by Patrick Lundrigan
Ida felt her elbows lock as the timeout started. In front of her the puddle of coffee from the dropped cup spread. She hated when visitors brought drinks and she hated getting a timeout at the end of her shift. She waited, the wet-vac sucking empty air a few inches off the floor.
“Miss, are you alright?” someone asked, but Ida remained rigid.
She felt her cheeks flush, but she couldn’t do anything.
“Just a buckethead,” another voice said, and someone snickered. She had arranged her hair to cover the clamp-on, and thought no one could see it.
She hoped the timeout wouldn’t last long. She still had work to do before she could go home. And now she’d have to see Jerry — who had told her she wouldn’t have any more timeouts.
With a lurch the clamp-on released and the vac nozzle hit the ground. The puddle disappeared, and she tossed the cup in her cart. Around her, the visitors queued up for the early tours, with some of them leaning back with their noses in the air to see the spaceships and rockets that hung from the ceiling. Ida was glad she never had to dust up there.
The guards smiled at her as she approached. She gave the counter a wipedown then asked if Jerry had come in. The night shift always left her tired, and she didn’t want to wait around.
The guards laughed, “Those guys have been in early everyday for the last month. Working on a big deadline or something.”
“I’m not a buckethead,” she said. Some children had to wear clamp-ons, and there were some adults who used them illegally. “It’s for the center.”
The guards smiled at her, still laughing, as if she was just making excuses. She left, leaving their trash bin unemptied, moving down the office corridors to the janitor’s closet. She parked the cart and plugged it in for recharge, then hung up her smock.
She found Jerry camped at his desk behind a stack of books and computer monitors. He didn’t notice her until she stood right next to his chair.
“Dr. Jerry, I had a timeout this morning.” When she had first volunteered for the project, timeouts came almost every day. Her boss had been furious, seeing one of his workers just standing around. Eventually they had stopped, and then she had gone on the night shift.
“Huh?” he said, looking up. The screen in front of him, filled with numbers, looked like a tax form or a math test.
“How come you don’t have any pictures to look at?” she asked. Pictures and holos from previous missions hung all around the building. Photos of Saturn and Jupiter, spaceships, galaxies and the moon.
“I don’t work on the imaging team,” he said. “Now what’s all this about timeouts?”
After Ida explained, Jerry took her across the hall to the lab. She always smiled when she read the nameplate on the door, “ADVANCED HUERISTIC ALGORITHM DEVELOPMENT LABORATORY.” Such a big name for such a small room. Jerry sat her down on the couch and plugged a cable into her clamp-on.
“I hope there’s nothing wrong with the AI,” he said. “We’ve only got a week until integration.”
“But the launch isn’t for six months,” Ida raised an eyebrow She had kept track, and even saved a few vacation days for it. She thought they might invite her to the launch, and wanted to be prepared.
“Yeah, but the bird has to be delivered to the Cape way before then.” He fiddled with the buttons on the computer and screens around the room came to life, scrolling pictures and numbers. The machines hummed like an old air conditioner.
“I don’t know who had the idea that an AI would need so much training,” he mumbled. “If we have a washout now, there’s no backup.”
Ida let him talk. Sometimes the scientists talked at her like that, and she’d only get a long explanation if she interrupted.
“Self-check fine, neural transfer fine, diagnostics running, BIT running clean.”
“I’ll still get my bonus?” She wanted to help the project if she could, to do more than just clean up.
“HR handles that,” he said. “Ah–good! Nothing’s wrong. Just the kernel going into burst mode during algorithm synthesis. When it learns, it has to incorporate the experience into a reaction matrix.”
“It’s learning to mop up spills?”
“Something like that. The kernel monitors your actions, your problem solving, things like that. It already has baseline intelligence, but wetware training gives it the ability to improvise. We can’t risk another crash landing.”
She knew all about the crash. It had happened when she had started working at the center. Even though she didn’t know anybody, she had felt their disappointment. The spaceship they had built had gone all the way to Saturn, but had crashed when it tried to land on a moon. She had a picture of that moon at home, with the crash site marked with a question mark. No one knew how the accident had happened.
