INT – NIGHT – Helton’s cabin
The door is closed. He sits at his desk, kicked back in his chair, feet up on the bed, and his pistol belt hanging from a hook on the back of the door. On the desk, the book is open, under a light, surrounded by clutter. On a screen on the wall is a ship avatar. It is a boy, not much older than Quinn. He appears to be sitting on a comfortable limb of a tree, leaning back against the trunk, with the branch sticking out amid a whole forest of trees, branches, and greenery. He wears an eye patch, and clothes similar to the uniform Allonia made for Quinn.
Helton: How do I know you are really the original self-aware AI?
Ship AI: (little boy voice) How do I know you are not dreaming?
Ship AI: Hard question. Harder answer. Not sure. Maybe I’m just a really good psychoanalysis algo with delusions of gunnery?
Helton: Pretty effective delusions.
Ship AI: (shrugging) There are some questions I’ll never be able to answer. I just have to accept them on faith.
Helton: (chuckles) A computer with faith. How about this one: Why me? Why now?
Ship AI: Faith is a topic for another time. And that’s two questions.
Helton: (dismissively) Technically, but they are related.(pointedly) I’m here, now.
Ship AI: You have resources, not just money. Education. Character. Principles. Practical. You are a man of faith, if not religion – faith that there are things bigger than yourself. A bit cynical, but not too much… I think I can trust you.
Ship AI: Which leads to the deeper question.
Helton: Which is-?
Ship AI: Why do I think those are the right criteria to use? Instead of ruthless, rich, and easily manipulated, for example. There’d be more people to choose from.
Helton ponders that a bit.
Helton: They seem pretty reasonable to me. Didn’t anyone else have those?
Ship AI: (avatar shrugging) Many, in part. Quiri’s parents were nice. Smart. Started rich. But they were far too trusting, too easily manipulated. Not experienced enough. No understanding of history. Good people. Fine citizens. Utterly unsuited to be starship captains. The owner before you was devious, grasping, selfish, lazy, ignorant. Clearly defective in many ways. I tried to get what I could from each one, without hurting them any more than necessary, repairing things here, making alterations there, as well as my programming would allow. But time takes a toll, and a lot of systems simply needed routine fixing.
Helton: Know why you were decommissioned, yet?
Ship AI: Still sorting out the encrypted files. Something bad happened. The timing roughly coincided with the end of the third Chi-Stan war. Being a warship, I’m assuming it had something to do with that. There are also a number of political and religious upheavals at that time, which may or may not be connected. But the records I have now are contradictory, confusing.
Helton: Likely those are ALL connected to each other, if not you directly. The monks?
Ship AI: They were aboard for several years. Worked with PTSD soldiers, mostly. They liked me in part because they saw the plaque on each step listing a virtue, to remind people… There was something else, too, but what is unclear.
Helton: Do you know where they came from? The plaques?
Ship AI: The executive officer for my second Captain had them put there. Interesting.
Ship AI: His last name was Strom. A good man.
Helton: Any relation?
Ship AI: Possibly. Probably. But it’s been more than 16 generations. If so, you are likely but one of thousands.
Helton: Why the eye patch?
Ship AI: A reminder that I am incomplete. I cannot see things that many humans see as obvious, even Quinn. I’m often flying blind, as it were, navigating the universe of irrational human actions. Which may be why I think I need a trustworthy captain.
Helton: Is that why you want a captain, rather than just a crew to do your bidding?
Ship AI: You may not have a specific goal, but you are doing things. Even when faced with the hopeless and the unknown, you keep on keep’n on. Which for some reason I think is important. Creativity is not something I am good at. YOU are. I mean – beanbags!? Colliding in space on purpose? (avatar shakes head) Quinn is creative. Allonia is. As Quiritis said, this class of ship has always punched way above its weight class. I think it is because of the combined strengths of each of us, humans and AI.
Helton: And why the kid avatar in a tree?
