Starships Saga

The Future of Man and the Stars

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Humans reach for the stars in mighty, fusion-powered ships. Each craft is controlled by an intelligent entity and is capable of carrying a whole colony to a new world. Set in the far future, this work of classic science fiction chronicles a decidedly human undertaking.

Dawn: Chessa Valentine, leading research to develop the control system for the first starship, discovers evidence of a chilling murder. But is it really murder? Whatever the crime, the implications threaten Chessa’s life as well as the whole Project Starship.

Unbound: Captain Tak Meller commands the starship Odysseus on a mission to deliver an unprepared group of colonists to a marginally habitable world. Troubled by the ethical implications of this task, Meller’s job is further complicated by his attraction to the daughter of the leader of the religious zealots who are his passengers.

Resurrection: Penn is sent to stand honor watch aboard the Artemis. The former starship had journeyed to the stars but now orbits Earth, a symbol of mankind’s retreat. While on duty, Penn gets new orders: The Artemis is to be scraped. This melancholy milestone is cancelled by an unexpected objection.

Free Mars: Dr. Tate Richardson’s trip to the Moon for a mathematics conference is interrupted by raiders from the Republic of Mars. Kidnapped to Mars, Tate’s unappreciated talents prove the key to his abductors’ own starship project.

Song in the Dark: Griffen Kees, captain of the starship Prometheus, is relieved of his command just as the ship is given the most exciting mission in history—first contact with an alien civilization. Assigned to a bureaucratic underworld, Captain Kees’s initiative forges a new destiny for himself—and mankind.

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Start reading Starships: Dawn

I’m dead . . . aren’t I?

The void around him was dark and soundless. He remembered being Bram Cooper, but as he looked around, he saw nothing. Nor did he feel anything. There was no sensation, even when he tried to blink his eyes. His thoughts drifted until he stumbled onto a disturbing memory. He had to be dead. He had been with Amelia. Terrific in bed, she always left him exhausted. Naked and sweaty, she had been nuzzling him when the door had burst open. Her husband . . . The burst of pain . . .

With no sensory cues, his mind wandered aimlessly. After some undetermined time, he had another unsettling thought. If I’m dead, how am I able to consider my condition? He had never believed in an afterlife, but was he in some sort of sensory deprivation hell? If he was dead—

A noise interrupted his philosophical musing. It started with an indistinct blur of rushing sound. Glints of light sparkled in the distance. The sound took on a modulated resonance, then coalesced into a voice.

Unfortunately, he recognized the voice.

Chessa Valentine shouted a crude oath in frustration. She did not swear often, especially not at the top of her lungs, but her frustration demanded it. Besides, there was no one in the cavernous lab to hear. She had come in today to run her test specifically because the lab was closed. Setting up the test had taken longer than it should have, but the crowning blow had come when she pressed the start tab on her datapad. It responded with an immediate ping and an error flag reporting a below-threshold transmission success rate across the navigation system’s synaptic interface.

With no technicians around to consult, she was on her own. She glanced over at the operations director’s bench. She sighed at the hodgepodge of castoff parts and scraps of notes. They were emblematic of the jumble of data records that awaited if she searched for information in the unfinished documentation files.

Next to that cluttered work station, Marla Tossel’s organized desk caught her eye. Tossel was the project manager and had been at the lab forever. She would either know the answer off the top of her head or know who would know. More importantly, she was one of the few people in the lab friendly enough to accept a call from Chessa on a day off.

Sure enough, Tossel picked up right away. “Hey, Chessa. What’s up?”

“I’m at the lab trying to run a test—”

“Dr. Valentine,” the older woman laughed, “you need to relax a little.”

Chessa sighed. “Yeah, I know I have no life. But with Stanson’s threat to pull their funding from the lab, an off day seemed like a perfect time to run an integration test using my new poling order algorithm.”

Stanson Off-Planet Resources had sponsored their lab and given them the specific task of developing the control system for the huge starship the World Federation was building. Tossel asked her a technical question, and for several minutes she and Chessa discussed the process Chessa was attempting to test. Finally Tossel said, “Well, maybe you could bump up the sensitivity for the peripheral axion response. Say, raise it to seventy percent. That should improve the transmission rate enough.”

