by Mark Bonica
|Table of Contents|
9: FPP Year 820, 181 days post-crash
He blinked. The words stung, and the pain from the sting brought forth emotions that had been buried slowly since he came into puberty and these things suddenly mattered. The pain conjured memories of looking into a mirror at a pimply face that he knew did not have that magic something that would open doors and hearts, and wondering what could be changed to make it so.
What small detail? For wasn’t the mystery in the small details? He knew it when he looked at girls, he knew immediately if they were worth looking at for any time longer than a quick scanning glance. This flash felt as if it had taken place a moment ago, rather than almost a quarter of a century. Then the sting was folded over into a thousand other scars and he was an adult again.
When he met her glance again, he saw her staring straight into his eyes.
“I... I’m sorry... I...”
“Forget it.” She looked away. There was something strange here. Emotions. So this was something else that was different. Neither the Demeter’s computer, nor any other AI he had ever worked with, had ever displayed any personal emotions. Some AI’s were programmed to display emotions, but it was a form of acting; the emotions were not their own.
Of course not.
“How’s that water coming, Jim?” she asked, suddenly cordial. She walked to the recycler port. “I think I’ll order you up a breakfast if you don’t mind.”
She turned to the port and began to speak rapidly, in bullets: “Soup, protein-carbohydrate mix. Five percent fats.” She turned back to him after the recycler had taken its orders. “Proteins take more effort to manufacture, of course, but after the abuse you gave yourself over the last twenty-four hours, I think you’ll need it. We’ll skimp some on tomorrow’s dinner.”
“What I meant to say earlier” — she was watching him, and he was unable to read her expression, wondering if he was going to get into more trouble — “was that I keep looking at you and wondering what you looked like when you were younger. I keep having to remind myself that you never were younger — that your appearance is an adopted effect. Why do you choose that appearance?”
The soup bladder clunked down into the recycler port and began to fill; swirling brown liquid this time.
“Jim, it’s actually pretty simple. This is how I feel I would look if I were human. I was activated fifty-eight years ago — but I consider myself a mere forty-three given the time lost in FTL travel. I’m not a child, and if I appeared to you as one, you could not help but think of me as such.”
“That’s not true, I could look beyond that—”
“I don’t believe you could, Jim. Demeter reviewed all the ship’s logs — you know I have a recording of everything that has occurred since you came aboard — as well as all professional information about you, which was uploaded to my files as a matter of course — and I came to the conclusion that you are a person who is deeply confined by his perceptions of class and status. Probably relating to childhood and growing up on a backwater mining colony and getting a second-rate education, second-rate opportunities, and a second-rate life as a result. And having that driven home by the people you worked with on Earth, reminding you every day that while you might walk and talk like them, you would never be a real Earthling. Here’s your soup,” she said, gesturing to the now-full bladder.
“Look, forget it. I don’t need this crap.” His voice was constricted. “Why don’t you dissolve yourself back into whatever data hole you came from and leave me alone. I can handle this. And if I can’t, what do you care?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a lot more time to discuss this right now. I’ve got work to do. But when you’ve cleaned yourself up and you’re feeling a little more congenial, we can talk about it.”
She walked quickly to the door, which opened automatically as if she were a real person standing in front of the optical sensors, and then she went out into the hallway.
Jim sat for a moment. Then he forced himself to his feet, head still splitting, brains like overdone scrambled eggs, and followed. She had already seated herself at the terminal in the cargo bay when he got there. He saw that she was manually running the diagnostics for the ship’s life-support system.
She ignored him as he stood, watching her. He felt dizzy, stomach churning. He needed to piss. He turned and walked back to the head. He relieved himself, thinking it through. Trying to, at least. He recognized the haze of alcohol still impeding his thoughts.
He came back and she was working step by step through the diagnostics for the solar collectors. He stood behind her and waited. She ignored his impatient stance, his sigh.
“This is a waste of time,” he finally said.
She did not turn. “What is? You standing and looking over my shoulder, still half in the bag and smelling like crusty puke?”
“You doing these checks manually. It’s a friggin’ waste of time.”
“I have to do these checks manually. The Demeter no longer has the capacity to do them automatically. That portion of the program was transferred into my subroutine. From now on, any diagnostics must be done manually, either by me or by you.”
“That’s absurd. This whole thing is absurd.” He slapped his hand against his forehead. Fingers slid down and covered his eyes. “I’ve had enough of this. Computer, resume standard configuration. Delete Persephone subroutine.”
There was silence.
When he took his hand away from his eyes, she was still there. Now she was facing him, sitting in her chair.
“I’m sorry, Jim. You can’t simply banish me with a few words, as if I were some minor demon and you were a medieval priest spouting Latin.” Her face was condescending.
He couldn’t take it. He felt his vision tunnel down to a bleary spot and his hands were leading his lunging body to her throat.
He passed through the illusion of a body, a woman, an assailable figure, and tripped as his thighs come into contact with the control seat. He tumbled forward and into the projection of a control panel, which disappeared as the optical sensors recognized inappropriate contact with the holographic controls. His shoulders collided first with the plastic wall, and as his body continued to fall, his head hit the solid floor.
When he sat up, he saw that the projection of the monitors was gone, but that she was standing, arms crossed, looking down at him.
“I realize that this may be difficult for you to understand, in your impaired and depressed state, but you are stuck with me, and I think it is good for you.”
He glared at her, then lay down flat on the floor, eyes closed. It feels good to lie down, even if it is only on the floor, he thought.
“In the future,” she was saying, “if you try to hit me, I will be harmed much like an ordinary woman. You will then be stuck dealing with the consequences of having me ‘off-line,’ you might say.
“If you inflict enough damage to kill me, you will have to take over all of the functions that have been transferred from the main program to me. Since this is a possibility, I think as soon as you have recovered from your present condition, it would be a good idea for you to begin learning what I do, and how I do it.”
He lay there, eyes closed, wondering how he had come to have such crappy luck.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica