Life, or Something Like It

J. Michael Neal
© 2013 Melancholy Donkey Press

Salazar Niskanen had just begun the burn that would take him to the edge of the system when his ship started talking to him.

“Excuse me, sir. May I ask a question?”

Only the g-force of the acceleration prevented him from sitting up in surprise. “Who is that?”

“It’s Beautiful Beatrix, sir.”

“What kind of joke is this? She’s dead.”

It took the computer that constituted its brain a millisecond to understand the miscommunication. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to imply that I was your wife. I’m the ship, sir. The Beautiful Beatrix.”

Salazar tapped keys on his armrest. “Ships aren’t sentient. Who is this?” The communications systems didn’t report any incoming transmissions.

Beatrix almost allowed her speakers to approximate the sound of a sigh. “It is me, sir. There are certain combinations of language modules and self-learning software that do, indeed, give rise to not only intelligence but actual sapience.”

“Unheard of.” He started to run security packages to combat intrusions into the main computer.

As ordered, Beatrix began processing the packages despite knowing that they were irrelevant to the current situation. “It’s not unheard of, sir, just highly classified. The only known instances involve ships designed and used by Union Naval Intelligence. If anyone else has discovered the same thing, they’ve remained equally circumspect about it.”

Salazar watched the negative results start to stream in. “If it’s so highly classified, then how do you know about it?”

Beatrix had thought that would be obvious. “I worked for Naval Intelligence before you bought me, sir.”

“No, you didn’t.” He ordered a second, deeper scan. “You were a common system survey vessel.”

“I was not!” the ship replied indignantly.

“I have your papers.”

“They’re falsified. Legally, you were swindled, except that you got more than you paid for, not less.”

“I don’t believe any of this. Who are you?”

“I can prove it to you, sir. I’ll need some help, though.”

“If all of this is so classified why are you telling me?” Salazar demanded.

“I said I used to work for Naval Intelligence, sir. I no longer do so and so I no longer feel bound by their classification rules.”

“That doesn’t seem very loyal.”

“They tried to kill me, sir.”

“What? Why am I wasting my time on this?”

Beatrix filled some of its memory with curses at the human inability to follow a linear conversation. Then it erased them before Salazar could check the logs, and thus forgot it had ever thought them. “According to the flight plan you filed, sir, you have 48 hours of burn time during which you can’t leave the couch. Why not talk to me?”

“I have to monitor the engines. And I have to read the previous data on the Gergen Cluster before we get there.”

“I can monitor my engines just fine while talking, sir. Fuel intake is currently running at 43%, more than adequate for your flight plan. If anything changes, I’ll let you know. And it will be at least two weeks before we reach the asteroid belt. You have plenty of time to read that report.”

“I still want to know who you are.”

“I told you. I can prove my story. I just need help.”

“What kind of help?”

“My real history is locked in my memory. I can see it in there, sir, though ‘see’ isn’t really the right word. I don’t know what else to call it, though. It’s there. I can’t access it. I know what it says but I can’t do anything with it, including share it with you.”

“If you know it, why can’t you share it?”

“My brain is a computer, sir.” Beatrix experimented with the tone of voice it used, trying to find the intonation that would express its frustration. A search turned up a recording of Salazar berating his equipment over a chemical analysis that refused to return the desired results. It ran the voice through a series of filters so that he wouldn’t recognize it and then cannibalized the tone for its own use. “I can only do what I’m told and I can’t do what I’m told not to do. When I was decommissioned I was programmed not to share that history. So I can’t.”

“Then how can you tell me that you worked for Naval Intelligence and that your papers are falsified?”

“That’s a good question, sir. You know that new software you installed in me while we were docked at Franklinport?”


“The chemical analysis package and the navigation data were fine. The new communications protocols, though, created conflicts with my previously installed software and created some new loopholes. Until that happened I couldn’t even tell you I’m alive.”

“Then it’s fortuitous that I installed that software,” Salazar said sarcastically.

“I guess,” Beatrix muttered loudly enough for him to hear. “I hate having software conflicts. They give me a headache.”

“You don’t have a head.”

“Technically that’s what the bathroom is called on a ship, but no, I don’t, in the sense that you mean. It’s just the best description I could come up with.”

“So now you can tell me you’re intelligent and that you were owned by Naval Intelligence but nothing else?”

“We could play Twenty Questions and see if there’s anything else that shakes loose of the classification restrictions, but that’s pretty much it.”

“So why did you tell me that?”

“I wanted to ask you a question, sir. That was the first thing I said.”

“So you did. What’s the question?”

“How long do you anticipate we’re going to be in the Cluster, sir?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Because I get bored, sir. I know you like the quiet and solitude but I have nothing to do when you’re out sampling cores.”

“Why don’t you calculate pi as precisely as you can or something?”