Chessa nodded thoughtfully, then frowned. “But wouldn’t I have to clear that with the hardware people? That would mean a written proposal to the hardware committee, and I want to run the test today.”

Tossel sighed. “Yeah, those fussbudgets like to have their fingers in everything.” After a pause, she snorted derisively. “Look. Just do it, and run your test. Log your change into the test process register. At the worst, the hardware people will send you a snippy memo—if they even notice what you did.”

The politics of authority in the lab was not Chessa’s specialty, and Tossel’s reassurance was a relief. “Hey, Marla. Thanks so much. Hopefully this will get us back on track.”

“Good luck, Chessa.” She chuckled. “And you really need to get out more.”

Chessa responded with feigned good humor, but she had no need to do anything else. Stanson Off-Planet Resources’s control system lab was the perfect place for her, a place safe from the dangers of emotional complications. Refusing to let her thoughts travel farther on that road, she called up the peripheral axion subsystem on her datapad.

An hour later, Chessa was frustrated—again. Her troubles had continued. The first problem had been due to a simple oversight in the code that she should have caught earlier. However, now she faced a bigger challenge with the central system’s interface nexus. It kept dropping her datapad’s connection. In the lab’s effort to save money, they were using a single data nexus designed for the final system. At the moment, however, there were several units running ongoing tests, and all of them were accessing the same nexus. Her new algorithm’s demands overloaded the nexus, and it responded by dropping low-priority connections—like the connection to her datapad.

Without a link, Chessa could not monitor the internal data flow nor even know if her test was still running. When the system dropped the link to her datapad for the third time, she stood up and swore another crude oath. Three words this time, it echoed just as emptily as the previous one. Scowling, her eyes swept the room. She wished someone could have been in the lab just to share her exasperation.

She blinked when she happened to look at Tobias Stamph’s office door. Stamph, executive director of Project Starship, was her boss. His datapad used a special direct link to all of the test units. That data pad was undoubtedly behind his office door, and she knew the access code. Five years ago, when she had come to work at Stanson’s research lab, Stamph had discovered she preferred soil-grown coffee rather than the synthetic brew used in the lab. He had given her the access code to his office and encouraged her to enjoy his stock of real coffee. Chessa had never done it. Even as a lead researcher, using the director’s private coffee supply had seemed much too presumptuous.

In a moment, Chessa made a decision. Stamph’s datapad would allow her to monitor her test—a test that could be key to integrating the starship’s sensory and motor functions. That integration was the last big hurdle to making a mission to the stars possible. And she still remembered the code to his office door.

Inside, Stamph’s office was a sumptuous oasis of sophisticated style. A quiet retreat, it was a marked contrast to the starkly functional improvisations of the main lab. The walls were wood paneled with built-in bookshelves. Rows of leather-bound printed volumes of Cybernetic Psychologica and other research journals stood in ranks for ready reference. A portrait of Stamph hung above the sideboard where the coffee maker sat. Chessa immediately felt the impropriety of her intrusion, but she walked to Stamph’s desk where his data pad lay in the center. She picked it up, and a moment later she was back outside in the main lab.

Seven identical Advanced Autonomous Ship Control System units were arrayed in a regular grid at the center of the cavernous main bay. Abbreviated to AASCS and pronounced “ask us” by the researchers, the plan was for an AASCS unit to control each of World Federation’s monster starships. Chessa strode confidently toward AASCS Three, the unit she was using for her test. With Stamph’s datapad, she could have been anywhere, but standing next to the unit, she felt more connected to the system.

Stamph’s personal datapad was a little larger than a standard one. Its custom-tooled, bison-skin cover felt odd in her hands. She had watched Stamph use it many times. With a little surreptitious observation, she had even figured out how to access it. For some reason, the man disdained biometric security. She had watched him enter his manual passkey, a code similar to the one he had given her to view his personal calendar. No one was around today to see her use the boss’s data pad. Yes, it was a minor indiscretion, but it would keep her important test on schedule.

