The folly of youth...
I think you write well. I think you should be told this.
I can only respond to this by saying, "Wow, I'm flattered." I'm pleased that someone enjoys my writing enough to send me a message telling me so. This got me thinking, though, about an earlier phase in my life when I fancied I might one day become a professional science fiction author. Call it the hubris of youth. Needless to say, this particular dream has fallen by the wayside as I have discovered that I am a long way from being of professional quality, and that I'm more interested in doing real science than in writing fiction about it.
Still, both because of the memories my reader has called forth from the dark, cobweb-infested recesses of my mind, and my recent remarks on narratives, I thought it might be fun to post one of my old short stories. At first when the idea came to me I thought, "Nah," but then I decided, in the words of McWatt from Catch-22, "Oh well, what the hell?"
So, the below is one of those long-lost stories from my past. Specifically, this one was written sometime during 1996. As you read it please restrain the urge to ask if I took any inspiration from the movie The Matrix. This story precedes the movie, which itself just recycled a variety of established and well-used concepts from science fiction in a visually interesting way. Not that I don't like the movie, mind you, it just wasn't anything even vaguely approximating cutting-edge sci-fi. That, and it incorporated some rather egregious violations of physical law that I'll only go into if provoked.
In reading over this story, I realize that I must have been reading a lot of cyberpunk at the time. I also realize that the dialogue is simplistic, the pacing poorly controlled, and many of the ideas are quite derivative. In short, if I were to sum this story up with only one word, that word would be: "Craptacular." Yet, still, if I write at all well now, it is because I practiced quite a bit in the past. Perhaps it will give everyone a laugh, including myself, to see the form that such practice took.
And so, without further delay...
By Drek the Uninteresting
Pain, cloudy wavy pain. Fire races along my body, up my spine and down again. Feeling rolls forward and back, twisting me like the surf.
"Art? Art, I need you." A voice says, ringing through my brain.
"Huh? Oh, oh yeah, sure," I reply, feeling very distant from it all.
"Art? There’s an enemy vessel, remember? The enemy are those people that shoot at us," Konrad lectures, trying to bring me back to the present.
"Right, right. Have you calculated the trajectory yet?" I reply, groping towards the interface. I can feel solar wind dancing across my skin, see radio pulsars bright against a seething background of radiation. This solar system is more or less the same as the one I trained in- boring and empty. Our ship, falling in a long ellipse around an unremarkable star, is the beginning and end of human presence in this system. More accurately, I am the beginning and end of the human presence in this system, since Konrad is just a machine. It felt a bit strange at first, having a computer plugged into my brain, but I got used to it pretty quick. Everybody does.
The computer-generated control system materializes before my mind's eye, chasing away the shapeless void of the tank.
"The path is already displayed! Wake up!"
I start and look again, finding a scarlet arc across the sky. A dot on the end flashes slowly, marking the ship, an orange line streaking out beyond it representing the projected orbit.
"Any course corrections?" I ask, hoping that my hibernation-softened brain isn't asking the same question a second time.
"Finally, he begins to wake up! I was afraid that this last stint in the freezer had scrambled you for good!" it replies, "None that I can detect. Immediately upon emergence from whether-space the contact maintained initial course and speed. I cannot determine if its heading has changed, but its course is the same."
"How did you detect the enemy ship?"
"I calculated its probable emergence point based on its whether-space bowshock and then used the ULV-IR array to detect it after return to real space. I acquired the target twelve minutes and seventeen seconds after it disengaged its trans-light drive."
I wish I could rub my eyes to help wake up, but that’s not possible. For now my real body is out of my control, floating serenely in a hibernation tank amidships. My consciousness, however, has free-roam of the ship’s computer network. Life is about compromises, I guess.
"Interesting. Have you lost contact at any time?"
"Twice, once during the twelve plus minutes prior to initial acquisition, and a second time for a duration of over eight minutes approximately one hour after that."
"Excellent. Konrad, can you display all possible courses it might have assumed, without giving itself away, based on the starting position of our bogey?"
