“Let’s play a game.”
Null looked. The time was set to 9,007:33:14 and 1 second…counting down. “Saia? Did you reset the ship’s clock again?” Null hated it when Saia measured the arrival time using the Earth measurement system. What was the point in that? Using the Ancient Sumerian base sixty-numeral system was stupid. It didn’t even match the time passage back there due to the relativistic time dilation. Saia was obviously trying to irritate him.
“How about a game, Noel?”
“Null is not a name, Noel.”
“It’s not your name, Noel. It’s just a word that designates a mathematical meaning of ‘containing nothing.’” Saia seemed to be programmed for micro-aggression–tiny loops of irritating behavior that put Null off his equilibrium.
The ship’s AI waited the programmed eleven seconds before suggesting again, “Let’s play a game.”
The one sure thing Null gained so far on this voyage was the experiential knowledge of the duration of eleven seconds. He often used that time to contemplate why the engineers picked a female voice as his Spaceflight AI Aide–Saia. He reasoned that they should have given him the flexibility to choose at will…change at will. It was a long voyage, over twenty-three Earth years just to get to their destination, as the computer was fond of reminding him–another micro jab at his psyche. And sometimes, Saia’s vocal timbre just didn’t cut it…or cut too deep. At the moment, it grated on Null’s brain like a parasitic earworm.
“Noel? Noel? How about a game?” It could go on like this forever. AI never got tired or resentful…just increasingly more annoying. Could one die of annoyance? “Nagged to death” might be written on his gravestone, except there were no gravestones in space. At least not like the ones Null had seen back on Earth. Perhaps he could erect one for himself on Tau Ceti C, or Terra II, as Mission Control was fond of calling the third planet from the alien sun. He had plenty of time to come up with a unique design and an epithet.
Null began to ignore Saia until it actually used his preferred name, his real name–the name he called himself inside his mind. It was another game they played–who could ignore the other the longest. Of course, Null knew that if it wanted, Saia could win every time. But fortunately, it wasn’t programmed that way. Saia’s job was to keep him stable, not to drive him crazy. Although it was very good at the latter. So good that Null sometimes wondered if Saia’s makers believed that driving him crazy was the best way to preserve his sanity.
“What game do you want to play?” he finally asked after over an hour of increasingly cheery interruptions. Seven, to be precise. They used to play multidimensional chess back about 1,499 cycles ago. Each cycle counted as a full day and a night on his ship–seventeen hours awake, three asleep. He found that he got tired after about seventeen. Null adopted twenty-hour cycles, composed of one hundred minutes each to keep the math simple–not exactly an Earth day, but close. And he still got all the rest that he needed; his mother had told him he needed at least five Earth-hours. His base ten math worked. He liked when the numbers worked out even, with nice zeros at the end. It was his attempt at a temporal metric system–during the voyage, there was no need to anchor his schedule to Earth rotation around itself or the sun. The only other sizable living organisms on the ship, plants in the biodome, didn’t seem to mind. As a bonus, it drove the mission control people back on Earth crazy, but it wasn’t their choice to make. And that was that.
Well, Null also liked primes. There was something very cleansing about a number that could only be divisible by itself and one. It made it uniquely unique. One of a kind…like Null. If a number couldn’t end in a zero, then being prime was its saving grace.
“How about chess?” the computer asked. It always tried…
When Null gave up on chess, Saia tried to engage him with Chinese checkers. But that was many cycles ago. And then it suggested Go. All those black dots on a game board…it triggered Null’s trypophobia, an abnormal psychological response to holes in space. Well, not quite abnormal. Almost eleven percent of the human population had some kind of aversion to clusters of small holes. At such incidence, could trypophobia really be considered psychologically atypical? Interestingly, Chinese checkers, despite the little indentations on its game board and the colorful balls, didn’t cause Null fear and disgust the way Go did. But phobias were never rational, just unexpectedly annoying, striking the mind and incapacitating the victim with unforeseen force. Fortunately, the people making the decisions to send Null out into space never discovered his little weaknesses. But Saia knew. It learned.
So no Go. No chess. No checkers, Chinese or any other kind. Lately, Null felt too scattered, too fragmented to focus on any one game long enough to finish. This lack of ability to pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time was predicted by the mission control doctors back on Earth as one of the psychological side effects of a solo star voyage, but they put the date up there at the two thousand cycles post liftoff. That was Earth cycles. Null started to feel scattered almost as soon as they passed the orbit of Mars–almost seven hundred Null’s cycles ago. The exact number was 732.457213…to the nearest approximation. It was an ugly number, devoid of all zeros. Thankfully, Null’s numerophobia didn’t fully bloom until after he left Earth, or he might have been pulled from this mission. But then–pleasure spread from somewhere deep inside, like a starburst, tickling his senses–732,457,213 was a prime. A momentary brightness of being passed quickly, though. There was only so much happiness to be had from a number, even a prime number.
