• Chase Walker

Keystrokes

A blaring alarm and a flashing red light yanked Styles from his slumber. He rolled out of his bunk and ran barefoot into the corridor. Something slammed against the hull, throwing Styles to his knees. The walls shook so hard, he expected bolts and rivets to ricochet all around him.


“Hull integrity at 80%,” PAPI blared over the intercom in his synthesized voice. “Closing off and depressurizing affected areas now.”


Styles scrambled to his feet and sprinted for the bridge. The sliding doors barely opened fast enough to spare him from busting through them. Inside, the wall of monitors danced and jiggled in the turbulence. Each one showed a dozen stones lit by the exterior lights, floating through a sea of stars. Asteroids. One smashed into a navigation camera causing the picture on its corresponding monitor to blink out of existence.


The hull shuttered and shimmied again. Styles gripped the railing beside one of the workstations.


“Hull integrity at 70%,” PAPI’s synthetic voice boomed throughout the ship. “Shutting down redundant and non-essential systems.”


The lights went out and Styles grew lighter and lighter until his feet left the floor altogether. PAPI had killed the artificial gravity. Red light swept over the bridge from the alarm in rhythmic waves.


“Shut the computer down, kid,” Blake shouted from the doorway. “He’s gonna get us killed.”


Styles planted his feet on the railing and kicked off toward the bank of monitors. Too hard. He flew faster than he had planned to and crashed into several monitors. He grabbed one of the keyboards at the control bank and punched several keys.


“Course correction may be required for the survival of the-” PAPI’s voice cut off.


“G’night PAPI,” Styles said under his breath.


Several more keystrokes, the lights came back on and the alarm cut off. Styles put his legs under him and punched another code into the grubby keyboard.


“Put your feet down, Blake.”


When Styles heard a grunted “yep” from Blake, he punched the enter key. His weight was back on his legs and all the items that had been floating around the bridge came crashing down to the floor.


“Get us out of this asteroid field,” Styles yelled just as another space rock smacked into the hull with a thump and a rattle. “Why would you plot us through this crap?”


“I didn’t,” Blake spat. He slid in behind his navigation sticks and nimble fingers danced over switches and buttons. “PAPI plotted this course. Corporate doesn’t want us handling that anymore. We’re just to make corrections.”


Blake sharply blew out through his nostrils in a grinless chuckle.


“Computers make mistakes.” Blake pushed both sticks forward and the ship’s nose dipped.


“So do humans,” Styles said.


“True,” Blake said. “But we are right there to think our way out of them. Computers follow their programming even when it’s the wrong thing to do.”


Two more asteroid strikes blinked out two more monitors.


“You could try to avoid those,” Styles said.


“This ain’t Star Wars, kid. Nothing to do but find the shortest path out, push our way through it, and hope one of the big ones doesn’t smash us to dust.”


Several tense moments passed as asteroids of all sizes struck the ship. Then the strikes grew fewer. And then, there were none. The ship stopped shaking and Blake slouched into his chair.


“That’s how it’s done,” the pilot said.


Styles clicked and clacked on the keyboard again and pulled up images of rows and rows of stasis pods on four monitors. Damage reports streamed up from the bottom right corner of each monitor.


“Looks like one of the stasis chambers has a breach and PAPI drained it,” Styles said. “No pod damage. Vitals are good. Everyone’s sleeping safe and sound.”


Standing straight up and arching his back, Styles eyed the overall hull damage reports. Flashes of red blinked all over the map of the ship.


“Should we wake a few people to help with repairs?”


“Hell no,” Blake said. “I’d be pissed if you woke me up now. Too close to Cumulus to go back to sleep and too far to stay up. We would be spending the next six months with cranky engineers.”


Blake pulled a half-smoked cigar from a shirt pocket and lit it with his ancient oil lighter.


“Let ‘em sleep,” Blake said between puffs. “When they wake up, we’ll be docking at Cumulus and they won’t even know we had a problem. Besides, we got drones.”


“Computers make mistakes,” Styles said.


“Then check their work yourself,” Blake said, waving a stream of smoke in the air. “Just don’t wake anybody else up. We got this.”


