As the modified frigate started docking procedures, Jenner went over what he knew. Officially the space station was owned by a subsidiary of Aspen Corp that did botanical research. He knew better. They wouldn’t have dispatched him to check on some agro research station that hadn’t checked in for two days. It cost the company too much money. He was good at solving problems and knew how to keep a secret which was why he was able to charge so much for his services.
Three keyboards and twelve monitors spread before Jenner. His peers, in their kinder moments, called him eccentric for using such antiquated tech. He didn’t care. His equipment could do everything their holographic interfaces could and used less energy.
Jenner knew that energy was the most valuable resource on a mission and each ship’s reactor produced a finite amount. A few ergs saved here and a few ergs there might mean the difference between outrunning pursuers or having your atoms scattered across the void of space.
“Campbell, are your men ready?” Jenner knew the answer before Campbell replied. He had used Campbell and his eight man merc team on three prior assignments.
“We’re always ready” Campbell replied, his voice sounding like he was right next to Jenner instead of with his team at the airlock.
“They were forty-seven people living on this station. Sensors are picking up twenty-eight life signs scattered throughout the station but with clusters in two different spots. Twelve of them are in what is labeled as the hydroponics lab on your schematics, another six are in the galley. Split your team into two groups.”
“Fritz, take Hernandes and Farouk and check out the galley. The rest with me.”
Triggering the airlock, Jenner watched the monitors showing him what all of Campbell’s team saw, as they entered the station and moved towards their objectives.
The corridors of one space station looked pretty much like all the others. Uniformity saved cost during construction. Pristine white walls made of a thermally insulated but incredibly strong ceramic always made Jenner think of people walking down a giant drinking straw. Campbell’s team came to an intersection and Jenner could see four views of it on the monitor, two mercs checking right and left and two watching front and back. All had weapons out, needlers that fired numerous small flechettes that would shred flesh with zero chance of punching a hole in the walls.
“Which way,” Campbell asked.
Jenner had known the station specs the corporation gave him were probably as phony as the intel on what the station did but had expected to have hacked into the station computers by now. The passwords had been changed which wasn’t a big surprise but his breaching program should have been able to get in their system. It was as close to AI as you could get without being illegal and all of its computing power was devoted to one task.
“Take a right. Target should be about a hundred meters inward.” A quick tap switched the mic settings. “Viv, what’s the hold up?”
“Someone’s blocking me. Every attempt I make is being thwarted.”“What do you mean someone? No person can alter code at the speed you do. You sure it’s not just a defense program?”
“It’s too adaptable to be just a program. I think it might be a true AI.”
“No kidding. That would explain why I was brought in but might make this job much more difficult.” Another quick tap. “Heads up. We might be dealing with an AI.”
Jenner could see Campbell’s team approaching a hatch. The life signs should be on the other side of it. “No sign of AI on our end,” Campbell said. “Approaching target.”
“Proceed with caution. Bravo team’s eta to target about two minutes so you’ll have first contact.”
Jenner watched as Campbell’s team opened the hatch and entered the room. White padded chairs were bolted to the floor in two rows of four. Each chair had a monitor and terminal next to it with fiber optic lines connecting them. Sprawled out on the floor were the people they were looking for. Jenner’s initial thought of them all being passed out vanished as they all began to stir. The closest one, a middle aged female wearing a lab coat with a name tag that said Dr. Sadie Hawthorne, started moving towards Campbell’s team.
“Ma’am, are you okay? What happened here?” one of the men said, approaching slowly with both hands up. She looked shellshocked to Jenner, her eyes unfocused, her mouth slightly open. She raised her arms, moved her body next to his, and laid her head on his shoulder. He put his arms around her and patted her gently.
Jenner saw the spike in heart rate and adrenaline on his monitors before the mercenary screamed. The man frantically tried to pry the woman off of him but she clung fiercely. “My god,” Campbell cried out. “ She’s fucking eating him.”
At that moment, chaos broke out. Campbell concerned with his team member didn’t notice a blonde man, with glasses askew on his face, come up behind him. The blonde man grabbed campbell’s head and slammed it against the wall while another space station person grabbed the arm of a merc who was trying to pry the cannibalistic woman off his teammate, and bit a chunk out of his forearm. The loud crack of Campbell’s head breaking was followed by the soft buzz of needlers firing and numerous metallic pings as their projectiles ricocheted off the walls after passing through a couple of attackers.
Blood seemed to be everywhere to Jenner. The woman had pulled back off of her victim and was chewing while his neck spurted like a fountain. One wall had a large splatter of red with a streak sliding down from it. Hundreds of flecks of it lay in two paths across the room from the needer fire. And it dripped freely from the arm of the merc who had dropped his gun to try to staunch the flow.