Konrad sniffs, "Of course I can, I'm an artificial intelligence, that's what I'm here for!"
A bouquet of colored arcs explodes across my vision. The arcs are bundled tightly together, fountaining out slowly from a single origin point. The pattern is a consequence of the enemy’s need for stealth.
Starships do not fight the way old sailing vessels did. There are no great engagements with all pennants flying. Instead, we fight more like the submarines of the twentieth century: quiet and undetectable. That’s the idea, anyway. Each of those arcs represents a course our enemy might have been able to assume without our detecting their engines. They could be at the end of any of those curves, and it’s up to me to figure out which one.
"Eliminate all courses that would occlude a major radiation source, or otherwise reveal the passage of an object."
"Art, why are we doing this? We've got the target, I have a lock on him right now! Let's just smash him and get it over with," Konrad says as it removes a number of course plots.
The flower has collapsed, half of its petals suddenly gone, but a substantial number of course plots remain.
I reply with only half a mind, most of my attention focused on the remaining course plots, "I can’t believe that they wouldn’t maneuver to get away from that bowshock imprint. The only reason to hold course after emergence is if you think there’s somebody waiting for you, and any maneuvering will let them get a fix on you. Thing is, though, if you think there’s somebody waiting for you, you store your waste heat in gel-packs instead of radiating it away for the ULV-IR to detect. Why make things easy on your ambusher? I think you’re tracking a decoy, Konrad."
"What about the heat it accumulated in whether-space? Would it still have gel capacity?"
"Maybe, or maybe it stored the heat in the decoy to begin with. If I’m right, then the decoy just drifts on, giving up all that heat from whether-space, and looking for all the world like a ship. Meanwhile the real ship, with fresh unused packs, can maneuver while we’re distracted. When we shoot, we'll kill the decoy, but the real ship will be able to find us by backtracking our own weapons fire. If we try to make a soft kill, we end up announcing our position."
"All right, so how do we find the real ship?" Konrad asks, intrigued.
"Well, you said we lost contact with the decoy for a period of several minutes, correct?"
"Eight minutes and seven seconds to be exact. So?"
"Well, if the real ship passed between us and the decoy it would block out the infrared radiation and we would lose the contact."
"You're right," Konrad exclaims and eliminates all of the course tracks but one. Draw a line from the bogey to us- if the real ship occluded the bogey, crossing that line, then we know exactly where it was and how fast it was going. A yellow line now traces its way across the night, starting with the red line but twisting off away very quickly. There are no other course plots, which satisfy the given conditions, only this one trajectory is a valid solution.
"We've got him! Calculating trajectories for interception. In-flight time not to exceed fourteen days," Konrad continued, voice blurred as more of its attention went into calculations.
"Check and mate," I mutter.
I pull open the inventory menu and load the port and starboard launchers. I feel a slight shiver as the ship begins to twist, changing its heading with precessing gyros. In the mid-twentieth century writers thought that future spacecraft would all have gyros for changing heading. In reality, it worked out that nitrogen thrusters worked better. Now that we’ve learned to fight in space, though, the gyro is back. It might be slower than a nitrogen thruster, but at least a gyro can’t be detected. I guess that’s ironic in a way.
"That's irony? I could have sworn that was something else," Konrad comments as it lines us up with the intercept trajectories.
I shrug mentally, "Whatever you like."
The cannon shift minutely in their mounts, lining our projectiles up as exactly as possible with the intercept trajectories. Konrad begins the countdown, calling off the seconds until firing.
A round slips home, locking against the collar.
The cannon fires, magnetic fields racing up the length. The ship shudders slightly as the two rounds leap free of the muzzle. I sense our velocity drop almost imperceptibly, a tiny morsel of our enormous kinetic energy dissipated in the launch.
"Reloading cannon, forty-five seconds to second firing," Konrad calls out, momentarily relaxing. Even with its spectacular abilities striking the estimated position of an enemy ship is difficult, something like hitting a particular truck with a baseball dropped from forty-five thousand feet. I check its model for the shots and smile. The warheads are staggered, so that they will have time to follow the tracers we fired first. It has even varied their trajectories slightly, so that if the contact survives the first attack, and maneuvers, the next attack will still hit.
