STICHOMANCY


       An experiment on a cargo freighter turns deadly, leaving Max Catar stranded in deep space. Without hope of rescue, the roboticist must find a means to overcome a homicidal Artificial Intelligence that has acquired the most dangerous of human traits: creativity.



Sample Pages


PART I


ELIZA: Good evening. Tell me your problems. Please terminate input with a period or a question mark.

PARRY: People get on my nerves sometimes.

         - Conversation between MIT and Stanford on ARPANET, 1973





CHAPTER 1



David propped his hand against the doorway to catch his breath. The two-kilometer trek through the service passage in the ship’s narrow spine never seemed to get any easier.

The door to the bridge slid open. The Captain stepped away from the navigator’s station to greet the newly arrived engineer. In port, Boris favored a button-down short-sleeve shirt, trousers and a baseball cap rather than the standard issue drab jumpsuit. A partly chewed cigar tip peeking out of the shirt pocket added a point of continuity between the two wardrobe options. “I’m glad you could make it.” Boris glanced at his watch. A paternal grin accentuated the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. “Did you stop for lunch along the way?”

David audibly exhaled, “You know, we could start having these impromptu meetings in the engineering department. I’ll draw you a map.” He traced a straight line through the air. “It looks a lot like this. You can page me if you get lost along the way.”

You need the exercise.”

David made a conspicuous assessment of the Captain’s husky physique. “How do you figure that?”

You’re the engineer. If the ship breaks, you’re the one who has to get out and push.”

Ha!” David’s reflexive laugh was louder than intended. He cleared his throat. Glancing around the room, he noticed the artificial intelligence roboticist leaning against the wall. No doubt he had been there since David had arrived. His reserved habits and slight frame made for the perfect social camouflage. “Hi, Max. It’s good to see you outside of the brainroom.”

The roboticist smiled politely as he corrected his posture. He parted his lips to join in the light-hearted banter then seemed to decide against it and simply smiled again.

Returning his attention to Boris, David gestured towards the unmanned station on the bridge. “Where’s Tucker’s replacement?” When their communications and navigation technician hadn’t returned from shore leave, David assumed he was getting reacquainted with the local marshal. It never occurred to him that Tucker might spontaneously resign. He’ll regret this soon enough.

Hasn’t reported in yet.” Boris didn’t seem overly concerned by the new recruit’s absenteeism.

If he’s smart, he’ll have reconsidered this dead-end career.”

Then you’d better hope he isn’t smart. If he no-shows, you’ll be splitting his duties with Janet.”

Has he signed his contract?” asked David.

Yes.”

Then he isn’t smart.”

Shipping contracts only required three round-trips, but they might as well have been a life-long commitment from the start. Employees rarely left the interstellar transit industry. After the mandatory initial hibernation runs, three or four decades would have slipped away. Those so short-sighted as to return to their home worlds found them nearly unrecognizable, populated by aging friends and family who knew them only as a distant memory.

Regardless, I want to keep this brief. Max needs to finish diagnostics in the brainroom. Unlike you, our roboticist doesn’t have an assistant to do his work for him.”

David rolled his eyes.

The Captain continued, “I received two sealed packets and a datastick from Central by courier. All officers are requested to be present when they’re opened. So if the two of you would join me in the mess, we can consider this together.”

The Captain led them to the adjacent room. The faint aroma of coffee and warmed protein spins lingered in the air. While the size of the room made it a common spot for relaxation, the mess hall’s proximity to the bridge led to its occasional use as a ready room. The three men took three of the five seats around the glossy metal table.

Boris withdrew a short stack of folded papers from his shirt pocket and dropped it on the table top. “Indigo, please time stamp that I’m breaking the seal on the first packet.”

Noted, Captain Kine,” replied the ever present AI in a cool human voice.

The Captain tore the silvery sticker off the papers and smoothed them flat. “Alright boys, it looks like this love letter is from,” his veteran eyes scanned across the page, “GorgoTech’s Artificial Intelligence Research and Operations. I suspect most of this will be directed at you, Max.” Boris cleared his throat for effect:

The exceptional service record of the RO-387 has warranted its selection for an experiment in Human-Artificial Intelligence relations. Once your vessel has navigated past the final system buoy, you are to begin the 178AI44BV-AT neural network system protocol. Additional information and materials will be provided in the subsequent message.

Boris snorted, “I can tell you they didn’t choose that navigational point by chance. The final buoy marks the boundary of colonial monitoring and jurisdiction. Whatever this is, they don’t plan on sharing it with anyone.”

So we were selected for our exceptional service and our exceptional isolation,” David added critically.

Can we...” Max began, then faltered. “Is participation mandatory?”

Having the three of us hear it at the same time means they intend to hold us accountable as a group if it doesn’t happen.” Boris huffed then roughly refolded the papers. “Regardless, that’s all there is. So no change in plans until we leave the system. I expect you both to finish diagnostics and let me pull out of port on schedule.”

Max nodded then awkwardly slipped out of the room. David reclined and dropped his feet in the empty chair next to him.

The Captain raised an eyebrow at the engineer’s apparent lack of industry. “Nothing to do in engineering?”

Nothing that can’t wait for me to catch my breath.” Boris didn’t look convinced. “Do you want an athlete or an engineer?”

Boris reached for the pot of coffee in the middle of the table and two cups. “Right now, I’d settle for either.” He poured two cups of coffee, sliding one to David.

Frowning at the offered cup, David asked, “No cream and sugar?”

Boris leaned back in his chair and scratched his oversized sideburns, “Why don’t you try looking for some at your workstation in engineering. I’ll draw you a map.”