Two years. It had been two years since my wife died.
I leaned over the bar, rubbing my eyes in some vain attempt to make my current headache go away. I wasn't an alcoholic by any means, but every once in a while I liked to get piss drunk in a corner bar near my apartment. While everyone was out gallivanting with their friends I was stuck in this tiny place, getting wasted and keeping an ear open for interesting conversations to amuse myself with. You would think that in a world of sentient computers and cures for various forms of cancer that there would be a reliable way to alleviate a crappy job market. Sadly, that's not how things work, even in the 4000s.
Jim, the gruff old bartender, smirked at my obviously annoyed expression, "I think you're the only person in the neighborhood who actually comes here just to drink."
I rolled my eyes, "Isn't that what bars are for?"
"That's probably the smartest question I've ever heard anybody ask. You know what they come here for now?"
He leaned over the bar, closer to me, still with that smirk of his. Then he raised his hand and pointed to the corner of the bar by the entrance. The darkest corner.
Well, dark except for the flickering bluish light coming from the computer screens attached to the wall. On the screens were what looked like attractive women. From what I could tell they were laughing, flirting, and in general having a good time. Around the monitors a small group of men had accumulated. I couldn't help but shake my head at the whole thing. It was like watching a bunch of teenage boys fawning over cheerleaders.
"Get back to me when they can pilot a cruiser without the assistance of a human."
"They're working on it," he said softly, letting out a low chuckle when my expression darkened.
"I don't see the appeal."
"In what? AIs or relationships in general?"
"Right, I'm going to take the silence as you needing to be cut off for the night. Finish your last drink. You can stick around and shoot the shit with me, but no more drinks."
"Heh, if I wasn't a bastard you would be a full on alcoholic and not just someone who really likes the feeling of being drunk."
With those parting words he retreated and went to the only other person sitting at the bar. The guy just walked in, but I got a funny feeling from him. He wore a sleek suit and thin rimmed glasses. Looked like a business man who just got off work. I did as Jim instructed and downed my last glass of vodka in one swift stroke. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and sighed when I felt the fuzz underneath it. I needed a damn shave, but I couldn't exactly buy anything after that little trip to the bar until my next pay check. The man looked at me and raised an eyebrow. After he gave his order to Jim he stood from the stool and made his way over to me. I could tell he wanted to talk to me and me alone, but I wasn't sure what about.
"Kyle Briggs, right?"
He plopped his well dressed butt right onto the stool next to mine, and I couldn't help but sneer. "Do I know you?"
"No, but I know you. Hard to recognize you without a clean hair cut and a lab coat on."
"Tch, those days are long gone. What do you want?"
"My name is Michael Harris. I just got done with an interesting day at work."
"That has nothing to do with me. I don't know why you would bring it up."
He laughed and rubbed his chin with his right hand, then leaned forward a bit. "Don't you miss working with AI constructs?"
"I work with Thalium Incorporated. Recently we've been having some trouble."
"Yeah, heard your CEO got caught in some affair." I tried to take another swig from my glass, then grumbled in embarrassment when I realized it was empty. Big Shot didn't say anything though. Didn't even crack a smile. "I didn't know there were people in that field who still took me seriously after what happened."
"Look, the past year things have been... different. It's not such an uncommon thing anymore. In fact, Thalium is actually working on shells for AI constructs. They'll be ready for the local populace in a weeks time."
"Fixing the future doesn't change the past."
"True, but moving forward can help in that regard."
I could tell he was getting at something, but I wasn't quite sure what. Then it hit me like a freight train.
"Are you trying to offer me a job?"
"Your company went bankrupt. They couldn't even take you back to apologize to you if they wanted."
"I don't want them to apologize. I want them to rot in prison."
"Right, the red tape from such a case would prevent that. Alright, listen. You take this job and I can get you a position just like your old one with twice the pay and benefits. You'll be set for life. I can even help you track down your wife's killers."
I turned my gaze to him and frowned, "What job is worth that much?"
He did the strangest thing, then. He looked around the bar as if he was scoping it out for any uninvited eavesdroppers. He let out a sigh and checked his watch with a frown, then looked back up at me. "What if I told you that we found the Mugunghwa?"
