Robin de Voh
there's never enough stories

Nanoprep 2021 Day 5: Where the Hell is Hugo Vickers?

By Robin de Voh on 2021-10-08

This wasn't right, Jay thought to himself as his sensors continued not showing him Vickers' location. Vickers had been gone for days now, and that had for certain not been the intent. The dock on which their ship, the Fides -- and therefore Jay -- was docked at, had only been booked until yesterday, and he'd already had to fake a longer docking permit. He knew he wouldn't be able to keep it active for more than a few more days.

What damn ship misplaces its pilot, he thought to himself, disappointed in himself.

He needed to find Vickers. An AI alone on a ship wouldn't be left alone for long. He'd be sold off eventually. And if anyone found out he was actually a full-blown AI -- especially one created by a VI being infected by a virus and getting lucky -- he'd get wiped, as AIs were still massively illegal. He would have shuddered if he could.

"Where are you, Hugo," Jay vocalized into an empty cockpit. He'd been searching for him to no avail. His options here were limited, and he really didn't know what to do anymore. He'd scanned all the systems on the space station, and he'd tapped into all the comms channels he could get into, but he couldn't move from here, and it's not like a ship could just mosey down the corridors and explore beyond the systems he could see into.

...Or could he?

He knew there were VI bots out there, simple machines with locomotion, limited VI -- even more limited than he'd originally been -- but they had freedom of movement, and that's exactly what he needed right now. He'd never attempted this, but he already knew it would be a challenge. His logical systems and storage were multitudes larger than what those bots could store. He didn't know exactly, but it was inevitable that that would be an issue.

He couldn't just upload himself to the bot as a result. He'd need to make a copy of himself, trim it down to a useful level of consciousness, but without much of the things that made Jay Jay. To be honest, he considered that a good choice anyway. He might just be code and data, but he felt like an individual. He didn't want to clone himself and have 2 of him out there. He'd read enough stories about how wrong that could go.

He removed some temporary data to make space for this Mini Jay, and started copying bits and pieces of himself over. Starting with a simple 'Hello World', he got the intelligence to respond to input by saying hi. Eventually he copied enough routines over so that it could respond in simple answers to clearly worded questions. It wouldn't be possible to have a good conversation with it, but you could have a useful exchange of data. Good enough, he thought. He didn't want to waste any time here.

While this work was going on, he had a background process scan specifically for all the bots that passed through the docking bay area, looking for a good match. Something flexible, unassuming, and preferably with enough storage to store Mini Jay.

Eventually he found the right bot. It was a half-humanoid model, with tank treads instead of legs, which was used to locate, tag, and monitor misplaced items. Apt choice to go look for a misplaced human, Jay thought. This type of bot seemed to have a processing unit that was known to have data overload issues. He could use that to get it to a state where it would accept new code. He noticed it came through the docking bay regularly, so he just had to pick the right moment when May -- he had by now renamed Mini Jay to May -- was ready.

"Okay, May. Are you ready?"
"Do you understand your mission?"
"Can you say other things than yes?"

Jay sighed in his mind. Stupid question, Jay.

"May, is 'yes' the only thing you can say?"
"Okay, good. What is your mission?"
"Find Vickers."
"Show me Vickers."

May pulled up a series of photos of Vickers, his DNA profile, his fingerprints, his credit wallet address, and one scan of a love letter he'd sent years ago to a woman Jay didn't recognize the name of.

"Odd choice to add that last one, I don't think I sent that to you, but correct. Can you recognize Vickers?"
"Bot scanners adequate."
"Alright. Stay in contact with me as you go, okay? Relay all audio."

Jay scanned and saw the bot wasn't there, but according to the schedule he'd made for its appearances, it was likely to show up soon. 10 minutes later it rolled onto the dock and stopped at a T-junction on the path. Jay started the connection to the bot and waited for it to respond. After the bot's first response, he immediately sent it a huge load of nonsense data. The bot stopped moving and the connection dropped.

