Making a choice, living with a paradox
|Tabanera brought down the ship’s life support systems one by one. He wouldn’t be needing them any more.
He swiveled his camera/memory unit out the viewport to watch Luisa’s body drift out into space. He’d turned on the exterior light before he ejected the body, as if by watching he could hold onto her a little longer. When it looked as if her corpse might get caught in the solar sail, he was forced to make a slight course adjustment. Then she was truly gone.
The two of them had been alone in the ship for the last nineteen years, since Eduardo died. Tabanera had spent the better part of those years asking questions.
“I do not understand the argument you had forty-two years, three months and twelve days ago,” he had asked near the end, when Luisa lay sick, her seat in reclining mode. He focused his camera/memory on her facial expressions.
“Refresh my memory, Tab, which argument was that?” She'd lifted one side of her mouth in an expression he had learned to interpret as amusement, though he found amusement to be quite a complex emotion. It could mean he had made her happy, but there was an equal probability he’d said something foolish.
“When Eduardo wanted to produce a child, and you did not.”
“Ah, that argument.” Luisa closed her eyes, and remained silent long enough that the probability seemed high that she had initiated sleep. Just when he decided to put the question aside, her lids snapped open. “The Comisión left the choice up to us, but I wish they’d prohibited it from the outset. What kind of life would it be for a child, out here away from everyone and everything?”
“You chose such a life.”
“Exactly -- I chose it. If we’d had a child, that child would have no such choice. He or she could never live long enough to make it to Alpha Centauri. A whole life spent in space, much of it with no one but a computer for company." A pause. "No offense.”
“I do not understand offense.”
“Of course you don’t, dear. I’m a decent programmer, but I doubt I could ever teach you anything so human as that.”
Tabanera had long ago resigned himself to the idea that he would never achieve complete success in his analysis of human behavior. Luisa and Eduardo Ondetti had come on this mission to work with Tabanera, to make him as independent as he could be. A hundred and fifty years from now, when he explored the Alpha Centauri system, he would have decisions to make. And he would be making them as a representative of mankind. His processors were designed to operate with the fullest possible resourcefulness, something he must learn from his human tutors. The Ondettis had been excellent teachers; still, many things about them defied his understanding: their amusements, their pain, their arguments, their inconsistencies.
For one thing, he had a hard time with the concept of “forgetting.”
Once not long ago Luisa had mentioned Beta Sol, the cat which had accompanied them on the first ten years of the mission. She said she missed it. She'd liked the way Beta Sol used to knead her lap with his paws, said the cat was so polite it never dug its claws into her. Tabanera had to remind her that the cat had been declawed before the mission, thus no purposeful thought could be ascribed to the fact that the animal did not scratch her.
Luisa admitted this was correct, that she had simply forgotten. But then she’d said something truly remarkable: “Still, I think I’ll keep on remembering it my way.”
Tabanera would have to process this on his own later, since the idea of intentionally retaining a factual mistake was foreign to him. “Another question. Why was the cat named Beta Sol? The name would seem more appropriate for a star. Common cat names include, for example, Fluffy, Tiger, Shadow, Muffin, Max, and Felix.”
“Beta Sol means second sun. We called him that because he thought the world revolved around him.”
This too was hard to understand, but he perceived it to be a joke. Luisa had taught him to recognize jokes.
He could not produce them himself, so there would be no new jokes now that Luisa was gone. Nor did Tabanera have the capacity for forgetfulness, inconsistency, or argumentation. He was not as sure about pain.
Luisa had left him the option of shutting himself down for the remainder of the distance to Alpha Centauri. She said giving him this choice was her last lesson. Then she informed him that she would soon die.
This had been a surprise to him. “I have not detected any change in your vital signs.”
“A person just knows, Tab.” She peered into his camera, just as she used to peer into Eduardo’s face when she tried to understand his emotions. “Oh, don’t you worry about it. I’ve had a good, long life. And even if I had another lifetime, it wouldn’t be long enough to get me to the Centauri system. I’m a little jealous of you, going off to explore Alpha Centauri Bb. Our first exoplanet! But human flesh wouldn’t be good for much there but cooking. I wonder what that camera of yours will see. You’re going to have so much to show mankind.”
“But I cannot show these things to you, Luisa.”
Luisa’s smile was proud. “It may be a mean thing to say, but I hope you miss me when I’m gone, or at least understand what “missing” means. It’ll show I’ve done my job well--even better than I could have hoped.”
“You said ‘if I had another lifetime.’ Even though it is technically impossible, do you want another lifetime?”
Luisa smile was losing strength. “And another and another? Not really. Oh, maybe I could play chess with you and answer your questions for a few more years, but then what? My husband is gone, my cat is gone, I have no children, and I’ll never see Earth again. Where you’re going there’s no place for me. And anyway, who wants to live forever?” She turned onto her side, and shut her eyes as if she were about to sleep. But before she gave herself up to sleep, she said, “I’ve done a good job with you, Tab, even if I say so myself. Your mission is to explore another star’s planet. Ours was to make you independent enough to do a good job of it. I think you’re ready. This is a good time for me to make my exit.”
Another difficult concept for Tabanera was the way humans divided things into “good” and “bad.” This seemed simple on the surface, as intuitive as zeros and ones. The trouble was that very little in the real world fit into only one category. Any given thing could shift from “good” to “bad” depending on a large number of variables. Luisa said this time would be “good” as a time for dying, but he did not think death itself could be defined as “good.” Instead of creating a simple division, these concepts of “good” and “bad” had a way of leading to paradox.
Luisa wondered who would want to live forever. Would he? Like the hypothetical child Luisa chose not to bear, Tabanera had no choice. Not being alive, he could never die. Depending on which variables one selected, this mission was something over which he had no choice, and it was also his destiny. Bad and good.
Luisa was right that her death made it both possible and important for him to make choices. For one thing, she had allowed him to choose whether to shut himself down. To make a choice, one must first have a desire, and he found in himself the desire to shut down. What would he do without Luisa? Nothing new would happen now until he came much closer to Proxima Centauri. Everything she’d ever said and done would continue to exist in his memory, but she would never be there to say and do new and surprising things.
But maybe those memories had value of their own. So many of her words had been puzzling; she had done nothing less than to challenge Tabanera to understand the workings of the human mind. If he could process his older memories in light of things he had learned more recently, he might be able to reach new understandings. Would doing so make him more independent? Was this “thinking”? Perhaps so, and this would make Luisa proud.
Another paradox: Luisa was dead, and yet he still had the desire to make her proud. He had this desire even though it made no sense. And so he would use the power of choice she had given him to do what she would have chosen herself.
Then, when he got to the Alpha Centauri system, he would see what no one else could.