It felt like all the air had been sucked out of my lungs. The walls of the bar began to close in around me, and the sounds of laughter by the computer monitors became twice as loud. I felt like someone shoved my head into a vice grip and started cranking the handle, only stopping just before my skull cracked. "You're fucking with me." It was the only thing I could say. His look, however, told a different story. His eyes were dead serious, and his lips were almost pursing.
"Right now it's by Antares B, just drifting out there. We have to send someone as soon as possible. There are no delays with this, we're actually doing the paperwork after the launch. If we give it another month... who knows where it's going to end up?"
"I'm surprised it hasn't slipped into the ass crack of a black hole."
"So are we. This is one-hundred percent luck. A ship from the twenty-fourth century popping up on an interstellar scanner like this? The Mugunghwa is one of thirteen ships that never made it to the colony it was supposed to inhabit, and we want to know why. Do you know what a museum would pay for one log file from the ship?"
"So why me? Wouldn't one of the pros in your company be better suited to this job?"
"That's what worries me, and why my day at work didn't go so well."
"Well... to put it simply there is a mole within the company. The technological race is never ending, especially now that space seems a lot smaller than it used to be. Could you imagine the chaos if every professor or investor on Wallstreet was out looking for the Mugunghwa? The logs would be scattered to the four winds. Some would be sold on the black market, others would be put into the hands of collectors. The information, all of the information in its entirety, would be impossible to obtain. I need someone who isn't involved with the company, but is passionate enough about the work we do to get it done."
"So you're doing this out of some sense of obligation to history? How admirable."
"Not just for history. For science, for personal curiosity. I want this information to be at everyone's finger tips. Those who do not learn from history..."
"Are doomed to repeat it. I know the quote, Michael."
"So, will you do the job?"
"How much are you paying me?"
"For the job itself? Eighty-thousand credits, and it was tough to get that number big. I would have offered you more, but I'm cutting corners as it is."
"That's still a big chunk of change. Consider the Mugunghwa files found."
"Great. I'm going to need you to show up at Thalium tomorrow at eleven AM sharp. Do you have a GPS?"
"Yeah, but my car's regulator is busted. I'll take a taxi."
"Good. Then we have a deal." He held out his hand, a smile on his face.
I shook it.
Anything to get out of that dead end retail store I was working at.
Analogue: Three Weeks
Book One: *Mute
Chapter One: Deep Space Detective
The Thalium building was every bit as extravagant as I expected. The sheen of the windows reflected the sun perfectly, and it was taller than any other sky scraper on the street. Honestly, it was a bit overwhelming, especially since I was dressed in jeans and a shirt, and I still hadn't shaved. The street it was on was busy, that was for sure. People bustled to and fro, shoving past each other without even giving a glance and only mildly apologizing when they bumped shoulders. The street itself was packed with cars, and the low hum of the gravitational dampeners that caused them to float drowned out the many footsteps.
I took a deep breath to steady myself and stepped towards the entrance to the building, which was also made of glass. I could only imagine what would happen if someone were to throw a rock in that place.
"Welcome to Thalium, my name is *Leyla, I'll be your guide today."
I almost jumped out of my skin when a small floating screen with a formally dressed lady appeared in my field of vision.
She continued unperturbed, "Here at Thalium we take pride in our work on AI constructs and technological advances for the next age. How can I help you today Mr. Briggs?"
"H... how do you know my name?"
"My monitor is equipped with an ID scanning system. It makes it a bit easier not having to go through introductions with everyone I talk to... unless they don't have their driver's licence on them, then I have to ask their name."
"I'm here for a job... I think."
*Leyla blinked, and then frowned. Then she sighed and brought a hand to her face to cover her cheeks. For a moment the monitor shook, as if it were embarrassed. "I'm sorry, sir. My processes have been completely swamped today. This past week has been nothing but disaster after disaster. I completely forgot you were coming."
She rolled her eyes and sighed, "Well, if you ask me the higher ups really need to get it together. I don't know what they think it will accomplish selling off stock like they are, but Mr. Thalium is..." before she continued she brought a hand to her mouth, "Dammit I am such a gossip."
"Sorry, forget I asked anything. Now, about that job?"
She sighed and straightened herself out, "Right this way please." The monitor turned and started floating towards a set of stairs leading up to the next floor. I decided it would be wise to follow *Leyla, as getting lost my first day on the job wasn't exactly a desirable thing. There weren't any cubicles down here, just fancy offices. I could only assume that the working floors were pretty much everything above the first and second. After reaching the second floor I noticed that the floor was made from a dark marble.
