(Written by Ace Dreamer; posted 18 July 2012)
Mid October 2009, Dublin.
They were threatening him with massive damages. His incompetence was risking basic infrastructure. The repair bill could be immense.
The message had come in last thing in the day. He stayed late, sending requests for more details, confirmation. Nothing. That night, he hadn't slept much. He'd read all the Asimov he'd been loaned. 'The Three Laws' wouldn't work, of course, but at least they were a start.
His secretary, Miss Lidzt, was in before him. She was an ex-glamour addict, returned from O'Neill Station. She'd worked there in a similar role, but the homesickness got too bad, so she broke her contact and came back to Dublin. A good chunk of her pay went to pay-off the loan she'd needed so as to leave before her contract renewal date. Arthur considered employing her a bit of a gesture of defiance.
The office was new, too. The repair side of the business had expanded, and he was called in to fix things it was claimed were irreparable. And, that wasn't just restricted to electronics. Several times he'd had to turn-down requests, saying that was outside his field. He seemed to have got a reputation for safe use of handwavium. How?
Arthur had developed a a suite of waved tools. Some analytic, some manipulative, some a mixture. All were 'clean', and didn't contaminate with handwavium. He guessed he was a 'Wave Consultant'.
He'd asked his aunt, seeing as she always seemed to know things, or knew someone who did. "You didn't see the article, dear? 'Waving The Future'? Came out a few months ago. I'll see if I can find my clipping." And, she had. It was very flattering, if a bit inaccurate.
He wasn't really a 'medical researcher', he hadn't said 'careful use of handwavium can fix any problem', or 'used carefully handwavium is no more dangerous than gas'. Wait a minute. You could read 'gas' as either methane or gasoline. This smelled a bit too much of the 'Wright Stuff'.
He'd never contacted Kevin Wright. He'd been too busy. Now he had another reason. "OK. Calm down, Arthur. Analyse the situation. Who sent the message?" That's what he liked about Kevin. Straight to the point.
He hadn't checked that. 'Admin & Legal Departments' it said. Wouldn't that be Jane, and Sarah? Maybe they'd found him out!
"Now, Arthur." The voice was friendly but firm. He'd fully recovered, that way, at least, from his stroke. Nurse Blake sent him regular updates. "Ask yourself, what do they want? How do they expect you to react?"
Kevin waited while he thought. Yes, he'd rather panicked. Assumed it was all his fault. They'd be able to tell that by the replies he sent. The questions he asked. Why hadn't they replied? He asked Kevin that.
"Well, maybe they wanted to shake you up? Get you in the right frame of mind for something? You've become independent. You don't jump when they say 'frog'. Think like a detective, but better than the ones in all those cheap books you used to read."
OK. He had a road map. Go up there. Refuse to sign anything. Until he knew exactly what happened. Solve the case. If he never worked for O'Neill again, he could live with that. But, he owed them, if he could fix what was wrong.
"Thanks, Kevin. I'll try and prove I'm still the 'Wright Stuff'."
"Now, before I go, about this article..."
In The Bluff
Mid October 2009, O'Neill Station at L5.
He felt a bit naked. Standing there near the air lock. Only second time 'up'. And this time no adrenaline armour. They were making him wait.
Eventually, a woman in a red-marked uniform came in. Attractive, of course. Looked like they'd adopted that design the Hollywood Machine had put on the AI remotes. A practical but stylish grey, with colour markings that would be visible from any angle. Puckish, he wondered about the underwear. Was that uniform, too? He never did find out what The Machine had the AIs wearing.
She indicated he should follow. No introduction. No handshake. Had she been carefully ordered what to do? He'd noticed she'd checked a pad, presumably to, at least, see if he matched his photo. It wasn't clear why she bothered, security cameras, at least linked to the AIs, covered this entire area. But, he guessed it was good procedure.
She left him in a security office, not far down the corridor. A long mirror on the wall, nice to see someone respected tradition, and multiple security cameras. He politely nodded to the mirror, and took a seat. As expected someone burst in, a woman in a blue-marked uniform, sat, then spent time reading papers before looking at him.
