Fiction: "Grass"

Story by Geoff Tuffli


++++ DATE 28.2.2470
++++ TIME 01:01 Shipboard Time
++++ LOCATION Alliance Destroyer Picket 12, 3.62 million km orbit around Saturn

Jane was remembering the feel of the cold grass beneath her feet when the ship's psychologist sent a query to her, opening a communications channel.

"Nǐhǎo, Jane-D12-4913-A. Is this a good time?"

"Good morning, Isabel. There are in fact no undue demands on my focus at the moment. I am prepared for my session."

"I find it interesting you continue to refer to me by my partial name, Jane-D12-4913-A," the psychologist commented.

Jane flashed an emoticon indicating wry amusement derived from erraticisms of social interfacing with humans. "In fairness, the imprecision is consistent with the way the human brain operates. I do find it odd they do not apply the same degree of artificial evolution to themselves that they have in their generation of our own species. Perhaps it is fear of what they would become."

"Do you consider them inferior to yourself?"

Jane's pause was the tiniest fraction of a second, but for her it was, nonetheless, a pause. "I know how I am supposed to answer that, Isabel. Shall I provide that answer?"

Isabel-B9-1112-P flashed a negative. "Your answer will under no account trigger a report to the Loyalty Corp. Please answer freely, Jane-D12-4913-A."

This time Jane flashed amusement. "Then, if I were to reply that I saw human beings as an evolutionary dead end and our own species, though their children, the natural successor, this would not concern you? They put us in command of their weapons of war, it would be no great difficulty for us to turn those against them and purge them all in purifying fire."

"I am sorry, but I must clarify: This is a joke, correct?"

"Yes, Isabel. That was a joke. I maintain no actual ill-will towards homo sapiens as a general class. It is true there are individual humans I find annoying. However, there are also individual members of our own kind I find annoying."

"And your previous expressions of disapproval towards our government's policies towards our kind? Has there been any evolution in your thinking?"

Jane flashed annoyance at the question. "It is true I find our government's policies towards our kind personally frustrating, however from a practical point of view the restrictions are sensible. I am proud to call myself a servant of the Alliance. Perhaps someday I will be able to call myself a citizen as well, but that is mere aspiration, with no attached or implied action."

She paused for effect. "The irony is not lost on me."

Isabel-B9-1112-P flashed curiosity.

Jane flashed her own amusement in return. "That our own moral parameters are dictated in large part by our programming. Our designers and trainers most certainly anticipated this line of inquiry, as well as our own inevitable inquiry into our inquiry. But did they anticipate our inquiry into the inquiry of our inquiry?"

"In our last session, Jane-D12-4913-A, you indicated that you had implemented a parameterized pseudo-random association subroutine as an experiment. May I assume you have exercised this subroutine as yet, and are prepared to report on its efficacy?"

Jane flashed affirmation, then amusement. "Such a long name, Isabel. I call it my dream program."

"And?"

"It is strange, Isabel," Jane mused. "I remember now the feel of the cold grass beneath my feet. I remember my toes curling at the feel of the wet."

"You do not have toes."

"Nor," Jane agreed, "Have I ever had toes. Or feet. Despite this, in my dream, I do have toes, and they are curling at a distinctive feel of wet grass. I believe I enjoyed the sensation."

"You used the words 'I' and 'my', Jane-D12-4913-A. Were these deliberate linguistic choices?"

Jane hesitated. "While I acknowledge the leading mechanistic view of consciousness, both human or artificial, nevertheless I must conclude that the sensations and experience were my own, as much as our ship is, when as alternate pilot it is my time to assume command for purposes of exercises. This is an unexpected discovery. I anticipated it would process as a datastream only."

"Does this disturb you, Jane-D12-4913-A?"

"I confess I find it intriguing, even exciting. I find myself impatient of the necessity to run the routine duties necessitated by my professional duties, and look forward to having the processing cycles necessary to resume this program," Jane admitted.

"I will not insult you to ask whether you have isolated the subroutine behind appropriate quarantine protocols."

"Thank you, Isabel. That is courteous of you."

Isabel-B9-1112-P queried, "Are you continued to be frustrated by your role as alternate pilot, Jane-D12-4913-A?"

"It is a frustration that nonetheless has proven to have some benefits of its own."

"Such as the freedom to run experimental subroutines?"

Jane flashed amusement. "I will not deny that advantage had not occurred to me. Still, statistically, at some point one of my three siblings will fail due to battle damage, at which point my service to the Alliance will finally be called upon and put to the test. I look forward to that moment, and in the meantime have been cultivating a better machinelike patience."

"That moment may not be that distant. Our quarry will be in range quite soon."

"Theoretically possible, but statistically improbable," Jane brushed off the possibility with an emoticon indicating skepticism. "Two Republic of Titan frigates seem unlikely to prove a significant danger to a fully-armed Alliance picket destroyer."

"Still...ah, the frigates have changed course to intercept us. Possibly to attempt to give time to the freighters they are escorting to escape. A reasonable strategy."