Styles finally rubbed the sleep from his eyes and trudged toward the door. “Gonna go plug that hole in stasis 2. I’ll be outside. Don’t find anymore rocks out here.”


Blake gave a limp-wristed salute as the doors slid shut behind Styles.


***


Styles pulled his helmet off with a hiss as he walked down the corridor. Block lettering on the door ahead read STASIS CHAMBER 2. Styles poked the panel beside the door twice to bring up the status of the life support inside. Air pressures were leveling out. The patch was holding.


He pulled the lever and the doors hissed open. Styles uncoupled his gloves from his sleeves and stuffed them into the helmet. He stepped into the chamber and walked past several crewmembers sleeping in their baths of yellow goop. He inspected the glass on each pod as he went. Even the smallest crack could kill the person inside. Once he was satisfied none of the pods were broken, he turned his eyes to the ceiling.


It didn’t take him long to find the hole. Ragged metal and broken wires hung from the ceiling like stalactites in a high tech cave. The blue foam he had poured into the hole from the outside seemed to be doing the trick.


Should get us to Cumulus, Styles thought.


He cast his eyes down to find the next hole. He needed to know what else the rock had damaged. He searched for several long moments but found no hole, only a dent in the grating at his feet. The asteroid was still in the chamber.


He hunched over to check under the pods, around the control pedestals. Nothing. He dropped to his hands and knees and looked again when something caught his eye. The glimmer of something metallic gleamed at him from under a thick wiring harness.


Styles reached back as far as he could until his fingers brushed over the object. He wrapped his fingers around it and dragged it out. Standing up, he turned it over in his hand. It was a pyramid the size of his fist with a mirrorlike finish. This couldn’t have been floating around out there. It must be part of the ship, Styles thought.


“Maybe Blake would know,” he said.


***


“Hey, Blake.” Styles strode onto the bridge. “Take a look at this.”


He tossed Blake the pyramid and the pilot caught it.


“What’s this?” Blake asked.


“I was hoping you could tell me. Thought it might be part of the ship.”


“Not that I know of. Nothing I’ve seen before. Did that puncture the hull?”


“If it doesn’t belong to the ship, then I’m guessing so,” Styles said.


Blake stared at the curious object but something was off. Blake wasn’t smoking his cigar. The bridge held no trace of the acrid smoke that lingered hours after Blake was done puffing on one of those things.


“Where’s your cigar?” Styles asked.


“Done with it,” Blake said. “Threw it out.”


“Your last cigar?”


Blake stared up at Styles for a moment as if he had just learned something important.


***


“Hey, Blake.” Styles strode onto the bridge. “Take a look at this.”


He tossed Blake the pyramid and the pilot caught it.


“What’s this?” Blake asked around the thick cigar in his mouth.


“I was hoping you could tell me. Thought it might be part of the ship.”


“Not that I know of. Nothing I’ve seen before. Did that puncture the hull?”


“If it doesn’t belong to the ship, then I’m guessing so,” Styles said.


“Maybe someone on Cerberus would be able to tell us what it is.”


Cerberus? Blake knew they were headed to Cumulus. He wouldn’t shut up about it.


“Cumulus.”


“What?”


“We’re headed to Cumulus,” Styles said, studying the pilot’s face. “You said Cerberus.”


“I meant Cumulus,” Blake chuckled. “That asteroid field must have shook me up.”


***


“Hey, Blake.” Styles strode onto the bridge. “Take a look at this.”


He tossed Blake the pyramid and the pilot caught it.


“What’s this?” Blake asked around the thick cigar in his mouth.


“I was hoping you could tell me. Thought it might be part of the ship.”


“Not that I know of. Nothing I’ve seen before. Did that puncture the hull?”


This conversation had happened before. Styles shook his head, but the Deja Vu wouldn’t leave him.


“What’s going on here?” Styles asked.


“What do you mean?” Blake asked.


“I mean, we’ve had this conversation before. Maybe a bunch of times.”


