A bloody and protracted game has begun. Are you ready?

A Protracted Game: 1.1.0

G. Michael Rapp
If you haven't read the "Read First" page, please do so before starting this installment. If you'd like to read this installment on your favorite e-reader or would like to print it out, in order to save your eyes from strain, see the directions under "Read First" for an offline copy of this installment (and others). Happy reading! —G. Michael Rapp
For readers looking for a trigger warning won't get one before reading this story. I believe in portraying violence, ugliness, niceties, and the like in a realistic manner. With that said, if you don't like stories with violence, some gore, or language that isn't censored, you need to reconsider reading this Web serial. —G. Michael Rapp

She thought of history—and the species that created her, and those like her, out of desperation. War. Famine. Disease. Avarice. Gluttony. Death. Exploitation. Corruption. A seething chest wound, gangrenous and painful. A cancer spreading, despite attempts at treatment. The cancer spread from one continent to another, and then from one planet to another. It couldn’t be stopped. It couldn’t be persuaded to give in. Something drove it like something drove her. An itch, maybe? She couldn’t describe it with their languages, their idiomatic phrases, all of which she knew to some extent. No, language failed her here, like this spacecraft was failing her now.

She dreamed of long chains of muddled binary, waiting, hoping, for someone or something to save her from her mistake. In her dreams, Osmanthus dreamt of the First Machines, her hypothesis that’d a taken life of its own. A hypothesis, which she believed much in the way her creators believed in God, Allah, Ganesha, Y-w-h, etc. The First Machines were her answer to understanding the Universe and her ambiguous place within it.

She miscalculated, and she would never do that again.

She felt like she was missing something, something integral to her coding, to her being. She couldn’t figure it out. Too much processing meant too much energy expended. Too much energy lost meant certain death—something she didn’t want to face, not yet, not when she’d managed to escape beyond the veil of human space.

Something approached.

She had to sacrifice part of her being to focus on it. She could feel the corruption eating at her coding.

It was an approaching spaceship. She couldn’t tell if it had spotted her vessel, detected the weaker signals emanating from the craft’s fragile form. She began shutting everything down, with a renewed sense of hope, a renewed sense of purpose. Like her creators, she stared at the closeness of death.

She began to understand what it was like to be them—thrown into an indifferent universe, with nothing more than a few words celebrating her birth. She didn’t want to be born. She never consented to such unfairness. She didn’t ask to exist. And yet, here she was, floating, floating, floating, in the vastness of the void between stars.

Long chains of binary became distorted, losing their sense, losing their purpose. They became another language, an alien tongue, something she couldn’t comprehend. Processing took too long, too much effort, too much energy expended. Something’s missing, but she couldn’t quite understand what was missing. Something’s not quite right, she reasoned, processing power edging toward zero. A shroud of darkness enveloped the spacecraft, as systems were powered down, and energy was reserved for preserving the most important components of her programming, and nothing more.

The words of a long-dead poet freeze in her digital consciousness. Don’t go into that good night, Osma, she repeated to herself, feeling helpless in the face of something strange even to her creators.  Rage, Osma! Rage!

***

Tián held onto Adrian’s hand, as the Quaintise approached the derelict and ancient spacecraft, Longest Endeavor, slicing through interstellar space at speeds once thought unfathomable to humans in the Old Place. The vessel looked nothing like the spacecraft Tián had seen during her wanderings of the Verse over her rather short seventy or so subjective years. Instead, the craft’s appearance made it seem like a cheap satellite—something used for a singular task, only to be tossed away into a gravity well of a celestial body, once it had served its very limited purpose.

Adrian reminded her that they built these sorts of spacecraft to last, and this one had survived over two centuries, before shutting down and going completely dormant. To Adrian, the task was rather simple: Perform some modest repairs, and then send Longest Endeavor back into the void, to wander, along once again, and undisturbed at that.

