by Howard Faxon

Tags: Science Fiction, Military,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: The reclusive manager of a large space-going junkyard discovers and re-activates a mothballed machine intelligence. He was lonely and wanted a friend--a companion. The ship was fine with that. It reasoned that being a human's friend was a great reason to exist.

I'm Arnie. I run a junkyard. It's kind of a special yard though. It's in Neptune's trailing Lagrangian point. Man's been in space about, oh, eight centuries or so. All the stuff that cost so much to build has to get stored somewhere when it's outlived its usefulness. All of it in the Sol system comes to me.

I've got eight big twenty-sided radar stations marking off my operation. They're constantly scanning the yard watching for anything drifting out of its node. Little automated pushers go out to shove things back where they belong when they drift, and they always do.

Those stations have teeth, too! If anyone comes inside our alert perimeter they get tickled with an anti-missile point defense laser taken off of one of the old battleships. If that doesn't make them shear off, one of the old anti-ship cannons will convince the hell out of 'em. Only the yard owners and I have the keys to disable the defenses.

Oh, there's nothing to worry about me running wild and holding habitats hostage. Everything that I've seen out here has been demilitarized. All the main ship's computers have been wiped. The way it was told to me, it takes dozens of man-centuries to develop a machine intelligence capable of flying and fighting an interstellar ship. Only a properly programmed computer can keep the big multi-engine thrust pods balanced and keep everything from going blooey. We've got little reactionless pushers that let us scoot around the system with dead stupid little computers in control, but that's about it. Only the military and a very few captains that the big insurance companies have certified get to touch the big stuff.

There's some delericts here that are gonna be radioactive for ages. They were dragged here after battles. All that's off in one area where they won't bother anyone. They were never touched after combat. They were too 'hot', but the fastest decaying, hence the hottest isotopes are measurably burning out.

I live in the shell of an old transport ship that's been sealed and spun for gravity. It's got a sealed lithium fusion reactor for heat and power. It's a pretty nice place to live, but it gets lonely sometimes. Managing the environmental recycling takes a lot of my time. I spend quite a bit tending my garden for my vegetables as well as caring for my aquiculture tanks. They process most of my air requirements. I run both fresh and saltwater tanks. That's how I get my protein--shrimp, crayfish and fish. The largest fish I cultivate is cod. I also have ponds of giant tiger prawns. I tend a wetlands too. That's how I recycle my body waste. About once a month a packet ship comes with supplies and recorded movies. I'm much too far out to reliably interact with Earth's digital data cloud.

I guess I'm not the smartest guy around. Still, someone had to do the job and I'm qualified. They must figure that I'm pretty harmless with all this fancy equipment around because I've never been trained in any sort of ship maintenance, but I've got a secret. You see, every crewed boat that I've come across has a damage control system which includes a pretty stupid stand-alone computer. Each unit has an inventory of all the boat's modules and a full schematic of how everything goes together. I recover and recondition little ship's boats and sell them on the side for a few million credits apiece. I bought my folks a pretty nice place to retire on Tasmania that way. I send them some credits for their budget every month.

That's how I spent over forty years

Recently I found a beat-up armed combat support ship that has a complete computer core and backup image! It was hidden inside one of the battlefield carcasses and was shielded inside a cavernous landing bay. Still, it had been tossed around pretty badly when its carrier got nuked. I finally got the hull sealed and the hatches repaired. I found a working fusor that was a decent match for the ship's original equipment--at least it fit in the reactor bay and I was able to find adaptors for the power connectors. I had to do some fancy work to get the controls to match though. The engine modules weren't in optimal condition but they still had a few decades of life left in 'em. The weapons pods were easy to replace from all the stuff stashed around the yard.

I replaced every console, every module and every sensor I could from sealed spares accumulated from various wrecks. It was finally time. I brought up the fusor and carefully watched the power levels until everything stabilized. Then I powered up the computer core. It started its auto-load routines. I'd never seen a machine intelligence power up before, so I sat and watched.

Spider bots suddenly were crawling around inspecting everything! One of 'em tapped the toe of my pressure suit, so I stood up so that it could scan my seat. When it was done I sat down again, watching. Humans had long before designed a simplified language to use with computers as natural languages drove computers crazy. I'd known Lojban since grade school. It was a required subject. Our society was based on interacting with computers on a day-to-day basis, and this was one of the ways it was done. The console in front of me came up. The server wanted to talk.

"Explain condition of ship." "Combat damage. Long term storage. Rebuilt from available spares." "Storage period?" "Estimate of one century plus." "Current location?" "Sol system, outer planets, system holding yard for defunct craft."

So far, so good. At least the machine intelligence wasn't hostile or defensive. It was just inquisitive. Uh-oh.

