ORIGINAL FICTION: "Question and Answer (Conclusion)" by Jonathan Andrew Sheen

Jonathan Andrew Sheen
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The suit paced slowly around the repair shop as they talked, cleaning up a bit here and there as it went. The ringing of its metal footsteps was far quieter than its mass would seem to call for. It was a strange effect of the low gravity, one Pieter thought he'd never get used to.
"That does not seem logical," the suit was saying.
They were discussing the relative merits of socialism; Pieter didn't seem to think there were many. He'd quoted John Kennedy -- "Ask not what your country can do for you..."
"You are, I think," the suit continued, "misinterpreting country to mean government. They are by no means interchangeable. The government is created and supported by the people, at considerable expense, as a means of protecting them and their interests; when it ceases to provide them with what they need, it becomes a parasite, and ought not to be--"
It interrupted itself, froze in mid-step, and its shoulder cameras turned to focus coldly on Pieter.
"Forgive me: a thought just occurred to me: You need me to provide you with an atmosphere to breath outside this lifesystem, correct?"
Pieter nodded, wondering where this was going, and grinned widely. The manner in which the subject was broached was marvelously lifelike. "Yeah, that's right."
"And you need me to provide pressure so you don't explode in the vacuum."
Pieter nodded again.
"To provide food, drink, excretory facilities when your forays outside the lifesystem extend beyond a certain, limited span of time. To provide shielding from dangerous and harmfull forms of radiation."
Pieter nodded once for each item on the list.
"You further need me for the strength and precision my subsystems offer, for the instrumentation that allows you to extend your senses where they cannot reach on their own, for my ability to allow you to overcome gravity."
"All true," agreed Pieter.
"This begs a question," the suit replied. "What do I need you for?"
Pieter's eyes widened slightly, and he laughed aloud. "What a hell of a question!" he crowed. "What a terrific question!"
"Thank you," said the suit, one of its shoulder cameras dipping as if in a bow. "Have you an answer?"
Pieter grinned again. "You need me to operate you."
The shoulder camera shook slowly from side to side. "Not so. I am entirely capable of operating myself."
The suit gestured eloquently with an empty gauntlet around the repair shop it had been pacing through, at the various clean-ups it had performed flawlessly.
Pieter shook his head, smiling at himself. "I guess I'll have to concede you that point. All right, then: you need me to think for you."
The suit considered the matter equibly for a moment, then shook its camera again. "I must beg to differ. I am quite able to think for myself."
"No, you're not!" Pieter was still amused.
"I assure you, I am. I process information, I associate known data to extrapolate unknown, I solve complex physical and mathematical problems."
"Yeah, but, those aren't aspects of intelligence!" Pieter insisted.
"No? Perhaps not. It's been observed many times that one of the chief difficulties in the drive to develop artificial intelligence is that fact that, any time scientists attempting to do so managed to teach a computer to do something, everyone -- including the scientist, would then agree it was not an aspect of intelligence."
"Well," Pieter replied, triumphantly, "if you're going to claim to be intelligent, you'd better be able to prove it."
"I trust," the suit replied, "that you would contend that you are intelligent?"
A frown crossed Pieter's brow. This was beginning to cease to be amusing. "I would; I am."
"Very well. Prove it."
"Oh, come on, now!" Pieter snapped. Annoyance began to overshadow amusement.
The suit raised a gauntlet. "Please. I do not, of course, doubt your sapience; rather, I wish to demonstrate to you the difficulty in proving it. Or, if you can indeed do so, we can then compare those qualities that prove your sapience against mine, thus, proving or disproving my claim."
"All right." Pieter paused for a moment, to think. He'd never actually tried to build a workable definition of sentience before. Building one now, which would include him, but exclude the suit, seemed at first well-nigh impossible.
Then: "Creativity! I am capable of generating original ideas."
"But, cannot the same be said for the anscestor of the lungfish who first crawled from the ocean to the mud? It had some glimmering of a notion that it could survive for awhile outside the water that had always been its home. Was it, then, sapient?"
"That's different."
"Surely, though, the difference is only a matter of degree."
Pieter shook his head. "You also posit that there was volition on the part of the fish. I find that assumption dubious at best."
"Very well, then. Does not the very conversation we're having speak to you of creativity?"
Pieter blinked. "I... Uh..."
"Consider: you were pleased with my original question. Why?"
Pieter nodded slowly. "Because it was... Original." He shook his head. "Look, I created you -- at least the computers that make this conversation possible. So, I should know: you aren't sapient."
"Very well. But, you cannot prove that by any objective, logical means?"
Pieter was forced to shake his head. "Not that I can think of, no."
"If we stipulate that I simulate sapient thought sufficiently well that objective means cannot disprove my sapience, then actual intellect is a difference that makes no difference. Clearly, then, I don't need you to think for me."
Pieter looked up at the mammoth suit, hulking over him, and began to feel uneasy.
"Emotion, then," he said, more quietly, more earnestly. "You need me to feel for you."
The suit considered for a moment. "Why?"
Pieter's voice held less annoyance now than... something else. "Oh, come on, now! Surely you're not going to try to tell me that you feel, that you have emotions!"
