Captain’s Log, Intergalactic Date 676952.94
The first wave of shore leave went reasonably well – a note of commendation for Ensign Gel O’Tin for handling any problems over the shift. Commander Smythe and I got a full night’s sleep for once. Good thing, too, because today, we meet with the team that programmed the janbots. My hope is that we can cover the issues that led to the infection of our own Janbot and the Impulsive, but it seems the company, CleanSpace Inc., is more concerned with covering their butts.
Gel was heading to his quarters to get a little sleep before going to show off his rank to the station’s day shift when he saw Captain Tiberius leading a group of people to the main briefing room. The Visan beside him was half apologizing and half making disparaging remarks about “her programmers,” which Gel guessed were the three somewhat despondent men behind him.
Poor saps, Gel thought, thankful that he had such a great boss. The L.T. might stun someone who screwed up, but he’d never throw them under the warp core.
Then he recognized one of the poor saps from last night.
“Oh, Keptar!” he swore quietly. There was a vent behind him. He oozed into it and through the system. He had to get to Ellie and warn her!
* * *
Soberup pills were apparently no match for three Digitizers. Ellie slept through two snooze alarms, and woke up with enough time to jump into a shower – sonic, rather than water – and throw on a uniform and some quick makeup. She knew she looked rough around the edges, but she got to the briefing room five minutes early – enough time to get an extra-large, double-shot Hoodspresso, a concoction Enigo guaranteed kept you alert for hours, but which came, like most things from the Hood, with a Union Surgeon General’s warning.
Commander Smythe raised an eyebrow at her selection as she took her seat. “I take it you had an enjoyable time last night?”
“The best!” She sighed happily. As soon as this meeting was over, she was going to find Gel and make him keep his promise.
As if her thoughts summoned him, Gel glooped out of the air vent.
“Ensign?” Smythe asked when the Globbal had taken a more addressable form.
“Begging your pardon, Commander. I have an urgent message for Lieutenant Doall.” He slid over to her. “Ellie, he’s here. He’s coming this way.”
Instinctively, she knew there was only one person that would have driven Gel to such urgency. She choked on her drink. “Hot Toddy? But how? Why?”
“Yes, Hot Toddy. He’s part of the briefing team.”
She gasped. “Omigosh! That must have been the project he was so upset about. He programmed the janbots. What do I do? What do I say?”
“Perhaps you could begin by not addressing him as ‘Hot Toddy’ in front of the Captain,” Smythe recommended drily.
The two turned to him, like two children caught by the teacher. “Yes, sir.”
Those around the table smirked, but the Impulsive’s First Officer stilled them with a look. He pointed to the vent, and Gel made his exit. Then, Smythe leaned toward Ellie and spoke more quietly. “You are the Operations Officer of the Impulsive, and a lieutenant. I’m confident you’ll behave accordingly.”
“Yes, sir.” It was a genuine expression of confidence. Ellie smiled, touched. She took a deep breath and straightened her posture. Thus, she was prepared when the doors opened and the captain and the programmers entered.
They, however, were not so lucky. Todd and both his friends froze at the sight of her. “Awllie?”
Captain Tiberius gave them a quizzical look. “This is Lieutenant Ellie Doall, whose mind was invaded by Janbot 123.”
Their supervisor’s eyes narrowed. Then, she spun on her heels to face the trio. “Apologize!”
Several awkward apologies and even more awkward reassurances later, introductions were made, and Ellie finally learned Todd’s last name: Ahndmor. And just so the reader knows all the players, let’s introduce the rest, shall we?
On the Impulsive side: Capt. Tiberius, Commander Smythe, Ensign Sisco and Minion First Class Schmidt from cybersecurity, Dr. Sorcha via a screen, and of course, Ellie as the victim, but who was really imagining her name hyphenated with Ahndmor.
On the CleanSpace, Inc., side: Keh Renn from Legal; Todd Ahndmor, the team lead and primary programmer, and his team members, Gregor Dearborne (the blonde Leslie noticed), and their somewhat rounder, but sweet-faced friend, Bob Rollz.
Once Kah Renn was satisfied that no one intended to file complaints, she directed to Todd give his briefing. Todd, who was alternating between hoping Ellie would give him another chance, feeling completely certain he’d blown it forever with her, and wondering what “Oh, Keptar!” really meant, blinked in surprise. If this weren’t a paperless society, he could have taken a moment to shuffle notes, but instead, he was stuck with the verbal equivalent, and fumbled his commands to call up the briefing.
Captain Tiberius opened his mouth to reassure the discomfited programmer once more, but his first officer elbowed him and gave a subtle glance toward their composed but blushing Ops officer.
Todd pulled up a 3-dimensional “page” of code that has sections in bold with comment bubbles. While Sisco and Schmidt leaned in with interest, he said, “We believe we’ve isolated the vulnerability. It’s in the personality subroutines…”
“Janbots have personality?” Jeb asked.
“My Janbot certainly did,” Ellie said. Her tone was more wistful than accusatory.
