Disclaimer: This stories contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|The Dreamer||Part II
Sickbay turned out to be a medium-sized room situated at the center of deck two, with two large doors opening into either of the two main corridors, that slid apart automatically as Sabrin rushed in. There was a thinly padded surgical bed situated in the middle of the room in a pool of light, onto which Sabrin carefully placed Tallas' body. Frantically, he looked around at the unfamiliar controls and displays scattered throughout the room and found nothing familiar. Cursing his lack of medical knowledge, he gazed helplessly at Tallas' body and slumped beside the bed.
"He'll be alright. Looks like he took a hit from just the corona of a stunner charge and it propagated a shock through his nervous system 'till his brain slipped out of consciousness. He'll wake up in a day or two once the excess energy wears off." The voice startled Sabrin from his revelry. It was the same even-toned, masculine voice as from the computer before, but without the artificially formal quality and the presence of a slight drawl, it sounded almost like a different person to Sabrin. In fact, under other circumstances Sabrin would have found the voice cute.
"Who's that?!" Sabrin asked in a voice a bit louder than necessary.
"The ship. Who'd you think it was?" A wall monitor came alive to Sabrin's right, showing the image of a young man. Sabrin's eyes widened when he recognized the black hair and sharp features: it was the same as the body on the bridge, the one who'd tried to kill both of them not six hours before. He took a few steps back in alarm, bumping into the center bed. Now that the man's eyes were open, Sabrin noticed that the irises were completely black, with a ring of gold seemingly etched into them. They were beautiful, while at the same time chilling, triggering in Sabrin some deep-seated instinct warning him that he was looking at someone not human.
"I see you recognize me," the face looked amused, not menacing. "That's my avatar you fought on the bridge. We were both kinda...irrational from the slave node. Thanks for getting rid of that, by the way," he smiled to reveal perfect white teeth, or at least a simulation of them, "It was really starting to chafe."
"Who...what are you?"
"Didn't I just answer that?" the man said with mock exasperation. More formally now, "I'm this vessel's artificial intelligence. My name's Dream of Dawn, registry ISN-35-19077. Most people call me Dreamer." Sabrin still bore a look of shock on his face. "Will you relax? Your face's gonna freeze up like that and then what'll Tal say when he wakes up?"
The mention of his friend's name shook Sabrin back to reality, and he worriedly looked back to the bed behind him. Tallas looked peaceful enough lying there, breathing softly with his eyes closed, as if he was asleep. Suddenly Sabrin remembered what the ship had said earlier. "He's gonna be okay?"
"You aren't listenin' to a thing I'm saying are you?" Dreamer commented cheekily. "I said it was just neural overload from the stunner."
"How do you know?"
"I'm programmed with basic medical procedures. Nothin' fancy though so don't you be faintin' and giving yourself a concussion on the edge of that table."
"Why should I believe you? You tried to kill us." A voice in Sabrin's mind told him it probably wasn't wise to antagonize the A.I. in case it turned out to be hostile after all, but all the recent events had left his thinking muddled and disorganized. Something told him that the oddly flippant -- Dreamer, was it? -- was telling the truth. After all, he was in no condition to put up much of a fight if the ship had wanted to kill them, and he and Tallas were both alive, weren't they?
"I told you that wasn't me," Dreamer denied, his expression slightly darkening for the first time since he appeared. "I haven't been in contact with my avatar since they put that fuckin' node on. They re-wrote his programming, used him against me." His eyes betrayed a hint of sadness before they returned to their former state. "I've wiped out his memory and restored the connection, so he should be me again...more or less."
"Wait, that...thing's still alive?" Sabrin felt a stab of fear go through his heart as he turned his head back to the door, half-expecting to see the plasma gun-wielding maniac standing there like in some second-rate horror film.
"Hey now, that's me you're talkin' about there!" Dreamer looked a bit put off, as if he expected Sabrin to be convinced of his benevolence by now. "And no, my avatar isn't 'alive.' I can remotely access his brain but you need to manually re-activate the android's systems."
"Yeah, fat chance I'm gonna do that," Sabrin muttered to himself. Dreamer gave out a small sigh but decided not to push the issue yet. "Speaking of alive, you don't look half alive yourself," he commented on Sabrin's unruly hair, pale skin, and bloodshot eyes. "Maybe you should get some rest too. I have several crew quarters available on this deck if you'd like."
Yawning, Sabrin became acutely aware of how tired he was as adrenaline drained from his system. Neither he nor Tallas had managed to sneak in more than half an hour's worth of the sleep at a time in the three days of their escape, and how his body felt like it was made from wet pasta. He still couldn't quite bring himself to trust the computer though. "No, I'm staying right here," he said as he dragged himself onto one of the three smaller beds lining the rear side of the room, resting on his side with arm beneath his head as a pillow. The mattress was hard and not very comfortable, but his body was too tired to care.
