I’ve Written a Little Code – a flash science fiction story

The rebel ship Small Necessity hurtled through the hollow sea of space, engines constantly accelerating as she ran from the Imperial pursuit ship. Somewhere in the darkness, missiles were hurtling past, their guidance systems foiled by the Necessity’s shield of countermeasures – programs that jammed targeting systems, misdirected rockets, and preemptively detonated warheads.

Russ’s fingers darted across the keyboard. The pursuit ship’s e-war team had locked frequencies with receptors in the Necessity’s computing network. Their hacking codes were worming into the system, trying to bring down the shields, while he fought to repair, rebuild, and fend them off.

A few unprotected seconds were all it would take for a missile to hit.

“How are we doing?” Captain Tuer stood at his shoulder, peering at his system admin screen as if she could understand what was happening. Maybe she could – they’d been here plenty of times before.

“They’re good,” Russ said. “They got through the first firewall. But I’ve written a little code to-”

“Last time you wrote a little code it was to diagnose our systems,” Tuer said. “It brought everything to a halt.”

“That’s because it was missing an iteration limit,” Russ said distractedly, trying to code while monitors showed how close the missiles were coming. “This time – shit!”

A brute force attack had carried the hackers into the guidance-baffling software. The ship shook as a missile hit the port bow.

Strapped into his seat, Russ hit the key to lock off that part of the mainframe. A back-up guidance-baffling program stirred into life.

He’d known that this would happen. He’d just hoped it would take longer.

Sirens screamed. So did a voice over the intercom. People were dying in engineering, but there was nothing he could do about that. All he could do was to stop more missiles hitting.

Somebody swore on the other side of the bridge. The hackers had broken into the navigation system. Two crews were now fighting over the ship’s course. Even as Russ countered that, weapons control went down, then the program for detonating pursuing missiles.

Every time he fixed a glitch in the code, two more popped up. The hackers were all the way in.

He wanted to fix the beautiful, broken programs he’d written to run the ship. But as he kept fighting fires, more were springing up. He needed to put out the dragon lighting them.

“I’m going into their systems,” he said.

“What?” Tuer asked with a frown. “Couldn’t you have done that before?”

“Not while maintaining ours,” Russ said.

It was easy to reach the pursuit ship’s network. He just piggybacked the two-way signal they were using. Moments later, his screen was full of data as his console got to grips with what it was seeing.

The Necessity shook as another missile hit. Across the room, the rear gunner bellowed an obscenity as his targeting system went blank.

“Do something,” Tuer said, pointing at the furious gunner.

“Can’t,” Russ said. “Not while I’m doing this.”

“Then stop doing that and do your job! This is your stupid little code all over again.”

Russ grinned. She was more right than she knew.

The pursuit crew were busy attacking. They’d only just realised that he was in their system. He opened their diagnostic software and dropped in something of his own – a copy of the little code he’d tried to use on the Necessity.

The one with the unending iterations.

On his screen, data usage stats soared. The other ship’s systems started grinding to a halt.

He flicked back to his own network and reactivated the rear gun systems, then the targeting bafflers, then the code that detonated pursuing missiles.

“They’ve stopped accelerating,” the helmsman said.

“They’ve stopped firing,” someone else announced.

“We’re losing them,” Captain Tuer announced, gazing in incredulity at a monitor.

Russ grinned. He imagined the fury of the pursuit ship’s system administrators as they tried to work out what was wrong. They would be looking for hostile worms, not a friendly little diagnostic program. By the time they found it, the Small Necessity would be well away.

The crew cheered. Tuer patted Russ on the shoulder. The Small Necessity hurtled on through the hollow sea of space.

* * *

 

This story exists in large part as a thank you. My friend and fellow writer Russell Phillips is always helping me out with website problems, as well as offering other IT help. His catchphrase, “I’ve written a little code…”, symbolises the casual calm with which he can do things with computers far beyond my ken. Thanks Russ. I hope you like the story.

And if you, dear reader, enjoyed this, then please share it, and consider checking out my collection of sci-fi stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

Ghosts of the Space Lanes – a flash science fiction story

spaceship-1516139_1280The Star Runner turned as I tilted the controls to port, edging us into a thinner area of the asteroid field. The grip of the yoke was well-worn, a perfect fit for my hands. A lucky charm in an area most spacefarers considered cursed. So many ships had been lost here down the years, from human freight haulers like our own to the exploration pods of alien civilisations. Everybody kept coming because of the riches in these rocks, but few relished the journey.

Rappoport, the cargo master, ducked beneath the low doorway from the crew quarters and joined me on the bridge.

“Captain, there are ghosts,” she said.

I flicked my eyes away from the holobox showing our position in space. Rappoport was white as a sheet and her hand trembled as she placed it on my shoulder.

I hated to be touched and Rappoport knew it. Whatever was affecting her must be extreme.

“Are you back off the waggon?” I asked, holding back the snap of anger.

“No, captain.” She looked shocked at the suggestion. “There are ghosts. Spirits of those who’ve died out here. I’ve seen then. So have Angelo and Dover. Everyone’s unhappy.”