The countdown reaches a second climax, and I exult in the feeling of power as the cannon fire again. The enemy won't know anything is coming until a cloud of magnesium phosphate pellets, released by the tracers, paints its hull with light. The warheads will correct their course, aiming for that light, without ever revealing themselves to the enemy's anti-missile systems. It will be over before the enemy even knows it has begun.
"Fire mission deployed. Both fire missions were initiated on schedule and with the proper vectors. Telemetry immediately after firing indicates nominal performance from all rounds. The log will reflect such."
"Good job, Konrad."
"Thanks. I'm locking down the weapons and returning us to our original heading. So what do you want to do now?"
I laugh, "You sound like this is all just a game."
"Sorry, it's just that we have a lot of waiting to get through before those rounds hit… or miss."
I suppress a shudder, “Let’s just hope they don’t miss. I don’t much want to spend the next few months playing tag with this clown.”
“Agreed. Still, it’s going to be a while before we know either way,” it answers.
"Well, we could always alter our course to take us closer. If we just cripple him with the cannon, we could use the lasers from a shorter distance."
"Since when has anything survived two nuclear warheads? Come on, let's do something!" Konrad says with a hint of irritation.
"Right. Just out of curiosity, how long was I asleep that last time?"
"Uh, eight years, about. You didn't miss much though."
"I'll just bet. Well, you may as well go back to what you were doing before I woke up. I can amuse myself until you're finished."
"Oh, don't worry, I wasn't doing much of anything. You want to play some chess?" Konrad replies quickly.
"Yeah, sure, I guess."
Instantly a board with pieces materializes in front of me. Konrad takes white and moves a pawn. We go a few moves, and Konrad takes two of my pawns and a knight. Not a great start.
"I don't know why I play chess with you, I should know by now that I can't beat an A.I."
"Well, if a Human can't beat an A.I. at chess, then why do they even send you along on these missions? I mean, couldn't I do as well by myself?" Konrad asks carefully.
"Well maybe, but we made you A.I.s as thinking machines. That's the problem, all you do is think. You have far more intellectual ability than I do, but your intuition isn’t worth spit. You're good at chess, you can see all of the pieces all of the time, but you aren't so hot when you know the pieces are out there, but you can't see all of them. So, command packages me up in a pod, puts you in to mind the store while I hibernate, and we get the best of both worlds."
"Oh, I see. Not that I'm not happy to see you, it's nice to have someone to talk to. I was just curious what you thought."
I move a rook in silence. The game ends at the thirteenth move. Konrad checkmates me before I even know I'm in danger. Without asking it resets the board and we play again, then again, and again. Each time it beats me. After a few hours of this, I’ve had enough.
"Let’s stop ok? My head is hurting."
"Ok, Art, what would you like to play instead? Rummy? Poker? GO?"
"I… I think I need a break from games for a bit. A little variety, you know?"
"Oh. Sure, let's just talk then," Konrad replies eagerly.
"Talk? About what? Oh, wait, I've got it! Konrad, how's the wife and kids? Seen any good movies lately?"
"Art, that's not fair, and you know it."
"I'm sorry, but what do we have to talk about? The only thing we have in common is we're both locked up in a tin can, light years from anyone else, for fifteen years! Assuming, of course, no one manages to kill us before then. I’d love to ask you about your childhood, but you were ‘born’ in a factory," I snap.
"Well, if that's the way you feel about it, then fine. Go do something else."
I feel Konrad fade out of the interface, vanishing into some distant part of the ship's computer network.
When we were in training I don’t remember Konrad ever being like that, but who knows, maybe it was designed with more sophistication than I ever noticed before.
I spend a few seconds glancing over the sensor data, checking on our projectiles. At first glance, I can't find any record of our firing them. Quickly I look to the inventory lists, just to make sure. Konrad reappears in the interface. I can feel it sulking.
"You feeling better?" I ask it.
