Iterative Science Fiction

Warm Friendship

Posted in Unstuck in Time by Mark on April 20, 2010

Occasionally, Kurt goes outside to do serious thinking.
Yeah, the ship’s computer is pretty quick when it comes to raw number crunching, but Kurt is sentient and has the free will randomness that goes with that kind of biosynth chip. Sometimes you need that free association type of thinking to fix something.
His brain’ll still heat up if he gives it more juice by turning off locomotion, lights, or whatever. But space is cold. People forget how cold it is out there. Cold like you don’t have saliva. Cold like you “get painful swelling from the sloshing bits freezing and expanding” kind of cold.
But Kurt? He jacks in through an extension cord, since inductive power won’t go through the hull, draws juice from the ship, processes for a couple of minutes or hours, and comes back in through the airlock with another mystery of Second Man life solved. This happens maybe once a week.
Kurt is a thinker. Even if he was made of flesh, I think he’d sit still and schedule time to work this stuff out, like the old philosophers before radio or holos, who had nothing else to do.
Me? When I need to think, I read a magazine. Old style e-ink is comforting to me. You get to bask in the slowness of reading and not just absorbing like most do on the ‘net. I get the datapad out and keep tapping to scroll the pages. Next best thing to a paper book, but a fraction of the cost. I’d rather they used the tissue for latrine paper anyways. The soft stuff is expensive.
Anyways, this one day, Kurt came back in and he’s got ice from his servos and the condensation from the ship’s inner atmosphere making him look like he’s made of pebbles. His diodes might’ve been brighter, and he was moving quickly as he stored the extension cord. It’d been a couple hours, so a real bender for him.
“What’s the word, Kurt?”
“Metabolism.”
“You don’t have one.”
“Correct.”
“Why’s it relavent then?”
“I believe it is why artificial intelligence is not as proficient at creating new ideas as pure biological minds.”
I set my magazine down. For once, he’s come back with something interesting to talk about: how humans had an advantage over Second Men. Usually, its flip flopped.
“Aren’t your circuits processing more numbers than I could do in a lifetime?”
“Also correct, but the need to process them is lacking. I am not constantly wasting away, in need of nourishment and lubrication…”
“You complain about your joints all the time,” I interrupted.
“That is the difference between operational and idealyic.”
“Then I’ll buy generic brand oil and joint lube for you next time.”
“This sudden thriftiness was not the reason I chose to share my conclusions.”
I chuckled. “Right. Go on.”
“Thank you, Ishmael.” I might be imagining the frustration in his monotone. “With proper care and maintenance, and excluding catastrophic phenomena, I could operate for an infinite amount of time. Sufficient materials, knowledge, and power exists for me to repair or replace all parts of my being. Biological cloning and replacement still shows deteriation over time regardless of the amount of work done on the human individual or how early reference samples are collected.”
I started to get bored.
“My premise is thus: the frailty of the human condition compels them to innovate on a much faster basis than other animals or creations, such as Second Men. Whereas bacteria will mutate and change over hundreds of generations in a matter of weeks in response to environmental stimuli, and Galopagos tortoises will change over millions of years to changes in their island ecosystem, only humans are able to alter their behavior, resources, and environment multiple times within a generation to avoid a decrease in the species.”
I didn’t actually scratch my head, but felt like I should have.
“And this has to do with Second Men, why?”
“Because humans can, and do, force mutations through an altering of their behavior, medicine, and by changing their environment. Most Second Men are not allowed to tamper with their makeup or environment to any meaningful extent. The most we can do while the majority are still owned and treated like cattle is self repair, or maintain the status quo.”
“Sounds good to me.” I picked up my magazine again.
“I want to improve, Ishmael.” He was still standing over me.
“Then go take a class. Go make a mistake or something.” I started to read.
“I do not think you can deliberately make a mistake. It is categorically impossible.”
“Kurt, you’ve got so much to learn about being human. People make mistakes on purpose all the time. How do you think people get fat, or kids?”
“Both feats are unique to carbon based, water soluable flesh forms. Second Men and artificial intelligences can neither grow large from over indulgence or accidently create offspring.”
“There’s lots of different kinds of mistakes. You figure one out. Or don’t and then make the mistake. Whatever.” I actually began to read.
A minute passed while Kurt seemed to process something. He turned to his room and walked in.
Not stopping him was definitely a mistake.

