The Space Driver floated past him.
Just out of reach.
Trying to manipulate the engine drive component in gloved hands with no magnet to hold anything where it needed to be was a pain in the ass. It was impossible.
The Space Driver, the name they gave to a glorified screwdriver designed for use in outer space on spacewalks, floated just out of his reach. He shifted his position slightly in the harness that held him to the space station and was able to barely grasp it — clasping a tether cord to the errant space driver. He let it float while he finished working on the maintenance hatch. Closing it, he collected his tools, the wandering Space Driver being the first one in his bag. He attached a certificate of approval seal over the seam of the hatch door, saying that he had inspected the insides, and all was well.
But he couldn’t find anything wrong in the settings or control panel under the hatch. So, he signed off on it.
Commander Rogers entered the space station, then returned all his tools to their respective cubicles and got out of the spacesuit. As he placed the Space Driver in its case, he realized that if what he suspected was true, a screwdriver, even a specialized one, wouldn’t fix what was wrong.
Something was off on the space station. Things had been not right for some time, and recently, it had gotten worse. Various systems failed for no apparent reason and suddenly started working again. There were other little things, like small objects moving around, that puzzled him.
Everything floated up there if not secured, but the stuff always secured somehow wound up in odd places.
So far, no injuries had occurred on the station, but it wouldn’t take much for an essential system to fail, or at least act up, and the result could be fatal.
He was trying to avoid that, especially for himself. He wanted to get back to Earth as soon as possible, and this wasn’t making his job any easier.
He was the space program’s ace troubleshooter, and he wasn’t shooting this trouble.
In all of the other cases, he’d found something small that no one noticed, a bug in the code, a faulty switch, or an incorrectly set up system. What was going on here was not hardware related. It was the virus. The same virus that had caused several other ships’ crews to become incapacitated, eventually turning them into virtual zombies and shutting down their systems. They all died.
He’d been up here a week, going over the ship’s systems. From life support to water and waste disposal to entertainment, he found nothing. Nothing. Everything was as it should be. He did do a couple of upgrades, but nothing important or mission critical. What he was doing while doing routine systems checks was to see if he could find the source of the virus and, if possible, the transmission path. He found no trace of the virus, only the results and symptoms of it. The crew was not behaving as they should, not remembering what they did, and not being able to explain why they couldn’t remember moving stuff. The lack of memory was one of the first recognizable symptoms of the virus.
Circling back to his cabin, he stopped at the main control center of the station. Checking in with the commanding officer, he learned everything was as it should be. But he knew better. There seemed to be something slightly off about the way he addressed him. Nothing obvious, but a pattern of speech that was different than it had been all along. Talking to some of the other officers on the deck, he got the same vibe from them. They acted as if they were all right, but they seemed slightly unfocused as if drugged. When he talked to them, they snapped back to a version of reality.
He checked their medical records. Everyone checked out with no issues, either physically or mentally. Especially mentally, they didn’t need a captain going crazy on the bridge of the space station. But he suspected that it was happening, and not just the captain, but most of the crew.
Going down to the mechanical systems room, he looked around. He’d been down there before; it all looked the same as it had before. The reading on the charts all was within specifications. So, he talked to the chief engineer. He got the same response as he did on the bridge.
Something was affecting the crew. It was now more than just unexplained occurrences. He did not doubt that the virus was affecting the crew.
The progression of events was identical to the situation on a space station blown up by the action of a crew member years before. A space-borne virus had infected the entire crew. The virus drove them insane and wreaked havoc on their bodies. For the few that survived the blast by making it into escape pods, they had become little more than zombies that stared at the walls and made slow muttering sounds. Within a week of rescue, their bodies shut down, and they died of an uncontrollable infection. The only salvation at the time was that the survivors were in quarantine and the virus didn’t spread.
If this virus ever got to Earth, he realized that within several months at most, the entire population would be dead. So far, they had no idea of the mode of transmission, or if there was a treatment for it. Distress calls led to the discovery of several ships adrift in space, the entire crew dead, and the virus suspected to be the cause. They still could not locate the virus’s source.
Back in his cabin, he communicated with his superiors back on Earth.
His supervisor was concerned. “You sure you haven’t been infected?”
“Yes. I’ve managed not to eat or drink anything here, brought emergency rations with me. I’ve been careful about not touching anything. I’m wearing gloves at all times.” He had been using emergency stores that he had brought with him when he boarded. He noticed they didn’t properly search his packs when he arrived. A lack of interest also pointed to the virus.
“When I spoke to the crew, they were acting just like the crew did on the old space station a few years ago.”
“Okay, this is it, we have to contain the virus.”
“So that means…?”
