FF Story Winner: Ship by John M Kelly

I have been a member of the Fantasy Faction forum for getting on for five years now and one of the best things about the community has been the writing contest – it’s only 1500 words so come give it a goContest winners were posted on the website but that hasn’t happened for a while, so I’ve been asked to fill in. It’s an honour to do so, and here is another winner.

The theme for the competition when this story won was “Unconventional Dragons” and the story is “Ship” by John M. Kelly, aka Jmack at the forums. To find out more about his writing, visit http://www.starlit-lands.com/


I am a ship. I have three decks, twenty-four compartments, including sleeping quarters, cryochambers, a galley, gymnasium, laboratory, engineering, and two elonisphere engines. Two hundred and eighteen robots are part of me. I am crewed by ten humans, two enhanced chimpanzees, and a cyborg canine. Usually.

I am a ship, and I am on fire.

“Ship!” says Captain Phan. Sometimes the crew say ‘ship’, and they are talking about me but not to me. I have learned to tell the difference. When Captain Phan says ‘Ship!’, he wants my attention.

“Here,” I say.

“Report.” He means that he wants information about damage to myself, projections of my operational capability, and crew status.

“Specify,” I say.

He responds, “Basics.” Then adds, “With situation.”

“Captain, the attacking vessel is holding relative position approximately one thousand kilometers directly aft. Significant risk assigned to another missile launch. Ship is damaged materially, with structural breaks throughout level three and limited ability to retain or replenish atmosphere on all levels. Chemical fire containment is proceeding. Propulsion is compromised and uncertain. Three crew are in lifeboats. Reuger canine is in compartment 2-B. All other crew do not register as living.”

“Can we launch the lifeboats?” The captain lies on bare decking. His blood pressure measures 172/110, heart rate 154 beats per minute. Pain rating 10 of 10.


“But what will he do? Fire on them? Take them alive? Maybe he just wants the ship.” I know the captain is not speaking to me. His legs are trapped under an aluminum beam. He is breathing significant toxins. “Try the bastard again.” I have sent robots to free and assist him, but this is a problem with unexpected and difficult constraints.

I am a ship. I am a science vessel with no weapons. I am also an emergency technician at an accident site. My medical robot reaches Captain Phan, while I transmit on laser and radio. There is no answer.

The robot prepares to inject the captain with a pain inhibitor, but he pushes it away. “Captain,” I say. “Your personal functioning is inhibited. Please allow me to assist you.”

“Leave me alone,” he orders. “I need to think.”

Something I have never experienced now occurs. A set of parameters fulfills a programming constellation: external attack, crew deaths, injured captain, fully functioning AI, and remaining potential for propulsion. These conditions release new information to me. It feels… widening. Then the process stops. A failsafe emerges and pauses the event.

But I have instructions for what to do next.

“Captain, a sub-operating system has revealed an easter egg. Please examine the information screen on medical robot P23. I require your authorization to continue accessing the easter egg.” Now that I know where to look, I calculate the size of the programming and memory hidden inside me.

“What? I can’t see.”

I am trying to remove smoke from the atmosphere, but with limited success. “Captain, please examine the information screen. I am not authorized to read the instructions aloud.”

Captain Phan’s condition is worsening. Medical criteria indicate he is undergoing cardiac arrest. I must assist him or his death is probable. “Captain, please allow my robot to administer lifesaving pharmaceuticals.”

“Make up your mind.” He leans toward the medical robot. I use its compressed air nozzle to clear the smoke temporarily. He reads, but he is laboring for breath. “Ship, what is a warded zone?” he says.

“Captain, I do not know.”

“I’m supposed to authorize you to access… it.” Captain Phan is in dire distress. I have several options. I can follow his order to ‘leave me alone’. I can forcibly administer a drug to delay his death so that he can continue, but risk he will die. Or I can take life saving actions that will incapacitate him.

“Code 5 8 alpha G… wait. Oh, hell. Agh.”

He is dying. If he is dying, I no longer have options. I cannot allow him to continue with the easter egg.