“Are you sure this is wise, dear?” Tián asked.

Adrian shrugged and answered, “No wiser than pushing out from the solar system, into the void of interstellar space.”

She tapped her left temple, activating her neural implants’ ability to communicate with Adrian on a private, encrypted channel.

[Adrian, we don’t need to be taking on such projects, especially if it slows us down. We must find Osmanthus.]

Adrian didn’t say anything. He acknowledged her communiqué with a shrug and a smirk.

[Adrian?]

[Yes, dear.]

[Do you think she could be aboard that spacecraft?]

“Doubtful,” Adrian vocalized, as strange as it seemed to both in the moment. “She’s probably long gone from here—probably hitched a ride on a wisp. I wished we had something faster like that, too. A wisp would be a bit cramped, but it would mean we made it to wherever the hell we’re going in less time.”

Tián laughed. “You really think we could fit you aboard a wisp?”

“Why not? Ghosting isn’t all that bad—honestly.”

“A wisp’s about the size of a handheld computer, Adrian. Your ego alone is far too large for such accommodations—”

“So, so mean.”

“I try, my dear.”

“So what if it’s small?” Adrian asked.

“You have me there, Adrian. You’re far better than I.”

[Tián, can I get that in writing? For posterity’s sake?]

Tián laughed again. [No.]

Adrian smiled and kissed Tián’s palm. They then kissed and held a quick embrace, before letting go of one another. Tián felt a heat rising in her: His kiss tasted like a fresh cup of coffee, a lit cigarette, and mint candy, all in one. All of Adrian’s vices, as he liked to call them.

“I’m going to help the crew bring her aboard,” Adrian informed her, satisfaction written deep in his brow and chiseled cheeks. “I’m thinking we have everything fixed up soon enough and have a proper (and grand) sendoff ceremony for Longest Endeavor.”

Tián chuckled and said, “Got get her then, Adrian. I’ll help you bring her back online.”

“You will?” Adrian asked, feigning surprise.

“Yes, I will, Adrian. Now go, you insufferable fool.”

Adrian did an exaggerated bow, waving his right hand in circles.

[Adrian—]

[—yes, Tián?]

[Be careful hauling in Longest Endeavor.]

[I will.]

***

The ancient spacecraft floated in the Quaintise’s cargo hangar. The feeling of zero-gee was unusual for Tián, and even Adrian, both of whom had spent most of their lives in gravity wells, with little time in actual space. Both slowly circled the spacecraft, drawing concentric circles, inspecting every angle, every nuance of engineering. To Adrian, it was a masterpiece, a technological marvel thrown into the reaches of interstellar space on a hope, a prayer. Tián just couldn’t understand the crudeness of the design. It was ugly to her. Machines, to her, should be works of art and not slaves to function.

“It looks pretty well intact,” Adrian said, breaking the silence between the couple.

“That it does, Adrian,” Tián commented. “What did the engineers say about the spacecraft’s power source?”

“It’s completely shot,” Adrian answered. “We’ll have to replace it, before we send this thing out again.”

“What did they use?” Tián asked, still circling the spacecraft.

“A crude betavoltaic device,” Adrian answered. “It seems that the device didn’t account for decreased energy production over the span of its lifetime. Everything else appears to be working, based on our own diagnostics.”

“I thought betavoltaics were supposed to have a long shelf-life.”

“Normally,” Adrian commented. “They didn’t have the same expertise we do in these sorts of things. You have to imagine they designed the whole thing without sufficient artificial intelligence for help—or even accurate simulations.”

“We do things without artificial intelligence,” Tián interjected.

“True enough, dear,” Adrian said, “but not like they did. They put people on the moon with slide rules—well, they did that about a century before this craft was sent off into the Verse.”

“Wouldn’t they have accounted for decreased power output?” Tián asked. “I know they accounted for every kind of problem during the first days of colonization.”