"G'night," Dreamer said softly as the overhead lights dimmed. Sabrin was already sound asleep.
Alone in a darkened ship, Dreamer ran another systems check and watched the Dream of Dawn through his network of internal sensors. He focused his attention again on the two young men sound asleep in the sickbay. Both were handsome enough and in good physical health, barring their past ordeal, and Dreamer found something within himself stirring. Realizing it he brushed it aside with slight chagrin. In what way am I even reacting? It wasn't as if he had a body, especially not now since his avatar was an inert mass of complex alloys and polymer composites on the floor of the bridge. The ol' A.I. engineers shouldn't've made us so human, Dreamer ruminated, then maybe we wouldn't have so many of these nonsensical reactions.
Being the A.I. of a starship, Dreamer was constantly receiving an influx of information, both from the outside and within his own self. It was like background noise, and yet he was constantly aware of it in perfect detail. Sometimes he wondered what it was like to be a human; never completely knowing the happenings inside his body; never in full control of it. He had ideas, buried deep in his memories. It had felt terrifying...or rather as close to terror as a ship's A.I. could experience. The programmers had the cognizance to realize that it was sufficient for the crews to be burdened by fear without their ships falling prey to it as well. At the moment Dreamer was glad for that fact, as fear would be most unappreciated as the Dream slowly orbited the system-less star naked and alone, easy prey for any opportunists to happen along. The shields were nearly gone, the torpedo bays long-since empty, the tachyon coils burnt out. He also had very little fuel left, having expended most of his reserves in the mad dash from Nessus.
Man, I'm in sorry shape, Dreamer thought, but at least I have a chance now. He called up the vital signs of his two sleeping charges. So young...but I guess we're in it together now, he mused, I just hope they'll understand what I have to do.
Machines do not sleep, but Dreamer longed to be able to live up to his nickname. He did the next best thing: he accessed his memory files, the familiar codes running through his processors. As much as he could permit, Dreamer allowed the past to flow around him, filling his consciousness with warmth...If only for a short time.
Sabrin felt a sharp pain in his right arm as he slowly returned to consciousness. Must've fallen asleep on it again, he thought as he gingerly extended it and waited for the blood to flow back in. His body registered that he was on a rather hard mattress, and then he remembered that he was in the sickbay of a strange ship. Sabrin opened his bleary eyes and glanced around at the scattering of small lights around him. Suddenly the overhead lights brightened, momentarily blinding him and causing a pounding within his skull. He groaned in annoyance and cast a glare at Dreamer's image, which had appeared on the monitor.
"Sorry," Dreamer said facetiously, "I thought you were awake already."
"I am now," Sabrin grumbled. He pushed himself off the bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Is Tallas alright? Has he woken up?"
"Yes, and no," Dreamer answered. "And dreaming, if you're curious. I'd give him a few more hours."
Sabrin was, but he didn't want to give the slightly annoying ship the satisfaction. Instead he ignored the image and walked to the side of Tallas' bed, placing his hand on his friend's chest and feeling the heart beat beneath. Tallas certainly looked better than he did before; the dark circles around his eyes were gone and the bruises weren't as livid as the day before. The day before? "Computer, how long was I asleep?"
"23 hours 16 minutes," Dreamer replied.
"That long?" Sabrin said, more to himself, as he ran his hands through his grimey hair. He became aware that he needed to use the bathroom. And a shower.
"Take any of the six doors to the right of the corridor," Dreamer said with a smirk, "you can use the bathroom in the crew quarters, since you two are basically my crew now."
"Thanks, I've overjoyed," Sabrin glared at the image, but the greasy feeling on his skin got the better of him and he walked to a door marked "crew cabin 1". The door slid open as he approached, revealing a medium-sized room with a bed against one wall and a desk against the other. Shelves and drawers were set into the wall. A small window was situated against the far wall, whose curvature matched that the outer hull. Sabrin could see the stars slowly moving past, along with the blue sheen from Mirfax. The bathroom door was on the right, and he saw it was shared with the next cabin. He entered the small shower cubicle and let out a contented sigh as the warm water cascaded over his body. Thank god whoever built this ship didn't decide to save money and install those awful decontamination chambers, he thought. After ten luxurious minutes he finally felt human again.
When Sabrin stepped out of the shower, he nearly crashed into the partition when he saw Dreamer's smiling face on the small monitor embedded in the mirror. "Nice tattoo," the A.I. indicated the elaborate symbol on Sabrin's left shoulder. Tallas designed the pattern for him when they were both seventeen, based on ancient astrological symbols. "There are vacuum-sealed towels in the cabinet to your right. I can clean your clothes for you if you'd put them in the laundry chute," Dreamer said, seemingly nonplussed by Sabrin's nudity.
