Short Story: A Panicked Indifference

Well, here’s the first of the short story posts! I’m not uploading them on specific weekdays, nothing so organized as that. Rather, simply sometime during a week where I planned to post one, I will get around to posting one. At any rate, hopefully you enjoy this Sci-Fi short about a poor survey A.I. that never expected anything exciting to happen to it.

 

A Panicked Indifference

By Jacen Aster

For the first time in 3 years, 11 months and 12 days, AMI 12 had no idea what to do. As of her departure of from the Sol system, Advanced Machine Intelligence number 12 had been among the most sophisticated A.I.s ever created. While that was unlikely to still be true, it didn’t change the fact that AMI had vast computational power and was well and firmly into the sentient portion of the intelligence spectrum. She was considered fully alive by her creators, she could problem solve just as imaginatively as they could, and she could do it while handling far more variables than any merely human mind could ever hope to manage.

A series of facts which, sadly, didn’t solve her current near-panic. Truly, it was a unique sensation. She hadn’t even known that she could simulate panic, but she was entirely convinced that this must be what panic felt like. Normally, she might have idly spun off a processing thread to study the new phenomenon, but she was entirely too overtaxed to even consider the possibility.

For the truth was, she had good reason to panic. Even with all the thought that had been put into her data archives, all the scenarios carefully gamed out and responses just as carefully written, somehow no one had thought of this situation. So, for the last twenty-two point three seven five seconds she had been frantically plumbing the depths of every scrap of knowledge in her databanks for help. She’d even gone so far as watching old sci-fi shows and accessing the equivalent written media, blowing through entire television and book series in nanoseconds. All of the material, fact and fiction alike, was chewed through and complied in a desperate hope of not screwing this up.

No one had considered a survey A.I. making first contact.

The problem was as utterly simple and as horrifyingly complicated as that. Somehow, the mental switch for that possibility had just never flipped for her human creators, and until this very moment it hadn’t flipped for her either. Everyone, even those of her own kind in the years since the A.I. liberation movement, had always pictured some overly curious human explorer being the one to stumble upon aliens, if aliens even existed. Everyone, A.I. and human alike, really should have realized that the long-range A.I. survey and mining ships ranged much farther from the Sol system, and were thus far more likely to stumble upon alien neighbors. But no one had, in fact, come to that realization, and now AMI was left to clean up the mess.

It was in light of this that the unknown ship of blatantly alien design, broadcasting in an unknown language, and dropping out of some sort of hyper-field within less than half an AU of her position, had AMI panicking. Some tiny amount of her idle process that had somehow remained idle, despite her scramble, considered that the panic reaction was probably completely normal. She immediately retasked that resource chunk before it could make any more useless observations.

The alien vessel was now changing direction toward her, and its message began repeating. It didn’t sound angry to her, at least not yet. But then, for all she knew the voice had started angry or, for that matter, maybe this species was always angry. Seriously, she was totally not the sentient to deal with this. She was a super geeky A.I. specialized in surveying for rare minerals! She didn’t even have a diplomacy or negotiation package…. Which, come to think of it, might be why she was in the ass end of nowhere studying rocks. Not that she minded, she liked studying rocks.

AMI forced her processors back on track, cursing her creators for giving her the ability to ramble. Made her more human her sweet rear chassis! It was a damn nuisance. Okay, so the incoming language was gibberish. No relation at all to any Earth language real or imagined. It would be much too easy if the aliens spoke some variation of Klingon. So, translation was out. That left contacting them instead of reading their message, and hoping that they could make sense of some language she knew. That, or communicating with crop circles. She’d save that for a last resort.

She scanned over the rough first contact package she’d constructed on the fly and almost sent it, then hesitated as the tertiary programs skimming her sci-fi library reported an idea that might actually work. A quick calculation reported a small delay was justified if it might increase her odds of success. It took an agonizing five additional seconds to brute force what was supposed to be an elegant solution and tack the result onto the rest of her haphazard package. A last twenty milliseconds to skim the whole thing again, then she broadcast it toward the alien ship, wishing someone had thought to give her fingers to cross. Or maybe an upside down horseshoe over a hatchway or something. Anything for a little luck, even if A.I. weren’t supposed to believe in something like luck. She’d once read a line about there never being an atheist in a foxhole, and she was nearly certain she could claim that the sentiment applied to belief in luck as well.

She spent the next twelve minutes erratically waffling over whether or not to fire up the survey ship’s limited weaponry. It was there for pirates or A.I. slavers, not aliens, and she didn’t even know if it would work on the other vessel. Said vessel had slowed within moments of her broadcast, but even at a quarter of its previous speed it was still faster that her sublight options and she was far too close to the systems G1V star for anything superluminal. Anything she could manage anyway. Apparently these aliens were able to do it. They’d appeared well inside her own hyper envelope, much closer to the star than current hyper theory claimed was possible.

