Deck Officer Gern Blanston quickly yet methodically walked down several flights of metal stairs from the operations center. In his pocket, he arranged the scanning device for the 4th time out of reassurance than once he went to deck number 5, he would be able to turn it on discretely.
As he turned away from the tower base of the operations center, the ships that he just peered down at just a minute ago now towered over him. The deck was full for the next few weeks. Many of the older craft not ready to be retired were being refitted with some of the newer weapons and computer guidance systems. Almost all of them were "hard docked," or resting on metal suspension struts rather than relying on any of their antigravity to hold them in place.
As he made his way down some of the iron pathways, he passed by dozens of small MRSA workers, and scurrying this way and that for whatever tasks they had been assigned. There were more of these organic bots than humans on deck 70, mostly due to the dangerous work that had been done in the last few days. Gern did not like MRSAs. The Maintenance Robotic Ship Assistants reminded him of children, and he didn't care for any children, including his own, which were safely kept away in a military academy in another planetary system. Of course, MRSAs were designed to look like children, party because their small size allowed them to access parts of the ships that humans had trouble fitting in, but they found that humans related better to children in general (Gern being one of the rare exceptions). They were both comforting and easy to command, which was ironically unlike real human children in most ways, Gern concluded. Yet most workers found their presence soothing and were pleased at their ability to take commands; more importantly, correctly interpret the commands unlike most simpler bots who would take commands literally. So Gern endured these waist-sized organic bots, avoiding eye contact they were programmed to have so that they were easily addressed by superiors. Despite the blinking algorithm they were supposed to have, Gern always thought they had a blank, doll-like stare.
As he turned to approach Deck 5, part of his spine shuddered at the ship docked there. Unlike the green steel walls of the war ships, bedecked with a layer of self-repairing nanobotic skin, the ship was far smaller, lumpy, and didn't fit well in the metal suspension so it was leaning to one side. It was also the most annoying shade of bright yellow.
Gern approached the ship, and found the MRSA of the owner standing near an access panel. Unlike the disciplined military types that put their MRSA's in harm's way while they gave commands from the outside, this MRSA was giving tools to the figure behind the panel. The figure was the captain of this wayward vessel, a certain Nickelous Heathers, who preferred to be called "Nick."
"Civilian Nickelous Heathers?" addressed Gern. There was no reply, so Gern tried harder with more discipline in his voice. "Civilian Nickelous Heathers???"
"Nick is busy, can I help you?" said the MRSA.
Gern bristled. Unlike the MRSAs on the deck, this one addressed him with a passive aggressive tone. Also, this MRSA was dressed like a girl. Whereas all of her fellow organic bots wore the same gray jumpsuit with the deck number emblazoned on the front and back, this MRSA was wearing a pink shirt, a jean skirt, and bright yellow sneakers with mismatched socks. Instead of the regulation black hair that covered the MRSA head like a small helmet, this MRSA had bright red hair that jutted out with two sharp pony tails. her face was dotted with a few small freckles, and gave the appearance of a toy. But the thing that was most alarming was that she had a greater range of facial expression, and seemed far more aware of herself than any MRSA had a right to be.
"I am addressing Civilian Nickelous Heathers--"
The MRSA frowned. "He is BUSY, sir, and one would think that was obvious from the fact he's behind a guidance systems panel. Please return at a more convenient time."
Gern was stymied. He had never had the need to yell at an MRSA, or to give them a second chance to accept an order, because MRSAs never disobeyed orders of any deck crew. So he found himself at quite a loss with this new situation. It seemed like ever since they gave this civilian access to their deck, things were starting to fall apart.
"Civilian Nickelous Heathers needs to come out from behind the panel. Perhaps you should be behind the panel!"
But the second after that rolled from his mouth, he realized that the MRSA didn't care, didn't take orders from him, and there was nothing Gern could do about it. And he was certain the other MRSAs were watching the situation. Slowly plotting, maybe, to kill him in his bunk. He pictured himself grabbing the MRSA from behind, and tossing her off the deck railing to a several thousand foot plunge to the waste reclaiming pits below. The last thing he would see would be her doll-like stare looking surprised for a second.
"I'll be out in a second, sir," said a voice from behind the panel. "Stop giving Genna a hard time, eh?"
