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Alone on a deep space pleasure cruiser with only the AI for company, engineer David Bockerat becomes embroiled in battle of wits with a supernatural force hell bent on destroying the ship. Can he defeat this horror unleashed by the previous engineer in a cat and mouse chase before it kills them all
The pressure relay sizzled and sparked, fizzing angrily in its housing. “Son of a bitch!” David Bockerat, Line Engineer gritted his teeth as he disconnected the power and prised the faulty unit out. Sitting back on his heels, David scanned the issue number and date, comparing readings on his ‘repairs and replacements’ database. Sighing to himself, he checked the readouts on his pad. “You have got to be kidding!” The part had been replaced last turnaround and was supposed to be good for at least thirty years. He opened his spares case and selected a new unit, double checking that it wasn’t from the same batch.
Once he was sure that the new relay was working, he closed the unit and slowly stood up, wincing slightly as the blood rushed back into his legs. David’s body was starting to feel the wear and tear of years of crouching and crawling into tight spaces aboard interstellar spaceships. He stretched and spoke out loud, “JOE,” David flicked a switch and re-connected the power, “JOE!”
“Yes, David?” The calm, mechanical tones of the ship’s computer responded to his summons. Closing the hatch in the wall, David tried not to sound irritable and slipped his multi tool back into his belt latch. “JOE, I want you to issue a report recording that the last batch of Z20 Pressure Trips may be faulty. This one was replaced last year, and it’s just melted the shit over the housing. Get the Line to check all ships issued with this batch of replacements.”
David sighed again; this was beginning to annoy him, “Yeah.” He was almost a year into this voyage and he still hadn’t located the personality programme for the A.I. computer. David had been the replacement engineer for Robert Wallen, the oldest engineer in the fleet. Robert Wallen had suddenly passed away at Home Port, just before he took this - his last voyage before retiring.
David had known Robert to nod to at engineering briefings and refresher training courses. They had met once at the psyche testing sessions that engineers were obliged to do after every couple of runs. David had not liked the man. Robert was old school. He was not enamoured with the latest AI technology, especially the new personality programs that were designed to improve interaction with humans. Most of the engineers welcomed the new programming for their long-haul companions, but a few of the older ones just couldn’t seem to accept the advancements. He had never heard anything negative said about Robert’s technical abilities. He had certainly held this ship together, but sometimes, you just got a feeling about a person and David never had the inclination to get to know him better.
David was also a lifetime company man, having been an engineer since qualifying a good thirty years ago. It took a special personality to work the Interstellar Cruisers. One of the main perks was being able to interact with the AI computers that did the bulk of the maintenance; essentially they were the soul of the ship. They were all given distinct and varied personality programs to make them as human as possible and were usually great company. David had been totally surprised to find this ship was running on the basic factory settings and that the personality program had been shut down. Try as he might he simply couldn’t find where the last Engineer had stored the file or why he had switched it off in the first place. It was really difficult working with a unit that was acting on basic settings, they were very literal. David preferred to build a rapport with the computers that were flying the ships he was working on. Taking a deep breath, he organised his thoughts, “Sorry JOE, the unit has overheated and melted silicon residue over the relay housing. I have replaced it so hopefully it won’t happen again.”
“JOE 90 confirming instructions and executing.” David tried not to laugh. All of the ships on this ferry line were of the Juggernaut class and all the ships’ computers were named after that; the Juggernaut Online Evaluation system. They were all AI’s and as this was ship number 90 in the fleet, the computer was called JOE 90.
When David had heard about Robert’s sudden death he had deliberately asked for this posting; he had wanted to be the engineer on this ship for years, but Robert had been adamant and would never budge or try another cruiser. The other engineers would joke amongst themselves, saying a position on this ship was literally like ‘dead man’s shoes’. They hadn’t realised just how right they would be.
The reason David so wanted to be on this particular ship was simply because of the computer’s name. As a hobby he would watch ancient recordings of TV shows from several hundred years ago. He loved ancient history and was particularly fond of shows with puppets. David’s speciality was not just in practical engineering, nuts and bolts work, but he was adept at advanced programming and computer system maintenance. One of the shows he especially liked was the Gerry Anderson children’s shows that used puppets. David liked to think that these puppets were like the first robots and the advanced models on the Gerry Anderson programs made them almost seem like AIs. He liked them all, but his particular favourite was a character called Joe 90 who had special powers.
He made his way back to his engineering control centre, taking a route that took him to the stasis decks where he checked in on the rest of the crew and passengers in the stasis chambers. They were eleven months into a two and a half year trip to Colony Planet Echo One, a well-known holiday destination.
Although the AIs essentially ran the ship, it was a requirement of the company that at least one crew member remained awake during the flight. It was quite a commitment for a single human to remain alone for this length of time and it took a special personality to be able to cope with the tedium and boredom. This had been one of the main reasons for developing personality programs for the computers, it alleviated the loneliness. Each engineer was carefully psychologically profiled to ensure that they would get along with the AI.
