“FAMILY MEETING! CARGO HOLD! RIGHT NOW!” Darren pounded the metal tray against the walls as he trudged from the supply closet up towards the bridge, making damned certain that everyone could hear him.
“Darren? What’s going on?” Cas mumbled groggily, shuffling along behind him.
“Why do I feel like someone dumped a recording of cosmic radiation into my memory indexing . . .”
Darren rounded on her, brandishing the tray like a shield. “No talking, and no electrocuting, not until the family meeting is over.”
She was puzzled by his defensive, almost fearful stance and tone, but chalked it up to just another human cultural quirk. Cognitive functions too fuzzy to dedicate any more processing cycles to it, she awkwardly hobbled down to the largest single room in the ship, the cargo bay.
Taking a seat on one of the smaller crates, she held her head in her hands as she struggled to work out why everything seemed so . . . fuzzy. Her insides felt . . . bad. Sick? Was this what sick was like? It was a non-specific, full body sense of malaise that worked its way up from the tips of her virtual toes to the crown of her digital scalp.
A shiver worked through her as Chryso and Tilantrius walked in, both wearing matching puzzled expressions.
Tilantrius waved to her as he found a small folding chair wedged between two crates of autonomous signal repeaters. Dragging it out, he set it up just across from her, his brow furrowed in an expression of mixed frustration and confusion. “What in the fundamental laws of physics is he blubbering about?”
Chryso just shrugged and turned to face Cas, propping himself up against the same crate she was sitting on.
She thought about it a moment, running through the limited idiomatic dictionary she had for the dialect of Earthling that Darren spoke.
“Family meeting . . . umm . . . “ Her mind still felt foggy and slow. She remembered shutting down to reboot . . . and then nothing. There was massive gap from shutting down to Darren looking like he was going to bash her hard-light skull in with a metal tray.
That didn’t makes sense. She wasn’t . . . exactly certain how this worked, but she had a strange, hot, uncomfortable sensation somewhere between her midriff and her throat. Like she’d done something wrong, like Darren wasn’t just being a ‘weird human.’
Guilt. For what, she had no idea.
His look of fear just gnawed at her, a prickling that was competing with the guilt and confusion for “worst active sensation.” She’d never felt like this before, but somehow his hurt and fear were hers too.
She unconsciously hugged herself, trying to make it go away, hoping there was some hidden button on her body that would make all these feelings stop. They weren’t hers, they didn’t belong there, and she didn’t want them.
“Family meeting, an informal arrangement between brood-mates and genetically similar specimens, typically consisting of at least a 20% genetic similarity, though adoptive members can be included in this unit. Typically for the discussion of matters concerning a specific member of the family, or the good of the family as a whole.”
The answer just sort of bubbled out of her uncontrolled. It . . . seemed accurate. Enough. Probably.
“So, wait, you’re saying that he’s adopted us into his . . . pack unit or something?” Chryso stared incredulously at Cas, who struggled to form a cohesive answer.
“I think . . . I think it’s more like he thinks we’ve adopted him.” Cas mumbled, massaging her temples with her fingertips. She couldn’t feel it, and there was no real effect to the gesture, but it was just another one of those quirks that had started to crop up. She couldn’t control them, and couldn’t stop them.
All Tilantrius could do was chuckle. “Strange times make for strange company. But what’s all this about then?”
Darren appeared, Zarn close behind looking like he was straight out of a propaganda poster, and not the patriotic kind. He was leaning heavily on his prosthetic, staggering almost drunkenly from Chryso’s mix of . . . pharmaceutical aides. A thick, angry scar was drawn over his brow and under a crude cloth patch. The wound was still fresh and glistened with a mix of salves to help fight infection and stave off the pain. He was indeed picturesque, but it was the kind of picture that showed the costs and horrors of war.
His single eye scanned the entire group, one by one. Measuring them. Sizing them up. Glowering at them.
Or at least that’s what it looked like. In reality the medications were still in full effect, the scowl was from the concentration required to stay standing, and the intensity was a function of him looking for the cat.
The alternating thunk and scrape of his prosthetic as he struggled towards the assembled group quieted them all, until he finally found a perch on a case of tungsten nails used to secure survey equipment to stone.
Darren cleared his throat, translator crackling, and began a long winded ramble effectively summed up by his translator in a few short bursts.
“Cas have scary evil floating puppet sickness. Also ouch, my face.”
A very confused silence fell on the group as Darren tried to figure out why no one was reacting, and why everyone else tried to figure out what Darren wanted them to be reacting to.
