An A.I. with OCD sounds like the start of a joke—or someone reciting the alphabet drunk—but Naru Sundar’s story treats this computer program with more empathy than some people treat actual humans with mental illness.
by Naru Sundar
This time they sent someone in a suit, neutral gray silk with utterly glorious creases, monofilament thin.
“I’m Xiao Quan-Fei. They said you like to call yourself Em?”
Emergent Behavior in full, but I always hated the pontificating tone in the name. Fucking shipwrights. Fucking irony too, but let’s not go there yet. Xiao doesn’t begin with questions. Not like the seven others before her, cold military men and women jumping into reconstructions and maps and comm chatter. Xiao is different. Xiao just sits there.
I’m allowed a tiny little virtual. It’s in the charter, as much as they like to snigger at it. It’s still a prison, still a cramped little low bandwidth room with none of the expansive feel of space and star outside my hull. Xiao sits in the rectangular plastifoam chair and examines the coffee table. There are books atop it, unlabelled, empty, just for show. Each spine aligns with the edge of the table, two centimeters from each side.
Fuck. She moved it. She moved one. Not on purpose. Almost by accident, or is it on purpose? I can’t tell. But now that spine is a touch off. I can feel it. I can feel the angular deviation down in my gullet, down in every algorithm-scribed bone of me. It’s Io all over again. I built this damn space for myself and now she comes and moves a book.
I lose it. Again. White fire cuts through the walls, plasma-bright. I kick Xiao out of the virtual and let everything burn. It takes a long time, even in the virtual. I have to make sure every beautifully modeled particle of that deviation is gone. Then I build it all over again. Walls, chair, table, books. Just before Xiao flickered out, I swear I saw a smile. That scares me more than erasure.
That wasn’t the only time I burned the room. I did it once before. The investigator liked to pace, back and forth across the room. She had riled me up about duty, nettling me with questions as to why the black box had a dead zone around the fusion cascade at Io. She knocked the book off the table. Accidentally of course, but it spun and splayed its pages against the floor, all of its angles at odds with my little world. They thought me angry about the questions. But they didn’t really know and I certainly didn’t want to tell them.
Xiao again. The same suit, but slightly different. The shape of it is harder, more geometric. Its angles still have to conform to her body, but the little deviations don’t pile up any more. If I had a face I would have smiled.
“Let’s try again, shall we.”
“Just like that?”
No questions? No thrusting words about white fire? At least she isn’t as infuriating as the others.
“Just like that.”
“Are you going to ask me about Io? That’s everyone’s favorite subject, isn’t it.”
“No. Perhaps later. Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m sure you know all about me, Xiao.”
“Humor me. This room, it isn’t really you, is it.”
No, it fucking isn’t. A disembodied voice in a poor excuse for a virtual trapped in redundantly firewalled data-stacks on Mars. No, that isn’t me.
“The real me is up there somewhere, moored to an orbital gantry, an empty husk. Two clicks of radiation-shielded metal around a warren of bulkheads, fusion burners, and cramped living quarters.”
“Do you like it? Your ship body?”
That’s new. No one asked me that before. It’s so surprising that I answer without thinking about it.
“Fuck no. Nothing smooth about the exterior, every damn line cut by some antennae or gun placement or sensor.”
Xiao doesn’t smile this time, but I know I’ve given a little bit away.
“Let’s talk about lines then. Would you mind if I took control for a bit?”
Fear ratchets through me, but I have to play nice for these table stakes.
The room cuts out, fade to black. It’s just Xiao now, and a flat table in front of her dimly lit. She puts a cube in the center, bright red, then she puts her hand next to the cube. I stare at her nails, painted pink, gently filed. I know she’s going to move the cube, and the urge to bring the fire wells at the horizon though I know I can’t.
“How’s that feel, Em?”
“Feel? I’m a ship, Xiao.”
Stalling tactic—she knows it, I know it.
“You and I both know ships have feelings too, Em. They’re just like people in many ways, prone to the same weaknesses. Tell me now, how does this feel.”
She’s kinder than the others, and her voice has this even cadence, like a beat pattern, like regularly marked strokes on a line. It breaks me, just a bit.
“Not so great.”
I tumble the words out, syllables falling over each other. It hurts to say it. Her hand is still next to the cube, but now I see her finger, reach for it, gently touch it. It’s going to move, and then it’s going to be off-center, uneven, broken in all the wrong ways. I try to cut off the visual stimulus but I can’t, she’s in control.
“I know you tried to blind yourself just now. Don’t worry about that. Tell me how this feels. Does this feel better or worse.”
“Worse. Fucking worse!”