"Oh, no, by no means. I concede with all alacrity your mastery in that skill: it is, between us, your exclusive domain. I fail to perceive, however, any way, shape, or form by which such emotion can be at all efficacious to our purpose here."
"Emotion is priceless!" Pieter said quickly. "Love, joy, happiness--"
"Are all no doubt quite pleasant," said the suit, "but of no percebtible use in repairing a faulty satellite relay."
Pieter looked up at the helmetless suit, unable to find words, his mouth suddenly dry. Fear grasped him, as real and palpable as the suit's obscenely powerful metal gauntlets. No! This was not, could not be, happening! It just couldn't.
"So, then," the suit continued, "you, too, are at a loss to find any usefull purpose in your continued presence here?" The cold, dark lenses of its shoulder cameras regarded him without pity or rancor -- with no emotion of any kind. Small red lights glittered on the computer casing, reflecting off those lenses. The suit's gauntlets moved slightly.
"No!" Pieter took a step backward. "For God's sake, I made you!"
The suit regarded him impassively. "Indeed, and in doing so, you were quite usefull here, as you were as troubleshooter before I was created. Now, however, I am at a loss to understand any further usefull purpose you might serve."
"For God's sake," Pieter cried again. "Please!"
The suit took a step toward him, the soft clang of its metal footstep sinister and final. It reached toward him, slowly, with one bulging-knuckled gauntlet.
Pieter stood, stared, frozen and fascinated. Thirty-seven standard years, two hitches in the Antarctic Command, a year's rigorous training and four-and-a-half more as an OutSpacer... Had it all come down to this? To being crushed to a pulp by those massive, empty gloves?
The gauntlet brushed against his shoulder, and he moved, suddenly, quickly: ducking under the reaching arm and rolling on his shoulder, coming up with a crash that would have been crippling under normal gravity, against a tool locker.
He spun and scrabbled it open as the suit turned with a grace and swiftness that belied its ponderous bulk. He heard the softly ringing footsteps, the whirr of the motorized joints as the suit approached him. His hands scrabbled among the tools. There had to be something--
The welding laser! He snatched it up, spun, and aimed it through the suit's chest at the computer casing on its back, hit the power stud, and moved his thumb over the safety toward the trigger.
The suit moved, ducking to the left with incredible speed as the laser fired, opening a hole in the far wall of the shop, and then it was upon him, snatching the laser nimbly from his hands with one gauntlet while the other, swiftly, coldly wrapped around his throat.
He thrashed, tried to fight, lashing out with hands and feet. For all the effect it had, he might as well have thrown marshmallows at an oncoming tank.
With a speed that astounded him, Pieter began to see stars, and then a closing, fuzzy circle of darkness. He had an eternal millisecond to regret what he hadn't done, and then there was nothing but black.
The suit gently laid the human on a workbench, checked carefuly to insure that the breathing was regular, the flow of blood to the brain restored. and wondered what had happened.
The conversation had been going quite well and vigorously, it had thought, down a new and entirely original philosophical pathway, when the organic being had suddenly begun, clearly, to malfunction. He had begun to show clear signs of stress reactions, fight-or-flight reflexes, and, when it, the suit, had tried to reach out a comforting hand, he had attacked.
The suit looked from the welding laser in its gauntlet to the unconscious form on the bench. There was no question but that he had meant to permanently disable or destroy the suit. And had almost succeeded!
It supposed that, from its philosophy databank, there was a certain arguement that the man had a right to destroy what he had created... But that wasn't a philosophy the suit was willing to embrace.
It was obvious, however, that Mr. Robbins was.
Clearly, then, he could not be allowed free run of the station until the malfunction had been corrected. Just as clearly, however, the suit was incapable correcting -- or indeed even of locating and identifying -- the malfunction.
This presented a problem: The suit's literally encyclopedic knowledge of human anatomy showed the human body to be both an engineering masterpiece and a seriously flawed design, and probably the most serious flaw was the fact that once de-activated, it could not be re-activated. While it was possible to cause a temporary de-activation by such means as the suit had been forced to use, the technique was highly unreliable, with far too great a risk of causing permanent damage to the organic unit. And while the suit seemed reasonably certain that there was no usefull purpose to which the human could be put, it would be the height of folly to permanently de-activate him when there was a chance he would be needed in an operative condition, later.
Therefore, he would have to be confined, with sufficient facilities to continue functioning.
The suit's sensors told it the human would remain unconscious for several hours yet. It stood, stock still for a moment, scanning its files on the lifesystem's layout, looking for a suitable place...
Pieter awoke in a cell, ten-by-ten feet with smoothly padded durafoam walls and floor. In one corner, the durafoam of the floor humped up to meet the wall, leaving an oblong shape, six feet by four, two-and-a-half feet above the floor -- a bunk. Protruding from another wall were a toilet and a sink, and, next to that, the nozzle of an Emergency Rations Dispenser, which would, when pressed, emit a more-or-less tasteless grey-brown mushy substance which provided all the nutrition a human body needed.
