The Ship, the Pause and the Boom?

A universe of Wonder if we could only get to it

All the LED lights in Engineering began to show a hint of blue which was the signal to the crew that at any moment the countdown would begin. The Baal Shamem was nearing the tail end of its flip and burn as it hurtled through space towards the Saturn Rift Zone (RZ) known to spacers such as Kir as the Amarok. Both Kir and Levi were strapped into their crash couches. Levi had already been juiced. Luckily the main component of the meds was non-reactive, only activating when exposed to certain forms of radiation and would last for their first 2 jumps.

Kir released the control panel from the arm rest which connected with his glasses which acted as a virtual interface for Baal’s systems. This is the part Kir hated, the drug cocktails were all different, they all used the same meds but their ratios were customized for every crew member to give them the best protection possible. Thankfully it used a non-invasive jet injection device that was useful in a ship where you shared nearly everything.

He felt the ball of the injector on his neck and felt the mach 1 pressure at the site. The device injected each component of the drug cocktail separately and Kir felt a warm buzz at the injection site. Kir gritted his teeth, his black hair and pale skin felt warm as the drugs began to kick in. Kir always avoided eating before a jump just in case, most people did because it was part of the rules but some people took to the drugs better than others.

“Levi” Kir hollered to get his attention as he was facing straight ahead. He turned his head and Kir asked “how you doing?” he rolled his head before saying “just having a dizzy spell, it only lasts a few minutes at most. You? You look a little more red than normal.” Kir’s body reacted to the anti-radiation meds in a very specific way. He had a tingling sensation at the injection site and was getting red in the face. It meant his core body temperature would run hotter for a few minutes after getting juiced. Luckily none of their symptoms were anything beyond what was expected so he said “I’m good.”

Then The small display flashed to the ship schematics as the countdown continued at 15:34 minutes in the corner of the screen. Kir could hear Levi say “Oh fuck” as he looked to his console which showed that the machine shop hadn’t been shut down yet, something was happening in there but they couldn’t see it on the monitors. That’s when Captain Da Venta commed them. “You seeing this?” She said in the no nonsense manner she was known for. Both of them said at the same time “Yes sir.” She explained that they were experiencing intermittent connection issues to that area of the ship. Kir knew as everyone else that there should be no way to block out Zheper, those machines hadn’t been completely integrated. They were going to wait to do that until after their jump.  “You 2 are the closest, check it out, I’ll slow us down.” They feel an increase in the ship’s decal. “Copy” and just then the countdown stopped and the display showed its normal ship status with a map showing the machine shop in red.

Immediately Kir slipped the control console back into place and undid his straps as he began to drift in zero-g. He held onto the armrest to make sure he was holding onto something as Levi used the crash couch to push himself towards Kir. They made their way through sets of rails at the points of the hex that allowed them to get to the machine shop in a few minutes without having to push themselves through the hex. They each attach a thin rope and carabiner to secure themselves to the handles around the hatch to keep them secure as they work.

Kir begins to open the emergency panel which houses the manual release and some of the connections to the rest of the ship. Levi tethered to the handle plant’s his feet against the other handles that surround the hatch and are used to pull themselves in or out. He adjusts his rope to keep him secure and holds the door handle, crouching down before pulling it with all his strength to see if he can force it ajar but it doesn’t budge. Kir finally gets the panel open but sees that the emergency release has been rusted. He signals Levi to stop for a sec so he can try the release but it will not budge. “Fuck, it will not budge.”

Levi stops trying to force the door open and from looking above “I think we can connect directly to the machine shop through that.” He points to an enclosed circuit board with bundles of wires that is used during repairs. Kir gets a cord and connects it to his arm device. His glasses come alive with shifting into a new interface but instead of seeing the default control panel interface, it was gibberish. The virus had made the control panel its new home which triggered the emergency disconnect but it would take it time to break through their defenses. I am connecting to Zhep through my terminal, to act as the bridge to the control panel. Levi was working his terminal and disconnected his tether from the handles “I’ve messaged Cam and Alice to secure the engineering, I’m going to get the can opener.” The can opener had lasers that could breach the hatch with minimal damage that was only used in an emergency and that was definitely that. “I’ll be back in a few minutes” he had already grabbed the mover and was speeding down the corridor out of view. That’s when Zheper messaged Kir;s terminal for remote lockboxed access which Kir authorized.