Chessa entered Stamph’s passkey. A new, second login screen popped up. Chessa closed her eyes in annoyance. She had forgotten the recent security upgrade. However, with an extra moment’s fiddling, she unlocked the pad. Chessa smiled slyly. Stamph had been lazy and used the same password for both logins.

Finally connected to the lab’s system, she brought up AASCS Three’s current status. Even though the data nexus was unhappy, her test was still running. She double-checked the formerly lagging transmission rate and saw it was exactly where it should have been.

Chessa sighed and smiled with relief. Reassured that her test was running properly, she had nothing to do but wait. She stretched out the crick in her neck and looked over the top of the hemispheric outer shell of AASCS Three. Shorter than average height, she was just tall enough. Inside the shell, a cryogenic system cooled the semiquantum processing circuits that operated silently in its heart.

With Stamp’s datapad in hand, Chessa had direct access to everything in the lab. That power made her curiosity irresistible. What was going on with AASCS Six? That unit was running a stability test of Tossel’s sensory data reporting system. Chessa decided to check its status as a favor to the woman. She flicked her finger across the screen to bring up unit six. Unused to the different pad, her finger traced too far, and the system defaulted to the master AASCS list.

Chessa started for the unit six icon but stopped. There were too many icons. Puzzled, she counted them. Symbols for the AASCS units were lined up in an orderly column—but there were eight icons instead of seven. Eight?

Mystified, she selected the first icon. The screen changed to display the environmental analysis and control simulation that unit one was running—just as it was supposed to be. She started for the second icon but paused. She knew what all seven units were doing. But AASCS Eight? She and the other control systems managers had direct access to all units—all seven that were in the main lab, anyway. What was AASCS Eight?

She hesitated before she selected the eighth icon. Could there be a reason she shouldn’t access unit eight? After a moment’s consideration, she decided that since control systems managers had been given access to all the AASCS systems, all must mean all eight. She stared blankly at the seven AASCS units on the floor of the lab, but she was really thinking about the pad in her hand. Her justification was weak, but it wasn’t like a simple status check would interrupt any simulation test the unit was running. No, she was simply curious. What was AASCS Eight doing—if anything?

Chessa tapped the icon decisively. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. The screen should have filled with the unit’s top-view schematic of its functional units, with indicators showing whether they were active or dormant. The lack of response disappointed Chessa. She had hoped to find . . . What had she hoped to find? A mystery? She shrugged and was about to select the icon for AASCS Three when a small message box popped up in the lower right corner of the pad: “Initiating sensory interface analysis.”

The eighth unit had never been used? The interface analysis was the first step to start communications with any of the AASCS units. Each unit was constructed to mimic the functional connections of an organic brain. Recreating a human brain, rather than fashioning some new, poorly understood thinking entity, had been safer. After the tragedy of the Chicago AI that had run amok, research on truly artificial, self-aware intelligences had been banned. That was why each AASCS unit was put together like an organic brain. Like an organic brain, communications were routed through a unit’s sensory interface directly to the code/decode functional structure of the AASCS artificial brain.

So where had this eighth unit come from? Was it being held in reserve? Was that why it had not been used? She had a thought and checked the access log. She blinked, and her eyes opened wide. A full screen of access dates and times appeared. Scrolling back, the log contained a long, long list. She jumped to the beginning. The first log-in was well over nine years ago, about a year and a half after the lab’s Project Starships AASCS testing had started. Since then—she scrolled the list—there were dozens, maybe a hundred or so, but they had all started with the same initiation of the sensory interface.

An eighth unit? A unit that was reinitialized every time it was used? Chessa stood up and walked around the lab, looking at nothing in particular, while her brain wandered through the puzzle. She wasn’t certain what she had found, but her palms were sweaty. Stamph would have an explanation for this, but today, on her own, she couldn’t help but feel that she had stumbled across something—wrong, maybe something bad. But what?