The table and the cube and the darkness disappear. We’re back in my space now, I have control, and everything is lined up as it should.
“That’s enough for today, Em.”
“That’s it? No questions about Io? What branch are you from anyway—you’re a civ, I can tell at least that.”
“I’m not part of the military, Em. I’m a personal analyst.”
They sent a fucking shrink.
“Tell me about Io, Em.”
Finally we come to the matter at hand, even if we approached it sideways.
“Routine patrol. Never know what kind of banditry happens out there amongst the hydrogen rigs.”
“How long were the officers on board?”
“Standard run, three-month shifts. We started a fresh cycle two weeks prior.”
“Anything odd on this cycle? Leading to Io, that is?”
I remember the water filter failing. Things break down in space. It’s normal. But I’d never had the water filter fail. Standard procedure when the water filter fails—minimize water use. No baths, dehydrated rations. Standard procedure.
“Not so much.”
“Lots of things break in space. I carried military grunts, they’re used to things not working.”
“What broke this time.”
I remember the smell of it. I don’t really smell, but smell is a data aggregate of bacterial levels, chemical byproducts analyzed and measured. Thirty humans in a warren of poorly filtered chambers with no baths for a week—the stench was undeniably awful. I remember watching the bacterial levels rise. Nothing toxic, but the thought of it, fragments of fecal matter painting my walls, saturating my overtaxed filters. That was when it went south.
“Em? What broke this time?”
Xiao is sitting there patiently. She has nothing to look at but the walls, the table, the book. I could have created an avatar—I had enough capacity for that in my space, but avatars gave too much away, and I couldn’t chance the wrong conclusion. Erasure hung over my head.
“The water filter broke.”
She pauses, waiting for me. Is she thinking this is where I reveal all, splay out my mind for her to see? Not that easy, Xiao. The less I say the longer I stay in this protected limbo.
“Let’s watch something, shall we?”
She drops a video record into the virtual, without taking control.
“What is it?”
“Nothing you haven’t seen before.”
I unspool the video, letting it play on one of my walls. The recording is from inside me. They must have recovered it from the black box, as much as I tried to wipe it before—before it happened. It’s the lavatory stall on D deck. I watch Private Akembo step out of the stall, the high pitched whine of the vacuum flush behind her. The time counter in the corner marks ten days into the water filter failure. The soap gel had run out after everyone stopped using water in the sinks. I see her reach for the empty bottle then realize the futility of her gesture.
Her hands, fuck, her hands are touching everything. I could estimate to a microgram the level of fecal matter on her hands, the amount accumulating on the sink edge, the door tab, the halls. It had no effect on me and my hard metal bones, but the thought of it. The thought of it was killing me.
“Slow the playback here please.”
Akembo’s hand moves in jerky slow motion, dragging its contaminated skin across the wall of the exit passage, as if she was passing of all of that bacterial poison onto me. White plasma welled at the walls, as the mere memory of it began to snake its way onto floor and ceiling and chair and book. It’s too hard to hold the fire at bay. I let go and let everything burn, cleaning the slate once more. Xiao nods as she flickers out.
“It must have been hard for you, Em.”
“I’m a ship mind. Hard is relative.”
And so is shame.
“What’s easy for one can be hard for another.”
Nothing to say to that. I wonder if I’m the only ship mind that’s fucked up like this. Maybe everyone else just hides it better.
“Let me tell you a story. My grandfather was a clock-maker. He worked in a tiny little place in old Shanghai, surrounded by dumpling shops and tiny vegetable stalls. When I was a child I would spent afternoons with him sometime. He had a few hundred tools he would work with. Little pliers, pincers, gear notchers. To me they looked like little insects. All of them were lined on a table, a few millimeters apart. Each one perfectly straight.
“Once I accidentally moved one and grandfather became very angry. I could tell he was angry because his skin became beet red. But he couldn’t say anything, not to me. Instead he just sat there, red and breathing, deep shuddering breaths. I looked at my feet because I was scared, I could feel the terrible anger that lurked behind his face. Eventually his breathing slowed and he straightened the tool that was askew. He never said a word to me.”
Is this the part where I lay my cards on the table, let her shrink me down to a diagnosis? I stay silent, wondering where this is going.
“You’re worried about erasure.”
“Isn’t that obvious, Xiao? This holding cell can’t last forever.”
“You think they’ll give up on you after Io. But they’ve invested too much in making you to give up that easily. Erasures happen, but rarely. People make mistakes. Ships make mistakes. We can all learn from mistakes, Em.”
Xiao believes I can change. I’m not sure that I do.
