Thursday, February 12, 2009


Note: This post is an entry into The Friday Challenge, which can be found Here.

The retro rockets made for a barely serviceable landing, albeit a rough one. The fuel cut out, completely spent, just a few feet from the surface, and the resulting drop crumpled the landing gear. The scoutship was left stranded on the tarmac, leaning at a drunken angle. Twenty seven missions, all but two without a scratch, only to drop it like an empty beer dispenser on this airless pebble six million light years from nowhere.

Honey, I'm home, Flix thought, as he prepared to leave the ship. He gathered up all of the nutrient bars he could find, his blaster, medkit, and personal bag. He hesitated on the bag, knowing how much it would slow him down--but then slung it over his shoulder. He couldn't bear the thought of leaving it behind, because if something happened to his survival suit, he might never make it back out to the ship.

Everything he could carry was attached to the suit or slung over shoulders. It was time to make the hike--nearly a mile from the ship to the airlock, with nothing to hide behind if Kelmari troops were around. Walking across a long flat plain in a war zone was bad enough, but making that same hike in a bulky space suit, loaded down with gear, in bright sunshine, in vaccuum...his heart was in his throat when he opened the hatch, and he was practically hyperventilating from the halfway point to the moment the interior airlock door opened in front of him, revealing an empty corridor.

Fortunately, he didn't find any evidence of Kelmari inside the station. Unfortunately, he didn't find much evidence of any humans, either. According to his mission briefing, this had been as much a research station as a distant outpost, and sparsely populated; the people may have evacuated the base--and the solar system--when the Kelmari arrived.

Priorities, he thought. Air, water, food, living space. This is going to be home for a while...probably a LONG to see if room service was awake.

He followed the airlock access corridor to a cross-path, one of the main concentric corridors that connected every branch of the station, and turned left, still hauling all of his gear. He refused to let any of it out of his sight until he could find a place to lock it down or hide it away...or until he was satisfied there were no other life forms in the entire station.

He found a workroom that would make a serviceable bedroom, complete with a locking door. All of the gear stacked neatly in a corner, with the bag in another. He thought about the bag and its contents; some relaxation right now would probably, not without securing the station. The bag went into the corner with the rest, with a deep sigh. On his way out, he activated the computerized door lock, and set it to voice authorization only. Blaster in hand, he made a full sweep of the entire ring.

Hydroponics...check. There would be plenty to eat, provided he didn't mind vegetarianism. Air...check. Communications, weapons, crew chance. There was hard vaccuum behind that door, and no amount of finagling with the computer could re-pressurize the sector.

...but that gave him an idea.

He went around to each of the 14 corridors that branched off. At each one, he activated the computer terminal nearest the door, sealed off the corridor, and purged the air from the section. Any hidden Kelmari would be suffocated, and the base would be secure. Eight corridors cleared without a hitch.

At the ninth, the computer balked. "Unable to comply," it said. He argued, and tried a dozen times, but the computer absolutely refused to vent that particular sector. Ultimately, he moved on to the next. Thirteen sections cleared, one held up by a computer glitch. Still, the odds were good that he was the only person there.

He returned to his room, opened his personal bag, and totally lost all track of time.

The next day, he started researching the computer issue, and found an old meeting log.

"Status update," one voice asked.

"The logic functions are upgraded, just like I laid out in my proposal," a voice answered.

"What, just like that?"

"Well, yes, just like that. The bulk of the research was done back on Earth, this is just the prototype design."

"You mean to tell me you've programmed morality into a computer?"

"Yes. This computer will recognize life and won't perform an action that will cause the death of a person."

With this, Flix's blood ran cold. He grabbed his blaster and dashed out of the room, cursing in five languages--only two of which were native to his home planet.

The meeting log continued, playing to empty air. "So, how will you know if your program is successful? How will you know if the computer has learned?"

"Well, you can program a computer to NOT do something. It will refuse an order to kill, that's just inaction. But the real test of whether or not a computer has developed sentience is if it acts on its own initiative--if it devises a solution to something in a way it wasn't programmed for."

