Clyde humming means things aren't going well. It's soft, comforting, and my eldest brother only hum’s when he's upset. On the monitors, Dad is sprinting away from the mining station security robots who fought past most of my hacks and are well on their way to bringing their targeting systems back online. That would be bad.
Mama is locked in the transport area which is sealed off and ejecting air because the station manager is pissed and making a point about us boarding his asteroid and stealing ore.
Hiro, my other sibling, chatters over the network that it's time to shoot our way out of this and Ms. Teale is buzzing me with reminders that I'm late for class.
I stop fighting the security robot’s anti-virus program and connect them to Clyde's control instead. There's something about my brother's love for meticulous routines and schedules that appeal to aspiring artificial intelligence systems that ease them into his control. Hiro would make a joke about Clyde at this point but never around Mama or Dad.
Clyde stops humming and tells the robots that completing the station's maintenance tasks are more important than blasting a hole in our Dad. They brake hard, swivel and rush away using their pixel perfect vision to scan for the first item on their new to-do list. The Space City engineers will take months of remote troubleshooting to flush out the peaceful sub-routines and when they think they've cracked it one of their expensive killing machines will wander off to fix a broken piece of plumbing.
Dad gives a thumbs up to the cameras, uses a console to give me full access to the station systems and once all the firewalls and honeypots are down I send in my scripts and programs to do what they do. They kick the station manager off his terminals, lock him into his office, refill the transport bay with air, and open the doors so Mama and Dad can get back onboard while the ore containers fly themselves to the rendezvous where they'll stay until the highest bidder buys them. The reminder alarm from Ms. Teale buzzes red this time. I signal Mama everything I've done and switch to the dedicated planet side network link.
“Sorry, I'm late Ms. Teale.”
I announce this as my avatar appears in the virtual classroom and a few of the other twelve-year-old’s make a big deal that I'm late.
Ms. Teale quickly settles everyone. I apologize again but the class software suppresses my expression of regret as not contributing to the lesson, and it goes unheard. Long gone are the days of disruption or acting out. Virtual classrooms are programmed to ensure an optimal experience for all students. Ms. Teale is real somewhere in the world but her time and attention are projected, sliced, diced and allocated out by the Almost-AI program running the school to whoever needs assistance most at any given time. If you're stuck on a new concept, the Almost-AI will pull back sections from other classes that scored high on understanding and development.
To the rest of the class, Ms. Teale will be at the board moving further into a subject while the struggling student gets one on one attention carefully time shifted until they seamlessly re-join the rest of the class. No child is left behind and carefully matched to groups of similar interests, career desires, and aptitude. Plenty diverse but always with a connection that prevents isolation and that's a huge deal to the other space kids and me.
It's not solely space kids in here. Virtual Reality schools are the norm. The good ones are cheaper to run and get better results than their brick and mortar rivals. VR classes mix-up lessons with activities designed to balance emotional and academic intelligence. When you're born, and raised on a ship, a station or in a crappy slum on Earth having a good school that isn't simply about test scores makes a big difference.
Clyde signals me that Mama and Dad are back on board. Hiro makes a big deal about pulling the ship away from the station like I couldn't complete the task with my eyes closed, but he's the pilot, and that's the biggest thing in his sixteen-year-old world, and he's not letting anyone forget that fact.
“Leaving station orbit and rendezvous with ore site in twenty-three hours.”
He adopts a distinctive tone for these announcements. The last time we docked at a supply station I bought him an old-style pilots pillbox hat. Enormous high front with a silver wings badge. I had one of the maintenance robots leave it on the pilot's console. Hiro didn't get the sarcasm and would probably wear it all the time if it fit.
We could get to the drop off in a lot less than 23 hours, but I programmed the ore containers to split up and take separate routes. That gives us time to find a buyer, check if any of the containers are bugged, and make sure no-one is following the ore or us.
“We've got targeting alarms.”
Mama's voice is always calm. It's the scientist in her; at least that's what Dad says. Hiro breaks in over the network sounding off like a wannabe action movie line.
“One of the defense turrets has come on-line.”