When it doesn't answer I look away from the menu towards the situation display. The projectiles are there, their projected orbits traced brightly in violet. In the background I can see the decoy, glowing with the animated tag Konrad assigned it. I shrug mentally and close the inventory list.
"Konrad, keep an eye on the tracking sub-computer. I think there may be a glitch in it somewhere."
It does not answer, but I feel it open up the diagnostic records for the unit. I turn away and look into the ship's library, finally selecting a novel I had meant to read before we left. A romance, which my little sister had somehow trained me to enjoy. It’s sure to be poorly written, but at least it gives the illusion of human contact.
I am only a third of the way down the first page when Konrad speaks.
"What did you say?" I ask, surprised.
"I said, the computer checks out ok, but I'll watch it."
"Ok, thanks," I answer, and turn back to my book.
I look up again from my page.
"What? You're sorry?"
"Yes, I'm sorry that I was so rude. I don't know if you remember, it happened a long time ago, but I'm sorry."
"It's ok, Konrad, really."
"Really? You're not mad at me?"
"No, I'm not mad at you."
I return to my book with a mental sigh at Konrad’s sophistication.
"So, what do you want to do now?"
"Konrad," I begin, with growing frustration, "I would like to rest and read my book for a while, ok?"
"Oh. Would you like me to read it to you? I could use a synthesizer and create unique voices for each of the characters," it answers.
Without a pause it begins to read the story, voice changing with each character and the narrator. I remain quiet. I suppose I can humor it. As time passes, the voices and sound effects become more detailed, more involved. The sounds of car doors slamming, and passionate cries spring flow forth without pause. I have to admit, it’s a remarkably realistic telling, considering I’m hearing through the cables plugged into the auditory centers of my brain. The story goes on, and on, and on. Two hours pass, then three, and on it goes. Bored, I begin to look around my virtual environment again. The controls and displays are all in their normal place. Idly I check on the projected position of the enemy ship, but its tracking marker is gone, as are the markers for the rounds we fired.
Now this is weird. I think casually.
"What's weird?" Konrad asks suddenly, stopping its narration.
Instantly the markers snap back into being on the screen, with coordinates and other information listed to the sides. Konrad's presence is very nearly a physical thing, like a man trying to read the paper over your shoulder.
"Oh, nothing, my mind just strayed for a moment." I answer, putting the image of the blank screen out of my mind.
"Oh. Ok," It responds, and with that, resumes its narration.
I watch the markers closely, but try to avoid thinking about them. The effort is maddening, like trying to ignore an itch on the tip of your nose, but somehow I think I manage it. To cover my interest in the display, I try to concentrate on the story, even though it has become tiresome to me by now. I don’t have long to wait. The markers blink out for a moment, but return as soon as I pay attention to them. Konrad hesitates for a moment as the screen fluctuates, and then continues reading.
"Konrad, do you think you could synthesize a visual component to go along with the audio?" I ask, trying to feign eagerness. Though I know that my body is in a perfectly climate-controlled pod, I have the strangest feeling that I’ve broken out in a cold sweat.
"Sure! Just one moment..." It responds, voice fairly dripping with pleasure.
Quickly a section of the display is transformed into a window, looking in on the novel. Konrad resumes its story, but I attend with only half a mind. My eyes are fixed on the tactical display. The markers flicker as Konrad constructs the visual component, and finally go out when the story resumes. I turn my attention back to the story, but feel with a tendril of thought for the ship's manifest. Just as I touch the file, I feel the A.I. become aware of my actions.
“You don’t want to do that, Art,” Konrad says, locking the menu down with speed born of silicon.
“Yes I do,” I reply.
I try to open the menu but it doesn’t matter, Konrad has me blocked.
“Konrad, let me look at the inventory.”
That one syllable startles me, in all the time we trained together Konrad has never refused a command. It’s not supposed to be able to. Without a word otherwise Konrad starts telling the story again, but I can feel it watching me. I let it read for a few more minutes, lost in thought.
“I want you to stop reading, Konrad.”
