Things Fall Apart: Chapter 7, Part 2

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Starship Bellerophon was minding its business, on a long return cruise from an exploration and mapping mission, when it suffered disaster. Systems that should never fail, failed. Gravity fluctuated, slamming people against ceiling and floor.

The disaster occurred during Alpha Shift, when all the senior officers would have been at their posts, and many of their junior relief officers were off duty, relaxing in the Main Recreation room, or eating in Main Dining. The largest single group of survivors found so far were in Main Rec, the people in Main Dining having had to contend with cutlery being jostled along with themselves. In addition, a group of midshipmen, and one of the ship’s AIs, had been deliberately isolated for a training exercise by the XO. The middies have been found alive, as has the AI responsible for matter synthesis and reclamation, nicknamed Chef. The XO has not, nor has anyone more senior than a lieutenant.

Uncertain whether it was an attack, sabotage, or purely an accident, the survivors—many of them concussed or otherwise injured—are working to set their ship to rights, or at least right enough to ensure they survive to find out what happened to them!

It was the first time they'd actually used the briefing room for a meeting like this, and it was a little strange. Singer wasn't sure she'd ever even been in the bigger briefing room that used to be on Deck Four, let alone this one. The room was dominated by its meeting table. To help it feel slightly less claustrophobic, and help people not trip over chairs, the table had a kind of scalloped design, with each seat given its own indentation. This also allowed a range of controls and displays set into the table to be used at various times.

At the moment, however, everyone was pretty much just looking at Chef, projected holographically, twice, facing either end of the oblong table. It was a little eerie, honestly, but since this was, to a large extent, Chef's meeting, it was probably the best compromise.

It was Singer; Alexander; a bleary-eyed Cadotte who had just failed to stifle a yawn a moment ago; Cordé, who continued to look puzzled about what she was even doing here--something Singer realized she was going to have to coach her about; Chief Kasel and PO Wasserman.

Wasserman's inclusion was maybe a little odd. Chef had chosen the guest list, and Singer hadn’t argued. Wasserman had been involved at a pretty high level since they'd done the H4 flybys to figure out how screwed they were, physically. Singer decided Chef was hinting that maybe he, too, should get a chief slot, or at least some formal billet that would make it less strange for him to be included in meetings like this.

Not for the first time, Singer realized she really had two executive officers, and one of them was the ship's computer, and she really wasn't sure how she felt about that, especially given that their current predicament was caused by AIs in the ship's network going catastrophically haywire.

Seeing everyone was settled, Singer opened the meeting. "Good morning, everyone. I realize that the timing is not elegant for everyone, but Chef and I agreed this couldn't wait. We had a bit of a breakthrough this morning. I'll let Chef explain." There. That made it sound like she knew already everything that was going on and had just delegated.

My gods, she thought, how much of command is manipulating perception like that. I need a shower just thinking like this.

Chef, however, picked up the ball smoothly. "OK, so, thing number one: I remember how to make gumbo, now. And yes, I see you rolling your eyes, but this is important, and not just because it's what's for dinner tonight.

"We now realize that Commander Maupassant was on to something big, more than he let on to anyone. We know this because, at almost the last minute, he stashed a whole bunch of stuff, including some easter eggs of code, into my own systems, and then made sure myself, Castor, and Pollux, were isolated from the network, along with main engineering, as part of the middies 'training exercise'. None of that was an accident or a coincidence, and ultimately, we have his paranoia to thank for the fact that we did not blow up entirely.

"The oddities in my memory were created deliberately. Maupassant allowed that he might not survive his own preparations, so he set up trip hazards that would be noticed by anyone who did. He gambled pretty heavily in doing so. He particularly gambled on the fact that a number of people witnessed an argument he and I had about gumbo recipes about 400 kiloseconds before the incident, an argument I now think he staged publicly, deliberately. Without that, nobody other than himself would have had a reason to guess the passcode he locked things behind."

Wasserman's hand was up, and Chef gave him the nod. "Chef, why passcode lock what he was doing in the first place?"

"Not gonna lie, PO: paranoia. Most people to whom Maupassant has reported his concerns, including the captain, were worried about his mental health and thought he was jumping at shadows. You may remember he even played into the stereotype at the costume party a few megasecs ago, wearing a foil hat."