Flix headed for the section the computer wouldn't space, and accessed the voice controls at that terminal. "Computer, expose this sector to space," he said.

"Unable to comply," the female voice responded, just like yesterday.

"Computer, return number of life forms within sensor range."

"Two life forms detected," it answered almost immediately, but Flix was already moving by the time it finished the sentence.

The warehouse appeared to be deserted, but he still moved cautiously, blaster ready. He was closing and locking doors as he went, trying to narrow down the places someone could hide. The odds of the other being human were vanishingly small; it was much more likely the other life form arrived the same way he did--from a crippled starship.

Laser fire rang out from across the warehouse, stitching a line of burnt carbon against the bulkhead, a foot above his head, a warning shot. Flix returned fire, slinging half a dozen shots randomly in the direction the bolt came from as he ducked behind boxes.

For the next ten minutes, they stalked each other through the deserted warehouse dome. His eyes were burning from the carbonized air and the blaster was tingling in his palm--the warning that he was nearly out of ammunition. He hoped he had one shot left, because he had the Kelmari cornered. Working up his courage, he took a deep breath, broke cover, rolled across the floor, and came up with the blaster pointed at the enemy's face.

Unfortunately, he couldn't see that face, around the blaster it was pointing at him.

He held his breath, and pulled the trigger. The buzzing in his palm stopped, and the blaster emitted a quiet "beep." The Kelmari, too, fired--and his laser went "MERP". Both of them brought their weapons down, and looked at them, Flix with a sheepish look on his face.

The Kelmari screamed at him, and the minor tentacles around it's neck flared with rage. Then it was gone, dashing deep into the station. Damn, that squid is fast, he thought.

Life settled down into a routine after that. Flix and the Kelmari developed a sort of detente--he would hit the hydroponics bay during the morning, and it would gather its' own food in the evening. He made sure to lock every door as he passed through it, but the Kelmari seemed content to stay on that half of the station. Flix would hunt through the warehouse for an ammo pack or comm gear or something, with no luck...and then he would return to his room, and reach for his bag.

"You're addicted," his roommate had told him once.

"Nah, it's not like that," he would say, only half-believing himself.

Somewhere, deep in the circuitry of the station, decisions were being made. Somehow, the situation had to change. And a computer programmed to think for itself finally started to fulfill it's design. One evening, while Flix was lost in his addiction, the computer opened a comm circuit from one end of the station to the other, allowing the Kelmari to hear what was going on in Flix's room.

Flix gave up on another fruitless day of searching, and retired to his room. He opened the bag, and balanced the antique across his knees, making sure it was still tuned. Then, he put his fingers on the strings of the ancient Stratocaster, and launched into some Martian speed metal to get his fingers warmed up. After that, some "Hotel California," smoothly leading into "Pinball Wizard"...he played, lost in the sound...letting his fingers find the music automatically, enjoying the rhythm, feeling the music roll over him...

...the drummer was out of time; that cymbal shot was half a beat behind, they were going to have to practice more...


His fingers froze on the strings, but the percussion didn't stop; the rhythm kept moving, continuing the Who's beat. He stepped to the doorway, and looked out to see the squid playing...well, with every tentacle. Each of the four "fingers" had a rhythm pad beneath it; the "pinky tentacle" was cranking out something that sounded remarkably like a snare drum, while the "index tentacle" was hammering out a bass beat. The minor neck tentacles each had a bell or cymbal setup going, and all of it was amplified through a set of speakers the alien wore at his throat.

It--he?--continued playing, tilting his head to one side as if to say "hey, you missed your cue."

Two weeks later, Flix and Oxar were best of friends. The squid had introduced him to several versions of alien music, while Flix had tried his best to get the alien to understand twentieth century rock. Stupid squid kept playing bells too loud during "Don't Fear the Reaper," but other than that, he made for a dynamite percussion section. Just maybe, after the fighting stopped, they might find a couple of vocalists, maybe some horns, and go on tour. Hey, stranger things had happened.

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