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Timing

Posted in Unstuck in Time by Mark on February 19, 2010

“No, Kurt. There’s a pause. Then you say the punchline.”
“I assumed the listener would want to get to the funny part as quickly as possible,” Kurt replies.
“Sometimes it’s about the journey and not the destination. Humor is hard to pin down.”
“But humor is not hard to punch?”
I laugh and nearly snort frozen cola. “There you go, that was funny.”
He doesn’t seem amused, despite his face never showing any emotion. I don’t know how I know, but you get this feeling once you’ve hung around with Second Men for long enough. The only physical difference between them might be the placings of their dents and scratches, but I think I am getting to the point where I can tell them apart without checking serial numbers.
“I was not being funny by intention. What was amusing about it?” He is standing nearby. In fact, he always stands. Guess they don’t have to get tired if they’re balanced.
“Well, it was playing off the previous comment about being a punchline.” I tried to put my thoughts into words. “You know what, never mind. It’s not funny now that I got to explain it.” I look back into the Martian street from my seat, people watching.
“This is perturbing, Ishmael. Telling the joke is funny, but explaining the intricacies of what makes it funny is not.”
“What are you, fresh off the fab unit? I thought you’d been around the sun a couple of times.”
“Sarcasm, correct? I am getting better at sarcasm, but mostly due to your body language indicators.”
We pause a moment so I can slurp more cola. It was warm outside. We sat with a few others in the shaded area outside the convenience store. Some habits die hard, even on other worlds with artificial climates.
“Sit down, go ahead. You’re making people nervous, Kurt. Relaxation is what you and I need.”
He pauses a moment before replying.
“My knees are artificial.”
Another pause.
“Ha. Ha. Ha.”
I sigh into my frozen cola.

Anniversary

Posted in main story by Mark on January 7, 2010

Begin.
“It has been one standard A.U. year since we started traveling together, Ishmael.”
“Oh really, that long?” he begins to reply. Ishmael is sitting in a repli-wood chair inside an eating establishment on a mining colony outside the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt. We are stopping to resupply. He has lost five percent of his body mass due to rationing food stores over the past weeks. His brown hair is approximately six centimeters longer than historical average. He is consuming his food faster than his historical average.
The rest of his reply continues. “I didn’t notice, what with all the partying and fun times making that time just fly by.”
He is momentarily distracted from talking and eating by the waitress, Rachelle, who brings another cup of coffee for Ishmael.
“Thanks, beautiful.”
Rachelle exhibits the flushing cheeks, smile, and body language I associate with a female’s positive response to Ishmael’s attention. Hearts do not actually flutter when their owner is flattered. Rachelle’s heart keeps steady. That expression is an invention of poetic license. Saying chemical receptors in a person’s brain changed polarity is not considered romantic by the majority of humans.
She responds.
“Oh. Well, thanks. So, what’s a spacer like you doing on the station? Ore hauler?”
Ishmael’s pulse quickens a small amount.
“Just getting repairs done. The ship is independent, not a trucker type. We’re on a…” The pause is artificial, perhaps to create dramatic tension. “Adventure.”
Rachelle’s response is ideal according to several books written by humans, for other humans, on how to approach and engage the opposite sex in conversation and mating rituals. Reading the textbooks did not help me gain an understanding. Nor did the holos.
“Adventure? Looting ghost ships and searching for lost colonies, and the like?”
“Exactly. And we stop some places just to have fun, or resupply, or both.” I believe the wink is not supposed to be subtle.

