Peter J. Borger
Nate had a personal dossier on every member of the Shark, nothing official, just his own notes; you don’t get ahead without sizing up the competition, and Nate was going to get ahead.
The ship was new, not Alcubierre, but fast, one of the first in-system electrostatic ram ships. Nate felt lucky having been picked for its first crew; as it was, he was the youngest member. Still, he felt he was more qualified than any of the others; it took a lot of prep and a serious focus to get to where he was on the knowledge scale by his 23rd year, but he wanted in on the belt rush, and you didn’t get there without experience in spacing. This ore freighter, the Shark, would give him that, not only in flight, but at the Beale station, where the miners took their ores to sell, and where he hoped eventually to get a position with enough pay to secure a ship and a habitat of his own.
There was only one other crew member who seemed to know as much as Nate, Ada Takahashi, an oriental woman who couldn’t have been much older than Nate, but had secured the position of chief engineer aboard the Shark. She was pretty in an odd sort of way, her olive shaped eyes made larger through perfectly round wire rims almost glowed, and her jet-black hair, almost longer than she, was gathered in a ball at the back of her head. A slender frame with little to indicate a womanly figure. Still, she had something Nate couldn’t put his finger on, not outside, not showing, but it was there. To his surprise and wonder, she didn’t seem the least bit ambitious, that worried him, and in his position as senior technical specialist, though they were often thrown together, she seemed unimpressed with Nate’s abilities and less than interested in his good looks.
Nate had attempted to socialize with this woman on several occasions with little luck; he finally got his chance when a high pressure xenon exciter for their collision laser exploded as she was changing out the weakened tube. Luckily the explosion was enclosed in the laser’s elliptical chamber. “Are you alright?” Nate asked. Ada grimaced; looking down he saw blood. There was a sizable shard of glass in her left hand. Nate removed the shard, wrapped the hand in a clean towel and helped her to the aid station. She looked at him oddly as he said, “They’ll take good care of you here.”
Later that afternoon he found her reading over a cup of sesame tea in the commissary, he asked her if she drank anything stronger and might want a beer. “I prefer my tea, Mr. Birne,” she said, “but if you want a beer, I would not be offended, and I would be more than happy to sit with you as you drink it. Please,” she pointed to the chair next to her.
“I noticed we were off the trajectory of the fuel launch; is there anything we can do to correct it?” Nate asked.
“Our trajectory is correct and must remain so; it was the fuel launchers who made the error, but my samples indicate enough natural occurring hydrogen in our path to make up the difference. Remember, we only have to accelerate for the first half of the journey, and there is sufficient thrust to keep the collection tanks full.” She went back to reading.
“What is it you’re so into reading there?”
“It is a book called ‘The Prophet’ by a man named Gibran.” She put down the pad and asked him, “Have you read much philosophy?”
“No, I tend to focus on technical materials rather that the humanities.”
“Then I would recommend a change in your studies, after all, your humanity is more important than the mechanics that surround you.”
“Mechanics are pretty important out here; I mean, our lives depend on them.”
“But if your life has no meaning, what’s the difference whether the mechanics save you or not? She asked.
Nate had to think about that one as it seemed out of character for the technical woman he knew in engineering. “Life is important,” he said, “But it’s easier if you have what you need.”
“You already have what you need, food, shelter, and a productive existence helping others of your kind.”
“I’m not where I want to be yet, it will take some time to get the funds I need to buy a ship and a habitat.”
“You plan to mine in the belt?”
“Yeah, it’s one of the best chances to make it big, and I want to be a part of it.”
“I understand mining is more physical labor than technical expertise. Have you much experience with physical labor?”
“Yes, ma’am, I put myself through tech school working in a quarry. I knew I needed to learn those techniques if I was going to be a miner.”
“It sounds like you’ve prepared well for both your position on this ship and your desire to be a belt miner.”
“Oh, I’ve got a long way to go just to get enough to pull it off, but it’s not like I don’t have a direction in my life. What are your plans?”
“I planned to be chief engineer on an ore ship named the Shark.”
“No, no, you already are chief engineer; don’t you have any goals?”
“Of course, I’m trying to determine why I exist, what I know and don’t know, and what has value or is valueless.”
Nate whistled, “That’s a lot more than most people ever consider; why would you want to know all that? I mean what would you get out of it?”
Ada looked at him oddly, “The answers to those questions, however I’m not making much progress it seems. Tell me, do you know why you exist?”
“I’m not sure why, only that I do, and I feel a need to seek the things I want.”
“Does what you want have value?” she asked.
“Yeah, getting those things will make me happier than I am now.”
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants,” that’s what Epictetus said.
“Well, if I had all the money I might ever need, I could do anything I wanted; I wouldn’t have any wants.”
“But having accomplished your goal, what then?”
“You know you ask an awful lot of questions.”
Ada smiled, “Just curious.”