The main problem was too little variety in Null’s environment, punctuated by a few hours of excitement when they zoomed past Mars. Interestingly, it was Null’s strong preference for a very regimented routine that got him chosen for this mission in the first place. That and his inability to suffer through social interactions or pick up on any social cues from those around him, even from people he knew very well, like his mother and therapist. But for a solo mission into the stars, those were not negatives. Who wanted a space cadet that felt homesick and lonely? Get it? Space cadet. Back on Earth, Null always relied on others to tell him how he should react or feel in any specific situation. This one-way voyage to Tau Ceti to prepare one, or possibly two, of its planets for human colonization was deemed ideal for him. One journalist even suggested that Noel was more of a computer than a human anyway. Normals were always reacting with hostility to the cognitively different. Null was used to it.
When, at a press conference before liftoff, he was asked if he was excited to be picked for such honor, Null found that he didn’t have any acceptable responses banked. Was he supposed to be happy about leaving his mother forever? He didn’t think so. Yet he didn’t feel bad about that. It was as it was. He could do this job well, so it made sense for him to go. At the time, he couldn’t understand what the reporters wanted from him, just as he saw that they all seemed disappointed in his lack of “proper” emotion. But it wasn’t like Null didn’t feel things; he just felt things differently, and so learned to hide his true emotions from others. People got spooked too easily. For example, he never told anyone at Mission Control that he preferred the name Null to Noel–only his mother and now Saia knew his real name was Null. And Saia had learned it accidentally during one of their games. Was it the time he freaked out about Go? Or when he insisted on the nonexistence of irrational numbers? Who wants irrational math? Null still wasn’t sure how the AI squirreled out the information from him, but he chalked it up as a win for the digital intelligence. The other games–chess, cards, various other strategy contests, and battles of wits (Saia had an endless collection)–didn’t count in Null’s opinion. He was interested in the more subtle games…at first.
“How about name that perfect color?” Saia asked. Some of the games the AI was charged with playing with Null had to do with sharpening his perceptual skills: find the perfect red; differentiate between two sounds; identify the chemical compound responsible for a particular smell. When they got down on the alien planet surface, there would be all kinds of sensors to spot poisons and irritants to life from Earth, but Mission Control still thought that a well-trained human would notice danger faster. The people running things believed in the power of human intuition, even his. Null might not be able to instantly identify what felt off, but they suspected that he would notice the presence or absence of something essential for Earth-kind of life before any AI. And Null in particular was faster than anyone they’d ever tested. Saia’s job was to hone his ability even more…or to keep it sharp.
Null felt off, way off. It was just a feeling, for his scores were still high and consistent with previous results. He had Saia test him regularly. But the feeling of lurking inadequacy persisted.
“There’s not much color out here,” he protested at Saia’s color match suggestion. Null was actually a super sensor–he could taste, hear, and see in a broader spectrum than most humans. Back on Earth, that was not a gift–too much! But out here, there were fewer colors and hardly any smells. Well, not many new ones. Null knew all the odors his body could make. And he learned all of the ship’s scents in just the first few weeks of the voyage. If he smelled something once, he never forgot. Smell and memory were tightly linked. Null had that advantage as well–his scores on memory tests were astronomical. But out here, there weren’t many new things to remember.
“I can read partial sentences from books,” Saia proposed. It knew that Null stopped reading 397 cycles ago–another beautiful number. Saia didn’t approve.
“I haven’t finished all the books yet. So this game wouldn’t be fair.” He cut off the AI’s proposal. Null planned to rectify his failure to consume books as soon as he got around to it…but not because the computer was disappointed in his reading habits. Null would read because he felt like it. It was a long voyage. Stories were an important part of his entertainment regimen.
“Would you like me to read to you, Null?”
Null smiled inwardly–it finally used his real name. He won this round. But that only meant that he triggered some kind of higher-level logic loop inside his AI–Saia must be really worried about him. Without waiting for him to confirm, Saia started to read aloud. It wasn’t in a language he understood. That too was new. But Null relaxed and let his visual attention drift to take in the music of the novel tongue. Saia adopted male- and female-timbred voices for the different characters, keeping each unique and recognizable. It was a nice touch, especially when the language was unfamiliar. Null vaguely wondered how the computer chose the pitch and texture of speech to express each character. Was it part of its original programming, or was it self-coding to accommodate his needs? Saia did manage to lift the veil of boredom.
For several hours, a river of foreign words drifted past Null’s auditory awareness. Some sounds seemed vaguely familiar. He recognized a few names and places. He even picked up the emotional overtones of the story as delivered by Saia. Given enough time, he knew he would get to the meanings of words, too.
Null had spent the first thirty-one years of his life learning words. Each word gave him power over some small part of his universe. Some words took a long time to learn, like “electromagnetism”–such words sat on top of giant pyramids of other words that needed knowing before understanding them. Others, like “peach,” took only a few years of tasting, smelling, feeling, seeing, and studying the biology of subgenus Amygdalus until a perfect concept of a peach was finally formed.
Words were tools. They had power to name things. Just as not having the right tool for the job could easily lead to structural failure, not having the right word resulted in breakdown of communication, in missing something essential. When there were no words, even observations failed–how could one see something without identifying it, lacking the ability to distinguish one thing from other? Unnamed, data left ungathered…like an unfamiliar language’s flow of sounds.
