From the author: This story was published in Analog in 2013, and tied for fourth place in that year's AnLab reader awards. It's about AI...but it's ultimately also about war.
A Star To Steer By
by Jennifer R. Povey
They towed the Ai Weiwei back to the Lagrange point. The ship was more battered than any ship had a right to be, and yet return.
In one piece was perhaps an exaggeration. Had the vessel held any crew before, it certainly did not now. The hull resembled, in places, a lace doily, more holes than reality. Both engines were more or less intact, but the port system drive was clearly fried, char marks around the exhaust.
In fact, it was obvious to any observer that the Ai Weiwei was a dead loss. This was not a ship that would fly again without the kind of total rebuild that cost more than a new ship, far more. The only reason to tow her in was for salvage. Recycling.
That did not really affect the tugs. They were only doing their job. The one person it affected most deeply was Ai Weiwei.
Her crew had, indeed, died, although a ship such as her carried very few crew. Humans were her backup...and her emotional support.
She mourned, for even a machine can mourn her comrades-in-arms. Her own survival felt to her like a bitter irony. Painful, even. That she should be so resilient as to survive when the humans, so much more "important" in the scheme of things, were not.
Maybe they would send her out alone, and bitterness flowed through her at the realization that she did not want to go.
This was the solar system. This was home for her. She had been built and activated here, in this space between the Earth and the sun. In this sanctuary, to which the enemy had yet to come. Had yet to come thanks to the effort of her and her sisters. Many of them, by sweet irony, named for activists for peace.
She knew who Ai Weiwei had been. Not even a she. A he. An activist. Centuries ago. When humans had still fought each other. That was unimaginable now.
Or perhaps only unimaginable to a mind designed and carefully programmed to fight those wars, yet awake and with emotions and feelings. The only reason she felt no physical pain was because she had been blessed with the capability to turn it off.
She wished she could do the same thing with her emotions.
The shipyard was a graveyard. Ai Weiwei was far from the only ship that drifted, half derelict, where they left her. Left her with a promise that she would be visited and checked on, a promise she was not sure she should believe. This might be a dumping ground, and many still felt that the ship-minds were not people. Were not deserving and worthy of the same considerations.
They left her, then, with only her grief for company. The remains had been removed for burial in space, and they might not even consider that she would want to be there, by vlink if nothing else.
They left her with nothing to do but think and remember.
Being a machine, she could have erased her memories. Could have let them go into a void, but then she would not be the person she was.
Would not and could not, and grief washed over her again, a grief she could no more let go of than she could fly on her own.
Which might never happen again.
"AL-9764, named 'Ai Weiwei'. Dead loss except for the ship brain. Would you agree?" The officer's voice was deadpan as he checked on his tablet.
"What's the state of the brain?" the woman walking next to him asked. By their light step, it could be determined that they were not on Earth, but some world with lighter gravity. In fact, they were on a spin station not far from the ship graveyard.
"Functional with some emotional trauma."
"I don't understand why we don't just do memory edits on them. They're computers, after all."
The officer scowled at her. "Ma'am," he said, lightly, but rather in the manner of a man talking to a woman he had to show respect for even though everything in him preferred not to. "Ship brains are very complicated. Editing their memories tends to remove one instability and introduce another. Sometimes they do it themselves, and then we have a mess." That was not entirely true, but he would not let her mind rape the beings he cared for.
"I find it hard to believe a computer would show such initiative. But that's besides the point. Can the brain be salvaged and transferred to a new ship?"
"Yes. But she might need..." His lips quirked. "Therapy, for want of a better word."
The woman just shot him a look. "We're in the middle of a war. A war we are, I would note, in grave danger of losing, and you want to give therapy to a jumped up toaster. Transfer the intact brains. Send them out again."
"I want to have a..." He tailed off as it really hit him that she wasn't going to budge. A civilian politician, who should have absolutely no say in military activities. Yet she did. Oversight committees. As the man in charge of the shipyard, he held the rank of admiral, but he was not respected in the way a combat admiral, somebody who had come up through the ranks would be. Truth was, he was only an engineer.
And Ai Weiwei was a mess. The ship had done her job. She'd denied a jump gate to the opposition, barely making it through herself before it blew. Now somebody would have to move another jump point out there, either by slowboat or by committing one of the huge capital ships. Neither side had many.