What Kir and everyone knew is that while AI were immensely powerful, their integrated nature also put them at great risk for viral infection, especially in distributed node networks where a computer virus could take over their distributed processors to degrade the capabilities of the AI itself. It’s not like Baal didn’t have protection but evolving viral threats made even the best defenses temporary at best which it looked like what they were facing right now.

The AI virus was far removed from its origins, it was digital chaos to a capable AI and the more complex the more vectors of attack it had. Its code was inert and largely undetectable in its component parts but it lay dormant when the new 3D printer that was installed.  The viral hardware had replaced the power moderation systems of each device and when it was connected to the room’s access point their code lay dormant as code fragments that allowed information exchange between the devices and the access control module. When Zheper changed ship condition for the jump, the code activated, finding each fragment and began its takeover of this small access point where the physical disconnect for the panel was triggered to prevent the virus from escaping outside the machine shop. Its disconnection cut off access to the resources that could be funneled into the building process but they couldn’t cut off power completely for hours without getting into the room itself. The infection was not intelligent… but as it completed its takeover of every processor in the room, it could begin to evolve and that would be when the real fight would begin.

Zheper had cut every access module to the machine shop but it still had power. This is because most of the ship’s critical systems are built to have multiple redundancies in case of a puncture that disables some of systems. Kir and Levi were trying to get a direct line into the cameras of the room but all connectivity was shut down to minimize the risk of viral access to the AI network. Kir and Levi’s terminals act as isolated bridges to the now cut off control panel. It took no time for Zhepher to identify the type of virus. Zheper accesses the direct camera feed… it takes a minute and is slightly delayed because it is coming from the buffer which is meant as temporary storage in case of emergencies. It shows the lights flickering and the 3D printers have been turned on. They were already installed but not activated but when they connected the power cables it was the trigger for the virus to begin its assault.

All Heather could think about was how did someone get a virus onto their hardware and why? The Baal was not a new ship and this was a common route to the reaches of explored space. It was a competitive transit corridor and removing even one ship would mean more cargo for others and that might be reason enough. “Car, let Vedas know what’s going.” He nodded and was already speaking working the comm, it was lucky they were still in communications range. Warren was already plotting a course back to a long orbit around Vedas station. Zheper was already in containment mode and because this was Baal’s first test run of this route after they won the contract, they only had a skeleton crew.

Viral intrusions were not a worry not when you were in transit because of the scale and vastness of near infinite distance. AI created viruses were always a risk in port. That is why the protection and security was extreme but even still there are always ways to breakthrough. The danger of AI viruses is that they are driven by instinct, to survive, against overwhelming odds of modern cyber defenses. Their programming is simple but adaptive and able to take over ill protected systems. Heather knew this could risk their rest run and they could lose multiple contracts and many others if it got out that they had been infected. She had to ask “Zheper, can you give us the most likely probability for how it evaded Stell-Log, port and our own security?”

Without skipping a beat Zheper returned an answer “Based on the installation of the new hardware for our extended mission profile, the most likely scenario is that the virus was embedded into the power control module of the printers to avoid purging during system testing and integration. To do this the virus must have been embedded into the power management module at construction and been able to stay hidden during OS installation and validation.”  Heather wasn’t surprised by this, ever since the emergence of the first computer virus humans have always been the weakest link in any system. She didn’t doubt that the creativity of humans and AIs could find a way past any cyber defense system they could have.

The lights on the bridge had changed again, signalling they were in a new mode of operations, to isolate and minimize the potential damage of the virus. The problem was that the virus was in engineering which would complicate the efforts Zheper could take to purge it from the system because the reactor, SCD and normal engines were at risk. “Kir, do you copy? We need that camera stream.” With Zheper on board, his terminal was supped up to a 12, with Zheper translating the gibberish and quickly navigating the menu towards the camera with each step, stopping to reassess the security of the sandbox with my terminal.