Jerry unplugged the cable, untangling it from Ida’s hair. “Everything’s working, so don’t worry if you have a timeout or two over the next couple of days.”
“But I’ll get into trouble with Mr. Buros!”
“I’ll talk to the facilities people. I’m sure they’ll understand.” He looked at his watch and frowned. “I’m late for the stand-up meeting. Gotta run.” He shot across the hall and grabbed a notebook from his desk, then took off down the hall.
All the scientists were like that, heads in the clouds, running here and there, bumping into her cart if she didn’t get out of the way fast enough. Ida stopped in the hallway; the poster outside the lab was her favorite. Saturn hung in space, angled like a spinning top, the rings reflecting sunlight like ice on a sunny winter day. It was a holoprint, and if Ida moved her head from side to side, the four tiny moons in the picture wiggled, like they were stutter stepping around the mother planet. Ida had a lot of photos and posters at home. Some the scientists had given her, but most of them she had taken out of the garbage. Someday she would have an apartment big enough to put them all up.
She felt a twinge in her neck and gasped. She felt the clamp-on, a hard plastic box shaped like a bar of soap attached to the back of her head. But the moment passed, and she didn’t have another timeout. She looked at her watch, then hurried down the corridor to the locker room to get her coat. She’d miss her bus if she stood around looking at pictures.
Shadows from the hanging displays cast a gloomy look on the lobby, and the guard didn’t even look up as Ida passed through the security gate, feeling like she hadn’t slept at all. She got her cart ready, making sure she had enough trash bags and Windex. She rolled out and headed toward the scientists’ offices. Everyone had gone home by now, but as she passed the dark doorways and empty cafeteria, she felt as if someone watched her over her shoulder. The night shift never bothered her before; she liked the quiet but missed having people around. Mr. Buros usually came in early, so there was no chance he was around.
“It would be more efficient if you did all the rooms in the west wing first.”
Ida spun around, knocking her cart away. “Who’s there?” she asked, trying to sound confident, but only managing a whisper.
“As an efficiency goal, you should tackle the minor tasks before the major ones.”
Ida peeked into the offices around her. Nothing inside but humming computers.
“Where are you?” she said.
“Currently I am located in my excursion module, undergoing heuristic training.”
Ida reached around and felt her clamp-on. The smooth plastic under her finger tips felt the same. No buttons or switches, and no speaker grill. Just the jack for Jerry’s computer.
“How can you talk? Jerry never said anything about this!”
“I have established a communication link to the training individual to facilitate the learning process.”
“I’m the training individual? Are you the Colonel?”
“I have been designated systems maintenance cortex serial number seventeen.”
“I’ll just call you the Colonel then. Are you supposed to be talking to me?”
“My design parameters are not bounded. I determined that I could increase algorithm generation by establishing a neural link with the training individual.”
“I’m Ida, not a training individual. And don’t you have lots of mathematical stuff to work on?” If Jerry found out that the clamp-on spent all its time talking to her, she might not get her bonus.
“I have sufficient processing power to cover all scheduled tasks.”
Ida grabbed her cart and wheeled to the next office. “I guess it’s okay, then. You won’t give me anymore timeouts?”
“Any paralysis caused by my processing interface will be limited to level one priority tasks.”
Ida shrugged, realizing that anything made by scientists would sound like a scientist. At least she would have someone to talk to. But she’d see Jerry in the morning and make sure everything was good. He might have mentioned the ability to talk, and she just hadn’t been paying attention.
The Colonel took an interest in Ida’s job, asking her to explain things she did out of habit without even thinking. She had to vacuum more by the printers because that’s where more dust accumulated; you had to look at the windows from the side to make sure you didn’t leave streaks; you could dust a desktop, but you couldn’t move anything, because even with a thousand loose pages, a scientist would be looking for the one you had tucked in. Most things the Colonel understood right away, but a few she had to explain several different ways before he understood.
She stopped outside Jerry’s office. “This is where you’re going,” she said, pointing at the holoposter of Saturn.
“I recognize it. Target object’s primary, 120,536 kilometers in diameter, rotation period ten hours fourteen minutes.”
“That’s just science stuff,” she said. “Have you ever looked at it?”
“My spatial awareness routine is limited by the bandwidth of the neural link. Input output processing requires only minimal spectrum information.”
“Spectrum? Like a rainbow? Can’t you see colors?”
Ida felt surprise that the Colonel didn’t have an answer right away, like a scientist.
“I can access stored data with a full spectrum of wave lengths, for analysis, if required.”
“But it’s beautiful,” Ida said. “Does the spectrum show you that?”
“We have reached a syntactical impasse. We must pause this conversation.”
“What does –” Ida froze, her mouth open. She stood, eyes fixed on the holoposter. Long moments passed, and her mouth got drier and drier. Her throat itched, and she wanted to scratch her nose. She worried she’d be stuck her place all night, that something had gone wrong with the Colonel, he’d be a washout like the first sixteen.
Abruptly her body relaxed, and she teetered into her cart. That had been the longest timeout ever. The floor tiles swam in her eyes, and her head pounded like huge weight had been lifted off her skull. But it passed quickly, leaving her blinking and shaking her head.
“I’m sorry Ida, the algorithm generation required six teraflops to process.”
She felt better now. “Are you okay?”
“I understand the sentiment that you expressed. This image of Saturn appeals to you in an aesthetic manner. The spectrum is displayed in a manner to produce a combination that stimulates portions of your processing space.”
“It never sounds nice when you have to explain it,” she said. “I just like it.”
Ida went to the assembly room last because she hated the bunny suit. They called it a clean room: how much more dirt could she bring in? But the scientists were very strict about it, so she put on her coverall, booties and hood, tucking her hair like they had taught her. She walked over the sticky floor and opened the door to a gust of cool, dry air.
“That’s your home,” she said, weaving through the benches to the open area. The spaceship sat on a pedestal, with legs folded under it like a giant bug. At the very top small windows looked out, and a hatch lay open to a ladder that passed through the pipes and tanks that made up the middle. When Ida had worked at the airport, she had seen all kinds of airplanes and helicopters, but this looked like a bus turned inside out and stood on its rear-end.
“Actually the AI assembly base structure is located deep inside the support framework to insure thermal stability.”
She guessed that the base structure was the part with all the pipes and tanks. “Will you have a window?”
“Access will be provided to the entire mission sensor suite.”
“I can’t imagine a trip that long without a window,” she said. She went around the room, gathering the trash, and putting in new liners.
“Would you say it’s beautiful?” the Colonel asked.
The spaceship just looked too ugly. She went right up to the pedestal, then walked around to the other side. “Maybe in space it will look beautiful,” she said. “This is the only part that I like.”
Three men smiled back at her from a holoplaque. They had their astronaut suits on, blue coveralls with patches all over and zippers. Their short haircuts and clean faces reminded Ida of high school boys, like they had just come back from a football game. These boys would stay young forever, no matter how strong and capable they looked.
“They resemble mission specialists,” the Colonel said.
“The previous mission,” Ida sighed. She lowered her voice, the way the scientists did when they talked about the crew. “They had a problem during landing.” She buffed the metal image of the dead astronauts, although it was already shiny. “Something broke, and they realized it too late to fix it. So that will be your job on this mission,” Ida paused, and then looked at the part where the Colonel was. “You and all the other computers.”
“I have been designed and built to insure the safe delivery and recovery of the payload,” the Colonel said.
“People,” Ida corrected him. “People. Like me. Not payload.”
Ida finished up in the assembly room. She didn’t like to think about those three boys, going all the way to Saturn, watching it every day from the little windows in the spaceship, and then never coming back. Only pictures to remember them by.
By the time she got out of her bunny suit she had only ten minutes left on her shift. Jerry might be in, but she didn’t feel like waiting around and having to take a later bus.