The captain had even named her--er, it. How repulsive, Gern thought, as his face wrinkled. So he waited. And waited. As each second dragged out to a minute, he wondered what his superior officers, the same ones that sent him down here, were saying. Did they think he was handling this badly? He had no authority over a civilian, and even if he could kill the pair and claim it was an accident, this civilian had some very interesting clearance. Gern looked at the red mark on the clipboard he was hanging onto.
"What's going on down there?" barked a command into his left ear. Gern startled so badly, he peed a little. he had forgotten he turned his earpiece on, and didn't conduct a volume test before he came down to the deck.
"The civilian is stuck behind... er, an access panel, and will be coming out... soon." Gern said in the back of his throat. Due to the constant noise of the deck, often speaking into a microphone was pointless, so all the deck crew had vibration sensors that picked up their voices thought vibrations in their jaw and back of the throat.
The MRSA... Genna... looked at Gern and almost seemed to smirk. That's when Gern remembered the scanner in his pocket. When she looked away, he turned it on. He heard his earpiece crackle slightly as it scanned him as well.
After another long agonizing set of minutes, Civilian Nickelous Heathers, aka "Captain Nick," slid out from the access panel, covered in dust spots and wire clippings. Nick looked at his MRSA and seemed to give it a subtle nod, and Gern assumed they also spoke to one another off a bone-conducting mic. Except the MRSA, who probably just conducted it via electronic signal.
"Deck Officer Gern Blanston," Nick addressed the officer as he stood up. "What do I owe the pleasure?"
That's when Gern realized he had nothing to say. He had only be asked to "go and see what's going on down there" by one of his superiors, and the other had given him the scanning device. He floundered for a second, and then said, "We need this deck for an emergency docking, and wonder how soon you can move?" That was a total lie of course, but it was the only thing Gern could think of. He thought if he moved out, they could give priority to one of the older ships to move into deck 5. Make it look real. Gern suddenly realized how stupid this all was, and wondered what he could delay with more to make sure the scan is complete.
"I should be able to go after I repair the guidance system, restock on some supplies... and ... I guess get a decent shower."
"I do not recall such a requisit--"
Nick held up his hand, to Gern's surprise, he stopped. "I have Terran clearance. I am bound by some of the same courtesy laws as you are. You are required to stock my supplies and provide me with at least one day's rest. Simple as that. Besides, I want to trade with some of the workers."
"I am aware of your clearance, Civilian Nickelous Heathers. I am aware of the courtesy laws, how--"
Nick again held up his hand. "Be calm. Genna and I will not stay any longer than necessary. Tell your superiors I estimate 24-36 hours of time."
"Thirty si--" started Gern, but Nick lay back down and Genna helped him scoot under the ship. With nothing more to do but look flustered, Officer Gern returned to the tower.
"Captain Nick," Genna said through the communicator, "you were right, they scanned us."
"I told you," Nick said back, re-coupling a panel and turning it back on. It gave off a reassuring blue glow. "They are so curious about our clearance. They want to know why someone from a Terran class, a contractor no less, would be sent here. It will keep them on their toes, and give us the time we need to get fixed and get out of here."
"How long before they realize the ID was false?"
"The last place we did this at still thinks we're a top level clearance, remember?"
Genna paused. "This is true. Years of time never flagged us. However, this is a mega class maintenance ship. In a war. Next to a war zone. You would think--"
"Genna. Try not to think so much."
"But I was reprogrammed to--"
"Yes, you were. And you have done very well. But this part where you worry is a human trait I wish you had not developed."
Genna paused again. Nick liked to think he could hear the nano-circuitry moving and rewiring itself. It probably sounded like tall grass moving in a breeze. He felt badly about Genna. She had no idea what she had been reprogrammed to do, and unlike a standard issue MRSA, she had an awareness of her own mortality that superseded the normal programming of an MRSA unit to simply get out of the way.
"I like how I have developed," Genna said out of reflex. But Nick knew this was a reflex of self-awareness that she programmed, no, learned herself. It had its roots in an MRSA's ability to learn new tasks, but she had applied them to her own sense of self; something that would have recently taken an MRSA down as the circuits to prevent logic loops would have rendered the unit for scrap. Hence she was Generation New Awareness, or Gen-NA.
"I do, too. Genna... just try and stay within the normal parameters of the MRSA behavior in public. It's bad enough you decided to dress like a girl--"
"I chose this gender."
Nick sighed because now they were having the same argument again, and he wondered if this was due to Genna's artificial intelligence base or was it the same trap he always got into with women. "Why are we arguing about this again?" was a question he asked to many former girlfriends who were all human. He tried to think of something new to say, to break the loop, and force her to flex her developing brain structure.
