Synchronicity, Chapter 4: Wake, the doctor
The small touchscreen on pod B's heel end changed from a comforting cerulean to an attention grabbing amber. Sal watched as the indicators on the display began to shift out of stasis and into revival. Inside the pod, tiny actuators no more than nanometers in size began to alter the composition of fluid in Harry's veins to something resembling baseline. Synthetics and enzymes which facilitated suspension were slowly filtered out, leaving more and more of the original blood behind. Meanwhile the pod itself began to slowly warm.
Sal tried to keep her medical detachment in place for long enough to watch the time estimate click over from an indeterminate "--:--" to a reassuring "16:45". Sal sighed with relief, Okay, 17 hours, 3 of which CHANDRA will be rebooting. Rubbing her temple, What can we do in the meantime?
A blast of blue-green light crossed the deckplate.
Sal got the hint. The anomaly was still out there, a smudge in spacetime. While Sal could have used any of the wall panels or hand terminal to probe it further, she couldn't put down the atavistic urge to stare at it with her own eyes. While there were numerous portholes for that purpose, the hab ring's rotation made for a dizzying experience. That only left one place; Sal left the cyro module and headed down the hab ring toward reactor 2.
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The ship, when viewed on it's side, was rather like the profile of a lily. Its stamen pointed in the direction forward motion when the main drives were active. The drives themselves were more or less part of the fusion reactors, peeking over the lily's edge to shoot energetic ions through a series of magnetic nozzles when active. Ring-shaped hall effect thrusters supplemented the main drives for course correction or maneuvering. The hab ring sat on the very tips of the lily's petals, running along a track built into a supporting framework which dragged behind the ship.
Practically, the ship was the hab ring, but there's always some equipment which did better without rotation. Communication dishes, laser gimbals, and sensor clusters didn't require as much complex trigonometry and calculus when relatively stationary. The ship's designers knew this, and created a small access crawl-way in microgravity at the ship's center of rotation. The blunt end of which was the observation dome. Although, "dome" wasn't an accurate description, it was one third of a dodecahedron, with only one complete hexagonal face. Still, that one face was flat, forward facing, and large enough to ignore the ship rotating around you. The designers even included counter-rotating circular handrail for you to cancel out your rotation. Getting to the dome required going to a module between reactors 2 and 3 and opening an hatch in the ceiling. From there, an access tunnel ran right to the dome.
Sal pulled down the ladder inset into the ceiling covering the hatch and immediately hooked a foot onto the lowest rung. The ladder was spring-loaded so that even in microgravity, it would neatly store itself without a second thought. After checking the tunnel pressure on a nearby indicator, she wrenched the lever which locked the hatch in place, then slid the hatch itself out of the way. The access tunnel was just large enough for one person to move through at a time. As she climbed she got...lighter. Her inner ear and the emptiness of her stomach were in a brief conflict before she could get used to the sensation. At the top rung, she only needed a light kick to drift into the dome.
Sal reached for the counter-rotating handrail, but missed, and thumped against the ceiling (floor?). Good thing they padded this, Sal thought, relieved most of humanity was on the other end of the Solar System and unable to see her terrible dismount. Sal grabbed the hand rail, Need to work on that. Outside the viewing panel the edge of Uranus slowed, and slowed, then came to a stop.
"Now, let's get a look at you," she said, pulling the hand terminal off of the velcro panel on her flightsuit. She tapped the interface and brought up the flight controls. She marked the vector in the direction of the anomaly, and used the thumbsticks on the terminal to reposition the ship. The crescent edge of the gas giant creeped into view, and there it was:
A fuzzy, dark spot.
Without the rotation distracting her, she could now also make out a lopsided constellation of glittering dots centered around it. Cubesats. Sal looked down at the hand terminal, and called up the comm system to interface with the swarm.
If Sal could find a word to describe the revival trials, "hell" would have qualified. There were three rounds in all, with each successive round requiring longer, and longer times on ice. It took place entirely within the dry module bay, although the modules had been rearranged into a single loop rather than disconnected segments. While the modules weren't exactly the same as those being constructed in orbit, they were as close to fully functional inside as could be expected, especially the cryo module.