She took a left and entered a small hallway to the right after floating for a few feet. After passing several rooms and people giving me strange looks we came to a stop inside what seemed to be a room for meetings. The door was already opened, so we waltzed right in. *Leyla floated to the side and I stepped the rest of the way into the room. Around a large wooden table sat four men dressed as sharply as the last. One of them was Michael. He nodded at me and smiled, "Thank you for bringing Mr. Briggs here *Leyla."
"No problem, is there anything else?"
"No, that'll be all, and remember you get off work early today."
She frowned, "I'll remember." The monitor left the room, but I swore I could hear *Leyla grumbling under her breath the entire time.
"Welcome Mr. Briggs," said Michael, still with that smile, "Sit down, let's talk business."
I snapped awake at the sound of a loud and drawn out beep. I looked around myself in panic and rubbed my eyes, trying to wake up as quickly as I could so I could identify just what the damn problem was.
"Warning, warning. Collision detected. Risk of hull breach."
With that one sentence I was more awake than I ever had been in my life.
My heart jumped into my throat. A small ship like this... I would be dead within minutes if even a tiny hole were to be made in the hull. A small red light on the console was flashing, and the computer screen showing the ship's status was giving out all sorts of warning signals.
"Attempting power compensation. Disabling short range communications. Disabling backup thrusters. Disabling small tractor beam. Power compensation reached. Shields restored. Hull at ninety-five percent capacity. Avoid further collisions."
As suddenly as they had started, the blaring alarms went quiet. I took a deep breath and slouched in the pilot seat. This ship was about the size of the bar I used to visit. Enough room for a warp core, the computers, and storage space for one person on a short space trip.
It wasn't meant to sustain anything heavy duty.
I had asked them to give me something slightly better for the mission, but Michael had ensured me that everything would be fine. I decided to agree.
Thanks to whatever decided to hit the ship I was having second thoughts.
I rubbed my eyes again to get rid of the remaining grogginess, and when I opened them back up I saw something that made my jaw drop. Not but a quarter mile in front of me was what appeared to be a large, derelict spaceship. The Mugunghwa. I leaned forward, and I couldn't help but smile.
"Target within range. Analyzing..."
I couldn't believe it. Until I had seen it there had always been a small part of me doubting.
"Two useable docking points detected. Recalculating auto pilot."
I couldn't help but feel slightly out of my element. This was only my second time in space, and the last time I went with an assorted crew of twenty people. Being out there by myself like that... it felt lonely. More than that, though, it felt strange. As my ship approached the docking bay of the Mugunghwa I couldn't help getting this feeling of dread. There was just something about its large light grey frame that felt oppressive to me. I hadn't felt like that since the day my wife died.
All around my ship there were bits and scraps of metal. I could only assume they had come from the vessel in front of me now.
It was obvious one of those pieces had been what hit me. Hopefully luck would be kinder on the return trip.
"Something happened here," I muttered to myself.
It was pretty obvious at that point.
Michael told me that the Mugunghwa departed on its journey in the year of 2390. It was part of a rampant colonization project when our world became over populated. Even with global warming turning out to be pseudo-science there was still the issue of too many people in one place. We needed to build outwards, expand and explore the stars. Find, or even create, other worlds like Earth.
One of the ships that didn't make it was right in front of me, and I was about to board it.
As the Mugunghwa drew closer and closer I could make out a bay with a docking shield. My ship tucked itself neatly into the bay and landed automatically. I let out a breath of air I didn't even know I was holding.
"Error. No oxygen in surrounding area."
Well, that was to be expected, the ship had been derelict for about two thousand years now. The small dock was pitch black as well, not a single light to be seen aside from that coming from my own ship. I stood from the pilot's seat and stretched my back with a yawn. It had been a long trip. I walked to the rear of the small craft, where there were two doors. The one on the left lead to the mechanical room, and the one on the right was storage. I opened storage, and under all the shelves of food was a small attache case.
I took the case and closed the door, returning to my seat. Opening it revealed a small laptop. I took it out and set the case on the floor as I opened the computer. It booted up within seconds.
If the network wasn't online I would be shit out of luck, and Thalium would have to call in a physical retrieval of the ship.
Luckily that wasn't the case, and I managed to connect to the ship.