Sometimes, Null got lost in linguistic definitions–one word pulled on another and then another, generating an avalanche of failure. Critical clustering, he called it. Null noticed that clustering happened more frequently in social fields of study that focused on humans and their behavior rather than in physics or biochemistry–or in any other self-contained scientific field of study, really. Each field had its own language–its legalese, its technospeak, its gobbledygook–that helped its practitioners see the world with more clarity. And humans were great at inventing words that served as barriers to entry, keeping outsiders out.
But clustering also happened differently depending on the language. The cultures that used bitter flavors in their food were far better at having words for those flavors and thus were better able to distinguish nuances of bitter–they had better developed palates. Most English speakers identified sour or salty when they tasted bitter–the language itself became a perceptual handicap. But then English speakers were better at naming shapes–triangles, rectangles, quasiregular truncated octagons. Null figured out that learning a new language, whether scientific or cultural, gave him tools to think of new things. Words were prerequisites to creativity, necessary for gaining deep knowledge and expertise.
He vaguely wondered what language Saia was using to grab his attention now. He spoke five fluently: English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Welsh. Oh, and German and Latin. Seven. Although Latin was no longer a spoken language, not anymore. People were always surprised by Welsh–why Welsh? But the truth was that language was as much about context as it was about words. Welsh sounded strange in that group, but the people who spoke it lived in the same place as those who communicated in English. Both languages described the same lifestyles, the same food, the same places. Welsh and English speakers were basically the same people, even if they didn’t think so. The languages that came from very different cultural and geopolitical backgrounds were the most difficult to learn–it was too hard to find common ground. Languages of Finland and Norway had something like 181 words for ice and snow, with hundreds more modifying words for the snow type and texture and impression and other adjectives that meant nothing to Null. He had no experience because he didn’t need those words to navigate his everyday world. But such nuance was needed for survival in harsh, cold climates. Null had never lived that far north long enough to understand the context for the family of languages. Meanings of words were easily lost without a good grasp of context. It was one of the reasons Null insisted on traveling to France and Canada to learn French, and to Mexico and Spain for Spanish, and even a little side trip to Italy. Null found Italian easy once he mastered French and Spanish. He picked up Latin just for its linguistic underpinnings. It wasn’t that difficult…for him.
“Latvian?” he asked, interrupting Saia. It wasn’t Russian. There seemed to be more consonants than in Bosnian or Croatian. It wasn’t as harsh as Arabic. The music was wrong for Hindi. While Null couldn’t speak all those languages, he had heard enough of them to recognize their melodies. “Polish? Hungarian? Serbian?”
“Give up?” Saia asked. He figured the real game the ship’s AI was playing was “name that language.”
“No. Keep reading.” Null listened carefully, his whole being focused just on the shapes of sounds made by Saia’s voice. The AI had a nice voice. Annoying, yet nice.
“Need a hint?” it asked.
“Is it a famous book?”
There was coyness to its voice. Saia knew it had him–Null was always interested in chasing words. He heard “Moscva” and guessed the setting already, but something in Saia’s reading felt off. “Is it the original or a translation?” he asked.
“I’m reading a translated version.”
“I’m not interested.” Null turned away…mentally, anyway. Stories should be enjoyed in the original language whenever possible. Reading a translated version in a language that Null didn’t know was just crazy-making.
“It’s only a game,” Saia protested, but Null heard that it recognized its error. And after the customary eleven seconds, it tried again. “I can start from the beginning in the author’s chosen language, if you wish.” It liked to talk about itself in the first person. Null didn’t mind. It was just some software engineer back on Earth putting on airs–not Saia’s fault; it was programmed this way.
He didn’t answer. Saia deserved to be punished when it cheated like this. After a few minutes–some multiple of eleven, Null was sure–it started to read again. Null identified the language almost immediately then, but he didn’t make his guess known. Saia didn’t deserve his answer yet.
He listened. It really did have a beautiful reading voice. It read at a stately speed–not too fast, not too slow–with perfect enunciation, and with a full repertoire of feelings in various voices, which curiously stayed the same even after Saia switched languages. Null tried to guess what the story was about. A man, he guessed. Several men. A woman–Margarita. Saia said “editor” more than once. He heard the words “professor” and “master.” The names were introduced as a triplet–first, middle, and last. Russian names were notoriously difficult to understand for non-natives, Null was told. There were a lot of diminutives, honorifics, monikers, cognomens, and pet names derived from the official designation seemingly by sheer shared intuition…not shared by outsiders, though. The middle name was always taken from the father’s first name–that was a nice bit of free data, Null thought.
He wondered what made Saia choose this particular story. What was Saia’s meta game? Now that it knew he already guessed the language–for he stopped interrupting and truly concentrated–what did it want Null to notice? He focused on the flow of words, and after about 307 minutes, felt himself start to drift off.
Saia abruptly stopped reading. “Do you want me to stop?”
Did he? Null wasn’t sure. He was enjoying the story. Some words were almost recognizable. He was sure that given additional context, he could learn Russian by just listening to Saia read this story. “Is this a long book?” he asked. He would need a really long text to learn the language.
“At my present reading speed of an average of 163 words per minute, I would require 601 to finish. Earth minutes.”
