Captain Torren Scott wandered the engineering catwalk more heavy hearted than he generally did most evenings. With so much on his mind, his nightly routine became much less the meditative stroll that was his normal habit before turning in, and more of a restless, pacing kind of patrol. During the day, when he wanted to be seen, and to interact with passengers and crew, he walked the promenade, offering greetings and addressing issues as they came to him along his path.
But this ritual after-curfew trek, this was about communion with the vessel that carried them all. He usually treasured this quiet time alone with his ship, his footfalls keeping a rhythm with the humming of her engines, his hands stroking along the bulkhead of the maintenance shaft, where he could feel the steady vibration of her core. It was these moments when he felt most in tune with her. They normally had such a natural harmony together. But lately, just today, in fact — she had been acting up, and he didn’t know why.
She was a good bird, the Cupertino. But she was in the second stage of her third 10-year repopulation mission, and there had been rumors afloat from the California Commission that she would not see a 4th. The work they’d done within these chambers was important — revolutionary, even — and the stories she’d tell if her hulls could talk... well, they would be no less than legendary. Oh, they had seen some things together, this ship and her Captain. She certainly deserved better than to be put out to pasture, or worse, docked at some station as a museum to showcase the history of the first waves of migration.
“Tourists!,” grunted Torren, the sound of his unexpected voice echoing around him in the empty vestibule. It seemed the ship, reverberating his sudden outburst back to him, shared his sentiment.
But after the day he’d had, he could certainly see the logic in bringing her in to the sustention bay for a diagnostic overview as soon as they touched back down at home on Terra Prime.
It had started with his morning tea. Or at least, that was when he’d first become aware of the problem. The Captain was always up before the galley would be serving, and he never wanted to make a nuisance of himself to the hard working folks there, tirelessly laboring to put on a hearty spread for so many. So, as he normally would on any other day, he’d stopped by a materials printer for his regular chai latte on his way to the bridge.
“Black Tea, Spiced Chai, Breve, Hot,” he’d stated clearly to the audio interface, giving the command to the printer in the sequence that it would most efficiently process the materials and procedures to complete his usual order.
The printer made a whirring, clicking sound, and he thought he faintly smelled smoke, but it produced nothing. Captain Scott repeated the command sequence, but again, nothing. Not to be denied his daily dose of caffeine by an insubordinate appliance, the Captain opened the manual input panel, and entered his order by hand. This time, he was certain he smelled smoke, and there was a loud pop as the printer shook, and spit out something he could neither recognize nor comprehend.
It seemed to be some sort of baked loaf, but it had spots of something red melted into it, and there were metal spikes protruding from it. Torren poked at the loaf, carefully. The outer shell opened at his touch, steam wafting up from it, carrying a foul stench like ammonia. Inside, a heavy metal chain was attached to the spikes that had been jutting through from this bizarre concoction.
“Cupertino,” Torren said aloud, addressing the ship’s computer. “What has the materials printer just given me?”
“Processing,” the ship’s computer responded, running his query. “The materials printer has produced your order, as requested, Captain,” the Cupertino mainframe answered after a moment.
Captain Scott blinked. That was not the answer he’d been expecting. Not that there was any precedent for this. Clearly, he needed to take another tack.
“Cupertino,” the Captain tried again. “What did I just order from the materials printer?”
“Bleach the spiked chain bread redhot,” the Cupertino responded automatically.
Wondering if he was so tired and desperate for his wake-up juice that he’d managed to bungle the entry entirely, Torren opened up the panel again, this time carefully watching the display as he input the characters from the keyboard.
B – l – a – c - k, he started to input, and watched as the display converted his letters before he’d finished them. There, in front of him, the output clearly read, “Bleach.” He watched this pattern repeat as he continued the rest of the command sequence.
T – e – a became “the.”
S – p – i – c – e – d became “spiked.”
C – h – a – i was converted to “chain.”
B – r – e – v – e changed into “bread.”
H – o – t switched to “redhot.”
Torren decided to forgo the production of that same ridiculous compound again, but, not being in a mode to have any interest in futzing around with manual override, he cleared out the entry, and made a mental note to speak with maintenance about this printer, hoping this annoying glitch did not represent a global system malfunction throughout the entire ship. He would still really like to have some tea this morning, but he determined to suck it up, for now. Worst case scenario, he could always go to the galley once the staff had breakfast ready, but he’d prefer to avoid that, if possible. There, he’d have to deal with colonists, and that was a lot to ask of an old spacefaring dog who hadn’t yet had his morning caffeine.
Captain Scott turned on his heel to head towards the bridge, but then thought better of it.
“Screw it,” he muttered.