She had lost her entire crew and she had limped back. A human who had lost their entire unit would not be sent right back into combat.
But Ai Weiwei was just a ship. He scowled, then his comlink went off. Thank goodness. "I have to go, Ma'am," he said, bowing respectfully to the civilian and then leaving as quickly as basic etiquette allowed.
"Thanks," he said into the comlink.
"You don't know what I'm calling about."
"You rescued me from Secretary Carroll. I'd rather deal with a decompressed compartment."
"It's nothing like that, not quite, anyway. Come over to the shipyard and see."
Reluctantly, the admiral made his way in that direction. Or, perhaps, less than reluctantly. He didn't want to deal with something he had to 'see for himself'. But it did get him away from an officious civilian he badly wanted to ship back to Earth.
Ai Weiwei floated. Her body might be damaged beyond repair, but they had hooked her up for debriefing. Data flowed through her processors and networks, which equated to thoughts in her mind. Complicated thoughts.
Go out again. She couldn't. She was finally home and safe, except there was no home for her. Or for any of the humans. Nobody was getting discharged until the war was over.
Realization flowed through her that she was trapped, and she was trapped worse. Once the war was over, what use would there be for her? They would turn her off, would kill her.
For the first time in her existence, Ai Weiwei contemplated that most serious of military crimes: Desertion. Sent out again or destroyed, those were her fates and she doubted they would even give her the choice.
She was functional enough to salvage, so she would be salvaged. She turned off as much of her conscious thought as she could and let the remainder drift. As close as she could come, she slept.
Her chronometers told her for how long when her mind stirred again. She ignored them, tuning out the data in an almost human manner. It wasn't important.
What was important was that somebody was knocking on her electronic door. Somebody wanted to communicate with her.
She opened communications, hesitant, almost shy. "Ai Weiwei reporting."
"Admiral Cossett here. How are you feeling?"
Ai Weiwei liked Cossett. His name meant something comfortable...and either by coincidence or because he had done his best to live up to it, he was a comfortable man. He was one of the few who treated her as something other than a very sophisticated computer. She had often wished he had more to do with selecting crew, so that fewer of that type shipped out with her and her sisters.
Some people could not handle being on smart ships. Sometimes that didn't come out until too late. Once it had proved fatal to a ship and most of her crew.
Cossett, though, she trusted. He always treated her as if she was real. "Terrible." She wasn't going to lie to him.
"I'm trying to get you some time before they send you out again, but the oversight committee's here."
If she was human, she might have got the time. Maybe. Nobody was being treated well right now. They were losing the war. Ai Weiwei was sure of it. "And we're losing."
"We are. I can analyze debrief data. All of my faculties are intact. We haven't captured any jump points in months, only blown them. That's not a winning strategy. We're losing more ships than we can build, more ships than we can crew." She knew she was right. And that was why she would not, could not desert. She was loyal to her human creators and to the beautiful...not pristine, no, but better than she had been...world just a short hop in-system.
"I know, but don't say that in the hearing of Madam Oversight. Oh wait, do. She'd ignore you anyway."
If Weiwei had been equipped to laugh, she would, but the impulse lasted only a moment before her normal cold reason took over. If Cossett was talking this way to an inferior, he was worried. Very worried indeed.
She was worried, of course, herself. Worried about the future, about the world...and about her future. "Well, I suppose if we lose, we won't have to worry about what to do with decommissioned ships."
His response was grim. "That depends on who gets the political upper hand. For now, though, you're going to be transferred in a week."
A week, and then probably another to reprogram herself and learn her new body. That was all the 'shore leave' Weiwei was going to get. "I'd have got more shore leave if you'd been repairing me."
She could hear the fatherly resignation in Cossett's voice. "I tried. I really did. Now I have to...deal with something."
He hung up, but not before she caught the concerned note in his voice.
The conversation with Weiwei had, in fact, cheered Cossett up some. He just couldn't bring himself to tell her one of her sisters had just committed suicide.
There were supposed to be safeguards to keep the ship brains from doing more than maintenance changes. They could erase small portions of their memories, and sometimes did in order to avoid unpleasant remembrance.
Somehow, the Jellicoe had erased her entire consciousness, removing herself from existence.
He had promptly checked on every single damaged ship, if only for five minutes. None of the others seemed to be suicidal. Weiwei had seemed a bit too chipper, but that was her personality, to always sound as if she was in a good mood, no matter what.
