“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 18
Verdock looked at the slowly spinning, holographic representation of the Core World. His nictitating membranes flickered over his eyes, and he felt a slight sense of amusement. He was fairly certain he didn’t need them, but it was almost . . . fun, in a way, to stare at something and be able to blink.
It wasn’t a clever thought. He knew that. It felt like he had far fewer clever thoughts these days. His head felt wrapped in comfortable weight, like the press of fatigue on a double shift that quieted his incessant internal monologue. Normally the idea that he might be losing his higher cognitive functions would terrify him, but it was more complex than that. True, while his abstract thought was somewhat muddled, he felt far less fear, far less uncertainty. A situation would arise, and it seemed all he had to do was follow through with what came naturally to mind. Fighting the commando team for the ship had felt like . . . like swallowing. He just started the motions, and the rest sort of fell into place.
Instinct. That as the word he was looking for. He was doing things by instinct now. It was better that way, he concluded.
The holographic display flickered, and his thoughts were drawn back to the present, and the pressing matter before him. He wouldn’t be able to rely purely on instinct here, it seemed.
The basketball sized, perfect color rendition of an entire planet hovered ever so slightly above the large and dizzyingly complex briefing table. Normally the room would be filled with as many as three dozen onlookers, all paying dutiful attention to their commander. Now there was only him, and he was only briefing himself. He shifted in his seat, no longer content to recline comfortably and listen to the subtle murmur of FTL travel.
It looked like a jewel of spun glass, and he found his eyes quickly glazing over as the sparkling surface of the world transfixed him. With a quick shake of his head, he freed himself from the spell, and drug his mind back to the matter that had brought him down to this briefing room.
He was going to shatter that jewel.
Well, that was bit of an overstatement, but it would be a jewel no longer once he was finished. The plan was . . .
His brow furrowed. Something with the communications equipment. He tried to push the weight bearing down on his mind away, if only for a few minutes.
Right! The cargo this vessel carried, it was all high level military communications equipment. Quantum encryption, the works. Now that the Unfinished had it, they’d . . .
A pang of hunger drew his train of thought away for a moment, and as he pushed it down he growled with frustration. “The plan, what was the plan . . .” His voice startled him, dark and rough as it was. He kind of liked it that way. “ . . . plan . . .” He let the word rumble out of him. His speech was throaty, rough, and intimidating. He wondered if that was attractive.
His mind flickered to Amonna Tav, and lingered there. He thought back to her physical qualification for field service. Oh, she had qualified, and how. Sprinting, swimming, striking, shooting . . . it had put her classmates to shame. A faint smile crossed his face, and he let his eyes droop as his imagination wandered. He could still see her clearly in his minds eye after all, it seemed. She’d been at least 165 cm tall, 70 kilos placed ever so perfectly in all the right places, and had a tail that went on for leagues. Fit, clever, and filled out in all the right places, he wondered why he’d never really taken an interest in her. Half his age and it’d be fraternization, sure, but he regretted not trying to bring her along. Maybe get to know her better.
Sure it had been part of the plan to leave her behind but . . .
The plan. He was supposed to be focusing on the plan.
Go to Ceuzmec. The way would be open by the time he arrived. There was . . . a vault. Somewhere. It had what the Unfinished needed in it. He’d need to find someone who knew where that vault was. That would be hard, so he’d probably need to find someone that could find someone else that knew where the vault was. That’d probably be easy. Getting things from people was easy when you were four times their size.
He grinned, and flexed his bicep, taking a moment to admire it. It was bigger around than his leg used to be. He bet Amonna would admire it too, if they met again.
Maybe after the vault, he’d go looking for her.
Amonna floated fitfully in what should have been a comfortably saline solution. She’d put away her files and charts and figures for a few hours to try and sleep, but it just wasn’t coming to her. She’d made a note to have them replace her bed, and within 20 minutes of putting in the request, they were tweaking the salt content to match her home region on Promos. She’d compare the service to a 5 star hotel, except for the fact that everyone involved saluted her, and the entire room was a burnished steel gray.