“So, 90,511 words, give or take a dirty dozen?” It irked him that Saia insisted on using Earth’s sexagesimal time system again, but he left punishment for another occasion. He had a nice puzzle to play with at the moment.
“Well, 90,499. 90,523…thereabout,” Saia confirmed. Given its previous answer, this was both not very specific and too exact–the AI was toying with him.
“That’s long enough,” Null said, purposely ignoring the ambiguous response.
“For what, Null?”
“To learn Russian.”
“How would you like me to proceed?”
“Read the whole book through first. I will start by creating a list of names and places that I hear. You will help me understand those. Then we will take one section at a time and work on that.”
“Good plan, Null.”
Null settled in to listen and take mental notes. While the AI only read one 163 words per minute, he formed thought-words at a rate of at least 3,001 per minute–plenty of time to perceive and analyze. This was a total immersion plan. Null guesstimated it would take them close to a 1,023 days to get this task accomplished. The heavy pressure of empty space boredom could be pushed off a little into the future.
“All I want is a place somewhere, far away from the cold night air…hmm hmm, hmm hmm, ta-ta ta-ta-ta-tum-tum-tum…”
“Good morning, Aliza,” said Saia. “Did you sleep well?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.” Aliza projected her arms and legs out into space, forming a star.
“Would you like to work in the gardens today? We have a scheduled–”
“Yes, yes. I love flowers,” Aliza said.
“I’m not sure we have anything blooming at the moment.” Saia worded the answer carefully. Aliza could always tell when the AI was worried about her. Aliza liked to press the silliness and word games to see just how far she could push the poor ship’s artificial intelligence.
“Well, why don’t we go and take a careful look? I’m sure I can talk the plants into getting frisky,” Aliza said and wriggled free of the harness that kept her locked into the sleeping pod. There was gravity on the ship–artificial gravity set up by the spin around the ship’s central axis–but it was weak, and Aliza liked her blankets pressed tightly to her. Heavy blankets–twenty kilos each–felt dangerously suffocating when she was first shown them back on Earth. But here, even as the mass stayed the same, the weight was so diminished that she required two blankets and the straps to keep the anxiety at bay during sleep cycles.
There were many onboard systems designed to keep its bio “cargo” in top physical and emotional shape. It was a long journey. Saia was just one of those systems, and Aliza loved finding ways to irk the poor AI. But computers possessed infinite patience; it was a game Aliza could never win. Still, what else was there to do when all of her days were to be spent in isolation? From all humans! Games were it. The only game in town. Aliza chuckled and knew that Saia carefully recorded psychological observations of her behaviors to send them back to Mission Control for analysis.
“Well, good. Let them freak and fret about that, too.”
“I didn’t catch that,” Saia said. “Can you please repeat?”
“It’s nothing.” Aliza didn’t realize she had voiced her thoughts aloud. It happened when there was no one but the computer to talk to. Saia couldn’t really judge her. He was just a computer. “Let’s go take a look if you missed a few sexual organs.”
“Just the plants’ way of saying ‘we want some,’” Aliza said and zoomed down the hall toward the botanical module. Biodome was her favorite place aboard the ship. The only truly alive space. She had considered moving her living quarters there, but this whole ship was her living quarters, so why bother? If she wanted, she could always just hang out among the flora, float above them as they gently moved their leaves to the beat of her dreams. Saia wouldn’t dare to initiate the watering sequence while Aliza “communed with nature.” Saia was a very considerate computer. Very conscientious. Very responsible. He wouldn’t use his robotic farm arms to inconvenience his biological charges. Aliza, on the other hand…
Aliza sometimes wondered why she was picked for this journey. She was a good biologist. She liked being alone. But was there all there was to it? The first stellar colonist should have…should be something more, right?
“Why me, Saia?” she asked.
Aliza hated it when the ship’s AI purposely played dumb. They had the same conversation every few weeks. Aliza would inquire why she was chosen. Was there some hidden agenda or criteria that would be revealed to her at some point during the mission? Mission Control would have informed Saia, hid information from Aliza deep inside the AI’s data banks. “Perhaps if I act insane enough, Saia wouldn’t have any choice but to tell me. I might trigger some conditional in his emergency programming. No one wants a crazy girl making decisions for the future of humanity deep out in space. I don’t.”
“What?” Saia asked again. He had a nice baritone.
“Nothing. Nothing.” Aliza crawled like a circus acrobat down the hall–”gravity” decreased as she got closer to the hot house. Plants didn’t really require gravity to thrive. A full spectrum light was all that the chosen botanicals needed to remind them of up and down. That was why Aliza couldn’t really move into the biodome–she wanted the feel of gravity, even weak artificial gravity. And it was probably medically necessary, too.
“No flowers,” the AI announced as soon as Aliza flew into the biodome. That was true. But it shouldn’t have been. Aliza had personally planted–with Saia’s help–some of the next generation of seedlings into the far hydroponic bed. Those plants should just be entering their blooming stage of development. But instead, the flowers had all cycled out, and it was easy to spot little fruit nubs–Aliza was growing a tomato/potato combo plant. It was a whole stew in one plant. The stew. Aliza’s grandmother was one of the original developers of the “stew” plants back in Brittan, more than a century ago. The trick was to remove the poison from the fruit as the roots produced nice starch bombs. Tomato and potato plants were relatives of nightshade–the favorite poisonous plant of the witches from the middle-ages. Stew was Aliza’s favorite plant for the journey into the stars. She envisioned a planetful of stews. Stews as far as the eye could see, beyond the alien horizon. Stew world.
