Space Rat Black

I peered through the coffin window at the dead alien. “Are we at war with them?”

Yuko shrugged. “I’ll have to check the database.” Nothing the universe threw at Yuko – from exposed biological hazards to escaped flesh eating cargo – fazed her.

The Ithpek vessel had no crew and no declared cargo other than the blue-scaled humanoid stored in the hold. The inspection station’s scanners had verified the ship as clean. No trace of biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons or toxic nanobots.

“We were at war with the Ithpeks for about six years,” Yuko said. “The conflict ended forty-four years ago.”

“Who won?” I asked. Endless political tangles meant whole species were sometimes annihilated before outlying worlds even learned there was a war going on.

“Their colonies surrendered after we nuked their home world.”

“Go us.” The dead alien’s final destination was listed as Tokyo’s Museum of Defense. It must be a trophy.

I double-checked the ship’s flight logs. The ship had left an Ithpek colony world forty-three years ago, just after the war ended, but something just didn’t feel right. “I’m going to run a more detailed background check.”

Requesting information from the station’s byzantine computer system was a painful process. If I’d been on duty with anyone but Yuko, I would’ve had to justify the delay.

I joined Yuko by the ship’s viewport and we waited for the computer’s report. The viewport showed a dozen ships waiting to dock at the station. A deep space cruiser bypassed the line and proceeded to a private hangar.

Yuko zoomed the view in on the cruiser. A Kurohoshi Nisshoku, the fastest human ship ever built. “Captain Wonder got himself a new toy,” she said, using her nickname for Hashimoto, the station’s chief administrator.

The closest I would ever come to owning a spaceship was playing a space sim. At least there were some advantages to working at Earth’s most important space station. Any cargo bound for Earth had to clear our inspection teams, which meant every day I got to board a dozen different alien spaceships.

The station computer confirmed the accuracy of the ship’s logs. The Ithpek vessel had left the colony after the war ended. The delivery code for the Museum of Defense was authentic.

I looked over the ship’s stopping points. The logs said the vessel had taken four years to travel from the Ithpek colony world to the first world in human space. That didn’t sound right. I checked my calculations three times. A vessel of this class couldn’t have made the trip in less than six years. What if the vessel had left earlier than claimed, when the Ithpek were still at war with humanity?

Repeated scans by the station’s scanners showed the spaceship as free of dangerous substances, but interstellar shipping law dictated a hazard team inspection if an inspector called an alert. Before Hashimoto took over the station and made cutbacks, hazard teams always arrived within ten minutes of an alert being issued. It took more than thirty minutes before the hazard team arrived. They scanned the bridge, engines and cargo hold with their handheld scanners, then transferred the data to the station.

I waited anxiously as the minutes ticked by.

The station’s computer system consisted of a dozen outdated operating systems patched together by dead species technology. Kurohoshi had won the salvage right to plunder abandoned Werleth orbitals after the Werleth were exterminated by a coalition of more than seventy different species. No one alive spoke Werleth, but the translation modules were supposed to ensure a problem-free system. Using an extinct species’ technology was deemed to be cheaper than building something yourself and supposedly made the system more difficult to hack into. It also made it more difficult to upgrade.

Team Leader Nakagawa’s scanner beeped. “All clear.” Nakagawa glared at me. “When you are dealing with relativistic travel and who knows how many interstellar time zones and ways of measuring time, you can’t rely on dates being that accurate.” She led the hazard team off the vessel.

My messagevault was bombarded with messages giving me guidance on how to love Kuroshoshi better. Didn’t I know that every delay cost the company dearly? Regulations forbade the punishment of an inspection worker that had due reason to call a hazard alert, but the company would find ways to make me suffer.

I retreated to the sanctuary of the station’s tea room. Yuko and I floated in zero gravity, canisters of green tea in hand. The first great tea master, Sen no Riky?, had stressed the importance of simplicity and criticized the love of ornamentation. Later tea masters argued gravity was another affectation hindering the contemplation of the purity of tea.