She wondered if that was the nature of power, at its core.
Was power just a measure of how much you could get away with asking for?
She pumped water in through her mouth, and out her gills, the faint sting of it making her wince. She still wasn’t well. She could smell the blood in the water, as faint as it was, and knew it had to be hers. Her thoughts wandered. Would she need treatment? Would she need surgery? Would it go so far as to require prosthesis? She was almost certain she’d never qualify for FSOS field operations again, not without extensive medical treatment, but what would this mean for the rest of her life? Would she be struggling to breathe walking down the corridor 20 years from now? Would the horrible dreams plague her for the rest of her life? What was the power she commanded now compared to that?
. . . yeah, she wasn’t getting to sleep anytime soon.
Surfacing at the edge of the tank, she hauled herself out, and took a few deep breaths. The chest pain was minor, so she focused on it for a few minutes, trying to push it down while she dripped dry. It was calming, in a way, to have that present pain to focus on. Much easier than fearing the troubles of the future or mistakes of the past.
She let out a long sigh, and walked over to her desk to go over the notable tidbits she’d manage to sift out over the past 16 hours. Still dripping slightly, she had to throw her hair back over one shoulder before grabbing a random file from her desk. It was a psychology breakdown based on Verdock’s service record.
She’d read it before, twice cover to cover, and skimmed it a few more times than that. He was meticulous, ambitious, and by every measure before this incident, filled with a deep dedication to justice and the order of law.
“What changed . . . what snapped in you?” She muttered under her breath, fingers leaving water streaks across the glass screen of the robust tablet. She tossed the device back on her desk, huffing quietly. She was getting nowhere, spinning in circles inside her own head. She needed an outside view on things . . . she needed to talk them over. Io was useful as an assistant, but seeing as it didn’t actually think she wasn’t sure if it was a great sounding board for ideas.
“Maybe . . .” she rummaged through a few other files, before finding the one she was searching for. “General Vrang.” She snatched it up, and flipped it open. The commander of ground forces on the vessel, she- Amonna groaned internally. He would have the security clearance to talk these things over, and shouldn’t be overly occupied with the running of the ship. Add in that he was the more sympathetic of the two during the briefing, and he seemed the obvious pick for a review of the facts.
She didn’t bother to get dried, and hastily threw on most of her uniform, eschewing the cap and overcoat of office. She was mostly dry anyway, and she doubted that she could make a worse impression on Vrang than she already had.
Io pointed her in the right direction, and set her on her way.
She received a few protracted glances on the way there, but she suspected it was more due to her lack of decorum than anything else. The corridors were nearly empty, long hallways of the same flat gray alloy after another, only intermittently interspersed with hatches and hydraulically locked doors. When she did run into someone they only saluted, and moved aside to let her pass.
Power. She was reminded of it yet again.
She was headed to the Observatory, something akin to a VR theater. She thought it odd, that such a recreational thing might exist on a vessel that was otherwise quite austere and drab, but didn’t have much time to think it over before she was standing at the door to it.
It was marked in the same, generic, uniform fashion as everything else on the ship, save for a small holo-display reading “In-Use.” She knocked, gently, and the door slid open.
The sound of waves washed over her, and she was suddenly looking out over a small cove that she used to play in as a child. The memory of the place struck her in the gut, and she was at a loss for words, or even thoughts for a moment. She took her first steps, father and mother holding her hands on this shore, and she learned her basic sums using sea-shells taken from the tide pools. She’d done schoolwork in the shade, and even run sprints in the sand here while training up for the FSOS selection process. Even her first date, so full of good intentions and awkward silence had finished up on this beach, watching the sun go down.
“Come in, Judge Tav.”
The voice was a soft, gentle nudge to remind her that she was still on a ship, still sailing through the void, and that none of that was real. Even as she stepped across the threshold, boot digging into the sand, she knew it wasn’t the same place. They’d built a resort here, a few years after she’d left for Waystation LS-49, and the smell was all wrong. It still stank of metal and ozone and fans, and as real as the ocean sounded, there were no cries of the Tide-Hawks, or the quiet chitter of the hundred different species of insects in the trees. Just the crash of waves, and the whisper of wind.
