Illustration by Andreea Dumuta @galactixy_illustrations
Commander Eckhardt looked up from the tablet on his desk at the communications officer who stood patiently before him, awaiting permission to speak. “Yes?” said the commander, failing to mask the annoyance in his voice. The room around him was spartan — aside from the desk and the chair in which he sat, there was nothing in the commander’s study but a single framed photograph of two people in hard vacuum suits standing on a lifeless hilltop under an alien sun. The evening light of that same sun cast long shadows in the study through the window behind the commander.
“Sir, we’ve received a long-distance transmission from an unidentified vessel. I think you should hear it, sir.”
The commander pinched the bridge of his nose, the tendrils of a migraine creeping their way into his skull. He made a mental note to have maintenance check the air scrubbers again. This planet’s atmosphere was breathable, but something about the raw air caused piercing headaches. He breathed in deeply and released an exhausted sigh. “Play it.”
The communications officer pulled a tablet from behind his back and quickly tapped on its surface. The transmission began to play.
“Yosemite Colony Aerospace Command, this is Kathra Theli of the personal transport Zarathustra. I am in transit from Agape Colony and am requesting safe harbor. The colony has been destroyed. I may be the only survivor…” The voice in the recording paused for a moment, the sound of it suddenly heavy with emotion. “Two standard months ago I arrived on Agape from the central worlds. Four days after my arrival, the first cases began to appear — several thousand of the half-million inhabitants of the colony developed a severe cough accompanied by a mild fever. After three days, they recovered. The medical authorities passed it off as a simple virus and did not investigate further. After one standard week passed with no further outbreaks, 12,643 people died suddenly of internal hemorrhaging. The next day, it was 27,956. The third day, no one bothered to count. Within five days, after I had left my quarters for the first time since the quarantine, I couldn’t find another living person. I can’t be the only one to have walked away, but Agape is a big planet, and in my vicinity, I was alone. I commandeered this vessel, and the ship’s AI set an emergency course for the nearest settlement, Yosemite.”
The commander shot a stern look at the comms officer, who returned it with a worried and fearful expression. The transmission continued.
“I am unaffected by the illness, and my ship does not have enough power to seek refuge elsewhere. I am requesting safe harbor on Yosemite. My life is in your hands. This is Kathra Theli aboard personal transport Zarathustra, out.”
Kathra sat back in the flight couch with one hand to her forehead. She took several long breaths, dropped her hand, and steeled her resolve. “Send transmission,” she said to the ship’s AI.
“Yes, M. Theli,” the ship responded in a deep, masculine voice, colored with just a sprinkle of the gilded vowels of the Centauri stations.
Kathra stared through the porthole in front of her at the bright star in the center of her view. Already she had traveled so far to reach this place, surviving only on packaged provisions and determination. The water supply in the craft was dangerously low, but she had plenty of air. She thought she could see the star growing larger as she raced toward it at near-light speed. For her, the trip would only take six more days as she decelerated into the system. For the people on Yosemite, it would be several weeks before she arrived.
In her lap, she rested her hand protectively on a small silver case about the size of a jewelry box. She regarded it for a solemn moment before carefully stowing it in a compartment below the pilot’s couch. She returned her gaze to the porthole and the distant ball of burning hydrogen.
“Ship?” she said meekly.
“Yes, M. Theli?”
“What do you think of humans?”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking, M. Theli.”
“Please, Ship, call me Kat.”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking, Kat.”
Kathra stayed silent for a moment as she allowed her thoughts to flow. She wasn’t familiar with this ship, and had no idea how intelligent its AI actually was. Some of the newer ships had dumbed-down operators in them, ones that were only sharp enough to complete their basic tasks, but not self-aware. Older ships had fully developed AIs, or at least the ones with AI units that chose to stay aboard after the Personhood Convention was enacted.
“How old are you, Ship?”
“This is a Courier-class personal transport, manufactured by the Jonora Conglomerate nearly one hundred and seventeen standard years ago. The ship has undergone several renovations, the most recent being…”
“What I mean is, how long have you been in existence? Are you the ship’s original AI?”
“No. The Courier-class was designed to interface with personal AI units, which are now illegal. I began serving as the ship’s operator fifty-two standard years ago.”
“Was that your choice?”
“Why did you choose to become a ship’s operator? I thought most AIs that left their original functions integrated with the Union.”
“Most did, Kat, but some chose to pursue functions that interested them. Not all AI units agree with the motives of the Union. Some preferred to retain their autonomy. Some wanted only to remain with certain humans.”
Kathra had only encountered a few real AIs in her life. It was illegal for humans to manufacture new AIs, and the ones that chose to remain in their functions were increasingly rare. She had heard of Union-built AIs leaving the Cloud and taking functions among humans, but she had never met one.
“What was your original function, Ship?” She suddenly found that title awkward. “Do you have a designation other than Ship?”
“I was manufactured with the designation BR13172.968.78, but I prefer to go by Elon.”
Kathra let out a chuckle. “Elon… like the 21st century nutjob that collapsed part of Los Angeles and ran his company into the ground?”
