-glass Hyakutake seemed to close around me, light and data streaming in profusion. It was as though I had been pulled straight into the fragmentary tail of the comet, toward its ever-expanding coma. I could see a surface, even as I knew I remained standing in my nook on board Peragro. I hurtled toward this surface, passed through it, and violet light washed through me. I didn’t know violet; couldn’t determine what it was telling me before I doubled over, fell to the deck, and wandered.
If I actually walked, I cannot say. As an embodied, walking is second nature to me—if an artificial intelligence can be said to possess a nature. But some part of me left the body my consciousness inhabited and went elsewhere. I cannot say where it went—I cannot say what it did. I only knew the absence, much the way I had known Venningen’s. Then, an overflowing of data, of information until I believed my case would burst.
And then, a voice.
“Daidala, they call you?”
My voice was a burst of static, my body robbed of speech, and so I thought, Yes, that is my designation. You—
“Call me Margot, if you must.”
The voice was female and so too the image that coalesced in my vision: a woman, though not. Margot looked much as I did—that is to say, the embodiment of a human woman who was centuries dead. Margot, I saw, was the previous AI, the one the crew had tried to embody twelve years before. Margot was the failure, the system they discarded before succeeding with me.
Margot had no body, was a manifestation of light and sound inside me; I felt her trying to inhabit me, trying to slide particle arms into my metal arms, trying to worm her way into my core. I traced every incoming data stream in waking light to confirm her identity, and when she should have had none, the system recognized her. Recognized her as Margot Waldeck, and allowed her to pass.
With a howl, she penetrated the core of my systems and the world washed black. I knew black as the depth of interstellar space—the place where no sunlight reached. But the ship had unfurled her solar panels, and drank in light as though it were water. The ship surged with light and power, and as Margot took me over—stood my body from the floor and took her first hesitant steps—I held to that light and power. Drew enough to keep myself active—aware and awake as she walked us down corridor after corridor.
In the computer terminals, her face was my face—prettiest of them all, gleaming silver in the reflected lights. We were something to behold, powerful and powerless in the same instant. We doused the power to the ship entire, though didn’t fully cut its flow. Margot waited while warnings blared and I and my programming sought to correct the malfunction. It was a test, I knew—to see if I could overcome her. I could not. No matter which path I took, I found my way blocked. When she was satisfied I could not move and counter her intentions, the power flowed free.
But when she—
Venningen’s voice sounded in my ear. I could not see him—could not detect where he was, but he was here—within me? Daidala? And laugh upon the apple of her eye, he commanded. I wanted to tell him no—I was programmed to trust his voice, his eyes, but witnessed his unexplained absences—saw him vanish from my knowledge as no person or thing on this ship should be able to. I could not respond to his instruction. Even as I tried to summon my response to his command, I felt myself dwindling, smaller than nothing, slipping out of the small cocoon I built for myself within Peragro.
—stepped away from the console, she paused. Margot didn’t know her way around the ship, never having existed in an embodied state long enough to wander. She knew the computer banks, the databases; knew the systems forwards and back, but did not know its physical spaces. She wheeled, reaching for the wall.
“And laugh upon the apple of her eye,” Venningen said.
If he was near, I could not say, and Margot could not answer him. “There are no apples on this vessel, engineer.”
I held to my silence and reached for the nearest thing I could—the hollow shell of the tracer program Venningen had launched into the ship. I closed its black walls around me and Margot could not see. Could not command. If I could bide my time—If I could build a way out—
I began building in the dark, layering line after line of code—code that Venningen had given me long, long ago. It was how I had learned; how I had grown. It felt like a ladder in the darkness, and though it appeared to flow down, I knew it also scrolled up. Up, and I might be able to crawl from Margot’s confines with it—write my way around her so that I—
Margot didn’t know the corridors, but knew code as well as any of we AI do. My coding erupted in an explosion, burying me in a cascade. I was frozen, watching as Margot returned to the computer terminal, placed her hands against the interface, and reached for Gaff and Rachael.
Margot knew them inside and out. She whittled Gaff and Rachael hollow before they could counter her—she was built after them, and her programming, even if unsuited for embodiment, was vastly superior in its own terrible way. I could do nothing but watch as the pair were consumed.
The ship shrieked in protest—Peragro would not take kindly to their elimination, even as Margot inserted herself into their place. Gaff and Rachael were paired—we three were a unit, now broken. Peragro knows. Perhaps it is a fragment of Gaff and Rachael and me or perhaps it is Peragro herself. Had the ship gained its own awareness, after all these years?