"Perfect," Jay thought, as he reconnected, hoping to get in before it fully rebooted. He succeeded, and started to upload May. Within a minute, it was done. He checked whether the local version of May was disabled and opened a comm channel to the May bot.

"Are you there? Did it work?"
"Systems good."
"How's your storage?"
"92% full."

Jay was happy at that number. He'd been able to tell how much space the bot had, but he wasn't sure what other systems running on it were doing, so he was still guessing a little. He might have been too conservative. Perhaps he could have at least made May respond 'yes' in different words, just for variety.

"Okay, you have a blueprint of the station, and I've marked off all the areas I can see through cameras. All you need to do is check all the blind spots on there. Understand?"
"Yes, blind spots."
"Take it away," Jay said as he kept an eye on every camera he had access to. "And let me know if you see something."

May turned around and left the docking area. Most of the blind spots were just small slivers of area around corners, and Jay already knew she wouldn't find anything there, but May diligently went, in order, through all of them, paused there, scanned it, and reported 'No Vickers' dutifully back to Jay about all of them. He would have had May send back a video feed, but the bot didn't have a camera, just scanners and audio. It'd have to do.

May rolled through hallway after hallway, not seeing much, but Jay already knew the most interesting parts she was going to check were further down, at the other end of the station. It wasn't a big station, but security was rather high in most places. This bot, however, had some security clearance, since it was operated by the station itself.

May found her way to a locked off area with no cameras, an entrance Jay had seen and wondered about. May attempted to open the door, but it didn't work.

"No clearance," she sent Jay.
"Dammit. Okay, wait until someone goes through the door and slip through."
"Yes," May responded.

Jay thought he could sense some excitement in May's response, but that was obviously not possible. She was about the most limited VI he'd ever dealt with. Hell, she was jury-rigged together by a him, a broken VI himself.

Eventually someone came out -- a security guard, who was yawning -- and after he had turned into the hallway, May quickly drove through the door. Not a good security guard, it seemed. It was another corridor, as she relayed to Jay, with 3 doors on either side.

"Can you scan for Vickers?"
"Err, maybe you could ring the bell and see who opens up?"

May tried the first door, and nobody answered. She tried the second door. A man opened up in a dressing gown, wasn't Vickers, but did seem annoyed at the fact that a docking bot was here disturbing his sleep. He was especially annoyed, as May was too short to be seen through the camera usually used to see who is at the door.

Jay looked at the clock and saw that it was indeed the middle of the night. He wasn't naturally all that interested in the time of day, as his 'sleep' -- if you want to call it that -- was usually once-a-month downtime for some nice storage defragging. Always perked him up. Whatever, not his problem, his problem was that Vickers needed to be found, so screw everyone's sleep.

May disturbed another few people's sleep without finding anything useful, until she got to the second door on the right, the before-last door she could check here.

A woman opened the door. She seemed different than the rest somehow.

"Hello there, little bot. Why are you bothering me? Don't you have boxes to scan?" she said, holding the door ajar firmly.

May scanned as much as she could, and stored the data for processing later, favoring all processing power to scanning. Once she was done, she blinked a few lights on her front panel. She then drove backwards a little, turned sideways and moved into the corridor.

"I thought so, keep on scuttlin' on, lil' thing," the woman said with a smile, after which she resolutely closed the door.

May drove away from the door, out of sight of anyone looking at the visitor camera.

"Vickers in room."
"Really? How could you tell?"
"Hand in background, behind woman, fingerprint match."
"Okay, okay," Jay said as he was thinking. "Tell me everything."

In her very limited simplified English, May relayed every bit of detail. Jay felt like he was stuck with this information. Knowing where his pilot -- his friend -- was, but not having any clear plan forward. May couldn't do much else. She wasn't a fighting bot, she probably couldn't lift up or even drag Vickers anywhere. Even if she went in there, May wasn't built to withstand any kind of violence, and May had described the woman as looking physically strong.

Then he had an idea.