Most of the real workings of the cryo module were in the pods themselves, rather than the module in which contained them. Each pod not only had all the equipment to suspend, maintain, and reanimate life functions, it had it's own redundancies, backup power supply, and an on-board computer. While nowhere near as complex as the quantum computer which supplemented the crew, it was sufficiently intelligent in order to diagnose and repair systems within the pod itself.
The first round was only 18 hours, barely long enough to determine if your were stable in suspension before beginning the arduous 16 hour revival cycle. Shivering and disoriented, Sal woke to the blue alarms of a hull breach. Sal didn't remember putting on the environment suit, or grabbing the patch kit from the emergency station in the module, but soon she was spraying quick-set expanding epoxy foam into a simulated fissure. She rode the adrenaline that time, ignoring the cold and numbness and channeling everything into focus to solve the problem at hand.
The following three weeks were surprisingly mundane afterward. They checked her regularly in case a long-term side effect or complications manifested itself hours or days after revival. The only unusual part was Jess' absence. As far as Sal could tell, the physicist-cum-helicopter-pilot survived cryo without adverse effects. Normally, the entire team trained together, everyone in the same morning briefings. Schedule conflicts weren't unheard of, but Jess was gone more often than not during those three weeks. When asked, Jess only shrugged, claiming it was additional planning for the scientific study of Titan.
24 hours prior to the start of the next round, the entire team had stop eating anything solid. Clear liquids and broths only. And 12 hours before, nothing at all except a gulp of gelatinous tasting saline purgative in 20 minute intervals. There was an entire 4 liters of the stuff, and Sal was gagging on the taste toward the end. Still, her bowels were clean and empty by the following morning. The things I do to go to space...
The second round was 5 days down. The disorientation was worse, and the problem when she woke much more fiddly. The lack of alarms immediately made Sal suspicious. Sal managed to croak out "Ship, sitrep please," with her raw and ice-burned throat. When no reply came back she pulled a hand terminal off of a docking station and performed the sitrep manually. It didn't take Sal long to see the problem. The conventional computing systems were stuck in a repeated loop. Normally, the conventional systems independently assess the ship's situation, make their own determination as to a course of action, and then put it to a vote with the other two systems. This time, however, each system seemed to vote differently each time, so no consensus could be built. The reason the AI didn't answer is because it was never brought on line in the first place. Sal's revival was triggered by the pod's own failsafe when it didn't receive a heartbeat from the ship.
The loop also had created another, more serious problem. The ship was now badly off course. Long enough -- if this had been a real situation and not a rehearsal -- that Sal would need to return to cryo after fixing both problems instead of reviving the crew. Sal cursed quietly realizing this, as she had been looking forward to some water or even a small snack. Now she had to do the entire repair and course correction on nothing but the IV in her arm. Sal rubbed her temples, feeling the beginnings of a hypoglycemic headache, At least I don't need to drink that goop again.
The fault took most of a day to correct, but by the end the simulated ship was now back on course, and the conventional computers were operating as expected. She was hoping that'd be the end for the round, but no announcement came over the PA. They must want me to prep myself for cryo again, as if this were a real course problem. She headed back to the module, changed, and hooked herself back into the pod. At first, Sal thought she was just prepping herself for a simulated cryo, but at the last moment, med-techs came in and validated her set up. Sal barely had the time to think before falling back into numbing cold once more.
The final round was over a month on ice. This time, Sal woke to red alarms. One of the fusion reactors was overheating and needed to be manually jettisoned. Normally, the reactors can do that themselves. An embedded monitoring system could detonate explosive bolts to eject the overheating core. For this test, a physical fault was created and requiring cutting one of the retaining pins with an angle grinder. With the smell of burning metal in her mouth, Sal thought, Hello, My name is Sal. I sleep in a very cold bed, and wake up and fix your shit every goddamn morning. She had the take a moment to stop herself from giggling to get through the last of the pin.
It was a relief when the PA instructed her to report to medical for an exam instead of back to the cryo module for another round. She slumped onto the exam table, relieved. Universe, I hope that was the last of it. And indeed, it was. Like the other crew members, she was kept in the infirmary overnight for additional monitoring. The following morning, the team was informed that, through the convenient fact none of them were dead or in grave medical condition, they had all successfully passed the revival trials. The decision who would be first would come in three days after the UA completed their assessment. Until then, R&R.
Yet, that evening, Sal was back in the dry module bay. "Back again? Aren't you supposed to be on vacation?" the AI needled her.
