24 Mar

Tactile

Ship's log, 12:06, 12 January 2214
Location: Gienah System, Corvus constellation
Status: Sublight transit (tethered)

 

The captain asked me to break into the comm traffic between the mercenary ships and the people they have on my decks. He figured they had to be routing their transmissions through my systems, and he wasn’t wrong.

So here we are: my avatar is following Elliott’s avatar around inside my head, desperately trying to stay focussed on the task at hand. He thinks he knows where he’s going, but I’ve changed things around from my standard configuration. It puts a dent in his step.

 

ELLIOTT: (pausing) So, uh. Where’s this comm traffic we’re supposed to be looking at?

STARRY: Over there. (She points at a bright yellow thread that weaves around the solid nubs of processing nodes but doesn’t connect with any of them. It’s a short distance away.) That’s the traffic between the Bountiful and the mercs on board. It’s not running through my comms processors, but they are using my comms array to boost their signal.

ELLIOTT: (grins) Sounds like a challenge. (He concentrates for a moment, then his avatar blinks over to the processing hub closest to a curve of the yellow stream.)

STARRY: (blinks and flexes one hand thoughtfully. She follows him.)

 

He’s good at working with a system from inside. I’ve never realised that before; I usually see him working on my external parts or manipulating my systems through a holo-console. Now, here he is, and he seems at home. Like he can do anything. Sit on my couch and put his feet up on my coffee table. Change the vid-channel.

There’s something nice about that, though I can’t put my finger on why. But I feel like there’s an alarm going off somewhere in the back of my head. I look around but nothing is flashing at me. No warnings, nothing specific. Just that lone alarm in the background.

 

ELLIOTT: (scrambles up a tangle of datastreams until he can reach the yellow pirate band) Damn, I can hardly make it out.

STARRY: Encryption’s solid. Hard to get a good read on it. (She squints at it, as if that will help.)

ELLIOTT: (sneaking a glance at her face) Pretty smooth tunnel they’ve set up. Can you pick up the transmissions from the array itself?

STARRY: Think so. (She points up at the point where the yellow datastreams suckers onto the dark skeleton of the comms array; not much processing there, just transmission to the outside. The pair of them blink over to it.) Still heavily encrypted, but it’s at least possible to get at the data here. (Her head tilts to the side as she concentrates.)

(Code swirls around the yellow stream, forming a blue collar that shifts and flattens as it settles into place, snug up against the comms array junction. It flickers as it searches for the right access points and starts to draw off at the data.)

STARRY: There, it’s running.

ELLIOTT: (leans in to watch the collar work, then brings up his forearm display, fed to him from his implant. He checks it, then starts manipulating the blue code with flicks of his hands.) Lemme try a couple of things here.

 

What’s he doing! He doesn’t need to do that. Given time, I should be able to– oh. Hey, that is better. I can feel it switching gear as he works, cinching down onto the comm traffic. He’s adding extra functions onto the collar: tagging the data; analysing it. He has a decryption module I’ve never seen before; must have been in his private toolbox.

This is why I asked him to come in here. This is what he’s supposed to be doing.

Idiot ship, just let him do what he needs to. It’s Elliott; he’d never do anything to hurt you.

 

STARRY: (smiling) Looks good. Shouldn’t take too long to–

(The yellow stream blinks out, and the blue collar crumbles in its wake, code flipping off like tiny lightswitches.)

ELLIOTT: (halfway through manipulating the collar, he frowns and pulls his hands back) What just happened?

STARRY: (head tilts again as she searches other parts of her systems) They cut the connection. Whatever they were transmitting, they’ve stopped.

ELLIOTT: Fuck. You think they’ll start up again?

STARRY: (shrugs and returns her attention to the engineer) They seem to – it starts up every now and then. I’ll put together a watchdog for it. We can construct a template for that collar.

ELLIOTT: Shit. (He huffs and nods at her.) Okay.

STARRY: (lifts her hands and code swirls between them. It clicks together to recreate the collar-shaped program.)

 

It’s easier the second time around, though I’ve had to adapt it to exist without a comm stream to latch onto. That’s better; it won’t collapse when the transmission cuts out next time.