Cas spoke up first, head still resting in both her hands. “ . . . We really need to get you a better translator. Because that . . . that is not even close to what you just said.”
Amonna looked over her reflection in the mirror. Hair was an unkempt, oily mess. Cheeks were thinner, paler, no hint of blue in them. Her gills glistened subtly, and when she closed her eyes she could hear the wheezing rasp of her tortured lungs.
It had been about two days since they’d pulled her out of the wreck. Two days since she met Justice. Usually AI chose a gender after a certain level of development – if they intended to interact with organic intelligence, that was. It was a little thing that added warmth and depth to their person, while also helping establish a sense of ‘normality.’ Even if they defied traditional gender roles, it at least made it easier to place them into a neat mental box for the purposes of understanding.
She splashed a bit of water on her face before steadying herself against the burnished steel of the metal sink.
Justice wasn’t like other AI. It was singular. A thing, not a personality. It spoke with purpose and will, but not identity. It was both more and less than any AI drone, aide, or assistant she’d ever encountered. It had a cold indifference that made her feel vanishingly insignificant, like an insect under glass.
She glanced down at her body, shoulders drooping. She’d wasted away in that little coffin. Starved for calories and largely motionless, much of her physical power was gone, and so was her stamina. Though her hair had stopped falling out, she still looked and felt powerless.
She closed her eyes. It hurt to directly perceive herself at the moment. Sole survivor. Wasted away. Her dreams had been unpleasant as of late, to say the least.
Ironically, for as helpless as she felt, she’d never been in a position of greater power.
Arch-Judge, she’d been titled. It was . . . something her translator struggled with. It seemed to be idiomatic, but in a much older language. Arch-Judge was as close as the software could approximate. She’d read through the debug file, it was something mixed between “Internal Affairs Detective,” “Judge,” and “Executor.”
Everyone saluted her now, which was . . . interesting.
Prying herself away from the sink, she quietly paced across her rather spacious new cabin towards the wardrobe. She’d been told it was a warship, but it didn’t feel like one. It was an odd and mismatched amalgam of things. Her quarters were larger than any she’d stayed in before, but they felt odd. Everything about it seemed to be an addition on top of a repair on top of a modification.
The inclusion of both a shower and bath large enough for her to soak in were nice touches, ones she had made liberal use of her first day recovering, but they didn’t match each other. The tub was big enough for three of her, but the shower she had to crouch in.
In a normal vessel, there’d be central storage for water, and central “waste recycling and disposal.” Not so on this vessel. While she couldn’t tell where waste water ran off to, she could tell that all of the water she was using was running from a massive bronze colored tank crudely welded to the wall. It was gravity feed, and there didn’t seem to be a way to replenish the supply, it was just there.
She began pulling on the seemingly archaic uniform they’d provided her. She’d laid it out before her shower, having retrieved it from a carved stone wardrobe that had been inlaid with some kind of white crystal. It boggled her mind just how many disparate elements her quarters possessed . . .
That madness aside, the uniform fit well enough. It was a sleek black number with too many layers and an absurd number of fasteners, she’d initially thought it ridiculous. Nevertheless, she had to admit . . . it did grant her presence, to say the least. There was no logic to the composite armor plate she wore over her chest, nor to the skin-tight bodysuit that went under it, or the dozen other plates that seemed to cover every other place that might make her less hydrodynamic in water. She looked like she was gearing up for a high risk warrant execution.
She took one last look around her quarters, and with a heavy sigh, opened the door to face the gleaming monstrosity that had become her constant companion. Another “it,” she had discovered. Io was a strange mixture of terrifying presence and demure gentleness that consistently unnerved her. It introduced itself as a “micro-mechanical non-sentient simulacrum of intelligence,” and escorted her to her quarters from the hangar she’d been left it.
Physically, it was a ten foot tall shimmering chrome goliath whose skin seemed to shift and flow before her very eyes while holding perfect and unnatural stillness in the rest of its form. Abstract, but unnaturally geometric limbs grew out of a hard edged, octahedron shaped torso, propelling the massive thing along with at least a dozen of these whip-like manipulator tendrils.
It looked like a freaky chrome box with too many tentacles, and she hated it. It insisted it wasn’t actually intelligent, claiming it had no sense of self, and was simply an incredibly complex machine that only responded to external stimuli. No AI bluebox. No processing cores. No network presence, nothing to hack, just plain input and output.
It loomed silently, motionless, as if staring at her without eyes.
