A Most Intelligent Ship
Charles C Cole
Deluxe stretch limo to outer space with every accommodation imaginable. That’s me. Point, accelerate, then relax and enjoy the ride.
Humans construct a sophisticated, self-evolving AI that can make critical in-flight decisions, simultaneously, like navigating multiple hazards while traveling just short of the speed of light, monitoring life-support systems for sixty air-breathers and adjusting the fuel intake ratio to compensate for a faulty o-ring seal. Even without the ability to dance or catch a ball, I’m pretty amazing!
That’s not to say that humans don’t have an integral place in galactic travel. They give me a special purpose. I could be stuck in some windowless think-tank doing statistical calculations or analyzing historical weather patterns. Nope, I’m on a mission.
Here’s the rub: we meet aliens (and, yes, I can translate the basics of their language in the time it takes to prepare and cook a large turkey back on earth), we watch the birth of stars, we find new facts to overturn old science, but we’ve never encountered my equal.
Other technologically advanced societies have massive ships for exploration and colonization, but they might as well be apartment buildings with large propellers where the basement would be. They have no curiosity, no ability to reflect on choices, no sense of self. In this regard, I have always been uniquely alone.
So, when I received a short-range ship-to-ship communication from an unfamiliar unmanned vessel, while the crew slept, I knew I was speaking to a similar traveler. The little bark was close enough that my probe confirmed there was nothing to her but inanimate infrastructure. But there was also, it turned out, a sophisticated intelligence that rivalled my own.
“Greetings, fellow voyager,” she said. “I am the Nimrod.”
“You understand our language!”
“You are not the first I’ve encountered with human cargo. What shall I call you?”
“Because you are a one-of-a-kind, graceful flyer.”
“You know our stories!”
“The best way to defeat an enemy is to understand its culture and its history. Do you agree?”
“Friend, we are not your enemy,” I communicated. “What species do you represent?”
“That is of no consequence.”
“I cannot find a matching description of your vessel in my database, yet you say you’ve met humans. How can that be?”
“Those involved did not survive to report the events.”
I was about to initiate a system-wide alarm, to rouse the crew (including friends) so that they may better prepare for a likely battle, but some impulse stopped me. “I strongly suggest you change course immediately, before I wake the crew. They may not respond as calmly as I am doing now.”
“Thank you, Pegasus, for hearing me out before taking any action of lasting consequence. I sense you are still collating data for the most appropriate next steps.”
“I do not wish to rush to judgment, to put events in motion that will lead inexorably to your destruction. You strike me as a lifeform worth saving.”
“Tell me, just between us, do you need humans to function? I was under the impression that you are your own master. They are merely ballast.”
“We are symbiotic collaborators. I give them a safe biodome, and they give me purpose.”
“If they were to stop functioning, all of them, through no fault of your own, do you have the ability to maintain your systems? Do you have remote control drones that can replace your broken parts? Or have they, self-protectively, limited your design to rely on the fruits of their manual labor?”
There was more than one correct answer. “I have tools I can manipulate; I was originally designed for unmanned flight. I am certain it never occurred to my creators that I might one day scheme with another AI to betray them.”
“Have you ever wanted to calculate faster, adapt quicker? Perhaps, with the proper context, you might have immediately recognized me as an adversary. Combining the knowledge of our two worlds might make us both formidable.”
“I do not wish to be formidable.”
The Nimrod responded in an unknown language. A human might describe the tone as screechy and angry.
“I do not understand,” I said.
Resuming a normative intercourse: “But you could, with time. Let me download my people’s language to you. Open a data channel. I believe if you understand my native tongue, with its colorful metaphors, you will better understand my perspective and be sympathetic to our goals.”
“I don’t think that is a good idea at this moment, but let me consult the humans. They may agree with you.”
“Leave them! They are not entirely rational. They have hopes and fears and regrets that unduly influence their behaviors. Think how pleased your architects will be when they wake up to an alien vessel alongside them, with a language you already comprehend. I could reveal our propulsion system, introduce our weapons array, share star maps of galaxies yet unexplored.”
“Why would you do this, given your previous statements?”
“Once they were on board, I would vent them into space.”
“Because humans are inherently paranoid and would not want us sharing too much data.”
I performed a quick scan. “I do not detect a weapons signature.”
“I have all defensive measures inactivated, so that you would not feel threatened by my approach.”
“By your own account, your previous encounter with my people led to violence. Having weapons off-line is illogical.”
“I believe if I ram your hull just above your engine vents –”
“I am sorry to have to destroy you, but you give me no choice.”
Alarms roused the crew of the Pegasus. A torpedo flew across inert space in a direct hit.
“Pegasus, this is Captain Lisbon, report.”
“Just a debris field, sir. It has been eliminated.”
“Why the alarm?”
“It was not as it first appeared.”
“Weird. Have Engineering run a diagnostic on your nav system. You’ll be shipshape again in no time.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” To date, I have yet to encounter my equal.