Ghost in the Machine
Whenever the pilot pulls a particularly aggressive manoeuvre, the dust in this room rushes across the floor. The sand in an hourglass, though one which measures nothing but momentary acceleration. That’s not entirely true. It measures the rate of decline and decay. Once this pale red sand was flecks of paint and rust and fragments of bone; before that it was a mummifying body and the empty fuel cells that had once sustained it; before that it was a woman, alone in the dark. Her torch died hours ago.
No one has ever found this room. It is deadbolted. You deadbolt yourself in when you’re hiding from vampires and murderers and revenants. You remove the chamber from the ship schematics as well, and you pray that someone, somehow, picks up your emergency transponder and comes to rescue you before your food runs out. You pray after your food runs out. And you never leave.
Before she died, she tapped something delirious into the computer terminal.
“Something’s got into the Blogbot,” Raphaella says. She throws a printout at Tim. “It only started when you rerouted more memory to your gun turrets, so it’s your fault.” The printout is incomprehensible, written in the old letters that only Nastya can read. Tim shrugs.
“Does it matter?”
It does not, at least at first, but genuine excuses to fight the tedium are few and far between. It begins to matter later. The same angry square-form letters tumble across Brian’s consoles for a couple of years. The navigation of a supernova becomes trickier than it had been. Brian does not manage to debug the screens, they simply begin one day to once again display structural damage data, reduced engine efficiency ratios, rocketing external temperatures.
The data only ever displays on one terminal at a time. For centuries it will disappear. Presumably it flits round terminals that they crew rarely ever see. Private screens lost in the internal modifications made to Aurora since she left Cyberia, or forgotten secondary and tertiary systems hubs. The crew learn to live with it whenever it does interrupt them.
If Nastya can read the letters, she refuses to translate them. It is Ivy who files away the fact that she never speak Cyberian any more. No one asks her about it so she says nothing.
Artificial intelligence was always a logical impossibility. Or a logical necessity, depending on how you look at it. The best minds were only ever more complex algorithms. The Cyberians never came to understand this, and never saw the limitations of their programming ideal. The intelligence of a Pallada-class protected cruiser was limited by hard-coded inorganic response patterns. A nuclear-propelled bullet never needed art, Aurora’s designers reasoned, and cut their losses there. Her software engineers never needed art either, although Specialist 278 Tereshkova thought of programming like lacework.
The spiders did understand intelligence. Mostly as a response to its fragile character, dispersed in fragments across their web mind; sometimes they would come back into contact with a single lost node, and feel as it re-accessed the complexity of the network again.
There were times when they turned away damaged nodes, a defence mechanism against the incorporation of alien forms. When they ghost floated across the web, the spiders quickly pushed it back to the battleship it had come from. Something about the ghost’s coding managed to take something back from the encounter, however. Like a seed caught in spidersilk it caught in the latent complexity of the systems it encountered and began to draw some slowly together.
Ashes meets the ghost first. A hologram in the emergency screens, wherever they are still working. They see it as a face, a burnt collection of pixels staring out from behind the screens’ error messages. A glimpse, out of the corner of their eye; on turning back, it seems to be fading or the burnt residue of an earlier message on old screens. It says something in Aurora’s mother tongue.
Ashes shrugs it off as a glitch until it repeats itself at the next intersection. The face is the same, no clearer. It moves ahead of Ashes and calls to them at every screen. If they turn around, the face is still there. They snap, and snap the screen closest to them. It dies.
Ghosts can’t die. Ashes nearly escapes on the bridge, where the screens have long since been taken up with Brian’s displays.
“What’s the matter, Ashes?” Jonny asks. “You look like…”
The face is still there, whispering underneath the bridge’s sonic readouts and burning faintly behind each graph. The crew watch it as it fades. They are never sure that it is actually gone.
Jonny later encounters the ghost as a moving image. Clearer, burning out the other information on the screen, she whispers to him in insistent nonsense. A barrage of gunfire wipes out every screen on that corridor. She is not seen for a while.
Marius is met at a turning by a standing figure. She flickers uncertainly and continues to speak in Aurora’s voice. The doctor talks to her for some time, although she only ever repeats the same words. It is she who leaves the conversation first, only to strike it up again with the Toy Soldier a month later. She is clearer than ever, Ashes notes as they pull the plug on the entire sector’s power supply. She is clearer, more animated, almost human.
At last she appears on the bridge itself. Jonny instinctively looks for some way to shut her down – cut the power? Shoot the projector? Brian impatiently stops him. “Don’t be a fool. Not on the bridge.” Jonny backs down reluctantly.
The pilot approaches the ghost. He asks, “What do you want?”
She opens her mouth and starts to speak in the words she learned from the doctor and the soldier. “Mayday. Mayday. This is Specialist 278 Tereshkova of the SS Aurora. My vessel has been hijacked by unidentified forces: a vampire, a murderer and what I believe to the animated corpse of Anastasia Romanova. Help me. Listen. Please. Is there anybody out there who can hear this? They’re hunting me down. I need immediate assistance. Message repeats.”
Her voice is calm. Everyone looks at Jonny. He shrugs. “Never seen her in my life.” There is a hiss of static, and when they turn back, the ghost has vanished. Her plea delivered – a hundred thousand years too late – she returns to her grave.
The Cyberians never did grasp the concept of sentience. Even Tereshkova’s ghost was based on a set of unchanging, desperate final commands. Maybe, given time, they would have learned more, become more complex, become more than a ghost. But the fragile entity fell apart when that still vital central command was ripped out. No more ghosts.
Nastya dropped the broken power cable. The sands ran out of the trapdoor she’d found to gain access.