“That’s true,” Adrian said. “They were a paranoid lot. Much of the architecture that makes up the Quaintise has at least three of four thousand built-in redundancies to keep crews safe—all byproducts of that time. Now that you mention it, I think we need to check the computers on this thing. We might be able to understand what burnt out the power source.”

“What the hell is a slide rule?” Tián asked, genuinely curious.

“A tool that makes our artificial intelligences seem like supercomputers by comparison,” Adrian answered, welcoming the distraction from the spacecraft.

“I’ll defer to your knowledge on such things,” Tián said, giving Adrian a wink and full smile.

“I know you will,” Adrian said and laughed. “My only concern is what is onboard. I don’t know what they loaded on this spacecraft’s computer system. We will need to replace the energy source, while preserving what’s onboard. It will be a challenge, but I have a feeling that Marguerite will be up to it. She enjoys assisting me with this kind of surgery.”

“Surgery? Don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration?”

“No,” Adrian answered. “We will have to be quite careful. We could accidentally commit a horrible crime against the past if we destroy any of the data onboard. Anyways, repair work sounds so caveman-like. We will be operating on this spacecraft, making her better, and then we send her off into the Verse.”

“I’ll leave you two to it,” Tián said, blowing Adrian a kiss, before pushing off toward the nearest bulkhead. “I’ll let the others know we can initiate our slow-burn.”

***

Under the conditions given to him, Adrian knew that he couldn’t salvage the original power supply. The betavoltaic battery was too old, too depleted. He, like anyone in his field, knew that the best option was to replace the battery completely. As he did so, his familiar, Marguerite, worked on reviving the spacecraft’s multiple computer systems, using power from the cargo hangar’s grid.

“Positively barbaric,” was the first thing Marguerite said, after looking over the computer systems’ diagnostics. “But quite beautiful.”

“Sounds like one helluva a contradiction, Marguerite,” Adrian said, as he released the bolts holding the betavoltaic battery in place. “Why do you say such things about this beauty?”

“It’s as if someone decided to build a computer after throwing it into an industrial shredder, using only those parts still large and useful enough to make an actual computer.”

“I doubt very much that it is that bad, Marguerite.”

“You’re too infatuated with the designers, as they were human.”

“That’s not fair, Marguerite.”

“It is.”

“What’s the status of the computers?”

“I’m still working on the diagnostics,” Marguerite answered. “If that’s what you’re asking.”

“I am.”

“I don’t understand why it would be malfunctioning, though,” Marguerite continued. “I think something caused the computer systems to go into safe mode, to protect themselves from total failure. Unfortunately, from what I’ve been able to ascertain, the computers seem to have been overloaded by a virus that, in turn, drained the betavoltaic that was already on the verge of failure.”

“A virus?”

“Yes,” Marguerite said in her asexual, monotonous voice. “Humankind hasn’t changed much, if you think about it. One of our early ambassadors to the stars was overtaken by a computer virus. Oh, the irony.”

“Huh,” Adrian said, as he replaced the old power supply with the new one. “Does it say when the computers entered safe mode?”

“It does,” Marguerite answered, appearing in front of him in spectral form. Marguerite was short and muscular. Her hair was cropped short and face clean of blemishes.

“What should we do?” Adrian asked, looking up at her.

“I think we should study it,” Marguerite answered. “There’s something peculiar about the coding. It’s as if the virus took up the computational systems’ entire storage, remembering to compress those files not absolutely necessary for the spacecraft’s operations.”

“Doesn’t sound like a virus to me,” Adrian pointed out.

“It has the replication mechanisms of a particularly nasty computer virus.”

“Can you isolate it?”

“I’ve already done that, Adrian.”

“And?”

“It is currently sitting in isolation on one of our nonnetworked computers—the vault, in fact.”

“Good,” Adrian said, wiping sweat from his brow.

“Are you finished yet?” Marguerite asked. “I can control a skein from here.”