What was the benefit of being Captain of the ship if he couldn’t take advantage of some of the perks now and then? So what if the commissary wasn’t open yet? The galley crew would be there, preparing first seating. Surely they could handle whipping up a hot spiced chai breve for their Captain. It’s not like he was underfoot all the time. He made an about-face, and headed toward the galley.
The galley crew was bustling about a bit more than usual when Torren reached the mess. He was nearly bowled over twice by cooks and stewards running around like the world was ending before someone took notice of him. The Captain asked,
“What in my blue heaven is going on?”
It seemed the printers in the galley were on the fritz as well. They were experiencing the same weird input glitch the Captain had already seen demonstrated by his request for tea. The galley crew had spent a fair portion of the morning trying to get them to work, only to find that the manual override failsafes were not being accepted by the impaired instruments.
Fortunately, for anyone aboard who might be hungry at any point in the next few hours, this was not a major setback. Most of the meals prepared on the ship were made with meats and starches carried on board and stowed in the provisions holds, and vegetables and spices grown in the hydroponics bays. So, if the material printers weren’t functioning properly, it’s not like the ship’s entire complement couldn’t be fed. But, there would have to be adjustments made.
Processed foods, such as breads, condiments, sauces, dressings, refined sugars, etc., were prepped using the printers, to minimize space required to store the ingredients used to make them, or the energy needed for the preservation of multitudes of containers carrying those items. The Chief Cook was beside himself trying to reschedule the planned meals for the next week without any processed additives. It would not be impossible, but it was going to take some skillful coordination.
Captain Scott, after collecting his tea — fresh brewed from the galley’s on-hand dry goods stock — encouraged the Chief Cook that he had every confidence the ship’s master gourmand was equal to the task. He also reassured the man that he was pretty certain no one in the mess would miss the synthetic swill that passed for ship’s wine in these next few coming days.
Besides, it wouldn’t be too much longer, now. They were less than two weeks out from their destination, and would be reaching the planet none too soon, either. The voyage across the galaxy had begun to wear on those not so accustomed to long space travel.
His morning brew procured, the Captain finally started toward the bridge. The day had gotten off to a rocky start, but, all things considered, there had been only a few minor inconveniences all around. He was sure his service team would be on top of this glitch right away... would probably have it cleared up before lunch.
As it turned out, though, this day wasn’t going to get any better... in fact, before too long, it would get much, much worse. Throughout mid-morning, reports continued to come in to Captain Scott from all over the ship about weird, random occurrences of computer system failures impacting day-to-day ship operations in the most unusual ways.
In the infirmary, patients were being misread by the automated diagnostic system as other patients with similar-sounding names, and treated with improper medications and techniques. It was all the CMO could do to keep the ailing from the brink of cardiac failure, and this even in cases where they might have only come in for minor treatment! Thankfully, no one was drastically debilitated or irreparably harmed during the mixup, but in the end, the staff had to switch off all automated medical tools, and revert to practicing old-fashioned mortar-and-pestle style medicine.
It felt a bit like the dark ages, and was certainly less efficient, but — knock-on-wood — there hadn’t been any major ship-wide emergency situations for quite some time, and hopefully — fingers crossed — there wouldn’t be again any time soon. The more arcane process would at least get the job done, albeit a bit more slowly, but that shouldn’t represent more than a minor period of discomfort for some, so long as the beds didn’t fill up and there wasn’t a pressing need for an already overworked medical crew to manage too many patients. It would simply have to be an exercise in patience for everyone involved.
In the cargo holds, where a wide array of plants and livestock were kept to be distributed amongst the various settlement zones across the planet’s multiple colonies — each stored in ecological sections, segmented according to the conditions most resembling the prime hospitable environments for the flora and fauna contained within — the climate controls were acting up like crazy, shifting between system types within a matter of hours, adjusting the systems of all storage areas toward a base level equal to the rest of the ship. It seems the Cupertino was reinterpreting the programmed climates codes with words that had nothing to do with environmental conditions (Tropical became “Trophy,” Desert became “Deserve,” Mountain became “Mouthwash,” Tundra became “Tuned,” etc.), and as a result, the ship had no relevant data to interpret about the requested climate conditions, and therefore reset the programming for all stored ecosystems to the conditions it most naturally recognized.
The colonies’ environmental teams had to take all the climate control programming offline, and reset each temperature manually, by numerical input. It’s a good thing most members of that crew had been involved in the Terraforming project phase of the mission, so they knew the conditions of the planet’s various climates well enough to simulate them without help from the mainframe. It was no small task, either, staying one step ahead of a natural disaster. They were able to narrowly miss losing any livestock, but it was going to be touch-and-go once they got to the surface to determine if the vegetation — after enduring such harsh extremes — would take root, once transplanted. Only time would tell, at that point.