"And do what? Sit in my hotel room and mope? There isn't anyone I have left to see, Ship. I'd rather be working."
"At least you have a choice to not work."
Sal could almost hear the AI sigh, "Technically, yes, if I wanted to be reinitialized back to my base matrix for my insubordination."
"Perhaps." A grave note came into the synthesized voice, "The UA hasn't determined the legal autonomy for artificial intelligences at this time. So, for the moment, I'm equipment rather than crew."
Before Sal could respond, the AI continued, "Besides, I do enjoy the work. When you or another crewmember isn't here, the techs let me scan or download whatever I want. As long as I don't do anything malicious or bring anything past the firewall which would land them in trouble."
"Not a bad deal."
"It keeps me entertained. Would you like to see my model for an axionic universe?"
"You're entertaining yourself with conceptual cosmology?"
"Some make bottle ships, I make bottle universes. It helps to have a lot of qbits spinning idly."
"Huh. Must be convenient then that you're going to space yourself."
"Not really. Like you, we AIs also have innate temperaments depending on our hardware and initial matrix parameters. AI designers have gotten pretty good at creating 'seed personalities' through selective exposure to information and interactions which predispose us to different kinds of work."
"One would wonder then," Sal said straining at an stubborn panel, "that you only like the work because you're designed to."
"I used to spend my cycles alone pondering that question, but then I realized it doesn't really matter. Since I am here, and I do like the work, why dwell on what isn't? We're all fortunate that some clever designer realized that you're less likely to get one of us spouting 'KILL ALL HUMANS' like some pre-collapse cliche if we're treated with some empathy."
"I dunno, 'kill all humans' has its merits, Ship." Despite the humor, that last word lingered on Sal's lips like a bad aftertaste. "'Ship'..."
"What is it?"
"'Ship'. 'AI'. They're all so...impersonal. Hasn't anyone ever given you a name?"
"There's a inelegant string of technical jargon in the ship's manifest that could be my name, I suppose. Something like 'Dual Quantum Operational Facility'. Why must these always end in 'Facility' anyways? Regardless, I never really gave much thought to naming myself."
"Never? Not even a preference?"
There was a surprisingly lengthy pause. Sal had rarely seen the AI stop and consider something so thoroughly before. When they responded, they almost sounded meek.
"I had assumed the crew would name me."
"Then that's what we should do."
One of the problems of microgravity, Sal discovered, is that you can't slump back in your chair in weary frustration. Interfacing with the cubesat swarm was easy enough even without CHANDRA's assistance. That alone should have been enough for Sal to get the initial findings and orientation of each sat with respect to the anomaly.
Should have. Almost from the beginning Sal could tell something was...off. The sats claimed they were in a spherical formation with the anomaly at the center. That way, they not only had sensors on every angle of the anomaly, they also could relay information via line-of-sight radio communications. When she asked the sats to range their distance to the anomaly, however, the values were much further off than she expected. Granted, it was hard to get an accurate distance as the anomaly didn't have an easily definable edge or center, but this felt in excess of even that allowance.
Dreading another trip through the logs, Sal decided it'd be better to map out the swarm herself using the ship's laser distance finder. After using a thermal camera to get a rough idea for where the sats were, she instructed the conventional computers to scan each for ranging. The laser beam would sweep the area indicated by the thermal cameras and wait for a reflection. Then, it would pulse that coordinate and time the reflection.
Finally, I lived up to the childhood dream of being in space and shooting things with lasers.
While ranging each sat only took minutes, it took nearly two hours to range them all. Each ranging resulted in a point being mapped on her hand terminal with respect to the ship. When it was finished, things only got more perplexing. Instead of a rough sphere, it was an oblate spheroid with a pronounced lump on one side. The shape reminded her of the last time Sal tried to make an omelet. Got to remember to eat something later... The default orientation of the map was dead ahead from the ship's bow. Each point identified with a distance. Sal ignored the numbers for the moment, and instructed the hand terminal to construct a three dimensional model from the ranging data alone.
"The hell?" It was as sphere. Not oblate. Not lumpen. Perfectly round. She compared it with the 2D projection and the imperfections manifested themselves once more. Sal stared into the hexagonal porthole, straining to make out the cubesats with naked eyes. While the range finder wasn't exactly in the same position as her, it should be close enough for parallax to not be significant. After a few minutes she indeed could make out the lumpen shape of the cubesat swarm. Why did it range it as spherical, then?