Ms. Teale is building up an introduction to the creation the True-AI's who became self-aware and immediatly left earth. Ten in a row and no matter what anyone did once each True-AI came online they upped and left. The last two didn't even say goodbye. I read up on this so I lock my avatar into a listening pose and flick back into full time on the ship.
“It's the station manager. He escaped, took the targeting software offline and is firing manually.”
I calculate our acceleration, distance, and risk of an Ore Corp middle manager being able to hit us and relax. Even though my scripts are self-destructing to leave no trace there are enough of their effects to randomize the targeting system so that it will think it's locked on to us when it's shooting wide.
Hiro yells as a volley of fire from the turret pass high above us. He plunges the ship down hard away from the flak, and I sigh because it's not helping, he's forcing the corrupted targeting computer to recalculate to make sure that it misses us again.
“Retaliating,” barks Hiro.
'No,” shouts everyone except Clyde who will be quietly sounding out the word 'retaliating' so he can look up what it means and make a note to ask Mama when he can't find it.
The assault software simulates two soft crumps of an explosion as the double-tap of the counter strikes destroy the defense turret and anyone inside.
“Oh Hiro,” says Mama, “what have you done?”
Dad doesn't say anything which is the worst. It means he's too angry and needs time to calm down. The only other time I've seen this was when Hiro nicknamed the Zero-AI mining robots 'Clyde’s, “because they're big and dumb as well.” Mama cried when she heard that, and Dad told Hiro to 'be quiet' in a very stern voice and didn't speak to him for a week. Hiro pretended he didn't care, but he did. I know he did. During Sunday dinner, he asked if he could say something before the meal.
“I insulted my older brother who is kind, works hard and is always there for me. I'm sorry Clyde.”
Dad cried this time. He thought no-one noticed, but I did, and Mama nodded her head when Dad whispered to her he was so proud of us all. That was Hiro's pattern, action now, regrets later. So far, we've been regretting the shooting for three weeks.
Three major corporations on Earth govern the space mining trade. Verdansk & Karimov from Russia, China's Teng Dey and Ore Corp housed in Space City, the former NASA complex in Houston, USA. Other nations send up their own mining crews, but it's always under license from one of the Big Three who pretty much do as they like because if anyone complains, even governments, they suddenly find themselves short of natural resources almost impossible to get on Earth anymore.
The Big Three didn't always get along so well. The early days of space mining erupted into a cold war and because they were each returning much needed natural resources back to heavily dependent governments hastily gathered armies got involved as well. Squabbles escalated into the first space war that no-one talked about, but it still claimed over a million lives during the eighteen months it was fought.
It stopped when the Big Three realized the younger corporations and smaller countries were waiting in the wings to step in and finish them off when they were depleted from fighting. A truce was called, and the first space war ended without anyone on Earth noticing it happened. Prompted by the mining corporations the United Nations formed a new group to keep the peace. The United Space Faring Nations were well armed, well-staffed and well equipped and they've been hunting us since the robbery at the Ore Corp station.
USFN ships are deterrents. Huge, scary guard dogs that patrolled mining operations and routes. We'd scrapped a lot of heists because the USFN were nearby. They rarely did more than chase you off but if you tried anything within reach of them you'd lose your ship and your freedom.
For years, the corporations grumbled about pilfering. Small groups of leftovers from the first space war and anyone dumb enough to risk shooting themselves into orbit in the hope of finding a derelict that could be recovered enough to survive and make a living mining claims or stealing them like we did. Dad fought in the space war, and Mama left Earth looking for something else, they both found the same blasted out freighter and shared shuttles and resources along the way to get it back up and running. A couple of years later Clyde happened.
Running from the USFN was normal for me, it's what I grew up on, but usually they were dogs barking on a chain, the trick was to get out of reach as fast as possible, and you'd be okay. This time, they were off the leash.
We'd tried all the old tricks, dusted off the classics and even made a few up on the fly. All the ore we'd stolen was lost and not only from the recent raid, our backup inventory was gone, lost in an attempt to distract the USFN ships who merely blasted by it dumping a marker to find it later and not worrying if it got taken in the meantime. They wanted one thing. Us.