Kir was only able to see what Zheper was doing to get the camera feed but he knew he would be analyzing every segment of the control panel. That’s when the feed appeared on his HUD. It showed the empty room, not looking dissimilar to what it was just a few hours ago. The picture was fuzzy as Zheper was filtering the stream to eliminate the interference. The multi 3D printer setup and other machinery mounted across every side were used to build everything from small items for repairs to larger constructs when all the equipment is used together it becomes a room sized 3D printer. With arms of devices on all but 2 sides that could be opened up, one into the hex and the other into vacuum. It opened from the inside and the external door when needed. The Baal has always had this capability but now did we get all the systems put in place because our new routes would take the ship well outside our normal range but its what it was designed for and everyone was excited about the opportunity to get outside our local group of stars.

Zheper’s worried face appeared on Kir’s HUD and he opened a channel to the bridge as his warning dispelled Kir’s wandering gaze into the camera feed “It’s building a bomb.” The captain usually kept cool but when the bomb word was uttered she yelled “what the fuck, how can it do that?” Kir, using his arm touch panel, went into the directory of what the machine shop had on hand. Fuck although it would take time, there were enough chemicals and elements there to create an explosion that would most likely destroy the area around the machine shop and if so the odds where high that is would most likely disable the reactor or at works turn it into a fusion bomb.

“Levi, you got the can opener?” It was an unwieldy device, because of its length, maybe he should have gone with him but there isn’t enough crew to handle things as they are. It’s the curse of most ships in Stell-Log’s fleet. They were going for maximum efficiency and that meant shrinking crews or eliminating them all together in certain instances. That’s when he saw Levi on the mover dragging the long device behind him. “Levi has the can opener, it should just be a few minutes until we are in.”  

Zheper commed in saying “The structure of the device has begun its construction. Forcing the hatch open could disrupt the process but the explosives are already being created and the virus could use the printers to detonate them.” Kir was helping Levi with the machine wondered about the thought process of an AI but what about these viruses that were instinct imbued programs. How did it know what to do? The more processing power and information they assimilate the more intelligent they become but when does it cross the line from program to intelligent? “Why is it creating the bomb if it could detonate the chemicals without it?”

Kir could hear Levi as he was going through the probabilities saying “Basically the bomb is designed to amplify the force of the explosion.” Kir knew that if the machine shop was working as designed, opening the hatch would stop the process but this was a virus and it had already taken over the controls and Kir bet that the machinery would either attack them or not stop, probably a bit of both if he were a betting guy.

“Cap, what should we do?” Levi asked while putting the last arm in place to fix the can opener in place. Kir disconnected from the panel, sealed the sandbox in his terminal in case he needed to go back into the control panel and began a system scan to ensure the virus had not infiltrated his device. On the open com Captain Da Venta in her serious, yet cool voice said “We don’t have a lot of options at the moment but to open it up, we can’t let it build a bomb, Zheper says as long as the reactor is on low and engineering is shutdown we should be OK.”

“Zheper is already outfitting a bot to go in there.” Kir and Levi looked at each other both, Kir was relieved that neither of them would have to go in there but he also knew that if the bot got infected anything could happen and none of it good for the ship. Even if Zheper disabled the connectivity to the network, the virus has already proved it has many ways to infect. It’s what makes these types of digital viruses so unpredictable, they can and will find any opportunity but once they get a foothold they don’t always take the easy path. As it gains processing power and information the virus will often segment itself, to improve its odds of survival.

The question Kir had was how did the bomb or even just the explosives in the system increase the virus’s chances of survival, the explosion would wipe out the virus if it hadn’t already found a way past the firewall, with all the electronics it relies on being destroyed in the process. Kir tried to think it through, the virus didn’t need a lot to start over since it had only taken minutes before it had control of the machine shop. If there was hardware involved along with a transmitter that survived and it could be designed to survive, enough systems would be disrupted where the virus could find a new foothold so it could infect the rest of the ship.

The camera had been tilted to focus on the device being assembled but Kir wanted to see the rest of the room and asked “Zhep can you pan to the 3D printers.” As the viewing angle changed, Zheper panned towards not the construction zone but one of the small tanks where much of the reactive components are kept during parts of a build. That’s when there was a flash and everything went white.