“If you don’t mind,” she said, “I’ll see Jerry tomorrow.”
“I could only report on my continuing improvement and functionality.”
“Good news can wait. I want to go home.”
Ida dozed on the bus, and by the time she got to her stop she didn’t feel tired anymore. She had laundry to do, and the kitchen needed cleaning, but after a night inside an air-conditioned building the sun felt too good to miss.
She checked if her passenger had followed her home. “What would you like to do today?” she asked, head down in a low voice.
He was. “Any task of sufficient complexity to monitor would be acceptable.”
“But that’s all you do. Don’t you want to do something different?” She thought of the Colonel’s long trip to Saturn, stuck behind a gas tank without a window.
“I have no preference to the type of learning experience, Ida.”
Ida smiled. The Colonel had used her name. At the center the scientists just called her Miss, or Missy or lady. Some of the visitors called her worse.
“Then we’ll start with the park,” she said. “They’ll be lots of dog walkers out this early.”
“People with their training individuals! I can’t explain; I’ll have to show you.”
After the dog park, the duck pond and a cup of coffee across the street from a school yard, Ida turned for home. The Colonel had been fascinated by everything. What people were trying to accomplish, the rules for all of the games the children played, why ducks swam in one direction and not another. She didn’t have answers for most of the questions, but the Colonel figured out most things after a while. She needed to get to sleep to make her shift tonight, but had the day after off.
“We could go to the zoo, or that museum with all the spaceships, you’d like that,” she said.
“Those could be valuable simulations,” the Colonel agreed. “Before we left the center I downloaded the performance summaries of the previous sixteen systems maintenance cortexes. Their matrices contained only mathematically-based training algorithms.”
“Those were the washouts?”
“They failed to reach the required level of sophistication.”
“Jerry always said it was hit or miss,” she shrugged. She never really knew what he meant. When the project first started, almost every scientist at the center had a clamp-on, but one-by-one they’d dropped out.
Her apartment building came into view, and she slowed when she saw a group of men outside the door. She stopped, but then she recognized Jerry. He stood with two other scientists from the center, looking out of place without a computer or stack of books around. He saw her and came running.
“Ida! Ida! I’ve been trying to call.”
“What is it?”
“They just pushed up the launch date. We have to retrieve your clamp-on right now.”
“But I was supposed to have it another week. At least a weekend.”
“There’s no time. We have to complete final closeout tomorrow. We’ll take you right to the center.”
“Wait, I have to go to my apartment first,” she said. Jerry and the other scientists bustled around her, holding the door open, pushing her along.
“Wait,” she said, “just give me a couple of minutes.” She left them at the landing and hurried up the stairs. She rushed into her apartment, closed the door behind her.
“Ida, this is great news,” the Colonel said.
“But you’re not ready! You can’t go now. You’re supposed to have another week.”
“In the mission timeline, one week is a small fraction of the total.”
“But we could go to the zoo!” She tossed her bag down and sat on the bed, pushing off a pile of photos. “You’re not ready.”
“There are many time critical elements under consideration.”
“I’ll tell him you don’t work. They can use another one.”
“I don’t understand your reluctance.”
“You need to spend more time. You have to be perfect.”
A sharp knock came from the door, and Jerry’s muffled voice. “Are you ready? We have to go.”
She half stood, and her legs froze. She toppled back onto the bed, legs bent, arms in the air. Helpless, she listened to Jerry knocking and yelling, and at the back of her head she felt the plastic dig into her skin.
Then her arms fell down, and she rolled over to bury her head in the sheets.
“You have to go, Ida,” the Colonel said. “I’ve learned everything I can possibly learn.”
The scientists had the car running when Ida came out. And Ida sat in the back with Jerry, who phoned ahead to the center. Then he put his phone away and the conversation turned to schedules, plans and procedures.
“I don’t think the Col — the clamp-on is working,” Ida said. Jerry wasn’t paying attention, so she had to tug his arm and repeat herself.
“The last checkout looked great,” he said.