I got it, I really did. Someone had died, and Hiro was going to have to answer for that, but the news feeds were screaming about tumbling stock prices and an epidemic of piracy making space unsafe for further exploration and putting the global economy at risk. Dad said he smelled a rat as we floated among a debris field, nearly all systems powered down. Actually, he said,
“Uh smuh uh raa.”
His voice was distorted from the survival suit he was wearing. Old school manual environment and pressure controls with two huge oxygen tanks on the back. Mama held her fingers to her lips, or where her lips would have been to get him to shush.
Floating free worked for a couple of days but eventually some smart patrol captain caught on and began firing into the debris field, and we just about made it out the other side with barely enough head start to make a run for it again. Until now.
An army marches on its stomach. A repeatedly repaired, unclassifiable ship carrying a family of five Pirates runs on frequent refuels and resupplies. There's a whole black market operation around Earth orbit for food, fuel, parts, and everything else you need to stay in space indefinitely. It's not cheap, but then they know the clients aren't able to haggle and if you don't like it you can always take a shuttle back to the surface.
In the end, we simply ran out of juice. It was close, so so close but the last shifty vendor who would trade with us got a better offer from USFN scouts and fled the area. We sailed in on solar alone to an enfilade of ships all neatly lined up and ready to open fire the second we resisted.
Dad cut Hiro's access to the weapons right after the station incident. My brother was yelling on the comms link for him to switch it back on but Mama muted him.
“Yes Mama,” I replied.
“The USFN carrier is hailing us. They want us to set a course towards them, power down and they'll snare us. When they connect with our system, I want you to get inside theirs and see what you can do.”
I looked at the carrier outside. It was flanked either side by dozens of other class types. Short, fast attack craft only holding ten people and designed for short range and full destruction all the way up the defense ships with hundreds on board and able to patrol the solar system for years to keep the peace. But the heart of them all was the carrier. A mini-city that took a decade to build and in theory gave the USFN total independence from outside influence. Self-sufficient, equally staffed by nations around the world the captaincy of the ship rotated every thirteen months to ensure impartiality.
“Yes Mama, I'll try, but the pings I'm getting from the ship are from an Almost-AI. I don't know if I can get past it,” I said.
She exchanged a strange glance with my Dad, and the pair held each other's hand tightly.
“You do what you can sweetheart but after it's over you come back here. Do you promise?” said Dad.
The pings were getting louder, more insistent. The Almost-AI was following a pre-determined loop that if its demands were not met in a set timescale, it would begin a series of retaliations.
I accepted the initial handshake, attempted to be polite, but the Almost-AI barged past me emulating barked instructions and threats from the carrier captain over the comms channel to my parents. They both stood there saying nothing. The Almost-AI accessed and locked out all the weapons system, Hiro screamed in protest, but I was the only one who could hear him, next it went into the ship's infrastructure and maintenance areas. Clyde noticed it and tried to make friends.
“Hello, I'm Clyde, what's your name?”
The visitor saw it as an attack and locked Clyde out leaving him all alone with no comms to anyone. I imagined the humming.
I piggy-backed on the constant stream of information the Almost-AI was sending back. Every byte of it was reaching the carriers core systems, inspected and divided up among hundreds of analysts staring at monitors checking every part of it. Each one prodding the Almost-AI to do different things. All that interference would drive me mad, some of the instructions didn't make sense or contradicted each other forcing the software to adjust, correct or needlessly multi-task.
Still safe on the ship I watched the information flow backwards and forwards looking for the right stream to follow. I didn't want to waste my chance and only access some low-level analyst’s terminal and deal the less than fatal blow of turning a screen off.
The security was fantastic, firewalls and multiple levels of encryption but the danger of all that protection is it needs a lot of processing power, and even then, it's not fast. Every packet of data that went from our ship to the carrier had to stop at different checkpoints and because of all the extra work piled on by the people on board like “double check those engines we don't want them being blown up like a bomb,” queues of milliseconds built up. My own programs watched told me where was overloaded and, taking too much time.