I flipped a switch, turning on the autopilot and a dozen different proximity sensors. Our course would be less efficient without me shaving it short by running close to the rocks, but this would at least keep us safe while I dealt with the crew.

All dozen of them, from the navigator down to the handyman, were waiting for me in the rec room.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I said. “Get back to your stations.”

“No, captain.” Angelo, the tubby little mechanic, folded his arms and stared nervously at me. “We want to turn back.”

“Do you know how much we lose if we do that?” I said.

“Everybody knows this place is cursed.” Dover pushed herself away from the wall, slipping into the fighter’s stance she took when on edge. “We ain’t going no further.”

Murmurs of agreement told me how close they were to mutiny. My own crew. Disgusting behaviour, but I’d lecture them on that later. For now, I needed a way forward that kept crew and ship heading towards our cargo’s destination.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Show me these ghosts and I’ll turn us around. But if you can’t – if you’re all high or dreaming – then there’ll be hell to pay.”

They led me into the creaking corridors connecting the cargo containers. We didn’t suit up – the lower shielding here wouldn’t matter as long as we didn’t linger too long. I had no intention of lingering at all.

“Well?” I snapped. “Where are your-”

I froze. A pale figure hung in the air in front of me. Indistinct as it was, it reached out a hand, pointing off to the left, and let out a terrible wail.

My blood froze. Was I losing my mind, or was this really a ghost? I trembled, dreading either thought.

The apparition flickered, and for a moment it became clearer. It was no human – the eyes were too large, the hands three-fingered. As I watched, my skin growing cold, the ghost slowly turned, pointing at something we were leaving behind.

Heart hammering in my chest, aware of the gazes of my crew boring into me, I forced myself to take a step forward and then another, until the apparition was close enough to touch. As I reached out it flickered again, becoming pixelated before returning to its hazy form.

Relief washed over me and I laughed, as much at my own foolishness as anyone else’s.

“It’s a hologram,” I announced. “Something from an alien ship, probably a rescue beacon pointing to where they’ve crashed.”

“Holograms can’t project through walls!” Rappoport protested.

“And where’s the holobox frame?” Dover asked.

“Aliens,” I said. “Alien technology. Who knows what these ones can do? Dover, go turn us around.”

“But if it’s not a ghost-” Angelo began.

“If it’s not a ghost then it has real technology,” I said, rubbing my hands together in glee. “Real technology no human’s ever seen, and that we’ll be first to bring to market. We’re rich, boys and girls.”

Cheers rang through the corridor as Dover hurried back towards the bridge.

Cursed indeed, I thought to myself, trying to shake off the creeping feeling in my spine. Maybe we’d make this place a lucky one instead.

* * *

 

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Why Bickering Spaceship Crews Work So Well

Dark MatterSix people wake up on a spaceship. None of them remember who they are or how they got there. As they struggle to survive in a dangerous universe, they only have each other to rely on. But when all they know is that one of them wiped their memories, how can any of them trust each other?

With a premise like that, Canadian show Dark Matter brings something new and interesting to the sci-fi TV table, raising questions of identity, morality and purpose. But I’m going to focus on the thing that’s most familiar about it – the bickering spaceship crew.

Blazing Rows In Space

TV space-based sci-fi usually follows a similar format. The crew of a spaceship travel from adventure to adventure, getting to know each other along the way. In the most interesting cases – FarscapeFirefly and now Dark Matter – that crew doesn’t get along. More separates them than binds them together, leading to constant bickering. There’s at least one repugnantly selfish character – Rygel and Jayne spring immediately to mind. Even the other characters aren’t the most morally upstanding citizens – Farscape revolves around a band of escaped prisoners, Firefly a band of career criminals who slip into legal business only when it pays better. By the end of the first episode of Dark Matter, it’s clear that this crew, before their memories were wiped, were the worst of the lot. These aren’t shows about nice people with a noble purpose.

So why does it work?

Conflict and the Crucible

In his book Solutions for Writers, Sol Stein talks about the crucible, the situation binding a group of characters together, forcing them to keep interacting with each other. It can be something abstract like a shared interest, or something more substantial, like living in the same house. What matters is that the crucible has enough impact to keep them together despite their differences.

Characters in conflict are always more interesting than ones who gently get along, but that conflict can be problematic. Why do Heidi and Jo keep spending time together if they hate each other’s guts? In ordinary life they’d probably avoid each other, but the crucible prevents them from doing this. The stronger the conflicts, the more forceful the crucible needs to be.

Hence the bickering crews of outsiders. Being on a spaceship together, and on the out with the law, forces the characters to interact and even to cooperate. That lawlessness gives them a shared purpose, as well as the sort of character traits that lead to conflicts. In Star Trek, conflicts within the crew were mostly low key, and that fits the crucible of a large professional spaceship crew in a large space faring organisation – if they got on really badly, they’d just get posted to different ships, and Kirk or Picard could fire anyone who was a total chump.

The bickering outlaws are more exciting than the good guy professionals, and their spaceship provides a crucible to keep them together. Until somebody tops that magic formula for tension, we’re likely to keep seeing these shows. And given their quality so far, that’s no bad thing.