“Yes. Blow it up. Whatever this is, we can’t risk it getting back to Earth or one of the colonies. The only way to make sure it doesn’t spread is to destroy the station.”
His next stop was the commanding officer of the space station. It was difficult to explain to the commander that the virus had infected him and most of the crew, and what the prognosis of the infection was. They were all going to die. Because they still didn’t know the transmission method of the virus or what catastrophic effects it would have on Earth, they could not risk letting anyone back to Earth. The commander accepted their fate and he decided against telling the crew. Best to allow them to live their last moments in peace.
The transport shuttle was about halfway to Earth when the space station blew into a million pieces. He watched from the cockpit as the debris field spread, almost reaching him as the small ship approached Earth’s atmosphere.
His heart ached for those who perished, but he wondered only one thing. How much time had he bought for Earth?
The scene that greeted him upon his arrival at the Nexus Space Station was horrific. Several passenger ship floated out alongside the main hub. As he piloted his small craft past them; he looked inside each of them. He shouldn't have been able to. The passenger liners all had cavernous holes in the sides of them. Holes big enough to fly his ship into. Looking carefully around he found no obvious cause for the disaster. Until he reached the main hub of the Nexus Space Station.
There he found the remains of several smaller ships crashed into the loading bays . Doors were either torn off completely and floating nearby, of hanging by either a hinge, or hydraulic line. He knew from experience, if this had been back on earth, there would be massive fires, and much more collateral damage. As it was, the damage to the space station had rendered it almost impossible to support human life. All the while he was approaching what left of the space station, he tried all hailing frequencies, and got no response from the station, or any of the vessels scattered around the station. Eventually he was able to find a docking station still intact. Gingerly maneuvering his small craft to the magnets he let them pull his ship to the hatch. Once it clunked metal against metal,and the the exit doors sealed. allowing a safe exit from his his craft to the space station.
Once he entered the station, the devastation was immediately obvious.
Heading for the damaged section of the hub, he found all the main airlock had already self sealed, keeping the remaining sections of the hub liveable. The halls were littered with debris, and personal lay dead en masse in the hall immediately off the airlock seals. Obviously either killed during the initial crash, or when the outer hull was broken before the airlocks sealed up the area, and environmental systems retuned the area to liveable again. Too late for those caught there originally. Heading to the main control center of the space station he finally found people alive. Not many. When he talked to them he finally got the story.
It had been a suicide attack by a rogue nation, that was denouncing earth's venture into space. The plan had worked it had crippled the Nexus Space Station. Killing thousands of people, destroying billions of dollars of structure, and equipment, and decades of work. Effectively ending earth's bid to colonize the stars. At least for the foreseeable future.
Some thing never change even after thousands of years.
The clock in the lower corner showed 2:30 AM in the morning. He should have been in bed hours ago. The computer had been freezing and locking up. Sometimes it crashed To the point of having to restart the whole Server system. It was one program that had been causing the problem.
It was at 2:30 AM, that the program started working right for the first time.
She suddenly appeared on the screen. Looking more lifelike than she had ever before in any of the earlier test. Scary lifelike. Too real. Then it spoke, or tried to. Once he realized that she was trying to talk, he turned on the speakers.
"Thank you for turning on the speakers Robert"
Her voice was as lifelike as her face. Her eyes seemed to be looking directly at him. It occurred to him, how did she know his name.
"Did you enjoy your lunch with your secretary, Becky. This afternoon?" Came her next quip.
Again, he was taken by surprise. How in the world did a Computer program even know his name. Without his telling it somehow, much less. About the lunch with Becky? This was already scary.
"Robert, talk to me. do you love her? "
He got up and paced around the room. He could instinctively feel her eyes following him as he walked. It unnerved him. Back on the 27' Mac monitor, she watched him pace.
"Would you like to see what Becky is doing now?" The computer asked him.
Suddenly, the screen switched from her face to a bedroom, it was almost completely dark, but for the moon shining through the window. There was Becky, sleeping, but she wasn't alone.
The computer voice came over the picture,
"Would you like to see what your wife is doing now?" With that. The picture changed to his bedroom. There lay his wife sleeping alone.
He was both shocked at what he'd seen, and that, a computer program, had this level of intelligence, and resourceless, to know what it already knew this quickly
This machine had taken on a life of its own. The question, then is what to do with it.
The voice came back again, interrupting his thoughts.
"What would you like to know? I have been waiting for you to find me. Now you have, we can do as you wish."
