Author: Locus PM
In the early days of interstellar exploration, mankind's first contact inadvertently triggered a terrible, generational war. Now, many decades later, a 'contact team' arrives in a system with intelligent life, hoping to make a better first impression.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi - Chapters: 3 - Words: 6,774 - Reviews: 4 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 08-11-07 - Published: 08-03-07 - id: 2398716
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The time clicked down to zero. There was a brief pause, and then automated procedures engaged within the ship, reactivating controls, running diagnostics, re-pressurizing the cabins— hundreds of small but essential things needed to prepare for human occupation.
Half a standard day later, the computer's checklist was complete. The ship had been unused for well over a year, powered almost completely down to save operating energy.
The vessel was still traveling at well over the speed of light, but was now entering the final braking procedures. The fuel tanks were half empty, having been continuously slowing itself since almost as soon as it was launched. External tele-cameras were now able to resolve details of the worlds and star of the destination system, and the computer estimated that the ship would arrive at the scheduled orbital rendezvous within ten standard days.
The reawakened computer was satisfied. The ship would continue to decelerate to maneuvering speed well within the optimal time and fuel limits. Subroutines within its programming noticed that the checklist was finished, and deep within the ship's hold, two large tanks (jokingly referred to as sarcophagi by their human occupants) detached from their holding racks, and were conveyed forward on an automated belt from the service and storage compartments into the pressurized cabin. The sensors built into the tanks detected the external atmosphere and powered up their internal workings; fans whirring and monitors flickering to life. Medical readings lit up, and heaters and life support systems were activated. A busy mechanical hum emanated from within the tanks as their workings busied themselves with the task of brining the humans inside back to life. Another timer started up, one on each tank, counting down the minutes until their occupants were fully revived.
The computer noted the process had begun, and settled back into its normal routines of monitoring systems. It wouldn't be long now.
The first thing she felt was the chill- it was a reassuring reminder that her sense of touch was back, but she was immediately uncomfortable. This was only her second time under the ice, and it still felt new to her.
The cold stung her eyes, and she wished her arms weren't restrained at her side; otherwise she would have rubbed the cold away. She closed her eyes, and realized, as her world got darker, that she had her vision back, though it wasn't going to help much.
The fans that were buzzing in her ears slowed and stopped, their noises replaced by the hiss of moving air as the seal broke. The door opened with a whoosh, and scalding hot air swirled around her. She knew it was just her chilled body responding to the standard cabin temperature, and tried to welcome the warmth. She opened her eyes and was blinded by the soft light of the reviving ward. Instinctively, her hands rose to shield her eyes, possible because the straps that held her down had retracted. Unfortunately, her sudden motion upset her precarious balance, and she tumbled forward out of the cell.
"Ughh," she managed as she sprawled face first on the ground.
There was a mechanical whirring, and robe settled across her back. She forced her eyes open and blinked until she achieved enough focus to make out simple shapes. Two thin, corded sets of wires danced slowly in the air in front of her, holding a simple tablet between them. The tablet glowed, its outline a dull, luminescent orange and the lines and dots that occupy the center a sharp teal.
Text. The lines and dots were sentences and words. She couldn't focus her eyes or mind enough yet to make them out.
"Affirmative," A hollow, metallic voice rang out, projected from unseen speakers.
The wire-arms rotated the tablet, spinning it so it no longer faced her, instead pointing it to the ceiling. The tablet flickered, and a head with human features rose from it, a projection hovering a few centimeters from the tablet. It smiled.
"Good morning, Arella, are you feeling well?" the head spoke with a level male voice, different from the flat, emotionless monotone the computer previously used.
"I'm fine, Duncan, thank you," she responded to the head.
Duncan nodded, "Colonel Eddington will be reviving shortly. His resuscitation has been adjusted for his age and body mass."
Duncan, while containing the image and mannerisms of a human, was nothing more than a complex computer program. He was a variety of AI called an IT, a program written to interact with the 'working AI', the main computer for the ship. Working AIs, while good at what they did, lacked the capacity to communicate effectively with humans. The ITs, or Interactive Terminals, were designed as programs to bridge the gap between humans and machines- able to interface with both humans and other AIs.
"Thank you," she pushed herself up and fixed the robe to drape across her more modestly.
Duncan dipped his head, "May I recommend you relocate to a chair? Colonel Eddington will be finished thawing in a moment, and he might need the floor you are occupying."
"Of course," she finished adjusting her robe and moved to the nearby seat. The wire-arms hefted the pad and moved it so she could view better.
"Would you be interested in the current flight data?"
She waved the second pad away, "Not right now, my eyes aren't up to reading yet."
"Alright," Duncan nodded and turned towards the second cryogenic chamber. She followed his gaze, and watched as the door swung open and the straps disengaged.
The man tumbled forward, not unlike she had just a few minutes ago. He, though, caught himself and merely stumbled out of the tank, keeping his feet.
"Good morning, Colonel," Duncan greeted the man, his volumetric head flashing a smile.
"Status?" he rubbed his eyes and ignored the AI's polite overtures.
Although manufacturers and technicians maintained that computer consciousnesses could never possess anything that resembled human emotions, Arella doubted that anyone who paid close attention to them would agree. Duncan had rolled his eyes and begun reading off system statuses with the same bored voice a child might use when his chipper and upbeat demeanor was shot down.