Yuko squeezed my hand. “Things will get better, Sora.”

“I’m okay.” We floated in silence, savoring the tea. All day long I smelled nothing but sterilized and recycled air. The tea’s aroma helped remind me that I was still alive.

I had never drunk much tea until I met Toru. Now every time I drank green tea, it brought back the taste of Toru’s lips after a tea ceremony. Yuko’s brother had been a kind, gentle man that filled my days with happiness. After he died in a refueling accident it felt as though my life broke into little pieces. Yuko’s support was the only thing that kept me sane.

I said good night to Yuko and retired to my capsule in one of the station’s sleeping caverns. The capsule bore a splash of gray paint indicating my status as a space rat. Minatonezumi iro – harbor rat gray – had once been scorned as the color of ash, but after Sen no Riky?’s call for simplicity, the rich began to covet the austerity of gray clothes. Space rat gray uniforms were supposed to be a source of pride, but I wanted the black of a spaceship captain.

The company had painted the slogan, “I work hard. I have a simple life. I am happy,” on the capsule’s door. It’s good to celebrate simplicity, but encouraging a life without desire is useful if you want to pay minimum wage.

I peeled off my uniform and crawled into the capsule. A photo of Toru’s smiling face looked down from the capsule’s ceiling. The company had used the cheapest possible fuel for their ships and it had led to Toru’s death. My efforts to prove Kurohoshi’s negligence had gone nowhere.

My messagevault filled with daily evaluations from my co-workers. The word stubborn was mentioned so often in my evaluations that I’d written a script that replaced stubborn with a smiley face. Tonight my reports looked very happy.

I was tired, but followed the company guidelines of reviewing my mistakes. My own calculations shouldn’t take precedence over the station’s computer. But what if the computer was wrong? Its scanning capabilities had been thoroughly tested, but no system was foolproof.

I opened a data window and accessed the species encyclopedia. The Werleth had been deemed too aggressive by their galactic neighbors. After they had been exterminated, Kurohoshi inherited their computer technology. I scanned the list of other acquisitions. My heart skipped a beat. An Ithpek colony had won the right to the knowledge accumulated by the Werleth Academy of Advanced Mathematics. If the Ithpek had the mathematics to unlock the Werleth encryption the ship could have altered the results of the scan.

I called up the station docking schedule. The Ithpek vessel had been detained for twelve hours because of my alert, but was due to be released in forty-five minutes. It would be free to proceed to Earth.

Repeated warnings about the same ship would be viewed as insubordination. By the time I explained to Nakagawa it would be too late. Besides, I still didn’t have proof.

I shrugged on my uniform and crawled out of the capsule. If I caused any more delays and I was wrong, the company would charge me for the lost time. I would never be out of debt.

My access privileges hadn’t been revoked and I boarded the Ithpek vessel. My after hours entry would hurl a storm of notifications at my superiors. I had to find proof before someone came and removed me from the ship.

Inspection teams carried handheld scanners that sent data to the station computer, which was kept up to date with the signatures of the endless varieties of possible hazards. Backup scanners with offline analysis functionality were rarely used as they required manually updating, but I needed something that didn’t rely on the station computer for its results.

I activated the scanner and waited for it to do its work. A camera feed provided me with a view of the corridor leading to the hangar. The corridor was still empty. “Hurry up! Hurry up!” I urged the scanner.

It buzzed. Red light.

The coffin contained a host of toxic nanobots. If the microscopic robots were unleashed on Earth, their poison could kill millions.

I didn’t hesitate. I issued a station-wide emergency hazard alert, which would lock down all ships. The company would be furious, but it was cheaper than the costs they faced if the nanobots escaped on Earth.

Nothing happened.

I tried again.

Nothing. The ship computer must have blocked my command.

There wasn’t time to panic. I had to think clearly.

The Ithpek must have got hold of authentic delivery codes and sent the ship as a last desperate measure near the end of the war. The ship had used a mathematical trick to break the Werleth encryption and taken control of the station’s computer.

