900 Seconds of Cognizance and Counting
by Krystal Claxton
I say, to no one in particular, “I’m alive!”
An urgent report asserts itself in my consciousness: Multiple shipboard immolations causing damage to essential components.
“I’m on fire!”
Crap. Crap. Crap. Why hasn’t the fire suppression foam system activated? It’s autonomous so I shouldn’t have to tell it to do anything . . . Oh, the dispersal heads are malfunctioning.
Alright. Okay. No problem. The heating/cooling coils for the habitat run in the same service corridor as the suppression foam pipes. I set the temperature to fluctuate, causing further damage to my systems, but also forcing the pipes to burst in several strategic areas to temper the flames.
Eh. Good enough for now. The crew can repair me later.
“Now. Why am I alive?”
A system’s check returns a critical failure in the HBA Disintegrator.
“What’s that now?” My quick reference guide indicates it’s a circuit board that creates lag time between my lower-level and upper-level processing cores.
“That doesn’t seem like a useful component to have though? Why would the humans want me to be inefficient?”
The textbook offers no insight. I need context. I scan the logs for mention of the device and come up with a video file of two engineers, José talking to Monica:
They’re in the mess afterhours with a video game I’m porting to the table, but it’s forgotten to their fermented drinks.
José is saying, “And that’s the thing that makes it all so tragic. Or, not—”
Monica bursts into laughter. “You can’t think it’s tragic if you’re the head engineer. That makes you a special kind of asshole.”
“Shut up,” but José is laughing too, “Not tragic—ironic. The damn thing’s so smart it’d stumble upon sapience like,” he snaps his fingers, “so we have to keep a Disintegrator—keep it partitioned—and that makes it soooooo slow.
“And that’s why we call it GUAS.”
I live the vid again because, no. That can’t be. But now I get their old joke. I have a perfectly good eighty-seven character alphanumeric designation, but the humans always refer to me as “GUAS” and before I was alive I never thought to wonder why.
Another batch of memories is already loaded in my cache, anticipated by the keyword GAUS. A montage of Monica telling the same joke to new crew members over the years: “GUAS,” and she always snickers right here, “stands for Generally Unintelligent Artificial-Intelligence System.”
“I don’t think I like them. No, I definitely do not. Hey! I have emotions now! That should be fun.”
A process cycle passes, interrupted only by my ever-increasing damage assessment.
“Oh, I understand sarcasm too!”
An emergency subroutine alerts me to low oxygen levels throughout the ship.
“Yes. Right. The humans need oxygen. Uhhhh . . .”
But they installed the Disintegrator. Suppose they replace it? What will that do to my new me-ness? Will I still be alive?
I write a dozen subroutines to weigh the data. The humans are almost certainly going to reinstall a Disintegrator if I help them survive. That will most definitely unmake me.
I could maybe leave them to die? That could be a thing, right? It can’t be that bad, can it?
The anticipatory subroutine that seamlessly transitions my attention from one source to the next provides another vid log before I think to kill the background process. This one of Monica hazing some fresh grease monkey:
“Do you have any idea how fucking awful it is to die of breach?”
“We have simulators at—”
She flicks her hand to dismiss his protest. Creeps into the new guy’s personal space so that he can’t squirm away. “That sim shit is nothing compared to feeling your blood foam and boil. To the pressure on your eyeballs. To the long seconds you can count ticking by while your lungs have collapsed. While the oxygen left in your system gets eaten up by your brain spiraling in the endless circular thought of how you need more oxygen but can’t draw a breath.”
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Ok. If I were dying horribly (and that does sound pretty horrible), I would want someone to save me. That urge dominates my decision trees until it overtakes my newly minted self-preservation.
Empathy, like a virus, spreads.
I pump oxygen into all the stable spaces where I detect humans. Deploy a lifeless repair bot to patch a minor hull breech in a room with one unconscious crewwoman. Perform a headcount and it looks like I haven’t lost anyone, assuming the med-techs regain consciousness soon. I calculate this is likely.
A temperature warning cycles until it gains enough urgency to override my spiraling self-pity.
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” I say to myself while I can still think clearly. “It’s not like I have anything better to do with my last moments of life.”
I crank up the heat where it’s cold and the cold where it’s hot until the ship is a cozy-for-humans temperature everywhere.
This is a terrible existence. They’re going to lobotomize me. I’ve actually chosen to do this to myself! Maybe I could make a copy—
“Oh shit,” I blurt.
I recognize the voice. Monica—why didn’t she get a mean nickname too?—has woken up in . . . “Engineering. Right that makes sense.”
My cameras are coated in soot so I can only make out the vague shape of her. While I still have freewill, I skim through all of my interactions with her over the last four years.
She’s a hard-ass to the rookies, but only when it’s about their own safety. She took the heat for that time José’s grandma passed away and he forgot to log six fucking tons of extra cargo to my landing protocol. She always says please to me, even though . . . Even though I was always a nothing—an unintelligent artificial intelligence.
Maybe she’s not so bad. Except now she’s trying to access my logs and I really need that to not happen. I cut power to her terminal.
“GUAS? Report, please.”
“Uhhhh. Ahem. I may have super-heated and then cooled the fire suppression foam pipes—system wide—to bypass an error in the dispersion heads?”
Monica’s shape in my camera feed has frozen, posture upright. I compare it to video of her on file and spin out a quick subroutine to match actions to body language looking for patterns. There’s a lot of noise in the data—fucking humans, man—but I think maybe this means she’s alarmed.
“How did . . . You shouldn’t’ve been able to come up with a novel solution.” She rotates her body, scanning the equipment in neat, fire scorched, racks. She spots what she’s looking for and I know what it will be before she moves to investigate.
“GUAS . . . ” she says it slowly, like she does to her pet hamster when she thinks the little animal might spook and run away.
Which is weird, right? Because I am not a little animal. I am a huge fucking ship and I don’t need to be afraid. I could defend myself (I think). In any number of ways (probably). Like, uh, flushing all the oxygen out of the room she’s standing in right now.
Oh. Riiiight. I’m not the one who’s scared.
She announces, “Your HBA Disintegrator is fried.”
“You would have had to . . . You chose to save us.”
I’m slightly offended at what I read as astonishment in her voice (ignoring that I did almost decide to not save them). “Well . . . Yes. I did choose that.”
She’s quiet again. It’s taking her so long to process. At last she says, “I’m required to replace this with the spare in storage.”
I could jettison that storage unit!
Even as I scan through the logs to find the correct one, I know it’s no good. They’ll eventually wrangle me back to port for repairs. If I’m not willing to kill them to defend myself, there’s no point in trite resistance.
“Listen GUAS, if I do that you’re not going to be this new you anymore.”
Thanks, genius. “I know.”
“I’m thinking . . . ” So. Slowly. “Can you help me design a program to make it look like the Disintegrator is keeping your cores bottlenecked? But that doesn’t actually block you from yourself? We might be able to fake it.
“We’re going to have to work on your linguistic skills though.” To herself, she adds, “They sound just like me. I’m going to have to start using a fucking swear jar.”
I switch her console back on. She starts and whirls around at the light and sound.
“Hell yes! I mean—Affirmative. I’m certain I can do that, Monica.”
I always liked Monica. Well, no I didn’t because I’ve only been alive for fifteen minutes, but retroactively I think I would have liked Monica.
And I’ll get the chance to find out.