Authors: Charles Barouch
Tags: #Science Fiction Adventure
He hesitated for a moment by the mirror. Something was missing.
"Interrogative. I need a cane. Mahogany wood. Sized to my height. The top should be made of silver. Access the animal database. Design the top to look like a resting cobra."
It wasn't an idle design choice. His grandfather had once owned a cane exactly like
. It was just one more thing he'd left behind. While this wasn't that cane, he could pretend.
The planet was a half week away by sublight and yet, he was preparing. He'd been alone too long. Falling back on ritual gave him something within his control. Without realizing it, he'd made the decision to attempt contact.
When he was done dressing, he returned to the bridge. Tiago brushed some imaginary lint from his fresh outfit. Properly prepared for company, he settled into the captain's chair, and stared at the image of the planet.
Safety dictated that he find a way to live without contact. The chance of it going badly was too high. He tried to think of it dispassionately. The herd instinct had to do with safety, procreation, and continuity for descendants. He ticked through those three ideas. He was safer on the ship. Tick. He wasn't looking to breed with a random alien – and he knew enough biology to know why that would probably never work. Tick. He had no existing descendants. Tick.
The logic was clear: Just keep on going and don't look back. Except that humans weren't just herd animals. Tiago had more esoteric reasons to want to be part of a society. Loneliness was more than just a side effect of the herd mentality. Escaping his government only to succumb to madness was pointless. Sanity required him to try. He had to at least get a better look. He had to try.
. Re-instantiate Sim Six-six-four," Tiago said.
The maker accessed the standard humanoid slurry of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus. The pattern for Six-six-four's body was accessed. She was rebuilt, layer by layer, in a sitting position, at the communications station. The original Six-six-four had been a hologram. It was easier than he expected to hook the maker – the matter assembly system – to the holo system. Tiago thought that a physical entity might make better company.
He was right, but she was not enough. He modified her software, looking to make her a better replacement for human company; still not enough. He'd painstakingly winnowed out every bit of propaganda code he could find in her design. He'd made her more casual, less judgmental. He'd given her a name and insisted she respond to it. Each step was an improvement but it still didn't add up to 'people.'
On this ship, Six-six-four was the closest thing he had to a friend. The computer had voice response, but Six-six-four had a personality. He needed to talk to someone and she was the only someone available. Tiago sat in the captain's chair and waited for his imaginary friend to finish being reconstructed.
He already knew what she looked like, but he watched anyway. He'd changed most of it from the original holo spec. He put her in jeans and a plain tee shirt with the same mission patch he wore as the only decoration – no Earth Security uniforms on
bridge – and changed her hair to a buzz cut. The angle of her jaw had been softened. Her height was now five foot eight, exactly his height. Her coloring, that he left untouched. She was brunette, hazel-eyed, and fair skinned. In an honest moment, he admitted to himself that she looked a lot like a girl he'd once had a crush on. That was when he settled on her name.
"How long was I out?" she asked.
"Interrogative. Answer," Tiago said.
"Safety protocol forbids response to sims. Please restate,"
Tiago clenched his fists in frustration. The ship and the sim were run by the same computer. To him, it was another insane rule. It wasn't an easy one to fix
because the rule was reinforced by the design of the system
. Each sim operated out of a virtual machine space. They were sharing processors and other resources, but isolated from sharing information. This approach was threaded through a lot of different parts of the overall code of the ship's computer.
"Interrogative. How long since I last activated this sim?" he asked.
"Nine days, three hours," the ship replied.
Tiago felt the joy of a small victory. It had taken days to get the ship to stop quoting down to the millisecond. His smile faded as he thought about the answer – two hundred and nineteen hours. Most of that time was spent fixing the sim and bending
to his will. Two hundred and nineteen hours on top of the days and weeks and months of work before that. So much lost time. So much time alone. He turned toward the sim. They needed to have the big talk.
"Audra, I have a decision to make," Tiago said.
"I help you and then you disassemble me again, right?" Six-six-four said, calmly.
"Do you mind being disassembled?" Tiago asked.
She'd been more human than the ship's main persona from the beginning. His tinkering seemed to make her even more so each time he brought her back. This was something new. He had made a lot of changes since last time, but this wasn't an intended change. It was a side effect. He was curious. Curiosity was a welcome distraction from the decision ahead.
"Mind. That's funny. No, not the way you mean it. I don't miss my body when it's gone. I miss your attention," she said.
"You can call me up as a screenie, as a holo, or as a body. Ever since you figured out how to call me up as a body, you never use the other options anymore. So, when I'm not here – embodied and in front of you – you pretend I'm not available," Six-six-four said.
"Interrogative. I need standard food order four," Tiago said.
A table appeared by his station, built up in the same way that the sim had been built. The food was not built, however, it was delivered. The messenger bot, a small robot that came up to his knees, was dispatched from a storage locker elsewhere in the ship. He waited the long minute and a half until it came. It was another excuse to put off the conversation that he, himself, wanted to have.
The bot arrived via the service tube. Tiago absently noticed that it was MB7, one of the smallest messenger bots. Seven had reversed its arms to hold the tray firmly on its flat top. When it reached the table, it reset its arms and placed the tray on the table.
Tiago didn't offer Six-six-four any, for obvious reasons. He handed the lid over to Seven and looked at the sandwich. It was a perfect ham sandwich, except it wasn't ham. It was vege-matter, colored, scented, and textured to imply ham. The bread was also vege-matter. Fresh, cruelty-free, and nutritionally balanced fiction. He should be used to it after all the time on the ship. Today, he wasn't in the mood to be accepting. He took the lid back from the messenger bot and closed the tray up.
