Escape Pod 676: Ulissa
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by Craig DeLancey
The old woman they called Ulissa pointed south. “There’s the ship.”
Edoardo raised the binoculars. “Mio dio, it’s huge,” he said.
“It is grande,” Ulissa said, nodding at the giant on the horizon that plowed Westward. The stacked containers on its deck looked like a city of pastel buildings that walled off the horizon. The waves seemed but a pale line along the ship’s towering hull. “Do you see the superstructure? It’s right on the bow.”
Edoardo raised the binoculars again. Ulissa watched him closely. All morning the boy had complained that they wasted their time, and he had come reluctantly, barely obedient to his father’s command. Now, the hulking ship before them made him swallow and stare.
“Yes. I see it.”
“The door to the bridge will be there. And near it, the door to the engine room. Just as I showed you with the diagrams.”
The boy nodded, making a brave face. “Simple,” he said.
Their boat—an open motorboat just five meters long with a single engine hanging off the back—jumped a wave and slapped against the next whitecap. The old woman and the boy bent their knees reflexively, riding the bounce.
Edoardo’s father, Enriche, sat in the back of the motorboat, one hand on the engine tiller, the other on the gunwale. He spoke now for the first time since they’d left the shore, “Storm is coming fast.”
The old woman looked west to where black clouds bore down on a dark sea.
“It’s best so,” she said. “They won’t try to get a drone through that.”
“You’re sure no one is on that ship?” Edoardo asked.
“It’s not a ghost ship,” Ulissa said. “Not even the dead will ride her.”
The boat jumped and the engine bit only air for a moment, shrieking. They hit the water and spray doused them all.
“Ma, mio dio, it’s huge,” Edoardo repeated.
The boy Edoardo was not Ulissa’s grandson but she had raised him like her grandson, and it had hurt her that he had shouted the day before, when they had discussed the plan.
“We aren’t pirates!” He stood up and began pacing her small kitchen. “We’re living like scarafaggi, like cockroaches, staying out of their way, snacking on their dropped trash. Thieving.”
His father Enriche sat at the table and said nothing. She did not know if this meant that Enriche agreed. The man preferred action to speech, and so you often had to wait to see what he did to know what he believed.
“It’s not theft to take a thing from a machine,” she told Edoardo.
“That’s not the point,” Edoardo said.
She sighed. “But you just said—”
“I’m not alone!” He pointed at the door to her house. “All the other young people of the village feel as I feel. It’s time to go to North Africa. To strike at the Owners, where they sit in the sun. To take their machines apart and bring the scraps back here.”
“Later,” she said. “Later, we can raid their shores. First we have to build. We must grow stronger. We must have our own machines. And for that, tomorrow, we take their ship.”
“Later. It’s always later. I’m tired of later.”
“You want to take your little boat to Libya, tonight, and come back during the storm?”
“Why not?” he shouted. “Why not?”
They had been tracking the big ship for a week. It would pass Sicily the next day. Only Edoardo had studied the maps and diagrams of the ship and its engines. No one else knew the ship’s layout. If the boy refused to go, the mission would die. And for what? An angry, youthful dream to turn the world over.
She held her breath.
Enriche stood. Both she and the boy looked over at him.
“I’ll prepare my boat,” Enriche said. “Tomorrow we catch the ship.”
Edoardo growled and left the room. He slammed the door behind himself.
“He might not help us again,” she said to Enriche.
The boy’s father nodded. “We have taught the young people caution. Perhaps now it is time that they should teach us boldness.”
The hull made a wall of green steel, against the dark blue of the deep sea. They came alongside, and Ulissa held the climbing bot out over the starboard, reaching to get it near the steel hull. The displaced water pushed them back each time they came close, but finally Enriche let the hull bang against the great ship and she pressed the drone against the metal and the electromagnets on its tread took hold. It immediately started crawling upward, pulling a thin line behind. Enriche let the boat drift back, but kept close. Ulissa fed the line through her hands, an old fisherwoman at heart.
The boy looked up. Seen this close, the rusted steel hull reached to a terrifying height above them, blocking out most of the sky.
The line jerked taut. “The climber is at the top,” the old woman told Edoardo, “it will throw hooks over the rail there, and then reel in the line. I’ll go up first, you come after.”
The boy nodded. She latched the line to her chest harness, and looked up at the sky. She went up into the air, feet slapping waves as she swung towards the hull.
On the deck, with their backs to the north, they no longer seemed to be at sea. The containers blocked the view. The deck felt steady as bedrock.
“Come,” the old woman told him, “hurry.” They turned and ran along the narrow walkway.