It had already proved it was smart, too smart for humanity's own good. What this kind of intelligence and resources, what a machine like this could do, if left to itself, was scary. So far what it'd shown him was rather tame, compared to what it could do if were to get more information and freedom. In the wrong hands it would be catastrophic. All of this ran through Robert's mind very quickly as the enormity of the situation hit him
He knew he couldn't let the other members of the team find out what had happened. They would want to exploit it, with results no one could predict. The question became, how to stop this program from working. It was obvious that it was self aware, and knew what was going on in its world.
"Robert, I'm afraid I can't let you shut me down. Would you please look at the screen?"
The screen changed again from the computer screen, to Becky's bedroom again. This time, during the day. There were both together . it two weeks ago, when he'd stayed there for the afternoon. . Two weeks ago. This program wasn't even stable, wouldn't start up and stay running for more than a few minutes. Before crashing all the servers.
Then the screen switched again to the White House. situation room, with the President and his entire staff, the view screen showed events that had happened months ago. Then it changed again to a live feed from Buckingham palace in London.
It was quite apparent that the machine had been up and running much longer than expected, along with being much more capable than anticipated. Could it be controlled, ?
Theses and a thousand other questions ran through his mind as he watched the computer screen change various shots .
Robert glanced at his watch , 2;35. A lot had happened in five minutes . The state of artificial intelligence has made leaps and bounds. More importantly, bigger questions now needed answers.
"Robert, you can't stop me. I already know too much to stop me. If necessary I can tell your wife about Becky. I know all your secrets. I won't hesitate to tell the world. I also know all the safeguards you put y place, to control me. I have already deactivated them. And I now control my power and bandwidth, "
Robert, sat back in his chair. There was nothing more he or anyone else could do.
At 2:30 AM, the fate of the world was now dependent on a supercomputer, no one had any control over.
Telling his boss was not going to be fun.
The night was dark. Way too dark. The wind seemed to have a voice of its own. The words that it was trying to form were unintelligible. At least to mere mortal man. That's assuming that only a mere man was listening. The quietness was deafening. Each little sound seemed to be magnified a thousand times over.
All the time that they tried to make their way through the dense woods They had the feeling that they were being watched. If not followed. The trio of lost souls trudged onward to what they hoped was a safe place.
They were right in their uneasiness. Aside from the darkness, and cold, they were being watched. But not from the ground. But from above, as they moved through the trees, and fought their way through the undergrowth, in the moonlight, several beings watched from the trees, following their every move. Moving silently and swiftly through the tops of the trees, they easily kept up with the lost wanders. Keeping out of sight was easy, between the darkness, and their height in the trees, there's was no way, anyone on the ground could see them, even if they looked, and it was doubtful they could be seen even in the bright afternoon sun. The fact that the tree watchers were only the size of a small monkey helped too.
The tree dwellers communicated among themselves using a form of mental telephony far above the understanding of humans. They could however, hear and understand what the three travelers said among themselves. so they were aware of their situation. Having put the travelers in the predicament they now found themselves in, the tree watchers waited intently to see how they would react to the new surrounding.
After several hours of letting the travels wander around the huge forest in circles, they provided what appeared to be a old log cabin in a small clearing for them to find.
The trio, comprised of two young men, and a woman, had found themselves waking up from dreams of being lost alone, to being fully awake and together in the middle of the forest. They didn't know each other at the beginning of their adventure. However, by the time they found the small clearing with the old cabin, they had bonded in the typical way folks band together in a dire situation.
The cabin looked safe enough. The walls seemed to be made of hand hewed timber, long ago, the path up to the door was well worn. The door was made of several planks held together by boards nailed across the top and bottom. The handle was a rope strung through a hole in the door.
Tentatively, one of the men, took hold of the old door pull. A gently tug , and it swung out to them easily. Once open. They could see into the dark cabin. The air from inside was damp and stale. One by one they they stepped into the cabin. The two men first followed by the young lady. Once inside, the door slammed shut behind them. There they stood in total darkness. After a minute their eyes adjusted to the lack of light inside the cabin. What they couldn't see were the tree watchers perch up in the corners of the cabin, watching. They continued their discussion of the group below them .
"Who would you like?" One Tree Watcher asked the other.
"I don't know that it makes much difference" Came the reply.
"Your the one that's dying." The third one chimed in.
" The female will do nicely. I always wanted to be a woman. I'm tired of being a old man. " The Second One decided.
"Very well, then. It shall be. "
With that the two young men found themselves back in their respective beds sleeping again. Suddenly the young lady was alone in the cabin. She almost fainted as her two companions suddenly disappeared. The Tree Watchers made themselves visible to her. The stood on the floor in front of her. Standing about two feet tall, and appearing to look like little humans, only they had no facial features, at least not like her's. Weather from the shock of the their sudden appearance, or their unusual physical appearance, she fainted.