It took her a few seconds, but she saw him, sitting cross legged in the shade. Still bedecked in medals, uniform still pressed to a crispness that defied explanation, he smiled and beckoned her over.
“How . . . how did you know about this place? How did you know I grew up here?”
She was guarded, but intrigued as she approached. She felt strangely naked, having a stranger suddenly appear in her memories like this.
General Vrang raised his eyebrows in surprise, and at the very least feigned ignorance. “I didn’t, though I had a general idea where you were from. This was just the nicest place to sit in the immediate vicinity.”
He patted the sand next to himself, and gestured for her to approach again. “I was just doing some research of my own, you see.”
She took a seat next to him, the soft white sand parting smoothly as she plopped down in the shade.
Amonna gave him a sidelong glare, one that demanded an explanation for all of this, and offered none in return.
“Relax, it’s all in good faith.” He smiled thinly, scooping up a handful of beach, before letting it run through his fingers. “I just wanted to know how you thought.”
Amonna didn’t need to open her mouth to effectively voice her confusion at this remark, and he seemed happy to continue explaining.
“This is your home, or at least as close to it as I could get. I checked your medical record, traced your ancestry against existing medical records on your planet, found your parents, checked survey data, pinpointed where your upbringing was most likely to have occurred, and then had an AI run a reconstruction of it, scaled back from present day by roughly your age. All in all, it was about 5 minutes of work for me.”
Silence hung between the two of them for several seconds, before Amonna’s intense gaze couldn’t glean any more information out of him.
“With all due respect, General Vrang, it feels like a disturbing invasion of privacy. To go through my medical records, find my home, and then be waiting for me there seems to be a thinly veiled threat.”
Her words were measured, but there was an intensity to them that she could not conceal.
Seemingly unperturbed, Vrang started drawing letters in the sand she didn’t recognize, and that weren’t in galactic basic. “It isn’t meant to be. We are shaped by our experiences, and I wanted to try and see how this place shaped you.”
He underlined the letters in the sand, and suddenly the whole world stopped. The waves froze, the wind was silenced, and the sand felt like granite beneath her.
“This place is beautiful, and it’s nature is carefree. It makes sense. The way you charged into a meeting, no order, no structure, no plans, just a free congregation of those that could solve the problem.” He ran his hand across the symbols, erasing them as the world sprung back to life.
Amonna opened her mouth to speak, but he raised the same hand to silence her. He looked to be of young, perhaps middle age, certainly no older than her, but his eyes betrayed a very old, very tired wisdom . . . a wisdom she found she couldn’t help but oblige.
“On the surface, there is a great chaos to this place, and it left a mark on who you are. And, I would like to clarify that it’s by no means a bad thing. It’s simply that while the waves crash, and the sand is pounded ever finer, we see beauty and chaos and all the intricate detail of the world. But a computer, an AI recreates this place almost flawlessly. At the core of it, this natural beauty of blurred lines and unfathomable complexity can be reduced to simple equations, and carried out like so much addition and subtraction. What does that mean for us, Judge Tav? Can we be reduced, like this beach, to just so much math?”
Amonna was left taken aback, and a little speechless. Of all the things she had expected from General Vrang, existential questioning was nowhere near the top of the list.
“I . . . don’t know. I know for a fact that AI’s use quantum blue-box technology to simulate a sentient intelligence, with behavior very similar to the nervous system of any organic life-form, which means that the appearance and behavior of sentience can be reduced to a computational system, but whether or not that constitutes a consciousness is a matter of metaphysics and philosophy. I know I’m . . . real, but I can’t say that an AI, or anyone else’s intelligence results in consciousness, because I can’t feel what they feel. I mean, I certainly think that they’re real and conscious, but I can’t know that.”
Vrang nodded sagely. “If you believe that you aren’t a unique consciousness, that means that consciousness itself can be reduced to just math and computation.”