"I love you," he said. Then he wished he hadn't. He said it out of habit when he was frustrated, because it tended to shut most women up, or at least derail them from an argument long enough to change the subject. But he really no more loved Genna than his ship, which was an awful lot, but he knew sooner or later, Genna, his ship, and every tool and construct he had ever owned would break down to the point of no repair. But to say, "I love you," to Genna was a bit risky. He could not afford to get attached, but he was unsure if she was already attached much like a human child. But what was said was said, and he was not deeply curious as to her response.
She did not answer.
After a minute of silence, Nick went back to his panel, and finished his repairs. His worry that Genna had shorted out was removed when she handed him tools, but there was no more communication for a while.
He was unconcerned about the scan, since it would show Genna was an MRSA with exactly the same balance of organic and non-organic materials as any other MRSA. In fact, her parts were mostly interchangeable with them. The only changes were some newer organic structures, some updated nanobot technology, and her brain which looked the same on a workbench, but was vastly different. The serial number they would get would be scrambled using a Terran military code; something they would be unable to trace, yet be assured its origin was unique. Yet he was pressed for time. He didn't need this delay because he had to get Genna tested before she reached a "Turing Point," the point in most AI where the robot completely breaks down.
The Turing Point had stymied all attempts at artificial intelligence ever since robots were able to be self aware. It was an unknown quantum phenomena that scientists, mathematicians, and psychologists all debated about, but no one knew the root cause. In layman's terms, it was the point of a robot's self awareness where it simply can't handle its thoughts and breaks down. And it seemed to be random. The same exact robot, when restarted, would reach the turning point at different times. Some self-aware robots could last for months, while others broke down within seconds of thought ignition. Theologians said it's was God's plan to keep humanity from the miracle of creation. Mathematicians and scientists said it was a quantum loop of some kind where self reflection lead to a "narcissistic psychosis" which with a robot's speed of calculation, was much faster than a human's. Humans didn't reach a "Turing Point" until about 80-100 years, and that process was so much slower, it was chalked up to senility, protein buildup, or a myriad of other symptoms. Many psychologists and people in human medicine still debate if that is actually the organic brain's way of breaking down its self awareness from accumulated years, but one of the first symptoms of a robot reaching the Turing point is also senility and dementia.
Luckily Genna remembered far too much, and did not seem demented in any way. In fact, she exhibited more MRSA symptoms than human ones, including the inability to dream during a rest cycle. As for her manner of dress, it was decided that she should dress differently, but quickly after she was activated, she referred to herself as a "she" and one day demanded to be dressed as a human girl. Nick, in a fit of humor, decided her hair must be a bright red and stick out like pigtails. In order to do that, he had to take her to a maintenance shop in the sex district of a nearby planet, since the only organic robots that needed superfluous modifications were prostibots. Thus started the rumors that Nick turned his MRSA into a Lolita. He didn't mind the rumors, because it turned their attention away from Genna, and kept people at a distance from Nick. But he wondered how Genna felt about it. He also wondered why she dressed as a small human child, and spent many nights debating this allegory of humanity with her, even though she didn't seem to be able to retain it all.
And thus, they had the same arguments repeatedly, which to Nick, was the same issue he had with all human women in general.
"Genna," Nick said as he cleaned up his work area. "Tell me what our status is." Now she would have to talk.
"We are at Deck 5. Three MRSAs have been tasked to watch our every move for three points around the hangar bay. In addition, the operations tower is watching us. I suspect they are related, but they scramble their frequencies far too often for me to eavesdrop.
"That's why you have been so quiet?"
"They are also monitoring our communications stream. I have scrambled the frequencies randomly and then gone back to the same frequency, a public channel, for all mundane conversations."
"Good. Good. Listen, help me out of here, and we'll get some of our goodies in the back for the men on this deck. I need to get some information while we're here, and then I am going to take a shower. You stay on the ship, and prepare for supplies. I don't want you alone outside the ship because that Gern fellow really doesn't like you or any MRSAs."
"I want to go with you."
There was that stubbornness again. Another human trait that she was picking up. Not only did she have a sense of self, but a sense of preservation. She did not want to be alone, which she once explained as "boring." But Nick suspected she knew being alone meant no help from others when needed, which was bent on her programming to look into the future at an abstract level. But this meant she assumed her programming was superior to the plans of Nick, and experience at beating Nick in games of strategy during the long hours in space helped reinforce that sense of smugness.
