The information scrolling across the Plexi distorted again, the words disappearing into fragments of code that burst apart before coming back together in the form of a thick, sinuous appendage that writhed across the screen. A tentacle made of 0s and 1s. The Systems Technology Officer hit the timer on his wrist unit, then pushed a hand through their short, dark hair, waiting for the system to stabilize. The problems had started a few years ago, but had been relatively minor hiccups that had disappeared before he’d had a chance to even pin down the problem. Disturbances that had made life unpleasant for all the crew from a matter of hours to days.
The Captain had called it indigestion, and they’d all shrugged it off at first. KALI was an amazing example of artificial intelligence, housed within an innovative body based on Earth-based cephalopod forms. There were bound to be issues that popped up as they traveled. Bugs that needed to be worked out, crew that needed to be replaced. The ST frowned. That one still bothered him. In a perfect world, they would have kept the original crew throughout the entire voyage, but they’d learned quickly that had not been meant to be. He missed some of them. Especially–
“—Ten minutes?” The voice, the Captain’s, came from over his left shoulder, tearing him from his thoughts. He turned to look at them, noting the furrow of the brow and the way their lips pressed together. Their eyes were hidden behind tinted glasses they’d started wearing a few years ago.
“Yes, sir. And this is the fifth incident today and the fifteenth in the past 24 hours.” The Captain knew that, of course. He knew they kept an eye on the error logs as much as he did recently. “I…” He hesitated to say it. “I think I know what the problem is, but I…”
“You what, ST?” Their tone told them to stop dawdling, and the line between their brow became more pronounced.
ST sucked in a deep breath, “I think it’s a problem with a portion of their memory core.”
“Then we wipe-“
“The library, Captain.”
The words impacted the Captain almost as strongly as a physical blow would have. The realization had hit him the same way. One common theme amongst the crew—one of the reasons they’d all been selected, given the nature of their mission—was a love of stories, whether they were in written or visual form.
The Captain visibly gathered themselves, then asked, “Specific section, or the whole thing?”
“It started in the horror section. A virus that slipped right through our firewalls, as near I can tell. It’s corrupted most of the media in there, but it’s spreading through the other sections.” He straightened up, squared his shoulders. “KALI was trying to tell us, Captain.”
They inclined their head. “And we didn’t listen. I didn’t listen. And now it’s altered KALI’s personality. Made it lethargic, restless.”
“Grumpy.” The words came from the Second-in-Command. They both turned to look at the slim woman with the long brown hair and big blue eyes. “She’s restless and she’s grumpy. Just like us now.” Her eyes darted to the Captain, lips quirked in a small grin. “I mean, the now really only applies to some of us.”
“Oh, shut up,” the Captain snapped, but clearly struggled to fight back a smile. They turned their attention back to him. “If we wipe the library, can we get the infection out of the ship?”
He didn’t want to answer. Really didn’t want to answer. They had invested so much time and energy into this voyage. Had poured so much love into KALI. But if anyone could fix it, it was him, and he knew he couldn’t. At least not now. Maybe in the future. Maybe he could find a way to restore her to what she was…
His eyes must have told the Captain what he wasn’t willing to say aloud because they visibly deflated, shoulders bowing. “Right, then.”
“I…maybe in the future, Captain.” He hoped this would offer their Captain some small comfort. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think we should initiate self-destruct, or let KALI do it herself. I think if we put her into stasis for now, maybe in the future we’ll find a way to clear her systems. Maybe do a complete AI wipe and re-”
Lights flashed red and a loud hissing noise echoed throughout the room. A hideous stench followed on its heels.
He pinched his nose, the Captain and SIC a split second behind him. “Sorry, KALI. Sorry! I’ll find another way.”
The lights pulsed menacingly a few more times and then settled back to their normal glow. The air scrubbers activated and the smell left the room.
All of them looked at each other with wide eyes. That was the strongest response they’d gotten out of the AI in a while. It was good to know she still had some gumption left in her.
The Captain clapped their SIC on the shoulder. “Alert the rest of the crew that they need to start shut-down procedures for the ship. Leave only essential systems functioning for now. I’m going to go interface with KALI via the holo. She has some decisions to make, and so do I.”
After the SIC nodded and started gathering the skeleton crew present in the bridge together to let them know what was going on, the Captain inclined their head gravely at him and then turned and plodded away with heavy steps.
He stood for a moment, listening to what the crew was saying to the SIC before they dispersed. It surprised him to hear a good bit of acceptance mixed in with the obvious dejection. KALI hadn’t been doing well. They all knew it. And they’d all feared the worst. The idea that they might be able to save her somehow in the future lifted their spirits. She would be cold and lonely, floating in the black, but she’d be asleep and not dead, and that mattered.
He went to his terminal, grabbed his datapad and a hardwire for connection, and went to the library. He wouldn’t be able to save all of their records, but he’d damn well save what he could.
He knew from the way his neck and lower back ached that he’d been lost within the file storage of the library for hours, but it was still too soon when the Captain’s voice came over the ship’s intercom, pulling him from his work. “All crew report to the emergency escape module. All crew report to the emergency escape module.”
