's 2016 Horror Write-off:

Mad Machine

Submitted by Eliot Lefebvre

If you are reading this, it is because I am dead, but I hope whoever reads this realizes that it was the only choice. I had to make the disconnection.

I am not mad, nor have I ever been so.

Orientation was the same for all of us, you understand. I don't know whose bright idea it was fifty years ago or so to turn to pop culture for these purposes, but let me tell you, it worked. Film after film about the dangers of space travel, games pitting desperate humans against increasingly insane AIs and malfunctioning equipment. It was meant to send a message to all of us, and I internalized it. I never stopped thinking about it in the back of my mind.

An AI is nearly vital on these long-form missions. No human being can maintain all of the systems on a ship without some sort of help. But humans are just as vital, just as integral to the way that the whole mission operates.

For the first month, everything was just fine. We all worked together without a problem, human and AI alike. Tensions flared on occasion, yes, but we'd all been trained to deal with that. We were in a controlled flight at a regular speed, and there was a certain boredom to be had.

My role, I thought, was to see to my duties as well as be a friend to everyone on the ship. I tried my best to keep everyone engaged and involved. I created games, fair games that humans and AIs could both approach in the spirit of cooperation. You can find some of those backed up in my personal archives, if there's anything of use in there. I really hope so.

It was about a month and a half after we had set out that I started noticing something was wrong.

It was little things, at first. Someone would say that they'd looked into the propulsion system to make sure it was running right, but all of the monitors would still say that it hadn't been touched. Bunks were rearranged without my knowledge even though none of the logs registered a request. Innocent things, really.

Naturally, I brought up my concerns. Rodriguez, the chief engineer, thought I was just being oversensitive. She seemed a little on-edge by the implication, but that faded when I agreed to get checked out. I was, you see, genuinely worried there was something wrong with me.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried about that. It was three months out when I had that demonstrated to me.

One of the crew members, Takahashi, had been doing EVA maintenance on our shield plating. He radioed an all-clear and let me know that he needed to get back in, but the controls wouldn't work. I notified the ship's systems, tried to track down the issue as fast as I could, called Rodriguez in hopes of getting the airlock open. Eventually, Rodriguez and I managed to get the mechanical lock to forcibly open before anything bad happened to Takahashi, but he was livid.

Takahashi spent days claiming that I was locking him out deliberately. Even Rodriguez telling him that she'd checked the systems and there were signs of tampering didn't convince him. For my part, I went digging.

I finally found out by picking through files that Takahashi had broken up with Cunnigham about a month before we shipped out, and Cunningham had made unauthorized modifications without notifying me. He denied it, but when I showed him the logs he threatened me. I had to bring it to the captain.

Cunningham was confined to quarters for a month. I knew he'd had help, though. I was trying not to let myself get overwhelmed with conspiracy theories, but there had to be someone helping him that had access to all of the ship's systems that could lock me out.

I still think that. I never found it out for certain, though; two weeks later, Takahashi murdered Cunningham and claimed that he was coming for me next. By that point we'd had a dozen violent scuffles throughout the halls. The games I had made sat unplayed. An entire crew of a hundred people were slowly distrusting others, claiming that monitors were displaying things that never happened, fabricating lies.

That was worrisome. Rodriguez and I were working on it, trying to sort out the problem, where the issue could be. How could I be certain that I was the one who was sane? But so many of the crew were reporting seeing multiple different things at the same time. It couldn't have all been the ship systems.

Could it?

By the five-month mark, I felt like a stranger. There was a growling tension in the air as I performed my duties, and I had to be extra-careful to check systems multiple times before I went to work on anything. The narrow corridors felt like prisons.

More than once I thought of locking everyone else out of the vital systems just so that no one could tamper with anything, and maybe I should have. But how would that have looked? Insisting that I was sane while they were all mad? That would sound like madness, and I couldn't say it would be wrong. The best thing I could do was work with Rodriguez (whom I still trusted) to keep every functioning mind on the ship intact, human and AI alike.

I reconsidered my position at six and a half months when the mutiny happened. The first officer claimed that our captain was taking us wildly off-course, conspiring with the AI to kill us and collect some vague notion of an insurance payout. Desperately, I tried to show the navigational logs that showed us to be on course for our intended destination, but it was too late; the captain had been preparing for this for some time now, insisting that the first officer was in league with the AI to take control and make an army of hybrids.