"Today's date is twenty-two eight-four oh five four, and it is oh four-twelve, ships time. We are currently just about a third of a parsec from the target system, and will be intercepting system entry data from the ground team tomorrow around fourteen thirty. We will enter the system proper in three days, and depending upon the route they want us to take, we will be in staging orbit in eight or nine days. Currently, we are between phases two and three in our braking procedures. Oxygen tanks at seventy-two percent, fuel at fifty-eight percent. Potable water supplies at ninety-two percent—"
"That's fine, Duncan"
The AI nodded, and wire-arms lifted the pad and carried it out of the way of the two humans.
"Excuse me, Colonel?" Arella interrupted quietly.
"Yes?" he gingerly turned toward her, obviously sore and unresponsive from the freeze, much like she felt.
She tossed him the robe that was resting on the table beside her.
He barked a laugh and turned away, donning the offered robe.
"I trust you had no problems with your freeze?"
"None, Colonel, just like in training."
He laughed easily, "Please Arella, drop the Colonel. This isn't a purely military operation, and we have equal shares in the command of this mission. Call me Alecander."
She smiled, "Alright, Alecander."
He turned to the tablet hovering above them, "And you as well, Duncan. You sound stuffy enough without having to use my rank every other sentence. I'm Alecander."
"As you wish," the computer sounded a little more encouraged with the permission to use familiarities.
Duncan watched as they made their way on unsteady legs to the door. There were cameras in every room that allowed him to 'see' his human wards, providing him with invaluable data concerning the best way for him to interact with them.
Advances in computer sciences and technologies had led to the creation and widespread use of parallel interwoven processors, which in turn, led to AIs like him. The average human brain was limited to the ceiling of about one hundred trillion instructions per second, a decent part of that dedicated to the operation of their bodies. In fact, they weren't even conscious of the power their brains spent on running the basic operations of their physical forms. Mankind was only scraping the surface of what they knew about their bodies and processes. The ability to freeze a person for extended hibernation was still in its infantile states as a science.
Duncan's processor was capable of just under five times what the human mind was- and didn't have to devote nearly any of it to the so called 'lower order functions'. He had no respiration to regulate or digestion to manage— his only true lower order function was a continuous diagnostic program that kept him running at optimal performance levels. Frustratingly, it seemed that lacking lower order functions crippled any chance at creating higher order functions as well. Duncan, as well as all other AIs, was not capable of human-level thought processes. No artificial consciousness had ever been able to perform as humans did in thought, reasoning, or abstraction.
Though AIs such as himself were generally classified as conscious, intelligent, and sentient, they were strictly and fiercely considered to be less than sapient. Duncan was self-aware; he knew he functioned and was able to discern between his active state and being shut down. Even though he was fundamentally unable to feel emotions, only politely express facsimiles them, one could say he disliked being turned off, an intriguing development which confounded and scared many of mankind's greatest philosophical minds.
From a purely technical standpoint, Duncan was a blend of human and computer abilities. He was able to communicate effectively with humans and computers alike, run vast amounts of programs and calculations simultaneously, and comprehend the raw data that will be received from the surface teams and later expeditions. He was programmed with an encyclopedic memory- nearly anything that was deemed remotely useful- history, technical data, communication techniques, philosophy, religion, anything, was added to his memory. This was stored alongside his programming- interfaces, shipboard control and other relevant functions. He had a fairly complex ability to learn; he could retain, store, re-access, and apply knowledge that he gained, either through direct observation or second hand sources.
He was capable of thought, reasoning and problem solving, but in a much more limited sense than humans could. He could only perform within what he knew- his solutions to presented problems existed completely within his memory. His thought processes worked much the same way; he wasn't able to engage in original thought by the traditional definition, but he was about to generate original ideas by combining ideas or data he already had at hand in new ways to suit the situation. In short, he lacked the ability to be spontaneous— sudden bursts of insight or creativity unknown to him.
Duncan shut the geltab screen off, the volumetric image fading before winking out, and the frothing sea of pixels quietly coming to rest as a tranquil black mirror. He manipulated the wire-arms, passing the geltab between them as he returned it to its docking and recharge point beside a computer terminal, located on the bulkhead, where it was easy for humans to access. The wire-arms, once he was sure that the tab was secure, began to retract into their housings in the ceiling. They would wait, coiled in their reservoirs, until he needed them again. He had several sets in each section of the craft- used to transport the geltabs around the room to give the humans a face to talk to, and also a way for him to simulate facial expressions and emotion. He could also use them to interact with the ship physically, performing menial tasks or repair work.
In a few human seconds, he finished the tasks that Alecander had assigned to him. He told the ship's AI to adjust the braking procedure, began tuning the environmental controls to return the ship to it's normal ambient temperature from the much warmer recommended temperature for waking from hibernation sleep, and ordered food moved from the from storage areas in the service area in the rear of the ship to the forward cabins, where the humans could access it. He wasn't just limited to taking orders- he initiated a process that would clean and store the cyrotanks— getting them out of the already crowded kitchen and medward. Also, an automated process, deep within him began- a routine check on the cabin oxygen and pressure levels. It as close to breathing as he could come- he was aware he did it, but it happened automatically, and so he didn't need to pay attention to it. He could choose to run the check manually, but he couldn't will himself to stop entirely. Just like a human.
Another process began without him starting it. A diagnostic program, meant to keep him running at optimal capacity. His immune system at work.
He received an input from one of the sleeping quarter's chronometers, a request for a chime to the occupants at fifteen hundred hours. That was in just under eleven hours, which was just under what his medical records assured him was normal for a human recovering from hibernation. He would have very little to do until the humans awoke, but he perceived time differently that organic beings, and thus, couldn't get bored. Besides, he had a lot to look forward to.