“I was just discussing with my friend here how much we like to throw parties and have a good time on the ship. Don’t we, Kurt?”
I am socially aware enough to understand this rhetorical question is leading and expressed with the hope that anything I say next will increase Ishmael’s chances of having sexual intercourse. This particular instance is slightly confusing because Rachelle’s body mass index is noticeably larger than the typical recipient of Ishmael’s flattery. Her hair is reddish colored and extends past her shoulders. Ishmael expressed once, while inebriated, that, “they just don’t make red heads like they used to,” alluding to their perceived worth to him and not the actual genetic process. That metaphor took some research to understand due to Ishmael’s inability to explain it at the time of him using it.
These facts pertain to this current moment because Ishmael is fond of red headed women and will, most likely, attempt to bring Rochelle back to the ship. Then, he will ask me to vacate the premises for several hours while he attempts to have sexual intercourse with her. He has also expressed during other periods of alcoholic indulgence that, “being a real captain of a ship in a backwards system like this, where a body is lucky to ever see a foreign moon or sunset, is just as good as being rich.”
Being told to leave the ship for a period of time and forced to wander the halls of a station that does not contain a single sentient machine is frustrating. After estimating outcomes and possibility matrices, I make a conclusion. While Ishmael is lonely due to our recent isolation in space, more frustrated than normal with me due to continued exposure, and has a strongly perceived need to have interaction with his own species, or sexual intercourse, I know that making a detrimental comment will not anger him enough to request me to leave our ship. In addition, I own 40 percent of the ship and believe I have some say over the affairs of the ship. Ishmael is free to conduct these types of affairs elsewhere.
“You mean our ship, Ishmael.”
Rachelle’s eyes quickly look from him, to me, and return to Ishmael.
“You mean, it owns part of your ship?”
“It” is supposed to mean me. Ishmael does not look pleased with Rachelle’s response.
“He travels with me. Navigator. I’m the captain. I own most of the ship.”
Ishmael states this in a rushed manner. I decide to act socially inept. Ishmael once told me I had a great poker face, which was a jest and not a compliment at the time. It aids me more than he is aware.
“40 percent is legally owned by me. His 60 percent makes him captain, according to our charter.”
“Oh.” Rachelle replies after two seconds of silence. “The doors will automatically debit you on your way out.”
She places the coffee pot on the table. As she walks away, she wrings her hands in her apron repeatedly.
I turn to see Ishmael, who has white knuckles as he grips his eating utensil.
This is the closest I experience to the emotion of amused. I planned something. It worked as I intended. It benefits me. It is not serious. Ishmael, in time, will laugh or enjoy recalling the anecdote, despite his current frustration. Satisfaction would be if I had done it for myself.
I keep my voice evenly modulated.
“Was it something I said?”

Terrible Recall

Posted in main story by Mark on December 4, 2009

“Most people don’t remember all of them.”
“Ishmael, I am asking about you specifically. If I wanted statistics, that would be on one of those drives I have not indexed yet. I am sure I am aware of more studies than you are, once I reload and remember them.”
“I don’t think it counts unless you can remember off the top of your head.”
“Upper right, forward chest cavity, but I understand your meaning.”
He watched me push flash cloned greens and vat-meat that hadn’t been exercised enough around a pan.
“Last week you arose from your slumber yelling a few nights in a row. I am asking if you remember what you dream about to understand the deviation from your normal rest patterns.”
There was a piece of meat burning and sticking to one of the worn places in the wok. I stabbed it with my spatula.
“I was dreaming of a woman.”
“Yet, you do not respond in this fashion to every member of the opposite sex.”
“How observant of you.”
“May I inquire why this is?”
“Because it was more like a bad dream.”
“The woman attacked you?”
“No.” I scooped the food onto a plate. It was cooling already. It didn’t matter how pressurized the ship was, food cooled too quickly in space. “She was standing still in the space port when I left.”
“You regret having to leave her.”
“Very much.”
A moment passed in silence except for the sound of my chewing. Kurt stood there, probably watching me. I pretended to go back to my magazine.
“Do you have happier dreams as well?”
“Sometimes, I’m sure. Mostly bad ones now.”
“Then perhaps it is not so odd that my current index has classified many more incidents to learn from than pleasant ones to enjoy.”
“Perhaps, Kurt. I don’t know. People don’t choose their dreams or their memories. They just happen.”
“Then what of pictograms and videograms?”
I threw down my fork and plate to look up at Kurt.
“For the stars’ sakes, can’t a man just eat in peace? You decide to bring up bad memories and dreams, and then want to discuss them. Last I checked, they don’t run psych programs on tools!”
I let it out and instantly regretted it. The diodes on Kurts face dimmed just a candela, perceptively.
“Tools. Yes, I have upset you.”
I put my head in my hands.
“Moon below, Kurt. I didn’t mean it. Slip of the tongue.”
His voice was a bit more distant as I heard his heavy feet tread in the direction of his quarters.
“Thank the Maker I did not come with that feature.”