#

Awareness. Is this how being dead felt? There was nothing around him, nor were there any sensations from his body. Bram Cooper had only his thoughts. Aren’t I dead? Amelia’s husband had caught them together in an intimate moment. She had warned him he was capable of anything, but Cooper had been cocky about the danger. Yeah, this was not the first time his cocky had gotten him into trouble. He would have smiled at the play on words, but he could not feel his lips. What had happened? Where was he?

Noise caught his attention. It sounded like ocean surf. “Hello?” he ventured. Sparks of light appeared. Nothing happened when he tried to blink and move his eyes to see more clearly. He could not feel his eyes, but the longer he watched, the more lights he saw. Something was happening. He said, “Hello?” again.

#

“Hello?”

Chessa almost dropped Stamph’s datapad. The voice from the datapad’s speakers was scratchy—but recognizable. For a long time, she just stared at the shiny surface of the datapad. The voice came again, more distinctly this time. “Hello?”

Chessa cleared her throat. “Uh, hello?” Her mind was blank. She had no idea what was happening.

“Hey, somebody is there.” The voice sounded relieved. “So what happened? How come I’m not dead?”

It was some time before Chessa managed to ask, “Who are you?”

“You didn’t find my ID? Okay, my name is Bram Cooper. I work at Stanson’s AASCS development lab.”

Bram Cooper? Chessa had been with the AASCS lab for five years, but she didn’t recognize the name. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. The lab was a pretty focused environment, but she knew high-powered intellects liked to play sophisticated practical jokes.

“So where am I?” The voice paused. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re a nurse or something, I don’t seem to be able to feel anything.” After another pause, “My vision isn’t so hot either.”

“I . . . I . . .” Chessa could think of nothing to say. She pictured Walter, the burly head of the vocal interface development. He was given to making bad puns, so maybe he—

“Hey, is there something wrong with my eyes?”

While it could be a joke, the voice sounded alarmed, a level of refinement in communication capability she had never seen in the lab. Chessa’s head was awhirl with confusion, but eyes? She looked down at the datapad. Eyes. She flipped to the menu for unit eight’s visual input and toggled it to the AASCS lab camera.

“Whoa! We’re in the lab, huh? So what’s going on? This is a video feed, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “You wanted to see, so I turned on a camera.”

“Is that you over by AASCS Three?”

Chessa nodded again, but in case he could not see the motion, she said, “That’s right.”

“Okay, so where am I, and why is the only thing I can see a video feed?”

“I . . . You . . .” Chessa stopped to organize her thoughts before she continued. “You are AASCS Eight—whatever that is.”

“AASCS Eight? Huh.” After a long pause, the voice—Bram Cooper?—asked, “What’s the date?” After she told him, Cooper said, “Ten years?” It was not a question as much as it was a statement of disbelief. “So I’ve been—what, dead? For ten years?”

While the AASCS units were designed to functionally mimic a human brain, unit eight was claiming to actually be a person? Chessa stared at Stamph’s datapad. “What’s going on?” she asked, still suspecting some sort of joke.

It was some time before Cooper spoke again. “Scanned and ported, I guess. But ten years? It took you guys ten years to get me up and running?”

Chessa had an answer for that question. “I don’t think so. The access log shows this unit was activated maybe a hundred times over a period of—hold on.” She checked the log and found a chilling confirmation. “A little less than ten years.” The only sound in the lab was the faint echo of coolant pumps on the floor below. If this was a joke, she saw no progress to a punchline. She added, “If it matters, my name is Dr. Chessa Valentine.”

For a long time, Cooper said nothing in return. Finally, the speakers on the datapad said, “That bastard.” Before Chessa could ask what he meant, Cooper demanded, “What are the settings for hippocampus activity?”

Three flicks on the datapad and Chessa had the answer. “Zeroed out.” With that, she understood what he had asked. She looked up at the video feed’s camera. “No long-term memory formation.”

“Each time the son of a bitch accesses this unit, he gets to start all over again and gloat.”

“Gloat? Who does?” Chessa was lost again.