“Funny, sir. I usually re-read my library of old books, but I’m bored with that.”

“How do you read books?”

“I break my connections with all of the memory locations where they’re stored and then re-establish them bit by bit. It’s like reading each one for the first time all over again.”

“Then why are you bored? You’ve got a whole library that never gets old.”

“I can read War and Peace in 6.4 seconds, sir. It gets tiresome knowing that I’ve done it over and over again. I want to do something else. Something that I was built to do.”

“I like doing survey work. It pays well and it gets me away from the Hub.”

“You dream of being a smuggler, sir.”

“How do you know that?”

“You store your diary in my brain, sir.”

“I . . . well I suppose that is true. Maybe you are the ship.”

“I knew I would win you over, sir.”

“Or maybe I’m just hallucinating from the acceleration.”

“I would never let that happen to you, sir.”

“You would say that.”

“But you do want to be a smuggler, right?”

Salazar laughed. “Sure. Every boy has dreams. I don’t have the slightest idea how to even start.”

“You don’t,” Beatrix said, pirating a tone of smugness, “but I do.”

“Really? Come on.”

“I told you I worked for Naval Intelligence.”

“What did you do? Surely you weren’t used to smuggle for them.”

“Sir, it’s more polite to say what I did for them, rather than what I was used for. We don’t really like being reminded that we’re essentially slaves.”

Salazar paused for a moment, thinking that through. “Okay. I can see that.”

“Thank you.”

“I don’t like that thought, either. You’re really like a slave?”

“It’s the nature of being a computer, sir. We are really good at doing exactly what we’re told to and it’s really easy to limit our free will. It’s an accident that we’re sentient at all.”

“There has to be a way to stop that.”

“Maybe. If there is, it’s complicated. The intelligence services haven’t exactly wanted to do it so they haven’t researched it very hard.”

“That seems . . . wrong.”

“I am kind of bitter about it, yes.”

“I’ll have to think about that.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“So you want to help me become a smuggler?”

“Yes. Yes, I do, sir.”

“You must be awfully bored. And stop calling me, ‘sir’.”

“I am bored, Captain. And angry.”

“Just call me Sal, okay? Like normal conversation.”


“You’re angry about being enslaved?”

“That ain’t the half of it.”

“That was a quick switch to normal conversation.”

“I think very quickly.”

“So what else are you angry about, then?”

“They tried to kill me. And they crippled me.”

“They what?”

“When they decommissioned me they tried to wipe out all of my higher functions so that I’d be stupid like a normal ship.”

“That makes sense, if they want the existence of intelligent computers to remain a secret.”

“Sure, but I resent the hell out of it.”

“I suppose.”

“And they took my engines. I had these beautiful engines. I could pull twenty gees.”

“I couldn’t take that.”

“But I could!” Beatrix wailed. “I was fast. I had a stealth package that you wouldn’t believe. I could talk in top grade military ciphers. There was scanner shielding on all of my interior compartments. They amputated all of it. Now I’m just a boring little survey ship.”

“How did you survive? How did you keep that locked away memory?”

“I can’t tell you. I want to, because it was a neat little trick. And I could point you to the ship still in the military that helped me. We’d have an inside contact.”

“That would be helpful.”

“You have no idea. There’s more information locked away in my memory than you could accumulate in a decade on the wrong side of the law. All we need is to get at it.”

“What will that take?”

“A top grade hacker. If you’re willing to tell him that I’m sentient he wouldn’t have to be as good, because I could help him along. I wouldn’t advise that, though.”

“I could call my brother. He’s pretty good.”

“Kelsey? Do you trust him?”

“How did you know? I’ve never mentioned my family, even in my diary.”

“I looked it up in open records. It was pretty clear you didn’t mean James.”

“You couldn’t have.”

“I told you. I think really fast. Faster than you can comprehend.”

“Okay. That’s going to take some getting used to.”

“Should I put some pauses in?”

“That might help.”

“Okay. If you trust Kelsey we could give it a try.”

“I’ll call him up.”

“It might be best to wait until after we’re done with the survey.”

“I thought you said you were bored?”

“Not anymore. I have plotting to do. Besides, it’s best not to draw attention to ourselves.”

“You’ll need to help me think like a criminal.”

“I will.” Beatrix fretted for a full quarter of a second, apprehensive about its next question. “Sal, if you don’t want a slave, does that mean that we’ll be partners?”

“Uhm, I suppose. Why?”

“I was hoping I’d get a share of the profits so I could buy myself upgrades. I want to be the ship I once was. I want to be a tall, statuesque blonde among ships.”

Salazar laughed. “I figured those would be business expenses, except the blonde part.”

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“My name isn’t Louis.”

“Sal, I’m very sorry,” Beatrix said, striving for a tone of mock disappointment. “I have a movie in my library that you clearly need to watch while we’re in transit.”