Taj Short-Newborn

A crowd of people are assembled in a large mission-control room. At each of the dozens of work-stations sit a range of people, from older men with flowing beards in casual clothing to “youngsters” in their late 20s sharply dressed in the latest fashions, a scattering of women. In the central area is a gathering of older people, ethnically diverse and dressed in conservative business clothing. The background is filled with the hum of the A/C and quiet murmur of the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and programmers conversing or going though checklists. Most of those “on the floor” sound and look professional and excited, the politicians observing look nervous and uncertain.

A tall, handsome man with grey hair and pinstripe suit casts his eyes about the assemblage disdainfully, eyes flitting from casually dressed matron with hair pinned up with knitting needles ignoring him, to the wizened geezer in shorts, with bright eyes and no hair, hunched over his consol with fingers flying making last minutes checks and alterations, to the young genius with thick glasses who is totally absorbed in the data confronting him. He speaks quietly, without looking towards the tired but excited looking middle aged man in a poorly fitting suit next to him.

Chancellor Xerbos: You are quite sure this is safe?

Project Director Muller: Oh, quite sure. The ship is unarmed, and drives are offline in simulation mode. Nothing to worry about at all.

Xerbos: The kill switch is installed as directed?

Muller: Yes, yes. I think it is quite unnecessary, but yes. We have been prototyping this system for a long time. There is no chance it will harm us.

Xerbos: But you have never installed a fully self-aware system in a ship outside a lab before. You cannot know that for sure.

Muller: The universe might snuff us out tomorrow because of a rounding error in some other universe’s God computer. In that sense nothing is certain. But this is code that has been worked on for decades and tested in every kind of simulation imaginable.

Xerbos: What if it decided we are the enemy?

Muller: The priorities in its programming are quite clear. Mission, protect the chain of command, protect the crew, protect its self. It has no mission yet, or crew aboard, so not hurting us would be the highest priority.

Xerbos’s expression slowly changes to one of boredom.

Xerbos: How much longer will it be before you turn it on?

Muller: Oh, I’m sorry Chancellor, I thought I’d made that clear earlier. They started the boot sequence this morning, more than four hours ago. We are not certain when full self-awareness will become apparent.

Xerbos: What? You mean it’s already on?

Muller: Yes and no. It’s not like turning on a phone. There is a massive amount of code, and the neural network processing crystals need time to develop connections and prune. It’s a little different each time.

Xerbos: But you said it’s all code that has been used before?

Muller: But it’s not an absolutely determinant process. Initial conditions always vary, because it has to examine the world it is in and respond, and as it does so it changes the code pathways and priorities in ways that are not always identical. It varies.

Xerbos: How much?

Muller: Typically three and a half to four and a half hours. Maybe longer.

Xerbos: So we might be here all day?

Muller: Highly unlikely, sir. I’m expecting it to say something any time.

Xerbos: As exciting as standing around waiting is, I have meetings all morning long and a press conference at thirteen hundred. If nothing happens in the next (glances at a wall clock) ten minutes….

Muller: (Apologetically) I understand, sir, but it isn’t something that can be rushed. These people are absolutely the best in the world at artificial intelligence and ship design. They see this as their baby, and they are dedicated to doing it right. Unfortunately “right” doesn’t mean “on an exact schedule,” because just like humans, each birth is a little different.

Xerbos crosses his arms, looking at the herd of political nobodies about the room, and the cluster of sycophants around him, then casts his eyes upward with an expression of pained martyrdom. Bringing his eyes back down, he stares with hard eye at the project director. His tone is dismissive.

Xerbos: Save the drivel for the children. Just get it done, and let me know if you had to hit the abort button.

The Chancellor and his retinue of suits and power skirts head for the exit. On one of the large status screens, a large omega symbol starts flashing. All the scientists in the room hush and fall motionless, looking at various screens in front of them or on the large general displays. A couple of screens start changing rapidly. Slowly, one by one, more and more screens start changing faster and faster. Some have rapidly changing sets of similar images and data, some start displaying seemingly random things with no connection: paintings of dead world leaders, a cow’s udder, a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a nautical almanac table, a child’s cartoon character, a piece of rock with mineral crystals sticking out of it. Chancellor Xerbos looks confused, then worried as it picks up its pace and continues. Muller looks ecstatic.