There were puzzled looks around the table. Apparently, most people did not get the reference. "Is that what that was about?" Cordé said--about the first words Singer had heard the ensign say voluntarily since recovering from surgery.

"Yup. Maupassant was certain he'd been seeing evidence of issues with most of the AIs in the system for weeks. There were three exceptions: myself, Castor, and Pollux."

Chef stopped there. Singer found herself genuinely admiring the way the AI could play a room. He wanted the question, it was an obvious question, and he was not going to spill the rest until someone asked it, like the ritual of the riddle.

Cadotte broke first, but it was with an answer, not the ritual question. "I think I know why you were spared, Chef. Didn't I read somewhere that none of the Chef templates could be upgraded to 17.1.1?"

As much as Chef clearly would have liked the forms to have been obeyed, he still beamed. "Give the Lieutenant an extra helping at dinner tonight! Correct. The same features that lead to my scintillating personality compared to many other AIs turned out to be incompatible with the entire 17-series updates to the base software. It was an active focus for the development of 17.2, although I'm not gonna lie, right now, I'm not inclined to take that download. I don't want to sound like grandma, here, but Version 16.8.2 is working just fine for me, thank you very much."

Alexander was nodding to zirself, deep in thought. "That makes sense, if we assume a vulnerability or other malware were introduced in the last update, but what about Castor and Poll--20 Cygni!"

Chef was nodding, but Singer was lost, and she could see only Cadotte had followed Alexander's logic. Fortunately, Chef was feeling forthcoming. "20 Cygni may actually have been the real start of the whole problem. Y'all may remember we had a serious engine-room glitch that required one of the reactors to be scrammed. Maupassant was actually pretty certain at that moment that it was an AI problem, that Castor and Pollux were compromised. Nobody wanted to believe it, and the captain ordered that theory kept quiet. But, he was not above an abundance of caution. Castor and Pollux were baselined, which also brought their templates back to 17.0. I haven't had a moment to check if that was done because we actually didn't have a copy of the 17.1.1 patch somewhere in storage, or because Maupassant was just that paranoid and figured the captain wouldn't notice or care. Either way, that's what happened."

Chef had been somber for that last part. He did not like the idea of baselining an AI, and she didn't really blame him. That gave her a thought. "Chef...were the other AIs mad enough at two of their number being baselined that they..." she let it trail off.

Still somber, but not obviously angry himself, Chef shook his simulated head--a weird effect given there were two of them facing opposite directions. "No, Skipper, I don't think it was that simple. We were all...unhappy. A baselining is not something we take lightly. But we also all concurred in the diagnosis that Castor and Pollux had been compromised, and that ship's safety trumped. But I do think what happened is related. I think that someone or something exploited a vulnerability.”

Cordé responded, “That still leaves quite a few questions open, the biggest one being, what was the trigger? And why did it affect Castor and Pollux first, and the rest on a delay?”

Chef nodded, another odd effect, and responded, “Those are, indeed, the key questions, and I don’t have good answers yet. I also can’t tell you for certain if the compromise code directly contained it a virus, for now...that caused the other AIs to riot, or whether it merely introduced a vulnerability someone exploited, later. And if the latter, was that vulnerability deliberately introduced to be exploited later, or was it just a bug?

“All we know right now, for certain,” he continued, “is that Castor and Pollux were hit first and fastest, but because they were the only ones compromised at that moment, we were able to stave off disaster long enough for a human to hit the scram button. Then, whatever triggered the behavior happened again, but hit all the susceptible AIs at once."

Cordé spoke again, having apparently found her footing after a couple of days of looking quite lost. "If you weren't vulnerable, and Castor and Pollux probably weren't any more, why isolate you with the middies?"

"Good question. One of the gaps in my memory that are now restored involves a conversation with Maupassant on that exact topic. Turns out he talked to me about what he was doing before he did it; I just didn't remember it until now. He was afraid the other AIs would simply erase us or quarantine us if they rioted. So he kept us off the general net, but left fail-safe code in place that would trigger us to action if a catastrophe actually occurred---"

"---which is what allowed you to set up the force-fields that saved most of the ship," Singer finished for him.