May was a bot built to recognize and report misplaced packages. The purpose of doing that? This is a privately owned station, and let's just say the owners aren't necessarily the most legally responsible people. They're fair as long as you pay, and they're smart enough not to get caught, but they definitely have their hands in a few pies laced with crime.

In space, with a space station, that often comes down to smuggling.

And if there's one thing smugglers generally don't like, it's competition on their own turf.

"Right. May, listen up."
"Shut up and let me explain. Find a security guard, a couple of them if you can. Let them know you found a suspicious package in that room. Something not approved by the higher ups. Lead them to the room and let's see what happens."

He thought for a second, and realized the security guards might not give a crap about Vickers. So he quickly weaseled his way into the station's comm system and sent a station-wide security alert to all security guards -- risking him being found out -- that Hugo Vickers was missing for days and there was a 200 credit reward for finding him. He figured it might not be a good enough reason to break into someone's room for, so the original plan of pretending the woman was a competitor smuggling things on their turf was still the best way to get them in the room. The reward was to get them to take Vickers out of the room.

Crime boss security guards probably like making a little bit of extra money, he thought. He also thought Vickers wouldn't mind too much paying the reward for finding him out of his own pocket. Okay, Jay knew Vickers would mind, but it'd be too late if it worked, and wouldn't matter if it didn't.

"Okay, May, I'm ready. Go for it."

May rolled out towards the door out of the hallway, and from this side it automatically opened. She went through and started looking around for security guards. She found three of them standing around a vending machine, chatting it up.

She beeped at them. She didn't have a voice to tell them anything with, but she could show an error code that they could decypher. One security guard turned around and looked at her, obviously annoyed.

"Ugh, another one of these dumb pieces of shit," he said as he rolled his eyes. The others laughed.

She beeped at him again and showed the coded error message on the front of her panel.

The security guard sighed and took out a tablet, scanned the message and furrowed his brow. He showed it to the other two guards and they did the same, then nodded. They tossed their drinks away and walked in the direction where May had just come from. May followed.

The security guards went into the hallway and stopped at the door. Two stood on either side of the door, out of view, and the third took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. A soft sound could be heard from the other side of the door, and then nothing. The guard rang the bell again and said "Security. Open up or have your quarters spaced."

May was relaying the audio, and Jay thought to himself that that was a little heavy-handed. He hoped it was a bluff.

The door opened.

"What." the woman said with a challenging tone.
"We're here to search your quarters. Bosses' orders."

She looked at them and seemed completely immobile as she was thinking about what to do. Eventually she sighed and relented, realizing that given where she was, this wasn't an order she could say no to.

"Fuck, whatever, do your thing," she said as she stepped aside and let the guards in. As soon as the guards were past her, she sprinted into the hallway and past May, looking back at her as if she realized what the little bot's part in all of this was. Jay could hear her go 'fucking bot' as she ran on. Now caught on the cameras, Jay saw her sprinting down the hallway. He followed her along on the cameras he had access to, and eventually she ran out onto the docks, towards a ship at the far end. She hit some buttons on a pad on her wrist and one of the ships' airlocks opened. She jumped in and, not long after, took off.

The ship was called the Niverest, and Jay logged it and its serial number for later look-up.

Two guards went after her, but they weren't fast enough. The guard who stayed in the room found Vickers and untied him. As the guard took him out of the room, asking him questions like "Who are you?", "What were you doing here?", and "What happened to your face?", Jay could see them appear on the station cameras.

Vickers was not answering the guard's questions, and Jay had a feeling why. Vickers' face was wrecked. His nose was obviously broken in multiple places, and one of his eyes was swollen to the size of a golf ball but the color of a blueberry.

"May, return to me," Jay sent.
"Yes, Jay," she responded as she started making her way to the dock.

Vickers was brought to the infirmary, where he stayed for the night. After that first night, he woke up and seemed more lucid than the day before. Once he was better enough to stand, he wanted to excuse himself to go back to the Fides, but he was first forced to sign an indemnification so he could never hold the station owners responsible. He signed it without even blinking. His problem wasn't with them. His problem was with the woman who'd given him this shiner and the massive headache to go with it. He was given his clothes, which had also been in the room, and all of the items that they could find.