Amonna scowled. “I didn’t say that, I just said that I-”
Vrang stood, dusting some of the simulated sand off of his uniform trousers. “But you did. Either consciousness can be recreated by a simulation, or you’re the only truly sentient being in the universe. Those are the only two logical possibilities.”
Amonna scrambled to her feet next to him, a bit flustered and wrong-footed by the whole discussion. She felt like she was in her entry level philosophy course all over again. “It’s more complicated than that, and you know it!”
“Oh? So some people are conscious beings and some aren’t? You’re just afraid to admit that there’s nothing that makes you special, nothing that makes life special, and nothing to indicate that free will exists as more than a reassuring lie we tell ourselves.” His grin had gone from sage to insufferably smug, although that was only in Amonna’s mind. In truth, his expression hadn’t changed at all, down to the faintest micrometer.
The world around her suddenly flickered out of existence, and she found herself standing in a dimly lit, empty room of hard light emitters on a hexagonal platform, suspended a few feet in the air, absolutely alone.
“What point am I trying to make, Judge Amonna Tav?” A voice called out to her from the light of the hatchway behind her. With a careful snap about face, she turned to see none other than General Vrang leaning in the doorway, a thousand yard stare on his face. “Why put on such a show, why question the validity of your own existence, your own free will?”
She grit her teeth, and scowled viciously at him. “Because you’re a huge . . .”
A dead eyed look of seriousness killed the insult in her throat. “Think about it, don’t just be upset. Io told me you came down here for another view on the evidence, this is what that is. This is just another tool to investigate with.”
She inhaled sharply through her nose, still more than a little upset about being given the run around but . . . she figured there was no harm in obliging him one last time.
First he’d taken her to her home . . . showed her that it wasn’t really her home . . . frozen it, started the playback again, asked her about consciousness and free will and AI and . . .
There wasn’t any sense to it, no common thread. Besides walk her through an existential crisis, make her incredibly homesick, and question her own free-will using a hard-light VR theater he’d-
“Hard light,” she suddenly blurted out. “Hard light technology is dangerous. That’s . . . that’s what you’re trying to teach me here. It’s not just dangerous weapons systems, or industrial accidents that harm the body, it’s dangerous to the mind. It can distort things, call into question what we know to be absolutely true. It can make us think, and act in ways that aren’t rational, that aren’t reasonable. It-”
As Amonna paused he made a subtle gesture with his hand, a little circular loop, like he was tugging ushering her onward to the rest of the conclusion he was dangling in front of her.
Clearing her throat, Amonna continued on. “More than that . . . with something like this hard-light VR, we could live in a pure fantasy, and never even realize it. It doesn’t stop there though . . . no . . . it’s not VR that’s dangerous . . . it’s all of it, isn’t it?”
A subtle, knowing grin began to spread across his face. “I’ve worked with 3 Arch-Judges in my time, pursuing threats that are never placed in history-books. You’re close, not quite there though. Still, I’ll give it to you that you were the fastest of all three to get to this point. Yes, technology is dangerous. A knife is a useful tool, so long as the hand wielding it isn’t clumsy or ill-intentioned. There’s a reason we send in men with rifles, there’s a reason we still pilot our ships, there’s a reason we don’t share what we know with every race. There’s a lot of growing up a species has to do before it’s ready for these things . . . and even more growing up before it realizes it’s better off without some of them.” The last part was added with a flicker of dark humor. “The Core Worlds have knowledge and prowess far beyond what they utilize, and society is closely regimented to keep the boons we have from destroying us before we’re ready. I’ve personally witnessed what happens when a society capable of indulging its every want and whim does when the only limit to its debasement is imagination.”
His eyes grew distant, and his gaze hard.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for around Cygnux X-1, we’ll be arriving within an hour.”
And with that, he turned on his heel and disappeared down the corridor, leaving Amonna alone. While she was maybe a step closer to catching Verdock, she felt that she was no where near understanding the Coryphaeus.