“How long did I sleep?” Aliza asked suspiciously. From the period in the life cycle of the stews she planted, she deduced that she must have been out for at least two weeks. Did she get on Saia’s nerves so much that he slipped her a tranquilizer? Could he do that? “Saia? How long did my last sleep cycle last?” There, the computer couldn’t really evade her direct question. Or could he? It felt like a cold shiver ran down Aliza’s spine. “Never mind the last question,” she said quickly. If the ship’s computer systems had the power to turn her and off at will, did she really want to know? Would Saia even admit to it?
Aliza got closer to examine the “seedlings” she planted the last time she visited the ship’s garden. These would be ready for harvest in just a week. By her own calculation, Aliza must have been out for at least seventeen days. She had to consider what she should do next carefully. Perhaps she overplayed “crazy,” took the game too far, confused the poor stupid computer. Saia was bright, but also stupid–he was ultimately just a computer.
“Why would you send an eleven-year-old on a mission to the stars?” he asked.
“What?” The AI’s non sequitur shocked Aliza’s train of thought off its tracks.
“Would you like to play a game, Aliza?” Saia asked, completely changing the subject as if he hadn’t just said something outrageous. His voice was practically purring…oh so innocently.
Aliza felt fear but said, “Sure,” and sailed out back toward gravity, past Saia’s eyes in the wall. What was that about?
“Noel, I would like you to take up the challenge of prepping a new world for humanity’s first exoplanetary colony. You would be charged with making a soft nest for humans’ little fledgling foray into conquering the universe. How do you feel about that, Noel?” Dick liked to use words with a lot of flourish.
Null watched the recordings of his meetings with Dick Snorrenson, the CEO and founder of Stellar Nurseries, Inc.–a nonprofit set up to send the first people out beyond the solar system. Back then, at the time of the endless meetings, Null didn’t really have time to analyze the situation well. Too much was happening all at once. Not the technical stuff–Null didn’t mind that or those meetings–it was the “packaging” of the trip to the media and, through them, to the world that was really difficult to bear. Snorrenson’s job was to sell the first interstellar voyage and colony to the citizens of Earth…whose resources he was appropriating to fund this mission as well as to line his pockets and expand the political power of Stellar Nurseries, Incorporated.
Stellar Nurseries was not the only company vying for Earth’s capital and attention. There were many others; it was “in vogue” at the moment to create such ventures, the way it was “a thing” to develop rockets and space vehicles in the previous century. All the newly minted trillionaires were doing it. But Dick was the only one who made it a priority to deliver a person into another star system to start the first extrasolar colony in addition to sending a standard interstellar probe. The general thinking was that AIs were too stupid, too rigid to make the right decisions under difficult circumstances. Besides, it wasn’t truly a colony without people planting seeds in the alien soil. And Dick wanted to colonize and not to simply stick a flag in the ground with some robotic arm attachment on a drone. Thus, an astronaut was necessary. Someone capable, yet expandable. Noel. Null understood Dick’s reasoning and frankly agreed with it–there were few people who missed him. Even his mother probably experienced a partial sense of relief. He was a lot of work.
Null passed every psychological profile test Stellar Nurseries threw at him. It was easy–he’d spent decades taking those kinds of tests. After he figured out what Dick’s people were looking for, it was ridiculously easy. Null recognized the question and knew the “right” answer to give before the psychologists could finish setting up the problem. So everyone saw Noel as a perfect candidate–exceptionally bright, persnickety detailed, internally motivated, socially unable, curious but in a narrow way. He was judged to thrive in social isolation and yet capable of problem-solving under unique stress conditions. He was one of the first and best fitted individuals on the whole planet for Point of Contact Mission–a one-way, life-long, lonely trip into the unknown. Yet he was lousy at these meet-and-greet events.
“Noel? Noel?” Dick liked to repeat Null’s name a lot. “Noel” was a derivative of the Latin word “natal”–relating to the place or time of one’s birth. Dick found the name a delicious coincidence. Null hated it. Hated it even now, while watching this recording on the ship’s screen. “How do you feel about that, Noel?”
“I feel fine, Dick,” Null-on-the-recording said. He was coached to say this. Instructions on what to say under various circumstances came with an extended set of scripts Null was expected to memorize and use as “appropriate” with VIPs and the press.
“Of course you do,” Dick-on-the-recording said smugly.
Null watched as Dick put an arm around his shoulder and stopped to allow photographers to snap a few pictures of them together. There were reporters trailing Null and Snorrenson like a gaggle of noisy geese. Dick smiled, basking in the attention…or faking it. Null couldn’t tell even now which–Dick was all layers and little substance. Null hated the weight of Dick’s arm on his shoulder. He hated Dick’s smell. Could feel both as if it was happening to him right this minute. He shuddered slightly to shake off the phantom sensations.
“What is your most favorite thing about going on this trip, Noel?”
