Shipmind Chapter 8

At the sound of their name, Woozy exploded out of bed in flying mess of fur and syllables.

“What? What happened? I’m awake! What broke?”

I found myself just staring for a moment. Sure, I’d probably startled them, but Woozy really did put two hundred percent into everything, even waking up. Under other circumstances, it might have been endearing.

“Settle down, Woozy, nothing’s on fire. Yet.”

They already had one toolbelt over their head by the time I even got that out.

“Oh. Okay.” All of a sudden, the high-energy ferret switched into problem solving mode. “So what hasn’t broken yet but is about to? We can probably head it off, whatever it is, as long as we can keep the main reactor stable. The problem’s not the reactor, isn’t it? Let me pull up the stats on the terminal here.”

“Woozy. Woozy, settle down, the reactor’s fine. I just need to talk to you about something. It’s important.”

They nodded, but continued gearing up anyway. Like every engineer I’d ever served with, they liked to be prepared. Some things apparently transcended species boundaries.

“Specifically, this interface,” I continued. “Would you care to explain why my brain is plugged into the half-dismantled corpse of a dead AI, and why no one saw fit to tell me this?”

Woozy abruptly dropped their second toolbelt and hung their head. “Well, crap. I was hoping you wouldn’t figure that out yet.”

“Little piece of advice, Woozy. In future, when a superior officer catches you in a lie, even if it’s just a lie of omission, have a better answer than that.”

“Y… yes, Captain. So, um. Yeah. The interface is what’s left of Ransom’s hardware.”

“And?” I prompted.

“And… look, Carter. Captain. Whichever. You don’t get it. I mean, how could you, you were so out of it that you didn’t even know your own name. You didn’t really understand how completely and totally screwed we were. The ship isn’t designed for this few people and no shipmind. It could handle losing the crew, or the shipmind, but not both, not and have anything still work. There are less than two dozen of us left. The captain and chief engineer are both dead.”

That surprised me. “You’re not the chief engineer? I remember you saying you were the best engineer on the ship.”

“No. I mean, I am! The best, that is. But I couldn’t do that and run the department too, you know? Except I guess I kind of am now because everyone senior to me was… yeah. Um. My actual title is second machinist’s mate. But everyone knew I could fix anything, even something that was blown and gone.”

“Except Ransom,” I prompted. That didn’t quite have the effect I anticipated. Woozy looked like I’d physically struck them.

They were quiet for a long moment after that. “Except Ransom,” they finally conceded. “I tried. I tried everything. But an AI isn’t like a normal computer. You can’t just turn them off and on again. They’re living things, and off means dead. Ransom… they’re dead. Really dead.” There were tears in the ferret’s eyes now. It was oddly human, like so many of the querral’s other mannerisms. This conversation wasn’t going at all like I had imagined.

But I’d seen that pain before. I knew what it looked like. Specific examples were mostly escaping me, but I had the strong feeling that I’d seen it more times than I would like. I’d felt it myself not so long ago.

“Woozy,” I started, not entirely sure what to say. No, that wasn’t true, I knew exactly what to say. I just knew it couldn’t be enough. “I’m so sorry for your loss. You were pretty close, weren’t you? You and Ransom?”

The ferret nodded silently, fighting back tears. Something nagged at the back of my mind, a thought that needed to be given voice, but wouldn’t quite form together.

“Because a shipmind isn’t just some piece of equipment for you to maintain. They’re a living person, and you’re almost like their doctor.” No, that wasn’t it. Different track. “Almost. But more than that, they’re someone you could be close to. Someone who becomes a dear friend.”

Woozy nodded again, but said nothing. That’s when it hit me. “You were more than just friends, weren’t you? You and Ransom.”

Woozy lifted their head and stared at the chunk of hardware grafted onto my life support system. “We were going to leave the Navy. Ransom was going to get a new body, and we were going to go to Iomi together. It was so perfect. We both love to build, and they always need new habitats there, we were… but not any more. If we make it back, I don’t even know what I’m going to do any more. I thought maybe… I don’t know what I thought.”

Woozy sniffed, then straightened up. “We needed a new shipmind, or we’d die. We had the MMI and someone who’d die without it. Seemed perfect. But it didn’t work, it was too much. And… and there’s only one thing on board that’s really designed to filter that much raw data.” They stepped forward and put a hand on something off to the left of my camera, I assumed on the metal tube that held my physical brain. Or maybe where it connected to the interface. To what had once been Ransom.

“It felt like cutting my own heart out, going in there. Disconnecting each of those little fibers. Cutting out the core. But I couldn’t let anyone else do it. Not even Sam, even though it was their idea.

“And part of me thought, maybe… maybe you’d bring some part of Ransom back, just by being there. But of course you couldn’t. No one could.”

I let the silence that followed hang for a moment. What could I really say to that? The same thing I had since the moment I woke up in this thing, I supposed: focus on what needed to be done to survive.

“It’s the most natural thing in the galaxy to want to hang on to something of someone you loved,” I said. “But there will be time to mourn the dead later. There are sixteen other people on this ship, and we have a duty to get them home. That’s what Ransom would have wanted, isn’t it?”

Woozy sniffed again and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, they always said, our first duty is to our crew. I’m with you, Captain. Where do you need me?”

So now I needed to find something useful for the ferret to do, to keep their mind busy. Luckily, I had a nice, long list of pressingly urgent tasks for us to get to.

Tags: shipmind, writing