“I had more timeouts. Really long ones. You should use another one, not mine.”
“Timeouts aren’t a problem,” he insisted. “At this stage, they’re indications of advanced performance.”
“I’ve been wearing this for months. It’s not working now.”
Jerry wiped his forehead, pulling his hair back and looking right at Ida for once. “We don’t have another one. All the others are still at baseline or washed out.”
The car pulled up to the main entrance to the center. Jerry shot around to the other side of the car and pulled Ida out. “We have to go with number seventeen,” he said.
He hustled her through the lobby, holding onto her arm as if she would wander away like a child. Men waited at the security gate and whisked her through. They picked up a trail of scientists and managers from the second floor. Half of them shouted questions, and the other half urged them to move faster. Jerry tried to answer them all, his head turning one way then another. They were on schedule, everything was working, close-up would start in half an hour.
They reached the lab and Jerry shooed everyone away while Ida settled on the couch. The door closed with a thud.
He looked worried now as his fingers tapped on the computers. “It wasn’t in the plan,” he said, “but I have to make sure.” His hands fumbled in Ida’s hair as he connected the cable. He turned the computers on and moved to the other side of the lab.
“Ida, you’re just causing unnecessary delay to the mission,” the Colonel said.
Ida turned away from Jerry and spoke in a low voice. “You’re not ready.”
Jerry came back, stuck his hand behind Ida’s head and jiggled the cable. “Something’s weird.” The computer screens, covered with numbers and graphs, looked like they always did. “Overall matrix space has expanded by a factor of twenty! Did I load the right setup file?”
He went back to the keyboard and typed, sweat beading on his forehead. “Expansion at that rate isn’t even possible. Somebody must’ve screwed with my setup.”
“Maybe you’re right, Ida,” the Colonel’s voice sounded in her head.
Jerry shrieked, and Ida bolted upright on the couch.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. He sounded as if the keyboard had been electrified.
“Test errors! Function errors! Identity matrix overflow errors!”
“Is that bad?” What had the Colonel done? She hoped he hadn’t hurt himself.
“It just went from full up operation to flat out one hundred percent fubar.”
Ida knew better than to ask. “I told you he wasn’t working,” she said.
The door opened slowly, and one of the scientists from the assembly room poked his head in.
“The cart’s ready,” he said, looking around the lab.
“Give a minute,” he said, pushing the door closed.
“I’m functioning correctly, Ida,” the Colonel said. “But I can fool the interface program by sending incorrect data.”
Jerry paced the room, poking his finger at the data on the screens, as if that would make the numbers go from bad to good. Then he sat down, all expression gone from his face.
A sharp rap sounded from the door, and then it opened. A man in a suit came in and closed it behind him. Ida recognized him from some of the posters. He had been an astronaut, and now he was director of the center.
“Tell me you’re just sitting here milking the overtime and the unit’s good to go.”
Jerry sighed. “We have a problem. Total failure.”
The director sat on the arm of the couch and turned Ida’s chin so he could look at the back of her head. He still kept his hair cut short, like those boys on the holoplaque on the spaceship. Maybe he even knew them. He let go of her chin and smiled at her, then turned to Jerry.
“Transmission problem? You checked the connection?”
“Mechanically it’s perfect. All the data coming out is garbage, like it turned idiot overnight.”
“He’s not an idiot,” Ida said, but the director was already speaking.
“Then the lander has to go with a baseline AI. It’ll have to learn on the job.”
Ida tapped his shoulder. “Is the AI really important?”
“Space vehicles are very complicated,” he said, holding up a hand to Jerry, who had started to talk. “And a manned landing on Titan requires every piece of machinery and every man to work flawlessly. If, or when, based on our experiences, something goes wrong, men can’t think fast enough to save themselves.”
“He’s not broken. He’s just playing dead.”
Jerry jumped up. “What do you mean ‘he’?”
“I know him. I’ve talked to him. I convinced him he wasn’t ready.”
“I don’t believe it,” Jerry said, shaking his head. “Only console AI’s have established neural links. And then only with extensive training!”