He disconnected from the server he’d been plugged into after the file finished downloading, then carefully tucked the datapad inside a well-padded small storage locker. None of what he’d pulled was essential knowledge, but it had been responsible for opening people’s eyes to worlds they might not have ever encountered otherwise, and that was its own special brand of importance. As he stepped out of the doorway, he put a hand onto the frame and looked back over his shoulder. The lights in the library slowly dimmed, and an electric tingle pushed through his palm. “I know,” he whispered. “Don’t look back. Just get going.”
The lights went out.
A gust of air pushed through the ventilation system, cinnamon and orange scenting the air. The smell of his favorite tea. His eyes dampened, and he made no move to wipe away the evidence as he walked toward the module that held all of their safety pods. They were within eight-to-twenty-four hours of the nearest inhabitable planets. Well within what the pods’ life support systems could handle. He kept his mind on reviewing the nearby planets that they could go to rather than focusing on the cold and empty feel of the ship’s hallway as he went.
He was the last person to file into the room. The Captain raised their eyebrows at him in silent question. He held up the bright orange storage locker, and their tired eyes widened behind tinted lenses briefly before they gave him a small, thankful smile.
They cleared their throat and turned their attention back to the group. “I’ll keep this short. I’ve spent the last several hours interfacing with KALI and figuring out a plan. My SIC has told me that the majority of you want to stay with the crew no matter where we go.”
They paused, and from the back of the room the ST watched several heads nod in agreement.
“It is also my understanding–and this lines up with the bitch—”
One of the crew members coughed out a “Language!”
The Captain grinned and snickers spread throughout the room. “With the frustrated murmurings I’ve heard from several of you in the past— that you are discontent with the narrow scope of our current mission’s focus.”
There were more nods than headshakes.
“I confess I’ve gotten a bit bored with the scope myself,” they said. “So, here’s the deal. On the furthest planet from where we are, there is a massive structure that was obviously a library at some point. It’s divided into three separate buildings. The leadership on that planet have been looking for someone to take control of it for some time. They need a crew that are willing to fill the shelves with so much more than what we’ve collected over the years, though. In the past, they had patrons from all walks of life going through their halls, and if we take the job, we’re obligated to return it to what it could have been.” Their eyes sparkled as they said, “even if that means reading romance.”
“KALI on a cracker,” the SIC spat in surprise.
The Captain cracked up, the rest of the crew following them shortly thereafter. The laughter was a little too loud and long, but they needed it. They let it die down naturally before continuing. “We want to save KALI. I know we all do. And—” their eyes met his, “I don’t know if it’s possible, or how long it will take if it is, but my vote is we take the job. Open Leviathan Libraries to the public, catalogue all sorts of media and bring it to the patrons’ eyes. Learn to enjoy again what we all loved in the beginning.”
“Except for romance,” the SIC grumbled.
The Captain turned to her. “I won’t make you read the romance.”
That seemed to pacify the Second-in-Command, and the Captain turned their attention back to the crew. “What do you think? Nod if yes.”
Some nods were immediate, some took a while longer, and there were a couple that were so tentative he wouldn’t be surprised if they changed their mind and decided to do something else once they landed on firm ground for the first time in several years. He, himself, found he couldn’t move his head. He loved the crew, but the ship had always been his first love. The idea of leaving her to drift in the black while he worked in warmth and light and life below was physically painful. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t leave her.
He waited until the Captain’s eyes found his again. They frowned. He mouthed the words, “I’m staying.”
They pressed their lips together, but then inclined their head.
Relief filled him. The Captain had made it a practice to always respect people’s choices. When Crew had left in the past, they’d never tried to convince them to stay. Apparently that still held true.
Their lips moved. It took him a moment to cotton on to what they were saying. “Take care of her.”
“Always,” he said, and then pressed the handle of the orange storage case into one of the crew’s hands. They took it, looking at him in surprise. He shrugged his shoulders, turned, and headed back to the bridge to make sure that the crew launched without problem.
It took a while, and the whole time KALI made her displeasure with his decision clear, but finally the last pod—the Captain’s—launched. KALI displayed the trajectories of each pod on the screen of his station, and then showed him that there were still a few escape pods that could be launched. She made each of them blink in bright red, and kept bringing the screen back up every time he swiped it aside.
Finally, after they’d played this back and forth about five times, foul-smelling air huffed through the vents, and the screen did not pop back up.
He smiled, stretched his arms up and back over his head, revelling in the cracks that echoed in the silence as his back and shoulders popped. Then he placed his fingers on the optical-display keyboard on his desk and said, “Let’s figure this out, ol’ girl.”
There was a moment of stillness, and then the smell of cinnamon and orange seeped into the bridge, as the vent nearest him blew warm air out. He’d work there until he ran out of supplies or until he figured it out. Whatever came first. But either way, he wasn’t leaving his ship.
Launching January 2022
Lilyn G is the founder of Sci-Fi & Scary, and leader of the Kali Krew. She does book and film reviews for both genres the site focuses on. Her tastes run towards creature features, hard science fiction, and lots and lots of action. She also has a soft spot for middle-grade fiction that rears its head frequently.
Though no longer involved with Ladies of Horror Fiction due to other responsibilities and a too-full plate, she was one of the original 4 co-founders.
Feel free to chat her up on Twitter as long as you aren’t hitting her up to review your book.
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