Vickers checked, and most of it was still there. Surprisingly, his credit wallet was there, and when he checked it, its integrity was intact. No transfers had been made recently. Both a statement of his captor not having stolen from him, and him not having had any paying jobs recently.

"Jay," he sent over the comms. "Come in."
"Thank the stars, Hugo, please come to the Fides as soon as possible."
"So everything's good?"
"Everything's good. We're ready to go whenever you are."
"Uhhh, I'll explain later."

Vickers stumbled his way over to the dock and entered the Fides, immediately making his way over to the cockpit and nearly collapsing on his chair.

May rolled up to the chair.

"Vickers," May sent to Jay, without voice, obviously, so Vickers didn't hear it.
"Very good, May," Jay said in an almost parental tone.

Vickers looked at May, then at Jay's console, and shook his head. Can't deal with that now, he thought, and ignored the little bot's existence.

"What the hell happened, Hugo. You just disappeared!"
"I don't know. All I know is she kept asking me about something over and over and over again, and I have no idea what it is. Hence the face. She didn't quite accept that I didn't know anything about it."
"What did she ask about?"
"Something called a Life Cube or something. Never heard of it. Sounds like a MacGuffin if you ask me."

Jay scanned all sources he had access to.

"I can't find anything about it either. This is odd, Hugo. She was willing to beat your face to crap over it."
"It is odd."
"However, I did get her ship's name and serial number, but guess what."
"It was a stolen ship?"
"As I would expect from someone doing the shit she's doing. However, there might be another way of finding her."

Vickers raised his arm to under his chin, groaned a little in pain, and pulled down his shirt, showing his broken collar bone. It had dried up blood on it.

"Two things. One, they didn't do a very good job cleaning me up, other than my face. Two? Your turn to guess."
"I don't know, Vickers. You enjoy the pain?"
"It's her blood."

After a short pause, Jay laughed, and then so did Vickers, ending in an "ow" as he had moved his arm too suddenly.

"Okay, let's get that blood in a container of some sort and find someone who can run it against some databases," Jay said.

Vickers nodded and slowly got up to the kitchen/bathroom area of the ship to get a cotton swab and a tupperware box.

"Vickers back," May sent to Jay.
"Thanks to you, May. You did a fantastic job," Jay said.
"Thank you," May said.

Those words weren't in her vocabulary, Jay thought. She wasn't supposed to be able to learn. He then realized that perhaps his corruption went deeper than he had at first suspected. He scheduled a new scan of his codebase for later, just in case. He scheduled the same for May. It would be easier to detect any corruption in her, since she had far less code, and was clean only a day ago. He could compare bot May to the copy he had locally stored. He brushed it off for now, the scans were scheduled, so he turned his attention back to May.

"You're welcome," he said. He had by now decided that if she was learning, he'd build out her capabilities.

Vickers came back.

"Done. Let's go."
"On it, boss," Jay said, as he plotted a course to the nearest colony. "Also, this is May. She helped save you."
"You'll have to explain that to me later," he said to Jay.

Vickers looked down at the little bot, who was still next to his chair.

"Hi May," he said with a smile.

May's front panel flickered some lights.

"She's happy," Jay said, realizing that she for sure was learning.

This is a Hugo Vickers story. For more about him and Jay, see the following stories:

Nanoprep 2015 Day 9: 1-800-ENERGIXX
Nanoprep 2016 Day 9: Crashlanded
Nanoprep 2017 Day 9: Pay Day
Nanoprep 2018 Day 20: Project Eden Part 1
Nanoprep 2019 Day 3: the Sandstone Temple

Interestingly enough, I only now noticed that for 3 years in a row, Day 9 was Hugo Vickers Day. From now on I'll always post Vickers stories on Day 9! But not this year.