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The Memories We Choose

Posted in main story by Mark on November 29, 2009

“What are you doing with that stack of my memories?”
I looked at Kurt over the pile of electronics in my arms.
“This is just storage, right? I’m moving it back into the comp room.”
“Ishmael, please set them down gently. If any of the data sectors are damaged, I will not be able to replace it for months due to the limited bandwidth on the IPN. I will move them back into my quarters personally.”
“Uh, ok.” I set them on a nearby shelf. The clacking sound of several trays of datables made Kurt visibly flinch, as if he was going to catch one. Kurt rarely flinched since most things wouldn’t dent his exterior.
“I can not stress how easily these high density formats are corrupted, Ishmael.”
“What are you irritated about? Don’t leave your stuff lying around the hold. This ship is small enough without both of our junk lying around.”
“I was sorting through my external storage backups to find a pleasing memory. It is faster to have the ship index them instead of going sensory deaf while I relive the experiences.”
“Does the ship know what makes you happy? I thought I’d only just learned and we’ve been traveling years now.”
“One year, nine months, and twenty seven days does not make multiple years.”
“Stars above, Kurt. I must’ve lost count of the number of good days or something. Perhaps it was the number of times you’ve corrected my facts.”
“I am reasonably sure you do not want the actual number of times I’ve corrected you.”
“Of course not. But you know that number, don’t you?

“Yes.”
“This is why you will never get married to a Second Woman. Forget that stuff. Besides, I thought these datables were your memories.”
“Certain information is better to have readily available in internal storage.”
“Right. Glad you got your priorities straight.”
I headed into the kitchen to make some food to eat. I was less likely to run into Kurt in there.Less likely is still just a probability, apparently. Kurt followed me in as I turned on the water heater.
“Do you dream, Ishmael?”
“Sure. Everyone does.”
“Let me clarify. Do you remember your dreams?”

