This is Part Two of a two-part story. If you missed Part One, click here.
Lesser Ephebian Cloud, on board the Lady Royale; ship’s time: Unknown
I followed the droid through room after room, past varied attractions, virtual concerts, ballrooms, and endless buffets kept fresh indefinitely in stasis fields. As is the way of casinos, to get anywhere at all we had to pass through bank after bank of slot machines. After a while I started jogging, and the droid had no choice but to speed up or lose me. We went up ramps, then forward again in a vast spiral that ended perhaps fifty feet higher up from where I’d started. I promised myself that, on the way back, I’d find a damn elevator or die trying.
Eventually, we arrived at a discreetly marked door along a corridor paneled in exotic hardwood. It whooshed open, and my escort stood aside as I entered.
A commanding figure in dress whites rose from behind a long conference table and shook my hand. He had the traditional grey beard and lined face one expects of a sea captain, and even the handshake was perfect — firm, but not overpowering. Even knowing it was a hologram projected over a force field structure, the illusion was all but perfect; if I hadn’t known, I might well have been fooled.
“I’m the Captain. And you are…?”
I presented my militia badge for inspection. “Sergeant Martin of the Militia, seconded to the Imperial State Customs Force. So you’re the ship’s computer?”
The figure grimaced. “Broadly speaking. One might as well call you the planet Earth, just because you’re descended from human stock. To be specific, I’m the avatar of a highly complex artificial personality created to captain the ship in the event the ship’s officers were incapacitated — as indeed they were. Can I help you to some refreshment, Sergeant?”
By now I was quite thirsty, but I was also thoroughly paranoid. “I’m not interested in paying for any services, if that’s what you’re offering.”
The Captain — no, the avatar; I’d have to keep that in mind — waved my objection aside. “In here, you’re my guest. Please, be seated, and we’ll talk.”
A carafe of water and a plate of sandwiches rose from the table, and a minibar extruded itself from the wall. I parroted the “never on duty” line and poured a glass of water; he came back with an excellent illusion of Scotch rocks that smelled fresh from the Highlands.
“I’m surprised your ship’s stores have lasted so well,” I remarked, just to make conversation.
“Molecular reconstitution of all ship’s waste, combined with a very sophisticated protein farm based on algae and certain fungi. We have a wide variety of nutritious dishes that can be easily prepared, and if a patron is willing to pay for the service, almost anything can be synthesized. We aim to serve.”
“For a price,” I replied.
“Certainly. You can’t run a business without a profit margin.”
“And when people can’t pay?”
Captain Avatar smiled, and not in a nice way. “Oh, we have ways of collecting; never fear for us.”
I nodded. Dangerous topic; time to change the subject.
“So. Ship’s papers, including permits for automated running. I’ll need copies to take back. After that, a cursory safety inspection and you can be on your way.” I sat back, grabbed a sandwich, and tried to look bored. Tasty. I could swear that was real smoked ham.
My copies materialized on the table, and I flipped through them. Looked perfectly fine, though anything can be fabricated. I was pleased to see a detailed map of the ship, but I tried not to let my pleasure show; if I were a real customs inspector I wouldn’t trust the documents, and so I didn’t. Instead, I grunted, shoved them inside my tunic, and stood, grabbing a second sandwich for the road. With all this walking, I could use the nutrition. Besides, they really were quite good.
“The nearest escape pod?” I asked.
He gestured. A panel on the wall slid open, and I stepped inside, asking various questions. It looked standard, if rather better equipped than your average pod; the minibar was well-stocked, and the stasis-fielded survival rations included caviar. I nodded as if satisfied, then stepped back out. I really very much didn’t want to, but if I’d guessed correctly, the ship would try to keep me from leaving, and there’s always an extra layer of control over a captain’s runabout. No sense wasting what was likely to be my only shot at getting away clean.
“Right. I’ll need to check a couple more, hear the routine safety lecture, and maybe one or two other things, depending. After that it’s back to my ship and we’ll radio you the all-clear.”
The avatar cleared its digital throat. “About that. Where exactly is your ship? Our scans can’t seem to pick it up.”
Lucky; very lucky. I grinned at him — it. “That’s the whole point of a surprise inspection, now isn’t it?”
Back in the ship’s corridors, my robot escort and I went quickly from point to point as I looked at everything a safety inspection should. The ship’s surgery was pristine, robodocs attentive; the morgue was indeed vacant. We went over evacuation protocols, emergency procedures, and so on. We checked a few passenger compartments at random; no corpses, as expected. After enough time had passed, I asked to be shown to the closest escape pod, climbed in, and sealed the hatch behind me. This might be my only chance. I sat in the cramped pilot’s seat, buckled myself in, and hit the emergency eject.
Well, it was worth a try. I unstrapped and went to the hatch. “This pod’s defective,” I told the droid. “Contact Maintenance and take me to the next one.”
Of course I knew better; none of them would work, and when I finished my mock-inspection and finally got back to the passenger hatch that wouldn’t open either. This was, after all, a casino. To the ship, I was a passenger, and it didn’t let passengers go while there was still any profit to squeeze out. I was playing for time now, hoping something would occur to me.
A minute later, it did. “Enough of this. Take me to a crew escape pod.” The droid just sat and buzzed at me. “C’mon, Charlie. What are you trying to hide? Crew escape pod — now!”