There were many other instances of similar issues... so many that the Captain could almost hardly keep track of them all. By that time he had learned of the third case of computer system shenanigans, Captain Scott had realized this problem was more than a mainframe hiccup, or a simple appliance glitch. Something was attacking the ship from the inside out. As soon as he’d recognized the matter was no small potatoes — fairly early on in the morning — he’d alerted engineering right away, but by then, there was no need.
The Chief of Engineering had already become aware of the issue even before the Captain, and had been preparing a report for Torren when he was contacted from the bridge. The engineering crew was already working all over the ship, crawling in and out of maintenance tubes, systematically running diagnostics on biocell by cell, trying to isolate the source. They’d had to perform the tests manually, since any tool with a digital readout could not be trusted, and that meant a great deal of manpower, and a fair chunk of time.
While the Cupertino had busied herself all day with changing the syntax of programmed commands into other words that looked similar but did not mean anything remotely close, then following the adjusted programming — often to peculiar effect — whereever possible, or simply shutting down or resetting whereever impossible, so far, the outcomes of these system changes had been relatively minimal. It was only by the skin of their teeth — and the quick thinking of most of her crew, who’d had to get the drop on that situation fast enough to avert any impending catastrophe all day long — that the Cupertino was even still running.
But how long before there would be a cataclysmic defect that was irreversible and devastating to the ship, and all 1,492 souls on board? It was going to be a long night, and they had all best ready themselves for whatever was coming next. What was coming next, as it turned out, was the most terrible of the dreadful events the day, by far, and it was discovered just past the dinner hour.
The Captain was on the quarterdeck with an after dinner old-fashioned — seriously contemplating turning in early to get some rest, figuring he was about to need it, very soon — when the Chief’s latest report came in. Apparently, when the engineering team had reached the holds for volatile, combustible materials, they could smell the greatest mishap to happen yet, while they were yet several decks away.
Eliminated matter flushed from the head throughout the entire ship passed through a filtration system, before being released on a regular cycle — once every six hours — to be converted into fertilizer for the mulch used in growing the ship’s vegetables for her crew, and the colonist passengers. It seems that when the Cupertino had converted the programming for management of the ship’s waste disposal, she’d changed the directive for the dumping destination from “Hydroponics Bay, Compost Receptacle,” to “Hydrogen Bank Composition Reception.” It was a sigh of relief — as much as anyone could breathe in that area, that is — that there weren’t any direct pipelines into any of the chemical tanks, and so the unpleasantness had only been dumped on the floor of the holding anteroom that stored the tanks.
While this was certainly among the least desirable circumstance for anyone onboard to have to endure, much less the brave, hardy crew members working directly in that space, at least the drastic nature of this particular calamity did allow an enterprising member of the Engineering team to finally piece together an important link of the overall puzzle, and recognize a running theme connecting all of the blunders they’d experienced throughout the day to one another. It was as obvious as a pile of crap in the middle of the floor.
Each of the flukes had some connection to biological materials. No systems pertaining only to technological operations had misfired. Armed with this useful bit of data, and a better idea of what they were — and were not — looking for, the team was able to pinpoint their search efforts, and shortly thereafter, they zeroed in on the culprit.
Whether it was the result of an accident or sabotage would have to be determined later, but it was certain that a small colony of the nanobots used in the Terraforming stage of the mission had been left onboard after that stage was complete, and had been released into the wild on the ship. Discharged from the constraints of their normal parameters, they had sought out a way to follow their directives, and had found the nanobot technology infused into the ship’s biomechanical engineering cells — the ones that normally kept the ship in a constant state of self-diagnosis and repair — and each group of bots had “infected” the other with its own programming directives, until neither could functionally accomplish what they were designed to do.
The Chief had determined that since both sets of nanobots were made by the same company, using the same technology, that they could effectively all be reprogrammed with the same directives, and reinitiated to perform as intended. Unfortunately, the only way to accomplish this, was to effectively restore the original programming of the main set of bots that were designed for the ship, and the only way to also impact the smaller group, was to “reboot” the entire system. Once they had done so, in theory, the intruder nanobots would power up as if they were the same as those which originated on the ship.
It was a potentially dangerous solution, but it was the best shot they had. The Chief was going to need the Captain’s go ahead to power down all non-critical systems, leaving only life support on. Once the biocell systems were off, the nanobots would go dormant, and await to be reactivated. Once enough cycles had passed (which is not as long as one might expect for a nanobot), they would power themselves down entirely, as well, only firing back up when the biomech cells were back online, whereupon they could be reprogrammed. He said it would take the better part of the night to bring everything back up, but promised they should be wholly functional again by morning.
