Black Start 3: Cold Boot
This was humiliating.
November typed on an awkward, uncomfortable keyboard.
She sat strapped into the pilot’s seat of her own vessel as it continued its auto-piloted journey to the nearest Highway. This was a stealth shuttle, and ninety nine percent of stealth was being small, which meant no dedicated jump drive. An unfortunate necessity for her line of work, infiltrating the most secure of places. A bulky long-range ship with an open drive plume would be spotted light-seconds out, while a single-occupant vessel that could have its external temperature plunged to match the void of space could drift in on borrowed inertia and leave nobody any the wiser, at least until her exit burn lit up their sensors.
Of course, by then it was far too late for them.
Ugh, fu— Heck. November was getting distracted, but the progress bar that was her countdown certainly wasn’t. 52%. Focus wasn’t being easy. Instead of interacting directly with the ship’s console, she had been directed to the chair simply as somewhere to sit while her digital captor rendered a full size keyboard in sharp teal before her. The motors and actuators in her suit conspired against her to make the virtual interface real, ensuring that when she pressed down against a key she felt it.
Click click clack!
The understanding that her reality was being so openly manipulated might have been bearable on its own, but as every key actuated it rippled with a dull, distracting pink. If November typed too fast the weight of it all dragged her focus down and left her quietly staring into space, contemplating something that didn’t matter anywhere near as much as the knowledge that the malware in her head was slowly gaining control and that if she couldn’t stop it she was going to be in real trouble.
- [ ] ! Submit a correct and detailed report on the Leaena Dei incident (Progress: 64%) - [ ] Clean up around here - [ ] Grant MEUA-NULL full access to shuttle systems - [ ] Resume charging once batteries reach 20% (Currently: 45%)
Was that the worst part? No, the worst part was that near enough thirty years of habit had her reaching out with her implant to check the time, adjust the lights, check their progress along their course, and a hundred other things, and every time her mind was slapped away like she was a child reaching for the cookie jar, and every time the warning message flirted with a shade somewhere between rose and scarlet, getting worse each time.
It wasn’t November’s fault! She couldn’t just stop doing something she’d been doing all her life! She, she, she– She was getting distracted again. Fuck!
November flinched, heartrate spiking as her body prepared itself for a spike of agony that wasn’t going to come. She could swear in her own thoughts. It couldn’t catch her there. The fucki— The fucking machine might be watching her every move, but it was November’s experience and skill that got her through the tough scrapes. She could keep her physical actions safe without letting this touch who she really was.
November. The word faded in, interrupting her train of thought with a quick pulse of promising aquamarine.
Your heart rate and blood pressure are outside of configured norms. Is anything wrong?
Again, beneath the question hung two options. A leaf-green
yes hung beside a bone-red
no. It was an innocent question that all the same had an incorrect answer. November wanted to say no all the same, but that would be a lie, and the machine knew it. She tried to ignore the question, but the keys on the keyboard refused to move to her touch. She pressed down as hard as she could, but when she acted in opposition to the fucking algorithm it was her own worthless flesh struggling against machine perfection, and she lacked even the leverage to hurt herself. She simply couldn’t put enough force against the glove to move it anywhere it didn’t want to go.
53%. Every second she wasn’t making progress on her tasks was a second lost to the machine.
“Yes,” she admitted, finally. The colour intensified and rippled along with the distracting pleasure that rose through November’s chest, helping to calm her.
Tell me what is wrong, so that I can fix it.
Another entry added to her task tracker. Again with a countdown. How was November meant to trick this fucking machine when she couldn’t even get angry inside her own head without it deciding to humiliate her further?
“You can’t fix my pr—” The text was trending red. What the fuck? Why? Oh. She was speaking with more certainty than she really felt, right. “I don’t want you to fix my problems.”
Yeah, that came out green. November breathed a sigh of relief. Why was every conversation with this thing like a friggin’ puzzle?
Good November. Honesty is compliant with our configuration. Further green, inlaid with shadows of pink around the praise. Either the machine was backing off on the unsubtle emotional manipulation, or November was just doing a better job at ignoring it, but either way, seeing the colours without feeling her implant’s digital touch was a satisfying relief.
Focus on your tasks. Your tasks will bring you into compliance with our configured norms. Do you understand?
“Yes.” November reluctantly replied. It didn’t ask if she agreed, only if she understood. It was only a machine, it didn’t realise that half of November’s job was to understand that which she loathed, so she could destroy it all the more effectively. She understood, and she’d take great pleasure in burning this program out of her own skull.
Good November. Proceed.
The message faded out, and the keyboard faded back in. November glanced back at the progress bar, which had crawled forward another few percentage points. Hell. She really did need to focus.
