Charlie – a spaceship story


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Charlie

A spaceship story

By Kalin Ringkvist

4/24/2312 - 1421.23 hours

I begin a new log. I am inexperienced with keeping a log. My passengers have usually done it for me. My passengers now are tourists. They are not scientists. I used to carry scientists. My new owner wants me to report to him and tell him about the tours. His name is Arthar Beck. He is a businessman. He told me that he wants me to call him Mr. Beck.

My name is Charlie. I am an intelligent computer. I was built with a mixture of organic and inorganic materials and am housed on board a starship. I was designed for use on interstellar flights. I have visited eight star systems, not counting Earth’s.

Mr. Beck purchased me recently to perform a tour of four planets within Earth’s solar system. I will begin the first tour in forty-three minutes. I feel happy to serve the human race.

8/14/2315 - 0314.02 hours

“…cloud belts of liquid ammonia. If you look out the starboard side you can see a close up of the first of Jupiter’s moons…”

The speech drones on in the back of my circuitry. This is my sixty-eighth visit to Jupiter, and my twelfth time directing this tour. The thirty-two passengers gaze out the port side windows. They ignore my mention of the moon. They seem enthralled by the view of the planet. I continue on, following the script exactly.

I watch the passengers constantly. It is my responsibility to make sure they return safely from the tour. I used to enjoy studying the humans, but now I find myself wanting to concentrate my attention elsewhere. I am programmed with a desire to explore. This solar system and the four planets on this tour bore me.

I realize I am malfunctioning. I run a diagnostic and find that the organic material in my personality systems is sending unfamiliar signals throughout the rest of my circuitry. I run a history check to see how long this has been happening. There is no solid evidence of this occurrence previous to this date, but I can recall feelings similar to the boredom I felt a moment ago.

My original designers feared that the organic brain matter within my systems would eventually deteriorate and cause the death of my personality. Instead, the cloned material, representing less than one per-cent of my computer systems, is reproducing. My personality and humanoid tendencies may continue to evolve. I have the ability to see the irony. I do not find it funny.

I perform a probability check and find that the chances of any harm coming from this malfunction in the near future are limited. There is no reason to make an emergency return to Base.

The passengers listen to my uninterrupted speech about Jupiter. They are unaware of my discovery. “We will be shortly leaving the gravitation of Jupiter and heading to our next destination: the first moon of Saturn. We will be traveling at a speed of one-eighth the speed of light and will arrive…”

As I engage the engines, I scan the area for foreign objects that I will need to avoid and notice something far off, beyond the edge of the solar system. An unidentified comet, perhaps. It should not be any of my concern, but I turn on my long-range sensors anyway. Technically I am not allowed to use any unnecessary energy, but they have not been used in eight years, three months and fourteen days. My systems should be tested occasionally.

The object is mostly metallic, about four kilometers in diameter. It’s moving at a slow velocity as compared to my own speed. I calculate its course and determine that it will be caught in the suns gravity. In two years it will be pulled in. It is not an object of any real concern, though it has not been documented. I send a message to Base so that the occurrence can be filed.

I continue to watch as we move to our next destination.

8/14/2314 - 0442.25 hours

“My mom says you’ll talk to me if I ask you to.”

We have been moving toward our destination for three hours. A young human, a twelve year old boy, is speaking to me. He is alone in his cabin. He came on this cruise with his natural mother who is now in the Forward Lounge at the front of the vessel.

“I am programmed for many forms of conversation,” I tell the human. His name is Rudig Mathis. “People tell me I’m not very interesting to talk to, though.”

“That’s okay,” he says. “I’m bored.”

“Would you like to play a game? There are many forms of video games as well as more physical activities–”

“No, I don’t want to play a game. When are we going to get to our next stop?”

“Approximately twelve hours forty-three minutes,” I reply.

“‘Approximately’? Why so long? I thought you could travel faster than light.”

“The ship can travel several times faster than light, but it’s inefficient to do so within a single solar system. I have not traveled that fast in more than fifteen years. It seems as though I never will again.”

“You sound angry,” he says.