"Get out of here!" Sabrin blushed heavily and hastily retreated back into the shower cubicle. The field decon chambers at the Academy was one thing, but this setting felt decidedly more intimate. He glared at the image of the faintly amused-looking man in the mirror.
Dreamer suppressed a grin at Sabrin's modesty. "Y'know, my internal sensors can see any part of the ship -- and it's nothing I haven't seen before anyway. Besides, you've got nothing to be embarrassed about. You're very well-constructed...for a human," he jibed, deliberately choosing the machine-biased phrasing.
"Go away! Have you no decency?" Sabrin was still mortified at being seen naked in front of a stranger. Even if he was a computer simulation. Thankfully Dreamer took pity and switched off the monitor, so he darted out of the cubicle and wrapped a towel around himself. "God what the hell are you doing in here anyway?"
"I thought we could talk," Dreamer's voice was every bit as clear as before, "seeing how we're gonna be ship and crew and all."
"Yeah right," Sabrin didn't relish the idea of spending more time with the irritatingly upbeat A.I. Something struck him as strange though as he recalled the events which brought them here. "Why weren't you here when we were flying out of Astal-Ishasa? All I heard was the computer."
"You looked like you had 'nough to deal with at the time," came the dry response. "I figured adding dealin' with a sentient A.I. on top of everything else would've been a bit too much to handle. I know you Orion types don' care much for digital sentience."
"Oh, uh...thanks," Sabrin responded, a bit surprised that the computer displayed that much discretion.
"No prob," Dreamer said, feeling a tint of happiness at finally making a connection of sorts with the young man. The pause was becoming uncomfortable though. "Besides, it would've done me no good if you spazzed out on the jump and disintegrated all of us," he quipped, ending the brief moment of camaraderie.
Sabrin simply rolled his blue eyes and finished drying himself. As per Dreamer's instructions, he stuffed his dirty clothes into the chute. "How long will this take?"
"Half an hour. You plannin' to wait here all that time?"
"I'm not going anywhere wearing nothing but a towel."
"I told you, you don't have to worry about that with me," Dreamer said sincerely, "Seriously, it shouldn't bother you. I'm not really human and you'll have to get used to me being around at some point. I am the ship after all." Sabrin noticed that the A.I.'s face had reappeared on the mirror, albeit with a more timid expression than his prior brazenness. It struck a chord inside him, as he glimpsed Dreamer's genuine nature beneath the abrasive exterior. He raised his head to meet Dreamer's black eyes.
"Give me some time, okay?" Sabrin smiled slightly.
Dreamer smiled in response and vanished from the mirror, leaving Sabrin alone with his thoughts. They had escaped the Imperials, but what were they going to do now? They had no money, no supplies or equipment, and a ship they barely knew how to operate. For the past four days Sabrin had been preoccupied with escape, and he had given no thought to what would happen afterwards. Could he pilot them to a neutral system? Could they find employment, build a new life somewhere else with no one to rely on but themselves? Could they truly be free of the Orion Empire's long arm? His mind pondered the various scenarios as he sat in the small bathroom. After half an hour his hot and dry clothes dropped into a wall compartment and he dressed.
His first concern when he left the cabin was to check on Tallas. His friend was still asleep on the bed in sickbay, and his vital signs displayed on the monitor above were strong and steady. Get a good rest, Sabrin thought as he watched Tallas' well-formed chest rise and fall. I'm going to need you if we're gonna make it.
"Hey, you haven't told me your name," Dreamer said. His image had re-appeared on the sickbay monitor.
"It's Sabrin Payne," Sabrin replied, looking up from Tallas' bed.
"Sabrin, I need to talk to you about my avatar," Dreamer said. "We need to reactivate him."
"What?! Absolutely not! That thing nearly killed us!" Sabrin responded vehemently, his mind shuddering at the memory of a hail of plasma fire impacting centimeters from him. "No way am I turning it back on to let it finish the job."
"He wasn't himself at the time. They cut me off from him and corrupted his programming, but I've fixed that. It'll basically be me, 'cept in android form instead of a picture on the wall. Please we need my avatar operational," Dreamer insisted.
"Why?" Sabrin asked suspiciously.
"Think about it. Neither of you knows in detail how this ship works, not to mention the fact I'm supposed to have a crew of twenty. I can do basic maintenance and repair on my own systems, but not without the avatar. Besides, we're in the middle of nowhere with no support and no resources. It'd be handy to have a third person around to draw on," Dreamer said.
Sabrin had to admit that the A.I. had a definite point. He'd never seen this class of ship before and there certainly wasn't time for him to learn its technical specifications before something important failed. Nevertheless, reactivating the avatar clashed against his common sense and he need something to assuage his nerves. "What if it does go berserk again Dreamer? What then?"
