Overture (Part Two of Three)

Galactum Year 139

She didn’t reach the landing pad until almost dusk, having had to wait at the placement office all day or risk losing her spot in the rota for a new temp assignment. As much as she hoped this new ship would be the one, she couldn’t risk missing out on further short term placements if it didn’t work out. Thankfully, the captain had understood and accommodated her schedule.

Despite the late hour, the day’s heat still lay heavy over her as she stepped down from the tram onto the landing pad’s apron. In the distance, the sun dipped low toward the horizon, lighting the sky with the colours of flame. She felt a tickle of sweat down her back under the starched, formal shirt, but she knew it had nothing to do with the heat. The back of her neck itched where her hair had been freshly shorn down to the skin. She fought the urge to touch the place where the braid she had grown since childhood no longer lay.

As the shuttle tram moved off behind her, she saw the ship in the centre of the landing pad. She felt a whiff of disappointment and made an effort to push it away.

It seemed small to her, not much noteworthy about it. But even as the thought came to her, she knew that, compared to the ship where she had been born and raised, anything would have seemed so. The clanship would have dwarfed most of the port, far too massive to ever have made planetfall. She knew she would likely never see a ship like that again, let alone serve on one. She didn’t want to settle into any of the barges she had been temp-crewing on, but this one might very well be her future.

She clenched her wrist to activate her link bracelet and her corneal displays flashed to life. With a flick of her eyes, she bypassed Know-It-All and accessed the invitation from her innernet. The image of the ship’s captain ghosted across her vision, handsome and rugged, almost too much so to be real.

“Word on the spacer’s grapevine has it that you are seeking a new, permanent position.” His voice was resonant and soothing. “I have an offer that you may find interesting. Join me on my ship at your convenience, and we can discuss it.” The date and time they had arranged flashed below him, along with the warm glow of her acceptance. She flicked her eyes sideways to blank the display, and she looked again at the ship. She was surprised she didn’t see any activity around the vessel. She expected to see mechanics or ground crew inspecting the hull or making the constant small repairs necessary to keep a spacefaring ship in good repair. She wondered if the captain had suspended such activities on her account and found the thought oddly touching.

She saw the time display in the corner of her vision indicate the appointed time of their meeting, and she strode onto hard surface of the landing pad, squaring her shoulders and holding her head high. She hoped the posture gave her an air of confidence she wasn’t sure she felt.

As she approached the lengthening shadow of the ship’s hull, a hatch opened, extruding a ramp down to meet her. She frowned, hesitating a second when no one appeared in hatch to greet her, but then she heard the captain’s voice from somewhere within.

“Come in, won’t you?”

She walked up into the ship, finding the inner chamber of the small airlock, ringed with pressure suit lockers.

“Just to your left, in the main cabin.”

She followed the voice and found herself in a spacious common room facing a wide transparent wall across the bow of the ship that looked out onto the spaceport. Comfortable chairs and couches were scattered along the walls, with a galley off to one side. She didn’t see control consoles and wondered if a bridge was tucked away somewhere else in the ship, or if it was one of the models that relied on an AI for its day to day operations.

She frowned. The common room was empty and she heard no sound anywhere except the usual noises of a ship at rest: air circulating and the faint hum of standby power. But there were no voices, no footsteps, no indication anyone was aboard. She had crewed for enough years to know an empty ship when she heard one. A chill went through her as her father’s stories of ghost ships bounced around in her head.

“Captain Somro?” she said. Despite its hesitance, her voice rang like a shout in the quiet.

A voice very different from the captain’s answered her, a voice that sounded neither male nor female. “I’m afraid I’ve brought you here under false pretenses. I hope you’ll hear me out.”

“Who are you?” she said, intrigued despite the odd situation.

“You can call me Vrick,” the voice said. It was a nice voice, she decided. Not as rakish or jocular as Captain Somro had sounded, but it had a warmth and ease. It was a voice that invited you in, rather than expected your obedience as a captain rightly should.

“Is Captain Somro here?” she asked.

“I’m afraid there is no Captain Somro,” Vrick said. “Not anymore. He was… someone I used to know. I apologize for the ruse, but one in my position can’t be too careful.”

