An alluring song forces Khopesh to make a decision. But there are some choices one hopes to never have to make.
The problem with modern technology, Khopesh mused as he dug through wires and displays, was that the things weren’t tested by anyone who actually had to use them, and everyone seemed loathe to install so much as a tiny ‘manual override’ button in case some tyke smacked it and sent trillions of dollars hurtling to a fiery doom. No matter that a kid had less chance of wandering into a Cryo-Star transport’s bridge than they did of surviving the current situation, which was so close to zero as to make no discernible difference to anything.
Despite the sweat trickling down his neck and staining the micro-fibre weave of his uniform, the ship blithely informed him that everything in the engineering bay was one hundred percent optimal. His captain, on the other end of the commlink, sounded far less cheerful.
“Of all the times, in all the places! We find out now that AI have—“ a thud, followed by a faint crackle of plas-glass and considerably louder swearing, cut off the captain’s thought, but Khopesh knew what she was going to say. The thought had been circling around his own head for the past twelve minutes.
“Six minutes, Kho. Gravity well’s getting closer. Hotter.” A bead of sweat rolled into his eyes and Khopesh blinked it furiously away. A low, sweet melody was playing just on the edge of hearing, but he ignored that too. No distractions.
“I know. I know. Hard to break something when you need to be able to put it back together after.” Static was his only response; a brief flicker of panic sent his pulse even higher than it already was, but his suit metrics informed him on request that Captain Gunong was simply speaking to Bhuj. He’d be down in the sleeper bays, monitoring the pods.
The ship’s computer said there weren’t any issues with the storage, but it also chirpily informed him he was experiencing 25 degree cee temperatures when they would have been better described as ‘hellish’. Numbers weren’t important right now. At least, most weren’t.
“Five minutes, Khopesh. How’s it going?”
“Fine, fine.” Static crackled along his ground-suit as the weave ate the excess charge. “How’re the passengers?”
“Still frosty. Thankfully. Although that’ll be moot if the well grabs us.” Fingers closing on a circuit-runner, Khopesh nodded distractedly, trusting his suit telemetrics to inform Gunong of the acknowledgement. The tech in the uniforms was smart and getting smarter every day, but it wasn’t AI level. You needed more processing power for that, the suits just didn’t have enough space.
Ships, on the other hand...
Sparks flickered over his hand as he engaged the runner, hooking it into the boards. The plasma displays flickered through cyans, greens and purples before settling into a dusky pink that glowed like a sunset on a romantically-backdropped beach. Something you’d see on Callisto or Titan. Not quite normal, but perfect in its own way.
“Root access is... close. These gates are hard to get through. Too many flags.”
“Don’t want it to be easy for hackers. Three and a half.”
“There should be some sort of bypass for emergency hacking by the crew. To stop us having to lobotomise the darn thing when it gets stupid.”
Khopesh stared at the circuit runner, not really seeing its iridescent glow. The distant ethereal music playing on the ship-wide channel drilled into his brain like an old-timey trepanner with unsteady hands and six beers under their belt, mixing with his captain’s flat question.
“Could you, Khopesh? Three minutes.”
“I won’t kill Yarra.” He forced his sluggish fingers back to work, but the horror of the suggestion seemed to gum up his brain. Gears were spinning, but all he could think of was the ship and the passengers, the gravity well, the stellar passage, the Strait of Anthemoessa and its inhabitants.
“But you could?”
“I’m not killing the ship just because it’s gone and developed a sexual orientation, Gunong!”
“You’re not! You’ve got two minutes before this ship pilots us into the Anthemoessa gravity well and kills five thousand people! It’s not a matter of why the sirens can lure it, it’s the fact that they can, and are!”
“Yarra’s a person, Gunong!”
“And they wouldn’t want to kill these people, either, Khopesh!”
Khopesh snarled and threw a spare plas-wrench into a cabinet, denting the chrome-alloy door and nearly drowning out the chaos in his head with the noise. When the ringing finally subsided, the sirens’ music was still lilting through the ship’s speakers and Gunong sounded frantic.
“Khopesh, we have a minute and a half left. Either do it safely or... if you can’t, you need to kill the ship. That’s an order. My... my responsibility. Not yours.”
“Kho, you have to. I’m sorry.” The circuit-runner shook, pink and crimson lights flickering and pulsing in time to the music, in time to his racing heartbeat drumming in his ears. “I don’t want Yarra to die, but if it’s a choice between the ship and everyone on it... I have to make that choice. I have to.”
“And I have to do it.”
“I’d do it for you, if I could. Yarra wouldn’t... Yarra would want to save them. Us.”
“I don’t think I can live with it, Gunong.”
“Yarra will die either way. Would you rather live with the knowledge that you killed all these innocent travellers?”
“At least I wouldn’t feel guilty for long.” The lilting melody curled around his brain, trickling into the cracks and crevices where stress and guilt tore his thoughts to shreds. He knew the right answer, but his hands didn’t want to move. It would be so simple, and that fact made it worse. Just like turning off a computer.
“Thir... thirty seconds, Kho. You need to do it now.
Khopesh stared at the tangle of wires, the artificial neurons that fired a brain so vast his own mind could scarcely comprehend it. This wasn’t fair. They couldn’t have known, how could they have known? His fingers tightened around the circuit runner.
Author’s note: I know that traditionally, sirens attract their prey by appealing to their prey emotionally and mentally, but I chose to do the more modern interpretation of it being more of a sexual attraction, since I thought that was an interesting development for an AI. The ship’s full name is the Yarrawong.