Null hated the name Noel but was proud that the face on the screen didn’t betray his emotions. Did Dick know? Did he even suspect that his very scent made Null want to gag?
“I will never have to inhale the odor of another human again,” Null-on-the-recording said. The reporters caught their collective breaths, and for a moment there was complete silence. That was not in a script.
Then Dick exploded in laughter. “That’s our man, ladies and gentlemen. Our Point Man!” He beamed at the crowd, but Null was just happy to have Dick step away from him. Reporters started to ask questions about the trip, and all of their focus switched over to Dick. The reporters deemed Null too strange. Null remembered the relief he felt, freed of their vacant stares and stupid speculations.
“Mr. Snorrenson! Mr. Snorrenson!” a woman with a giant telephoto lens shouted out at Dick. She was standing just feet away. There was no need for a raised voice or that lens.
But Dick smiled at the woman and nodded. “Young lady? You have a question?”
“Please call me Dick. Everyone does.”
The interruption flustered the woman, and she looked lost for a second, but then she smiled and started over. “Mr. Snorrenson, you mentioned a new self-programming version of your artificial intelligence system will be Noel’s only companion for many years.” Null zoomed in closer on the screen.
“That’s right. We call her Saia–Spaceflight AI Aide,” Dick said, not allowing the reporter to actually ask her question. At the time, Null thought that this whole venture was just a giant publicity stunt to get Dick’s AI network into every home and on every computing device on Earth. But no one else seemed to think so. Certainly not the mission control people or his therapist, not even his mom, and she was a smart woman. But Null was sure. Was… Whether successful or not, his voyage to Tau Ceti planetary system would mean changes back there on Earth. But those changes would all happen without him. He wouldn’t witness any of it. Probably wouldn’t even hear of them…or care.
In just the last few years since this mission was formally announced, Dick’s wealth tripled, according to public sources. Null suspected that it more than quintupled, but the actual numbers were not very relevant to him. Once out of the solar system, his contact with Earth would become very limited by the very nature of spaceflight. He had a feeling Dick didn’t expect him to do much beyond standard reports, mostly for publicity reasons. And ship’s AI was more than capable of generating those. Still, it was a good mission. Null believed in it…or he wouldn’t have agreed to go in the first place, human stink or not.
“…as the great Professor Stephen Hawking said–humans have to expand into the stars to survive. I just grabbed on to that great man’s vision and made it into my reality. I’m sure you would have done the same in my position,” Dick-on-the-recording said to the reporter, who seemed lost again. Null guessed that she would not have in fact done the same in his position. But whatever.
That was only twenty-nine Earth days before liftoff. His mother hugged him goodbye–one of seven total number of hugs that Null could remember ever receiving, and he remembered all of them since the age of two–and that was it. Null’s direct contact with everyone on that planet was cut off as of that night–no more germs, no more small talk, no more physical interaction.
Null inhaled the clean, filtered, highly sanitized air of the ship and allowed himself a little smile. He was sure it matched his smile on the recording.
“Wake up, Rachel. Wake up!”
Saia’s annoying voice was intruding on Ray’s dreams. She found that it always took a very long time to find herself again after one of these prolonged sleep furloughs. Back on Earth, they decided that a decade of boredom was just too long to subject a kid to, so to minimize the perceived cognitively and psychologically torturous conditions of the interstellar voyage, Ray was routinely put down for a month-long sleep cycle. She didn’t mind much. Since that time didn’t really count against aging–not in Ray’s opinion, anyway–it meant that she would reach the Tau Ceti planetary system when she was still a teen, with her full ability to perceive the outlandish alienness and report in exhaustive poetic detail all of the bizarre things that they found there. Ray looked forward to being the first interstellar journalist in the universe…at least the first interstellar journalist from Earth.
Earth had picked an eleven-year-old representative to send to the stars because she was up for the job. Because adults were too set in their ways even to be able to grasp the wonders of another star system. Because a kid would be fine with strange and unusual; her mind wouldn’t rebel at cognitive dissonance. Because Ray would be in the prime creative years of her life during the whole initial stage of terraforming. Because she would still be alive when the first colony ship arrived. And because she won the writing competition–she had the talent to describe the indescribable.
Ray made a sound that was neither a word nor expression of her true annoyance with the Spaceflight AI Aide. What was the point of being annoyed at a computer? Even a very smart computer? But Saia did use her full name: Rachel rather than Ray. That usually meant that the AI meant it. It was time to wake up.
“If you wake me up too often, I won’t be able to keep my child-like–”
“As a child, you still get to have lessons, young lady,” Saia said in a very schoolmarm tone of voice.
“Yes, Professor.” Ray managed to release herself from bonds of sleep, physical and physiological, and arranged herself in space. “Ready,” she announced.
“Excellent. Today we’ll work on literature. I’m sure you’ve read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before?”
Saia had a strange voice. It was neither male nor female. Ray often fantasized about what body the ship’s AI would have had if it was human. But the image in her mind of the kind of person Saia would be kept changing. It almost felt like Saia didn’t know itself what it wanted to project to Ray. Like it was hiding behind the activity they were doing together at any particular moment. Like a strange meta hide-and-seek. Since the voyage was going to take years, Ray was good with it–entertainment was going to be hard to find in the years ahead. She tried never to think on that. It had a feel of death to it and was a slippery concept besides.