“I have to get back,” Nate said chugging the remainder of his beer. “See you later.” Ada nodded going back to her reading. Strange woman, Nate thought. Ada was the only person he’d ever met who didn’t seem to care about getting ahead, and now, it was more than just disconcerting. He went back to work, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that in some way what she knew gave her some advantage, something he didn’t know, something important, something he needed to understand. During his break, he looked up Axiology, and loaded four different texts discussing it.
As Ada didn’t seem interested in a relationship, Nate asked Susan Yaeger if she wanted to have a drink with him. She was a well-built redhead with a cute smile, and a second class technician as well, but he found her dull, even though she seemed interested in him. She was as shallow as Ada was deep, and her efforts at conversation were thin and uninteresting. When he walked her back to her stateroom, he didn’t even attempt to kiss her, and grinned when she slammed the door. Still, his efforts at winning Ada over weren’t seeming to have any effect. His reading expanded to Epistemology, the nature and scope of knowledge, and Ontology, the notions of existence and reality. What bothered him most was how she had pegged him for what he was, a greedy, unfeeling person interested only in himself and his own needs, and that ground at his core.
Nate’s notions of how to act, what he should do, and the framework of his possible future all changed as he read and studied the texts of philosophy. He was now pulling lower techs up to speed for higher positions, and working harder when he was on shift. Yet he wasn’t wholly aware of these changes in his actions. He hadn’t yet come to any new goals, but his actions seemed more vital to him than goals, more immediate, more important, and Ada noticed the changes. Nate began to see her smile as he worked and when he was helping one of the techs solve a problem. By the time they reached mid-point and engine shutdown, her attitude toward Nate had softened to the point where he began to think he might have a chance with her.
The next time he saw her in the commissary, he stopped at her table to ask her a technical question concerning the hydrogen collectors. He didn’t make up the question just to try to impress her. His new efforts at improving his understanding in his area of expertise had prompted the query. “I hate to impose on your time off,” he began, “But I have a question about the ship’s collection systems.”
“It’s not an imposition; I was hoping to have a chance to see how your studies were coming.”
“I’m sorry to report that my efforts in the philosophies has not amounted to a great deal of understanding. More to confusion, but I haven’t given it up as a lost cause yet.”
“I disagree, Mr. Birne, I believe your studies have had serious effects on your understandings.”
“We’re not on duty here; is there a chance you could just address me as Nate?”
Ada chuckled, “I’m sorry, the formality is unneeded here, Nate. It’s just something built into me that I fall into too often. Feel free to ask anything you like.”
“I was just wondering about what effect the collectors have had on the space in front of the ship as the collectors will be turned off shortly.”
“The collectors will be left on until the tanks are full, even though the engines have been cut to begin deceleration. This is so that we’ll have fuel for the major fuel burn on our return trip.”
“And what happens to the cloud of hydrogen when the collectors go off line?“Oh, we’ll pass through the cloud, and the hydrogen will go back to being a free element floating in space.”
“I see,” he said, but he was really looking into Ada’s eyes. “You know, there’s something else I’ve been wondering about.”
“What’s that, Nate?” Nate moved in close and kissed her.” She didn’t resist or push him away, but she looked very surprised. “Why did you do that?”
“Because I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I first saw you.”
“Society doesn’t… I mean… such things just haven’t … I’m not sure I understand what I’m feeling right now. This time she moved in and kissed him, and he was more than willing to take the hint. He wrapped his arms around her and made the kiss worth its weight in sensual gold. Afterward he could tell she was aroused; her breathing was faster and she was flushed. “I don’t quite understand it, Nate, but I must say, you’re a more surprising individual than any other I have known. But what about the social aspect of….”
“You mean because it isn’t often that an underling falls for an officer of higher rank?”
“Well…no… not just that… the repercussions of such activity.”
“I don’t care about any repercussions; I like you. I really like you.”
“I like you too, Nate, but perhaps we should consider our status in respect to the society we are a part of. I … hadn’t expected to be the first one to pass the uncanny valley.”
“I’ve never heard it called that, but even your books talk about the value of emotions and feelings, and you’ve got some uncanny valleys I’d like to explore.”
A buzzer came alive through her com pad, and she looked at the screen. “It seems our discussion will have to wait, there’s a small object in the ship’s path. Would you like to join me in trying to identify it?”
“Sure, I don’t go on shift for another twelve hours.”
The two gathered about the radar screen in the engine room and looked over the proposed possibilities the computer had calculated from the object’s mass and size. “From the looks of this it appears to be an old style oxygen cylinder. The ship’s collision lasers will vaporize the tank; it shouldn’t pose a threat.” Ada said, but Nate didn’t respond, just stared blankly at the screen. Ada could almost see the wheels turning in his head.
“No! You’ve got to stop that laser from firing!” He finally blurted out.