Blake’s demeanor changed completely. He snuffed out his cigar, and suddenly he was a different person. Physically, he was still Blake, but everything else had changed. He moved differently. He sat up straight. His eyes blinked in a strange rhythm.


“You’re a sharp one,” not Blake said. “You have had this conversation before. I suppose we can get what we need this way as well.”


“Who are you?” Styles took a stagger step back.


“It’s not about who we are. We don’t do who. What we are, your people might call us parasites based on your knowledge of parasitic creatures from your homeworld.”


“You’re controlling Blake.”


“Of course,” not Blake said. “But the Blake you are hearing and seeing now, is not the Blake you know. Not even his body. We’re in your head, bound only by the walls of your mind.”


Styles snatched up the pyramid from the workstation and shook it at the parasite.


“It’s this,” Styles sneered. “You came for this, then take it!”


Styles wound up and pitched the pyramid into not Blake’s face. The sharp edges bit deeply into his forehead, splitting his skull before spinning away onto the bridge. Not Blake hardly flinched. He just stood there staring at Styles as blood ran down his face.


“This, you don’t understand,” not Blake said, gesturing to the workstation.


Styles followed his hand and found the pyramid where it was before he snatched it up. When his eyes jolted back to the parasite, his face appeared just as it had before Style’s had thrown the pyramid through it.


“That item is how we came to your vessel. Right now, you are hard at work,” not Blake said. “You’re tapping away at your keyboard, sending your drones to repair the ship. Blake sits in his seat, piloting the ship back to Cumulus.”


He wanted to deny it, But deep down, Styles knew. He could feel his fingers on the keys and his body in his chair. Styles slumped down to the bridge floor. He put both hands over his face and breathed in deeply, blinking tears from his eyes.


“What do you want?”


“We want to survive in this harsh environment. That’s all anybody ever wants.”


“Parasites are vile,” Styles sneered. “They infest a host being, something superior, for a free ride.”


“I understand that the word parasite carries with it a rather negative connotation, but your people have never seen the likes of us, and likely will never again. We are the perfect being.”


“Perfect how?”


“Well,” not Blake said. “Let’s use this particular situation as an example. Each unit inhabits one host being. You and Blake each have your own parasite. I am yours. We burrow into your central nervous system and link our physical form with yours where signal traffic comes and goes. I have your body, your memories, your thoughts, your passions. I will continue to integrate myself with you until the line between me and you is so blurred that we become the same being with the same body, mind, and what you might call a soul.”


Styles sniffed. “Yeah? Then what? You infect the rest of the ship?”


“We integrate the rest of the ship into the hive. We become them, they become us, and everyone becomes we. Many bodies working toward the same goal, sharing one mind.”


“Survival, being the goal.”


“Precisely.”


“When I reactivate PAPI and he senses a parasitic infestation on the ship, he’ll purge all of us.”


“You are surely welcome to try, but you are quickly becoming us. Humans are complicated creatures. This is the reason for my simulated conversation with you using Blake’s image: to learn. But I’m confident, even if I returned control of our body, we would not be able to make ourselves turn the AI back on. The compulsion to survive is too strong. This is the same reason a living thing cannot willfully drown itself in a puddle of water.”


“You wanna put money on that?”


In an instant, Styles was sitting at his keyboard, staring down at the letters and numbers on each key. “Reactivate PAPI” flashed in the middle of the screen in front of him. All four digits of his code were inputted. All he had to do was press enter. He moved his right hand to the key and his finger hovered over it.


Control was his, but the will was gone. Maybe it would be better this way. It was arrogance that made humans believe they were the most perfect creature in existence. Hive minds have no wars. The needs of the individual are met in the interest of the collective. The interest of the collective requires us to fly back to Cumulus, Styles thought.


He retracted his finger and put his hand in his lap. He glanced over to Blake and found him smiling at him from his seat.


“I told you,” Blake said.


*********


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out the rest of my short stories if you haven't already.


Also, make sure to take a look at my novel, Well of Bones. Use this link to get to the book page on Amazon.


I post short stories each Friday. Be sure to stop by next week for a fresh one.


Until then,

Chase

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