by J.L. O'Dell
A short story about an AI who wants more.
|THE USS FLAGSTAFF was on her first mission into the upper atmosphere of the Earth, our home planet. Flagstaff’s primary mission was the defense of the United States of America and to provide for the defense of Earth should that day ever arrive. She was the first in a fleet of what would be a total of six ships commissioned during the last administration, as part of the new Space Force. And I was given the honor of being her first Captain. My name is Mary Ellen Smith, and this is my story.
My day began early as I shuttled up to my ship from the Headquarters building in Whitmore Airforce Base. All my belongings were already in my quarters, so I traveled with just my overnight bag and a leather-bound copy of “Frankenstein” that my grandfather gave me for my tenth birthday. I must have read it dozens of times over the last twenty years.
The pilot greeted me and several other members of my crew before we lifted off for the Flagstaff. It was a short hop. Perhaps half an hour for the total flight to the ship from Earth. Out of my port window I watched Earth shrink to half her size as we climb into outer space.
My first duty aboard ship was to read the opening ceremony and take command of her officially and for the record. There were several delegates onboard representing government and several high-ranking Air Force officers. The current president was not present as his security people didn’t think it was prudent for him to leave Earth, but the vice-president was there to offer his congratulations and, of course, to say a few words. The press remained on Earth, thank God. The entire event was televised and there was a Q and A afterwards. As always, it would take over two hours to shuttle people back to Earth before I could begin moving my ship into its planned flight pattern. Once under way the computer and sensors would begin to watch for any threat directed towards the USA from any place on Earth.
It was a hell of a ship and I was very proud to be chosen as her first Captain. She was long and sleek with a crew of 85 men and women, the best technology available and IT. I am referring to the Intelligent Technology that scientists worked for decades on and finished in time to put IT on my ship. IT had a name, Franklin, and IT was a projection that could manifest itself in any part of the ship if called upon or in an emergency. And Franklin was assigned as my advisor so he (IT) was always on the bridge and anywhere on ship he chose to be.
At first, I didn’t mind his presence. He appeared as a tall and attractive male. After all, the whole purpose of ITs being on board was to advise me, assist the crew and keep a watchful eye on all sensor readings as he was tied into the ship’s computer mainframe. He could also be entertaining as some of my crew played chess against him in vain. But, if nothing else, the crew passed some time and learned from the experience.
Over the days and weeks, I came to accept IT or “Frank” as most of the crew called him by now. But something was off, and I couldn’t explain what it was to myself. Why was the feeling of dread always with me? Awake, sleeping, showering, eating. Nothing changed, and I couldn’t shake it.
One morning on the bridge I decided to change course by a few degrees to capture a different angle of the moon. I didn’t have a reason other than taking pictures from a slightly altered flight path.
IT appeared almost immediately. “Captain, are you alright? I noticed a course change.”
I replied, “I’m fine. I would just like to see the moon from a different angle. Does that bother you?”
“No Captain. I was not aware of a new flight path. Shall I continue on this course or return us to our original heading?” IT was having difficulties with the change.
“No, IT. When I’m ready, I’ll order the new heading.” This was my ship. I went back to monitoring the moon. IT, “Frank”, stood there watching me curiously. His expression, I saw from the corner of my eye, was like a parent watching a child play. After a few seconds he disappeared. Good, I thought, I have the bridge to myself ---and the helmsmen, communications officer and my number 2. You were never alone on the bridge.
The days went by without any large problems. Our maiden voyage was going well, and those little hiccups that occurred, were identified and resolved quickly. The ship was a fine piece of machinery and technology. And more were coming. Perhaps better ships as we were the first to figure out the problems, so the brain trusts on earth could improve on our prototype.
I was alone in my cabin when Franklin arrived. His image appeared out of nowhere and I was startled. My first reaction was to throw my book at him but to what end? He lacked substance and wouldn’t feel anything.
“What do you want?” I demanded standing from my chair.
“I am sorry, Captain. Did I frighten you?” He stood there his appearance more human than before. He had changed his clothing style and his skin appeared darker, tanner perhaps.
“You look different. And why are you here?” I moved over to the ships window where there was a small couch to sit on. “Is there a problem?”
“No, Captain. I thought I would visit. And I have altered my appearance slightly. Do you like it?” He asked as he moved closer.
“Yes,” I replied. “But it seems odd that a computer projection would be so mindful of its appearance.” I wondered often about this advisor I inherited as Captain of this ship. Not his loyalty or his ability, but his interest in humanity. And perhaps a little curious about his recent development of awareness or was this ego? And how?
“You move about my ship with ease. You monitor ships functions along with my engineers, who engage my crew and play chess I hear, and you appear on the bridge when I summon you or, and this is annoying, when I decide to change any little heading of our flight path. And why is that?” I thought after a full month it was time to confront this creature who knew everything that was happening on my ship.
“I am sorry, but I meant no harm. If the ship changes course for any reason, I must find out why. It is my program. If there is danger, I must be ready to respond to your transmitter.” For a brief second, I thought he looked hurt. My transmitter was built into my wrist watch. If for whatever reason I felt it was necessary to relinquish command of the ship, I would only need to push a small button on its side. Once done, IT would take command. The idea was if I were suddenly ill or otherwise incapacitated IT would take command.
“What are you exactly? Just a projection?” My interest peaked.
“No, Captain. I see you like the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. An interesting read. I am capable of more than being a projection. In a sense I am a robot capable of moving around this ship in a hardened body.”
“A body? I don’t understand.” Was there a piece of information I didn’t have about my advisor? A body or shell for IT to move in.
“In a true emergency I can assume a human shape and move about the ship as one of the crew. I have been working on this experiment since we assumed our mission. I grow tired of just being a beam of light emitted by that transmitter over there.”
“Does HQ know of this project, or whatever? And how? On my ship where is this happening?” I was on my feet and fully annoyed by the idea that IT was doing anything without my knowledge and dammit, consent.
“Allow me to show you.” And with that IT was gone. The transmitter dead. Within a minute, maybe two, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and there was IT. Only now he was in a body made of I don’t know what, or how to describe it. His face was the same and he was smiling. But he was surely a robot or some type of synthetic creature. Perhaps mechanical.
“Do you like it, Captain?”
I moved back towards the couch as he entered. “How? From what? What are the components of this shell?”
“Oh, much more than a shell. And made of the parts that were not needed by other ship’s systems.”
Lights began to flash and the beep, beep, beep of the bridge alert was sounding. IT and I were both out my quarters door and heading for the bridge three floors up. The elevator door opened to the bridge just as I saw a flash in front of the view screen.
“Number 2, what the hell is going on?”
“I can explain, Captain.” The voice was Franklin’s and he sounded very calm. “I am running a battle drill to illustrate how essential I am, and to test my new form. I am not just a collection of spare parts and synthetic skin. I am real and a thinking person. But I will allow you and the crew to handle this situation until you request my assistance."
“Helm, full speed at 260 degrees. Commo officer, battle stations. Number 2, situation report. What are we up against?”
“I know less than you, Captain. Frank has a body? Anyway, we have 6 fighters approaching us for a second run on our shields. Orders.”
“Arm forward missiles and prepare for a simulated launch.” I ordered.
I turned to watch IT and see what he was about. “Very good, Captain. Now activate your watch and allow me to command. We need to see if the crew will follow my orders while I am in this form.”
I looked towards my number 2. We exchanged smiles. I activated my watch and removed myself from command.
I moved towards the robot/synthetic creature in front of me. “So, you’re my Frankenstein.”
He smiled knowing the reference. “Yes, I am. And you are my Mary.”