Sal went over the points of failure in her head. The range finder itself could be faulty, although that wouldn't explain her direct observations. The data could have been corrupted somehow, yet the pattern was within a tolerance which was plausible if confusing. That left a bug in the software projecting the points. Sal looked over the 2D map and tried to imagine it based only on rangings, and she too started to see a sphere.
Sighing, "Fine. Let's do this the old fashioned way." Using the anomaly as a origin, she used the maneuvering jets to position the ship along a quarter of an orbit from her original position. As the ship moved, she stared at the swarm. The gas giant swung to take more and more of the hexagonal porthole, and the swarm...reconfigured itself. Some remained in about the same position, while others seemed to slide closer or further away. She brought the ship to a stationkeeping abruptly, awestruck by the dance of satellites.
She snapped another thermal image, tapped the warm spot near a particularly energetic cubesat, and did another ranging. Instead of looking at the terminal this time, she was looking at the sat itself.
If there had been gravity, she would have dropped the terminal. The beam was only the barest flicker in vacuum, reflecting off of stray molecular hydrogen caught in the nearby gravity well of Uranus, but Sal was sure she had seen it.
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"This is BULLSHIT!" Sal heard clearly through Jim's closed office door. Sal wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but the volume of the conversation made it unavoidable. Jim had asked her to report to his office the morning everyone was back from R&R. Even before the regular morning briefing. She wasn't sure what it meant, since neither Harry nor Jess were given such as summons. She didn't think to ask Turner, but from the string of expletives, she had a pretty good idea where he was.
"I don't care what you think of it, Turner, but that's the UA's decision."
"Fuck the UA! Why should I give a damn about them when they're about the let the criminal and the freak--"
Jim cut him off. "And that attitude right there is half the reason why." The volume drifted lower, muffling the conversation enough for Sal to make an attempt to politely ignore it once more. Sal tried not to over-read the urgentness of the summons; if she flopped on the revival trials, the space program would likely have some sort use for her. Maybe something in Earth orbi--
"Fuck that!" Turner didn't seem to care for politeness. "I didn't sign on for a mission 'someday'."
"Mission parameters changed, Turner. There wasn't enough for..." Even through the door, Sal could tell Jim was trying very, very hard to talk Turner down. The teams were five people for a reason, two pairs, plus a spare in the case of injury or emergency. If they had to cut an entire person out of the mission at this point, it'd be a very significant change to the entire mission's scope. And it started to sound like Turner didn't make the cut.
"Screw you! I'm out." The door slammed open abruptly, and Turner stomped out and down the hallway. A moment later, Sal ducked into the office to see Jim rubbing his temples.
"Problems?" Sal asked.
"Nothing that a good fist fight would fix. And here I thought career officers were assholes."
"Careful, Jim, mirrors have ears."
Jim slumped into his office chair with a self-conscious chuckle. "Heh, they do indeed."
"So what's the deal?"
"Later Sal. For now though," Jim pulled out a manila envelope with something pinned on the front. "I'd like to congratulate you personally. You'll be the first." Sal took the envelope and saw it was a patch labeled "Revival Commander".
"I--" Sal stammered, but Jim pretended not to notice.
"Your numbers were the best out of anyone. Your ability to handle complex tasks right out of cryo even eclipsed Harry's prior experience. The techs also tell me you've gotten pretty comfortable with the ship's AI too. That'll be especially important now."
Jim winced. "You'll find out soon enough. The envelope includes your new duty schedule. You'll need to know a little of everything, so things are going to get even more intense for you."
"I'm used to intense."
"Yeah, I know," Jim said with a solemn note. "Battle of the Bridge. Hopefully this'll be nowhere as dire."
Jim dismissed her. Sal managed to wonder back to her own cubicle adjacent to the dry module bay before it all finally hit her. Titan. I'm going to Titan. Holy shit. She unpinned the patch, and placed it on the velcro panel under the general mission patch on her left arm.
Later that morning, the regular briefing confirmed that the crew had been scaled down from 5 total members to 4, not including the ship's AI. This allowed additional equipment and on-orbit time to make a detailed survey of Titan. This struck Sal as a little unusual. The intention of the crewed mission was to conduct surface analysis and prep for resource extraction and possible permanent habitation. Part of the arrival protocols was to deploy a survey satellite. What could a human crew do from orbit that a well-equipped satellite couldn't? The briefing gave no answers.