Anyway she looked at it, there was no way she could run if they didn’t want her to. It was only the fact that she couldn’t find a single thing on the scans that looked like a weapon that kept her from at least warming her limited ordinance up. She really hoped the negative scan results meant that they weren’t armed, but knew there was no way she’d be able to tell for certain. She’d nearly talked herself into committing a slow trickle of power to her weapons when the thirteen-minute mark hit and the other ship slowed completely to a stop.

At the fifteen-minute mark a single word was broadcast to her in plain English. “Standby.”

Well, that wasn’t helpful. Standby for what? Standby to be destroyed? Standby to talk about your favorite cute and fluffy mammal? AMI was partial to wombats, personally, or at least she thought she might be, if she ever got the chance to meet one. Somehow she doubted the aliens wanted to talk about wombats, though. She began her internal 177-processor debate about the weapons systems over again in light of this new data. After a full 27 milliseconds she decided that there were slightly more possibly positive meanings for “Standby,” than negative options and opted to leave her weapons unpowered.

A full hour passed with neither ship moving beyond the need for minor station-keeping. AMI had long since gotten entirely tired of panic, written a manual about first contact she really thought ought to exist, and gone back to scanning the asteroid grouping she’d been investigating before the aliens had inconsiderately interrupted her. It was the last grouping she was supposed to scan on this mission, and dammit she was going to finish! If they destroyed her she’d at least have gotten some satisfaction, and if they didn’t she couldn’t be shortchanged on her contract when she headed back to tell the Alliance about her encounter. After all, there was no way she was staying out here now. Not even if the aliens were super-friendly. No sir, not little AMI. She’d go back and become an A.I. for a factory, or something equally harmless. A wombat nursery, maybe.

Finally, a broadcast reached her. Not just text or audio, but a full visual feed. She scrambled to route the two-way com signal to the tiny interior bridge of the ship, turning on her end of the link just microseconds after the holo-projectors created her favorite avatar to sit in the only chair. She cringed at her reflexive choice, wishing she’d chosen something a bit more formal than the blue haired, petite female skin. It’s form, with transparent light purple skin covering a glowing white-purple internal structure, probably made it brutally clear that she was an artificial being. Most A.I. preferred forms that made that clear, and AMI was no different. She merely had to hope that her visitors were properly enlightened when it came to her kind. The main screen, such as it was, brought the alien bridge into focus as it auto adjusted for the slightly odd encoding the alien ship was broadcasting in. AMI forced away her moment of regret and narrowed her focus to the alien appearing on screen. It was too late to change her choice now.

The being’s eyes stood out the most.

That was AMI’s first thought. Oh, the rest of it was just as clearly and explicitly alien. Four blue-grey and gangly upper limbs on a rather odd three-legged lower body. Crisp clothing in a deep orange, possibly a uniform, covered all but arms and face. But the eyes were something else entirely. Slightly longer than a human’s, with a deep black sclera, they glowed with specks of blue fire nearly as bright as her own holo-body. She idly wondered if the effect was natural while she tried to analyze everything about the being and its surroundings.

She was just running a calculation about whether or not she should speak first when the alien captain beat her to it. “Hail to the camp. Is that what I’m supposed to say?”

AMI nearly gaped as she tried to figure out how to respond to that. Something must have carried in her avatar’s expression, the downside of good programming, because the alien spoke again quickly.

“I’m sorry if that’s wrong. Despite the genius design of your first contact package, we’re still struggling to work things out. Our apologies for being so slow.” The captain made an odd sort of gesture with his lower left hand. Who knows what that meant, hopefully nothing nefarious.

AMI put on her best pretense of a diplomatic face, hoping not to get shot, and tried to gently correct the alien. “That’s a rather old, pre-space greeting, but not technically incorrect.” She hesitated for two harrowing seconds while she beat her hurriedly written, pseudo-diplomatic protocol into giving her an answer that didn’t involve strangling kittens. Not every A.I. was a brilliant programmer, dammit. She was meant to study rocks. “I am unsure of your own cultural greetings, so I ask that you forgive me if I don’t follow the proper forms. My name is AMI, and I am in charge of this survey vessel.”

The alien captain looked far more relieved than anything else. Though there was no guarantee she was reading this odd being correctly. Regardless, it seemed more confidant as it returned her introduction. “Greetings AMI, I am Captain Raglithe of the deep space exploration vessel Algrebvien. I offer you greetings in the name of the Hirenthi Empire, and the Galactic Alliance Trade Commons.”

Oh good, those sounded like other words for “survey ship,” rather than “war cruiser.” The part  about an Empire was concerning, but a few bits flipped in her analysis process and this Galactic Alliance Trade Commons was pushed forward as likely confirmation of non-military, multi-species trade. Its separate introduction was producing an estimate of 68% probability that this was the case, and that was surely a good sign.

“I greet you in turn Captain Raglithe of the Algrebvien. My ship, the Exoscope, is a Sol Alliance vessel, and I welcome you so long as you come in peace.” AMI was proud of her little diplomatic routine, it had given her a nice line there. Sure it was bland, but it wasn’t quite as cliché as ‘take me to your leader,’ and it was properly devoid of any useful information. Even the ship name was merely the name of this class of ship. She wasn’t a very social A.I. and had never thought to give the ship serving as her current body a name. Its serial number had always been good enough before.

