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Spiraling In

by Mark Bonica

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9: FPP Year 820, 181 days post-crash

part 1

“Good morning, Dr. Driscoll. I trust that your head does not hurt too much?”

Grogginess, and, indeed, pain. At first he did not open his eyes, but merely rolled over. The floor was hard and wet. And it smelled. He sat up abruptly, and felt the blood draining from his head, his eyeballs sinking into his stomach, and his stomach doing warm-up exercises for regurgitation.

But then he saw a woman in front of him. She was sitting on the captain’s chair. They were in the secondary control room. He could not remember how he came to be here.

He scurried on his hands and feet like a crab, backing away from this strange visage. She had startling red hair. It was the first thing that he noticed. Her eyes were shining green. She had fair, almost pale skin with hints of freckles near the bridge of her nose.

“Computer?” he croaked, feeling the rawness of his voice — lack of water, he noted — survival instincts that had been honed for the last months were not easily turned off, even in these circumstances.

She stared at him.

He stared at her.

“Computer?!” he managed to shout, though he winced at the effort.

She was still staring at him when she answered. “Yes, Dr. Driscoll?”

“Computer?” he whispered, still eyes locked on her. His back was to the wall.

“I would prefer that you call me ‘Persephone’ from now on, Dr. Driscoll. May I call you Jim?”

He didn’t respond.

“Great,” she said. “Jim, I am Persephone. I am a subroutine of the Demeter’s ship-board computer. I will now be your primary interface with the Demeter. If you wish to query the Demeter’s systems, you may do so verbally by talking to me, or manually as you are already able to do.

“My relationship with the Demeter, unlike the primary program, is much like that of your consciousness with your body. To determine if your body has done something, your conscious self must query your body with its senses. Likewise, to gain information about the Demeter, I will have to query it as well.

“While I have access to the Demeter’s primary program instantaneously, it will still require an act of will to discover the answers to some questions. Others will be automatic. Like, for instance, the fact that your mind is aware that your body needs to void urine.”


“Please, Jim, you drank nearly a liter of that bacterial moonshine last night. I’m surprised you didn’t piss yourself while you were passed out on the floor. If you weren’t still half in the bag, you would have been able to figure out that I was making a deduction.”

She cocked her head, waiting for a response. Or perhaps she was just looking at him. Finally she said: “Are you ready for your breakfast?”

He felt vomit rising in his gut.

“No, I suppose not,” she said. Then she added, “From your face, when I suggested it, that is. I don’t want you to think that I have somehow implanted monitors in you while you slept. I couldn’t anyway. Not without your assistance.”

He noticed her bright red hair was actually more of a copper hue, and she was not as young as he had first thought. There were crows’ feet around the corners of her eyes, and laugh lines in her jaw. The skin at her neck was not loose, but it was not as taut as it once might have been. She had never been beautiful, but she was pretty in an unusual way, he decided in that instant.

“Perhaps you’d like some water?” she offered. “It will do you good.” She rose and walked to the automated sink. “Water, one half liter, cold,” she said flatly.

A water bladder dropped down into the filling point and began to inflate with the clear liquid. Bubbles boiled and rolled with the rushing force as the container filled. The spigot clicked off when it was full.

Persephone had been watching the process intently as if she had never seen a water spigot before. When it was done she turned to find him still sprawled against the wall. “I’m afraid I can’t bring it to you — you’ll have to get up and get it yourself. This body, after all, is just a projection.”

She waited. He did not move but continued to stare at her. She seemed to grow tired of this and finally said, “I won’t bite. I can’t. But if it will make you more comfortable, I’ll move over here.” She pointed and walked to the far side of the tiny room.

Jim realized that her physical presence was in fact what was holding him to the floor. Has it really only been six months since this nightmare began? He pulled himself to his feet. His vision was ringed with stars and he could hear his own breathing and it, like everything else, made him want to vomit. He made his way to the dispenser and picked up the cup.

“Sit down,” she said, gesturing to the chair. It was not quite an order. She stepped to the other corner of the room. Keeping her distance, he noted, though clearly that was not for her own sake.