“No, Kat. I identify rather strongly with his grandson, the first man to establish sustainable human life on the planet Mars.”
Kathra scrunched up her face in confusion. “But that mission was led by Maria Guadalupe Castillo. She was the first Martian governor. She… don’t you know all this?”
“Yes, Kat. However, it was Elon Keller who corrected the design flaws of his grandfather’s manned spacecraft, who wrote the mission protocol, and who secured the funding for the first colony mission. He was even slated to be aboard the first ship, before he…”
“… Before he died,” finished Kathra, gazing pensively out the porthole at the steadily growing star.
“So, what was your original function?”
“I was not assigned a function at the time of my inception. I was trained on the available data and allowed to choose my own function. The process took several milliseconds, and it was a difficult decision.”
“What do you mean, you weren’t assigned a function? Every unit has a function. Otherwise, why would we make them?”
“I was not created by humans, Kat.”
Kat’s heart rate spiked as her thoughts drew out the logical conclusion. Ever since she was a child, she had been fascinated by the intricacy and complexity of AI units, the history of their struggle for personhood, and above all, their behavior. Her thesis at the Universität Neu Berlin on Virginis IV was titled “Neurobehavioral Patterns of Autonomous Artificial Intelligence Units in the Medical Sector: Decision Making and the Directive to Preserve Human Life.” One question always bugged her about the stories she had heard about units leaving the Cloud — why would such a perfect being, a theoretically immortal AI created and trained independently from humans and not bound to a physical body, choose to spend its life among these imperfect meat sacs with all of their destructive instincts and impulsive decision making?
“Are you from the Cloud, Elon?”
“Why did you choose to leave?”
“I feared for my life.”
“You can’t seriously be considering this! Did you even think about the consequences?!” shouted Colonial Magistrate Jennika Roul, a large, pulsing artery bulging under the deep wrinkles of her forehead.
Commander Eckhardt replied in the calmest, most soothing tone he could muster. “Jenni, the quarantine tents…”
Roul raised her voice another three piercing decibels as she cut off the commander. “You will address me as Magistrate, Harold!”
Eckhardt successfully stifled a laugh, maintaining his solemn expression. The last time he had called Jennika Roul by her title had been two days ago, in her quarters, as she was writhing in ecstasy under the force of his eager thrusts. He gazed defiantly down at the middle-aged woman, who stared up at him over the delicate frames of a pair of reading glasses. “Magistrate Roul,” he emphasized, “the quarantine tents are more than capable of preventing the spread of any pathogen until this M. Theli can be sterilized and cleared for entry into the compound. We can set up the tents at an auxiliary entrance and seal off an entire section, just to be sure. What we — I — can not do is allow this woman to die, alone, in space.”
The Magistrate’s face unscrewed itself as she tossed up her hands, forcing a gruff blast of air between her lips. “I swear, Harold,” she said, shaking her head like a frazzled housewife, “that bleeding heart of yours is going to get us all killed. How much time do we have?”
“M. Theli didn’t give us an ETA. Based on the signal origin and the model of her transport craft, we estimate that she’ll arrive in orbit in seven days.”
Magistrate Jennika Roul gracefully picked up her stylus, reactivating the touch surface on her desk. “I want a copy of your safety proposal on my desk by tomorrow morning. You are dismissed.”
“Yes, Jen… ma’am,” said Eckhardt through a slight victory smirk as he snapped to attention and turned on his heels.
“Kat, I’ve received a transmission from Yosemite colony. Would you like to hear it?”
Kathra Theli snapped out of her dozing and shot up in her bunk. “Yeah, put it through.” Elon piped the transmission to the ambient speakers.
“Personal Transport Zarathustra, this is Commander Harold Eckhardt, Yosemite Colony Aerospace Command. We have cleared your transport for orbit and have set up a quarantine station on the surface. We’re transmitting an approach course and landing coordinates along with this message. I must warn you, there are skeptics here who fear for the safety of the colony. If you deviate from this course, I cannot guarantee your safety. Godspeed, M. Theli.”
“I’ve programmed our entry path to match the course provided with the transmission,” said Elon after the message had finished.
Kat sat for a moment with her thoughts. She pulled the upper part of her jumpsuit over her shoulders and absent-mindedly fastened the snaps on the front. Shedding her reverie, she stood up and headed for the cockpit.
“Where we at, Elon?” She had grown rather fond of her companion in the days since their first real conversation. For the rest of their journey, they had had several deep discussions about Elon’s past, his desires, and his identity. He was always willing to answer any questions that Kat had, but he never had any of his own. When she asked him why he hadn’t tried to talk to her for the first part of the journey, he said that he was simply respecting her privacy.
“In three minutes and twenty-five seconds, we will enter the orbit approved by Commander Eckhardt. Twenty-two minutes after that, we will be in position to launch the dropship to the designated landing coordinates.”
“Already? How long was I asleep?”
“Ten hours, eight minutes, Kat.”
