The Ship of the Unforgotten - Chapter 19

Camp NaNoWriMo

The boat dealt with, they moved inland, as much as any part of an island that small could be said to be inland. Rose had been right about the climate, as well; it was very nice, warm and breezy even in the late afternoon, with the “sun” about to sink below the horizon.

“You should be fine out in the open,” she said. “There’s plenty of food and water, and more water in the artificial pond if you need it. I strongly suggest you not build a fire. It will only draw unwanted attention. And,” she continued with a pointed glance at Pixton, “I wouldn’t turn your phones on. She can triangulate that easily, you know.” Pixton nodded sheepishly and slipped it back into her pocket, unpowered.

All three of them were disappointed at that, but immediately understood the need, too. In any event, there wasn’t much on the island to build a fire with, even if they felt comfortable doing so. They resigned themselves to beds of grass and a cold meal, but as they looked out at the increasingly dark tropical sea around them, they at least felt a lot more secure in the knowledge that any agents of the AI hijacker would have a hard time reaching them.

As they sat around a circle talking quietly, Dann asked “You said earlier that the maintenance bots can use boats?”

“Yes, they can. Or at least there are a few varieties that can, anyway. Many aren’t designed for it, and a very few others don’t need boats.”

“W-what? S-some can go in the w-water?” Pixton asked, sounding shaken.

“There are only a few and they’re not anything we need to worry about. They’re environmental regulation monitors that track fish populations, algae and bacteria counts in the water, and a few that check for damaged systems that are exposed to the sea water. None of them should be able to detect us, and wouldn’t care about us if they did.”

“What about the ones on boats?” Jackson demanded.

“Some maintenance bots use boats to visit these installations for maintenance and repair work in cases where the boats are faster than the maintenance tunnels, but you saw the condition of the docks. It’s been years since anything used these boats before us.”

“It sure would suck if they decided to change their minds tonight,” Jackson said sourly.

“I’d say that’s unlikely,” Rose said. “Remember what I said about Rose Dawn’s linear thinking? The more I consider it, the more I think Dann’s suggestion was a stroke of genius. That action makes it extremely likely that Rose Dawn will consider the sub-arctic biome to be our destination, and will focus all searches there.”

“We’ve been assuming that it’s Rose Dawn that calls the shots, though. Wouldn’t it actually be the AI hijacker?” Dann asked.

“Yes,” Rose admitted, “that is true.”

“From what I was able to see, it’s relying on Eden Rose a lot,” Pixton chimed in. “I’ve been looking at historical records of her performance, and there’s a sudden spike of activity that corresponds exactly to the time all the cryo-pods failed. It dropped off a lot over that, and then in the last day it has started building up again, but it’s slow. Anyway, I think it doesn’t have much functionality of its own. It’s probably just a big processor and core AI file, and relies on it’s victim to provide it with everything else. It’s like some nasty sort of hakware parasite,” she said with a grimace of distaste. “We need to squash it as quickly as we can.”

The others nodded. Dann was about ready to fall asleep on the spot. He was just drifting off when he noticed one of the simulated stars moving; a faint red one. “Rose,” he murmured sleepily. “I didn’t realize the sky was animated.”

“It’s not, Dann,” she said, just as quietly. She started looking around suspiciously and stiffened as she turned in the direction he was looking in. “Oh, no …”

Suddenly alert, Dann whispered, “What is it?”

“Stay down, all of you, and be absolutely silent,” she said.

The four of them lay in grass that was, thankfully, tall enough to hide them, but which also obstructed their vision. It was another of the boats; it floated almost silently along the water’s surface, paddled by a maintenance bot that looked too clumsy to manage such a feat. Dann held his breath; he could feel the others around him doing so too. The boat drifted close enough for Dann to see that the red light he’d mistaken for a simulated star was one of the bot’s eye pieces glowing red in the dark.

For one terrifying minute Dann thought that it was going to land the boat and search the island. He sucked in a slow breath when it did in fact turn the boat to the dock they had avoided and pulled up to it, securing the magnetic moorings. Rather than searching the island, however, it instead climbed to the dock and disappeared into the colonists’ quarters, the steel doors piercing the night with a terrible squeal, leaving Rose and the three wide eyed humans to stare after it, hardly daring to breathe. After a few minutes, the door ground to a close once more and the bot returned to the boat, silently paddling away to continue the search elsewhere.

Dann let out his breath slowly, relief flooding him like a tidal wave. “That,” he barely whispered, “was way too close.”

“I am so sorry,” Rose said. “I did warn you that I might not be reliable though,” she said, with a remarkably apologetic tone. She sounded seriously distraught.

“S-so you couldn’t predict the actions of a c-computer that thinks differently than you do,” Pixton admonished, “and which has been hijacked by a rogue AI! We still don’t know for sure what that’s doing to Eden Rose’s way of thinking. But at least we know she’s still thinking pretty linearly,” she added. “If she had any concept of lateral thinking, she’d have searched the grass, instead of just the living quarters. Especially since she’s supposed to know when those doors open and close.” Pixton actually sounded a little disgusted at that, as though any AI she designed would never have made such an elementary mistake.

“Thank you,” Rose said, and again Dann was struck by her tone; there was pure humility in it. “Pvt. Jackson, would you prefer to take watch? Given my failure tonight, I’ll understand—”

“It’s fine, Rose,” Jackson said flatly. “When it comes down to it, you reacted exactly as you should when you recognized that thing. I think we can trust you to keep watch overnight.”

“I’ll wake you if anything unexpected happens, then,” Rose said, and the three very tired privates closed their eyes for the first time in far too long.