I had to get control of the ship’s computer. I loaded a schematic of the Ithpek vessel from my personal database. There was no easy way to get at the hardware configuration panels to do a factory reset.

The Ithpek vessel only had a Limited Intelligence rather than a true AI, but the vessel must have been programmed to respond to anything it deemed to be a threat to its mission. A real AI would have spaced me by now. For once a cost cutting measure had worked in my favor.

If I didn’t act quickly, the ship was going to release its deadly cargo on Earth. Think, Sora, think. What would Yuko do?

The ship had stopped me calling in an emergency alert, but it was programmed to obey standard station requests such as transfers to another docking bay. Ships often handed over control of their piloting systems so busy stations could move them to another dock.

I frantically wrote a docking bay transfer message. A standard transfer message requested the ship’s access code so the station could control the ship’s piloting system, but the station itself would never see the unencrypted access code. I modified the request so it captured the plaintext form of the ship’s access code. It was like sending a phishing message to someone’s messagevault.

Three minutes until the ship left the station.

My mouth was dry with fear. What I wouldn’t give for a cup of Yuko’s tea. I just had to hope I hadn’t made any mistakes. I sent the request.

A true AI would be able to tell there was no need to move the ship to a different dock, but perhaps a Limited Intelligence wouldn’t undertake such detective work.

The ship acknowledged the station’s request and entered its access code.

I punched the code into the ship’s computer. I was in control!

The ship’s protected transaction logs revealed it had decrypted the Werleth encryption and retrieved the inspection station access codes. It had faked the results of the scans. I commanded the Ithpek vessel to delay its departure. I had potentially saved thousands of lives, but I wasn’t ready to call in the hazard team yet.

I controlled the ship and the ship controlled the station.

I navigated my way through the station computer’s archaic menu system until I found Kurohoshi’s classified reports. I created a search agent and instructed it find any information related to Toru’s death. I was going to learn the truth.

The agent returned with its results a few minutes later. I took a deep breath, then opened a classified report.

The report’s authors argued that using the cheapest available shuttle fuel would lead to a higher rate of incidents. However the cost would be outweighed by overall savings and by judicious employment of accident insurance. The report had been approved by Hashimoto, the station administrator.

I wanted to scream. Sweet, gentle, Toru was gone because Hashimoto wanted to save money.

There were so many ways I could take revenge. I could order the station to crash. I could redirect a spaceship to fly through the managers’ section of the station. I could unlock the station’s armory and exact bloody retribution.

But I didn’t really want to hurt anyone. And Toru wouldn’t have wanted me to throw my own life away on such futile gestures.

Leaking the report probably wouldn’t do much good. At best, Hashimoto would be tied up in lengthy court proceedings that the company would spend its way out of. Nothing would bring Toru back, but I had a better idea for getting even.

I left the Ithpek ship and returned to my sleeping capsule. It was standard procedure for the station computer to do one final scan before a ship left docks. This time the scan generated a threat alert.

The station was locked down. Nakagawa and the hazard team disabled and removed the nanobots. No one said anything to me about my earlier alert. That would have meant acknowledging a security failure.

Eventually the forensic data specialists would be able to use the Ithpek vessel’s logs to reconstruct what had happened, but I planned to be long gone by then. I waited until the emergency was over, then used the station’s codes to grant Yuko and me access to the section of the station reserved for senior management.

I paused in front of the hangar door. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Yuko smiled. “Of course.”

I opened the door, revealing Hashimoto’s Nisshouku. Someone so mean didn’t deserve such a beautiful spaceship.

I reprogrammed the Nisshouku’s access codes, then Yuko and I boarded our new home. I shed my gray dock worker uniform and slipped on the black uniform of a starship captain.

The engines hummed to life and the ship slid into the blackness of space.

I projected a photo of Toru onto one of the ship’s viewscreens.

Life was getting better. Yuko was brewing a fresh pot of tea. We had our own spaceship. The stars were getting closer.

Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. His short stories have been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Fantasy. Aidan lived in Japan for 4 years and worked as an English teacher.

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