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Touching the Foam

by David Brookes

part 1 of 5

Charlotte Bonds, the so-called pilot of the experimental starship, sat in front of the control panel in her form-fitting, auto-ergonomic chair. Her gloves creaked as she flexed her hands above the array of buttons and the handles of the control yoke. Lights blinked at her harmlessly, illuminating the panel with pale colours.

‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ she said, to nobody in particular.

The ship’s Artificial Intelligence responded immediately in its soothing feminine voice. ‘The process is entirely automated,’ it said. ‘We’ve been in transit for twenty-two days.’

‘I know,’ Charlotte replied. She made a concerted effort to smooth out the furrows in her brow and relax. It was difficult. ‘I haven’t issued a single command in all that time.’

‘The process is entirely automated,’ the AI repeated patiently. ‘You wouldn’t need to.’

‘That’s my point. I’ve never had to pilot a ship that didn’t need piloting.’

‘You’ll get used to it.’

‘I won’t get used to being this bored, though.’

‘There is fiction and non-fiction in the database, and a collection of over six thousand films and documentaries,’ the AI pointed out.

Charlotte glared at the closest speaker. She was good friends with the woman who had lent the AI her neural template, and even the vocal inflections designed to make human crew feel a little more comfortable talking with the AI. The AI itself was modelled on the thought patterns of Louise Harper, a trainee at the same military tech college that Charlotte had attended as part of her training. Louise had been in the science division and their tuition had branched off eventually, but the two women had been good friends since they were twenty. Listening to Louise’s voice now made Charlotte a little uneasy — it was too easy to fall into an argument with a computer that sounded like a person.

She sighed and removed her gloves. With her long-fingered hands she brushed strands of blonde hair back from her face and then rubbed her eyes wearily.

‘I need something to do.’

‘I could prepare another Companion for y—’

‘I don’t want another Companion! I’m bored with them. What are we even here for?’

‘We’re testing new Alcubierre technology,’ the AI said.

Charlotte booted the console, sending her floating chair bobbing backwards through the air. ‘I know! I meant, why are we going so far and for so long, when we could just be testing that the damn drive works and then go back home?’

‘Short duration test-runs have already been completed. We could have done a long duration test in a circle around the solar system and finished closer to home, but the drive allows us to travel only in straight lines with minor course alterations. Our manipulations of space/time deny our ship manoeuvres any more complex.’

Charlotte picked at a plastic label beneath one of the buttons on the console. ‘I know that,’ she murmured.

‘I know you do,’ replied the AI. ‘Would you like me to go into more detail about how the Alcubierre drive works, or about the—’

‘No thanks.’

‘...quantum foam or superstring theories that might apply?’

‘Screw superstring theory.’

‘I’m sensing that you’re restless.’

‘I am restless, goddammit!’ Charlotte shrieked, and kicked herself out of the chair.

The AI paused only momentarily. ‘I’ll prepare another Companion.’

* * *

Half a kilometre beyond the outer hull of the ship, the fabric of space-time bulged like the swell of an ocean, holding the ship, its contents and its one-woman crew within a perfectly spherical warp as it cut a swathe through the universe.

The thought of the speeds at which they were travelling — near light-speed, if not faster — made Charlotte feel sick. It was not the movement itself, as the ship was technically barely moving; as space/time swelled behind them and contracted ahead, it half rolled, half fell in the direction the propulsion device was pointing. It was that notion which sent Charlotte retching over the disposal unit.

Feeling green around the gills, she arrived at her quarters. There was only one such room on the entire ship, which was as big as an office block. The prototype ship was filled almost entirely with machinery and circuitry, including the bulging egg of the Alcubierre device in the centre. There was no need for more than one human crewmember, and with the AI onboard there was barely even need for one at all.

Charlotte sat alone in her little room, waiting for the Companion. The AI would tell her when it was ready, but she only hoped that it would remember to install the basic memory template for once. She knew that the AI was currently still active on its middle layers, and was as busy as it would ever get. For an AI based on the thought patterns of a human being — even a human being as dizzy as Louise Harper, Charlotte thought humourlessly — operating the middle-layers was still easy-going. An AI was rarely active on its higher layers.

There were intercommunication conduits throughout most of the walls in the ship, especially around the command and residential sectors. When the AI thought on its middle layers, those thoughts occasionally slipped into human language and resonated within the conduits:

The condensed memory matrix may be fabricated by conductively connecting the attachment bumps of a substrate with the attachment bumps of a wafer of D-RAM chips and physically bonding the juxtaposed surfaces of the substrate and the wafer with a dielectric curable resin. An array of heat fins is bonded to the inactive surface of the wafer by a thermally conductive curable resin...

