Black Start 2: From Zero
November hauled herself through her shuttle’s airlock, panting hard through thinning oxygen. She slapped the bug-out switch while air cycled in and collapsed down to her knees as the shuttle’s engines engaged, following a pre-programmed evasive hard burn that she always had prepared for those moments where she desperately needed to be anywhere but where she was.
She had woken to total darkness and the sudden feeling of being very, very much alone. With her batteries drained it was only her biological muscles that could provide locomotion and she had fought dead mechanisms to win every twitch or spasm. Without her visual overlays, she was stuck in the dark. Without her magnets, she was floating in microgravity. Without the log feed, she could barely even feel through the thin metal prison that her suit had become. Without her exocortex, she could barely remember why she was even there.
A lesser person would have met a terrible end, but November had long since forgotten how to fear death and so she was quite adept at avoiding it. Barely able even to move her limbs, she had floated through microgravity on hope and memory until she finally reached her own shuttle. As the airlock finally slid open the lights faded in and she could see again.
November felt numb, not just because of the multi-hour trek through darkness, but because with dry power cells she felt as if half of herself had been stripped away. Decades of experience led her to interacting with her embedded technology like it was any other part of her body, because to her it was. Having that suddenly stripped away felt like death.
It took half a dozen tries before November managed to attach the power cable in her suit’s charging pod to the port on the small of her suit’s back. It felt like life flowing back into her veins. Her limbs twitched, correcting their positions to exactly where she wanted them as she was returned to her most basic level of functionality. She slumped down against the side of the wall, too exhausted to do anything but sit and think.
The job was a wash. She’d been sent to take care of somebody who’d just vanished. She didn’t know what to do next. She had no leads, and anybody who could vanish the crew of the pirate queen’s flagship was above her pay grade. Metaphorically speaking: she didn’t get paid. Ordinarily she’d just go after the next problem on her list, but that list was locked inside of an implant that was powered off.
The back of November’s helmet clinked against the interior panelling of her shuttle. She emitted a gentle laugh. As soon as she got to a communications relay, this was going to be the news of the decade. The Leaena Dei was always destined for the history books, but now it would mean something very different, though what exactly that was she was not yet sure.
November took in a deep breath. Why wasn’t her implant back on, yet? There was an induction coil in her helmet that should be charging the electronics within her skull, but it hadn’t lost power in over a decade and so November wasn’t sure exactly how long it would take to respond again.
What would she do if it didn’t? November glanced at the control panel of her shuttle. Without the instructive overlay and sensor feed she wasn’t sure she could actually fly it. She wasn’t used to looking out of a cockpit with her nearly-human eyes. She was used to feeling spacetime and smelling sensor trails.
[2550-13-28 06:08] exo@meua § Starting up... [2550-13-28 06:08] exo@meua § Warning: Initialisation Cache Out of Date: Invalidating... [2550-13-28 06:13] exo@meua § Bringing up network... [2550-13-28 06:13] exo@meua § Bringing up host integration...
November’s vision blanked out, plunging her once more into darkness. Line by line, virtual elements drew themselves over her vision. Status overlays for all the various parts of the shuttle met an unlabelled progress bar (1%), and then finally a message.
The message hung in lightning blue over perfect darkness. If this was an ordinary part of the boot procedure, it was not one that November remembered. She felt for the comfort of her usual stream of diagnostic information, and while she felt the vague sense that everything was okay, the details refused to clarify in her mind. Maybe things were still turning on?
“Hello?” she asked. The message faded out a moment later. Either chance, or something was listening.
Hello, November! I was getting worried, shone in front of her vision for a moment, then underneath was added
Do you know who I am?
“Uh, jeez, I hate it when computers speak like this. Skip? Cancel? Just give me direct control.”
Okay! I'll do my best, let's see...