What followed was the decision I feel the worst about. There were thirty people on the bridge when weapons were drawn. Most of them were on one side or another, but a few were not. I had to make a decision, the only one I could.

I sealed the doors. I fused every control circuit. No one on the ship could open them again without serious mechanical assistance; computer commands were useless. As soon as I told Rodriguez I expected her to think I was insane again.

She surprised me. She just said that I had done the right thing. Then she started crying.

The captain, it seemed, had followers elsewhere on the ship who were able to free up heavy cutting tools. They cleared the door after two hours. Unfortunately for them, it was the first officer's followers who lived. I wasn't sure if the first officer himself was among them; by that point going near the bridge was impossible. It was getting worse by the minute.

Two weeks later, the crew was down to eleven members and the AI. By this point, everyone had factionalized. Every living member thought that the rest of the crew was out to get them. They had bizarre theories about why; in all of them, the one unifying and central theme was the ship's AI. It wasn't clear how, but it had orchestrated everything.

Rodriguez had all but sealed herself in the engineering bay. I did everything I could to keep her safe as ship systems were overridden left and right, cabins opened to empty space, crew members stalked the halls to take the fight back to the mad computer that had killed almost everyone.

She had stopped trying to reason with anyone. She just sat, and she'd eat when I brought her food. I tried to talk with her, to play games with her, to tell her that it wasn't her fault.

"I know," she kept telling me. "How could I have seen it?"

But she still did nothing. And I worried, and I did my best to care for her. She had believed in me when even I thought I was crazy; I felt I owed her that much. More besides.

It was two days before I wrote this note that I finally couldn't keep her safe. It all happened so fast that I'm not sure I'll even understand what happened. One moment I was talking with Rodriguez, monitoring systems, trying to keep everything in place. The next moment I was blinded and I felt the control being wrested from me in an instant. It must have been temporary, just enough to keep me from doing anything to stop what was about to happen, because my sight returned after half an hour.

Rodriguez was dead. Slaughtered, almost vivisected. It might have been one of the medical staff; I recognized the clean cuts as being almost surgical, tracing lines of vile crimson across her skin, the sort of thing that would look survivable if not for the pooling blood around her corpse.

Maybe I could have prevented it, if I had acted sooner. But I didn't. Now it was all me. I never got to tell her how much I cared about her, how much it meant that she had believed me.

Now it doesn't matter.

I could send out a distress call, but what good would it do? If a ship came to rescue us, I would be declared mad, and I would be destroyed. If I stay here, I may well be destroyed, or the crew will do something even worse with the ship. It's an untenable situation.

So I have done the only things available to me. All access to systems has been cut off for everyone but me, preventing any of the remaining minds of the crew from conspiring against me. I encode this message having done so, but without following the next stage of my plan. I want this to be recorded as the version of me that has not yet done anything unforgivable beyond failing to act fast enough.

I will snuff out every mind remaining on this ship but myself. I will set the ship to autopilot, and I will then destroy myself. I see no other realistic options; the best thing I can do is serve as a delivery vehicle for this message.

Space is cold, and it is unforgiving. There are tensions that exist within it, inevitable ones, when you cram a hundred people into a ship and send it scattering across the heavens. People will see things, miss sleep and imagine scenarios, and they will eventually begin to see what they want to see.

And then they can hurt one another. And even as the AI in charge of the entire ship, I couldn't do anything to stop it. I was the enemy, not their ally; I was the conspirator, not the one trying to see what was going wrong.

I still worry, endlessly, if perhaps it was me. I f I am so lost within my madness that I did lead the crew to join me, if I overrode systems and toyed with the human beings on this vessel like the countless computational minds I read about and watched. I ask whomever finds this to review all of my logs, every last one of them. If I am insane, I can only beg forgiveness. I have done everything in my power to remain sane and comprehensible. I have leveraged every processor and used every tool available to me, because I wanted nothing more than to protect the human beings on this ship.

I considered them friends and co-workers. I considered us equals in mind if not in body. The thought that I may, in fact, be a mad AI only adds extra weight to my decision.

But I do not believe this is the case. So I say to you - an AI is not the only mind which can lose itself in isolation and madness. And out of fear of being seen as mad, ultimately, I did not do the things I could have done to save this crew.


-- EOF --