"Look, my avatar has a master kill switch, alright? I used it myself to deactivate him after you destroyed the slave node." Dreamer sounded frustrated and pleading at the same time. "I'll give you the codes for it."
"How do I know they're real?"
"You'll have to trust me," Dreamer said, his eyes locking with Sabrin's. "I haven't lied to you yet, have I? Please...my avatar's a part of me. I'm...incomplete without him."
Sabrin could find no duplicity on the A.I.'s face. He sighed and nodded, "Alright, let's get going then."
It surprises many people that humanoid androids and self-aware machines predate jump drives by almost a century, but the processes of miniaturization and hyperprecise fabrication proved far easier than unravelling the mysteries of non-space. As artificial brains grew exponentially in complexity with the tasks to which they were entrusted, some philosophers said that sentience was the inevitable consequence. While this is by no means certain, sentient machines followed humanity into the stars and are perhaps as much part of present-day human civilization as those made of flesh and blood. What exactly they are is still being questioned, since their minds are strikingly human and yet definitely not so. As such, in the interstellar age humanity now finds itself grappling with the issue of civil rights and aliens in its midst, when none of the actual extra-terrestrial species thus discovered have integrated with it to any degree.
Yet, unlike humanity's much earlier struggles with its own diversity most A.I.s are curiously unconcerned with their lot in life. The old Solar battleship Indomitable once said that for a mind not borne from nature and unencumbered by the questions of purpose and self, cognition itself was good enough. She also noted that for an A.I., lacking a natural process of death, being bereft of purpose amounted to practically the same thing.
Sabrin thought about those words that he'd read somewhere in his youth as he walked back onto the bridge. What about this ship called the Dream of Dawn? Did he have a purpose? And did that purpose include him and Tallas? It seemed that he had nothing but questions nowadays. It bothered him, but he forced himself to remain focused on the present.
His eyes wandered to the darkened, blistered patches on the bulkheads where the plasma had struck. He carefully approached the still, human form of Dreamer's avatar, still in exactly the same position as when it fell the day before, half-expecting it to attack him at any moment. Upon closer inspection he saw that the elusive plasma gun was actually an emitter component physically incorporated into the palm of the android's right hand. He gulped audibly and attempted a steady voice, "Okay, what do I do first?"
Dreamer's image appeared on two of the bridge monitors, one on either side of Sabrin. "First you have to open the primary access junction. The release is on my right side, where the solar plexus is on a human. You should be able to feel a hard nodule."
Slowly, Sabrin unzipped the upper half of the android's blue and black uniform and pulled it away to expose the torso. Despite himself, he noticed that the manufacturers had made the machine's body very anatomically correct -- broad shoulders and well-defined pectorals tapered down to a trim waist, sporting a tight six-pack. Sabrin briefly wondered just how far that anatomical correctness extended and found himself blushing a little, and then far worse when Dreamer said, "Hey, quit checkin' me out. You wouldn't let me when I wanted to."
"Shut up asshole," Sabrin mumbled, "solar plexus right?" His fingers felt around the android's midsection. He noticed that the skin felt smooth and absolutely real -- except it was ice cold. Part of him wondered if it was what a dead person felt like but he quickly stamped out the morbid thought. "Hey, it's cold," he commented to Dreamer.
"That happens when you've been inactive for twenty-plus hours. Once you feel the release, press it as hard as you can." Dreamer said, spurring him along. "Don't worry, it won't hurt," he smirked when Sabrin seemed a bit reticent.
Sabrin pressed, and felt something inside give way. The click was almost inaudible but Dreamer apparently heard it, as he said: "Good. Now turn me on my stomach and feel around my left second rib. There's a button about halfway between the spine and the shoulder blade. Press it and the junction'll open by itself."
Carefully Sabrin wrapped his arms around the body and eased it onto its stomach. He had expected it to be absurdly heavy, but surprisingly it weighed barely more than a normal man. He found the button and was startled when a neat rectangular section of the android's lower back slid up and down, revealing a metallic spinal column surrounded by strange components and circuitry. "See the blue box on the left side? Disconnect it, open the top and flip the switches in the following order..." Dreamer displayed an animated schematic of the small box and Sabrin followed them judiciously.
"Good. Now, close the box and reconnect it. That'll trigger the restart sequence." Sabrin complied and jumped back, as the android's interior came alive with lights. The panel slid back up and Sabrin could no longer see the seam. Slowly the body began to move; mechanically at first, and then much more smoothly. Using its arms it pushed itself off the ground and into a kneeing position facing Sabrin, who was frozen in place with a nervous look on his face. Now that he had carried out his decision he wasn't sure what would happen. Silently he braced himself, waiting for fate.
Without warning the android leaned forward and pressed a light kiss directly on Sabrin's shocked lips. When he pulled back, his face split into a playful grin. "Thanks," Dreamer said, "I owe you one."