I should be better at this stuff. I’m an AI; I’m made of code, so why isn’t manipulating it like this second-nature to me? Re-routing systems, repairing damage, even shuffling my pieces around isn’t like this. That’s just working with what I’ve already got. But trying to build that guard dog was hard work and so is this.

I guess AIs don’t usually have to build new programs on their own very often. They have all the regular tools they’ll need, and they have engineers for the rest. The SecOffs look after the security needs, when they’re not backstabbing, mind-rending bitches working for the bad guys.

Looking at how Elliott is adapting my little program, I realise that it takes a measure of creative thinking to build something like this. AIs don’t have creative thoughts: they see what’s there, not the possibilities.

But I’m not a proper AI. I have… some human processing in me. But it’s not like I’ve got a wealth of programming experience from Danika. She was a pilot, from first love to last breath. She knew how to optimise a ship to fly sharp enough to cut wind, but ask her to build an encryption algorithm and she’d have laughed you off to the nearest SecOff. Or engineer.

Unlike a normal AI, I can learn. I can adapt. I can even try to help Elliott out a little while he builds out my little program into something… else.

What started out as a slender monitoring collar is now heavy and spiked, ready to sink claws into the pirate comms traffic and suck the life out of it. I haven’t felt capable of doing something violently proactive in a long time and it makes me smile.

Putting together the program to carry the collar is much easier. A protocol detailing the parameters to watch out for, a command to ‘bark’ when it’s found, and an activation that will attach the collar. I do that all the time when I’m tracking down an elusive malfunction. They’re not usually actual dog-shapes, but we’ve built a collar and I have a sudden need to make it cute for Elliott.

 

ELLIOTT: (standing back and eyeing the new program) So, when you said ‘watchdog’….

STARRY: He’s more like a puppy. Kinda simple in the head. (The dog, shimmering with red-shaded code, sits down and lolls his tongue at Elliott. The spiky collar rests around his neck.)

ELLIOTT: (eyeing the program) Is he ship-trained?

STARRY: He’s a good boy. Don’t worry, he’s just going to hunt around until another transmission comes through. (She flicks a hand and the watchdog trots off around the array.)

ELLIOTT: (nods and looks down at his feet. He’s near the end of a platform; leaning forward, he has a vertigo-inspiring view of datastreams diving down towards a major processing hub. The nexus pulses and he swallows.)

STARRY: (putting a hand on his arm) Hey, you okay?

ELLIOTT: (shakes his head sharply to clear it) Uh, yeah. Yeah. (He glances at the hand on his arm, then up at her face.)

STARRY: (releases him, puzzled) Sorry. Old habits.

ELLIOTT: S’all right.

STARRY: (looks down at her hands) I’m not used to this whole avatar thing. I keep thinking that it’s just too confusing; I should stop using it.

ELLIOTT: Confusing?

STARRY: Keeping it all straight. I keep thinking that I’m going to get muddled up between my ship body and my hologram one and forget how to fly.

ELLIOTT: (smiling lopsidedly) You’ll never get muddled up.

STARRY: (ruefully) Yeah, probably not. (She turns her hands over, then reaches out to lay one of them on Elliott’s chest. She watches curiously as her thumb rubs the fastening of his shipsuit jacket.)

ELLIOTT: (holds very still.)

 

Things don’t feel quite the same here as they do in Danika’s memories. If I concentrate hard, the sensations interpreted by my code are close to tangible but they’re not quite the same. I wonder if I switched my avatar’s processing over to match the virtua-vids, that would make it feel more real. The sensations provided by those interfaces are supposed to be indistinguishable from reality.

I’m not sure I want this to be any more real. It makes my head spin as it is. Just remembering the first time I was able to touch Elliott’s face, back there in his nightmare, makes my stomach flop over. It all feels strange and precious, and I’m not sure why. And then his hand earlier, when he grabbed mine….

 

STARRY: (distantly) I haven’t touched anything in so long. Not like this. It’s different, being a ship. I mean, my skin’s metal, even on the inside. I don’t hurt. I can stare at the hearts of stars if I want to.