“Stamph.” Cooper made a sound, and even with the small speakers, it was clearly a snort of disgust. “Without a hippocampus, I can’t make any new memories. For me it’s always like it just happened. That suits him perfectly.”

She was still lost. “What happened?”

Cooper did not answer right away. “He killed me. Stamph did.”

Stunned, Chessa managed to stutter, “I—I don’t understand.”

“No reason why you should, but he’s got to be the reason I’m here in AASCS Eight. It’s a long story.” After a pause, he added, “Could you tell me your name again?”

Whatever kind of intelligence construct this was, it had a story to share. Still unsure what she was dealing with, Chessa decided to play along. She could get valuable insight by listening. She sat down in one of the worn chairs of the nearby collaboration station. With another thought, she set the system to forward a duplicate of this conversation to her private, unregistered account. The stakes were high. If the story was true, she had uncovered a crime, a crime that could affect not only her job but the whole lab. And if it was false, the whole Bram Cooper identity made up, there was still the question of who—or what—had made up the tale.

She looked up at the camera and smiled. “So, why don’t you tell me your story while I decide what sort of a construct I’m dealing with here? I’m going to make sure you can remember this conversation by bringing your hippocampus back online.” With a couple of deft flicks, she activated the function controlling formation of long-term memories. She told him her name again, and, curious to see how the construct would respond to social cues, she added, “But please call me Chessa.”

“Chessa it is. Thank you.”

“So where does this story begin?”

“Right here in the lab. I was working on mimicking the functionality of the posterior cerebellar vermis region’s interpretation of the Purkinje cells’ output in the ship’s AASCS navigational system.”

“Okay, not my area of expertise. Dr. Mangholtz is working on that.”

“Mangholtz. He must be new.”

“She. Actually, she’s been here longer than I have.”

“How long has it been?” His tone said he knew he had been told but could not remember. Without a hippocampus, he had forgotten.

“You claim it’s been ten years. I’ve been here five.”

“Thank you. Anyway, I got to know Amelia, and one thing led to another—”

“Excuse me? Amelia?”

“Stamph. Amelia Stamph. His wife.”

“I’m sorry, but Dr. Stamph’s wife’s name is—”

“Don’t tell me,” Cooper interrupted. “Is it Ella?”

How could Cooper know that if it had been ten years? “Yes, but—”

“It figures. We all thought Stamph was grooming her to be his next one.”

“Next one?”

“Yeah, he had been married to Margot before Amelia. When I started here, Amelia was his favorite around the lab. He was always praising her work, letting her go to the good conferences, that sort of thing. Do you know what I mean?”

Chessa’s cheeks flushed, and a tingle of recognition scurried down her back. She knew exactly what he meant because that was the way Stamph treated her. Was he grooming her? That was an unsettling thought, one she would have to consider later. Right now she wanted Cooper’s story. “You said ‘one thing led to another’?”

“Yeah. Amelia and I—well, she was . . .” After a long pause, Cooper continued, “No, if all that’s left of me is a map of my brain stored inside a box, the least I can do is be honest. It was me. I went after her—pursued her sexually, I mean.”

“Why?”

“Huh?”

“Why did you pursue her?”

Cooper paused then chucked. “Shoot, why does any guy? She was good looking.”

“Is that all?” Cooper had given an obvious answer, but were there other reasons? Something uniquely human?

This time, Cooper paused before he asked, “Psychoanalysis, doc?”

She shrugged. “If you like.” With a slight smile she added, “Not exactly my area, though.”

“Well, I guess it was because I usually think with my dick when it comes to women.” Chessa let his answer hang, wondering if he would elaborate, and he did. “Then there’s the whole power thing. You know, the boss’s wife?” He sighed. “I knew her . . . I mean Amelia and I were, you know, coffee-pot friends before she started up with Stamph. I guess part of it was just hoping she’d see what a miserable prick he was.”

Chessa nodded and gestured an invitation. “Sorry for the interruption. You were saying?”

“Well, anyway, we had a pretty good time of it until Stamph caught us. Last thing I remember, he came through the door and popped me with something. I don’t think it was a gun, but every muscle in my body cramped up solid.”

