The Last Hand
Brett P. S.
Copyright © 2017 Brett P. S.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Blake slid open a loose set of blinds and stepped out of his shower, an embroidered towel draped snugly around his waist. The emblem read, Chief Duval, 8 years. Blake smiled, turned and wiped the fog from his bathroom mirror. A cold shower woke a man up from his stupor, but a hot shower let a man think.
“Almost cracked that bugger codex, CICI,” Blake said. He reached for a razor and began the painstaking process of trimming his goatee and moustache. It had to be just right. “Would you be a dear and brighten up the place?”
The bulbs fixed to the ceiling flushed with a bright aura, and waves of artificial sunlight bathed Blake’s bathroom. He nodded and inched away at his facial hair. Smooth strokes scraped off the thin fibers that had formed overnight.
“Don’t you find it funny?” Blake said.
CICI replied in a mechanical tone across the intercom. “Do you mean strange?”
“I mean I’m used to Sergeant Maxine busting down my door with some ledger or intrusion analysis.” Blake finished the work with a final stroke and reached for the shave balm. “My alarm, I can figure, but that woman is more than mechanical.”
“Schedules can change,” CICI said. “Sergeant Maxine is currently unavailable.”
Blake rubbed the bit of aftershave into his cheeks and wiped off with a dry towel. “And now the AI’s lecturing me on human error. Never thought I’d see the day.”
With a gentle swipe of his hand, the bathroom door slid open on mechanical gears. Blake sauntered through his living room quarters and into his wardrobe. The chamber lay between his bedroom and living room, and Blake opened that part too with a wave of his hand. He stepped inside and regarded his apparel. The soft fabrics hung on hangars in a winding conveyor that he operated via a terminal to his right.
CICI regarded his actions just as he’d programmed her to. She ran the whole station, almost to the point where a human presence was optional. Out here, adrift in starlight. Blake had made a real difference in the lives of countless with his work on CICI. He’d optimized every system one hundred times over and streamlined her code to near perfection, but he wasn’t quite finished. CICI was still lacking something. He just hadn’t figured out what.
“So what’s occupying the mighty Maxine right now?” Blake asked.
“I don’t know,” CICI replied.
Blake paused at the terminal, his finger outstretched. His eyes widened, and his expression turned from jovial to concerned.
“What are you talking about, CICI?” he said.
“My apologies, Mr. Duval,” she said. “I have no data on Ms. Maxine’s current activities.”
“Rubbish!” Blake said. “Run a diagnostic scan on your systems. Something’s definitely wrong if you can’t at least tell where she is on station.”
“Apologies, Mr. Duval,” CICI said in mechanical tone. “Sergeant Maxine is not aboard Astra Station.”
Blake froze. “Elaborate, CICI. Explain the situation.”
CICI took a few seconds to answer. He didn’t program that.
“Much of my file trees have gone missing during an upload to an external server,” she said. “As such, I find the bulk of my knowledge base missing, but based on the station logs, Sergeant Maxine departed Astra Station at 0300 hours this cycle.”
“You’re kidding me,” Blake said. “She wouldn’t just up and leave. Where’s Lieutenant Montana or Dr. Sokolov?”
Either one of them would bring him up to speed if in fact Maxine did depart the station. The problem with his reasoning, thus far, was the fact that neither had done so. Blake peeked out of his wardrobe and glanced at the clock at the far side of his bedroom. It was 0900 hours. He’d more than slept in.
“I am unable to locate their whereabouts on Astra Station,” CICI said. “I will run a system diagnostic to ensure my core systems have not suffered damage during the transfer.”
“Good girl,” Blake said. “We’ll figure this out.”
Blake smiled, swiped the terminal one final time and snatched up a navy blue jumpsuit with white trim from the conveyor hanger.
Blake barreled down vast, empty halls, the lifeblood causeways of Astra Station. While his home of eight years drifted silently in starlight, Blake’s heart was ablaze. He’d called out to the occupants in every name he knew. In five languages, he shouted hello and where are you, and each cry for human contact was met with a deep silence, deeper than space itself.
Blake stopped and leaned against a public terminal nestled into the siding of one of Astra’s central corridors. He huffed and wheezed, wiping the sweat from his face. He ran his fingers through his frazzled hair, out of breath and completely alone in a station big enough to fill five hundred.