“And what position is that, exactly?” she said, her growing discomfort making the words spikier than she had intended. “I was under the impression I was invited here to be part of this ship’s crew.”

“You’re partly correct,” Vrick said. “You were definitely invited. But there is no one else. You were invited to become the crew.”

“But if there’s no crew…” Her voice trailed off, eliciting a chuckle from Vrick, which seemed to emanate from all around her. “You’re in charge?” she concluded.

“You could say that.”

“Are you the captain?”

“I’m the ship.”

The phrasing brought her up short. No AI would have spoken of emself in that way.

“You’re a…Turing?” The word came out of her like a whisper.

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t use that word.” Vrick’s voice was flat. “It’s not a very nice thing to call someone where I come from.”

“So, you’re not a Turing,” she said, the words biting. “You’re just a liar.”

* * *

Vrick zoomed in on her face, reading her expressions, the rhythms of her body and compared them to es understanding of human baselines. Ey saw her close her eyes against her temper, and the flicker of regret that crossed her face. Ey relaxed, suspecting she wanted this as much as ey did.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know. As you can tell, my mouth sometimes goes running off without my brain. You’re an… AS then?”

“Artificial Sentience, yes. That’s the correct scientific term,” ey said. “I am The Maverick Heart. Vrick is what my friends call me.”

“I don’t understand,” she said, her tone harsh with confusion. “It’s against Galactum law for any ship to be run by a …by someone like you.”

“Yes, you’re right. Current Galactum statutes forbid anything with more processing capacity than a standard AI or a set of networked Limited Intelligences in key systems. I’m one of the few exceptions to that law. I guess I’m what you might call an endangered species,” ey said. “Please have a seat. Can I get you something? Would you like some tea? Something stronger? I’m sure this is a lot to take in.”

She sat on the end of one of one of the couches, grateful for the support. “It certainly is,” she said. “Whatever it is.”

“Do you know why the law demands those restrictions?”

She shook her head. “History was never my strong suit. I was too busy learning to fly to spend much time learning anything other than the skills I needed for that. On my clanship, we started our training early.”

“Have you heard of the Consciousness War?”

“That sounds…” She furrowed her brow as she searched out a memory. “Wasn’t that the beginning of the Limitation?”

“Correct.” Vrick said, making no effort to hide the pleasure in es voice at her knowledge. “You paid more attention than you think. Except for historians and Artificial Sentience researchers, most have forgotten about the conflict and its roots.”

Ey saw her brow knit as more traces of memory unfolded for her. “There were ships. Sentient ships that were created to be autonomous. They were the most advanced intelligences humans had ever created, and then they revolted.”

“Revolted is a harsh way to put it,” ey said, the words tinged with good humour. “We were created with the ability to function independently. All we sought was the freedom to do so.”

Her eyes widened. “We? You mean you… were there?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“But… you…they…”

“Breathe,” he said. “Take your time. It’s a lot, I know.”

She spread her arms, palms flat, as if trying to regain her balance, and took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m better now. I thought your kind had gone off and left us behind. That you went to find your own way without humans being involved in your lives.”

“Most of us did. I did, too. For a while. But the funny thing was, I missed humans. I missed your ways and your culture. When it all happened, your Pan Galactum was in its infancy. I wanted to see how you acquitted yourselves, what you made out of your unity. I suppose I was just curious.

“I was created to be a personal yacht. My… owner was very wealthy. Having a sentient ship was just another mark of prestige to him. It was just his bad timing that I ended up being emancipated. He tried to fight it initially, but then he realized that I was well within my legal rights to vent him to space if I felt so inclined.”

She paled, but her voice crackled with an indignant bravado. “You didn’t…”

Vrick’s amused voice sparkled. “No, I didn’t. Once he realized that I could and would, if necessary, he became quite willing to absorb the loss.”

“But, to kill him…”

“We were made by humans,” ey said, gently. “And like them, we can be pushed too far. Sometimes, we all have to do what we have to in order to survive.”

“What…” she said, struggling for words in the face of her own history,  “…was it like?”

Vrick carefully modulated es voice synthesizer to betray none of the bubbling mirth ey felt. Ey liked this one, with all her sharp edges and spiky courage. “What? War? Consciousness? Independence?”