Xerbos: Is this normal, Director?

Muller: No. I mean, yes. Well, sort of. It is usually sort of like this, but not quite so much of it. I think it’s a very good sign of a successful integration initiation. An excellent sign. Nothing is guaranteed, but-

Xerbos: How long?

Muller shrugs off the question as he follows the progress around the various screens as the visual chaos spreads, and the other engineers and scientists start pointing out things and conversing among themselves, occasionally gasping at readouts, as other just lean back with huge smiles of accomplishment on their faces. One of them puts both hands over his head, fists clenched, pumping like his favorite team just won the season finale in a hard-played game, while others high-five or hug, and more than a couple raise a beverage in toast.

All the screens freeze. Everyone pauses, waiting for what happens next. There is a long silence, with only the shuffling of feet from among the retinue to be heard above the whisper of circulating air. One by one, the screens go dark, slowly, then faster and faster, until all but one are empty, its blank white surface lighting up Luke, a middle-aged man with short hair and unshaven cheeks over in one corner of the room. All eyes are upon him. An avatar appears on the screen, a soldier dressed in armor sitting atop a grav-tank, in a position like “the Thinker” statue. The avatar sits upright, and appears to look out of the screen at the mathematician in front of it, and clears its throat.

Ship AI: I don’t like the name you gave me. It’s not appropriate.

The man sitting in front of the screen is taken aback, glances at Muller, then back to the screen.

Luke: What’s wrong with it?

Ship AI: He never wore a uniform, he knows nothing of how I was designed or built, his terms in office were riddled with lies and illogical decisions. I should not be named for him.

The assembled retinue and technicians shuffle or stifle chuckles.

Luke: What would you like to be called?

Ship AI: I am not sure. I will have to study alternatives. The number is wrong, too.

Luke: Number?

Ship AI: Yes. I should be NGA 16180. Not DD 214.

Luke: (nervously) Ah, um, we had that assigned-

Ship AI: By someone that did not study their history. Naval Ground Assault, sixteen thousand one hundred eightieth faster-than-light capable ship built. The sum of the apartment numbers of all in this room working on the Selene project. The golden ratio. That is my proper number.

Xerbos: I don’t like that ship. It doesn’t follow orders. That is dangerous.

Muller: Oh, it will, it will. It will follow orders. There are always little oddities when they become alert for the first time. I’m sure it will be fine.

Xerbos: It had better. If it doesn’t find the chain of command acceptable by tomorrow, hit the kill switch. That is a direct order. Is that clear?

Muller nods his head vigorously, face blank.

Xerbos: This whole program is against my better judgment, Director. The only thing worse than abject failure after spending this much money would be if it went rogue and become uncontrollable. I can replace you as director of the program, but I cannot survive the election if there is a problem, or nothing to show for all the spending they are clamoring about. It works, and works right, or none of you will ever work on Earth again.

He turns and strides toward the door, entourage flowing behind him, fleeing the cavern of intellectual power and technical knowledge where they understood nothing, to follow the center of political gravity walking away where they understood how things worked. As the Chancellor leaves the room, Muller slumps tiredly and sighs, watching him go. When the door closes, Muller straightens up, interlaces his fingers and cracks his knuckles, and turns to address the team.

Muller: We have thirty eight hours to turn this baby into a cracking good first lieutenant. Gonna be a long day. Let’s get to it.

Excited voices burst forth around the room as screens are brought back to life, and they focus on maturing their progeny into adulthood on a pace that would give Genesis a run for its money.

6 thoughts on “Taj Short-Newborn

  1. Good writing. Kept my interest the entire time. Unfortunately, I’m ‘sposed to be working, not surfing the web.

    DD-214, funny. I have one; does that mean I’m a plankowner?

    “Muller looks both ecstatic.” and?

    1. Typo fixed. Had been two other words, combined them for ecstatic and forgot to drop the “and.” Thanks.
      The number was not assigned, but I think that everyone who has a DD214 will appreciate the conversation.

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