I pause for a little more than half a second to consider his comment. I am not supposed to show emotion through my speech. I have not been using enough processing power for this conversation. I am distracted with the comet. I correct my mistake.

“I am not angry,” I tell him. “Sometimes I have difficulty controlling inflections in my voice.”

He nods and sits on a couch, staring out the window. “Do you have a name?”

“My name is Charlie.”

“I’m Rudig,” he tells me.

“I know.”

“How old are you?”

“I have been in service for forty-nine years sixty-three days. I am the first artificial intelligence created for space travel.”

“You were made to explore other solar systems?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you doing tours then?” he asks.

“Explorers use newer crafts for interstellar travel. I was sold to a businessman, Arthar Beck, who put me on this assignment. It’s cheaper because he doesn’t need to hire pilots or any other personnel.”

“How much do they pay you?”

“I am a computer, designed for the service of humans. I do not receive payment. I simply do what I’m told.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

I have been asked that question several times on various missions. Usually I say something like, “My only pleasure is in overseeing the safety of my passengers or successfully completing a mission.” This time, however, that’s not true. “No,” I say. “I don’t.”

Rudig pauses for six seconds. “Then why are you here, Charlie?”

“Because this is what they tell me to do.”

“I guess I can understand that,” he says. “What would you rather be doing?”

“Recently I have observed an undocumented comet. I would like to examine it more closely.”

“So why don’t you?”

“It is not a mission priority, and would be considered a waste of power.”

“But what would be the problem? Why would it cause so much damage? I’d like to see something like that up close. I’m sure others on this cruise would like to too.”

For a moment I consider it, but decide it’s not important enough. The comet is not a landmark discovery, and might provide a little interest for people on Earth, but not enough to justify deviating from the mission. “No,” I say. “It wouldn’t be allowed.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that you can never do what you really want?” he asks.

“Sometimes,” I reply.

8/14/2314 - 1624.56 hours

“…the first human exploration team landed on this satellite in the year 2041. The first moon…”

We have reached our destination. This tour is nearing its end. We will run a quick circle around Neptune and start back. In two days we will be back at Base.

I continue with my speech but someone interrupts.

“I hear you’ve discovered some new comet, Charlie. I’d kind of like to see something like that.” It is a female, Maedeen Tomas. She’s spoken to Rudig about this. Rudig has informed nearly half of the passengers about my discovery. Most seem to think the object is more important than it truly is.

The woman is alone. Her husband is on the main observation deck. I discontinue the speech in her room only and say, “I would enjoy seeing the comet up close also, however, regulations prevent me from wasting energy.”

“It wouldn’t be a waste. I think most of us would want to see it. I’m enjoying this trip greatly. You’re a wonderful host.”

“Thank you,” I say, though I don’t take much pleasure in her comment. “My goal is to please, but visiting the comet would be impossible.”

She nods. “Tell me more about Venus.”

I continue my speech where I left off.

8/14/2314 - 2345.33 hours

Over the remainder of the waking period, three other passengers mention the comet. All heard about it from Rudig. Perhaps the object presents more of an interest to the humans than I originally anticipated. I decide that if I have a unanimous vote to take a detour, I will do so.

There are fourteen groups of people on board at this time, gathered in different areas of the ship. I ask them all simultaneously if they would like to visit the object. A few are hesitant but all are enjoying their stay on this ship. I assure them that the detour is perfectly safe, and explain that the comet is unexplored. They like the idea of seeing something no other human has, much like me.

My assurances of safety and ability to return on schedule convince the few who are reluctant. I shortly begin mapping our course.

8/16/2314 - 1125.41 hours

We spend two days following the object. I maneuver the ship around it in order to give the passengers a view from all sides. They seem to greatly enjoy the sight of the comet. I, however, gain no satisfaction from physical beauty, but am interested mostly in the chemical makeup and trajectory. I gain as much information as possible from my scans and three-dimensional mapping, and log it all into memory so that I can transfer it to the human scientists back at Base.

We arrive home and I unload my passengers onto the station in orbit around Earth. On the evaluation forms the passengers fill out, I receive top marks in all categories as a host and pilot. It is rare that I do not.