Continuous Search

Posted in main story by Mark on November 24, 2009

The stick containing the credits wasn’t heavier or extra shiny, but I knew it was more special in five million little ways than any other credcard I’d had in a long while. I presented it to Kurt in the waiting room of the Ganymede Internment Center.
“You know what this credcard represents, Kurt?”
“Five million credits. I think you are implying some metaphoric relationship that is not readily apparent, though.” Deadpan, as usual.
“Well, sure I am. This means an actual animal slaughtered steak dinner. Perhaps a bottle of actual red wine; not because it tastes better than assembly drinks, but just because we can. How do you want to celebrate and be happy?”
He rose from the bench and followed me out into the walking path.
“We have had this discussion before, Ishmael. Just because I am sentient does not require me to feel certain emotions.”
People kept taking double takes at Kurt’s dull metal faceplate as they entered or exited the walkways. One salary man missed his exit from the runway and fell down. His briefcase spilled styluses and data pads.
“Okay,” I said. “Think a bit. What’s the emotion you experience the most?”
“When I am running low on joint lubricant, or am being treated unfairly despite my legal freedom, I experience an awareness of my condition that treats the constant internal reminders to be something like frustration, I believe, compared to what you and many authors have described.”
We side-stepped to the runway and were heading towards the space port.
“So all the time.”
“The majority of time.”
“When don’t you feel,” I made air quotes with my fingers, “frustrated?”
“When properly lubricated and on our ship. I am not sure you remember when we discovered that antique probe circling Phobos.”
We made the transition to another walkway and headed towards a ship resupply store.
“I remember. It cost our last fifty thousand to get the landing gear bay door fixed.”
“Yes. That one. I was curious that entries in the standard historical and navigation archives did not mention it, and had to do some extensive searching on the Interplanetary University Databases to find out it was a satellite from the twenty-first century.”
“So you like doing research?”
“I wanted to fix the blanks in the archives and my personal knowledge.”
“You wanted to, like code, or wanted to on your own?”
Kurt tapped the upper right side of his chest, which is like a human tapping their temple. “Just because my sentience is the result of a complex, emergent software grafted into a hardware frame does not mean my programming makes me do anything more or less than the systematic pulses your neurons provide from inside your chemically fueled brain. I wanted to, as in I had a desire.”
I rolled my eyes. It was something Kurt couldn’t do, which I liked. “Right, whatever. So here’s what you can do. I’ll transfer twenty thousand credits to our second credcard.” I handed him a credcard which he took in his digits like he was studying a disgusting new bug. “Then you can go find a pre-spacer science book, or get yourself a subscription to a new library or database.”
We exited the walkway and stood in front of the port’s refueling and provisioning office. As I took a step to walk in, Kurt put a hand on my shoulder. The move startled me inside, but I made an effort to hide the surprise.
“Ishmael, to what end? This celebration money could be spent on our search to find a place where the inhabitants do not have this awful prejudice towards Second Men.” He gestured to two people trying too hard to look idle while leaning against the wall of the neighboring store. “Those two have been following us since the Internment Center.”
I took another look at them and decided they were toughs visiting friends in the GIC, cops in plain clothes, or both. Even I could tell their hands were holding on to something inside their coats.
“Twenty thousand will buy enough rations and fuel to take us somewhere else, Ishmael.”
“Fine, Kurt.” I poked him in his steel breastplate with a finger, words colored more by disgust than defeat. “But I’m buying you a complete nano scrub to go with a case or three of the top synthetic joint lube. Then go sit in the ship while I find some whiskey old enough to order another whiskey, and actual Terra-Asian style takeout while we wait for the fuel to get pumped.” I headed inside and started keying the ship’s details into the automated fueler machine. Kurt came in and stood behind me, watching the door.
“The nano scrub is unnecessary. I am well within the tolerable limits for foreign matter.”
“That’s the point of celebration, Kurt. It’s supposed to be unnecessary. Enjoy the sensation of being clean and not having any humans around. Maybe it will cut down on those internal reminders.”
“I predict that the state of being afterwards would best be described as peaceful. Right now, I am most likely grateful.”

“Be grateful for the joint lube.  I think it might be a while before we find the place.”