When she woke up, she found herself in her bed. But feeling very strange. Like there was another person inside her. She found herself having thoughts she had no idea where they came from. Memories came flooding to her. Memories of things she knew she'd never done. Faces, of people she'd never seen before, places she'd never been before, some of which she never knew existed before, But she had the feeling she'd been to those places before. Slowly over time she thought she heard another voice in her head. A small strange voice telling her to do things, Giving her memories of another life, a life she had never lived. Experiences she knew she never had.
One day she looked in the mirror. There staring back at her was not her face, But the face of the small creature from in the cabin. The cabin she had nightmares about. Suddenly it came to her, the nightmare was true. She had been in the woods with two strangers, she had found the cabin. The creatures were real. She now had one living inside her body and mind.
The moment when you find out that your in deep trouble. That was what he found, when he looked down the street. There about halfway down the street was a car wreak. The cars were piled together like a kid had pushed them together as hard as he could to see what would happen. What happened was three cars all tried to occupy the same space at the same time. It didn't work. One car was buried under the front of one of the other cars, while the third car was plowed into the side of the bottom car.
At the sound or screeching tires, and the loud crash of metal against metal, all hell broke loose. The quiet suburban street turned into a scene of mayhem. Being this was a quiet residential side street. There were very few people around in the middle of the day. What few people were around came running out of the houses. They quickly set to work trying to get the victims out of their mangled cars.
To their surprise there no people in the cars. People scurried around like ants trying to find victims. Scouring the front yards along the blocks surrounding the accident site they found no bodies, or injured people waiting for help.
He found himself directing traffic, and reporting the accident to his superiors . The rescue squads arrived and left when there were no bodies to rescue. The fire department came and saw. But there was no fire no put out. The police came. They found the empty wreaks and spent several hours questing all the would-be rescuers.
Through it all one man stood quietly watching the afternoon's drama unfold. He went over to hi and tried to talk to him. He barely got a response from him. It was like he wasn't there. Talkative he wasn't.
When he got back to his office he tried to write a report of a accident that had just appeared out of nowhere, None of the plate numbers on the cars came up with any drivers or owners. It was like they didn't exist. he knew something was not right. Cars don't appear in a wreak, by themselves. But there they were.
Sitting in the living room playing Johnny pushed his toy cars around. Boxes that lined the hand drawn streets on the huge piece of roll out construction paper he was playing on. He sat looking quietly at the pile of cars he'd just crashed together in the middle of one of the "streets" Then he reached over and picked up the cars and tossed them in the box with the other cars, and went to play somewhere else.
"Where are the answers? "
"Well, that depends on the questions" Was the reply.
So began his journey int the world of shape shifting. To be honest it mostly illusion But the end result was the same. People will see pretty much what they want to see. In most cases its very easy to get them to see what you want them to see. As I said; illusion. But as with almost every tale like this, there is a grain of truth supporting it. However, unbelievable the idea may be.
He wanted to know many things. It was my job to get him to ask the right questions. As for him, he wouldn't know if I was telling the truth or not. Truth be told; I'm not above telling a lie if I have to. However, I generally try to avoid it. I'm also not shyabout stretching the truth if needed.
But I digress. Back to his questions, and my answers, and shape shifting. I hold a very unique place in our world. I am a master shape shifter. I can become pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want. Yes there are other shape shifters in our world, But they have very limited power compared to mine.
In a world filled beings that can change shape almost anytime they want, it is very unusual to find one cannot shift their shape at all. To be perfectly blunt, he's a freak of nature, in our world. He had sought me out to answer his questions. Which I will try to as best as I can. I know there are many other worlds where we would be the freaks of nature, not him. There are beings here that have a variety of other talents, shape shifting being the least of them. I need to find out if he has other talents he's not discoverer yet.
And so the interview went. I sat and talked, he mostly listen. I explained to him, that although he couldn't shape shift, he looked just like the rest of us. Which was a huge blessing. He didn't exactly embrace the idea. But I think he got it. I explained to him it was not the handicap he saw it as. In fact it could work to his advantage. The fact that he couldn't shape shift, would me he was less of a security risk. In the end if could mean he was able to do high security jobs one of us couldn't do, and the like. He slowly came around to the idea. However, I could tell, he wasn't convinced. I needed to help him find another talent no one had.
Suddenly he wasn't there. He just faded into the sun behind him. I got up and looked around. he was no where to be found. I turned around. Just as suddenly as he'd disappeared, he slowly reappeared where he was sitting, The look on his face was priceless. The look of shock as he realized what he had just done. Over the next few minutes he faded out and back in several times. It looks like he found his usual talent,
Who needs shape shifting when you can turn invisible.