“It’s very rudimentary,” Todd said. “More of a learned behavior than pre-programmed interactive framework like you’d find in a sophisticated program like Dr. Sorcha here. Ellie – er, Lieutenant – I’m going to guess you spoke kindly to it? Maybe even thanked or complimented it.”
She shrugged, expecting snickers. “All of the above. They’re so cute, and I really do appreciate not having to clean my own room, and…”
“And it was kind back?” Todd asked, but his eyes were saying, “You are so adorable.”
She smiled. “He did extra things for me, and mints, at first.”
“At first?” Sisco asked, with a frown that said he’d never gotten mints.
“Then, he started to give me flowers. Just dandelions, but it was so endearing. At first, I thought it had them in its hands after working in the gardens, but then, it became a tradition.”
Todd pulled up a different graphic; this one of a timeline from nearly a year ago. He pointed to a stardate. “And here is where Janbot 123 traded weeding chores with Janbot 87 and fit it into its schedule just before moving on to crew quarters and the lieutenant’s room. It responded to Ellie’s natural sweetness and altered its behavior to respond in kind.”
Ellie’s natural sweetness? Jeb raised a brow. “I hope you’re not implying that stalking was the unexpected next step in its learning, sir.”
Todd’s eyes grew wide. “No, no! Of course not. But it did pose a vulnerability – an entry point for the cybervirus. What little code we’ve been able to recover from the remains of the janbots –“
“Yeah, Security did get a little enthusiastic.”
“Understandable, completely. But we found that all of them were experiencing rapid growth in learned response centers, only it wasn’t about learned responses. They were developing independent thought.”
Jeb’s expression hardened. “Are you saying they were trying to slowly Cyber my ship from the inside out?”
“Oh, hell, no,” the Impulsive AI called out.
“That’s one possibility,” Bob cut in. “but it would have failed. Janbots are designed to operate independently according to what they learn. None were developing in the same way. We’re betting if we check the Janbot’s areas where they were getting the most positive feedback, we’ll find evidence of them acting way beyond their original program’s capacity, as each strove to provide even better service.”
“And how was mind-napping my operations officer providing better service?”
The three men glanced at each other, unsure.
But Ellie knew. “It wanted to take care of me. I was upset because I didn’t understand the cybercode, but it did, since that code was within its processors.”
“It did more than educate you, Lieutenant,” the captain reminded her.
“Right,” Todd said. “We don’t really understand why it went stalker.”
Dr. Sorcha spoke from her viewscreen. ‘I’d venture the theory that once inside Doall’s mind, it picked up her emotional state, and finding her romantically frustrated, sought to remedy the situation, offering itself as a suitable partner.”
While Ellie gaped at the doctor, everyone else chose the better part of valor and looked anywhere but the two of them. Fortunately, the Impulsive’s AI chimed in.
“Sorry to interrupt y’all, but the compusec crew is here to give all systems a good purging and once over, and I’d really like to get it started before I or anyone else breaks into song again. Also, Captain, the captain of the Scenic Route is at the airlock.”
Jeb smiled. The HMB Scenic Route had gotten lost on a mission four years ago, presumed destroyed with all hands, and had only recently reappeared. The Impulsive, caught in its own musical crisis, had missed the fanfare of its return. However, its long absence and only recent arrival meant it alone had not been affected by the cybervirus. HuFleet and the Union were using its systems as the template for searching out signs of infection in the fleet.
Jeb said, “Well, there’s someone who deserves a drink if anyone does. Commander, can you take the cybersecurity team with Ensign Sisco? Lieutenant Doall and Minion Schmidt, let’s get these fine people to the janbot stations.”
“Uh, sir?” Todd cut in. “If you don’t mind, I have a couple of, uh, follow-up questions for Lieutenant Doall. If that’s okay…”
“It’s all right by me, sir,” Ellie answered, trying and failing to sound casual. “The others can go ahead and I’ll escort Todd when we’re done.”
The doctor signed off, the others left, and then there was just Todd and Ellie, both smiling nervously, and half hoping the other knew how their hearts were hammering in their chests.
Todd broke the silence. “You said your name was Awlllie.”
She giggled. “I said, ‘Ellie.’ The music was so loud, you misheard, and I loved how you rounded your As.”
He smiled, charmed, then his face fell into remorse. “I’m so, so sorry for what I did to you.”
“Last night? But..”
At her stricken look, he sat down and grasped her hands in his. “No, no! Last night was wonderful. I meant it when you saved me. I haven’t stopped thinking about you, wondering if I’d ever see you again. And now, to find out my program did this to you. You know, in AI work, even rudimentary, a lot of the programmer’s attitudes can cross into the program. I can’t imagine what you think of me now.”
Ellie loosed one hand to touch his face. “But Todd, Janbot was considerate and conscientious and sweet, just like you. It’s not your fault that the cybervirus exploited that and turned him into some crazy stalker.”
“So I’m forgiven – me, not just CleanSpace?”
“There’s nothing to forgive. You’re wonderful.”
They gazed into each other’s eyes, filled with the certainty that they would never be romantically dissatisfied again.