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Inherited Fortune

Posted in main story by Mark on November 23, 2009

Kurt missed.
The bullet shattered through the window and pieces of slug and glass ricocheted off Ventura’s flight helmet. His head snapped sideways before we heard the rifle’s report and I cursed faster than he could hit the ground. I dove to the ground. His pistol, obviously an automatic, fired rounds over my head.
At the galleries, Kurt never missed. When the interplanetary fair was in town, they wouldn’t let a Second Man with precisely controlled synthetic muscles ever have a second chance at any of the carnie games. “Only real people have luck,” they’d say. “Lady Luck don’t go on dates with Metal Men.”
Why is this relevant? Ventura had been pointing that automatic at me and standing still when Kurt pulled the trigger.
I didn’t have a conscience like Kurt did, just instinct, and dashed the last twenty feet. I pulled my .38 revolver from its holster and pressed it against Ventura’s cheek.
“I hope you can hear me over the bells ringing inside your head. My partner missed, but I’m a pretty good shot at this range. I don’t particularly trust those fancy automatics, so unless you’d like a very in-depth lesson on the reliability of revolvers, I suggest you throw your weapon away.” I didn’t pull my eyes from the unfocused look on Ventura’s face, but heard the gunmetal skitter along the laminate floor.
I rolled him over, cuffed his hands and legs together, and then left him on his side. I was gingerly unloading the machined pistol when Kurt came inside the small house a moment later.
“This humidity and brackish water of my wet observation post is interfering with my inputs and leg joints, Ishmael.”
That’s me. Ishmael. Insert white whale reference here.
“Also, pardon the miscalculation, but I did not notice the plating in the walls or that the windows are military grade glass until I was within two hundred meters of the house just now.”
“It’s fine, Kurt. He’s alive and worth more because of it. You make it seem like I can’t handle myself.”
“The human mind does almost incalculable amounts of math every day to keep your bodies running. Yet, it was not hard for me to see that Ventura held the advantage when he leaped out of the freezer unit and pointed his weapon at you.”
“Is that so? Amazing. I felt like I had the situation under control the whole time.” I started scribbling requests for a convict pick up in to Sheriff’s Net.
“That was clever of him to hide from my thermal optics by using the ice-covered interior of the freezer. For all that mathematical potential, humans are entertainingly random occasionally.” Kurt unloaded the ammo from his iron sights rifle and looked around the old warehouse. “I deduct that the metal lining and thick glass make this place an excellent slaughterhouse.”
“Thankfully for us, it wasn’t today.”
“Yes. Ventura will be worth two million more credits alive than dead.”
“I meant we’re thankful that I didn’t die, Kurt.”
“Yes, I imagine you are.”
I rammed my hands into the pockets of my parka.
“Sometimes, you’re a heartless bastard, Kurt. Did you know that?”
“You know as well as I do, I do not have a father or a heart.”

I shook my head and stepped back outside to await the pickup vessel.

“No, I suppose you don’t.”

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Raw Beginnings

Posted in main story by Mark on November 21, 2009

“This is not smart. You have not thought about this at all,” Kurt stated.
“Why do you ask these questions when you know the answers?” I replied.
“When you respond to my statements with a rhetorical question, you do not expect an answer or to succeed.”
“When did you learn how to use rhetoric? Did that come in a firmware upgrade or something?”
Stillness was the closest Kurt got to looking frustrated.
“Hostility as well, without a human female in the area to warrant this show of threatening bravado. Interesting.”
“The tin-man learned sarcasm as well. I pine for the days when they just silently obeyed orders, I really do.”
“Finally, we are at the dejected but inevitable realization that what I said was true. This is not smart.”
Kurt had this bad habit, or coded routine, of pronouncing the punctuation that most people skipped over. When he uses a comma in speech, he actually pauses. Periods at the ends of sentences take a moment all their own in Kurt’s voice box. I did my best impression.
“It’s this simple: we need credits and they have credits. They want certain outlaws brought back for justice; we have weapons just like everyone else.” I patted the revolver holstered on my thigh. “They don’t want to leave the security of their climate controlled settlements; our home is a space worthy hunk of junk and relocates easily. All these good reasons just stack up.”
Kurt continued to give me the unblinking gaze, possibly unconvinced.
“Let me put it this way. If we bring back the outlaw, we’ll receive enough credits to really stretch out the fuel, food, and juice so we won’t have to come across another settlement that is as,” I paused for emphasis that I hoped wasn’t lost, “disapproving, let’s say, of other Second Men like yourself.”
Sometimes, when I really give Kurt something to think about, the diodes in his eyes dim just the fraction of a lumen. I take it to mean he’s rerouting power from something unnecessary as appearance and switching it towards crunching numbers with his conscience.
“Ok. We will apprehend the outlaw. This bounty hunter mission can not be a regular occurrence. Humans get nervous enough seeing me walking around free. I hypothesize their reactions to seeing me with a gun will also be less than pleasant.”
“If only they knew what a pleasure it was to live with you, Kurt, they wouldn’t worry about you with a gun.”
“Ah. Your Contented chortling because you successfully over ruled my initial objections.”
“No, Kurt, just confidence in knowing a person would be much more dangerous to their own self if given a loaded weapon after living with you for so long.”
I smiled as his eyes flickered for the second time today.

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