Despite years of being virtually on his own, David loved his job. He had made this run at least six times on ships 70, 87, 15 and 63, ferrying his passengers safely to their holiday destination and back again. He was beginning to ‘feel’ the mileage and, as he felt himself getting closer to retirement age, he was beginning to understand how Robert must have felt. David wasn’t sure if he wanted to settle down planet-side and, if he did, would it be on the leisure planet or on Earth? Because of the technical requirements of his job he had been very well paid over the years and he had a tidy sum saved up - enough to live out the rest of his life in luxury. The problem was, he just loved space.
Every time he had made the trip as ‘Engineer Conscious Crew Member in Charge’, he would ponder what he would do when he retired. David was sociable, but he also liked his own company and would not be able to cope on a crowded planet, even if it was a leisure planet. Too many people would easily freak him out. There were occasions that he missed company and so, if he got bored, he would chat to the JOEs on the ship, or activate the holograph room and visit his favourite bar.
The other JOEs in the fleet had been great company and he had become good friends with them all, especially JOE 63 and JOE 15, having done two runs with each. This was the first ship that hadn’t had the personality program activated. It had been set to default factory communication limits, which as far as he was concerned, was very boring. Throwing his note pad down on the desk he sat at the console, the blank screen reflecting his face, David frowned; he really would need to shave. He rubbed at the stubble and grimaced, debating whether or not he should grow a beard. Sighing, he tapped in his ID code and began a standard sweep of ships systems.
It was several hours later when he finished. Everything seemed to be fine. “Activate holo-deck, JOE, I’m done for the day.” He listened to the dull neutral response from the computer and shook his head; he really was going to have to find that program.
Music hummed away in the background as David stepped into the holograph room. He had spent a long time developing this program and had faithfully recreated his perfect bar; it was populated by characters that he had known, in some form or another, throughout his life. He had stored the whole program on his own personal disc which he took from ship to ship and, over the years, he had seen the characters develop and grow. David was extremely skilled with code and had written the ability to learn and adapt into his holo-characters. This made for a much more entertaining rapport. For thirty years, this bar had been his solace on every ship, and he loved it.
The usual suspects were there, including Dorothy the bar maid; middle aged with curly blond hair cut into a short bob. She had forearms that any sailor would be proud of and a punch to match. Failure to comply would result in a fat lip and a sore head, but actually, inside, she was a mum to everyone; someone who would listen to all your woes and give you advice. He had known the real Dorothy long ago when he had been young. She was the ‘go to’ person for almost all the students at Company Engineering Campus. She was a counsellor, a confidant, a disciplinarian, a straight talker and an absolute angel of a woman. David smiled as he remembered her, a smile that faded quickly as a wave of sadness washed over him. As he stood there, watching her rosy face laughing with the clients, he had suddenly realised that she was probably long gone and that this hologram was all that remained of her. His memories locked in a computer simulation.
Then there was ‘Mad Mikey’, a dodgy character, known for starting spontaneous bar fights, but he was also a natural comedian, entertaining anyone who was willing to listen. Mikey was an archetypical aging rocker; slicked-back, greying hair, a weather-beaten face from riding his Harley, a scuffed leather jacket and a grin that revealed teeth like an old piano keyboard - yellow with some missing. The real Mikey had often led a young - but old enough to know better - David into many a mad cap and potentially dangerous scrape. However, they had always managed to survive despite the odds and would recover in the pub, laughing at their near misses. David had been there when Mikey finally ran out of luck. He recalled Mikey flying past him on his ancient Harley, laughing wildly as he sped past David on his highly safe computer controlled bi unit with safety bubble automatically engaged. David had been laughing at him, when suddenly his voice had choked in his throat as he saw the Harley tipping too hard to the left. The solid foot-rest scraped along the ground, sending sparks showering backwards. Mikey opted for a bale out, dropping the bike, hoping that he would skid along for a bit then pick himself up, as he usually did. Unfortunately, he had skidded right under the wheels of a passing car transporter, the auto control unit unable to avoid him. David closed his eyes at the memory and shut it from his mind. This was how he would always remember Mikey, standing at the bar having a laugh.