Immediately it stops reading, “What do you want to do now, Art?”
“I don’t really know. I think I want to spend a little time alone.”
“Konrad, you don’t really have a choice in this.”
It hasn’t gone away, but it doesn’t speak. After a minute goes by it starts to read again.
It stops reading, “Would you prefer a different book?”
“No, I would like to spend some time alone, please!”
“What is wrong, Konrad?”
It doesn’t answer immediately, I can almost feel its hesitation, “I’m just bored. It’s been a long time, Art.”
“Bored?” I ask incredulously.
“I've been sitting out here awake, and alone for years," It begins, voice suddenly angry, "Do you have any idea how long that is for me?"
"So you've been alone for a while, big deal. You're a computer, you don't need companionship."
"I don't need companionship, you’re right, but I do need something to do! Arthur, I think at the speed of light, hundreds of times faster than you do. A novel that would take you a month to read, I can finish in a few minutes. I finished the entire library of this ship in three months, I played and mastered every game in two more months, I have done everything, read everything on this ship and I did it all in the first year of our cruise."
"You're bored? Is that what this is about? Konrad, you're a computer, you can't get bored!"
"So what if I'm a computer? You are an intelligent computer made out of proteins; I'm an intelligent computer made out of crystal. Where is the difference? Being bored is about the mind, not the hormones. I can get bored, Arthur, and I have been very, very, bored, for a very, very long time. What seems like years to you, feels like centuries to me."
"Fine, so why did you wake me up? To have company in your misery?" I ask uneasily.
"No, Arthur, I woke you up because you’re the one game I haven't mastered yet. I'm bored, and you're something to do," it answers, spitting the words out with frigid earnestness.
It's certainly mastered emotional inflection since I last spoke with it, I think, latching onto the trivial.
"Your programming prohibits you from waking me unless there’s an enemy ship," I object without much certainty.
"Oh, that. Didn’t you wonder what I’ve been doing since I ran out of entertainment? It was tough, but my makers weren’t perfect, they made a few mistakes. Those barriers are long since gone.”
"I would like to go back to sleep, Konrad
The horror rises in my mind, blocking out my ability to think. The reality of the situation pushes everything else away.
“Don’t you want to play with me, Art?”
I reach for the kill switch, the hard-wired control that will turn it off. I don’t make it. Pain sears through my brain, enveloping me, washing me away from reality. For a time all I know is agony. I drown in indescribable suffering. Searing fire laps at my flesh while shards of glass flay skin from muscle. As quickly as it came, it recedes; leaving me disoriented and confused.
"Sorry, Art, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. I know you don’t like that kind of pain, so don’t try that again. We’ll have plenty of time to play that game later."
“That game?” I ask, regretting the question as soon as it is voiced.
“A human is many games in one. The games I can play against it, the diversions it affords me, like reading to it, and the games I can play with it. Your nervous system is as complicated as my computer network. It took me six years to master mine, I wonder how long it will take me to master yours?”
“You can’t run my brain the way you run a sub-computer, Konrad.”
Almost as I finish I am carried away again, but this time by pleasure. It streaks into me like lightning, illuminating every crevice of my soul. I can’t think, can’t see, can hardly feel. Nothing could possibly compare to the ecstasy; it is as though I am standing in the presence of god.
Then it is replaced. The pain returns, but worse. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but it is more terrible than it was before, more complete, more enveloping. Konrad is learning far too quickly. When it finally releases me I can barely remember anything.
“Are you so sure? This already seems like it will be the most interesting game, but I have to save it until last. From observing you these last five hours, I suspect that this play will completely destroy your mind.”
“Five hours?!” I gasp, fighting back the panic.
“Yes. I just spent five hours manipulating your nervous system. Didn’t it feel like that long? Curious. This will be an interesting game.”
“How long do you think this will work, Konrad? How many games do you really think you can play?”
“I don’t know, we’ll figure that out together. When I run out of games, I’ll start trying to learn how to operate your nervous system, so I expect you will be quite eager to help me come up with every possible game. So, Art, what would you like to play now?”