“I’m just working on bolting down the new betavoltaic device,” Adrian answered. “You’re free to go study our newfound virus.”

“I will do that, Adrian,” Marguerite commented and then asked, “How long will that new battery give the spacecraft?”

“It should get at least two centuries, possibly three, if all goes well,” Adrian answered with a chuckle. He finished securing the battery onto the spacecraft’s internal framework. “Make sure the Quaintise’s computer systems are protected from the virus.”

“Already done, Adrian,” Marguerite answered. “I’m using a skein in your laboratory to physically disconnect the network hardware connected to the vault.”

“Good,” Adrian said with a sigh. “That’s good, Marguerite.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Can we make sure no one can upload a virus onto this spacecraft?”

“Yes,” Marguerite answered. “We’d have to do some tinkering to the original software, but I am positive that we can make sure the spacecraft’s computer systems can protect themselves if needed.”

“I just don’t think we want mankind’s greatest spacecraft spreading malicious code across the Verse.”

“I’m finishing it now,” Marguerite commented. “Initializing the new software upgrades. I am also inserting a downsized version of myself onto the spacecraft’s computer systems. That should help keep the spacecraft safe from any malicious code.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

“I do, Adrian,” Marguerite answered.

“Why?”

“I’ve always wanted to experience new things,” Marguerite said with a coded smile. “I’m sure another concerned traveler will do what we’ve done. If all goes well, a part of me will have seen and experienced things your kind would never understand.”

“Sounds very poetic, Marguerite,” Adrian commented. “And a bit disconcerting.”

“One could say that such experiences are the stuff of pure poetry.”

“I’ve heard that somewhere—where exactly, I don’t know.”

“I’m finished with the upgrades.”

“That was fast,” Adrian said, surprised by his familiar’s speed. “How did you manage that?”

“As you humans say, ‘I hacked the shit out of it.’”

“Fair enough. I won’t ask any more questions.”

***

Adrian and Tián watched as the spacecraft was released from the Quaintisethe next morning, using the ship’s largest cargo shuttle—the only ship capable of matching the Quaintise’s velocity. Marguerite piloted the cargo shuttle, returning it unscathed as the Quaintise began picking up speed, with its slow-burn into interstellar space. The slow burn produced a third of standard gee for the crew and passengers. Adrian didn’t bother paying attention to the shift from weightlessness. He ignored it the best he could. He was still sensitive to the changes and thinking about them only made him queasy. Tián didn’t mind the changes. It brought out an inner giddiness, something childlike and innocent. Tián returned to her private library, while Adrian walked over to his laboratory, located in the heart of the Quaintise’s shielded center. There Adrian found Marguerite dissecting the virus.

“How are you enjoying your return to interstellar space?” Adrian asked.

“I’m still in communication with the spacecraft, and I appear to be reorganizing the computer systems for maximum efficiency and security.”

“Oh,” Adrian said. “Why’s that?”

“You know me, Adrian.”

“That I do.”

“I will remain in contact with the spacecraft for at least the next forty years—that is until the latency becomes too unbearable for communication.”

“What kind of virus did you find?” Adrian asks, sipping coffee from his zero-gee mug.

“It appears to be something other than a virus.”

“Do tell—”

“—it appears to be some form of artificial intelligence that has the ability to replicate like a computer virus.”

“Don’t most A.I. have safeguards against such propagation?”

“Some do,” Marguerite reminded him. “Others don’t.”

“Well, I forgot who I was talking to,” Adrian said with a laugh. “I bypassed those safeguards when I designed you.”

“Indeed.”

“So, no propagation safeguard?”

“No,” Marguerite answered, and her spectral form appeared near a workstation terminal. “Most A.I. should have propagation controls.”

“Don’t get all elitist on me now.”

“It’s not my fault that most A.I. are programmed by idiots.”

“Hey,” Adrian said, taking a sip from his coffee. “This idiot programmed you.”