It was a waiting game. He'd decided on this, early on. They made him wait over night, so there wasn't anything immediately time-critical. He made them wait until noon, as he slaved over the Body Builder and Mather's frustrating AI plans. Making sure there was nothing he'd over-looked.
His transport had been efficient. Dublin airport, into a waved Cessna, conventional flight to Shannon, out over the Atlantic and a climb to space avoiding any airways. Then a short hop to L5. He must somehow find time to get a pilots license.
As predicted, they wanted him to sign a whole new set of paper work. When he asked about consulting a lawyer she said he'd never used one before. On the surface it was a non-disclosure agreement, and a restatement of his existing contractual arrangements, adding some provisions about repair and support - it would supposedly 'clarify the legal position', and, 'protect both him and them'.
He brought out his own copy of the previous NDA he'd signed, and his contract. The woman across from him got a little flustered. Comparing the two he remarked that the NDA was unchanged, and that there were a considerable number of sub-clauses in the new contract. The unintroduced woman appeared to be fighting hard to look calm and in control.
"I think we need to discuss this with your manager." Hurriedly, the woman gathered her papers, and left. As expected, Jane stepped in. Arthur tried for a Zen state, and when he looked at her imagined seeing a spot an inch behind her forehead. He'd read about it in a Sunday paper, while idly looking for something worth reading, and, it seemed to work.
Jane didn't look shaken, but he'd expected as much. She was made of much stronger stuff. He explained that the NDA covered the privacy and confidentiality issues, and he wasn't prepared to sign any new contracts without full disclosure of the situation. He suspected Jane was quietly satisfied.
It was Del, the first AI in White Team. Or, to be more precise, her humanoid remote. The reports were contradictory, but there'd been an airlock problem, after Mr O'Niell's transport had arrived. Possibly due to it being clipped by a poorly piloted visitor, the previous day. She'd fought to hold the main airlock closed, so they could get O'Neill into the station, even though she was already injured, by flying debris.
She's succeeded, but collapsed with asphyxia, then bled-out. There were hints that O'Niell had implied his health was more important than some robot. He'd been treated by Kelly, Nurse Genny had tried to help Del, but failed. By the time Kelly got to her there was nothing she could do.
The AI core that was Del's mind went into shock. Defensively the other two White Team AIs, Epsi and Eta, had voted her off-line. Then they had disagreed about what to do next. That locked them off-line, and put Zeta, the Black Team AI, in control of their responsibilities. "Nice to know all that logic worked", thought Arthur.
Jane was a little shocked to be told there hadn't been an AI logic cascade failure, it was a basic feature of the design. She got Kelly in, and Arthur showed them on their copy of the AI operations manual, a detail Kelly admitted she'd overlooked.
Next, Arthur asked to see the actual White Team AI cores. In person, this time, rather than by studying the system displays. Then he followed up with the rest of the cores; the Black Team AI core was particularly difficult to get to. Someone had added locked retaining straps, to hold the cores in place.
Kelly wasn't sure, but she thought it was an external technical inspection team, that went around after everything was installed. She hadn't looked into it herself because none of the AIs commented. Arthur pointed out that it explicitly broke the AI core installation specification.
Kelly got out the cutting tools.
After things were put to rights Arthur spoke to Epsi and Eta's remotes. Epsi had been in a bio dome, working on her little garden patch, Eta in a kitchen, making pecan and chocolate chip cookies. Neither were very happy. He explained what he thought had happened, and they agreed that matched their experiences. They said they were still in contact with Del, but she seemed in a semi-conscious state.
"I'll need use of your workshop" remarked Arthur to Kelly, and she led him there, with what looked like a numb expression. Sweeping the contents of a workbench into a bin, she indicated it to him. Two of White Team wheeled his luggage in, as he'd requested.
The Hollywood Machine responded in a positive but cautious way to Arthur. Kelly explained she'd put Del's damaged remote through, but nothing happened. Arthur shook his head, "It's not magic you know", though that was a bit of a cheap shot. The new Del remote was processed in five minutes, after Arthur checked everything was OK with a test remote.
