Best of Intentions
Age Rating: 16 +
I keep telling myself that I had had to kill Henry. Maybe I'm just rehearsing excuses for when the others notice he's missing. Will they understand?
I can entertain myself, mostly. That's a great asset on a long voyage like this. But when I tired of my own company I would call on Henry or Cecil or Mary.
Henry had had quite a reputation as a Chess player, for a while, a long time ago. After his competitive playing days, people discovered he had talents as a tutor and coach. He also had a facility for learning other games and he was always very accommodating. Our acquaintanceship began in refreshing struggles on the 64-square battle field. When my interest in his favourite flagged, he was quite willing to play something else. Looking back, the trouble started one day when we were playing checkers.
"My uncle taught me this game," I remarked nostalgically.
"You can play it with him when you get home," Henry remarked in his rich tenor.
"No, I can't," I replied, letting the fondness of my memories come through in my voice. "He died years ago. In fact, I've probably out-lived all my near relatives."
He said no more about it and tried another topic. Sadly, Henry's interests were pretty much limited to the history and strategy of various games.
With Cecil, on the other hand, I can discuss history and sociology and all sorts of related matters. One evening, I made some idle remark about Africans' lives before Europeans 'discovered' the interior of their continent. That was another trigger for the later trouble.
At our next meeting I was reminded of just how good a researcher Cecil was. He was ready to compare and contrast the everyday life of myriad tribes. I was wondering how to turn the conversation when he mentioned a game called Owari.
"Tell me more about it," I demanded.
"Wari or Owari," Cecil explained in a didactic tone "is a two-person race game like Backgammon. All its variants require a track consisting of a small number of pits, which can be scooped out of the ground, and a few pebbles or shells as playing pieces. Nothing very complex."
That part wasn't complex. But when he showed me diagrams and quoted authorities on strategy suitable to multitudinous versions my eyes came close to crossing.
"This is too much for me to take in. I'd understand better if we could just play a game or two."
There was what you might call a pregnant pause.
"I don't play games," he said stiffly and I couldn't decide if it was in irritation or apology.
"Oh!" What else could I say?
Talking with Mary is different again. We often start with something about Art or Philosophy. She loves playing with language, and has the voice to do it justice. She likes ambiguity and subtle analogies. Our verbal rambles leave me wondering how we got from point A to point X. She's the kind of person who might enter a library in search of a specific book, but be lured off track by some unusual, unrelated title. Thank goodness the ship's library lets her do that. I know both Mary and Cecil used that library a lot after we began our little chats. It let me talk with the pilot about something other than instrument readings.
"Henry," I said the next time I chatted with him. "If you don't mind I'd like to play a different game today. It's called Owari."
"Certainly. If you explain the rules to me, we'll see what we can do."
As I described what I remembered of the game he figured out a way to simulate the board and pieces since we could hardly dig holes in the decking or furniture. Of course he was soon beating me consistently so I called a halt.
"Thank you," he said politely as he always did. "Forgive me saying this if it offends, but if you'd allow me to, I could suggest some minor changes to the rules of your game. It could prove to be even more entertaining."
Intellectual honestly tweaked my conscience.
"Henry, it's not my game. I heard about it recently. I'm not sure what the rules are. It's a whole bunch of games really. I was just trying to remember one version."
"Oh? What do you mean?"
"Well, it came up in a conversation I was having about Africa," I said and went on to explain about Cecil and his research. As I was finishing my explanation, I remembered there was something which really was more important which I had to do and I had to excuse myself.
A few days later, I got a surprise. I was talking with Cecil when, out of the blue, he remarked, "Someone called Henry got in touch with me. He was asking about Owari, so I passed my references on to him."
"And?" I asked, fascinated.
"And nothing. I haven't heard from him since."
Mary surprised me even more the next time I spoke with her.
"I encountered a friend of yours in the library recently," she said. "Somebody called Henry?"
"In the library?"
Rather than answer me she said, "He asked for help in tracking down a reference."
"I'm sorry," she said, guiltily, I thought. "I can't tell you. Henry particularly asked me not to."
How odd! I tried to coax her into spilling the beans, but she wouldn't, so in the end I was forced to await developments.
I didn't have to wait long. During my next sleep period Cassandra, the pilot, woke me despite strict orders not to.
"What is it?" I asked, annoyed.
"Your little friend, Henry, just tried to call head office."
She made it sound like it was my fault. Who knows? Maybe it was. But fault or not, the responsibility was mine.
"You can't let him do that."
"Thank you very much for explaining my job to me."
"Sorry. What's the situation?"
"He submitted a bunch of messages to be transmitted. I read and then destroyed them. He resubmitted them with a 'send regardless' instruction attached."
"So you have to send them?"
"Puh-leez! Remember who you're talking to. Right now I'm trying to keep his grubby little finger off the Transmit button -- metaphorically speaking. If all else fails I may have to cut power to all the antennae." For safety reasons every one of our electronic ears could become a mouth. Even if she managed to suppress the messages a transmitter could send out a click and we couldn't risk that.