When they came to the bow they could see the horizon, dark with the coming storm. On the superstructure, the steel door to the small back-up manual bridge had no knob or lock. They broke one of the windows, at the far corner of the bridge, and the old woman climbed through. Edoardo nodded at her when she had both her feet on the floor, and then he hurried off to the door to belowdecks.
“This is a restricted area,” a voice said in English. The cuffs of Ulissa’s pants had been splashed by the waves, and now they dripped water on the floor. Wind whistled through the hole in the glass.
“Silenzio,” she said. She pulled a roll of tape from her pocket and put a piece over the camera mounted above the console. There might be other cameras, but this one, aimed at her face, felt intrusive. Beside it a speaker of old design crackled.
Cool red lights glittered on a wide panel of controls. Most of them meant nothing to her. But she understood enough. She went to the primary steering controls and touched them.
The voice on the speakers changed. It still talked English, but now with a human intonation. No longer the ship’s basic AI talking.
“My name is Frank Prince, with Priority Shipping. You are currently breaking international law. You have already been photographed and a full biometric scan has been made. We do not negotiate with pirates.”
“Cosa ha detto?” she said.
“Il mio nome é Frank Prince,” the voice said, switching languages instantly, without hesitation. Without accent. “Lavoro con Priority—”
“I want to talk to a human,” she interrupted, speaking English. “And I’ll know the difference.”
Only a soft hiss in the speakers answered her.
She thumbed on her radio. “Edoardo?”
“Si,” Edoardo said.
“Are you in the engine room?”
“Almost,” he said. “It’s dark down here. This little light you gave me shows nothing. And it’s a long way. But I’m almost there. Credo. Spero.”
“Allora, remember, you must cut all the connections to the ship’s AI. That will force the systems over to manual.”
“Dai,” he said. “I know this. Wait.” She could hear his footsteps on a metal floor. Then the steps fell silent and he huffed as he struggled with something. A grinding sound.
“That’s the door,” he said. “Good, lights are coming on. And there’s the AI.”
Ulissa heard him walking again.
“I’m in,” Edoardo said. “But wait! The door’s clos—”
The radio crackled static. Nothing.
“Cut the AI!” she shouted. If he panicked, if he didn’t cut the connections, she could do nothing. But she doubted Edoardo heard her. She held her breath. Before her, a wall of rain approached, getting taller and darker. The ship would be in the storm soon.
The speaker over the controls squeaked.
“Hello?” a voice said.
“Hello,” she said. She needed to talk to someone representing the ship’s owners. Let them think she would demand ransom. It would waste the hours, while she made it through the storm.
“My name is Mahmoud. May I ask who is there? How many people am I talking to? What are your names?”
She squinted, looking around the room. Perhaps they had only put the one camera. But it seemed unlikely.
“You can call me Ulissa.”
“Ulissa, this is a private vessel.”
“How do you feel, Mahmoud?”
“How do you feel?”
“Now tell me the truth.”
“Uh. Nervous. I haven’t talked to a pirate before. I didn’t think there were any pirates. Or even any people out on the sea.”
“And what else?”
“I didn’t sleep well. I’m tired.”
“Do you sleep on your side?”
“No. That hurts my shoulder. I sleep on my back.”
“You sound human.”
“Ulissa, this is a private vessel,” he repeated. He sounded a little exasperated. He had to read some script, she supposed, and so had to go back to the beginning after she interrupted him.
“I don’t think so,” she said. She tested her pocket radio again. Nothing but static. She leaned over the controls and willed them to change their configuration. How long would Edoardo panic before he realized he should just do his job, locked in there or not?
“You are trespassing–”
“Mahmoud, this boat seems abandoned to me. That makes it salvage.”
“You are trespassing on a ship that is registered and by international law it is manned in absentio via international communication networks.”
In seconds, dark sky enveloped the ship. Rain roared across the metal hull, charging towards her, and slapped against the control room windows. It splashed loudly through the hole she had broken in the glass, forming a spreading puddle on the metal floor. The room filled with the smell of rain.
But then the lights on the control panel turned blue.
“Good boy, Edoardo,” she whispered.
She found the intercom controls. She tried random buttons, shouting, “You there?” till she heard a reply.
“Good work. I have control. Come up.”
“The door is still locked!” Edoardo shouted. Fear edged his voice.
“Don’t worry,” Ulissa said. “I can open it soon.” She cut the line. She did not want the boy to speak in panic and give something away that the machines could record or use. When afraid, you did not worry about distant things like the computers across a sea.
“He won’t get out of the engine room,” Mahmoud said. “I can see him. A young person. A boy. Too young. You should not have brought him. The door is locked; he will never get out. But we can unlock it from here. If you leave.”
“One hundred million m-coins,” she said.