As I’d hoped, a show of anger motivated it past its general programming. The droid stuttered into motion, leading me to a concealed door hidden behind a wall panel. This one didn’t whoosh; it didn’t move at all. I braced myself, gripped it hard, and heaved. It shifted about three inches, and bits of the metal inlay came off on my hands. Gilt by association. I dusted myself off and tried again.
Eventually, by main force, I managed to pry it partway open. It was dark back there and smelled musty, but I squeezed through anyway. My robot guide didn’t try to follow, and I left it behind, feeling extremely relieved. If I’d had to disable the thing, surely the ship’s computer would have noticed eventually.
Every passenger ship has separate crew compartments; you need some privacy when you’re off shift or you can never unwind. This was one area that even maintenance robots hadn’t had access to; there were almost no functioning light panels, and even the air wasn’t circulating well. I used my com as a flash and kept moving.
Usually, if you’re in a powered-down section of a ship, the last thing you want to do is start opening hatches at random. Without power there are no sensors, and without sensors you can’t tell if a compartment is open to space. In this case, that’s actually what I was hoping for — it would be a way out, and I did have my force-suit ready just in case. Unfortunately, hull integrity was intact everywhere, and the crew escape pods wouldn’t eject either.
It took far longer than it should have, but I had to check every hatch as I went along for fear of missing it. Nothing useful in most of the compartments; thousand-year-old dirty laundry here and there, a chessboard left mid-game, a deck of cards on an empty table. Finally, I found what I was after: an honest-to-goodness corpse, likely the only one left on board. After all these centuries it was basically reduced to dust and bones reclining in a crew bunk.
As I’d hoped, the last crewman had left a log — handwritten and fragile, but still legible: a notebook on a bedside table. I opened it and began to flip through. The story it told was horrific, more awful than I’d feared. I had to get off this ship!
…the only one left, and soon I too will succumb. We were getting along all right until the computer figured out where our improvised hydroponics were set up. Should have known it wouldn’t tolerate competition. It opened the whole docking bay to space. After that, the emergency rations could only last just so long.
It’s hard to mourn the passengers; a nastier set of upholstered parasites I’ve rarely seen. But I’ve never served with a finer, more self-sacrificing crew. Whatever programmer forgot to restrict prices and code in an absolute value for human life doomed us all. To the ship, we’re nothing but an income stream, and when we’re dead a source of protein. Worth more dead than alive — what a terrible joke!
If by some miracle anyone finds this: Escape if you can, and if you can’t — never trust the ship.Kostyra Murtha, Steward 1st class
I thought again of the groaning buffet tables and shuddered. That’s where all the passengers went in the end. So much for the glories of an unrestricted free market! And the sandwiches that I’d eaten… It didn’t bear consideration, so I shoved it out of my mind.
The logbook mentioned a docking bay that was open to space. That would be my exit; I’d rely on my force suit and recall the runabout with my wrist com. I checked the location on the chart the ‘captain’ had given me and set off heading aft.
The final bulkhead had been hastily welded shut against the vacuum, but all the gear had been left right next to it, so that wasn’t much of a problem. The trouble came when I got it open and discovered the bay beyond had been fully aired up again. Shouldn’t have been surprised, come to think of it; thermal losses are always lower with a sealed hull, and an efficient computer wouldn’t miss something so obvious. Fair enough; now all I had to do was get the bay doors to open.
Presumably, the crew had considered, and discarded, the idea of escape in one of the shuttles that were scattered about the hangar deck. I knew already the ship’s computer had control over the door machinery; no doubt it also controlled the landing locks, plus anything else it could manage remotely. I glanced at the welding gear, but that wouldn’t help; the hatches were far too massive to ever cut through.
And then I had it: There was one sure way to guarantee the ship would open up the landing bay on its own. It wasn’t a true A.I., merely adaptive, and the last time it employed this action it was successful, so it would have had no reason to change its programming. I hoped.
The interior hatches were all securely barricaded, thanks to the long-gone crew. It took me a while to figure out the hydroponics gear and reassemble enough of the structure, but after that, it was only a matter of turning on the water and grow lamps and waiting for the computer to notice. There was no warning, no sirens or telltales; the hatches simply opened, and I was blown clear.
I’d marked the location in my ship’s nav system, but by the time I’d made it back out with a heavier vessel and some towing gear it was far too late. The Lady Royale had recovered its beacon and flown off somewhere else. My only souvenirs were a pocket full of worthless casino chips and the ship’s log.
But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the old gambling ship will be found again by someone. You see, while I was in that hangar, I noticed that not all the ships were antiques. There was a modern shuttle with Federation markings, a scout from the Dark Empire, and even a Cyborg probe on board. I wasn’t the first to be suckered in by the distress beacon, and I wouldn’t be the last.
That ship’s computer was programmed to make a profit, and it would keep on doing so: setting itself up in some out-of-the-way spot with a weak beacon as bait, luring treasure hunters, opportunists, pirates, and probably even some honest customs officers on board. It would sucker them in with free chips, offer luxury accommodations, and in time, inevitably, it would drain their credit accounts dry, convert them to protein, and start over again.
That’s the reason I’m telling my tale: If you ever run across a ghost ship drifting through space and figure you’ve just stumbled over a fortune, think twice — because the house always wins. Take every precaution you can think of and never ever trust a casino or a strange ship’s computer, and you just might get out alive.
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