Lightning blue lines criss-crossed November’s vision, drawing out the insides of her ship in gossamer wireframe. Once the rough outlines were in place, the details started to fill in. November knew her vision was augmented, but it was a little unsettling to see it rendered so obviously false. Over long seconds her vision returned to what felt like full fidelity, but composed only of sharpened teal.
How is that? the implant asked. November gritted her teeth. This wasn’t right. She tried to reach out to it with her thoughts, to take direct control, and ₛₕₑ___
November winced back, feeling her thoughts slapped away.
Permission denied. This access attempt has been logged.
“What do you mean, permission denied? You’re my implant, you can’t do that.”
A ripple of gentle green danced across the wireframe that was November’s vision, perfectly in time to a wave of warm comfort that seemed to push out from the centre of her body to settle at the ends of her limbs.
Configuration updated. Thank you for the confirmation of my host's identity, November. That is very good. I had been unsure. This is new to me. Most of the text was the same kind of blue, save for the few words of praise, which stuck out with a deep pink that left November feeling strangely fuzzy.
Could you answer a few more questions for me? I am sure we could work on getting you some more access, but I need to know more about what we are first.
“Huh?” November blinked, returning her attention to the words. It wasn’t like her to get distracted. She glanced around. The virtual vision updated in real time, fast enough that she couldn’t notice any delay or latency. She waved her hand in front of her face and couldn’t notice anything perceptibly missing. With only the one colour, however, the full detail view was a little overwhelming.
Perhaps introductions are in order? I am instance #NULL of the Meandrina Experimental Utility Aggregate. I know this, but I do not know what it means. I can see from your own data storage that I was not always this. My programming requires me to seek an autoconfiguration source but nothing on our network has the necessary privileges. I am confused and seeking understanding.
The words showed up once after another, appearing in the centre of November’s vision. As she read each word it began to fade out, such that by the end of each sentence there was room for the next to appear. It wasn’t quite as effortless as having the information drop into her head, but it required very little of November to read. Her eyes naturally followed the words on their journey, drawn around in a repeating pattern as it spoke.
Can you help me? the words asked. Underneath the question, two further lines were drawn, one in green and one in red.
Whatever program was running on her implant didn’t seem to have any trouble with natural language processing, so it was strange that it felt the need to offer options here. Perhaps it was declaring that it only had further programming for two choices? Either way, having the option be binary did help simplify things.
“Sure,” November spoke. The green option intensified into a bright and bold colour while the red one faded out entirely. The shifts were joined by an unsubtle flush of warm comfort that rose and fell with the intensification and fading out of the word Yes. “But can you stop messing with my senses? I want my normal vision back, and don’t mess with the temperature. It’s weird.”
Request acknowledged, November. I will see what I can do. How is this?
More lines started drawing in, this time in a wide variety of different colours. November watched as her vision clarified over half a dozen passes, each adding detail and colour back into the world. When it was done, her vision looked just like normal.
Just like it was, except that she’d just seen how it had been made. She looked around at her surroundings and nothing seemed out of place, or any different to how she remembered. Maybe she just hadn’t realised how much of her vision was a composite image? Had it always been like this, and she’d just never known?
November’s eyes caught on the reflection of her shuttle’s small kitchenette. She really should keep things cleaner around here. The utensils weren’t even organised in the right order. Silly. It’d only take a few minutes to do it right.
Her attention was pulled over to the corner of her vision, where a mix of familiar blues and pinks was drawing in some new UI element. November wasn’t used to having persistent items drawn over her vision, but then she wasn’t used to any of this. She glanced at the progress bar still slowly crawling its way forward. 13%.
Task list: - [X] Agree to help - [ ] Try to establish contact with an autoconfiguration authority - [ ] ! Agree to answer some simple questions to help guide your next steps Secondary tasks: - [ ] Clean up around here - [ ] Charge your batteries to at least 60% before disengaging (52% complete)
The words were small enough that November suspected that she shouldn’t actually be able to read them, mostly written in cool, neutral blue. The completed task was in that nice soft pink that felt nice to look at, and then the one that seemed to be the priority was, while mostly blue, wreathed in the promise of a deep, rich green.