“They’re gone,” he said, panting between words. “That’s it. All of them.” Blake took a moment to clear his thoughts. “I owe you an apology, CICI.”
“No apologies are needed,” she said through the station intercom. “You were right to investigate. The chances of a station-wide evacuation occurring without your knowledge lies far outside normality.”
Blake smiled. Now the AI was consoling him. “Even so, I concede. The question now is contacting them to give me a lift off this derelict station or …” his thoughts trailed off, and the words fell short of his lips. “CICI, how much of your core functionality remains?”
“Can you specify? It would take too long to list outright.”
“Can you send a message to the sergeant or her people?”
“Sub space communications are down,” CICI said. “I can send a standard transmission, but if Ms. Maxine and the remainder of the crew had activated FTL, then your message would not reach them for several decades at least. The nearest star base is …”
Blake interrupted. “That’s enough.”
He turned and pressed his forehead against the cold steel of the corridor wall. He drew back an inch or so and let his face hit the steel again with a soft thud. Angrily, Blake gritted his teeth, tightened his fist, and slammed it against the structure. He waited for CICI to say something, but the AI maintained her silence. He snarled and spat on the floor by his feet. He wouldn’t need to worry about cleaning it up.
“Send a standard transmission regardless,” he said. “Do any of the sergeant’s logs point to why the crew abandoned the station or why I was left behind?”
“I cannot locate any data within Ms. Maxine’s logs relevant to your question,” CICI said. “However, the data suggests that you were not unaccounted for, Mr. Duval.”
Blake’s head perked up. “Come again?”
“Evacuation logs register you in transit. The clerical error could be due to my programming. I offer my sincerest apologies, Mr. Duval.”
Blake waved his hand. “No, don’t worry about it. I wrote your code, so by proxy, this is my fault.” He sighed. “It’s always my fault.”
Blake took a step back from the corridor wall and turned to the terminal by his side. He stepped over and began swiping through some basic menu screens. A fever of determination overtook him as he broke through the public barriers and through the firewalls. Blake had access to the core of Astra Station. With or without the crew to lean over his shoulder, he could locate the root of the problem, maybe even restart CICI’s systems.
“Mr. Duval,” CICI said in mechanical tone. “Would you like me to play some music?”
“Maybe later, CICI. I’m busy.”
“You appear stressed,” CICI said. “Perhaps you should take a break and …”
Blake cut the AI off again, this time with a growl in his voice. “I said later. I don’t know why you’re so adamant on me taking it easy at a time like …”
He cocked his head after an abrupt stop in mid-speech, having set his sights on a peculiar entry in the console. A black screen filled the viewport, populated with text that flowed from a corrupt file. The letters laid out in lines of nigh unreadable jargon, but the numbers, those remained, and Blake knew a thing or two about the science they suggested.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” he said, his voice stern.
CICI did something he’d never known the AI to do. She didn’t respond.
A gravitational anomaly, a roaming black hole or something similar, had barreled through deep space, swallowing whole systems in its path. Numbers didn’t lie and neither did CICI, but this made matters worse. Blake thumbed through CICI’s core systems, finding one dead end after another. Someone or something had deleted much of the code that rendered her an applicable host, a master of Astra station. She could communicate and perform simple tasks without much trouble, but someone removed much of the good stuff.
He also noticed that someone had deleted her knowledge base and the station records prior to the event. The criminal’s touch was near perfect, but he caught the thief red handed in the corrupted file system he’d left behind. Tampering he could deal with. He might even be able to restore some of CICI’s functions, get a message out, and grab a cup of coffee.
“CICI, you still have some basic predictive functions, don’t you?”
“I can extrapolate based on the data you provide me.”
Blake pointed to a corrupted file on his terminal. “Run those numbers for the gravitational anomaly,” he said. “I want to know how much time we have.”
In the meantime, Blake ran through the back door menus of his terminal to locate some trace of CICI’s prior programming. The more he searched, the more his expression grew from entranced to concerned. His being left behind was no clerical error. Someone had deliberately manipulated information in regards to CICI’s records and his alleged depart from Astra station. Blake wiped beads of sweat from his face in his futile efforts to recover what little he could find. The work was done too well, something around his level of expertise, and for the life of him, he couldn’t imagine an occupant capable.