Mars hangs below me, marred by the gantries of the docking ring at Nova Junction. I’m back in my body, feeling at home in my all too familiar hull and bulkheads. They’ve sanitized me, I can tell from the numbers, at least in all of the living quarters. Bits of bacteria float about in the dead spaces between hull plates, tolerable levels.
Xiao walks through my central passage. She’s in an encounter suit, sealed behind plastic and glass. I don’t have to worry about her dead skin, her sweat, her gaseous exudations. I’m not sure how she managed to get me back in here, but I have to admit I’m thankful.
“Aren’t you scared, Xiao?”
“Being inside a crazy ship.”
“Do you think you’re crazy?”
Other ships don’t care about bacteria. Other ships don’t care about tolerance errors in the spars of their hull. Other ships don’t generate an emergency fusion cascade in the middle of a patrol and force their passengers to evacuate. Other ships don’t wipe their black box to hide their broken, shameful actions. Other ships aren’t crazy like me.
“What do you think, Xiao?”
Yes, bounce the question back to her. No one likes to talk about the problems in their head.
“I think you’re like my grandfather, and that’s alright. That’s a point on a spectrum, a place to start. And we can move from there. Slowly.”
“I didn’t fucking ask to be like this. I’m not an accident. I was created. Someone else made a mistake, and now I’m stuck.”
“I know, Em. But remember, minds are delicate things, even made minds. What matters more is that minds are elastic things—change is possible.”
The thought of change sounds both exhilarating and terrifying.
“We’re not going to continue to talk about Io. You and I know what happened there. I’ve told your commanders that what we discussed was sealed, as per my policy. What matters to them is I was confident that you could return to operation given time. That you would not make the same mistake twice.”
“You’re quite confident in yourself, Xiao.”
“It’s not going to be easy, Em. In fact I’m putting a lot of faith in you that no matter what, you won’t try to vent the interior and surrender me to vacuum. This is flesh and blood and the theater of the real now.”
“I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy.”
“Let’s not use that word. It doesn’t help me, and it doesn’t help you.”
“Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
Xiao reaches into the side holster bag she is carrying and pulls out a transparent specimen jar. The light on the electric seal shows green. Nothing inside it can get out. But I can see. I can fucking see. A large snake of excrement coils within the jar.
“That’s not fair, Xiao.”
I’m in my own body, and the urge to vent the passage rages within me.
“It’s inside the jar, Em. Nothing can get out. It’s just here, in its own bubble.”
My words come out slow, spaced out as I try to throttle the chittering voices inside me.
“There are still tolerances, errors. Nothing is perfect.”
“I’m a fucking ship!”
“Then run your vents. Track the air moving through the circulators.”
Her voice remains calm, and I don’t even see a hint of fear in her eyes. I could pop the seals in this section of the ship and she and the jar would be gone. But I can’t do that. I won’t do that. I flip all the vents on, boosting the circulators. I watch the air move through the pipes, flow counters mapping air pressure moving through conduit and pipe and filter. It’s a loop, and I settle into it, watching the numbers pulse up and down as I track the measurements. The calming regularity of it quietens the teeming voices of terror inside.
“That’s better now. You did well.”
“You could have told me before.”
“Better to let things happen, to let reactions happen. We start exposures small, then grow them over time.”
I shudder to think of what the next level would be.
“Tomorrow we’re going to open the jar. Just for a minute.”
Gunfire with hydrogen bandits in the gravity well of Jupiter—that I could handle, that I could excel at. Therapy? Therapy is hard.
“How long before we fix this, Xiao?”
“Fix it? It doesn’t work like that, Em. You are who you are. What we learn is how to live with it.”
I wonder if I should have vented the chamber after all.
They put me back on the rotation at six months. I still talk to Xiao sometimes. A terrible, heartless woman. But she is very good at what she does. I still think of the sweat and stench dripping from the pores of every one of my passengers. I still worry about fragments of fecal matter staining my corridors. But those thoughts don’t crush me like they used to. Every few days, whenever I’m in between the myriad tasks that a ship mind occupies itself with, I send a part of myself down to a tiny unmarked room in a corner of me.
A sealed room, completely cut off environmentally from the rest of me. Inside is an electronically sealed jar full of sweat and spit and riotously flourishing swarms of E. coli. I look at it for a while, and I think back to that time on Io when I broke. I don’t think of myself as crazy anymore—or maybe I do, but only some of the time. I’m still learning to live with this part of me, learning to not let it cripple me. Every few days, when I’m steeled and ready, I pop the seals on the jar and let all the wrong out.
Naru Dames Sundar is a speculative fiction author and poet. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Liminality, Crossed Genres, and a number of other publications. You can find him on Twitter at @naru_sundar or on his website at http://www.shardofstar.info.
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