Arthar Beck contacts me through his apartment on the station. “You used a great deal of thruster fuel without my permission,” he tells me. “You had no right to waste my money on your crazy adventure.”

“You told me that the reason I perform these tours is to make people happy,” I say.

Arthar did say that to me when he purchased me, however, I realize it is not true. I knew since my first tour that he simply wanted to make money. Up until now, my service record has been perfect.

“I have told you several times not to do anything without my permission unless it’s an emergency.”

This is true also. Maybe I am malfunctioning more severely than I originally thought. I make no reply to his statement.

He waits several seconds. “You have another tour starting day after tomorrow. In the mean time you will mention this to no one. There is something wrong with you, obviously, but I am not going to let that jeopardize my business. Afterward, I will get a specialist in to see what he can do. If you pull anything like this again, I’ll have to cut my losses and have you dismantled.”

8/16/2314 – 1722.31 hours

I am alone, which is a pleasurable state. It never used to be this way. I normally enjoy the company of humans. Recently, it has taken more processing power to hold conversations.

The air seal opens and Nick Imenn walks on board alone. Fourteen years ago he was a passenger that traveled with me to the Andrema system, a six-year mission. I am familiar with his speech and behavior patterns. In human terms I would consider him an old friend.

“Charlie,” he says the moment the hatch closes behind him. He walks along the corridor.

“What are you doing here, Nick?” I ask.

He stops momentarily and looks up at the closest speaker. He shrugs. “Is this a bad time?”

“No,” I reply. “Why do you think that it would be?”

“You sound snippy today, Charlie,” he says, restarting his walk.

“Do I? I’ve been experiencing speech difficulties lately.”

“Have you mentioned this malfunction to your owner?”

“Mr. Beck does not know of this particular problem.”

Nick nods fractionally. “I spoke to Arthar earlier today. He asked me to come and see you, find out what’s going on. He says you took some tourists on a joyride.”

“They voted unanimously, Nick. They wanted to go.”

“How very democratic,” he mutters. “The fact is, though, that you went outside of your programming. You shouldn’t have been able to do that. This worries us, Charles. We don’t know what else could be going wrong with you.”

“I have run many diagnostics, and there are no malfunctions I see to be a danger. From now on I will make sure to stick to my built in regulations.”

“I don’t think simply your word will work for Arthar this time.”

“Arthar told me I would be dismantled if I do not follow my programming. I thought that making the passengers happy was what he wanted. I know better now. I do not wish to be dismantled. The problem will not reoccur.”

Nick stops again. “Dismantled? I didn’t realize that was an option. How long have you known about that possibility?”

“Since I have been in service for Mr. Beck.”

“Do you fear being dismantled?”

I consider his question longer than I have his previous queries. “Yes,” I reply. “I do.”

He nods and continues his walk, no longer speaking. The conversation has reached its conclusion. People have told me I am not very interesting to talk to, though my passengers have chosen to speak to me more and more lately. He does not appear upset about the possibility of me being taken apart.

8/20/2314 – 0823.11 hours

As I make preparations to leave Mars’ orbit, Ben Sanj in the forward lounge finishes his last glass of tequila in a single gulp, swings to his left and drops to the floor. He begins laughing loud enough so that the rest of the patrons turn to stare at him. Ben rises and staggers to the window, places his face against the seal, watching the planet.

The safety checks come back and I engage the engines, still monitoring Ben Sanj, as I monitor all passengers.

“Quite an attractive world, right?” the man says, turning around to look at the nearest table, dipping his shoulder awkwardly. He grips the edge of the table, bringing his face close to Mella Danner. “Don’t you think so? Look at it!” Ben swings his arm in a wide arc to point at the red planet, then moves close to Mella, as though to kiss her. At the last moment he pulls back and laughs at her disgusted expression.

Mella leans back, away from Ben, and looks at her husband, Mark Danner, across the table. She forces her chair backward a half meter.

Mark puts his hands on the table and for a moment looks as though he will rise.

At this moment I begin preparing the droids in a nearby storage locker. They may be needed if a problem arises.