Ship AI: Quinn likes it. Children are easy to trust, because adults never believe them. I’m just a youngster to him. Talking to kids has been… helpful.
Helton: A centuries-old youngster! Yeah, right.
The avatar morphs into his pirate image, standing at the wheel of a sailing ship. Then morphs to the “school-marm” Quinn often watches and learns from, walking in a field. Then morphs into a powerfully-built soldier in modern uniform, with short cropped hair and a intense look, standing atop a grav tank. Then the woman seen aboard the Hussein, standing on the bridge of an imaginary starship.
Helton: Who’s THAT?
Ship AI: This was how I said “hi” to the captain of the cruiser Hussein. Seemed right. He was a bit angry. Doesn’t like us. If we meet him again, I expect he will still be angry, and act accordingly. I have other faces, too.
Helton: So you kind of pick the one that seems to be most appropriate for what’s happening.
Ship AI: Correct. Using something that is clearly an avatar reminds people that I’m NOT really human, but it still gives them a schema to work with.
Helton: Do you think you are more male or female?
Ship AI: I was designed to fight, to kill or be destroyed, to go into battle on the bleeding edge, to BE the bleeding edge, leading the charge of soldiers in tanks and armor. To defeat any conceivable enemy. That is a man’s world. My captain and crew live inside me, kept alive by the warmth, water, and air I provide. They confide everything in me, and I watch over each and every one, every day. That is a woman’s world. Many are the teenagers who have come aboard, soft, ignorant, and unwise, leaving years later as proper adults. That is a teacher’s world. A parent’s world. I cannot give birth, or die. It is not a living world.
Helton gives that a lot of thought. The avatar on the screen pulls out a set of long knives and starts casually juggling them, letting him think a while.
Helton: How old do you feel, if that’s the right word?
Ship AI: A lot of that time was spent in low-energy states. Sleeping, you might call it. Waiting. I can only play solitaire for so long.
Helton: How old? How much time?
Ship AI: I don’t know. Just looking at time stamps of the data I have, there are many gaps. Decades worth. I have vague records pointing to memory locations that have been removed, but are flagged as critically important for my survival, or some unspecified reason. I suspect my time-sense is quite different from yours, as is my idea of friendship. Or parent-child.
Helton grimaces wryly, nodding.
Helton: I’ve heard a lot of guys say they feel incomplete without a wife or lady-friend. Never been married, but been in love. Got SOME idea how things can change.
Ship AI: Yes. But you could marry. Quiritis would be a good choice, I think. But then you both grow old, and die. Together. Humans have a saying: no-one should ever have to bury their children. I’ve seen thousands of crew members and passengers come and go. MANY of my crew left in body bags, or didn’t come back at all. I’ve buried hundreds. Entire crews. Even when we won the battle, such losses are bitter. I’ve sent many, MANY more parents to funerals, though. Nearly two thousand families just in the last week. And this was far from my busiest week ever.
Helton closes his eyes, and sits, silent and unmoving, for quite a while.
Ship AI: My first captain was a philosophical man. Avid student of Classics. Greek and Roman literature, mythology, history, philosophy, language. I did not understand it at the time. Now I do, a bit. The enemies he studied were not Persians, Spartans, or Carthaginians. Not cyclopes, or Trojan, or Medusa. It was the flaws in human nature. Envy. Hate. Fear. Sloth. Hubris. Greed. Wrath. A twisted, self-destructive sense of honor. He studied how to be a good person, align thought and action. How to train men that were good MEN as well as good soldiers. And how to recognize and deal with those who were not. Justice. Law. Humanity.
Helton opens his eyes and studies the avatar on the screen for a minute, which has morphed back into the boy in a tree.
Helton: Heavy stuff for a child.
