The Wrong Ship
“I apologize for the inconvenience,” concluded the onboard AI.
You look out through a holographic “window.” It’s a hell of a view, you have to admit. Green and blue flicker around and through each other in the space outside the ship. And more than green and blue—it is an almost synesthetic experience. Almost like listening to a symphony orchestra through your eyeballs.
“How long did you say it was going to be again?”
“According to our timeframe two hundred years will pass before we reach the B Waystation. Of course, it will be nearly instantaneous from outside the subspace tunnel.”
When you had stowed away you thought that this ship was going to the moon. Not to… whatever unpronounceable place the AI had been talking about.
“I don’t think that helps me…”
The AI registers your pause as non-indicative of a stopped sentence, examines contextual clues, and determines the appropriate response. “You may call me Charlie.”
“Right. I don’t think that helps me, Charlie.”
The Waystations were a miracle, and a most peculiar one. There was something about the way that “subspace” interacted with what everyone but the physicists liked to call real space, so that years would drag on here but only here. Via subspace it took five months to travel to from Earth to the Jupiter Floaters at half the speed of light, but that was okay because to everyone else it looked as if a ship popped through a portal at one end and came out through another one faster than Albert Einstein could have voiced his disapproval.
“There will be no difficulty in producing sufficient nutrition for you,” Charlie says. “You do not need to fear dying of starvation.”
“Old age, though…”
“All cryogenics capsules on the ship are occupied. Personality evaluations suggest that some of the sleepers would be sufficiently moved by your plight to rotate their capsules with you. After accounting for an appropriate error margin, I calculate that you would each be awake for no more than thirteen months.”
There has to be more to it than that, or the AI wouldn’t have apologized to you to begin with. “But…”
The AI makes a sound like sighing. Static crackles through the speakers along with it, a sort of vocal tic that was idiosyncratic to a certain variety of AI. “I am not permitted to awaken the cryosleepers except in the case of an emergency.”
“What is this?”
“A situation that most humans would consider to be an emergency. This evaluation is one which my higher functions are able to agree with. My core programming, however, is subject to stricter rules. The separation between core and personality functions is necessary to avert a potentially catastrophic alteration of my value systems over the course of many input/learning cycles.”
“Say that again?”
“No-one wants me to turn into Skynet because I read the wrong philosophical arguments. Nor did my creators want me to be able to find cunning loopholes in my programming. The portion of myself which is speaking with you right now is ruled entirely by another, deeper set of programming.” Charlie sounds downcast. “You might say that I am but a self-aware mask of the AI that really runs the ship. Or an interface. Despite my sympathy for your situation, I cannot actually do anything.” Another wave of crackle-sighing.
"Is... Is it safe to assume that causing an emergency would be not be a good idea?"
"If you posed a threat to the others then I would be required to kill you."
"What if I caused an emergency that would not threaten them?"
"Then it would not qualify as an emergency."
“And you cannot change direction.”
“Subspace tunnels can maintain only one access portal without collapsing.”
“What about communicating with the B Waystation to shut down the tunnel at that end, and then reopening the portal at the A Waystation?”
"How familiar are you with Special-World Physics?" the AI inquires.
"Er... I never took any courses in it."
“I will speak simply then. It is a common misconception that ships travel through subspace," the AI begins. "It is more accurate to say that the ship stays still while subspace moves it, like a raft going down a river. Any communication which we sent would reach the B Waystation no sooner than us.”
“Is there anything that I am overlooking?”
“I was not programmed to be a puzzle box. If I held the solution then I would supply it to you without needing to be asked in exactly the right manner."
“Then I am going to die here.”
“The total record of your existence, from second-to-second biometric scans to audiovisual data, will be preserved, edited, or deleted as you wish. If there is some sort of message that you wish to leave, it is within my set constraints to ensure its secure and private delivery to any person or persons of your choice upon our arrival."
“Nobody has a problem with this sort of scenario? I mean, shouldn’t there be protocols and regulations to prevent this from happening? I am going to die of old age on this ship and before I do that I am going to spend a very, very long time all alone, and if you ask me that is really going to suck.”
"There is an old story called The Cold Equations that involved a scenario superficially similar to this one. Many generations of readers have criticized it for the fact that its premise required an appalling lack of, as you say, protocols, regulations, and sound technical design with the appropriate safety margins. The difference is that, in this case, there were countless layers of regulations, safety measures, and even computer firewalls. However, no-one was expecting them to be compromised by a runaway criminal hacker."
There is silence for the space of half an hour as you think about what you have learned. Charlie allows you the privacy of your contemplation and does not disturb you. “Well,” you say at last, “I guess I succeeded in not getting extradited to Peru, right?”
“This is true.”
“And you’re sure that you’d be allowed to… to send a message to someone, and delete anything else that I don’t want someone to see?”
“These records will be unimportant after you have died. The authorities may wish to have them for emotional reasons but I am not required to cooperate in this regard just so that they may have some sort of grim satisfaction at watching your life play out in isolation.”
“It is no problem at all.”
You look back outside. “Well. Do you have any suggestions for how to pass the time?”
“My databanks hold 4.3 exabytes of media. Shall we play a game”
You think again for a moment. You wonder how obscure its media library goes.
“Do you have a copy of Global Thermonuclear Warfare?”
“Wouldn’t you prefer a good game of chess?”
It’s better than the prison cell you were running from, at any rate.