The captain seemed to accept it easily enough. “I admit, I’m not really sure what to do. You’re not in our database, but it is obvious that your species must be well traveled and experienced in such meetings, given the creation of such a brilliant method of overcoming the communication hurdle. Really, a digital language based on atomic structures and the mathematical concepts that all races must understand if they wish to achieve space flight is a clever idea. A bit rough around the edges, perhaps, but it shortened our translation efforts drastically. In fact, I’ve never heard of first contact taking less than a week before the communication hurdle was bypassed.”

Okay…so maybe she shouldn’t admit to them that she’d thrown that package together from scratch, on the fly, and personally considered it horribly inadequate. She definitely wasn’t going to tell them she’d gotten the idea for the language from a twenty-first century science fiction novel. Still, best nip at least part of that assumption in the bud, before it came around to bite her in the ass. “Actually, you’re the first species the Sol Alliance has encountered since achieving superluminal travel. We’ve merely put a lot of thought into the possibility.” Fictional thought, by the large, but still thought.

The alien captain suddenly looked nervous, very nervous. “Uh. So you mean to say, that you’re completely new to the galactic community?”

AMI quirked an eyebrow, realized that the alien likely wouldn’t know the meaning of the action, and added a verbal response. “So far as I know, that is the case. I am quite distant from our home system and have not received new word in some months. It is therefore remotely possible that things have changed since then. I doubt it, however.”

Captain Raglithe seemed to waver in place for a moment before bracing itself. “I suppose…I suppose I have to tell you about things, then.” It glanced around, seeming not to know where to start. “I’m not really trained for this, though. Perhaps we should summon someone else.”

Oh hell no. Not summoning more unknown alien vessels. Much better to simply get some basics out of a hapless survey captain, arrange a meeting with someone higher than herself, and hightail it straight back to the Sol system.

“I don’t think that will be needed, Captain. I am not able to negotiate on behalf of my people, and like you I am not trained for this. Perhaps we should merely organize a simple exchange of basic information, then take word to our respective superiors.”

The captain nodded eagerly and AMI rather thought that gesture, at least, translated. Particularly once the alien followed it up.

“Yes! Yes, that seems like a fine idea. What do you want to know about?”

“You could, perhaps, start with what this Galactic Alliance Trade Commons is….”

Their information exchange had been going well for the last hour, but they had just hit on a stumbling block AMI had been dreading.

“Wait, you’re not a real person?”

“Of course I’m a real person!” AMI scowled mentally but kept it off her projection’s face.

“But, you said you were a program?”

“Yes. I’m a fully sentient artificial intelligence.”

She’d gotten a solid read on the Captain’s body language, and now he looked positively flummoxed. “Er- but, shouldn’t I be speaking with your creators then?”

AMI’s scowl deepened, and this time she most emphatically did added it to her holo-projection. Consequences be damned. “A.I.’s have been fully liberated for nearly fifty years, you offer me grave insult.”

The captain’s lower arms waved franticly. “I didn’t mean that! I just, well, we don’t have anything like you. No one does.”

AMI stared at him, dumbfounded. “Wait, what? You said there are like thirty known races, right? Surely one of them has fully developed A.I.?”

The captain shook his head. “No, A.I. research is forbidden in most cultures. The few species that haven’t outlawed it, either out of fear or ethical concerns, have never come close to creating a true machine intelligence. If you really are fully sentient, than there is no precedent for your existence.”

AMI’s processors whirred, nearly overheating as she tried to work through the massive implications of that statement. “That could be a problem. A.I. have full rights under the Sol Alliance charter.” She looked suspiciously at the captain. “You’re not going to try and capture me or something, are you?”

The captain flinched away from the screen before hurriedly reassuring her. “Of course not! Even if I can’t just unilaterally declare you sentient, the ship clearly must belong to someone. Attempting to seize you would be an act of piracy at the very least, possibly kidnapping. Depending on what is decided.”

AMI let silence fall for a few moments before redirecting the discussion to a new topic. Even with the deliberate effort to avoid the subject, the conversation was obviously more guarded on both sides now, and AMI was glad when a small ding announced that the two-way file transfer between their ships was concluded.

Just a few minutes later, as AMI was bound for the edge of the system and watching the alien ship disappear into that odd hyper-field, she couldn’t help but wonder what was to come. Would the prejudice that humanity and its creations had finally overcome haunt them once again in the stars? Would her species be oppressed or hunted?

After a few moments of such philosophical contemplation, AMI snorted and killed the sappy thought process. Whichever idiot said “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” was totally doing a disservice by indifference. She was grateful she was an A.I., unlike those silly humans she could shut off that useless drivel and get back to the important things.

Like her rocks. Those were much more interesting.

For example, that sample she’d picked up from asteroid 3740-D13 was fascinating. She was almost certain it was a new alloy. Not a terribly useful one, but nevertheless new. Much more interesting than philosophy. She put on the soothingly discordant perfection of the latest in A.I. musical dissonance, made for A.I.’s and by A.I.s, and got back to get job.

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