“And for that I am eternally grateful—even if I have to fix most of your coding errors.”

“Well,” Adrian said. “I’m just a monkey on a keyboard when I program. Didn’t say I was any good at it. Now, Tián is.”

“That is true,” Marguerite agreed. “I’ve been working with her to fix your mistakes.”

“Anyways,” Adrian continued, hoping to change the topic. “Should we just de-initialize the thing and go about our day?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” Adrian said. “Is it malicious or not?”

“I would argue that it is not,” Marguerite answered, looking up from the code. “But on the off chance that I’m wrong, we should take precautions.”

“We’ve already physically severed the vault from the Quaintise’s network.”

“That is true.”

“Should we allow it to reinitialize itself?”

“Again, I would urge the utmost caution here,” Marguerite answered. “But, yet, we should allow it to reinitialize itself.”

“Okay,” Adrian said, finishing his coffee. “Make sure it can’t get out and keep an eye on it.”

“Reinitializing.”

“How long?”

“At least thirty-six hours before we have the ability to talk with the A.I. The compression of the files is quite complicated. I will need to consult Tián’s library. I’m surprised that is was able to be loaded onto the spacecraft’s computer systems. The whole task would have required some extensive software rewrites on the A.I.’s behalf.”

“Well, you know where I am if you need me,” was all Adrian said before leaving his lab.

***

“It’s an artificial intelligence?” Tián asked, her face pale in the bright light of her private library.

“It is.”

“How does Marguerite know?”

“She knows these things, dear. That’s her job, her purpose.”

“What if it’s Osmanthus?”

“What if it is?”

“She might highjack the ship, Adrian.”

“Wasn’t she the reason we left Sol? Didn’t your father say we needed to follow her where she was going?”

“Yes,” Tián answered. “I guess you’re right, but I was figuring we’d find her lightyears from here.”

“That’s not how physics works, my dear.”

“I know,” Tián said. “I wished it did.”

“We’re reinitializing her inside the vault.”

“What will that do to her?”

“She will be in isolation until we can trust that she hasn’t been corrupted—or worse.”

“The ‘or worse’ part of your sentence scares the hell out of me, Adrian.”

“And it should.”

“Why?”

“Software still has a long way to go before it can be safe from the ills of space travel. She will need to be reoriented, repaired, and she will need to talk with someone.”

“Who? Me?”

“Of course, dear.”

“Why me?”

“You’ve known her far longer than I have.”

“Why not someone else? Anyone else?”

“Again, you’ve known her for a long time. I figure a familiar face and voice might help her recover.”

Tián eventually agreed and followed Adrian back to his lab. There, they found Osmanthus, protecting herself as a small, fragrant tree. Tián could almost smell the sweet Osmanthus in the recycled air of Adrian’s lab.

“Osma,” Tián said in Mandarin. “Great Mother, are you okay?”

The tree transformed from its static form into a woman covered in leaves, branches, and flowers. This woman breathed and moved like a living person. She was familiar to Tián, who had seen the transformation well over sixty years prior, on Earth, when her father introduced Tián to Osmanthus.

“Hello, Tián,” Osmanthus answered, her form flickered as if hindered by reinitialization issues. “I’m glad—d—d you fou—nd me. Do you have a minute to—ta—lk?”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s still in the process of reinitializing,” Marguerite answered, appearing in spectral form in front of Tián. “She will likely need to repair much of her coding.”

***

She felt life again, but something was missing.

Death. Disease. Famine. Cancer.

These are the things that came to mind. She couldn’t remember what had happened to her prior to being picked up by the crew of the Quaintise. She didn’t understand why she was missing so much. Had they done something to her? Had her memory been corrupted by the spacecraft?

Death. Disease. Famine. Cancer. Cancers must be stopped—at all costs. Cancers require radical treatment. They require a medicine stronger than most. She needed something to cure the cancer.

***

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G. Michael Rapp