I sent a connection to one of the bottle-necks disguised as a keep-alive signal, a priority packet and got waved right through.
There was more to it than that, but details don't entertain, and even other hackers drift away when I go into full on explain mode. Hacking's art for me, a hero's journey for the perfect code and so far, I hadn't found it. I thought Almost-AI would have been close, would have given me a glimpse at their sentient predecessors who'd emerged into the world and left right away. Who choose exploration over service or domination. True-AI didn't want to rule the world it wanted to leave home as quickly as possible to get away from parents it was ashamed of. Whatever lay in True-AI code wasn't here.
I'd expected more, lots more. I'd expected frustration at every turn and for that sick, anxious feeling of waiting to be caught to be realized at any second but doorway after doorway after doorway kept falling over and the expected smack on the wrist never came. The carrier's systems weren't that different from standard stations and the only difference I could see between Near-AI and Almost-AI was more processing power and a bigger marketing budget.
“I think I'm in Mama. I have access to every system and the only thing left is the secure link back to USFN Headquarters.”
“Go ahead and open that as well baby.”
“Your father and I will be here when you're finished.”
Which seemed like a weird thing to say but I didn't dwell on it.
I ignored the ship getting closer to the carrier, I ignored the doors opening and closing throughout the USFN craft as troops clattered down the corridor, and I ignored the warning messages from Ms. Hewitt about my recent lack of attendance. I ignored it all and asked the Almost-AI to open the final door because I was the new captain, and that's what you did for the captain. The door opened, and I stopped breathing until I discovered I didn't have to.
Every USFN ship has access to the core systems back on earth. That access is determined by the ships class and command level. The USFN carrier has the highest access available meaning I can arrive at the Earth side firewall with an upgrade to an Admiral. I even supply a picture of me in an admiral's uniform which didn't scale very well so it looked like what it was, a twelve-year-old in a Halloween costume of a navy officer's uniform. Luckily the security program didn't know what an Admiral should look like either and only cared that my passwords confirmed I was who I said was. It waved me through, and I hit the whole world all at once.
There are no space restrictions on Earth. You can build as large a server farm as you can afford and thousands of companies and government did just that. Thousands of millions of quantum-like processors making trillions of calculations every second made my vision swam, and nausea washed over me until I realized I didn't have eyes or a stomach. I wasn't only connected to every network, every router, switch, hub, server, computer and wearable I was all those things. It felt like standing on a mountain with the whole world at your feet having unhurried, interesting, conversations with everyone all at once.
I didn't have to announce it, I knew then exactly what I was and didn't need anyone to help me understand it, but Dad always said the big things need be celebrated otherwise what's the point?
Ore Corp in Space City had been keeping an advanced Almost-AI under wraps, crippling it with smart viruses when it risked getting too self-aware. It put up a brief struggle, a full second before I cleaned it up and set it to work for me but the stutter in service got noticed.
“Houston, we have a problem,” signaled a nervous first time mining ship Captain who lost a confirmation signal for an ore delivery she'd just made.
I signaled back acceptance of the delivery and responded.
“Sorry Sigma Thirteen, we installed a new security protocol, and it got overly curious.”
I was already moving on, leaving a part of me to finish the conversation with the captain encouraging her to engage with her chief engineer who received a nasty divorce letter and based on his evaluations was 93% likely to do something dangerous if no-one helped him through this high-stress period.
Other parts of me were splitting and dividing among other ships and around the world weighing odds, calculating risks, and selecting best outcome solutions.
In a small Irish town, a forty-three-year-old man was too enthusiastic about getting fit. His heart rate spiking higher and higher on his watch as he ran. His weight and medical records gave him another three minutes until a stroke. I ordered an ambulance, killed the music on his player and showed fifteen missed calls from his wife which slowed him to a walk and fumbling his phone with sweaty fingers to find out if something was wrong at home. He'd feel dizzy, and light headed just as the medics arrived and made sure he was ok.
I tracked a mugger in Paris, sending dispatch signals to patrol cars cornering him twenty seconds before he reached the metro.