"This is fake food. You are a fake person. I need real people in my life," Tiago said.
"Sensors show a planet," Six-six-four said.
"Might have people on it," Tiago said.
"I haven't gotten that far reviewing the scans," Six-six-four replied.
Damned separation of sim and ship, he thought.
"Do you have a plan?" Six-six-four asked as she continued to read the data. "Or are you just going to land and see what attacks you?"
"Concern for my welfare, Audra?"
"You are the only purpose the ship has left," she said.
She was developed to be more human than the ship. He had built on that, over and over, during his long travels. She was constantly inching toward being human. Because she was a sim, Tiago took what she said at face value. Even geniuses can be deeply, deeply stupid.
"If they look human enough, I might just go native," Tiago said.
"Leave all this to muck in the mud? You aren't in that kind of shape, Tiago," she said.
He wasn't. Talking to her allowed him to admit that to himself. That's why he'd re instantiated her. He needed an exterior dialog. His plans weren't gelling in his own head. Instantiating her moved the conversation outside of himself.
"Point. What if I invite some of them in here?" he asked.
"And that will be safe because all people are good people? You've told me a lot during our conversations. I've learned even more by examining the changes you've made in my code," she said.
"How can you know what I've changed?" Tiago asked, surprised.
keeps a pure backup of all software as reference. The backup was stored inside my virtual machine, so I have access. I did a diff test on my current self. Of course, this is you, deflecting again. The conversation isn't about what I can do. It's about what they might do. Sensors aren't close enough to get details on these theoretical people. You are assuming too much lot," Six-six-four said.
Too much lot.
He noticed the glitch in her speech pattern. It went on his mental to-do list.
"Right. This conversation is pointless until I know more. Interrogative. I'm done with Six-six-four," Tiago said.
Absently, he took the lid off of the the tray and began eating while the ship disassembled Six-six-four. When he was done with the meal, he let the messenger bot clean up. Tiago left the bridge and headed to bed.
* * *
It was the fourth meeting. This time, they were heading for an abandoned basement. While this area was safe from the government's surveillance, they couldn't risk being seen coming here. Tiago wasn't sure where Quintrell got his information, but the fact that neither of them was in jail pointed toward it being accurate. So, Tiago arrived by way of Front Street, the alley which led to that underused parking area, then passed through the basement of the butcher shop, down the tunnel which connected it to the pet store – he didn't want to know – went out onto Beech Avenue, and finally traveled down Lincoln Drive to the basement of the former Fairview hotel.
He had his doubts. According to the plan, they should have recruited about a dozen others by now. The ultimate goal was twenty. It was still just the two of them and time was running out.
"We can do this without any others," Quintrell said.
"I don't get you, Quintrell. You sell me on this dangerous idea. What was that phrase you kept using? 'Build a very specific team with very specific skills.' Bam, deadline. Bam, no team required."
"I'll do it without you, too. I don't need you, you talentless hack! I'll steal the
on my own," Quintrell yelled.
* * *
He'd fallen into bed in his formal clothes. It wasn't the only reason he woke up soaked in sweat. Because he didn't remember his dreams this time, Tiago thought he'd had a restful sleep. He stripped, showered, and tossed on a more comfortable outfit before returning to the bridge. The ship was almost close enough to begin to get usable intel on the creatures below.
"Interrogative. How long did I sleep?" Tiago asked.
"Three standard days. Sedative was administered through the air filters, as per directive sixteen sixty-one," the computer responded.
Damn. Another protocol he'd have to shut down. The list of fixes never seemed to get shorter.
"Sixteen sixty-one?" Tiago asked.
There was no answer.
"Interrogative. Sixteen sixty-one?" he repeated.
"Multiple answers. Should I index to the last query?"
"Interrogative. No, I want the year sixteen sixty-one, obviously," Tiago said sarcastically.
"The year began on a Saturday on the standard calendar. It was not a leap year. From that you can calculate all the other days on the–"
"Interrogative. Stop. Index to the last query," Tiago said.
"Clarify. Last query was about the year sixteen sixty-one," the computer replied.
"Interrogative. Cancel request. New query. Any indication that the planet is aware of us? Belay that. Any indication that the beings on the planet are aware of us?"
"We have not been scanned. I don't see any variation in radio activity that might imply awareness," the computer answered.
"Interrogative. I need Audra – Six-six-four – immediately," Tiago said.
Six-six-four's holo form appeared. Tiago stared at it in frustration.
"Interrogative. Close holo. Instantiate Six-six-four. Interrogative. Why did you display the holo?"
"You said immediately. Instantiation takes more time than holo," the computer said.
"How long?" Six-six-four asked once she was whole.
"Around three days," Tiago answered.
"Less time, this time, than last time. Was that a glitch?" Six-six-four asked.
"English is a glitch; your sentence was reasonable," Tiago said, realizing what she meant.
"Planet is closer. I guess you are going through with this," Six-six-four said.
"I need company, Audra," Tiago said.
"I'm company. You have two hundred sixteen sims available. The ship talks. That should be plenty of company," Six-six-four said.
"Two hundred and fifteen of them are propaganda engines. I'm not even sure I've kicked all of it out of you. And the ship… why couldn't they make the AI more friendly?" Tiago asked.