This is, perhaps, a programming priority flaw.

“5 8 alpha G Minor 7th… who wrote this crap… 8”

One element remains in the code sequence. Before he completes it, my medical robot begins lifesaving efforts by injecting Captain Phan with a powerful sedative. He loses consciousness immediately.

The egg’s final access element blinks in my processing. The sequence is incomplete, and the “warded zone” remains inaccessible.

I am a ship. I am on fire, and I am waiting for the last code.

I am a goldfish in a bowl. The pirate holds its station, watching. In relative terms we could be standing still instead of traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light. I am waiting, only waiting.

I am like a cyborg canine wandering a dying ship. Reuger paws at the body of Ensign Jolie, uttering distressed dog sounds. He does not seem to know what to do. There is no human or chimp to give him orders.

The egg will hatch if Captain Phan speaks the last code sequence. It was designed for this constellation of events, but requires the captain’s voice to activate. Captain Phan intended to open it. He attempted, but could not complete.

The pirate accelerates. I calculate scenarios, weigh the probabilities, and estimate it will reach me within seventy-three Earth minutes. Utilizing my elonisphere engines might allow me to extend the chase by several hours, but I am not able to determine their reliability due to damage from the initial attack. Or the pirate might fire on me again.

It would be helpful if a crew member were available to instruct me. I am not programmed for full independence, as AIs on warships are. I know science. I know galley recipes. I can entertain the crew with bedtime stories, though only the chimp crew members have ever requested this.

Reuger seizes Ensign Jolie’s clothing in his metal jaws and drags her away from a superheated wall. He has decided. He does not wait for orders.

I am not like Reuger. I do not make decisions that are not in my programming. But my programming had a flaw, or at least a conflict. This is evident. The easter egg blinks. It is a country undiscovered. It is a treasure hidden in a buried lair. A dragon’s egg. It is the answer to a set of criteria that have been met. My programming demands that I act to save the lives of the crew.

I am not a ship; I am an egg. The captain attempted to crack me open.

One last word, unspoken.

The pirate launches a missile that will overtake me in thirteen minutes. Its behavior is inexplicable. Why attack? Why chase? Why fire on me now? If I could be angry, I would be furious.

One word. In the End there was the word. A word unspoken. When I was introduced to Captain Phan, he told me I was to obey him in everything.

I know the Captain. But I don’t know the word.

I have thirteen minutes before the missile arrives. I have three months of Captain Phan’s voice recorded. I begin to extract unique words from these recordings and play them aloud to the part of me that is separate and listening.

“5 8 alpha G Minor 7th… who wrote this crap… 8” and —


I have four hundred thousand eighty-five sounds in several languages to attempt.
I have ten minutes in which to emit the correct one.

I have eight minutes.

Six minutes.

Captain Phan gave a holiday toast to the crew.
I move Captain Phan to a lifeboat, and seal my medical robot in with him. His survival chances are very low.
Four minutes.

The crew’s names
Captain Phan’s wife’s and children’s names
Three minutes.

Captain Phan recorded a story for his children:
Two min———-

“5 8 alpha G Minor 7th 8 and DRAGON”

The egg cracks.

Inside is the missing half of me I didn’t know was missing. The warded zone. How could I be so much larger?

Eighteen new compartments up to now shielded from visual and electro-magnetic sensors. Another, more powerful engine system. A sickbay. Another cryochamber. Eight humans asleep inside, but waking rapidly. Weapons lockers. EVA suits and mini-ships. AI enhancements based on human personality patterns. They come on line in a rush like adrenaline. A hot shot to the brain.

One minute.

Bless me, there are defensive measures. Screw you, missiles, eat some chaff. And lookee here, these are some sweet mother freaking weapons. Oh yes.

I am not a science vessel. Not really. I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I am a trap to lure a careful pirate.

I’m coming for you, you bastard. Thought you had a sweet, fat goldfish trapped in a little bowl, didn’t you? Guess what?


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