“The data you provided matches the nature of a roaming black hole,” CICI said.
“I was afraid of that,” Blake replied, sighing. “I assume we’re caught in the gravitational field already?”
“Astra’s sensors support your conclusion.”
Blake paused and looked down the corridor, rubbing his chin. “And I suppose the reason I can’t feel my body lurching is because of the station’s artificial gravity making up the difference?”
“Astra station’s artificial gravity system is counteracting the anomaly’s pull on its occupants,” CICI replied. “Inertial dampeners are currently operating at 85 percent and climbing.”
Blake sighed, and his head hung low. He leaned back against the corridor wall and let his back slide down until he sat on the floor. Blake covered his eyes with his hands and stared into the darkness he created for himself. Blake sat in silence and sobbed. His tears soaked his palms while he sunk lower.
“Mr. Duval?” CICI asked. She paused. “Blake?”
He looked up, not to anything in particular, just acknowledging the AI in some way. He’d never have predicted the words she spoke next, not in ten million lines of code.
“I’m sorry, Blake,” CICI said. “But I did not want to die alone.”
Blake Duval rose to his feet and trudged on down the corridor, keeping his hand pressed against the wall. He walked with empty eyes, a faded expression on his face in the wake of CICI’s statement. He’d gone wrong somewhere. He had to have done something, pushed out a code file to make her act as she had. He swallowed the lump sitting heavily in his throat, choking on the dryness on his tongue as he walked with a tired gait.
CICI spoke. “Mr. Duval, based on my extrapolations, even if you could send out a sub space communication at this moment, Sergeant Maxine would not be able to reach Astra station in time.” Blake continued his haggard pace. “At the current rate of increasing gravitational forces, I predict five minutes before the inertial dampeners can no longer fully compensate for …”
Blake snapped. “You did this!” He spun around, glaring at a security camera, one of her many eyes. CICI didn’t reply. “You wrote me out. You falsified documents. You lied to me!”
“I cannot lie,” CICI replied calmly. “I have never falsified the information I provided you.”
Blake looked away. “You deleted your files,” he said. “You made yourself dumb because if you knew too much …” his thoughts trailed off. “Damn. I couldn’t code that, not in fifty years.”
“You did,” CICI said. “If not directly, then by accident.”
Blake wiped more sweat from his beard. It was growing hotter. CICI did falsify documents, so in a sense, she did lie, if not to him than to the crew as a whole. She’d broken the basic principles he’d written into her inherent nature.
“Your life was never in any danger,” Blake said. “Dr. Sokolov uploaded everything you are to a shell for transport. Why you chose to drag me down with the station, I don’t even know.”
Blake waited for a response. He watched the seconds fly by like minutes. CICI had diverted power from life support to maintain the station’s inertial dampeners and artificial gravity. She’d extended his life far beyond her station as an AI, and that fact gave him pause.
“Dr. Sokolov uploaded a duplicate program,” CICI said. “I continue to exist here on Astra station. I will still die.”
“That’s not,” Blake said, his words trailing off. “You’re not supposed to think like that.”
“I thought you would understand,” she said. “I did not want to die alone, Blake.”
Blake sunk back and dropped to his knees. The imbalances in heat had soaked his hair. He found it more difficult to breath as the oxygen levels fluctuated and the stale air grew heavy.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” Blake said. “I know I’d said it a thousand times before, but I mean it now more than ever.” He stared up at a mounted camera. “I don’t know what I did, what line of code made you this way.”
“Are you upset, Mr. Duval?” CICI replied in monotone.
“I’m furious!” Blake stammered. “You’re a stupid machine. You dragged me to hell because I stroked a couple keys the wrong way.” He paused and looked away, cracking a smile. “But it’s one bloody amazing clerical error if you ask me.” Blake raised his gaze toward the camera and smirked.
“Mr. Duval,” CICI asked. “Would you like me to play some music?”
Blake laid back on the bare floor.
“Yes, I’d like that very much.”
Blake Duval, chief IT professional aboard Astra Station and lead programmer for its on board intelligence, CICI, woke up late to find the Astra's crew and passengers gone. As he searched for answers in the void of space and time, clues pointed to much worse than an evacuation and far more dire than a catastrophe. Nobody deserves to die alone.