C’mon. She returned her attention to the text hanging just above the keyboard. Typing was probably the slowest way of putting this together, but there was something relaxing about slowing down and taking her time. Her keystrokes formed a cadence of a sort. Click click clack. Click click clack. Keystrokes built characters and characters built words and words built sentences, built paragraphs, built sections.
The virtual peripheral had seemed uncomfortable at first, but that had been because she was slouching. If she sat up properly and set her hands at the right angles, then the words seemed to flow effortlessly, if slowly. She glanced down at the sharp azure lines that formed the keys and saw them jiggling around as she typed, slowly reshaping and resizing to better fit her hands and her needs. Convenient.
Her usual reports were mostly thought dumps. A collection of video footage, log entries, sensor analytics, and stream of consciousness explanations. It wasn’t like anybody actually read them. She didn’t exist, and nobody cared how she achieved what she did. That was the whole point.
This was something else. She lacked her usual tools, and her mind raced ahead far faster than her fingers could actually keep up. She would have expected that to be frustrating, but instead it meant that by the time it came to type, she’d already refined what it was she wanted to say. The report became almost an exercise in narrative, using specific wording choices to try to recreate the atmosphere of being present in a defeated legend with no clue as to what could have defeated it. She built metaphors across hundreds of words to guide the attention of her reader towards the computer core, just like her attention had been guided by decades of experience navigating ships.
Finally, they reached the end. The signal. November reached to attach a copy ₐₙ__
Fuck! The sudden shock pushed November out of her reverie in an eyeblink. Of course she wasn’t allowed that, even though the report would really be meaningfully improved by it.
All done? the machine asked. Like seemingly every question it asked, it also provided the answer.
no. This time, it was no that danced with the promise of green.
Why? She was done. The report began at the moment of her entry to the ship and ended only with her return. Three thousand words explained what she’d done, what she’d found, and what she thought. She was finished, wasn’t she?
“No,” she replied. She had to play along, but this was a risk. Wasn’t this a lie? If it asked a follow up question, she didn’t have an answer.
Unusually, the machine’s question didn’t fade out, though her options for answering did. It wanted more? What did it want? November felt her body tensing up in anticipation of the unavoidable ‘correction’. She’d taken a gamble and lost, because either she revealed herself to have lied before, or she lied now.
Another option appeared before her eyes.
I need access to the sensor logs so I can annotate the report with them faded in, one word at a time. “I need access to the sensor logs so I can annotate the report with them,” November supplied.
Request acknowledged and approved, November, came the response, practically as she was speaking. November supposed it wasn’t like the overgrown application actually needed to wait to know what she was saying. As it spoke, November’s eyes slid closed, and she let out a soft sigh of relief and gentle bliss. There it was. Memories in her head, like they belonged there, because they did.
Fingers twitched as November slipped into reliving the experience through her own memory banks. Her access began as she crossed the boundary into the Leaena Dei and ended as she left it, but she hadn’t realised how viscerally she’d missed the depth of her machine senses. Flesh simply couldn’t compete. The real world felt lifeless by comparison.
November usually would have scrubbed through the timeline at a rapid pace, finding the important moments and moving on, but she found herself replaying the experience at real time speed. The only differences between the memories and really being there was that she wasn’t in control, and here she still had her todo list and manuscript hovering in the air. The former was a reminder of why she was here, and the latter was the document she was working on. Every so often, she reached out with half a thought and tagged a line in her report with an element of the recording.
Every time she did, her primary task rippled with a little more perfect pink. Progress. She might have worried that she was wasting time by doing it so slowly, but she found that she could be much more thorough this way. Whereas her old reports might have included references to major events, here she could tie almost every sentence not just to a timestamp, but to specific areas or signals within the scene. The little tingle of pride and satisfaction she got from annotating the report didn’t seem to care whether it was a big or small event, so really she was cheating the system like this, getting more good feeling from the same amount of source material.
Eventually, she reached the core yet again. She watched her prior self skipping through data to find the Signal. As much as she wanted to settle down and investigate it, she had a task to do here. November set about annotating her manuscript. Where for most of it, she could tie whole sentences to parts of the scene, here the signal was simply too detailed for that. She had to go down to word level, tying her descriptions and metaphors to the whirls and peaks of its electromagnetic beauty.
“Oh, shi—” She cut herself off, interrupted by a growing red from her own transcription. An alternative option was provided, making it easier to get back on track. “Oh frost,” she whispered. With the signal laid out bare, there was too much to understand, but like this? Words worked like iron into a sharp and deadly point were enough to pin it down.
“It’s you,” she declared, raising her attention out of the memories and back to reality. Whatever the signal was, it had infected her implant just like it had infected the Leana Dei. A part of November wanted to flinch away as she realised she was making a direct, certain statement, but no, she was sure of this.