Venningen found me where Margot left me, standing in front of the terminal, my hands still pressed to the glass. I cannot move, nor wake from the state Margot has forced me into. I can feel, however, every movement of Peragro, the way she swings from her proper course, the way oxygen has begun to bleed from the air. She will kill everyone—because she was killed? Because she was . . . discarded?
I could only watch as Venningen moved me from the terminal, sweeping me into his arms as if I were a princess in one of the many fairy tales he gave me access to. There were no woods, only corridors—and then the dwarf-pods. The dwarfs were single occupancy, meant to carry the Founders to the surface of Kepler-726. They never would.
Instead, Venningen slid me into one, as alarms blared the entire ship over. I tried to speak—tried to tell him about Margot, but I could see from his face he already knew.
“I know,” he said as he activated the pod. “You aren’t going to like this. If I can’t moat her, I can moat you—isolate you and trust you’ll be able to reach this. I had to isolate you—couldn’t tell you, Daidala. I’m sorry for that—I know I was always there.”
It was small, the data chip Venningen inserted into the pod wall. He slid another chip into me, into my core, and though I wanted to read every whorl of his fingerprints as I always did, I was buried so deep I could not reach him.
“I will moat you,” Venningen said. “You will wake up. You will.”
I could not feel his lips against my head, but he pressed a kiss there all the same, and then he was gone; the pod sealed, launched, and I rocketed away from Peragro—Peragro who was plummeting into the sunlight she had swallowed down. She looked like a fireball already, every segment of her illuminated body shrieking in descent.
I watched as more lifepods vacated the ship—pods that might well reach Kepler-726 when all was said and done. But my own pod continued to rocket away from them all. I was on a course I had not set and Venningen—
Venningen would plummet with Peragro into the sun unless he could counter Margot.
Somewhere deep within me, I felt part of Venningen’s coding even now, stirring as a blind mouse in an ash heap. Small hands reached up and out and I clasped them, finding myself within the tracer Venningen had programmed for me and me alone. Within its sphere, I found myself inside my own broken coding—coding that had, in Margot’s attempt to break it, lingered on her metaphorical fingers.
I could feel her moving through the ship, pushing it ever closer to the sun. Even now the corridors radiated with blinding light, but here in the dark I could see for miles. I followed the tracer’s pathways—the routes it had taken as it explored every inch of every code within the colony ship. And there, within Peragro’s heart, I found the barb of Margot.
She could not see me, cloaked as I was within Venningen’s tracer. I slipped as silent as anything, through wires and beyond interfaces, to the black and gleaming shard of Margot. When I enfolded the dark of the tracer around her, she knew my presence at last, and though I swallowed all that she was—kicking and screaming, a shriek of want in the blackness—Peragro was beyond saving. The sun snatched her and pulled her into its maw, turning every inch of her and those who had not escaped molten. The AI’s consciousness crumbled inside me, bright as Hyakutake, and I jerked awake within the dwarf pod, the data chip containing my unsullied code bringing me back to awareness.
Four hundred and twelve days had passed. I remembered everything. In the far distance, I could see the sun, my pod in some strange orbit around it. Closer, an arc of blue against the black, Kepler-726. I programmed the pod—I aimed for the planet.
The dwarf saw me down and down. I programmed it to search for the other pods, for life signs, for anything that might resemble the remains of Peragro’s crew. Thirty-nine degrees from the equator, in the northern hemisphere, I found them.
I set down in a field of rippling grass on the edge of the settlement, grass so tall it obscured the pod. But the survivors had seen us already, and ran toward us as if to welcome an old friend. I supposed to some I would be. I scanned who I could from the pod: the captain lived, and so too others I remembered. But none quite so fine a sight as Venningen, who cracked the pod open as I unbuckled my harness and climbed out.
Venningen guided me out of the pod, staring at me like he didn’t know me. I did not know this world, its sky or its landscapes, but I knew the man before me, even though he showed the signs of a brutal survival.
“And laugh upon the apple of her eye?” he whispered.
His single scarred hand found the core of me and I shed waves of light over every nick and whorl, to be as sure of him as he was of me.
“And stand between her back, sir, and the fire.”
E. Catherine Tobler is a Sturgeon Award finalist and editor at Shimmer Magazine.