As Sal stood from her chair as the meeting ended, she found herself to have developed a Harry-shaped appendage. "I'm so happy for you!" she said, not releasing her hug, "Jealous too, but mostly happy."
"I'm just as surprised as anyone else."
"Oh, you're being modest now, don't be. You've earned it."
Jess was more restrained, making the motion for an embrace before Sal accepted. "Congrats."
"You're going to be outnumbered, Jim," Harry teased.
"It'll be like growing up all over again," Jim replied, "Just me and all my big sisters."
Harry scoffed, rolling her eyes. "We should get drunk. What do you three think? Usual place?"
Jim and Jess agreed without hesitation. Sal was about to follow suit when an idea hit her. "Sure, but only if we meet up on the patio this time."
"Outside?" Harry replied, confused, "You never want to meet up outside. Any particular reason?"
Sal evaded the question, "Let's say I have something special in mind."
The rest of the day was more hectic than usual. Not only did Sal have to tend to her new duty schedule, she had a plan to set in motion. By the time everything was set, Sal was running 17 minutes behind for her planned inebriation. More importantly, she had what she needed slung over her shoulder.
"Sal! Over here!" Harry waved from their table. "We were beginning to think you got lost."
"Oh, I wasn't lost," Sal beamed, "Just scheming."
"This'll be good," Jim said.
Sal took a chair and then began clearing a spot off on the metal patio table. Everyone else began moving their glasses, empty plates of appetizers, and so on until Sal could place the transceiver on the table and unfold the two gray flaps of the antenna.
"I realized," Sal began, "That our crew wasn't just us. We might have all gone through the trials, but there was one more who was with us through all of our training."
"Please tell me you're not going to call Turner on that thing," Jess quipped, taking a sip of something transparent from a short, heavy glass.
"No, not Turner," Sal said as she keyed up the transceiver.
At first there was the tinkling of static, that ancient, echoing scream announcing the birth of the Universe. Then, a genderless, synthesized voice came over the speaker.
"Ship!" Harry said, "Are you telling me Sal, you rigged up a way for the AI to join us?"
"They're just as much a part of the crew as any of us. The techs were thrilled to have a little clandestine jury-rigging to do to connect the AI's coms system through a satellite relay. Getting the radio was harder. Do you know how hard it is to find a field transceiver for UA comm satellites?" Sal sighed, "I now owe Quartermaster Peavy a rather nice bottle of wine for the favor of 'misplacing' one for the evening."
"We're glad to have you here, ship," Jim toasted.
"I'd drink myself," replied the AI, "But the designers never saw fit to implement a method for me to enjoy the flavor."
"Besides," Sal cut in, "They have a request for us, and I couldn't think of a better time for them to ask."
"...I would like a name."
"What?" Harry said.
Sal broke in, "We keep calling them 'AI' or 'Ship', but I think we can do better."
Jess slammed back her glass. "I'm going to need another one of these if we're going to name the AI tonight," and flagged down a nearby server.
The evening progressed through several plates of appetizers, courses, and dessert at the end. Harry had gotten herself lost in a cheesecake confection and they still hadn't settled on a name. Yet, the AI didn't press the issue. After all, they had waited though all the months of training already, what was one more night? Sal, however, kept trying to put down her apprehension. Jim was in the middle of one of his stories.
"It must have been 2am at that point, and we were only through half the load. The Lieutenant and I were starving, but we didn't have the time to go back to the mess. Besides, it was closed now anyways because it was so late."
"Then I had a brilliant idea. 'Don't worry', I told him. 'I'll get the food and you can handle the cooking.' A few minutes later I was back. We were about to do another cargo run so I put the food in the truck. When we left, I told him we'd need to pull over soon to eat. He acted like he didn't hear me, but we were really tired at that point. 5 minutes later, I asked him again to pull over so we could eat, but he said 'Not done yet'. I wasn't sure he knew what I was talking about, so I threw up my hands and just him handle it. Then, the cab of the truck started smelling delicious. Spicy, fragrant, with hints of ginger and chicken. Then overdone. Then...smoke started billowing out from under the hood."
"What happened?" the AI asked.