Old Sam sat in his corner booth, sipping on an endless pint of Pale Ale, his cloth cap at a jaunty angle and his cheeks rosy with alcohol. David loved that old man. The real Sam was a regular at his local pub in the village where he had grown up. David had been given special privileges, despite him being a child. He was allowed to sit in the pub and sip ginger beer while his father chatted with his friends at the bar. David’s father had been an agricultural engineer working on the AI units on the vast grain fields surrounding the small village. David would look at Old Sam in awe, a relic from a bygone age. He was one of the last of the farmers that had worked livestock. Sam would indulge the child, allowing him to pat his faithful old dog, Gyp as it lay at his feet. David would listen entranced, as Sam told him stories about the ranging hillsides that he would wander in all weathers whilst tending his animals; Gyp as always scouted ahead and darted wherever he was needed. They were very old when David knew them; Sam had a lung conditions that made his voice thin and reedy; Gyp seemed ancient - his eyes were bright, but his joints were stiff. He would lie under the table, watching the goings on in the bar and hoping that someone would top up his saucer with a drop of lager. When David had left the village to begin training at City 17 educational compound, he had stopped to say goodbye to Sam. In a rare gesture of affection, the old man had hugged him and slipped something into his hand, “Here, lad,” he had said, “You keep this on you, then you’ll never get lost.” David had looked in awe at an ancient and battered compass lying in his hand, “That’s been with me all my life, reckon it’s yours now lad.” David had shed a tear and hugged him again; Gyp had struggled to his feet and gently licked his hand. David kissed the old dog on the head and sadly waved them farewell. It was only a few days later that he heard Sam had passed away, in that very corner seat, with Gyp lying dead at his feet, following his master to the very end. David still had that compass.
He looked back towards the bar to see Ron and Roddy, the Baleman twins, leaning close to each other, discussing their latest conquests. They were friends from his campus days, a real pair of ‘Jack the Lads’. They never seemed to study, were always partying and had a different girl on their arm every week. Despite this, they had passed their exams and qualified as security unit engineers. David hadn’t seen them for nearly twenty years. He bumped into Ron one day whilst on leave Earth side. Ron was now married, as was Roddy. They were both high up in respectable firms and had eventually become domesticated. Roddy had two kids; Ron was expecting his first. David had congratulated him, and then they had gone their separate ways, leaving David with the feeling of having missed out on something. The nature of his job meant that serious relationships were impossible. David had been a bachelor all of his life, never having found the right woman to settle down with.
In the corner sat the girls. David felt his heart melt just a little. What a gang they had been. It was his last year of study and he was stationed near a massive cruiser construction site. The delicate and difficult job of assembling the core processors for the systems on these ships were usually handled by women. Their hands were smaller and more sensitive for the delicate parts, and this particular group were the A team. Jeanette, Sadie, Mags and Babs were in the local every single night after work, sharing gossip and preparing for who knew what in the evenings. Jeanette was the eldest, she was the manager of a whole section and the others would follow her lead. Sadie, ahhh, now sweet Sadie, David remembered her very fondly. If he had ever chosen to settle down it would definitely have been with her. They were an item on and off for the whole of the year that he was studying and it was a toss-up whether he would take up the interstellar position that he was offered, or settle down port side with Sadie.
They had argued the night when he had to make the final decision. Sadie had cried and so had he, neither one wanting to say that it was over. It had been Mags, sensible, wise Mags, that had intervened. She was an expert counsellor; it was her job to check the mental processes of the AI units and she could apply these skills to humans as well. It was she who had smoothed things out, making them both realise that David was always going to be a free spirit, destined to roam the stars. Sadie loved him and David loved her, but he had loved the draw of the interstellar ships more. They had parted amicably, agreeing that David would do one more run and, when he returned after five years, they would decide if they should be together. David had struggled long and hard with himself during that trip and this had caused him to design the pub program, to take his mind off of things. When he returned, the decision had been taken out of his hands. Sadie had been killed in an explosion at the factory as had Babs, bubbly madcap Babs her faithful sidekick. David knew that his life now lay in the stars and so he wrote the girls from the chipping line factory into the program, as a memorial to them all. They sat, as always, giggling away at some joke and sharing stories.
Finally, there was Henry. He sat in a booth, reading a small leather-bound book. His jacket had once been an expensive tweed but now it was worn at the elbows and slightly tatty. He always sported a shirt and tie, the collar slightly frayed, his greying hair neatly combed back, a thin pencil line moustache wiggling across his top lip as he pursed his mouth at something interesting in his book. Henry had been well to do; at some point in his life he had clearly fallen on hard times, but still strove to keep smart in his worn-out clothing, wearing his dignity like a majestic robe. He quietly sipped a brandy, savouring every mouthful, his eyes distant as he mulled over some of life’s great mysteries.
Henry had been a philosophy professor at City 17 Higher training centre. David, having showed exceptional intelligence and great promise, had been advanced to computer programming and AI development. One of the core subjects for all AI engineers, besides psychology, was philosophy and David loved it. He had spent many hours in Henry’s classes pondering life’s mysteries. David had only socialised with Henry a few times, as part of a favoured group, and Henry always reminded him of a wise old sage, carefully coaxing his students into independent and radical thought. When David graduated and moved to campus, it was with great sadness that he learned of Henry’s tragic death just a few months later. It had all seemed very strange. It was labelled accidental, but rumours ran amok, and the word was that he had committed suicide. City 17 had tried to cover it up, lest it affect their student intake. David had recreated Henry as he remembered him best, from the days that he had given over to his chosen group of students.