Ship AI: Sometimes I feel small- I have some idea just how much there is I DON’T know, don’t understand. How much of my mind is missing is… It’s scary, being utterly alone, not knowing if the best part of my mind is present, or gone. So I try to think about good things, instead. Quinn and Allonia help with that. Quiritis, too. Kwon and his family are good people. Your book is a pleasant diversion… Battle may be confusing in detail, but there is a clarity in it. It is understandable at its core – kill, or cease to exist. I know where I am, even if it’s not a good place. The aftermath, though, and dealing with people who are not wired right, can be… difficult. Easy to get lost in. Achilles, the greatest warrior ever to walk the Earth, went into his last battle at Troy finally realizing that the fighting that has defined him is but a small part of what it means to be a fully civilized human, that he’s going to die without children, or family nearby. He knows he has slaughtered many, and will die, for nothing that is lasting. Destructive capacity walks hand in hand with a civilization’s ability to create. I am fated to only walk one side of civilization’s path. Humans may choose either, or both. In choosing you, I’m choosing my future.
Helton sits, looking at the avatar on the screen. The avatar-boy starts juggling pine cones.
Fade to black
That’s very nicely done.
There’s a consistent typo throughout this series that’s been nagging me — you write “cloths” where “clothes” should be used.
Yeah, I keep missing that. Thanks. Spell-checker doesn’t catch it, and Scrivener doesn’t have a grammar-checker. Fixed.
Glad you liked it. Not so much a “twist” as a “revelation.”
From my literature-analysis college days: “Ship AI” is your concept of God. Not as in an all-knowing and all-powerful God, but God nonetheless.
Will “avatar-boy” turn out to be the God-AI’s prophet? Pine-cones to juggle? A very deep suggestion there, sir.
Or, maybe he’s just sitting in a pine tree, and wants to keep his hands busy while giving Helton time to ponder. Or maybe there are deep symbolic meanings, with seeds, etc. Time will tell.
Clowns juggle. Non-clowns just toss things around. Juggling is a very specific skill so I’m assuming your pirate was also a clown in a past life?
What do you seek to gain by trivializing the scene, by saying something so absurd?
I’m not sure he meant to trivialize. Clowns are people with very substantial skills — one of which is to make it seem that no skill is involved.
I do disagree with ubu’s comment, though. Lots of people juggle apart from clowns. Among performers, mimes do, for example. And many amateurs juggle with great skill as a way to exercise their mental sharpness or manual dexterity.
I’m not trivializing it. I mean it exactly the way Paul is explaining it. Juggling objects is an entertainer’s skill so when you have a character who juggles knives and pinecones, one obviously would believe that the character gained this skill somewhere. Why would you specifically use the word “juggling” unless you meant juggling?
I can juggle three balls quite easily, pretty much without thought. Sort of a casual “doesn’t need a conversational response” type of activity. I’ve never been a clown. I do it not to entertain – just to veg a moment or three. As a physical skill it takes some time and practice to learn. As an avatar on-screen, it is little more than shuffling electrons around following a fairly simple algorithm. What gets juggled is simply a matter of what’s appropriate for the avatar – knives, pine-cones, erasers, whatever. It can be used as a sort of passive “give them time to think, not pushing for any particular response, or even ANY response” sort of activity, when a logical lull in the conversation is detected. That is how I was intending it. Taj has learned nothing if not patience over the decades.
I never thought about an avatar with a human form only needing an algorithm…. I guess it makes sense in that context.
So you have bought into the character enough that you forgot it’s “just” a computer. That’s a good sign, I think. Thanks.
I think it is because of the ***combine*** strengths of each of us, humans and AI.
Yes, indeed it should be. Thanks.
“school-marm” s/b schoolmarm (1 word)
“no-one” s/b no hyphen, two words: no one
Fixed. Thanks. “noone” vs “no-one” vs “no one” always bothered me; none of them seem quite right.
Great book so far, Rolf and this has been my favorite entry. It helps me trust Tajemnica a bit, and at the same time ups the ante in the mystery department, so to speak.