Torren contemplated the prospect of falling out of the sky, or just drifting in space eternally, a magnificent sarcophagus for more than a thousand perfectly preserved bodies. But considering the alternative, it seemed he had the choice to either risk a potentially hazardous hail-Mary play that might result in all their deaths, or to do nothing, which, more likely than not, most assuredly would. Captain Scott kissed the pendant of St. Brandon the Navigator, patron saint and protector of seafarers, and gave the Chief Engineer his approval to do what needed to be done. Then he made his evening rounds, and turned in for the night.
Captain Scott woke from slumber feeling more fuzzy-headed than usual, with a powerful thirst, and a taste in his mouth like stale cotton. Not one to normally be disoriented, it took him a moment to clear out the mental cobwebs. He struggled for a beat to regain his bearings, and remember where he was, and what was going on, but as soon as he did, he quickly dressed and hurried to the first materials printer on his way to the bridge.
“Black Tea, Spiced Chai, Breve, Hot,” he said to the machine, slowly, trying to contain his eager anticipation. He nearly kicked his heels in excitement when the appliance produced the beverage he had become so accustomed to. Engineering had done it! They had set the ship right. She was going to be okay.
“Oh, Good Girl, Cupertino,” he said aloud, half under his breath, not really intending to address the ship’s mainframe directly. The sound of his own voice surprised him a bit, more dry and hoarse than he’d expect, and his tongue felt like a dirty sock in his mouth. He sipped on the tea, trying to clear his head. He was not expecting the ship to respond.
“Good morning, Captain,” the Cupertino came back. “All systems are functioning within normal parameters. You have reached your destination. Shall I wake the others?”
Torren scowled. Wake the others? His head was pounding. What did she mean by that? He’d only had the one drink last night, where was this hangover coming from? And they’re at the planet site already? How did they manage to make up the remaining 10 days’ journey overnight?
“Cupertino,” he began, this time addressing the ship purposefully, attempting to sort out the confusion. “How did we make it to Terra 4 overnight?”
“Your destination of Terra 14 has been reached within the timeframe allotted from your starting point,” the Cupertino told him.
Captain Scott bolted to the nearest control alcove with a direct mainframe interface and delivered his security access code to the audio input. He checked the star date. He hadn’t gone to bed last night. They were three months out of date! He ordered up a ship’s log. The display showed the power down and reboot, just as he’d discussed with the Chief, a full 91 days ago. And all the mission parameters had come back online just as they were supposed to have, except, the ship’s destination had been entered in wrong. They had come to the destination programmed in, all right, but they were 10 light years off course!
Upon further examination of the records, the situation they were in began to come into focus, until the full scope of their predicament became gravely clear. The Cupertino, upon receiving her directed coordinates, and recognizing the amount of fuel required to make it to the 14th planet of the repopulation movement, and the amount of resources required to keep the ship’s complement healthy throughout that length of journey, had responded by adjusting the ship’s environmental controls to send all carbon-based lifeforms into a limited hypersleep, for the brief span of time — considering — that it would take to make a faster-than-light jump and travel at warp speeds to reach the programmed destination (a mere 3 months, as opposed to 10 years).
Because the new destination had been scheduled after curfew, but for a small skeleton crew of system operations controllers, nearly everyone else on board would have already been in bed, so they simply went to sleep that hapless night three months ago, and have been sleeping ever since. Torren winced at the thought of those poor skeleton crew members slumped in their chairs, or having simply fallen where they stood, on floors or over operations panels — he ached to think of the muscle damage they might have experienced after three months in an awkward position.
The Cupertino, following an already mapped flight path, easily operated on autopilot for the duration it had taken her to reach her destination. Now, the ship had arrived at Terra 14, without enough energy left for another hyperjump back to their home territory, or enough fuel to travel the return distance by standard propulsion. And, to make matters worse, Terra 14 had not yet been terraformed in preparation for colonists. Of course, because it was a scheduled planet of the migration movement, at least it was an M-Class environment, hospitable to support Terra Prime lifeforms.
Well, he supposed... it’s a good thing they’ve got terraforming nanobots on board, and a complement of passengers ready to make a new life on another planet — though, perhaps not the one they’d signed up for. He just hoped the crew was ready for a long vacation... they were going to be here a while. And, from his perspective, maybe retirement wasn’t looking so bad, after all. He patted the ships bulkhead. Hey, at least it was better than having to open up her doors for tourists. He shuddered.
Captain Torren Scott straightened his epaulets, and made a resigned command decision. He might as well get to it... no point in waiting anymore... they had nothing but time now.
“Cupertino,” the Captain sighed. “Wake the crew.”
LJ Idol | Season 9 • Week 24 - Topic: THE CUPERTINO EFFECT
This post has been brought to you by an association with the online writing community forum, LJ Idol.
If you have enjoyed this entry, please feel free to speak your piece, share the love, and pass it on...