The Coffee Arc
Part Four: Ghost in the Machine
by D.C. Logan
"Great. No sleep." Duo rolled over in bed and cracked an unwilling eye at the horizon beyond his second-floor window. A pink tinge of light was creeping over the curve of the earth. Time to get up and moving if he was going to fight with Deathscythe's computer again today. He sat on the edge of his narrow bunk and felt around with his toes for the boots he'd kicked off last night before collapsing into bed. A shower was going to feel wonderful this morning. One of the true luxuries of being on earth was the abundance of water. He grabbed a stack of clothing and headed off to the bathroom for a "Hollywood shower" as the soldiers he'd known had called it. Not a fifteen-second spray with pauses for lathering, but a 20-minute deluge with an endless supply of water hot enough to peel the flesh from his bones. This was the main reason he got up before his fellow pilots—the water heater was small.
Wet and energized, he pulled a tattered but clean set of clothes over his damp skin and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen. He wasn't interested in breakfast this morning, but needed a cup of coffee before he felt he could function normally. Trowa had labeled him a coffee purist—and he supposed that was true to a degree. He liked his beans freshly ground and his sugar genuine. Trowa was the only one that made better coffee than he did. (Sigh) And he wouldn't be up for at least an hour yet. As the scent of fresh java filtered through his senses, he began to wake up mentally and prepared himself for the day's task. He hadn't any luck yesterday. It had been a day of continual frustrations. Each building upon the other until he'd given up, admitted defeat, and left the battleground for another day.
"And now we have reached that other day," he murmured. And cap on head, hot coffee in thermos, and portfolio of notes slung over left shoulder, he headed out for his day's work.
His boots were damp with morning dew by the time he reached the doors to the quonset. He set his provisions to the side and heaved the two doors open to allow the natural light to reach his suit. The doors were metal clad and heavy, and he propped them open with rocks to keep them from shifting. His revealed mobile suit glinted as if wet in the half-light of the building.
"'Lo Deathscythe! How are you this morning buddy?" As usual, there was no response, but it made him feel better to ask.
He grabbed up his notes and his coffee and entered the building. He pressed the access panel and the cable lift lowered promptly and lifted him smoothly to the cockpit's opening door.
He swung about and landed in his seat with an enthusiastic bump. So far, everything was going his way today. He touched his fingers to the keyboard, and the startup system lifted into action. Okay, that was a bit weird. He looked at his fingers in puzzlement. He didn't remember inputting his access code. Very strange. Well, he wasn't going to let that put him off his task. All the other systems were apparently functioning normally. Whatever he did yesterday must have worked itself out overnight.
He settled back in his chair, moved Howard's notes within each reach, and carefully balanced his cup on the edge of the controls before filling it halfway with hot fresh coffee. He felt good again, and he could feel some of his enthusiasm building as the systems came online and marched through their diagnostic sequences without hesitation. He checked his notes and typed in a command sequence. He had to look twice at the response.
"Well that's odd," he replied as the system displayed a line of random characters in reply. He looked at his notes again. Yes. He'd input the right string. He retyped the sequence, checked it against his reference file, and hit the execute key again.
"Okay, well, that's really bizarre. Wonder what's going on here?"
The code propagated across his screen in apparently random stings of letters.
emraehuoynac yeh erehttuo nogniogstahw namyeh emraehuoynac yeh erehttuo nogniogstahw namyeh emraehuoynac yeh erehttuo nogniogstahw namyeh em raeh uoy nac yeh ereht tuo no gniog stahw nam yeh me raeh you nac yeh ereht tuo on gniog stahw man yeh
This wasn't making sense at all. He must have done something yesterday to screw up the operating system. There was nothing for it—he'd have to beg Heero or Trowa for help this time. He felt a mild regret at not thinking to backup the system he was playing with first. And that thought grew quietly into a growing horror as the strings of characters on his monitor began to change their pattern, and slowly shift their lines of alphabetic characters into recognizable words.
me hear you nac hey ereht tuo on gniog stahw man hey me hear you can hey there tuo on gniog whats man hey me hear you can hey there out on going whats man hey hey man me hear you can on going whats hey there out me hear you can hey there out on going whats man hey hey man whats going on out there hey can you hear me
Duo felt the small hairs on the back of his neck rise in alarm, and he carefully set his cup of hot coffee down in mid air.