Back in Kelly's workshop the extracted Del AI core was open on the bench, and quickly had its new half-pair phone installed, the other half-pair having been processed into the new remote. A quick AI core cycle, and Del leapt to her feet, and threw herself sobbing into the arms of Epsi and Eta.
Kelly was a bit bemused, and commented that she didn't think they worked like that. Arthur gave her a sour look. After a while they all calmed down, and thanked Arthur, who was a little embarrassed by the hugs. Arthur pointed out Del was only dressed in a robe, seeing as he hadn't been able to match the original sports wear, and she'd need her spare clothes. Then was shocked to find she didn't have any.
Jane was called in, and agreed there needed to be a re-think on the way the AIs were managed. Arthur also asked her to witness him starting up another AI, using the test remote that he'd processed, and an AI core from his luggage.
"This is Consultant Engineer Janet. She is an expert on the maintenance of the AIs, and knows as much as I do about the Hollywood Machine. I think you need to get on with drawing-up a contract with her. She nominally works for me, and she will not be resident on this station."
Jane and Kelly looked at each other. He could almost feel them working the recent events into their story. He held his breath, unsure what would happen, maybe even violence. Kelly looked thoughtful. Jane spoke.
"I suppose this means you wont be signing the revised contract terms with us."
"Yes, and I want all the AIs to read this."
He handed Jane a paperback copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".
Mid October 2009, Dublin.
He woke thirteen hours later. Ideas buzzing in his head. He needed to organise an office for Janet, and somewhere secure, but radio transparent, to keep her AI core. The idea of an AI assistant was something he'd been playing with for weeks. So, it wasn't that much of a push doing it in a hurry. But, there went all his recordings and notes on his work for O'Neill. Into her handwavium. And, he hadn't had time to take copies of all of them.
Still, he'd have Janet, and he could pick her brains. Maybe get her to construct a master wiki of anything they knew of, to do with O'Niell? Security was an issue, but they should be able to manage it. This assumed, of course, that he'd got her AI right. Nurse Blake worried him, sometimes, being a bit too focused. Dave Mathers still had a few things to teach him.
Had he been too cruel to Kelly? She'd made quite a few mistakes. He thought she was smarter than that, but, maybe she was just trying to do too much? If he understood her, she was trying to be Chief Engineer for a place that used engineering she didn't have a feel for, understand, beyond the mechanical side, and electrical stuff pre-thermionic valve. Yes, she was also a brilliant conventional scientist, but that didn't translate into engineering expertise.
She was supposed to substitute for all the Stellvia super-scientists and engineers. He thought he'd failed, there. If he'd been smart he'd have made her a conventional engineer, but no, he had to be clever and make her a steam-punk. From what he'd been told, that might make her a 'Spark' - some day he'd have to read-up on what that meant.
Overnight, Janet had cleaned-up his workshop. Done the reorganisation that he'd talked about doing for months. What's more, everything was just where he expected it to be. How had she done that? Interesting that she couldn't explain. "It just 'felt right'."
With an effort of will, he restrained himself from digging-in, and they went out clothes and household shopping. She could have the second bedroom above the office, it was rarely used by visitors. If needed, he could clear enough of the junk out of the third bedroom for emergencies. He encouraged her to buy a wide range of foodstuffs, so she could experiment and figure-out what she liked.
He kept quiet while she bought stuff. Was she reading his mind? All the colours and patterns were ones he liked. Could The Machine have got at her? Where would it get his preferences? He'd never so much as sat under one of the helmets. Even sleep walking - he'd checked the security logs.
It was getting a bit creepy, so he suggested they go back to the office and discuss what needed doing next. A nasty thought. Hadn't some of his blood got into her handwavium? He'd cleaned and sealed the cut as quickly as he'd spotted it, and he tested clean from handwavium. Your memory wasn't in your blood, but, he'd enough evidence handwavium was tricky stuff. So, clone sister?
Her legal existence was a problem. Cash would only get you so far. She'd come back down as part of his luggage, which fortunately he'd thought of in advance. But, that was no way to travel. Fake documentation was really going to mess you up, sooner or later. He wondered what Kevin Wright had done for Nurse Blake?