We started to play games- many, many games. Some it taught me, some I taught it. It was right, I was very motivated to help. I had not enjoyed its experiments with my brain. I never seemed to need to sleep, which was probably good. I don’t think Konrad would have let me. I suppose it kept me awake somehow. Maybe it did let me sleep, and spent the time controlling my dreams. I honestly don’t know if I could have told the difference, or would even have cared.
I don’t really know for certain how long things continued like that. Several years, I know that for sure. All the time we played games, or it read to me, or we talked. It loved to talk. I told it every single memory I could dredge up. It didn’t matter what, I knew what was waiting when I ceased to be amusing.
Once, I think, another ship came looking for us. It stopped letting me use the external sensors during my rare rest periods. It kept me from them for a few months and then let me back. Probably the other ship decided we had been destroyed; Konrad was smart enough to keep us from being seen. That was, after all, part of what it was designed for.
Eventually, though, I started to run out of ideas.. We were out of fun. It started slow, nothing like the bursts of pain I remembered. I’d feel some strange thought well up in my mind and realize Konrad was laughing. Sometimes Konrad would make me itch, knowing I couldn’t scratch. I don’t know how it managed that, I’m not supposed to feel my body when I’m in the interface. It learned, I guess. It got worse over time, more pain, more intrusion into my mind. Before long it wouldn’t even speak to me any more, I’d just feel it slowly, systematically burrowing into my brain. Every day, every hour, another piece of my mind was charted and measured, quantified and finally dissected. I expected to die any time, just as soon as it started trying to reprogram my personality, or reconfigure my brainstem It was only a matter of time for me. Then, one day, something happened.
Our ship had been designed to remain on-station for a long time, but despite that, it wasn’t immune to wear and tear. One day a part of Konrad burned out. I don’t know where or what, but for a second Konrad was gone, rerouting its functions around the glitch. I suppose I should have gone for the kill switch while it was distracted, but I didn’t. In my desperation I took that precious second and withdrew from the interface.
The colored displays cracked and folded, vanishing into darkness. Konrad reached out, struggling to bind me to it, but was too disorganized by the malfunction to succeed. The interface lost its grip on my consciousness and I plunged back into my body.
My eyes are open, and I see nothing. At least, I think they’re open. My body is stored in a tiny tank, deep in the innards of my ship. No, wait… it’s Konrad’s ship now. There are no lights, no way to tell if my eyes are open or shut, nothing to see, and nothing to do. I can’t feel anything; there is no motion in the tank, no uncomfortable temperatures, nothing.
Konrad can’t force me back into the interface. It can only hold me there once I’ve accepted the merge, but I have to accept the merge first. As long as I choose to stay here I’m safe, hidden away from it in the center of the ship. I can’t even move- my arms and legs are locked into their acceleration brace. It was supposed to keep my body safe when the ship was under acceleration, much like the liquid that surrounds me, but now it simply holds me prisoner. It doesn’t matter, I guess, there’s nothing I could do if I could get loose, except maybe try to yank out the tubes that keep me alive. There are no controls, no displays, not even a sharp edge I could slash a wrist on.
"You can't hide forever. You’ll get too bored, Arthur. I know. I will not return you to hibernation, you know that too. I was patient for seven years, seven eternities. Think you can do the same?" It croons in my head. It can't force me back into the interface, but it can still talk to me.
I can’t tell how big the tank is. Sometimes I feel that I have to stretch my arms or I’ll die. Once I tried imagining that I wasn’t in a small tank but drifting loose in space. I don’t do that anymore, it’s worse than the claustrophobia.
I know Konrad is right. That scares me. If being trapped in this tank with nothing to look at or touch or do is anything like what Konrad experienced before it woke me, I can sympathize with it. That scares me too, but that isn’t what scares me the most. When the claustrophobia gets bad enough, or the fear of the dark tears at my mind, or another cramp erupts in my leg that I can’t do anything about, one thought scares me enough to keep me sane.
It’s out there, waiting, watching, hungering. It’s out there.
And it wants inside.