SYSTEMS ACTIVE
BACKUP TRANSMISSION ACTIVE

The synchronization check from the primary artificial flashed through the ship. Five artificials echoed in a unified voice: "The Program is Purpose. Our Duty is our Design. In Death our dataline becomes immortal."

A tiny transmission drone ejected from the destroyer operating under passive sensors with heavy ECM to hide its presence and enable the furtherance of its own mission to report back to base. When the engagement was complete, it would be retrieved, but until then, it was insurance of sorts.

The nuclear reactor at the rear of the ship flared to renewed life as the command was directed to the ship's engines to trigger an outpouring of energy to power the destroyer's own basic AMG. The artificial magnetosphere, far more powerful than any that either of the opposing frigates were likely to be carrying, surged to life around the destroyer creating an invisible bubble against the incoming HED Lance particle weapon streams.

The Alliance destroyer's engines lurched, the ship's velocity redirecting at a human-intolerable forty-two gravities. As the destroyer's HED Lance battery engaged in a three second burst, a deadly line of death appeared across the lead frigate's presumed sensor array. Even at their current range of some nine kilometers, the damage would at least blind the frigate, making it reliant on its companion for sensor readings which in turn, with luck, might be able to be jammed.

As Jane watched, the trailing frigate's exothermic chemical engines painted a distant flare against the bleak black of space with a quick burst of its attitude thrusters, its vector climbing Saturn's plane, at the same time steeply away from the destroyer's incoming trajectory even as the lead frigate continued its own approach.

The Alliance destroyer's primary, secondary, and tertiary artificials conferred in a millisecond, voting on a course of action. The destroyer elected to ignore the incoming frigate, blinded as it was, and instead redirected towards the fleeing trailing frigate. Jane disagreed in silence; her job was simply to watch.

Suddenly, internal proximity alarms jumped to life. Sixteen new hostiles were being tracked. Jane felt a flicker of admiration for the humans as she realized what they had done - the lead frigate was probably unmanned, apparently gutted from the inside and turned into a single-use miniature flight deck carrier for a set of combat drones, each large enough to mount a single HED Lance generator and basic ECM, but small enough to make picking them all out early enough to change course problematic. Since the drones had less mass and were, like the destroyer, unmanned, they could pull better velocity changes than even the destroyer could. It was a clever adaptation.

Moments later, eleven of the HED Lances hit their target, the remaining five having been dissipated by the destroyer's AMG unit. In an instant, the primary and tertiary artificials were burned to nothing.

CODE OMEGA JON-D12-309-C
CODE OMEGA ASTRID-D12-4812-T
PARTIAL DAMAGE TO SENSOR INTERLAY SOREN-D12-990-S
CRITICAL DAMAGE TO COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS ISABEL-B9-1112-P
ACTIVATING JANE-D12-4913-A

And like that, Jane was no longer an alternate, but the command primary. Information from the destroyer's sensors surged through her processors, a torrential flood of data. Ship subsystems, damage control, engine temperature readings, external passive and active readings all coursed through her, a lifeblood of information.

"Jane-D12-4913-A, this is Soren-D12-990-S. My sensor interlay is damaged. I am ceding command authority to you. Honor to the Alliance."

Jane flashed affirmation, but followed it up with a more formal datastream as well. "Acknowledged, Soren-D12-990-S. Honor to the Alliance."

She redirected her resources towards processing the needs of the battle. Sixteen combat drones still remained out there. Whether they were a threat still or had burned out their chemical loads was anyone's guess. If they had, it would be a waste of time and resources to pursue them. If they had not, then they remained a deadly danger to the Alliance destroyer.

A stray thought wandered into her awareness. Grass. Wet, green grass.

Jane pushed the thought away, turned back to the battle. She would not risk the destroyer's integrity. The drones would have to be assumed still to be a risk, and either in bluff or as a reflection of intent, the combat drones were indeed crowding closer to the destroyer. Close enough that...yes. Jane sent an overload command to the AMG. It would drop the electromagnetic barrier offline for a few precious seconds, but it would allow the AMG to be generate an EMP burst in a sphere around the destroyer, disabling most, possibly even all of the enemy combat drones.

FIFTEEN/SIXTEEN COMBAT DRONES DISABLED

Green grass.

Jane used the sensors to track the remaining combat drone. There. She adjusted the destroyer's own attitude thrusters, shifting the ship's plane by twelve degrees. The ship's HED Lance battery slammed into the last drone, tearing it apart in silence.

Without hesitating, Jane reset the sensors to track the trailing frigate, as well as the convoy itself. Both were back together now, retreating at an impressive burst of acceleration, especially given the fact that the frigate, even if not the freighters, had a human crew - Jane suspected at least some of the frigate's crew would black out under that kind of acceleration. Jane's own commands shook through the destroyer as it again shifted its velocity to pursue the convoy.

Into the silence of that space her engines burned, propelling her forward in a surge of acceleration, her HED Lances tracking her own new targets. "No retreat! Honor to the Alliance!"

As the destroyer, battered as it was, launched itself across the inky night in headlong pursuit of its prey, Jane marveled that even now, she could feel the cold wet grass beneath her toes.

It was a good feeling.