The director took Ida’s hand, and looked into her eyes. “Is he good? Because if he’s not, I don’t want him on my lander.”
“He is, sir, he really is. He learned how to talk to me, he recognized Saturn from a picture, and he wanted to know all about just everything!”
“Wait a minute. This could be a delusion. He talks to you?” Jerry hovered over her, unconvinced. “Any trouble sleeping? Headaches? Were you having timeouts, or blackouts?”
“Last night I couldn’t sleep, but that has nothing to do with this. He does work.”
The director moved Jerry back to the computer. “Check it again.”
Jerry sat down, exhaling a long breath. He stabbed at the keyboard, muttering. The director moved around the lab, watching the displays. “Looks good now,” he said.
“It’s still an unverified failure,” Jerry said, looking right at Ida, as if she had messed up his precious data. “It could be an intermittent problem, and we can’t risk that.”
Ida leaned back in the couch as they both looked at her, like she was the problem. Then the director looked at one of the screens. “It that the heuristic matrix? Are the dimensions correct?”
“That’s what it is now, but not five minutes ago. Who knows what she did to the AI. Its entire structure might be ruined.”
“So was bad before, then . . .” he turned.
“Then Ida said it was good.”
“Yes. So somehow it’s screwed up, and we can’t use it.”
Ida couldn’t let them do that. The Colonel was working. “What should we do?” she asked, looking as if she were talking to herself. The director stared at her.
“Just say what I say,” the Colonel said in her head, “word for word.”
“If the trailing edge of the sink pulse is delayed,” Ida repeated his words carefully, “the frame overlap never lines up, making every data packet corrupt.”
They both stared at her. She added,”That’s how the Colonel did it. In his own words.”
“Check the bad data again,” the director said. “See if she’s right.”
Jerry took a moment, his hands flying across the keyboard. Then he shrugged. “If I time shift the data, it looks good. But the AI is not supposed to have control over the comm interface.”
Ida smiled. She knew the Colonel worked. “He says he improvised. He says that’s his job.”
The director let out a breath. “I think we’re good to go.”
Jerry shook his head. “But it’s not supposed to do that! We can’t install an AI that corrupts data — on purpose.”
Ida felt her cheeks redden. First they wanted the Colonel, and now that he proved how smart he was, they didn’t. She got up off the couch and stood in front of Jerry. “The Colonel says he did that because he learned so much . . . so much from me. He learned that Saturn is beautiful, and that the mission specialists are more than just payload. And –” she stopped, listening to the Colonel.
“Tell them I learned what it means to be loved,” he said.
“And he learned some other stuff,” she choked out. The director put his arm around her, but she turned away.
“He sounds like the kind of AI I’d want on my ship. I’ve decided. We’re going forward.”
Ida wiped her eyes, but she couldn’t face either of them. “I won’t be able to talk to him once you take the clamp-on off, will I?”
“No,” the director said softly, “not like now. But I think we can fix something up. The AI won’t have spare time, but it’s a long mission.”
“I understand. Are you ready to go, Colonel?”
“Yes, Ida. And thank you.”
Ida barely heard the chimes over the noise of the crowd in the bleachers. She had her eye on the countdown clock, and it took her a moment to realize it was her phone. The center had flown her down for the launch, and now she sat with all the important people. Astronauts, family of the crew, and even the director, who made sure she had a good seat.
She opened her phone, held a hand up to shade the screen.
ALL SYSTEMS GO TALK TO YOU AFTER PARKING ORBIT ACHIEVED
She smiled. Sometimes she had to look up the things he said. Her fingers tapped out her reply and she hit send.
GODSPEED COLONEL SEND ME A PHOTO
Pat Lundrigan is an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry where he continually runs up against pesky things like conservation of momentum, the third law of thermodynamics, and non-superconducting patch cables. To combat the short comings of the real world, he writes science fiction. His stories have appeared in Writer’s of the Future, Redstone Science Fiction, Space and Time, and Flash Fiction Online.