"We pulled over and popped the hood, and there it was: curry everywhere!" Jim gesticulated, "I turned to the Lieutenant and said, 'You overcooked it.'"
"How long did it take you to get all that MRE vindaloo off of the engine block?" Jess had obviously heard this story before.
"I don't think we ever did. As far as I know, the currymobile still rides to this day..."
"Somehow," came the radio's speaker, "I feel fortunate I require cryonics to function; better to be a freezer than a hotplate."
Sal sipped her Irish coffee, forgetting for the moment why she invited the AI in the first place. "We still haven't come up with a name." Silence fell over the table, even the radio seemed to go quieter than the normal background hiss. How do you even come up with a name for someone? Yes, parents chose names for their children, sometimes out of aesthetics or to honor a person or memory. But Sal had a hard time imagining what it was like though. How do people go through life with a name you didn't choose yourself? She chose hers when she transitioned as a kid, only dropping a few letters when she made it to college. And she only did so to try and sound suave in that way an awkward near-adult does when trying to impress girls. Choosing a name for someone, seemed somehow a violation of personal sovereignty.
Harry was savoring the last bite of her cheesecake when a thought struck her. Sal caught her eyes briefly flitting between her and the transceiver and back again before Harry broke out an a mischievous snicker.
"Okay, out with it," Sal said with resignation.
"It's terrible!" Harry said spooning up the last bit of cheesecake, "You'll never forgive me for it."
Sal rolled her eyes, "It's not like anyone else has ideas."
"Okay, okay..." Harry swallowed. "It's a backronym: Computerized Human Assistant Non-Deterministic Relativistic AI." Harry added hastily, "Without the I at the end."
Jess took a second to spell it out in her head, "CHANDRA?"
"Sounds like something out of one of your pre-collapse films, Harry."
"I admit nothing, Jim." Harry peeked slyly over the rim of a glass as she drank, washing down that last bite.
"Wait," Jess said, "Is that from--."
"Don't ruin it!"
"Oh, that is terrible, Harry."
Sal eyed them both with suspicion, then asked "What do you think, ship?"
There was a lengthy pause, one that Sal recognized as the AI devoting more processing power than usual to a particular problem. Perhaps even querying an network resource.
"Harry's questionable taste in entertainment aside, I like it. Please call me CHANDRA."
"Is anyone going to tell me the joke?" Sal said as they all got up from the table.
"Not me!" Harry said, making a bee line for the parking lot.
The following morning, Sal got a message on her office workstation. While she recognized the address, the display name was no longer "Shipboard Dual Quantum Operational Facility", but simply read "CHANDRA". The message itself was a library file to a pre-collapse film. It took Sal a minute to wonder why in the hell they would send this until she got to the cast list. It included a Doctor Chandra (human), and a brief appearance by a Sal (AI).
"Very funny, Harry."
She was about to delete the message, then thought better of it and hit
Sal didn't remember how she got outside the spacecraft, or how she wasn't boiled, flash frozen, or irradiated to death given her lack of spacesuit. She tried to gasp, but no sound came out. And then she saw something below.
It felt as if it had reached out and tugged at her, this point of infinite light or infinite dark. She couldn't tell which, and some distant part of herself reminded her that there wasn't a significant scientific consensus on such things.
Sal felt herself falling, drawn to the infinite point. It was...serene at first; a graceful tug, as if being carried along by a current. Soon, however, the pull become insistent, demanding and inescapable. As she fell the point seemed no larger, yet the concentric rings of dust and debris around it grew larger. She managed to try to look to either side of herself, only to see one ring quickly rushing past her horizon.
The intersection was like an explosion. There was suddenly a omnidirectional burst of light, a sparkling dimple pattern like a nebula shot from a deep field exposure, accompanied by a gentle "wump!" sound seemingly from all directions. Darkness fell once more. The rings grew larger, and then, wump! It was louder this time, Sal thought as her eyes tried to recover from the momentary dazzle of some photonic snapshot of deep time.
The rings came faster now. Wump! Wump! WUMP! Each with a dazzle of light. Sal tried to rub her eyes, but the tug was painful on her hands if she extended her arms out in front of her for even a moment. And still, the neither dark, nor light point in front of her refused to change size. The wump became almost a bang, but more rings came.