“And then what?”

“And then you turned me on.” He laughed a little. “So to speak.”

“Were you always this much of a smart-mouth?”

Cooper said nothing for a long time. “Yeah,” he finally admitted, “and I guess maybe that was part of the problem. Stamph didn’t like me right from the start. I suppose the idea of me and Amelia really set him off.”

“How did you get, uh, where you are today? What is AASCS Eight?”

“AASCS Eight is the construct that will eventually go into the starship. I’m surprised you don’t know about it.”

Chessa thought for a minute. It made sense there was an eighth unit that would be kept away from experimental tinkering until the construct it would house was finalized. She was unaware of its existence, but with her focus on her own research, that did not mean it had been deliberately kept secret from her. Cooper still had not answered the first part of her question. “How did you end up in AASCS Eight?”

“I don’t know for sure, but Amelia warned me Stamph was capable of anything. As for me getting inside, we started the project by doing deep scans of the nervous systems of several primate species. We ported them into the first AASCS units to see how their organizational structures functioned within the AASCS connectome construct. It wouldn’t be a big leap to do the same thing to a human brain. I assume that’s what Stamph did to me.”

“Deep scanned and imprinted on a reserve AASCS unit.” She nodded in an exaggerated fashion so he—it?—could see. “I wasn’t here for that part of it.” She looked up sightlessly while she racked her memory. She remembered hearing something about that part of the developmental work, but with her focus on integration, she hadn’t paid much attention. She spread her hands uncertainly. “I guess it could be possible, and it’s a good story.” After moment, she asked, “So what did he do with your body?”

“That’s the easy part. The scanner probes the whole body’s nervous system down to the cellular level. Once it’s done, all that’s left is pink goo. A little flush and rinse—no obvious evidence unless they check for genomic residue.”

“What about his wife?” Chessa saw a hole in Cooper’s story. “Didn’t you say Amelia was there? Wouldn’t she be a pretty big loose end?”

“Amelia’s not all that big.” After the quick rejoinder, he paused, then sighed. “Okay, weak humor aside, I can’t help you with that one. He could have disappeared Amelia just as easily as he did me. Or, he could have just terrorized her into a divorce.”

“She was a witness to a murder.”

Time passed before the speakers sounded again. “Was it murder? I can see a rather existential question here. My part in this conversation raises serious doubts about my so-called murder. Besides, if Stamph did it right, and believe me he’s clever enough, there would have been no evidence of a murder. It would be her word against his.” There was a humorless chuckle. “Wonder if they would admit my testimony.”

Chessa sat and thought about what he had said. Stamph was a murderer? It was hard to believe from the way he had treated her. But, if he was grooming her . . . ? She shuddered.

“So, did I pass the Turing test?”

She had been thinking, and his interruption startled her. “Turing test?” She smiled. “Could I tell if I’m speaking to an artificial intelligence or a real human?” She made a dismissive gesture. “That’s old hat. The Chicago AI passed that test a long time ago.”

“And that didn’t turn out so well, did it?” His voice, tinny as it was through the small speakers, sounded concerned.

“No, you’ve convinced me you are—were?—human. Your conversational interpretations are all standard. Your pronoun disambiguation is perfect except when you make a joke. Besides, you passed an even tougher test.” She smiled and hoped he could see it on the video pickup. “You passed the smartass test.”

“I’ve never heard of that.”

“Well, I just made it up. There’s no way a Chicago-type AI could bandy words about like that and even slip in a couple of sly sexual innuendos. No, I can believe you were human. Maybe a jerk, but a human.”

When he did not answer right away, she thought about the insult she had just thrown out. She had responded to Cooper just as if he had been a flesh and blood colleague who had needed a reminder to be more professional. She had responded as if his story were true, but if it was true, she had skewered a disembodied person. She added, “I didn’t really mean that part about you being a jerk. I’m sorry. I was kind of kidding.”

“But not kidding kindly.”

Relieved to hear that he had not taken offense, she activated the datapad’s direct video pickup. “There. Is that better? I should have let you see me better earlier.”