He watched, riveted by the display of dancing characters across his screen. They marched across like a swarm of angry ants, and filtered down to a blinking line of text at the bottom of his screen.
howard hey man is that you
Duo freaked. He followed his first survival instinct, which was to manually crash the system and bail from his cockpit. He hesitated long enough to watch the program run down to black screens and jumped the full distance from the cockpit to the floor. He couldn't get his legs to move quickly enough.
He ran for the doors and skidded around the corner of the building—his heart pumping hard with adrenaline. He rocked to a halt, put his hands on his knees and stooped over—catching his breath. "Oh Shit, Oh Shit, Oh Shit!'"
"Oh. Now this is interesting."
Trowa had walked across the access road just in time to witness Duo's mad dash around the edge of the maintenance building. He watched him brace hands on legs while trying catch his breath, and then loose his balance and sit, legs slack, staring back at the maintenance shed. He looked up as Trowa approached the building.
"Trowa man, just the guy I need."
Trowa looked quizzically at him in response.
"There's something the matter with my suit—the operating program's gone all haywire. It's the freakiest thing I've ever seen."
Trowa maintained the same puzzled response, but extended a hand to Duo to help him to his feet.
The two of them cautiously peered around the edge of the quonset door. Everything looked quiet enough. "So what happened Duo?"
"The operating system was talking to me." Duo continued, though Trowa looked doubtful. "Really, ya gotta believe me on this one."
"Talking?, through the intercom system or on screen."
Duo relaxed his stance, Trowa would figure this mess out for him. "On screen. I keyed in a test code that Howard gave me and the thing started talkin' back."
"All right, I'll take a look."
The cockpit was dark and quiet. Trowa sat in the pilot's seat and started the system. Nothing untoward happened. "This all looks pretty standard to me—is this the normal start-up sequence for your suit?"
Duo peered curiously at the monitor screens and nodded. "Yeah," he replied, "looks fine." He was puzzled. Why would it make a difference who input the code?
Trowa stepped out of the cockpit. "Might have been a glitch, these systems are pretty bombproof—but every now and then something happens."
Duo didn't mention the archived file he'd opened. He had a hunch that he'd been the "something happens" this time around. But if the system was back on good behavior, he saw no reason to mention his mistake.
Duo turned and took his place at the controls again. Trowa nodded and spoke, "Hey, if you need me again, just call," and he dropped out of sight, leaping down from the platform with an annoying excess of grace and style.
"Showoff," he mumbled, and took another look at the program left on screen. He wondered what had gone wrong the first time, and why it hadn't repeated. He twisted his brain around the problem—but a simple answer didn't come to him. Mmm. Maybe Trowa had magic fingers, maybe the computer realized the weight difference in the seat, maybe his brain was torturing him. Yeah, maybe.
"Maybe I should take a break and get something to eat." That made the most sense. Food always made things better for him. And he could work out this puzzle while sipping some of Trowa's fresh brew. Huh. Personally, he considered it the best idea he'd had all afternoon.
"Hey Duo, where you goin'?"
"Back out to the maintenance shed."
"Again? Haven't you had enough for one day?"
But Duo was already out the door...
More relaxed now that he'd had the opportunity to distance himself from his problem, he even whistled a bit on the short walk between the flat and the shed. His good mood lasted right up to the moment he rounded the door and saw his suit.
Deathscythe's system was up and running, and the neon green glow of the top camera units betrayed an occupant. Now he was pissed. He ran at the machine and demanded entrance. "Hey! Whoever you are! Get out of my suit!" Just for emphasis he ran to the leg of his suit and started to climb with the aid of his anger alone. When he neared the cockpit, the access door dropped to allow his entrance. He looked through the frame of the door, ready and willing to flay the intruder. What he got instead was a jolt of surprise. There was no one there. Weirdness.
He spun around and slammed into his seat. Dammit, if this was going to be a fight for his suit, he wouldn't back down. His conviction held strong for a few moments—right up until the moment when the door slid closed of its own accord—trapping him inside with his invisible opponent.