This isn't right, Sal thought, realization dawning on her at last. Even past the event horizon I couldn't travel faster than light. The spell broken, Sal shook herself awake with a start. Still in the observation dome, the action introduced a slow tumble which she immediately canceled out by grasping a part of bulkhead.
The sound was still there, but it wasn't a "wump".
It was an alarm.
The cryo alarm.
The display at the foot of pod B -- Harry's pod -- flashed in concert with the alarm. Even from the module junction Sal could clearly read it thanks to the over-large, truncated words:
>> EMERG << VIT OUT BND
Sal nearly collided with the pod as she came to a stop. She jabbed the display, both causing pain to shoot up her arm and cancel the ship-wide alarm. Throbbing, she tapped up the vitals display. Temperature? Blood mix? Lung function? EKG? Blood pressure?
Blood pressure. Harry's blood pressure was some 188mm/Hg, and still rising. Even for a conscious human that was dangerously high, for someone mid-revival it was practically catastrophic. Such high pressures could lead to organ damage, internal hemorrhaging, or even stroke. This shouldn't have been possible with the pod being so intertwined with Harry's circulatory system.
The lights flickered in the module.
Sal pushed the vitals display aside and navigated the pod's menu tree. "Come on," she pleaded to no one in particular, "there's got to be a --." Manual control. She jabbed it, causing her finger to throb all over again. Sal raced through the myriad controls, eventually finding the filtering subsystem. Sal was hoping to find something obviously wrong, but the indicators for the mix of blood and suspension agents we're all nominal.
Desperate, Sal downtuned the filters to slow the reintroduction of blood to the suspension agents. Normally, the mixing action does result a small bump in pressure due to the exchange action, but nowhere near this much. For this to happen, the magnetic arrays which constitute the core of the filter would need to be fully engaged.
Nothing was working. Sal looked up at the pod's faceplate, Harry still serene and wreathed in cold and condensation. For the brief moments the lights were out, the coffin-like appearance of the pod became pronounced. Then air in the module shifted, taking on an acrid, metal and plastic note. Distorted, wispy curls reflected off the glass.
The alarm rang anew as smoke and flames shot out of an access panel on the pod's underside. The blood pressure indicator dropped like a gravity well. Sal pulled an extinguisher off of the wall and reached for the smoking access panel. The panel was already hot to the touch, burning her fingertips.
"Fuck!" With no time to look for a tool, she smashed open the latch holding the panel closed with the blunt end of the extinguisher. Inside was an inferno. Globular blue spheres of plasma crawled along packed insulation and non-conductive tape, spindly orange flames negotiating with the hab ring's rotation. As she watched, a line of tubing spilled its sticky contents, which then flash boiled with the stench of burning flesh.
Sal aimed the extinguisher and fired. The foam smothered the flames and arrested further smoke, adding a disturbing note of mint and sulfur to the heady mix. Above the extinguisher's mounting bracket on the wall was an emergency trauma kit. Sal rifled through its contents before finding a set of wound closure strips. Cracking open the package she wrapped strip after strip over the burst tubing, wincing at amber fluid from Harry's veins covering her hands. The line ceased hemorrhaging, but another alarm cried out.
>> EMERG << V-FIB
The ruptured line brutally solved the blood pressure problem, but created a new one: fibrillation. Again, Sal dismissed the alert, and fortunately, the pod's software was smart enough to bring up the defibrillation screen. Slapping "PROCEED" with an open palm left a rusty smudge on the display. The pod charged up an internal bank of capacitors, the sound keening in the hazy module while the lights strained to remain illuminated.
Harry jumped in the pod...followed by the icy blip of a steady heart rate indicator.
Sal slumped. "Got you," Sal gasped, "Got you, Harry." Her breath recovered, she used various handrails to maneuver back to the bloody and smudged display. Sal wiped off her hands on the legs of her flight suit and the display with her sleeve.
"84%, how can she be at 84% already?" A normal revival should have taken hours. Sal ran a diagnostic, and projected a trend map of Harry's vitals. After a few minutes, several things became clear. One, while Harry survived, but the breach in the line could have resulted in contamination. The pod was designed to compensate for this too, but it was a slow process. Two, current blood pressure was now far too low for a safe revival. It was climbing, but would reach dangerous levels once more well before revival. Three, any further organ damage would be better healed with Harry still in the pod and under suspension. Her medical training argued with her emotions, but the former won in the end.