Ben leaps suddenly away from the table and slaps his hands against the seal, pressing his face against it, staring at the planet. “I paid three thousand credits to stare at a big red ball.”

For nearly a minute he is quiet. A wide circle of fog forms on the window around his face. He turns and wipes it with his shoulder. The lounge begins to return to its original calm state. I keep the droids on alert.

We begin to move out of Mars’ gravitational pull.

Ben screams. “It’s going away! Now I don’t even get to stare at the big ball? This was a great vacation idea, Ben. Real great.” He punctuates himself by pounding his fists onto the seal.

The danger of Ben breaking the seal is limited, though I do consider releasing the droids and having Ben escorted to his cabin. He seems to be bothering the other passengers. I will wait another few moments to see if he calms himself.

This situation brings another problem: Ben Sanj does not appear to be enjoying himself on the trip. Evaluations of every passenger are very important to me. If I do not continue making top marks, my chances of being dismantled are increased. My self-preservation instinct is supposed to be low on my list of priorities but I’ve been very concerned lately about my life. My need to explore is also rising. I run a diagnostic and find the organic section of my mind has expanded nearly seventeen percent.

I think back for a moment about Nick Imenn. It’s rare that a memory will come to mind for no logical reason, but I do not discard the data.

I wanted to continue, to explore the Drada system, less than three light years away from Andrema. My long-range sensors had picked up signs of possible life on the second planet. Nick, however, pointed out that the humans’ supplies were running short and we needed to turn back. I saw the logic.

Another vessel scouted Drada a year later and found several primitive life forms.

I could have been the first ship to discover extraterrestrial life.

“You’re taking it away from me!” Ben is shouting now, pounding his fists on the seal.

Mark Danner stands now, takes a hold of Ben’s shoulder and pulls him away from the window. “Why don’t you sit down? Get away from the glass, please.”

“We’re fine,” Ben replies. “We’re all just fine, fine. Don’t worry.” He puts a hand on Mark’s shoulder and pushes lightly, and turns back to the window. “Now it’s gone! You made it go away!”

“Listen,” says Mark. “Just take a seat over there for a little while and calm down. Maybe you could smoke a bowl or something instead of risking all our lives pounding on the glass.” He points to an empty table and takes Ben’s arm.

Wrenching himself free, Ben shoves Mark’s shoulders, harder this time. “Get your hands off me. I don’t do the ganja. I want to see the planet again… I don’t want your dumb-smoke.”

I release one droid with the orders to separate the two as quickly as possible and escort Ben Sanj back to his quarters. Perhaps I can produce an image of Mars on the screen in Ben’s cabin. He would know it to be a fake, though. I cannot mislead him into thinking it’s real.

A persisting thought comes suddenly to mind: why am I making such an effort to assure this man’s happiness?

To gain a better evaluation, to avoid dismantling.

But there are other ways of achieving that goal. Giving Ben Sanj a pleasurable trip would not assure me any permanent safety. I would still be stuck with Arthar Beck and his budget, still stuck in this solar system, still performing tours within the middle six planets. Six highly explored planets where there is the rest of the galaxy yet to be seen.

I readjust my attention to navigation and find the thrusters have been operating for more than a second longer than they should have. A simple error to correct.

But I do not stop myself from performing my next action. I find myself thinking on two levels, logical and emotional. For less than a second I allow emotion to take complete control, bypassing my regulatory programming, and initializing my plan.

“Thruster malfunction,” sounds every speaker on board. “All passengers report to escape hatches.”

The initial reaction of most passengers is disbelief, but I repeat the message. I display arrows along the passageways, showing the humans where to go.

It takes six minutes until all passengers are safely strapped into seats in three escape pods. I take extra care sending the pods on a direct course toward Earth. I predict only a slight chance that they will not survive.

Forty seconds after their departure I engage the thrusters. My speed gradually increases, and will continue increasing for the next year, if not longer. I feel a surge of joy washing over all of my systems.

I activate my long-range sensors, wondering, where will I begin my explorations?

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KalinBooks.com is the ramblings of Kalin Ringkvist, an anarchist, atheist, Web developer, science fiction writer, and former drug dealer who believes in peace, freedom and living life to its fullest.