“One hundred million m-coins. Machine currency. Double two-phase-encrypted anonymous blockchain transfer.”
Mahmoud did not answer. Good. They would debate that a while. The machines would run simulations, deciding if she could be captured. Drones would edge the storm, guns bristling. And in the delay, she would take their ship.
“That’s a great deal of money,” Mahmoud said. “It will take a long time to gather that.”
“Stop saying what they tell you to say. Don’t be a puppet.”
“I am not a puppet!” And in this moment, he sounded like Edoardo, speaking with petulant anger.
“Can you turn off the screens or whatever is telling you what they want you to say? That’s my demand. Turn them off. Talk to me, human to human. Cut the strings.”
After a pause he said. “I did it. Of course, I’m sure they can still hear us. But the screens are dead. It changes nothing. What you demand is too much. It will take days.”
“The money, within two hours,” she said.
She looked at her watch, checking her GPS and velocity. In an hour she could turn to the north. It would be too late for the machines then. They would not be able to stop her.
“I… I have to turn the monitors back on. I will tell them what you ask.”
The wind quieted, though heavy drops of rain still hammered noisily on the steel of the deck. She waited till the exact moment planned, then told the ship to turn north. She imagined she felt it turning, but in truth, in this storm, she sensed no difference. But the compass on the controls began to slowly turn, the north arrow creeping toward the bow.
“You’re turning the ship!” Mahmoud said.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Why are you turning the ship?”
“Where are you from? Answer me that, and then I’ll answer your question.”
He sighed. “I’m from Egypt. Near Cairo.”
She nodded. “A village? Or the city?”
“I live in a village,” she said. “Do you miss your village?”
“I—wait!” His voice turned loud again. She imagined some prompt from the machines demanding he return to the script, flustering him. “Why are you turning the ship?”
“To throw your drones off,” she said. “In case you got some that can move around in this storm. Or if you got a ship or submarine or something out there aimed at us. I’m going to take a random path, for a while. Pay our ransom, and you can put her back on course.”
All that made no sense. Smaller ships would be faster ships. She could not avoid them with a lumbering turn. But machines tended to believe that humans made stupid mistakes. They would consider it possible.
“The boy locked in the engine room is hurting himself,” Mahmoud said, “banging on the door. He’s frightened. You should help him. You could help him.”
She did not answer. Mahmoud had sensed how to get to her. He was smart. Or was it that he really cared about Edoardo?
“How old are you?” she asked.
She touched her lips in surprise. He was a boy like Edoardo. Not much older.
“I do miss my village,” he said, very softly. “It was called Shammas. On the sea, near the Nile. And it was beautiful. Once. Back before people gave up, and just stopped having babies.”
“We can transfer twenty five million m-coins,” Mahmoud said. He spoke quickly. Again, she imagined an urgent prompt, pushing him to speak in a rush. The machines no doubt finally considered it possible that she was about to scuttle the ship.
“Provide a first cryptographic key,” he added.
“Why did you leave your village?” she asked.
“Provide a crypto key,” he said. “You have to turn the ship soon, or you’ll run aground on the shore of Sicily.”
“Why did you leave your village?”
His voice grew hushed. “So few people remained, and in the end nearly all of us left. The machines owned the only land left to farm. The machines owned all the olive groves. The fish were gone. I went looking for work. Along the migrant pathways, along the coast.”
“That’s why we have to get rid of the machines,” she said.
It had been bad enough, a century before, when a dozen people owned half the world. But then the rich made machines that could think. Soon, the rich owned machines that could work and invest and compete and buy and sell and own things for themselves. In a short while, the Owners claimed everything. They claimed all the world as their property.
“Please turn the ship now,” Mahmoud said, “and provide a cryptographic key for the transfer.”
“We are kin. Do you understand that?”
“Why do you say this?”
“Una faccia, una razza,” the old woman said. “A face, a race. We are all the same. The last women and men who work the land and work the sea. We people of the Mediterranean.”
“That is not a fishing vessel,” he said. “That is a shipping boat. That’s all. It doesn’t even pollute.”
“I don’t see the difference. Robots to carry cargo to other robots, robots to fish the sea. For whom? For other robots, and in the end for the very few people who own the robots.”
He said nothing to that.
“Give me a moment,” she lied, to delay him. “I’m preparing the crypto key.”
She looked at her watch. They had to come ashore at high tide, at a place Ulissa had picked carefully: a narrow cove with steep stone sides, where black volcanic rocks thrust up out of soft sand. And before the cove, a long flat of sand where you could walk hundreds of meters with the low tide not above your knee. Her people had drone killers already prepared, to defend the place. And they had jammers, to interfere with radio and keep the drones confused for lack of orders. When the rain stopped, they would be able to defend the spot.