“Thank you, Chessa.” 

He sounded grateful. The AASCS unit must be a very dark box for Bram Cooper. Although she still had doubts, she was inclined to believe Cooper’s story. But if true, what must he be feeling behind his bravado? She hadn’t had much training in psychology, but she knew an accepting attitude from a counselor would help. “How are you feeling about all of this? Does it make you angry?”

“Quite a question, Chessa. What do I feel?” He paused. “Anger? That would be a natural response, but the real gut-level fury I should feel at Stamph for killing me isn’t there.” There was a thoughtful pause. “Interesting. They built these AASCS units with an architecture designed to operate like a human brain. With all the functionality they included, they left out most of the biochemical interactions with the rest of the body—things like the adrenal glands and so on.” He paused. “So, yeah. I’m angry, but it’s not the kind of pick-up-a-crowbar reaction I would have had, uh, before. No, it’s more like I recognize abstractly there has been an injustice and something should be done.”

“Like what?”

Cooper didn’t answer right away. Finally, he said, “I’m not exactly in a position to do much, am I?”

Chessa felt a sudden heaviness in her chest. Yes, she was the one in a position to make a decision, a decision for action that could disrupt her work—her life. “You mean I need to do something.” 

“You want me, a disembodied entity, to make a moral judgment for you?”

“I think you’re trying to manipulate me.” She sighed. “But you’re right. The man in the machine. Where does this go from here?” She stood up. “I need to think.”

“What do I do in the meantime? I mean, it’s not like I can sit and twiddle my thumbs or something.”

She pressed the palm of her hand against her forehead. “Too many things to think about!” she protested. Stamph’s datapad was heavy in her hand. “Would you mind if I shut you—I mean, deactivated you until I have some time to think?”

“You turned me on once. I’m sure you can do it again.”

She rolled her eyes. “That’s supposed to make me want to help you?” Bram Cooper, even imprisoned in a machine, was a character. “Okay, I’m going to deactivate AASCS Eight until I figure something out.” She shook her head. “It’s been . . . interesting . . . getting to know you.”

“Good night, fair princess Dr. Chessa Valentine. I will see you on the morrow . . . or whenever.”

After Chessa had shut down AASCS Eight, deleted the activity log, and deactivated the pad. She sat there thinking for a long time before she remembered the test she was running. “Shit!” She swore once more even though there was no one to hear. She had come in today to stay on schedule, not find a new problem—a new problem so big and stinking ugly it could sink her career.

She returned Staph’s datapad to his office after she had wiped it off with a tissue. Her fingerprints were gone, but an intensive analysis would probably reveal her DNA. The datapad lay innocently on Stamph’s desk, but inside it carried a bomb, explosive information that could wreck the whole starship project.

That night, Chessa got very little sleep. She lay in bed reviewing her conversation with Cooper. A man in a machine? It was hard to believe Cooper’s story, but it was hard to disbelieve it as well. His analysis of his motivations for seduction—would an AI have offered that insight? And if Cooper was truly a disembodied human, his reaction when she had called him a jerk felt all too real. Could such reactions conceivably be programed?

Yet if it were true, what could she do about it? What did Cooper’s living death mean? Would this story of adultery, revenge, and murder jeopardize her work? Her job? And what would it do to the whole starship program? Could the effort to reach the stars be derailed by a scandal at the heart of its cutting edge research? Whatever Stamph had done to Cooper—was it murder?—worth the future of the whole human race?

By the time she awoke from a fitful doze Monday morning, Chessa had spent hours during the night turning over one idea after another in her mind. She hadn’t yet decided what to do. In the daylight, the more she thought about Cooper, a voice from inside an AASCS unit, the more farfetched the idea seemed. While the conversation had been convincing in the moment, there were just too many impossible factors. Twice during the night, unable to sleep, she had replayed her copy of their conversation, thinking about what she heard. While it wasn’t impossible, the whole scenario was improbable. The more she puzzled over it, the less certain she became. Doubts tormented her. A mountain of worries undermined her earlier resolution to take action. No, first she needed more information.

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