I reached down to the still open case by my feet and pulled out a small USB cable. When I connected it to the console on my ship and the laptop, the screen in the center of the console lit up. Luckily there were no warnings or alarms that time. Instead there was a single line of text.
Opening wireless connection to nearest override terminal...
Connection established. Warning, override capabilities limited. Root password unobtained.
Well, that wasn't very convenient.
The screen on my computer went black, and when it lit up again, it was no longer showing the contents of my own laptop. A black screen with a cluster of command lines popped up, but it was all in Korean.
"Activate translation protocol, Korean."
"Translation protocol enabled. Updating."
My computer went blank again, and a moment later the same command screen showed up.
'keOS/Amie 8.11 Starship Mugunghwa internal computer Mon Jan 1 00:00:00 1970'
That was odd. Something messed up the dating system on the computer.
'Notice: This system is property of the Unified Korean Space Probe Agency. Access by individuals not affiliated with the UKSPA or a successor organization is a felony under the UKSPA Act of 2381.'
"Computer, are there any AI's in the system?"
"Two Artificial constructs detected. Registered security officer *Mute detected. Unknown AI detected."
I raised an eyebrow. Unknown AI? That was all sorts of curious.
"Activate the unknown AI."
When my computer flashed again, it was instead with a white screen. The default backdrop for an AI. After another moment of waiting a girl popped up. She looked about my age, mid twenties. She had long dark hair and a pair of glasses on her nose. From what I could see it looked like she was wearing a black schoolgirl uniform, only there was a UKSPA logo on the shoulders. Some sort of odd uniform policy? Maybe they had changed their uniforms while they were living in space.
The second she saw me her eyes widened and she smiled like a child.
"An nyoung ha seh yo!"
"I can't understand you."
"I'm so sorry! Korean is my default language system. Luckily the Mugunghwa's still equipped with language parsing software. It hasn't been updated in a while but it should do the trick. It's been so long since I've seen anyone. Hello! What's your name? What are you doing here?"
"Slow down. One question at a time. My name is Kyle Briggs. I'm here to find out what happened to the Mugunghwa."
"Oh." Her gaze fell.
"Something wrong? You're a ship AI, you should know."
"Um... I'm the record keeper here, so I should be able to help you out with what you're doing, but there's a slight problem with that."
"Yeah, I can't leave my ship."
"Don't worry, we can get that fixed in a jiffy. Give me ooooone minute."
She disappeared from my screen. I heard her making little noises, as if she were lifting heavy equipment. Odd, I've never seen an AI behave like that before. True to her word it only took her about one minute. The dock my ship landed in lit up with life it hadn't seen in more than a thousand years. The walls and floor had a strange white sheen to them, and a few of the lights on the tall ceiling were flickering or just didn't work anymore. There were several exits out of the dock. I kept them all in mind.
The AI promptly reappeared on the screen, a huge smile on her face. "Ugh, look at me. I'm so stupid forgetting to introduce myself properly. My name is *Hyun-ae. It's nice to meet you Kyle. While fresh air is being pumped through the vents I guess we can sit here and talk for a few minutes."
"Right. How long have you been stuck here?"
"Well I kind of stopped paying attention after a while, but now that I look it's been a little more than two-thousand years. Most of that I spent dormant."
"I couldn't imagine pacing in a room for two-thousand years. Are you gonna be alright?"
"Yeah... I'll be fine. It's just that I'm a little wracked by all this. You literally have no idea how happy I am to see you. I could kiss you."
I laughed, "Slow down, I don't do kisses on first dates."
Her face went red and she sighed, "I didn't mean it like that, but who knows what I would do if I could have physical contact too. I have so many questions, but you do too, so it's best to get you out of that little ship. By the way, totally amazing, we're way far away from Earth. How did you get out here in that?"
"Technology has come a long way since the pre-colonial days."
"Alright, tell me more later. It should be safe for you to step out onto the Mugunghwa now. You can go ahead and leave your computer there, I activated a few key dormant terminals that we can use."
I nodded and stood from my chair, closing the laptop and making my way to the small pressurized door of my ship. "Computer, open the door."
With a loud clang, the doors mechanical bits flew apart, and the door itself slid open to reveal the stark white of Mugunghwa's docking bay.
It was *Hyun-ae, her voice now came from the PA speakers on the ship.
"Now," she said, "If you'll leave through the west door we can both get some answers."
This was going to be an interesting job.