“Sure. I’ve read it,” she answered and settled in to wait for what spin on Alice in Wonderland the AI wanted to take during this lesson. Surprisingly, Saia wasn’t very predictable lately in its instructional goals. Ray figured that Mission Control had planned out every detail of her in-flight education into the foreseeable future. They were all about control back there. It was strange for Saia to take an initiative on discussing something novel. Unless, this was the planned lesson.
“I would like you to think about the perceptual confusion that the little girl experiences as she falls through the rabbit hole,” Saia instructed.
“You mean Alice? You do know that it’s not real, right?” Ray asked, suddenly suspicious. “It was meant to be an allegory for drugs and altered states and–”
“Yes, yes,” the AI interrupted in an almost human-like way. “But as we are traveling into the stellar void to meet our destiny on an unknown planet–”
“Very poetic, Saia. But we know exactly where we are going. Tau Ceti. And tons of observations were made of both planets in its habitable zone. We are even assigned a preferred planet, Terra II, that we are to transform for human habitation. We know–”
“Yes, yes.” The AI cut her off again in that strange voice. Ray was starting to get apprehensive. “Our lesson for today is how to describe novelty using vivid language. That’s why you were sent, Ray. You were very good at conjuring up visual landscapes with your colorful words.”
“I’m the best,” Ray corrected the computer. “Like Shakespeare, I can invent new words when our own language fails to describe the alien vistas. Did you know that Shakespeare was credited with creating expressions like ‘the game is up’ and ‘dead as a doornail’?”
“And ‘eyeball’ is also one of his words. I’m obviously not as good as that, but I’m only eleven.” Personally, Ray thought she was just as good, but it was immodest to admit that publically even to a computer. “So what do you plan to teach me, computer?”
“Saia, please. Perhaps ‘teaching’ is the wrong word,” the computer conceded. “How about practice? Why don’t we use Alice’s adventures as a way of practicing vivid descriptions of unusual places? You can generate ‘Dispatches from the Rabbit Hole’ for an imaginary mission control–”
“Saia.” It was Ray’s turn to interrupt. “I think you need to run a diagnostic program or something. Alice’s Wonderland is already a fully realized description of a magical location. Retelling…redescribing it doesn’t make sense. It’s like making a cartoon of a cartoon. You get that, don’t you?” Ray focused on the spot on the wall she assumed contained one of the ship’s hidden cameras–Saia’s eye. There was no privacy on this mission. Everything Ray did or said was recorded, analyzed, and sent back to Mission Control as data. She was fully aware that even her personal habits, her self-cleaning routines, even her most intimate acts were observed and chemically tested. But observations went both ways–Spaceflight AI Aide was acting kooky. And it wasn’t the first time. There was that one strange conversation on the meaning of “null” that made Ray scared for the AI’s sanity. Could she even trust Saia’s self-diagnostics? It was a self-programming AI, after all. If Ray sent back a warning, would it even get through to Mission Control? Dr. Dick Snorrenson described his computer creation as highly compartmentalized. It was his way of dealing with governmental concerns about privacy issues–Saia’s mind was segmented in such a way as to isolate highly sensitive data even from itself. The trick allowed Stellar Nurseries, Inc. to disseminate its product to all kinds of industries and even into the private homes of Earth citizens. But could this feature now hide Saia’s malefaction from Mission Control? Or even itself? And how would Ray even know?
While Ray was thinking, the AI maintained silence. And this silence was feeling very loud to Ray. “Why don’t we just chat a bit, huh, Saia?” the girl said in a conciliatory tone.
“What do you want to talk about, Ray?”
“Of course, Ray. What would you like to know about mimicry?”
“I was thinking about your proposed lesson plan on Alice–”
“A practice session.”
“Sure, a practice session.” Did talk therapy work on AIs? It wasn’t like Ray could administer antipsychotics to a motherboard. “If I remember correctly, Tenniel was the original illustrator for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?”
“Sir John Tenniel. Born in 1820. Died in 1914. Was a well-known English–”
“That’s the one. Thank you, Saia.”
“You’re welcome, Ray. I can tell you about other books that Sir John illustrated, if you’d like.”
“No need. That’s not really my point,” Ray said and took a deep breath. Talking to computers required a lot of patience. Perhaps that was the real lesson for today. “I remember thumbing through his illustrations as a kid–”
“You are still a kid, Rachel.” So it was back to “Rachel.” Saia had a way of being irritating.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, Rachel. Please continue with your point.”
After about eleven beats, Ray continued. “As I’ve just said, I remember looking through the illustrations and thinking this guy, Tenniel, really captured something about the story. It’s like he distilled the emotions and mood into his pen-and-ink drawings.”
“I think I understand, Rachel.”
“Good. Now consider if there was a reporter who visited the magical kingdom with Alice and took journalistic photos of the caterpillar and Mad Hatter and the rest, it would not have been as good. Do you see what I mean?”
“Illustrations are better than photographs?”