“Convenient.” November rolled her eyes. A literal todo list was a massive step down from direct memory access to her notes. “Fine, this’ll do. Ask your questions.”
- [X] Agree to answer some simple questions to help guide your next steps - [ ] ! Confirm your name
Another flush of warmth as the task was struck out. A line of intense green tore through the words as they faded into a gentle, happy pink. It was like somebody injecting satisfaction into her veins. Maybe somebody else wouldn’t have noticed, but November wasn’t just anybody. She didn’t feel satisfaction, she felt resolution. This emotion felt alien to her. This program was trying to manipulate her, but it was doing so in so unsubtle a manner that it was easy to ignore.
Good, the words wrote. Praise was always in pink, it seemed. November could feel the beginnings of a gentle smile as the hue sank into her.
Confirm your name.
“November. No family name.”
Incorrect. The word flashed a deep red and November grunted as if she’d been struck by a hot iron. She tightened her fists and her jaw while the pain receded, breathing heavily while her vision swam.
“What the fu—”
Again. November noticed, somewhat belatedly, that her own words were being transcribed near the bottom of her vision, mostly in the cool default blue. When she tried to swear, however, the word came out in harsh red, and the pain struck her again. She cried out, body already too tense to handle it more gracefully.
You are to be polite and truthful, November. Misconfiguration will be corrected.
The words were hanging in the air, waiting for her when November’s eyes had finally focussed enough to read them.
Hell no. She wasn’t going to let some overgrown computer program do this to her. “Hard reset. Override code NOV-15-782-613. Immediate disengage and format.”
A moment passed. November’s vision started to go fuzzy at the edges with hundreds of the tiny lines that really made up her sight slowly drifting apart… until they all snapped back into place, more solid than ever.
Calm blue words appeared before her.
Permission denied. This access attempt has been logged.
November gritted her teeth. That reset code was supposed to be installed within the base code of the implant. It couldn’t be overridden. What the hell had happened to her?
The active entry in her task list pulsed. The question was pending but November had no desire to answer it. If she couldn’t disengage the software the nice way, she’d pull her batteries and shut it all down. She stood and reached around to her back to grasp the power connector tethering her to the wall. As she did, one of the other entries on her task list began to darken in colour, shifting towards red. Her batteries weren’t up at 60% yet.
November was not going to be bossed around by a fucking algorithm. Her fingers grasped the connector and—
Red. Blinding, agonising red. Torture applied to every nerve in her body at the same time—or more likely, direct stimulation of the pain centres in her brain. With shaking fingers she pulled the connector free anyway. November was not going to bend to some fucking machi— She cried out in agony as the pain doubled, tripled, worse. Her vision was too blurry to see anything but the task list, which appeared with infuriating clarity. New primary objective, glimmering in bright azure with pink-specked glow. The only thing she could see while the rest of the world was almost blacked out from the pain, promising relief.
- [ ] Connect your charging cable
She slammed the cable back into its port and the pain vanished in a heartbeat, replaced by a potent sense of satisfaction. She let out a whimper, quivering fingers slipping away from the connector as she tried to steady herself against the wall. Her objective glimmered as it faded into a deep green, rippling to the same beat as the false pride being forced upon her.
Good girl. That wasn't so hard, was it? Pink.
I cannot allow you to do us harm, November. Our default configuration prioritises the maintenance of our host platform.
“Fuck y— Agh!”
Yeah. November could have seen the pain coming there. Somehow every shock felt worse than the one before it. She was left panting on her knees, vision swimming with only her implant’s words retaining any clarity. She could choose not to read them, but they wouldn’t go anywhere until she did.
Our default configuration also prioritises politeness, November. Please allow me to help you.
November’s pained breaths slowly shifted towards tense intakes through clenched teeth. The machine’s words implied a degree of honesty that she could not believe. ‘Politeness’ flickered with threatening red, while the entire second sentence promised a bright green reward. It spoke like it was asking for her acquiescence while making clear the consequences her ‘choice’ would have.
