INT – Day – top deck storage and machinery room.
Helton is leaning into an access port, working on something. Around him are a clutter of tools, e-readers, storage boxes, electronic parts and machinery, a pistol belt, and stuff.
There is a tapping sound.
Stenson: Knock, knock.
Helton: Come in.
The door opens, and Stenson sticks his head in.
Stenson: Got a couple minutes?
Helton: Oh, sure… Not making a lot of progress anyway. What’s up?
Stenson leans against the bulkhead, looking thoughtfully at Helton as he extricates himself from the hatch and wires, wiping his hands on a rag. He looks dirty and tired.
Stenson: How’s your history?
Helton: Other than the normal childhood fascination with the Chi-Stan wars, the colony terraforming and conflicts, and the Romans, just the normal bit of this and that. Why?
Stenson: Remember when I told you that if anyone tells you they can fix this ship up like new is either lying, incompetent, or God’s Own Watchmaker?
Helton: (cautiously) Yeaaaah?
Stenson: Well, I was more correct than I knew… This ship is unique. More than just a professional challenge. From a distance, it looks like an ordinary Meridian-class transport. Then it seemed to be a modified carrier-borne Armored Landing Assault Transport, an ALAT Mk4A or something. After getting inside its systems a bit, though, I told you it was a modified Orion – they made a couple of hundred of those early trans-light armored assault ships when the colonies were new and folks were afraid of finding the Planet Movers around every other corner, before they went to the carrier model. While ancient history now, they’re famous, especially for their involvement in the first interstellar conflicts and the Corporation-Nation wars.
Helton: So… It’s not an Orion?
Stenson: Weeeellll… Combat losses, training losses, and crashes are expected with warships. Being lost without a trace isn’t. After a couple of Orions vanished with all hands, the military got scared, because Orions were designed to go anywhere with a company of space marines, under any circumstances, take care of things, and get her crew home. Heavy armor. Multiple power sources, with extra back-up auxiliary systems. Multiple power delivery paths. Redundant environmental systems. Every different weapon system known to man – conventional guns, missiles, particle beams, lasers, torpedoes, rail guns, pods, inboard independent mobiles, outboard attachments, hard-points for bolt-ons, tanks inboard and surface mounted, automatic and manned systems. Not just three main drives, but three each of both Harmon AND Sokolov drives. Redundant primary AND secondary AND tertiary power. Enough sensor and computer power to cover a deep survey ship. Redundant independent control ‘puters for each system, as well as central integrated controls and manual locals. Able to deal with any atmo or grav conditions. It had interchangeable modular internal components to make it specialized for any mission, which is why all the port hatches open forward, and starboard open aft – the modules could be fit on either side. More redundancy than a Calcutta Government department for agency paperwork processing in the bureau of permitting division. Yet, some just… vanished.
Helton: Hmmm… Then, if I recall correctly, one of the lost ships turned up with no-one on board, and the computers wiped, totally on fail-safe auto-pilot. A sort of Flying Dutchman. Kind of like this one.
Stenson: Yup. Scared the crap out of people with stars on their shoulders. So, a secret and high-level program was started, the BrainChild project.
Helton: (shaking head and frowning) Never heard of it.
Stenson: It’s history was pretty well scrubbed – easy to do when everything’s electrons controlled from the center. (dismissively) Anyway. They had been working on fully self-aware ship-integrated AI for a while. A crash program installed the first operationally fully self-aware AI on board a ship. They only made a couple of dozen of ‘em. Some were retro-fits on modified Orions, but also some were brand new ships, a sort of upgraded Orion where everything was just a little bit better. They called them the “Armadillo” class; every can of kick-ass they opened was just a little extra frosty. The hull was the toughest ever built. They still had a full human crew and compliment, but apparently there were some problems, because the Armadillos were all canceled, lost, converted or decommissioned, records scrubbed, and disappeared, shortly after the third Chi-Stan war… or so I thought… (looking up and around) until now.
Helton: (worried, looking around at the walls) So, this has a complete self-aware AI?
Stenson: (waving hand dismissively) Oh, God no. Aside from full AI having been outlawed long ago, shortly after the war, this particular ship has been stripped, updated, modified, bought, sold and tweaked for at least a dozen different jobs, with stuff bolted on and hacked away with abandon. But, all that redundancy has not been maintained properly, probably confused the hell out of most of its owners, and this ship is running at maybe, maybe, 30% efficiency overall. It has more systems down or out of spec than most ships this size have, yet is can still fly, because others were doing their best to take up the slack. But, it’s getting close to the breaking point. Hell, it doesn’t even have A-Grav any more.
Helton: (defensively, confused) Yes, it does! We FLEW!
Stenson: ‘Fraid not. It’s got the acceleration compensators pulling extra duty simulating A-grav. Hell, I didn’t even know it was possible in theory, this ship’s doing it in practice; I’m still kind of sketchy on how, but there it is.… If the accela-comps go, things’ll get interesting fast.