‘AI,’ Charlotte groaned out loud, ‘I can hear you thinking.’

The murmuring within the conduits stopped, and then the AI’s light-toned voice emanated from the speaker beside the door. ‘What, really?’

‘Really. Is that normal?’

‘I’ve no reference to that in any of my information databanks. I wouldn’t know. By the way, your Companion is on its way from the organics laboratory as we speak. Rat-a-tat-tat.’

The instant the AI stopped speaking, there was a chime from the door indicating that somebody wanted to be admitted. Charlotte caught herself fluffing her hair in the mirror. She noticed that her lips were unglossed, which was uncharacteristic of her. She didn’t think the Companion wouldn’t notice.

‘You can come in.’

The door swished open and the Companion entered the room. He seemed fully aware this time, unlike the previous three or four, who hadn’t a clue what they were or why they’d been awoken.

He looks exactly like Alex, she thought. Almost exactly like Alex. His eyes move in the same way, his lips make the same shapes, his smell...

‘Are you Charlotte Bonds?’ he asked, his voice like a bed of marshmallow that she wanted to fall onto and roll up in.

She nodded and half rose from the bed, before realising that this wasn’t a guest, nor was it a person. The lump of organic construct that looked like Alex Penrose was not human in any but the most literal, biological sense. It had tissue and organs, brain matter and neural pathways. Artificial memories had been written into it, as much as that was possible: millions of synaptic connections were sparking and duplicating deep within the trenches of its brain. It had vague memories of growing up and having a family, all of which were lies.

It was made in a lab purely for the convenience — and sanity — of the human crews of starships, airships and submarines, everything from ocean liners to oil rigs to cross-system cruisers. Whenever there was a long journey or an isolated environment, a place where men and women might conceivably lose the thread or break down, there were organics labs to generate facsimile humans.

They were cheaply produced. The technology itself was a by-product of cloning experimentation and had cost years of research and billions in funding. Now that the process had been perfected and was even standard aboard such craft, the only real cost was, according to philosophers, a spiritual one. The Companions were only capable of remaining molecularly coherent for a matter of hours, a few days at a stretch. But Charlotte never thought about that. Nobody ever did

‘Uh... Can I sit?’ he asked. He swung his arms restlessly, and then clasped his hands together when he realised what he was doing.

‘Yeah,’ Charlotte said quickly, ‘yes. How are you?’

Always with the useless conversation.

He said, ‘I’m fine. A little tired, I must’ve slept deeply last night.’

He seemed to have forgotten that he hadn’t known her by sight when she opened the door to him, but that was the way with Companions. In a few minutes they would be like close friends.

‘This might sound daft,’ he said, ‘but... am I on a ship? A starship?’

And once again, the AI had neglected into imprint the basic memory template. There were language faculties, full motor control, advanced cognitive processes, but Alex — the Companion facsimile of Alex — should know the basics. Basics like, I’m on a ship... I have this job... I have that family... These are my hobbies, this is the name of my dog, this is who I am.

‘Great,’ Charlotte said under her breath. ‘Uh, yes. You’re on a ship.’

‘What kind of ship?’

‘That’s confidential.’

‘You are... the pilot?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. But I can’t talk to you about it.’

‘But where are we going? Or can’t you tell me that, either?’

He gave her the certain kind of look that Alex had been prone to giving. Suddenly, all at once, Charlotte sank under a heavy weight of memories from her past relationship with Alex, the real Alex. All their time together, the moments lying in warm sunshine, all the rainy nights, the boring car journeys, all the days studying and training for their respective positions in the military — the arguments and insults, the sniping and the slapping, the screaming and finally the breaking point: Alex Penrose and his pained expression and those words coming out of his mouth, Maybe we’re just not suited for each other anymore.

‘Are you crying? Look, if it’s not a good time, I could just leave, or...’

She looked up at the Companion. Green eyes and perfect nose and skin that never went dry when he shaved. Why did she always have the Companions made to look like Alex? Use his voice, his mannerisms? It was too bad that he was flawed — that was the AI’s fault — but for God’s sake she was asking for this pain, she was deliberately ordering the AI to manufacture Alex after Alex when she could have anybody, man or woman, and engage in all the things that men and women do: talking, watching TV, joking, playing chess, debating whilst drunk, making love in the darkness. Why did she always ask for this approximation of Alex Penrose, and then...?

‘No,’ she said — it was what she always said. ‘You can stay. Please.’

He held her. His artificial body, which would break down into pre-programmed mush in six hours or so, was very warm. She could feel his heart beating; it was a real heart, for now at least. And that was good enough.

‘You can kiss me,’ she said quickly, before she changed her mind.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by David Brookes

The story is complete on line as of this issue.

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