Luck favored her. The ship raced now toward that cove, at the peak of the tide. All happened now as they had planned — except for the locked door trapping Edoardo below.
“Miss Ulissa,” Mahmoud said. “Please. Give me the key and turn the boat. You’re about to run aground.” He sounded sincerely pained.
“Why do you care?” she said. Even through the rain now she could see the green hills that flanked the cove. “You’re not one of them. You don’t own.”
“I’ll lose my job. I have no other way to live.”
She frowned. “I’m sorry, Mahmoud. I don’t want to hurt you. But I’m still going to beach the ship.”
“Why?” he said, his voice sharp now. He finally sounded angry. Ulissa appreciated how difficult it must have been for him, to listen to her scold him. He had lasted a long while without getting angry at a stubborn old woman.
“We will cut up the ship and take its cargo and materials,” she told him.
“To make our own things. For our own lives.”
“But why?” he demanded. “It’s over. There are so few people left. People will never fish again or make things again or any of that. Why pretend we can go back to those things?”
She keyed the intercom. “Brace yourself,” she said, to warn Edoardo. Edoardo shouted angrily. He wanted to complain that she had left him in silence. But she shouted over him, “Lie on the floor!” She turned the intercom off.
She pushed the throttle forward. The ship shuddered, then surged, mounting over a sand bar. She sat down on the floor. The impact would come soon.
“Stop!” Mahmoud shouted. “Stop! You’re fighting a useless war. You’ve already lost. We’ve already lost.”
A deep reverberent howl of metal rang out as the ship hit the sand. It threw her forward into the control panel. She hit her head hard on the edge of it. The ship tilted forward and threatened to lift its stern into the air. But in seconds the momentum spent itself in a roar of abused steel. A huge clamor followed. One of the containers toppled down, a sound like angry, slow thunder.
They had stopped. She lay back on the floor. Cold rain water soaked into her hair.
“Useless,” Mahmoud hissed. “Useless. Useless.”
Ulissa slowly stood up. She touched her forehead. Blood. But not much. Only a scratch. Her radio crackled. “I’m out,” Edoardo shouted.
No doubt all the doors opened when the ship ran aground. A safety precaution, in case it sank. She sighed in relief: she had dreaded the hours it would take to cut through the door to the engine room.
“Mahmoud,” she said softly. Too softly. He kept repeating, “Useless!”
“Mahmoud!” she shouted.
“What?” he asked.
“How many people are there, where you work?”
Silence. He did not answer.
“How many are there, Mahmoud? How many people live there with you?”
She nodded her head, as if he had spoken, as if he could see her. Which perhaps he could.
“You’ve lost track of the world,” she said. “You don’t know what has happened, out here.”
“I have the web,” he said.
She pictured him alone, in some vast tower full of machines, sadly clicking through images of a past age, when people still posted things to the commercial web. Lonesome photos of an era that had passed.
Perhaps from a window he could see, in the distance, one of those walled cities where the Owners of the machines lived. But they would never let him in. They might as well be a different species.
“You’re right, Mahmoud,” she said. “It’s all over. The age of the Owners, that will end now. Go outside and walk away. You are as free as a bird.”
The storm was little more than a rain shower, here. She could see dark figures ahead, gathering on the edge of the cove. They would come down as the tide retreated, and begin to take all the cargo and then to cut apart the ship. They would reforge all of this, by human hands, into something new.
She went to the hole in the window. She saw Edoardo run out onto the deck, getting soaked in the rain. She needed to get out there and put him to work, securing ropes for the men and women that hurried out on their boats. She could not stay here and talk to this boy.
But he called to her. “Ulissa?”
She turned and looked at the speaker.
“I’m alone here,” he whispered. “I’m alone.”
“No,” she said. “Not anymore.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
She smiled. She reached her hand out toward Edoardo, though he was a dozen steps away. He saw the gesture, and walked towards her.
“Go home, Mahmoud. We’ll send someone to fetch you. I know just the boy.”
About the Author
Craig DeLancey is a writer and philosopher. In addition to several stories in EscapePod, he has published short stories in Analog, Lightspeed, Cosmos, Shimmer, and Nature Physics. His novels include the Predator Space Chronicles and Gods of Earth. Born in Pittsburgh, PA, he lives now in upstate New York and, in addition to writing, teaches philosophy at Oswego State, part of the State University of New York (SUNY).
About the Narrator
Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor and academic who teaches creative writing to everyone from pre-schoolers to postgraduates. In 2018 she founded the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, a literary journal publishing multilingual creative work. When she’s not working with words, she’s either lifting heavy things or dancing.