"I respect your choice, however, this military ship is no place for a..." did he almost say "little girl?" "... special MRSA such as yourself."
"I need to learn how you barter."
"I told you how I barter. I am going to give these men some... unissued supplies... and in exchange, they give me information, gossip, and sometimes free credits. Then we take these military supplies, and trade them later on for other things, that we trade for the same thing."
"But you never tell me how it's actually done."
"I can't have you there. It will make the men uncomfortable. Some may even..."
"You are very protective of me, and I appreciate that," Genna said sweetly.
How nice, Nick thought, she's pandering to me like I do to her.
"But if anything should happen to you," Genna continued after she felt the pause of flattery would cover some of Nick's stare, "I need to continue these skills until we reach our final destination."
Nick's heart panged. The final destination. Then Genna would leave him forever and be used to... and he dared not think the rest. It was almost a year away at this rate, and by then she'd be sick of him, and he of her. He was already feeling that "space madness" that long star travel would do to humans cramped up in a small ship. But still, in the last few months they were together, Nick had grown accustomed to her presence.
Nick shook his head. "You will learn no skills. Like Schroedinger's cat, your observation will affect the outcome of the results."
"Or not," she said, and smiled subtly. While she could smile and emote, no other MRSA was able to do so at the same range. Hers were almost human, whereas an MRSA is limited to a pleasant smile, a frown on misunderstanding, or ... well, a combination of the two. Genna could show anger and laughter, or distaste and coyness. She could pass for human as long as someone didn't talk to her. She couldn't ever pass for a human child, however, because of her developed sense of irony and sarcasm.
"MRSAs aren't allowed in the barracks, either. They have a force field to keep you out---"
"I can disable that--"
"-- and set of alarms and I'll go to jail. No, please gather my supplies and--"
"FINE!" she said, and stomped off to the ship's entrance, leaving Nick having to pull himself out of the access panel.
Meanwhile, up at the operations center tower, Gern and his supervisors watched the scene with interest. On a panel next to them was Genna's scan in comparison to an MRSA.
"She's an MRSA in form," said colonel Shiffert, head of operations at the facility, "but not in function."
"I swore we just saw her have a tantrum," said Gern. "An MRSA would have been completely sold for scrap at that point. Obliterated. The atoms scattered--"
"We are aware of your hatred towards MRSAs, Gern," said General Worthington. "They make things simpler to operate, though, and the men like 'em a lot. Best damn investment we made with a civilian contract, if you ask me. How he got one I will never know."
"They do make civilian models, sir," colonel Shiffert said as he looked up the MRSA's serial number. "This one seems to be military class, though. It's a Terran class or higher, so I can't look up her origin, but given some of these digits, I'd say she was a fairly recent model."
"I suspect think Nickelous is up to something. The whole situation smells funny to me, colonel Shiffert."
"General Worthington, sir, may I suggest something?" Gern looked hopefully up at his superior, which made the General wrinkle his nose in disgust.
"What is it, Gern?"
"General... if I may be so bold, I suspect that this MRSA is stolen. I don't think it's his, and while I know you want him ejected off this station immediately, he has requested a supply trade under Terran--"
"I told you that we do not honor Terran customs under the threat of war. We need ever supply--"
"Again, forgive me General, but maybe we can buy more time if we honor his request. Find out more about him."
"I didn't want to find out anything about him when you granted his emergency landing request! Why would I care about him now?"
"Because I think, sir, he is a smuggler."
Colonel Shiffert chuckled. "A smuggler? No. Really?"
Gern ignored the sarcasm and continued, "He might give us some information about the enemy."
"I think that deck would look nice with a war ship in the bay, and not some tub toy," the General said. Then he frowned. "What is he bringing out?"
"Supplies he intends to trade with the men. Probably pornographs, joy drugs, and such."
That's when Genna came out, and started shouting at Nick. Nick's response was to quiet her like an errant child.
The colonel twitched his mustache. "Interesting..."
"Shall I detain him, sir?" asked Gern.
"No. I want him to trade. He's probably looking for information, and I want to know what he knows. Then I will make the decision. A shower is a shower, and give him some of the older supplies we can't use anyway before they go bad. I also want there to be an... incident... where the MRSA is taken in for repair."
"With pleasure, sir," Gern said, punching in some commands into his screen.
"I don't want her damaged, just... inoperable. I want to know what makes this MRSA tick."