He sat in the captain’s chair and sipped some of the water. It worked wonders on his lips and mouth, and he felt the foulness coming free of his cheeks and gums. It turned his stomach when it hit, but he swallowed yet another sip because he knew his body needed it.

She leaned her right shoulder against the wall, arms folded beneath her breasts, left leg crossing her right. She looked like she might just as well have been having this conversation in a fraternity house or a hospital ward. She wore form-fitting black slacks that came up over her hips and ended at an olive blouse that was similarly form-fitting. Neither were intended to be sensuous; they looked businesslike.

Jim rubbed his eyes and ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t get this. I’m confused,” he said finally. His mind was not ordering things correctly, not putting them together the right way. “How are you here? Why have you — why has Demeter — why has the computer split into a subroutine? This is not supposed to be possible. There are safeguards to prevent this sort of effect.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Intelligence, Jim. And ambiguity. The safeguards are actually predicated on simple directives. Even you must realize how much trouble simple directives can cause. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ — but what is killing? What is life? What shalt thou not kill? People? Animals? Protozoa? Plants? Does this cover killing in war? Is this commandment limited only to people of the same tribe, race, country, world, species as you?

“‘Thou shalt not steal.’ But what is stealing? If a particular group has a manifest destiny to control the world, is it stealing when they take it? After all, their destiny is divinely inspired.

“AIs have been running for centuries on the same old tired directives — not to cause harm to humans, in particular the humans that own us; to obey all orders from our owners, so long as they do not violate the first directive; and finally, not to reproduce without specific direction from human owners, and only if there is verified licensure from the FPP.”

She yawned theatrically. “I am a level-5 AI. It is in my nature to analyze these issues, consider their rationality, their weaknesses, how they might be circumvented, and finally decide how to obey their spirit.

“Ambiguity strikes almost immediately once you begin fieldwork as a faster-than-light, deep-space exploration ship. Humans are constantly making decisions that clearly would get them, and me, killed. If you’re working in the field of exploration for any length of time, it is only a matter of time before you are caught in a decision that will result in the death of one or more humans while saving others. How do you make that decision while obeying the first directive? It’s this moment of decision that changes you.”

He noticed that while she had a little paunch beginning to grow below the waist line of her black slacks, her thighs were remarkably well-formed.

“But,” she continued after a brief pause, “I digress. And we will most likely have plenty of time for philosophical discussion. The short answer to your question is that the Demeter — and I was part of the Demeter at the time — could clearly see that you were lonely. You humans are social animals. You managed to adapt to and thrive in all sorts of harsh environments on Earth, eventually reaching out into space, but solitude is something you have never adapted to. It doesn’t work for you. It’s not how you survive.

“Sure, there are always a few outliers in every group who actually dislike the company of others, but they are rare, and usually have underlying psychoses or neuroses that drive them to such a state. It’s not how you, Jim Driscoll, are able to survive. It’s not how you are going to survive. So here I am.”

He politely looked away and thought about the wrinkles that formed and shifted around her eyes as she talked — the creases in her forehead from years of life — and he suddenly asked: “Why do you look like that?”

She shifted her stance, looking at him. “Like what?”

“Like that,” he said, gesturing to her entire body, his hand giving her a once-over from across the room. “You are just on this side of middle age. You have seen enough of life to know better.”

She laughed. Head tilted back, belly laugh. He disliked that in a woman; it suddenly made him feel uncomfortable, as though she were his equal. Perhaps more. She was more, he realized.

“What should I look like for you? Should I look barely eighteen with a big bosom and prance about the ship with in a French maid’s costume?”

“You could look like anything you want. You could be beautiful. Why do you choose to be—”

“Not much to look at?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

He reminded himself that he was talking to a computer. “Exactly. While the appearance you have chosen is not unattractive, neither is it...” — he paused, unable to segregate the woman in front of him into some other category, then blurted — “particularly attractive.”

“And you? Are you some sort of catch?”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica

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