He swallowed hard, strapped himself into the restraint harness, and resigned himself to cope with whatever his enemy's next move would be.
The cockpit door closed fully, and the restraining bolts slid home with a solid thunk. The vid screen dropped down in front of him and the camera system came fully on line.
A line of text appeared in front of him.
hi who are you
He replied, angrily and loud, "Duo Maxwell, pilot of this suit. Who the hell are you?!" But there was no response. He was just about to get angry again when a thought occurred to him.
He keyed his response into the system (minus the expletive) and waited for a response.
hi there duo
"Who are you? What are you?"
i'm walker. well, the parts of him in this program anyway. i used to work with professor g and howard. i'm assuming you know one or both of them since that's the only way this system could have wound up in your suit like this.
Duo nodded, then getting over his shock, typed in an affirmative.
we were working on an backup artificial intelligence program for training mobile suit pilots. it's kind of a precursor to some of the stuff Dr J was working on for the Zero System. We didn't get much of an opportunity to test it—but since I'm talking to you, it must have worked.
"So you're not... dead?"
Well I hope not. Have you been in contact with Professor G or Howard? Are we on Earth?
This just kept getting weirder by the minute. "Can't you tell?"
Not without full access to the system files in your suit. This AI file runs as a backup—not a primary system.
"Why weren't you here before, where did you come from?"
Probably an old deleted file system. Howard and Professor G were planning on removing this system from the suit after the pilot, I'm assuming that's you, was trained in its use. Your guess is as good as mine.
Actually, Duo didn't have to guess. No modifications had been made prior to his trip to earth because he'd stolen the suit and learned to use it in his usual seat-of-the-pants training style. And now he had a old autonomous file wandering around electronically in his suit. Great.
"Okay then, fine, how do I delete you?"
Professor G must have left this file in here for a reason. What were you working on when you found it—there may be a connection between the files.
Duo thought about this. Yes. It would be just like Howard to load something Duo might find useful and not tell him about it. And he had sent him the access code to this sentient program. He felt his anger realign and settle on a better target. Wait 'til he saw Howard again...
Well, he wasn't going to turn down help at this stage in the game. Deathscythe was always surprising him anyway. He pulled up the code Howard had given him on the left monitor and waited for a response.
Okay, I see what you're doing. No wonder you're a pilot and not a programmer. Interesting coding in there. If you can grant me better access to the main system, I'll see what I can do to assist.
Duo considered his options and calculated to possible benefits. At best, he'd have an internal programmer at his beck and call to use as his own personal resource. At worst, he'd have to confess all of this to Trowa and together they could reprogram the entire suit if necessary. A risk-taker at heart, he crossed his fingers and typed in his passcodes.
At once, dizzying lines of programming code coursed over the internal screens, brightening the cockpit. Duo felt sick to his stomach trying to follow it. It was intense. He closed his eyes against the running images and stood up. Once his weight left the seat, the screens halted, and a soft electronic voice filtered into the cockpit.
"Yeah, it's been a day. I'll be back later, all right." Great, he was leaving his suit in the hands of a series of ones and zeros, but Howard hadn't steered him wrong yet. And he'd been raised to believe in leaps of faith. Hopefully Father Maxwell was still keeping a wary eye on him from topside.
There was no vocal response this time, but the hatch swung open of its own accord and the cable lift shifted into place for him without having to reach over to the side. Hmm. Maybe there was something to this after all.
He tromped back over to the flat, taking the long way back instead of his customary shortcut through the field. He needed time to think. He walked past the hanger where the rest of the suits were waiting and noticed that Trowa and Quatre were making some adjustments to Sandrock. Not in a good mood for conversation at the moment, he altered his course and headed back across the field.
Quatre paused, his thoughts interrupted by someone mumbling just outside of the hanger. He turned and saw Duo walking back to the safe house, talking to himself in an irritated tone of voice. "Damn program, Damn Professor G, Damn Howard... Just what I need, A goddamn sentient suit. Great, what else could go wrong on this mission. I've had it, that's what it is, it'll probably want to play chess during the next mission. Oh, yeah, right. Oh, this is just peachy."
Quatre smiled a private little smile and stroked Sandrock's Gundanium shell.
"Sounds like you're not alone any more Sandrock..."