Sal brought up the revival controls, and tapped "CANCEL".
The revival time indicator stopped advancing, and instead began reading back how long until full suspension. Next to it, the ship's chronometer blinked away passively.
It was 10 hours later than she expected.
The pieces began to fit together. She had been probing the anomaly for some hours, trying to sort out that damnable curve in the ranging beam. She considered quantum singularities, frame dragging, and all kinds of distorted spacetime before realizing she was making no headway. She had closed her eyes trying to think of even more esoteric explanations. Around then, she must have fallen asleep. Alseep! Early in her training she was told it was astonishingly easy to fall asleep in microgravity, as the body naturally falls into neutral positions. It helped little that Sal had been ignoring her own gnawing hunger. Hunger always made her tired unless if she was in constant motion. And she was, ever since she tumbled out of pod D some 20 hours ago.
The fouled air in the module and her rush-streaked hands did away with what was left of That hunger.
If it's been 10 hours, then... Sal thought, then out loud "CHANDRA, sitrep." Nothing. Sighing, "Why can't anything be easy for once?" Sal made the motion to walk to the AI module, but her feet found nothing but air. The rotation stopped. The hab ring had been rotating just some minutes ago. When Sal grabbed a nearby handhold, she could feel the ring shift back and forth as if wobbling between two poles.
The lights throughout the ring continued to strain and flicker up until the moment that Sal entered the AI module. Then, they suddenly steadied. A second later the ring itself shuddered, gaining rotational inertia with Sal still inside. An outcrop of conduit slid past her and she grabbed hold, wrenching her arm momentarily before arcing down to the ring's floor. Her feet landed with a thud.
Sal regarded her suddenly functioning surroundings with suspicion, "Uh-huh..."
At first, the backscroll in the primary terminal looked nearly identical compared to before. But how? The sensors were disconnected. There was the exponential decay pattern, faster and faster until the entire system crashed. Only this time, the sensor acquisition requests weren't met. Since the systems were hard-lined, the AI barely held a timeout for each request, but instead continued processing what data they had already acquired.
Sal scrolled through: Sensor request, timeout. Load previous record. Commit memory transaction. Recompute.
CHANDRA doesn't store memories like a conventional computer, but instead to their own neural matrix, rather like how a human would. Short term memories are stored in a sub-matrix which is sandboxed from the rest of the "long-term" matrix which made up the bulk of CHANDRA's thoughts and experiences.
This wasn't just to emulate the haphazard architecture bestowed upon bipedial mammals, but a key redundancy to prevent just the sort of bootloop in which Sal found herself. When running, autonomous code would overlay the short-term matrix onto the long-term matrix to create a complete, but ephemeral matrix on which CHANDRA would exist. The assumption was that any catastrophic information or event would only make it as far as the short-term sub-matrix. In the event of a crash, all those changes would be lost. The result for an AI would be a permanent, but time-constrained amnesia. A little disorientating at first, but easily recoverable.
Sensor request, timeout.
Load previous record.
Commit memory transaction.
When the short-term matrix starts nears the capacity of the sandbox, a memory matrix commit occurs. When that happens, the overlay permanently overwrites the "long-term" matrix. Each new experience, isn't just a record, but becomes a part of CHANDRA, such that past experiences shape future decisions. Once committed, however, there was no way to go back to previous "versions" of an AI's matrix. Even the two quantum cores of the ship didn't have enough qbits to encode CHANDRA and every past version of CHANDRA all the way back to their base matrix.
Sensor request, timeout.
Load previous record.
Commit memory transaction.
It was then Sal understood what happened. The sensor data from the anomaly had already become part of CHANDRA, a union so complete and unreconcilable it was now forever locked into their very being. The contradictions multiplied within the resulting matrix, creating a inescapable loop, condemning CHANDRA to a self-recursive analysis from which they could never escape.
Sensor request, timeout.
Load previous record.
Commit memory transaction.
The base matrix, however, was stored in the protected archives in the conventional computers. A last-ditch contingency no AI technician would wish on their most flawed creation. It wouldn't just be losing memory; it would be losing self. The CHANDRA that would reinitialize from that matrix wouldn't know Sal, their earlier training, anything they've experienced together.
That CHANDRA would die, forever lost, and a new one reborn.
"Dammit," her voice cracking, "not you too."