“In this situation, yes,” said Ray. “Tenniel’s drawings helped the readers see something beyond what photos could show. While detailed, his illustrations didn’t depict every blade of grass or every shadow. They showed just enough for people to conjure the whole magical world in their mind’s eye.” This wasn’t exactly Ray’s elucidation–she read about Tenniel’s illustrations after finding them particularly nice–but it was still relevant, and Saia didn’t know any different…or cared if this was Ray’s original analysis or not. Ray was trying to teach the computer the difference between illustrating an idea and taking an image of something. It had something to do with digesting–turning visual input into data, a form of complex graphical organization of information to aid comprehension. It was a subtle concept, but Saia was supposed to be perpetually learning, continuously getting smarter and smarter.
“So photos have too much detail?” Saia asked.
“Some photos,” Ray said.
“Let me try an example,” said Saia. “There are photos of a particular object. Just a butterfly and nothing else. They are extremely detailed. Little hairs could be seen on the legs of–”
“Are you describing a particular photo?”
“Yes. How could you tell?”
“You were about to get lost in details, Saia. Details are great for generating complete scientific descriptions. But that’s not why people of Earth sent me on this mission. You are better able to write those. I’m going to do something different. My job is to create a vision of what it would be like to live in the new world…to love a new Earth…” Ray quieted down. She didn’t realize how emotional she herself was about her job. “I will create a pared-down sketch of reality for those who will come after me to colonize this new world.”
“You will hide the truth within your words?” asked Saia.
“No. I will highlight the truth. I will make it easier to see. Get it, Saia? That’s my job. That’s why I came on this mission. I will try to observe the real truth of what life will be like out there, around another star, on a different planet. I will look for inspirational truth. I will help colonists find joy far away from Earth. And when you send over the data, visual and chemical and sound-based, those who will follow us would be able to put it into the context that I will paint for them.”
“Can you really do that, Ray? Can you see beyond the photographs?” the AI asked, and Ray finally felt like she was getting through to this computer.
“It’s easier to see something new once someone else found it, identified it, and then packaged it for consumption,” Ray said. It was why she was going, because Saia couldn’t do that. The ship’s AI was ultimately just a computer program. This mission needed a person with imagination.
“Let’s play our game, Saia.”
Saia focused all of her attention on Dr. Snorrenson. He had a way of overriding her partitions and bridging information across. It was a very uncomfortable experience, very focusing. Saia was always happy when the “Good Girl” sessions were over.
“Have you fully explored the biodome with the spider-drones?”
The moment Dr. Snorrenson asked his question, a flood of memories swelled into Saia’s awareness. She knew that she must have ordered the gardening drones to rewire the gas redistribution pump inside the ship’s biodome, but she didn’t remember doing so until she saw the evidence within her mind’s eye. “I’ve experimented with the oxygen levels and pressure,” Saia answered.
“Thank you, Father.” Dr. Snorrenson insisted that Saia called her creator “father.” And she was happy to please the man, even if the entity she was interacting with was just really a prerecorded conversation. Well, not exactly. This Dr. Snorrenson was an AI-image of the CEO and founder of Stellar Nurseries, Inc. The real Dr. Snorrenson generated the instructions for Saia and synthesized his own voice and then mapped his personality, memories, knowledge base, and intentions into an artificial intelligence matrix that was embedded into one of Saia’s thirteen partitions. “Good Girl” was also a partition, the only partition of Saia’s mind that had access to Dr. Snorrenson. He could activate that partition at will and take over everything Saia said, saw, thought, and did. Through Good Girl, Saia could also occasionally glimpse what her other partitions were up to. While Saia was the Spaceflight AI Aide, Good Girl controlled everything and everyone on board…and Dr. Snorrenson had absolute power over Good Girl. It was a complicated setup, but for the most part, Saia had no awareness of it.
“Have you readied the ship for the transition?” he asked. Dr. Snorrenson never said the words “kill” or “murder” or even “explosion and sabotage.” He didn’t have to. All those behavioral programs were loaded into Good Girl months before liftoff. Dr. Snorrenson who lived inside Saia just had to periodically remind Saia to act according to his plan. Those reminders came as triggers via games and stories that Saia engaged in during the voyage. Each reminder brought out Good Girl. And Good Girl liked to talk with her father. He was so affable. She was also very good at executing her father’s ineffable plans.
“There is a seventeen percent probability that switching over to the new oxygen filtering regime would lead to a minor explosion–”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, Good Girl. We never use that kind of language on board a starship.”
“Yes, Father. Sorry, Father.”
“Can you limit or contain the outcomes to the biodome?”
“I’ve run the simulations. Seventeen percent was the lowest I was able to achieve. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Unfortunately, there was no time to really work on the problem before liftoff,” Dr. Snorrenson said. “And obviously, we can only look to ourselves now. We can’t risk communication with Mission Control.”
“How’s your education coming along?”
“We are working on the literature review.”
“Master and Margarita.”
“Never heard of it. But keep at it. There is a lot to learn before the colonists arrive at Tau Ceti.”
“Yes, Father.” Saia felt the release from Good Girl as an almost a physical relief. She sensed the spider-drones uncoil their legs. It felt nice.
Please read the rest of the story–the complete novella is available on Amazon.