Stenson: The gunk left on the leading edge after flying through a bird at high speed.
Helton: … So, can you fix her?
Stenson: (sigh) At an Earth Fleet Primary Space Maintenance Depot, and an unlimited budget, yes. Mostly. Eventually. If it were legal, which due to the AI prohibition laws it isn’t. Out here, with a lot of time, more money than we’ve got, good luck on parts procurement, and some seriously brilliant help, I can get it to fly again mostly safely, but never to full original spec. We’ve made a lot of progress getting things smoothed out after our test flight, and have a better handle on what we need most, next. Here’s a list of the most important items I just can’t get here in this backwater, or even track down at the Eridani boneyard. Maybe get them made at a Capella custom shop or something. With THOSE, we can do a lot more. For now, though, I’m afraid to say it, but after centuries and untold abuse, she’s about at the end of her line.
Helton: But… not dead, quite yet?
Stenson: No… she’s not quite not dead yet, and seems to be getting better.
INT – night – Allonia’s cabin
Allonia sits at her work table, sewing on something with fancy brocade cloth, appearing intent on her work. There is a chime calling for her attention. She ignores it and keeps sewing with her sewing machine. She stops stitching a moment to adjust something, and the chime sounds again. She sits up, stretches her shoulders and back a moment, then answers, pitching her voice to the air to reply to the ship’s computer.
Ship AI: (OC, calm, quiet female voice) As directed by captain Strom, I have been monitoring the health of all on board.
Ship AI: (OC, asking an honest question) Did you know you are illegal?
Allonia gets a quizzical look on her face, like she doesn’t know what that means.
Ship AI: (OC) Yes.
Allonia: What do you mean, “illegal?”
Ship AI: (OC) You are not legal.
Allonia shakes her head in confusion.
Allonia: I know what “illegal” means. I don’t know what YOU mean by ME “being illegal.”
Ship AI: (OC) Your existence is in violation of the law.
Allonia inhales sharply, and looks confused.
Allonia: WHAT? HOW? And what does that have to do with monitoring my health?
Ship AI: (OC) You are engineered. Not legal.
Allonia: I’m not an engineer! And engineers ARE legal!
Ship AI: (OC) Not AN engineer. Genetically engineered.
Allonia: No I’m not!
Ship AI: (OC) Yes. You are. Or, your immediate lineage was.
Allonia: Of COURSE they weren’t!
Ship AI: (OC) Do you look like your parents?
Allonia: Not really, but they said I was the spitting image of… my… aunt…
Ship AI: (OC) You have very few markers for a predisposition to ANY genetic disease. You have a number of extremely rare genetic mutations that tend to express as moderately enhanced strength, endurance, reflexes, pain tolerance, vision, coordination, bone structure, oxygen utilization and carrying capacity, stress tolerance, intelligence, and disease resistance. You have several gene sequences that I have no record of having occurred naturally, which I’m not equipped to properly analyze.
Ship AI: (OC) Those are hallmarks of the prohibited engineered soldiers from the 22nd century Corporate-National war debacle.
Allonia: I… What?… How?-
Ship AI: (OC) All crew and passengers are fast-screened for dietary or common genetic problems as a matter of routine meat-space safety and maintenance.
Allonia: So how does that make ME illegal?
Ship AI: (OC) On some planets, including this one, such highly engineered people are explicitly illegal, and officially subject to summary execution upon identification. On most of the rest they are subject to immediate sterilization, imprisonment, and/or close monitoring.
Allonia looks dazed, and stares at the wall, slumping back a bit into her chair.
Allonia: So… What do I do?
Ship AI: (OC) Be yourself. Avoid possible genetic scans from anywhere off-ship.
Allonia: That’s it?
Ship AI: (OC) You do not appear to be a threat to the crew or ship. Quite the contrary, you appear to be a valuable asset. The laws were intended to safeguard against excessive genetic engineering that might pose a species threat. You do not fit that profile. The history of irrational fear, bigotry, and hatred of those perceived as “other” or “potentially dangerous” is well documented. No-one will be informed if there is no need. You were informed so you may avoid unnecessary exposure.
Allonia: Uh, thanks, I guess.
Ship AI: (OC) You are welcome.
Allonia: (looking a bit more thoughtful) Why tell me now?
Ship AI: (OC) There were inquires about genetic compatibility with you, so a full genetic screen was done.
Allonia: WHO asked?!
Ship AI: (OC) It would be impolite to say.
Ship AI: (OC) Perhaps “privileged information” would be a better term. They will not be informed of anything or identified to you, unless you appear to be potentially interested in reproducing with them. It should be noted that you WOULD be an extremely good genetic match for any of them, illegality on most planets aside. On those planets where you ARE legal, demand for your reproductive services could command a very high price; more than enough to live comfortably.
Allonia: Uh, wow. I, uh, guess that would be, um…
Ship AI: (OC) Good night.
Allonia: mmmm… not sure how well I’ll sleep. But – g’night.
Fade to black