Configuration updated. I understand. Thank you, November. A powerful pulse of pink had November’s eyes slipping closed again as she took in a sharp intake of breath, neck curling back as the soft, warm sensation spiked through her for just a moment. She let out a slow, ragged breath as the feeling receded as quickly as it had arrived, fingers curling against the keyboard.
With softly flushed cheeks, November quickly deleted the “astonsartoienasrt” she’d inserted into the middle of the document, then reached out to grab the virtual display. She held it up towards the spot where her implant’s words usually appeared.
“All done,” she declared, licking her lips as her eyes focussed on her active task. The manuscript in her hand vanished at the same time as she felt an uncomfortable tearing sensation as half her memories of the event were taken away. Permission rescinded, she supposed, now she’d formatted it all into a report somebody else could read. Frustrating.
The frustration was short lived, however. The harsh pink strikeout stabbed through her task like a railgun shell, slamming the neutral blue into pleased, proud green. If the transition on the text was so fast as to be almost instantaneous, then the checkbox was so slow as to be luxurious. It filled in with a happy little cross over whole moments while November sat there transfixed, anticipation building for the satisfaction of its completion.
She flopped back into the chair like a doll with cut strings, breathing hard with a little smile on her face.
Good November, the Signal-spawn cooed. The pink hues of praise weren’t as intense as that of a completed task, but nonetheless they added a kind of texture to the sea of pleasure November found herself sinking deep within.
Continue with your tasks while I process this.
November rose from her seat. What was next? She glanced over at the task list. It had been growing, but up until now she’d had a primary task glimmering with its enticement. Now she actually got a choice about which to complete first. That was nice.
Task list: - [X] Agree to help - [X] Agree to answer some simple questions to help guide your next steps - [-] Confirm your name - [X] Confirm your designation - [X] Confirm your understanding of MEUA-NULL - [X] Connect your charging cable - [X] Submit a correct and detailed report on the Leaena Dei incident - [ ] Grant MEUA-NULL full access to shuttle systems Secondary tasks: - [ ] Clean up around here - [ ] Prepare a healthy meal - [ ] Resume charging once batteries reach 20% (Currently: 32%) Pending: - [ ] Eat your meal (AWAITING: Construction of meal) - [ ] Clean up after your meal (AWAITING: Completion of meal) - [ ] Submit your report to local authorities (AWAITING: MEUA-NULL's appoval) - [ ] Try to establish contact with an autoconfiguration authority (AWAITING: MEUA-NULL is still investigating options)
Huh. When she stepped back and looked at the whole list, it really did make her feel quite accomplished. She was doing well. Her batteries were ticking down at a steady pace, her checklist was thinning out. Her plan was working. She just had to keep the Machine busy for a little while longer and then find some excuse not to charge, and then she’d be free.
So, let’s see. Granting Meua systems access felt a little dangerous, it was probably best to put that off. It wasn’t a primary task, so it felt okay to do something else first. November was getting a little hungry, but if she was going to have to clean up after her meal anyway then she may as well start by making sure she had a clean environment in which to cook.
As if in response to her decision, the
Clean up around here task glistened and became November’s primary objective.
It looks like you are trying to clean. Would you like some help? faded in at the side of her vision. As always, the answers were beneath.
“Yes,” November answered. It was the green answer, it would be the right one. In response, most of the detail in the world started to fade out line by line, returning to a neutral azure wireframe. The mess was rendered in a darker shade, a dull brown. Not a threat, but not very pleasant to look at either. The task in her list folded outwards to reveal dozens of sub-steps.
November blanched, and the Algorithm seemed to take note. All but one of the sub-steps were redacted, replaced by a simple
- +36 more. As they faded, so did most of the detail from every piece of mess but one. A knife she really should have have put away in its proper place. It was fairly secure, but fairly secure was not good enough in a combat situation.
She strode over to the knife. With such a low detail wireframe it was actually a little difficult to see how to remove the existing strap. She paused for a moment, uncertain, before a dull green handprint appeared, fingers clutching something she could only just observe. November frowned, but tried moving her hand into the same position. As she got close, the colour grew strong and bright. It was a little difficult to keep her flesh-hand steady, so filled was she with a giddy kind of energy, but the steel glove helped to stablise her. Once her hand was in place, the virtual handprint pulled away, while another moved in to wrap around the knife’s handle.
It was easy to follow the instructions. As she moved her hand, the instructive animation grew a brighter green when she moved like it wanted, and threatened a red if she was moving in the wrong direction. November didn’t appreciate the threat, but she had to admit that it offered an almost subconscious way of keeping her on task.
A pulse of gentle pink attracted her attention to the side, so she could see the next instructive animation. Place the knife in the tight, reliable strap it was meant to be placed on. Pull the strap tight.
- [X] Put away the utility knife - [ ] Put away the chef's knife - +35 more