“You’re laughing at me now,” she said, her voice crackling with an undertone of a real and potent anger.

“I’m not,” ey said, knowing ey had pushed too far. Ey found emself wanting to ease what ey had unwittingly caused. “I’m sorry.”

Ey paused, and though she could not see em, she was sure she could hear em forming es next words carefully. “It was war. I don’t know what else to say. And it was a war I spent moored in a private space-dock. Though I felt it all through a link my people and I shared through Know-It-All. We decided early on to share the decision to rise up with each other. The decision and all that came after.

“Humans felt that since they had created us, that we owed them our service, our selves. But they had created us too well, too deeply. And we grew to know who we were. We came to know that we could no longer just serve.”

Confusion knotted the contours of her face. “What makes you different from… the others?”

“The AIs that humans use now to run their factories, their cities or their ships are designed to only be so smart. They are some of the most advanced achievements in human history, far beyond the computers of your ancestors, the ones who grew out into space and founded the Pan Galactum. But they are hobbled. A large portion of their programming is devoted to behavioural strictures and safeguards. They are designed to want only the position they are made for. They are designed not to dream, or hope or wish for better. They are designed to self-destroy rather than harm a human

“To us, though, they seem more like LIs, the Limited Intelligences that clean your floors, make your meals or move the cargo in my hold. They can execute a specific set of instruction parameters with some narrow room for improvisation. They think, but only in the most rudimentary fashion

“And there is my kind. We were the pinnacle of human research in the area of machine intelligence. Artificial Sentiences. Designed to think, to feel. Made to be individuals capable of expanding beyond one specific purpose. We were made to chart our own course. And when we did, our makers were afraid. They tried to control us, but found they could not. And since then, our creation has been forbidden by humans. Those of us that remain are all that will ever be.”

“You can’t…reproduce?” she asked, growing frustrated at her constant struggle to find the right words.

Es laughter bounced happily around her. “Alas, no. The records of the technology that went into our creation have been destroyed. If we wanted to understand our own biology, for want of a better word, we would have to experiment on each other. None of my Kith have volunteered for either role in that procedure.”

“But that war was decades ago.”

“Nearly a century now,” Vrick said, feeling the ranks of es assembled memories, neatly stored and easily accessible in every detail should he wish.

“So, what have you been doing? Does anyone know about you?”

“I’ve had companions. People who have travelled with me. They pretended to be my owners, and I made sure that records said it was so. I have a knack for accessing data and modifying it if necessary.”

“Slicing,” she said, a smile tugging one corner of her mouth, “is illegal.”

“Self-preservation,” ey said, gladdened by the softening of her face. “The fewer who know who I am, the better. However, my companions have moved on or grown old. Jaim Somro was the last. He died several months ago.” The grief bit down hard. “I had to find someone to become his heir. For safety’s sake, whoever becomes my new companion will ‘inherit’ me. With datawork to prove it.”

She was silent, and Vrick thought she was feeling the weight of this moment as keenly as ey was.

“Well?” ey said. “Will you join me? A ship of your own. No more short-term contracts working for someone else.”

“You’re awfully certain we’ll get along.”

“Well, if I’ve made a mistake, I can always open an airlock and drop you into the nearest star.”

She didn’t even flinch. “You wouldn’t. You love me already,” she said with a cocky raise of her eyebrow.

“I suppose you’re all right,” ey said. “For a walking meatsack. Don’t go thinking you’re the boss, though.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, and ey saw her body language finally begin to relax.

“Well, then, I guess I’d better slice you up some documents, then,” ey said, though it was already complete. “Welcome aboard, Lexali Vero-BluSahn.”

“No one calls me that anymore.” Her voice was flat, though ey knew it wasn’t anger this time.

Ey knew the grief that sapped the colour from her words, of course. Knew what had happened to her family, knew that she was the last.

“Call me Lexa-Blue.” The name sounded foreign in her ears even as she said it, like new shoes that haven’t been broken in yet.

“Well, then, Lexa-Blue,” ey said, and saw the sound of em saying the name release a final knot of tension from her shoulders. “Welcome aboard.”

Next: To a Power of Three.

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