“The hydrogen cloud is out there, if it mixes with that oxygen from that cylinder and the ship passes through fast enough…”
“Oh, my…friction!” She yelped, but it was too late; the laser had already fired. Within seconds, the ship passed through the spot and there was indeed an explosion. Normally, the ship’s hull being strong enough to resist such a blast, such a blast would not be detrimental. However, the explosion occurred just as the vent ports had opened to release noxious gasses from the collector magnets. The blast put great back pressure on these vents and blew out a section of them in the engine room.
Nate’s left arm was all but torn off, and he saw Ada laying face down in a pool of blood. He turned he over to see a gaping hole in her side as the ship’s hull began sealing leaks immediately. Quickly inspecting her wound, he saw metal ribs and broken wire harnesses. “I’m afraid my power cell has been damaged; I don’t have long,” she said.
Nate’s problems didn’t stop there as the pressure door to the engine room closed automatically and the room was being vented to put out a fire as the heat of the explosion set off the fire sensors. He pulled off his shirt and pressed it against the wound in Ada’s side. “There’s no need for that,” she said. “My power cell has little left. Save yourself!”
Nate lifted the shirt and looked at the metal ribs. He stared at Ada’s face. “You can’t be a synthetic, I saw you bleed.”
“The efforts to make us as close to human as possible have advanced considerably. I was the first prototype to be programmed with spontaneous human emotional respone.”
“But I looked you up in the directory and it listed you with an ‘A’ for Asian.”
“The ‘A’ was for ‘artificial’ it would have been an ‘O’ for ‘occidental.’”
“But Goddamnit I have feelings for you,” Nate spat.
Ada smiled, “Surprising as it may seem, I have true feelings for you as well.” She turned and kissed him. “But I’m not supposed to,” she said tracing his lips with a finger. As her finger dropped, Nate could see her systems were shutting down.
“You can’t die; I can’t let you,” Nate said, barely able to breathe in the growing decay of oxygen. He jumped up and grabbed the emergency communications panel with his good arm, “There’s no fire in the engine room, but there are two people injured badly in here, one human and one synthetic, get life support back on and get medics and mechanics down here stat.” It used all the air he had left, and he passed out.
He woke in the medical wing with his arm in a machine, and a med-tech preparing a hypo gun with his back to Nate. “Hey, is Ada okay?” he asked.
“What? You mean the synthetic?” the tech asked.
“Oh yeah, she’s okay; needed some cleaning out, their power cells don’t usually leak, but a piece of metal went right through it. She’ll need some composite skin replacement, but otherwise…
“What about her brain?”
“She’s fine, there’s a secondary power source for their brains now. It wasn’t damaged,” the man looked at him strangely, “Why do you ask?”
“Can I see her?” Nate asked.
“If you want to go over to the repair wing, but you’ll have to wait till the bone knitter is done with your arm.”
The tech looked at the gauges on the machine, “Another ten or fifteen minutes, but you’ll have to take it easy for a while, and you’ll have to come back for nerve growth treatments for at least a week. Say, you didn’t take a hit in the head, did you?”
“No, my head’s fine; how will I know when this thing’s done?”
“When it beeps, I’ll come back and turn it off, then I’ll put a sling on your arm and you can do whatever the hell you want to do; except use the arm!” the tech said, having heard just about enough from this patient. He left the room.
Nate smiled, I better get used to that attitude if I’m going to pursue this, he thought, but he knew he couldn’t do anything else. When he was released, he went to the repair wing and found Ada; her body was under a skin regeneration hood, but her head was exposed, and she was awake. “How’re you doing?” he asked.
“Thanks to you, the internal damage was minimal, the acids hadn’t been able to eat through anything important; they flushed the hole with neutralizer at the scene.”
“Look, I know synthetics are treated like…”
“You can say it, like machines, but we are machines. I haven’t been able to come up with an argument that would allow me any better status than the hydrogen collector itself. The Bendix company owns me; I don’t rate any human freedoms.”
Nate touched Ada’s cheek, “I think I can help you with that. You see, all they did was give you life. That’s all the parents of humans do in having children. They give them life, but it doesn’t give them the right to own their children. When a child arrives at a point where he or she can think for themselves, the parents have to let the child go, allow it the freedom to choose its own method of living. We’ll try that as a start in the courts. He bent and kissed her deeply. I don’t want to own you either; it’s just that I don’t think I want to live without you.
Ada smiled up at him, “Like I said,” she whispered, “I like how your thinking has progressed.”
Food for Thought
How would an AI react to true affection? If it has the ability to think and to learn, then the ability to feel must also be considered. Parents do not own their children, although in the first years of life they do tell them what to do and when to do it. Eventually the child must be allowed to function on his/her own, and at that point, the parent must relinquish his/her hold. Once an AI begins to act on its own recognizance, can the company that manufactured it continue to claim ownership? This short story, Ada, explores these notions within a fictional setting.
About the Author
Peter spent eleven years teaching math in a high school, fourteen years as a systems analyst, and ten years as a website developer. During that time he edited and wrote for several company newsletters, wrote scripts for cartoons, and delivered two research papers. He has written four novels three novellas and many short stories as a working author living just west of Chicago, Illinois.
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