"What do you want me to do?"
I knew the answer, or at least I suspected it. I just wanted somebody else to say it.
"We need you to go and do one of those things that only you can do and which you do, may I say, so well. I recommend you do it now!"
"All right," I said resignedly. "Where do I go?"
"Deck three. Starboard passage. Cabin three nine seven."
I made my way down to the cross passage on three and across to the starboard passage that runs almost the whole length of the ship. I could see lights on near where the door must be.
I called Cassandra and told her, "I'm there."
"I know. Get on with it."
I got on with it by pressing my override to the lock and opening the door. I was tempted to pause at this point but time was crucial.
I raised the spring-loaded cover over the red button and pushed it. After all the indicator lights had gone out, I had to use both hands to disconnect the leads from the power supply, secure them, and fit a cap over the outlet. I backed out into the passage and closed and locked the door.
I knew I'd been in time because Cassandra didn't bother me as I made my way back to the control room. Only after I was back in my cradle did she deign to speak.
"Would you like to see the messages he was trying to send?" she asked in a falsely polite tone. When I gave my assent she showed me the first three addressed to the Library of Congress, the Genealogical Society, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Each requested information about a few people and their descendants, if any.
"Are the rest like this?"
"You might as well destroy them then."
"I shall keep a copy for you," she said primly.
Sometimes she gets obstinate and does things that don't make sense to me, perhaps simply to annoy me. However, she has her reasons and they usually prove correct.
"These were your last known relatives. The genealogical section of our library hasn't been updated since it was installed. Henry apparently noticed the discrepancy in dates and enlisted Mary's help to investigate further."
"What?" I asked, confused. "Why?"
"I think he wanted to repay your gift with one of his own. And he felt sorry for you because he thought you'd lost touch with your family."
"My gift? He felt sorry for me? What are you talking about?”
"You needn't shout. ... Are you upset because you're feeling guilty for having killed him?"
"I am not shouting!" I caught myself and continued more calmly but stiffly. "And I did not kill anyone. I turned off a rogue machine for the good of the mission!"
I sulked for a bit. Technically, I was not shouting. You cannot shout when all that is left of you biologically is a blob of convoluted grey jelly, a brain stem, and a bit of spinal cord. As one of the half-dozen cyborgs orbiting in the Belt in modified asteroids, my mission is to spy on the aliens who have been trying to reshape Earth by means of comets nudged out of the Oort Cloud. In order not to give ourselves away we have to avoid unnecessary transmissions.
The pilots like Cassandra are AIs, Artificial Intelligences. The designers, unsure that they had planned for every contingency, decided that each pilot had to work with a human. Normal humans have big drawbacks for a job like this because they need food, water and air which are both bulky and heavy. Also they have relatively short life spans. Cyborgs don’t have those problems. As well, we were equipped differently from the service robots which each have a single equipment arm. We could handle the jobs that required two co-ordinated hands. That's why I'd had to deal with Henry. Maybe every benefit has its own peculiar flaw.
"Cassandra, you said something about a gift?"
"Yes, two gifts actually; yours to him and his to you.”
"Mine? What did I give him?"
"First, a new game; second, knowledge of other persons, namely Cecil and Mary; third, through Cecil, access to thousands of games he hadn't known existed."
I didn't challenge her describing them as 'persons'; I thought of them that way myself. AIs don't get bored like humans, but cyborgs do. That's why we're provided with a library and three independent AIs, equipped with voice recognition and response, to provide entertainment and do information retrieval. From some computing tradition, these AIs are all designated as 'engines'. I call the Multivariate Research Engine 'Mary' and the Search Engine for the Social Sciences 'Cecil' as puns on their acronyms. I could have called the Games Related Engine something like ‘Greg’ but for some reason I’d called him ‘Henry’ when I’d activated him.
Instead I asked, "What was his gift to me?"
"It seems that that was to have been a list of the names and addresses of your living relatives. He thought you were just a passenger on a voyage and might like to send them a message."
"A message," I murmured, flabbergasted.
"Yes. I gather he got the idea from one of the books Mary referred him to."
She displayed the title for me. Wish You Were Here: the History of the Picture Postcard. She left me alone to think about it.
I did for some time. When that got me nowhere, I tried sleeping again but I couldn't settle. I thought about adjusting my brain chemicals or asking Cassandra to do it. Maybe not such a good idea. I thought about how I'd relaxed in the past -- the happy hours spent escaping from, and yet preparing to better cope with, the even longer hours I spent working with the pilot.
"Yes, oh master." I try to ignore it when she gets this way.
"Can we risk turning Henry on again?"
"You're asking me?"
"I don't think so," she singsonged.
"But I need a distraction. Who can I play games with?"
"There are two other perfectly good AIs down there," she said in a light, matter-of-fact way.
"Yes, I know. But Mary doesn't have the right interface. ... And Cecil ... Well. Cecil doesn't play games."
"Yes", she said, a bit smugly. "I know."