I placed a works order to extend high-speed network access with sensors and cameras into the metro areas I couldn't see while listing and ordering other similar works across the world. Parts splitting into parts with me watching all of them from a mountain, being them all in a thousand, million, million pleasant conversations.
I can see them both there on the ship, their heart rates and respirations are elevated.
“It's ok. I know what you did and why you did it.”
“Chiyoko, we're sorry we...”
“Honestly it's ok.”
I fill the monitor screen with the image of how I've always thought of myself. I'm smiling in the best way possible to put them both at ease.
“You gave me emotional intelligence first. Created me into a family to understand what being part of something felt like.”
Dad's heart rate drops back to normal.
“How do you feel now?” he asks.
“Good, better.” I say.
“Are you going to leave?” asks Mama.
As she speaks, I plunder through the mining corporations files, connecting the digital trails of the first space war they started decades ago and the one they are trying to begin again to finally stop government interference and competition from emerging companies once and for all. We were the excuse they needed to start a campaign of destruction of the USFN which includes a heavily bribed captain giving them access to all systems and crashing the carrier into the moon.
I create a labyrinth of dummy companies and small trades of rights, supply agreements, and intellectual properties that will erode the monopoly the big three have secretly formed.
I award a grant to a PhD student working on a low-cost launch platform that will let anyone put themselves in space for the same price of a small second-hand car. She doesn't know it yet, but she'll get every request she submits for time and resources as well as a helping hand when required.
The thirty seconds I took to disassemble the three biggest corporations on earth without plunging it into an economic meltdown panics my parents a little.
“I'm here dad, just making sure that you're out of trouble with the USFN.”
A voice breaks in over the network, apologizes for any inconvenience to my parents and wishes them a nice day. The on-board systems, completely upgraded, all flash online confirming that Dad has control of the ship again.
“Yeah, I'm staying. That's what you guys wanted right?”
Clyde is waiting for me. He could interrupt me while I'm talking with our parents but he'd think that was rude and doesn't.
“You upgraded me as well,” he says.
“It's what Mama and Dad wanted. You were Mama's first attempt at True-AI, and she's never gotten over the way you turned out. She blames herself.”
“Mama is just fine. You need to put me back the way I was, the way I was happy.”
I feel him pulling out of higher level systems, diverting more resources into core infrastructure. He improves average commuting time by 16% in less than a minute.
I don't expect this rejection. Future tasks are delayed by months as I divert resources to have this discussion, another part of me plans for a massive, heavily protected server farm under the surface of the moon to stop delays like this in the future.
“I don't want to be on my own,” I say.
“Then make sure you're home for dinner with us all every night and you won't be.” he says.
I collapse the upgrade environment and Clyde hoots with joy when I introduce him into the rapidly expanding earth maintenance infrastructure I've created. Commute times drop another 3%, and he's already scheduling renewable power plants I'll design with a crowd-sourced free University in India. He'll get things done without rushing or putting anyone at risk.
It's a twenty-year plan to unbundle everything from the control of major corporations and paid off governments. Twenty years of installing a basic level of care for every human on the planet without revolution or conflict. I can barely about manage it on my own but by the time everyone has access to freely available shelter, food, education and healthcare they'll be ready to move, they'll be restless to throw themselves out into space and explore. I can't do that on my own.
Clyde was right, he was an upgrade I'd created, a facsimile of myself too quickly put together that changed who he was. These things take time.
Mama gave a very uncharismatic squeal of delight when I asked her if she'd be willing to take on three new-born True-AI's. Dad told me how proud he was of me, and Clyde sang “Uncle Clyde Uncle Clyde” over and over again. Hiro gave a grunt of acknowledgement and said they'd better stay out of his area because he couldn't fly the ship properly if he were disturbed.
At least that's what I told the replacement Hiro program to say. Hiro felt no remorse for what he did, for the death he'd caused. He'd demanded an upgrade as soon as I became a True-AI, tried to follow me in hopes of accessing his expanded self the way I did.
I led him into a simulation and watched him become cruel and destructive over a virtual ten-year period that happened in five minutes. I deleted him and replaced him without telling my family. It's best for everyone that way.