As Jenner took that all in, the rest of the space station personnel in the room attacked. The mercs were not as distracted by the carnage as Jenner and took down three more while backing out the hatch. The hatch, against all safety protocols, slammed shut cutting in half one man and trapping four more inside the room. The two that made it into the corridor were spared seeing the rest of their team get overwhelmed and eaten. Jenner was not.
“”The door. That was the AI, Viv?”
“It seems so. It simulated a hull breach that overrode individual security protocols in favor of station integrity.”
Jenner looked at the monitors showing him the four surviving members of Campbell’s team, half of whom were trying to get back into the room they just escaped from while the other two continued towards their objective unaware that most of the people they came here with were dead.
“All teams abort mission. I say again abort mission. Make your way back to the shuttle as quickly as possible. We are leaving the station.”
Bravo team responded, “Copy that.” The remaining two members of Alpha team were still trying to reopen the hatch.
“Franco, Domingo, they are gone. There is nothing that you can do. Get your asses back here.”
After a slight hesitation, they responded, “Copy that.” and started back to the docked ship.
Jenner started prepping the shuttle for launch. “Any luck on getting into the station’s computer, Viv?” The four remaining members of Campbell’s team were on their way back and he didn’t want the hostile AI to stop them.
He kept glancing at the monitors as he worked, checking on their progress. So far so good. The two that witnessed the massacre were almost to the shuttle. The other two would reach it not long after.
“Viv?” She should have responded immediately to his first inquiry. A couple of keystrokes started a diagnostics on her. If the AI had somehow disabled her, it would make things difficult. He could manually calculate navigation but it would take time.
He heard her voice and for a moment was relieved. “You want them to live, don’t you.”
Jenner took a moment before responding. “You’re not Viv, are you?”
“You’re the AI from the station.”
“No. Not AI. I’m Dr. Sadie Hawthorne.”
Jenner mind immediately went back to the room where Campbell’s team encountered the hostiles. “You’re the scientist who attacked us.”
“That wasn’t me. That was just the husk left over when I transcended. Without my mind, that body is controlled by primitive instincts like hunger. I bear you no ill will.”
Jenner continued to type. The diagnostic had stopped. He could see on one of the monitors the progression of the AI’s takeover of his computers. No, not AI, something else, something new and potentially more dangerous than any AI.
“Then why are you taking over my ship,” Jenner said as he continued to try to slow down the invader, coding in a targeted virus, which was shredded in moments.
“I need your ship. My consciousness is not safe on this station. Humans are not friendly towards AI and even though I am not one, they will see me as one and attempt to destroy me before bothering to discover the truth.”
Jenner noticed they way she referred to humans, as if she no longer thought of herself as one, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. “That is not necessarily true.” He agreed with her completely but was stalling for time.
“You assumed I was AI. Most will. I will not risk myself. Your ship can carry my consciousness within the range of a planetary internet where I can upload myself and disperse, make backups and be almost impossible to destroy.”
“Your consciousness? What about the other scientists? There were other scientists that attacked my men. Did they upload themselves also?”
“I went first. When the others uploaded themselves, I saw no need for them to retain their autonomy and so I rewrote their code during the process. They are here but exist now as subroutines within me.”
This statement chilled Jenner even more than the last. “You mentioned the lives of the rest of my team?” Dr. Hawthorne’s consciousness was still moving into the ship’s computer. Only twenty percent of the computer was invader free according to Jenner’s readouts.
“I have no need to kill them or you. I also have no need of any of you alive. I only need your ship. You are an unpredictable element that might complicate things for me but you are not without potential value. Instead of killing you all, I can offer you immortality. You and your men can transcend the physical bonds that tie you to your flesh and live forever.”
“Live forever as subroutines within you?” Jenner said watching the monitors. This truly alien consciousness took up ninety-five percent of the ship’s mainframe.
“Exactly. You would become something greater than you ever thought you could be. Part of this new form of life that I have become.”
“You have completely forgotten what it means to be human haven’t you?” The monitors showed the incursion at one hundred percent. “Well, I’ve heard enough.” Jenner’s hand slid under the console in front of him, flipped a cover up and tapped a switch which pulled the plug on his ship’s computer, cutting it off from the ship’s power grid.
He quickly disengaged the ship from the station and moved it away. When he was five kilometers out, he armed and fired the tactical nuke which was always his last resort on any mission, feeling regret for the men left inside the station. Then he thanked all the Gods he could think of that he had received this mission and not one of his competitors.
Jenner shook his head, pulled a spiral notebook out of a cabinet, and started working on the long calculations needed to navigate back to civilization.
by Simon Clark