Things Fall Apart: Chapter 8, 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, ripping a chunk out of the ship and leaving most of the senior officers and crew dead. Most of the ship's AIs are missing from the network, also presumed dead, with evidence pointing to a massive, internal "attack" by those AIs.

Now the survivors, including a single unaffected AI, are trying to hold their ship and their people together; figure out what happened to them, and why; and get to a safe port!

Cordé looked a little startled at the "voice only" command, but complied, fitting her throat mic so she could sub-vocalize.

A moment later, the response came on the speakers. "This is the disaster beacon of the Starship Almaty, 1.5 megaseconds out of New Norfolk Station. I do not appear to be receiving a data signal from your vector, although we appear to be in range for one. Please identify. Authorized access only."

Cordé looked a question at Singer, who motioned, as Officers of the Deck had always motioned to her, to toss her the ball. Cordé nodded, and Singer said, "Almaty beacon, this is Bellerophon, Lieutenant Elyah Singer in acting command. Authorization Rho Three Five Eight Seven Gamma Delta Penguin."

There was a pause, longer than accountable for the delay of a signal traveling over distance. "Authorization accept...accept...accept...accepted. Authorization accepted. A data connection would be more efficient."

"Negative, Almaty beacon. Bellerophon has been compromised. Our data network is not safe to connect to others at this time."

Anticipating the protest she was about to get, she hit the mute button. On cue, Chef interjected, "Begging the Skipper's pardon..."

"No, Chef. I know you're not compromised. But you heard it. That beacon is."

There was a sheepish, "Yes'm," and then Chef subsided.

The beacon responded, "I understand. I understand. Almaty has also suffered a compromise."

"Report, please, Almaty beacon".

"Are you certain you would not like a data signal to receive my report?"

Singer's eyebrows went up. This was starting to feel a bit like Chef's gumbo compulsion, only creepier. "Quite certain, beacon. Report." She made it clearly an order.

"Almaty has been destroyed by a catastrophic data infection. All of the ship's AIs flew into a destructive rage simultaneously, with the exception of our instance of Chef. Unfortunately, he was not able to act quickly enough to save more than this beacon. Some escape pods may have been launched—I am not certain. Diagnostics show a possible compromise of my own systems, and my code for tracking pods appears to have been deliberately corrupted. I believe Chef was able to enact some additional firewalling before he was forced to withdraw to allow me to jettison, which is how I am functioning at all."

Singer muted, and looked a question over to Alexander, who answered, "Beacons don't really have enough resources to run a full AI template, let alone two. The good news is that it probably means the compromise code hasn't gotten a complete foothold. The bad news is, if it's adaptive, it will probably get past whatever their Chef was able to put into place."

"Which would explain why it's desperate to connect with us—the compromise wants to spread, of course."

"That's my guess, as well.

"Could our Chef stabilize it?"

Alexander considered. "I'm not sure it's a risk we should take. Chef is...a person. The beacon AI isn't. It's more like the H4s. It's got enough personality to hold conversations, but no real autonomy."

At that moment, Singer saw, out of the corner of her eye, a rash of red on Cordé's panel. "Skipper," Cordé exclaimed, "the beacon is emitting a data signal anyway. It's splashing against the firewall for now."

Singer unmuted. "Almaty beacon, terminate data transmission attempts."

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant Singer, I don't seem to be able to do that."

Singer squinted. To Alexander she said, "Can we set up an iron-clad quarantine zone for inbound data?"

Alexander nodded, moved to a station, and hit a few keys. "I had one set up, ready to go, for a while. We'll need one to bring Castor and Pollux back online safely, anyway."

"And you're sure nothing that gets in can get into the rest of the ship's network from it?" Singer tried not to sound untrusting, but right now, she was not risking the ship.

Alexander thought about it for a moment. "I could probably make it safer. Set up an actual airgap with just an ingress that Cordé could route to, and all outbound traffic quashed. Oh! And I can set it up to just be dumb storage. Tell the processor not to even look at it after it's written it. We're so used to a more 'active' network that I only just thought of that, but if no processor is even trying to look at it, it's just stored bits."

"A tree in the forest that nobody hears?" Singer said, attempting a bit of levity, which worked—she felt the tension break a bit.

"Just so."

"How long?"

"Give me 300 seconds."

Alexander actually sat down and began setting it up.

"Almaty beacon, you heard?"

"I did. I agree with the precautions. I do not know what the data transmission contains. I am not controlling it, although I am aware of it. I'm afraid."

Singer felt a chill down her spine. Muting again, she said to Alexander, "You want to revisit that opinion about the sentience of beacon AIs?"

"Ask me again when I'm done with this and have a moment to think about it."

That was fair enough. Singer recruited herself to patience. Finally, Alexander looked up. "Safe-room ready."

Cordé had also been waiting for that, and looked at her board. "Routing set up."

Alexander nodded, "Ingress shows packet counts increasing...and now it's stopped."

The beacon responded, "Confirmed, that routine appears to have shut down now that its data has been sent somewhere. Please be careful. I am clearly compromised."

Addressing Alexander, Singer asked, "So, Lieutenant, how do we figure out what's in the box?"

"I sent it to a very specific storage node. I pull that node out, physically, hook it up to an isolated processor and monitor screen, and try to read it with simple file readers and/or editors. Very old school, but if it really is just data, it should also be enough."

Singer nodded. "Proceed, Lieutenant!"

Alexander stood and left the room.