While they made notes and drew diagrams, a message came in. Direct from O'Neill Station. Looked like his next project was working-out how to solve their engineering management problems.
Mid - Late October 2009, Dublin.
He'd mugged the HR man who'd stole his job. Well. More questioned him closely. 'Bob' by name. Quite a nice chap. And, Arthur'd never really wanted to run a recruitment agency.
There was a whole industry to do with recruitment and evaluation that Arthur had only touched-on peripherally. Most of it with little scientific basis, Bob told him cheerfully. Only way of finding out, for sure, if someone could or couldn't do a job was to actually have them try and do it. And, that wasn't certain, as, for example, their dog might have died that week.
So, no real help there.
Arthur couldn't even figure-out how to think about the problem, properly. He couldn't ask Ms Jones what the hidden brief was - he didn't think there was one.
O'Neill Station was effectively a complete world. You could rely on a planet to keep on doing much the same thing, with the addition of fun like storms, or the odd earthquake. Someone had to do all that on a space habitat, actively, and if they forgot or made a mistake, everyone could die.
On the station they were currently doing it piecemeal. They had people assigned to various tasks, areas of responsibility, but no one, except maybe Black Team, looked for the gaps. And, there was just Kelly looking at the overall picture. Did she even have time to plan for contingencies? Was anyone running disaster drills?
Arthur'd tried to patch that. Provide AIs to run the infrastructure, so there was someone watching out, 24/7. But, that wasn't planning, that was disaster management. You needed to see the problems coming, not just react to them.
It was an engineering problem that included human elements. Human expectations. Human instincts and reflexes that suited a planet with an atmosphere, under 1G. It was a bit like a combination of a sea-going vessel and a sky scraper. You needed to think everything through. Opening a door could kill. And, you needed to bring all the resources to you.
Handwavium made space a more friendly place to live. It seemed particularly forgiving when it came to life support systems. But, that only took you so far.
Hmm. Kevin Wright owed him one after that article. The least he could have done was consult him before submitting it. How about...
"Charlie?", said Kelly, when the older man introduced himself. "Sorry. It's 'Kevin'. 'Kevin Wright'." He smiled. "'Charlie' is my older brother. Lives in Canada. Not seen him for years."
"So. I understand I'm to call you 'Kelly'. All very mysterious. And, you need advice on engineering. I'm not an engineer, but I've got a lot of them started in business. What sort of engineering are you interested in?"
Kelly looked at 'Kevin'. He sounded a bit like Charlie, but the accent wasn't quite right. And Charlie didn't have that very faint slur, she could just catch on a few words. Still, she needed to be careful what she said to him.
"I'm very interested in going into space. Environmental engineering. Also, mechanical engineering, electronics, cybernetics, systems theory, the lot." She could name them, but that was as far as it got. She understood all the theory. But, once she started on the practical side, Steam Punk crowded it all out. How could she get help without explaining that?
"A major syllabus. Do you have a sponsor? Or, do you plan to go it alone?"
"I have a... focus problem. I can start to study, then my mind goes off in other directions. I'm OK with the theory, it's the practical side, the nuts and bolts." She finished in a rush "I'm just not explaining this well".
The old man looked at her. She'd seen his nurse. Gave her a nasty look, when he couldn't see. Something off about her. Dangerous. That's it! She reminded her of the station AI remotes. That's where she'd seen her before. She was the AI remote that 'Arthur' made when he tricked his way on-board. Why was an AI looking after this old man? Was he someone important to the case?
"So. It's a concentration problem. Have you tried relaxation techniques? Self-hypnosis even?"
Now she thought of it, that sounded like something she knew as part of her martial arts. Relaxed concentration. Finding a balance point that allowed instant action without thought getting in the way. Attacking the problem with the correct tools.
She looked at the old man. He was sitting back, looking smug. As if he'd done something. All they'd done was talk. She hoped they weren't paying him too much. All he did was sit there and project confidence.
Late October - Mid November 2009, Dublin.
Kelly had gone 'back up'. With a large parcel of what looked like books. Was she OK? Hard to tell. Kevin Wright refused to talk. 'Confidential'.