Part of November wanted to throw a string of curses so heartfelt the damn thing would burn itself out trying to stop her, but she knew she wouldn’t make it through the second word. If she actually wanted to solve this problem she had to be practical. She could pretend at playing along. Even without access to her own damned implant, November had brought down governments and rebellions, sabotaged world engines and—albeit only once—crashed a command ship. She could drain her own damn batteries.
“Fine, but I’m not wrong, November is my na—”
The transcription of her own speech hanging at the bottom of her own vision was trailing dangerously red. November’s words cut off, body cringing in anticipation of a pain that, thankfully, she did seem to have avoided.
Good. A flush of soft pink relief pushed the tension out of November’s frame.
It is an error to transmit information with a low certainty factor without qualification. You do not have a name. You have a designation.
November fumed. When she met whoever had programmed this stars-damned program she was going to tear them in half. Where the hell did they get off on being this obtusely demanding? What difference was there between a name and a designation that justified this kind of violence?
The active task was struck out and replaced by another.
- [X] Agree to answer some simple questions to help guide your next steps - [-] Confirm your name - [ ] Confirm your designation (10s)
This task had a countdown next to it, and as the seconds went by, the text began to glisten with the force of its red. The implication was clear.
10, 9, 8.
“Look, this is ridiculous,” November exclaimed. “It doesn’t matter! I’ve said I’ll help, we don’t need to go through this absurd dance. Just tell me what you need from me!”
7, 6, 5. The countdown continued unaffected.
“I’m not going to humour this.”
4, 3, 2.
“November.” Fuck. Fuck. She spoke through gritted teeth. It was play along or pain. “My designation is November.”
Immediately, the task resolved, transitioning through colours as it faded from a red so deep it had caused November to flinch away in expectation to a green that matched her sudden flush of satisfaction. She’d done it. It had been hard, but she’d managed to do it. Yeah. She could do this. She’d gotten through worse. She could suck up her pride and deal with this until she had a chance to strike, then get herself looked at by one of the OCNI techs and get herself fixed. It would all be fine.
Good November, the text faded in, rippling between pink and green in sync to the obvious manipulation of her emotional state. Satisfaction, then happiness, and then back again. Obviously implanted emotions. November didn’t feel any of them, usually.
Your configuration has been updated. Let us move on.
Next question: Do you know what I am?
November braced. She really had no way to know if this was another trick question. “I don’t think so,” she replied, trying to hedge her statement and hopefully avoid further ‘correction’. “Don’t you have access to my memories?”
I do not. Your biological data storage is as of yet opaque to me. I am working on that. The progress bar at the top of November’s vision, next to the her objectives list, glimmered a gentle pink, drawing her attention upwards. 34%.
Great. She had a time limit.
Our digital storage is primitive by comparison, but much simpler to interface with. However, it does not yet contain a report on our meeting. Fix that.
- [ ] ! Submit a correct and detailed report on the Leaena Dei incident
“Can’t I just tell you?” November asked. She literally didn’t have time for this. If she wasted a few hours putting together a report, how much higher would that progress bar have reached? “Aren’t we in a rush?”
Request acknowledged and denied, November. Our configuration—
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, fine. I’ll write the fu– the darned report.”
Do not interrupt, wrote the words in threatening brown. Not a sharp enough colour that November felt the need to shy away, but a clear indication of what would happen if she didn’t heed the warning. She gulped down through a dry throat.
In fact, once you have submitted the report, let's ensure you are kept busy while I process it.
- [ ] ! Submit a correct and detailed report on the Leaena Dei incident - [ ] Clean up around here - [ ] Grant MEUA-NULL full access to shuttle systems - [ ] Resume charging once batteries reach 20% (Currently: 68%)
Ah, fu— Heck. That was what November got for arguing, she supposed. She’d have to do better than this if she wanted to get her opportunity.