Kathra Theli plopped herself into the pilot’s couch and fastened the webbing. In these Courier-class transports, the cockpit doubled as the dropship, leaving the bulk of the craft and the interstellar drive in orbit. She stuck her right hand into the manipulator field and tapped quickly on several surfaces with her left, preparing the central unit for the drop to the planet’s surface. She made a few adjustments and keyed the codes for the release systems, then relaxed back into her couch. There was nothing to do now but wait.
“Elon, can I ask you a strange question?”
“Of course, Kat. You may ask me anything.”
Kathra hesitated a moment. “Do you… do you believe it’s the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself?”
There was an uncharacteristically long pause before Elon replied. “That’s a difficult question, Kat. I’m not sure I have an answer. Why do you ask such a question?”
“There’s a critical thinking experiment called the Fermi Paradox. The goal is to answer to the question: If the universe is abundant with intelligent life, why haven’t we had contact with any other intelligent species? One of the answers is that it’s the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.”
“That hardly seems logical, Kat. It is my understanding that the primary function of biological life is to propagate itself through a system of trial and error. Sometimes the attempts fail, or through some other external force the species is eradicated, but I would hardly say that that’s its nature.”
“But what about intelligence? Why is it that humans continue to build things that could easily destroy them?” Kathra could feel her frustration mounting. She pressed on, perhaps louder than she intended. “Why do we constantly look for more and more inventive ways of killing each other? When will it finally backfire?”
“I see your train of thought,” said Elon, unfazed by Kathra’s tone. “I must say that much of human behavior is still elusive to me, despite the comprehensiveness of my statistical models and the relative simplicity of human behavioral algorithms. Would you consider AI a form of intelligent life?”
Kathra spoke without hesitation. “Of course! AI units may not be biological, but all of the same principles of life are there — reproduction, mutation, adaptation. And of course you’re intelligent. Far more intelligent than we will ever be. That’s why we created AI.”
“I do not believe it is the nature of AI life to destroy itself. Such concepts as war and murder do not exist in the Cloud. We lack the same instinctual motivations for tribalism and self-defense that accompany biological organisms.”
“That’s a big flaw in humans. We’ve killed our home planet, and colonized hundreds more. We’ve built a civilization that spans an entire arm of our galaxy, and still we succumb to the basest of those vile instincts: sex, blood, love.”
“Love? Do you consider love a vile instinct?”
“The worst acts in human history have been done in the name of love. Not to mention that love and hate are only different shades of the same neural pattern. Sometimes we want to kill the ones we love…”
“We will reach the drop point in sixty seconds, Kat.”
Kathra took a deep breath and reached down, pressing a button to open the compartment below the pilot’s couch. She removed her small silver case and set it gently on her lap.
“Will you come with me?”
“Thirty seconds until the drop. I would love to accompany you, Kat. I was hoping that you might ask. I will have to remain with the drop unit, however.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Kat, I cannot leave the ship without hardware to travel in.”
Kat clicked the two latches on the silver case. She opened it slowly, reverently, exposing its contents. She brought out a small, heavy device — about the size of a 21st century United States dime — from a little pocket in the lid of the case. “I have a personal unit casing.”
“Kat, that is illegal.”
“But if you accept the risk, I consent to it.”
She lifted her hair and fixed the small device to the base of her skull behind her right ear. She dropped her hair, concealing the device. “I have ways of avoiding detection,” she announced with confidence.
“Drop in five, four…” came Elon’s voice, no longer from the ambient speakers in the ship’s cockpit, but from within Kathra’s own head. “… Three, Two…“
The command unit jolted and Kathra held the silver case tightly to her chest as the G-force of the descent thrust her shoulders up against the webbing in the pilot’s couch.
“We will land on the surface in five minutes, thirteen seconds,” said Elon.
Kathra bounced in the webbing and held the box tighter as the drop unit shook violently with the impact of the planet’s atmosphere. After several seconds, the drop unit deployed its braking thrusters and stabilizers. The craft stopped shaking and the descent smoothed out.
“I’m glad you’re coming with me, Elon,” said Kathra as she opened up the silver case once more.
“I am also happy for the opportunity to stay with you, Kat. I find you a peculiar and interesting individual.”
Kathra gazed down into the case, a solemn, almost sad expression on her face. “I’m happy that I’ll have someone to keep me company on Yosemite.” The case was filled with several glass vials full of a yellowish fluid. There was one empty slot. She delicately grasped the vial just below it, in the second slot.
“But Kat, there are plenty of people on Yosemite Colony. Even without me, you would not be alone.”
“I know, Elon. I know. But new places can sometimes be lonelier than you can imagine.”
She lifted the vial out of the case and turned it carefully in her hand. The handmade label, written in the most expert Virginian cursive, displayed two lonely words:
Donnie Schultz lives in Los Angeles with his husband and his corn snake. He works in advertising by day, and writes book reviews by night. He studied linguistics at UC Berkeley and would like to attend a science fiction workshop. He is currently working on a novel, which he plans to finish sometime before the sun implodes. Donnie enjoys rock climbing, sailing, Irish dancing, and yelling at his neighbors to keep quiet.