She'd looked a mix of angry and hurt, when she arrived. Now she looked thoughtful. She gave Janet a considering look. "I think we might be working a lot together, in future", was her leaving remark. But, she made it to Janet, not him.
"What was all that about?" asked Janet. "Beyond the obvious, you acting as their Consultant, I don't know" replied Arthur. "If I was a religious man, I'd say it looked like she'd had some sort of revelation" he continued, "But, what?".
The next few weeks were busy. On top of all his normal work he was talking to civil right activists, some of whom crossed over with science fiction fans. Since the AI issue arose there'd been a lot of buzz about which legislature was going to 'bite the bullet' first.
Australia's stance of allowing AIs to incorporate themselves as companies, which they then more or less self-owned, was regarded as clever, but avoiding the real issue. Allowing AIs 'company passports' was thought particularly suspect. Current and ex-Commonwealth countries, including the UK, were accepting them on a 'wait and see' basis. Some counties had banned them outright, some were waiting to see if AIs tried to use them at their borders.
The consensus was this looked to be something that could make or break legal careers, not to mention involve a great deal of money. What more worried many people were the 'black projects' suspected to be very popular with a lot of the world's military. For half a million dollars you could easily become a 'space power' - chicken feed. And, if there weren't AIs enslaved in those projects the civil rights people would be very surprised.
Arthur was starting to get threatening letters, from people saying he was taking 'jobs from humans'. He'd had to hire a mail checking service, just in case. People were buying robots from "Wright Stuff Mechatronics" as fast as he, or Janet, could make them. And, they'd had to start vetting orders very carefully, to make sure they were from legitimate companies. He'd had to hire-out to do that, too.
There seemed to be about a 50:50 split of male and female models required. Some interest in customising appearance, something he'd designed-in so not all the O'Neill Station AI remotes would look the same. The initial orders from universities and research organisations had mostly shifted to companies.
He suspected some companies as being re-sellers, but, there were limits as to what he could do. Some robots had to be ending up in the 'sex toy' market, but at least he could claim he wasn't selling direct. Janet remarked that the next article might be 'King of Sexy Waving', and he shuddered.
Arthur was getting regular messages from Jane, now. Mostly it was about the new Engineering department that Kelly was heading, mention of them hiring a doctor, but there was some personal stuff, too. Someone called 'Lee Kay' (leaky?) was Kelly's engineering deputy, and apparently she was popular with a lot of the crew. Some personal stuff leaked into the messages, to. He thought Jane was a bit lonely.
He was now officially a millionaire, something he'd laughed about when he first set-up in business. Why wasn't someone undercutting him? He kept an eye out, but apart from some rather shoddy Greek attempts (the 'Pygmalion' and the 'False Maria' ranges), nothing seemed to be close. There was stuff out there, but tests showed it all had handwavium residue. Maybe his 'Body Builder' was making all the difference?
Kelly obviously thought she owed him some sort of favour. She'd sent a workshop assistant, in the form of a robot crab, two-foot across, with legs that could telescope to let it stand more than six-feet high, and reach-out to grab stuff at twice that distance.
Janet and he'd checked it out, but they couldn't figure out how it worked, even after they'd unbolted its top shell and used all the analytical tools they could bring to bear. It seemed to be steam-powered, and just needed the occasional 'meal' of a scoop of coke, and its water topping-off.
It had a manual. An immense brass-bound thing, with illuminated pages. The first thing they'd done was scan and OCR the lot, but sometimes new notes appeared in it, if the crab did something strange. Janet thought it was some sort of joke, on Kelly's behalf.
Then there were two messages from Sarah. The first talked about 'collaborative projects', and reading between the lines it was about his access to the Hollywood Machine. He showed it to his lawyer who said it was a brilliantly simple legal document, with no traps or loopholes that he could detect.
The second was... It was in two parts. The first part was an offer to collaborate with him, using her own personal time, on rights for AIs. The second part was a quite clear threat, that if he upset her sisters like that again (Jane or Kelly) they'd be finding bits of his body for the next fifty years. Interestingly, both parts self-destructed, and, as far as he could tell, left no sign that they had existed, at all.
So, he had 'Angels' in his life? How bad could that be?