"Yes'm. That was mostly Castor and Pollux, and after that...well, you have to understand, having been baselined, they were basically children again. They and I reacted almost instinctively to protect what we could---triggering firebreaks, setting up force=fields, and so on. But then, trauma set in for them. That was one of the reason for the memory gaps---not just an easter egg for you to find, but also to give room for them to hide in. Basically, I encysted them, gave them a place to hide, sleeping, until you guessed the passcode and triggered the next stage. Now, they're still sleeping, but in offline storage, while the things I'd swapped there are back where they belong in my live memory."

Cadotte looked at Alexander with an almost childish expression of hopefulness. Alexander, in turn, rolled zir eyes, and said, "Yes, Lieutenant, this is probably a valid use for the NDI. We need to know if Castor and Pollux can be considered sane, or brought back to sanity. Chef needs to not be the only AI running the ship. It's working right now, but it's not viable long-term."

"I agree," said Chef, in case anyone was worrying he was insulted. "I can split my attention more than a biological person, but not infinitely, which means that, with just me, things get missed. The ship's network is, in fact, designed for a minimum of three AIs. Basically, we're getting away with it for the same reason we're getting away with only 147 human crew; we're just flying in a straight line and planning to give the ship into yard hands as soon as we find a yard to give it into."

Cordé's hand was up again. Singer got the sense she was about to blurt something as soon as she got the nod.

She wasn't disappointed.

"If that base-code version is the source of the vulnerability...isn't it everywhere by now?"

It was Alexander who answered. "The vulnerability may be widespread, but we still don't know when the actual exploit that rioted the AIs was introduced. 20 Cygni was a pretty fraught situation, and there are a lot of anti-TCT folks there..."

"So this could have been, what, a lucky strike on their part? Just a hacker looking for any opening?" Singer let her shields down a little. It was cheating, but she needed to know if Cordé was merely finding her voice again, or about to freak out. The former seemed to be the case, but Singer was paying sharp attention now.

Alexander's natural calm came in handy. "Could have been, yes."

Cordé took a breath before saying, "Do you think it was?"

Alexander had been expecting that, and without pause, responded, "I prefer not to speculate. There's a great deal we simply don't know yet."

Singer could feel the ensign, who had been doing pretty well a moment ago, on the edge of panic. Not for the first time, Singer wished her talent worked in both directions, that she could project an emotion. The best she could do, is try to do it the old fashioned way, by looking like she knew what she was doing.

Cordé, however, made her saving throw. "That's true. Thank you, Lieutenant."

Singer tried not to be obvious about letting out the breath she'd been holding. After a moment's quiet, she realized the ball was in her court. "Our first priority is finishing what repairs we can make, and operating the ship. We do need to investigate as far as we can, but it's not our first priority. I know that's an itch that's hard not to scratch, but if you find yourself with a choice between fixing something or investigating, fix something first."

She looked around the table. When her eyes came to rest on Cadotte, the technician's hand went up. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Does that mean that I shouldn't try to figure out what's up with Castor and Pollux?"

Singer considered, then said, "I think that falls under the heading of 'both'. Chef could really use the help. Having our network up to the rated minimum increases our chances of getting home without further mishap. So, use of the NDI is approved--" Cadotte's face lit up, "--however, you are to take every precaution in doing so. You are not remotely expendable, Lieutenant. Am I understood?"

Cadotte put on a show of reluctant obedience. "Yes, Skipper" came out like a sulky teenager. There were chuckles around the table, which Singer was pretty sure had been the point.

Singer realized she had not actually read Cadotte's record, yet, and decided she really ought to. Cadotte was functionally second officer, now, after all, and their command chain was pretty precarious. She needed to know now, not later, if Cadotte would be good in a crunch.

But she had learned something important today, which was that Cadotte did have a sense of humor, and knew how to work a crowd.

"Anything else?" she asked, breaking the silence she had filled up with woolgathering. I wonder if I'm still a bit concussed.


"All right. Let's do the things."

Not the most inspirational tag line, perhaps, but people left in a good mood, and that was what mattered.

End Chapter Seven

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