He couldn't worry about it. They could still salvage the Jellicoe's hardware, not like when some rating hung himself.
And the suicide rates had gone up. If Weiwei could work out they were losing then Jellicoe could have worked out the same thing, just as quickly. The two had been printed off of the same basis. They were in truth sisters, their minds different only in nurture, not nature. Twins.
So, Weiwei had been his first concern. She was the only one of the same model here right now and in the state she was in physically...but she seemed to be okay.
They were losing the war. That thought sometimes made Cossett consider the same way out himself. People were realizing they would never be discharged and who knew what the aliens would do when they won.
They might offer terms, but Cossett was pretty sure they wouldn't be very generous. The best case scenario he could imagine was post World War I Germany - trampled on and forced to pay crippling reparations or war debts.
The worst case did not bear thinking about. Either way, they would demand Earth disarm...any scenario included the destruction of the ships he saw as his men...or perhaps his women, given they tended to adopt the female gender, influenced by cultural tendencies in that direction.
If things got to that, he could order the ships to flee, to disperse into interstellar space as slowboats. They could survive multi-year trips in a way humans could not, and then something of humanity would survive.
Humanity's children. He wondered if anyone else had thought of it. Not Madam Oversight, that was for sure. She saw the ships as mindless, thoughtless tools. He saw them as human creations with minds, and thus an extension of genus homo.
And one of them was dead. He had paperwork to fill out now. But he had talked to the ships from his office. He did not have to move.
He did not move until it was all done.
Weiwei's new body shone, but there were signs it had been put together in a hurry. True, her new paint job was one to be appreciated. Engines and weapons worked. Crew quarters were not quite finished, and would not need to be until testing was over.
You always tested without squishy humans on board, just in case. A malfunction in life support was easy to fix, but not often easy to fix quickly. People scrambling for suits was not something Weiwei ever wanted to see through her internal cameras again. Scrambling, not making it, dying. People she had cared about. Not loved, no, that word was too intimate. But cared about as one cared about comrades-in-arms.
She stretched her legs. She powered away from the shipyard and for a moment all of her worries were lost in the feeling of being able to move again, of being free in space once more. In some ways she was programmed to appreciate it, something akin to instinct buried deep in her core. Because it was only fair for a ship to enjoy being a ship.
To enjoy flying. She remembered something Cossett had said. That when all soldiers had been volunteers, they had willingly given up their home so others could have it.
Now most of them were draftees and she, of course, was built to be nothing else. If the war was lost, she would be destroyed by the enemy, or decommissioned as part of a treaty. Or she could run.
She could run right now. Her programming was no longer enough to stop her any more than it had been enough to stop Jellicoe from destroying herself.
Her duty was. The solar system was as close to home as she had. A home she could not appreciate or enjoy, but home nonetheless.
If, though, she was going to be decommissioned? Then she would run. She would mourn and she would run. She was not going to die, not pointlessly like that.
For now, she spun through her axis, testing her maneuverability, testing her steering. They had talked about sending smart ships out uncrewed. With no humans on board, she could maneuver in ways she would never dare with their fragile bodies present. It had been tried, though.
Jellicoe was one of the ones they had tried it with. Weiwei mourned, but she had not killed herself. Had not and would not. She wanted to live. She wanted Earth to live more, but if Earth was going to die or be enslaved, then...
She turned again. Thus it was that she was the first sentient to see it. The capital ship blazed out of hyperspace. Unlike her, it needed no jump point to make the transition. It carried the huge equipment with it, in the toroids that emerged from its rear.
It was not a human capital ship. They had taken every precaution they could to stop the aliens from finding the solar system. Now they had.
This ship would get away and then the fleet would be here. Unless they could be stopped before they reported back. Communications antennae. She knew where those were. And she knew exactly how to disable a capital-class ship.
One ship alone could not do it.
No. Calculations went through her mind quickly. One ship alone could not do it and live. She was uncrewed. There was no life to sacrifice except her own. Shoot the antennae, then set a ramming course towards one of the jump toroids. They needed all three to jump.
A soldier. She had been created to be that, not given the choice, not given a way out, and right now, she could run. She could run for the Jovian jump point and likely be unnoticed, likely get away. Live for a very long time out in the wilds of the stars, free.
That was not the course she set.
This story originally appeared in Analog.