It remained motionless, but a soft, bass series of musical notes warbled through the air for her translator to convert. It struggled momentarily, something that she had never encountered with any other language, spoken or written.
“Good morning user.”
Amonna had been consistent in her “testing” of Io. She would not so quickly find herself surrounded by AI again, not without a fight. At first, she’d been certain that it was intelligent, that it was merely “playing dumb.” After all, it was clearly a machine that could walk, talk, and think.
However, as she interacted with it more, and it’s strange and sometimes nonsensical answers remained consistent, she started to believe it.
What finally convinced her was frankly a rather childish display. While holding up three fingers, she asked if it could see them. When it replied in the affirmative, that it could see all three of her fingers, she closed her fist and asked how many fingers she was previously holding up.
It couldn’t answer.
It had no memory, no sense of object permanence. It simply reacted to its environment in real time. Tasks could be initiated and carried through, but it couldn’t explain why it was doing them. When she finally asked Io what the purpose of its creation was, it barely even responded.
“I exist to make a point.”
When she pressed Io on the matter, it offered no further insight, simply reaffirming that its’ sole function was to “Make a point.”
She rapped on one of the mechanical “legs” sprouting from the core body, soft clangs echoing down the cavernous, empty corridor.
“Did you gather everyone with clearance to review the briefings I asked for?”
Another bass warble. “I have completed the requested task.”
Amonna nodded subtly, turned, and set off down the long corridor at a walking pace. Io kept perfect stride, at least a full ton of machinery moving in absolute silence along with her.
Coryphaeus. Core World military police. She’d had to do quite a bit of background homework while soaking in the bath on that one. She’d never really known much about Core Worlds, or the Coryphaeus, other than she couldn’t afford to visit one and couldn’t afford to have the other visit her.
Core Worlds were universally ancient, and vanishingly rare. At a certain point in development, a level of technological prowess was reached that rendered labor obsolete. Post-Scarcity in one of the truest senses. At this point, a society did one of three things: implode, wither, or stabilize.
Implosion was the most common. As advances in technology outpaced social change, society would develop inequality, massive cultural flaws, or become downright depraved as increasing segments of society no longer had any meaningful purpose other than maximizing the pleasure of their own existence. Sometimes this was triggered by illegal tech-trading, something the FSOS did its best to prevent, but some races were just too clever for their own good. The breakdown of society set on quickly, and typically irreversibly. It was tragic, but . . . it was sometimes hard to feel bad for a civilization that collapsed because no-one had to work for anything, and those that were working were just trying to find new and better ways of experiencing extreme highs.
Withering was the second most common. Simply put, when a society was capable of simulating an artificial reality more desirable than actual reality, people just stopped going out. The technology was enough to sustain them, but the civilization that enabled their fantasies became second thoughts to the fantasies themselves. Though sometimes it took thousands upon thousands of years for the members of the society to die off, what with the vast array of devices connecting them to their virtual existences also supporting their biological functions, once the slide began it was almost always irreversible. When given the chance to choose between artificial godhood and legitimate mediocrity, it was almost always an easy call to make.
The least common, and weirdest as far as Amonna was concerned, was stabilization. Through some miracle of cultural, philosophical or political insight, a post scarcity society actually balanced out neatly. No concentration of resources into the hands of hedonistic oligarchs, no disconnections from reality by self-deluding escapists . . . just really powerful belief systems that acted as an overriding measure for the normal impulses that would have become destructive by the allocation of functionally limitless resources.
Most were obsessed with tradition, or culture, or the philosophical value of verisimilitude. That, and their continued way of life. Bereft of innovation, advancement, or adaptation, everything of value could be found in lessons from the past. It was an odd culture to deal with, but it was why she was wearing the “armor” she was. It’s why she had a strange title, and why a deeply unsettling mindless automaton was following her to a staff briefing. If she was going to work with these Coryphaeus investigative elements, she needed to understand them. And to understand them, she needed to talk plainly with them. Which is why she had Io round up all of them with the appropriate security clearance in a single briefing room.
As the hydraulic doors hissed open, and a single motion activated light flickered on in the center of the room, she noticed just how painfully empty it was.
“ . . . Io, why is there no one in the briefing room?”
“I do not have an answer to that question, user.”
Amonna growled quietly in frustration.
“Io, I asked you to gather everyone with a security clearance. Why are they not here?”
“Have you considered that perhaps you are the only entity on board this ship with the requisite security clearance to attend this meeting?”
Amonna slapped her palm against her snout, and let out a long, exasperated sigh.
It was going to be one of those days.