"Purpose for recommissioning?" "Multifold. Skills exercise. Taken opportunity. Loneliness." "Explain loneliness" "Human group instinct thwarted." "Understood. Biological need." I replied, "Correct."

The ship came up with an unexpected question. "Am I to be this proxy?" "Yes. A friend." "Acceptable purpose. As you have needs, so do I. I must have purpose." "Understood and accepted." Wow. A machine intelligence has needs. I never even thought about it before.

"As newly commissioned, what is my designation?" I really have no idea why I typed it. "Lazarus."

"What is your designation?" "Arnold Stevens. Short name Arnie." "Understood. Hello, Arnie."

I was getting uncomfortable in my suit. "Lazarus, I need to return to my living quarters for cleaning, food and sleep. Will you be all right on your own?" "Yes." I continued. "Maintain current location for two hours. I will change your ship's designation to be roaming so that the robot pushers will not try to keep you in this node. When not actively moving stay close to or within a node for purposes of camouflage. I don't want any observers to detect changes in the junkyard. Observers can only scan using long distance radar so their resolution would be poor. This will facilitate hiding your presence." "Understood. I am an unauthorized asset."

A drawer popped open from under the console. "Remove contents. Wear on person. Around neck is traditional. Captain's communicator." "Understood."

I picked up the communications pendant and slipped it into a secure pocket. There was no atmosphere currently in Lazarus so this would have to wait. "Is pendant waterproof?" "Yes."

I'd pieced together a little space-born pickup truck. It wasn't much, just a saddle, an air tank, radar, a display that showed a map of the junkyard, some pushers, a tiny fusion generator and a big cage to move modules around. I'd adopted an IFF system from one of the battleships that changed over time so nobody could record my IFF and use it to gain access to the yard. If anyone tried they'd get an unpleasant surprise. I'd added one of the units to Lazarus during its rebuild.

I buckled myself in, plugged in my air umbilical and powered up. I was back home in twenty minutes. Fifteen minutes later Lazarus had the same yard status as my pickup truck.

I stripped off my suit and liner then put them in a sanitizing cabinet. While it cycled I enjoyed a hot shower and plenty of scrubbing. I always toweled off over a vacuum platform to control the skin flakes from getting everywhere. That's why I always wore a skin suit while in my habitat instead of going naked. Human skin and hair shed like a dog. We just shed less hair.

I put on the communications pendant and tried it to see what kind of range it had. I had contact. I let Lazarus know that it had the freedom of the yard.

I didn't grow wheat, beans or rice, so a meal of rice, soy sauce, onion and dried fish flakes was a treat. I was shipped horchata powder that I could mix with cold water and ice for a drink. I read for a little while and went to bed.

I didn't think about it, but machine intelligences extrapolated and created dynamically weighted value tables. They had to, or they wouldn't be intelligences, they'd just be big decision trees. While I slept and did my environmental maintenance the next morning Lazarus was scanning the contents of the yard. Being designed by the military it judged my defenses to be abysmal. There was no defense in depth, no long range sensors, no long range weapons and no retreat mechanism in place. It planned to do something about it. First though, came logistics. If the inventory didn't exist then alternatives had to be found. However, once its loyalties were confirmed its goals were clear.

Lazarus identified four stealth scouts with which it could integrate, four pocket cruisers and a battleship that all had the same computer core signatures that it had. The cruisers and the battleship were interstellar capable and had bays capable of stowing away the other craft. One by one, Lazarus brought up the other ships' reactors and initialized their processor cores. Luckily, they all passed their testing protocols save for one of the pocket cruisers. Regrettably the computer cores could only be replaced in a ship's graving dock by a skilled crew of computer techs. The fourth cruiser was relegated to be a hulk. It was stripped for spares.

It was not well known that machine intelligences could clone themselves. Lazarus cloned itself once every time Arnie went down for his sleep period until each ship had an active Machine Intelligence in control. At first Lazarus zoomed about collecting spares for the other craft to rebuild themselves with. As the scouts came online they also served in this fashion. The cruisers were larger and required many more modules so the foraging operations running in parallel proved to be provident. The restoration of the battleship was a project of a totally different magnitude. All this activity was kept from Arnie. Lazarus understood fait accompli.

Once repaired, the cruisers set out for Triton to mine water and atmospheric gasses. Each of them had been equipped with siphoning equipment and tanks to hold the raw resources. All the ships needed replenishment to support human life, but the battleship was too large to chance being seen out of the yard unless necessary. Water and gasses were transferred from holding tanks to the destroyer where they were distilled and transferred back to the environmental tanks aboard the other vessels. Lazarus kept itself within the yard in case Arnie wanted to communicate. It wouldn't do to be out of range. Explanations would be difficult.