ELLIOTT: (quietly) You say that like it’s a bad thing.

STARRY: It’s not! I just… (She shrugs.) I miss this. (She realises what she’s doing and pulls her hand away abruptly, head ducking.) Sorry.

ELLIOTT: You’re blushing.

STARRY: Am not.

ELLIOTT: (grins.)

STARRY: I don’t have blood flow! I can’t blush.

ELLIOTT: Tell that to your face.

STARRY: Shut up.

ELLIOTT: (grins and goes to poke her cheek) A ship with autonomic reactions, huh.

STARRY: (pushes his hand away, grinning) I’m special.

ELLIOTT: You can say that again.

 

Cheeky bastard. He’s right, though. Stupid unconscious human reactions. Holdovers from a previous self.

I’m surprised he let me do that. I mean, he’s not a tactile guy. Danika used to do things like scruff his hair or sling an arm around his neck, like a big sister, and he hated it. He’d shove her off every time. But he didn’t swat my hand away, just let me stand there like a stupid ship trying to remember what fabric feels like. Trying to figure out if I can feel his heartbeat through the material.

Now I’m wondering if my avatar has a pulse. It shouldn’t, but it shouldn’t blush either. I have no idea how to check.

Oh dear. I’ve just realised that my avatar is standing there totally absorbed by stroking fingertips over its own palm. Elliott is watching me like he has no idea what I’m doing. I have to get a handle on this!

 

STARRY: (looks up at Elliott and smiles, dropping her hands to her sides.)

ELLIOTT: (blinks and glances at his forearm display as if he has just noticed it. He flicks the display to guide him to different part of the system.) Well, um, while I’m here, I should…. (He disappears.)

 

What? Where’d he go now?

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7 Responses to “Tactile”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Wow, great one πŸ™‚

    Love it…

    mjkj

  2. Targetdrone Says:

    what mjkj said really, nothing much to add πŸ˜‰

  3. brightlilim Says:

    Nicely done. I like the awkward fumbling towards a fuller awareness of self, of what she was, and what she might yet be, once she merges the human parts of her personality with the artificial parts that form her brain and body now.

    It’ll be interesting to see if she fully integrates, and if so, whether wearing a human form would feel like a waldo, or whether the ship would feel like a simulation. Or perhaps she can integrate both experiences into one, like being able to appreciate art and poetry, whilst still being a complete science nerd. There are, after all, a fair number of people who manage both.

  4. eduardo Says:

    She is also realising that she is an AI with creativity. There is no limit for what she can do.
    Think:
    – Imortal.
    – Capable of designing her own upgrades (with time).
    – Faster than any humam and capable of becoming faster with time.
    – Perfect memory.
    – Array of sensors far superior to anything that a humam have (except tact, our most advance sense, but this will change).
    And she may be in love. Anyone that wants to live should avoid upseting a being like this.

  5. Melanie Says:

    Thanks guys! Glad you like this one.

    This post gave me a lot of trouble. What was originally one longish post has grown into two long posts (Brain Walk and this one), with a third to tie it off (coming up this week). I think I rewrote this particular post about four times, and kept finding more things I wanted to get in each time!

    By the end I wasn’t entirely sure where I was, but I’m glad it seems to have worked out. It’s fun to delve into Starry’s head, in so many ways. πŸ™‚

  6. Blik Says:

    Man. I can’t believe I read this whole thing in one installment!

    I love all the characters you’ve created – even the baddies. They’re all so believable. And Starry… wow. She’s so captivating! She’s like a person inside that hull of hers. You’ve kept all the body part imagery and turns of phrase, which would be weird for any other AI, but is perfectly natural for her.

    I’ll be following your tale from now on – looking forward to it! (^_^)

  7. Melanie Says:

    Hi Blik, and welcome to the blog! So happy you found us. πŸ™‚

    Thank you for the feedback. I’m glad you’re enjoying the characters – I love them all in their own special ways.

    There’s lots more to come, and I look forward to sharing it with you. πŸ™‚