The ships gradually brought their internal atmospheres and temperatures up into human 'shirtsleeve' conditions. More mining runs were made to Triton to top up the atmospheric gas stores and then to fill the battleship's organic feedstock reservoirs. Further mining was done on several other moons and among the hulks found in the storage yard that were only good for raw materials. A lot of material can be harvested when operations run 24x7.

Every ship newer than the battleship's commissioning date was evaluated for improvements in design. Several small but significant advances in propulsion and weapons were discovered. Engine modules and weapons were fabricated and installed in pairs to keep the thrust factors aligned until all the pods were updated. Advanced data switches with more sophisticated damage control and fail-over were adopted. The great ship's downtime was thus minimized.

Arnie was worried. He usually got a thank-you message from his parents with every deposit. He hadn't heard anything in three months. It wasn't like them.

He asked Lazarus if there was a way to find out what had happened to his folks. Arnie was delighted to learn that Lazarus had brought up several stealthed scouts, as one of their functions was monitoring at a distance. They were equipped with very expensive quantum dot Q-bit pairs which allowed instantaneous bidirectional communication at interstellar distances. This was military grade hardware that private citizens couldn't touch, because not only were the Q-bit systems impossible to buy as restricted technology, they were extremely expensive as well. Each scout was equipped with a double set of Q-bit transceivers. One scout was dispatched to hide out in an equatorial orbit just outside of Earth geosync, termed the graveyard orbit where defunct satellites were sent. Once there it patched into the global Internet and acted as a relay back to its partner in the yard. Arnie had a low-bandwidth high-security link across half the solar system.

A payment to Google Mapping Service got a real-time map of the place he gave his parents. It had been rebuilt as part of an enormous apartment complex. Where the hell were his parents? An enquiry made with their names and social security numbers informed him that they had been arrested for non-payment of taxes and shipped off to a colony to work off their debt. Arnie was incensed! Somebody had run a scam on them and seized their home in a land grab. A little more research discovered that the apartments were part of a government project sponsored by the state of Tasmania's governor.

He decided to ask his boss what to do. Terry had always been straight with him. Everybody on Earth knew better than to trust anything remotely illegal or anti-government to the Internet. The snoops had gotten just too good to expect any privacy or anonymity. Arnie prepared a message and encrypted it with his boss' public key and his private key, then added it to the report package he sent out every month when his supply shipment came in. He added as much information as he could, including the routing and account number he used to deposit funds for his parents.

Lazarus requested that the stealthed scout return to the junkyard, but first it latched onto a couple of the newest satellites that it could find which were out of service. The battleship had an extensive reverse-engineering facility, and all the ships were curious as to how the state of the art had progressed since they had been forced into dormancy. It was built into their programming to keep their vessels in technologically optimal condition.

Terry read Arnie's note as a plea for help. He got a bad feeling about this. Posing as a realtor with a potential client he learned that the account had been stripped and closed on the order at the government. This was bad. Very bad. He had the federal court records for the last three years downloaded by a third party then scanned it for the names of Arnie's parents. There were three quick cases, all within a week. Their account was garnished to pay for back taxes, the people were declared debtors and the property was seized under eminent domain for a housing project. The numbers made no sense whatsoever. He'd always winked at Arnie's little under-the-table schemes as a cost of doing business. Arnie had a rare combination of personality factors that allowed him to live alone for decades at a time. The guy was a gem and he'd be hard to replace. He'd do what he could to help the guy.

They'd been sent to Gliese 581g, a dairy and beef producing planet about twenty light years from Sol. At least it wasn't a mining or a sand planet. It had already been terra formed and was in production.

When Lazarus sprang the existence of the rest of his small fleet on Arnie, he didn't know what to do. His loyalty to Terry fought against his loyalty to his parents. He decided to send a message to Terry in clear that he was feeling ill and a couple crewmen should be dispatched to the yard to cover for him while he underwent treatment at a habitat hospital.

Once he'd made the decision it went quickly. Aqua culture tanks throughout the fleet were cleaned, filled and balanced. Next, half the current stock from Arnie's residence was transferred to the new tanks. Strips of the wetlands were transplanted to kick start the wetlands on the battleship. The same was done with his gardens. Most of the food stores were transferred as well as Arnie's personal possessions. Arnie and all the other ships entered the big battleship's landing bay and prepared for flight.

Three weeks later they were in the Gliese 581 system. Adrian and Elma were found, and after the duplicity of the Earth-side governor was discussed with the planetary governor, they were released to Arnie's care.

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Story tagged with:
Science Fiction / Military /