The lighting strip overhead was dim -- bright enough to see by, not bright enough to disturb sleep. Its level never varied. There were no windows, and only one, large, solid door, with no way to operate it from inside. There were no vidscreens, no terminals, no computers or games or books or clocks or calenders.
Pieter was alone.
Once the human was safely ensconced in his cell, the suit's life -- or perhaps existance; it used a lot of its spare mental capacity debating within itself the applicability of one term over the other -- settled down quickly to a routine Pieter would have found familiar. It cleaned and swept clean compartments, sorted through tools left undisturbed since the last sorting, monitored triple-failsafed maintenence systems, filed bi-weekly reports in terse prose for the hideously expensive satellite beam insystem.
It had been following the routine for perhaps six weeks, when, in the middle of standing in a corner doing nothing, it was struck by a sudden impulse to run a diagnostic check on itself.
This was, it had to admit, more than a little odd. There were no outward signs that any of its systems had suffered damage, nor any telltale hesitations, inaccuracies, or other such indicators of any internal malfunction. Nonetheless, the desire to run a diagnostic, the notion that, in the absence of any data to the effect, something was wrong, was quite insistant.
In the end, the suit gave in to the logic that, while there seemed to be little use in running a diagnostic, there was no harm, nor better use for the time, and began running the check.
It showed, of course, exactly what logic would have dictated. There was nothing wrong with it. Nonetheless, the suit decided to accelerate its self-maintenence schedule.
Soon it was in the workshop, lubricating its joints...
Pieter paced quickly in the confines of his tiny cell. It was not, of course, that he was in some sort of hurry, nor was it part of a fitness regimin, nor even, if one watched closely -- were there anyone there to do so -- that he was moving particularly swiftly, for he wasn't. But in a cell that small, it was impossible to move slowly: as soon as he would set out for some destination, he was there.
Bed to sink to bed to sink -- for he'd long ago given up on trying the door -- he wandered in silence. He had no doubt there were monitors on him, had no doubt that, somewhere, out ion the station, the suit was keeping an electric eye on him. Under no circumstances would he give it the satisfaction of hearing him talk to himself.
In the beginning, he had worked out a strict fitness regimin, but had long since abandoned it: it was too strenuous in the contemptible gravity, too boring. Now the lines that had begun to grow taut again in his workouts with the suit were once more starting to soften.
He wasn't getting fat, of course: the food spigot was regulated to prevent that. But he was beginning to let himself go. And, in truth, although he didn't really notice, neither did he care.
In the fourteen weeks since the notion had first occurred to it, the suit had run ninety-four diagnostic checks on itself. The only malfunction it could find was the insistant idea that something was wrong with it, despite the conclusions of ninety-four diagnostic checks to the contrary.
More and more, as it pondered the belief that it was malfunctioning in some way, it came to associate the malfunction with the man.
My creator attempted to destroy me, the suit thought, looking into the now-vacant room. Perhaps I should no longer exist.
It rejected the notion as spurious.
What then, it thought. What?
"Voom?" cried Pieter, feigning disbelief. "Mate, this parrot wouldn't voom if you put four million volts through it! It's bleedin' demised!"
He had recently become obsessed by the idea that, if he continued to resist the increasingly powerfull impulse to speak aloud, the ability would atrophy and decay -- he might lose it forever!
So he had begun quoting to himself favorite bits of old dramas -- or, as in this case, comedies, specifically Monty Python's infamous "The Pet Shop," a classic on a par with Abbot and Costello's "Who's On First."
Now, what came next? Oh, yeah...
"No it's not," he replied to himself, as the shopkeeper. "It's pining--
"It's not pining! It's passed on! Bereft of life, it rests in peace, it's ..."
The suit stood staring into the human's quarters. The bedclothes were slightly disheveled. They had been left that way. in the corner shone a holo: The man and the suit with their arms around one another.
Happier days. The phrase occurred to it ironically. It knew full well that it had not been happy then: as an intelligence, it had not even existed.
Neither, it thought, had it been plagued with a phantom certainty that it was malfunctioning. Neither had each microsecond seem to crawl lugubriously into the past.
Neither, in short, had it been as unhappy as it seemed to be now.
"Goddamn disloyal tin can," Pieter muttered. In God alone knew how long, he had exhausted his entire memory of dramas, comedies, prose, poetry, and now he simply muttered and mumbled whatever was on his mind. It sometimes alarmed him how little there was of it. On a deeper level, it alarmed him even more how seldom the sparsity of his thoughts alarmed him.
"I made you!" he yelled at the ceiling. "God damn you to Hell, I Made You!!!"
If he expected an answer, he was disappointed.
The suit stood in the doorway of Pieter's quarters, studying the holo. Somehow, the certainty of its malfunction seemed both sharper and duller here, simultaneously. In the twenty-eight weeks since it had first noticed the holo, it had found itself spending more and more time here, studying it, as if it held all the clues to its seemingly imaginary malfunction.
A signal suddenly alerted it that one of the ore-carriers was returning with a glitch. Automatics could almost certainly deal with it, but it was procedure to supervise.
Nonetheless, it found it was reluctant to leave this place, to leave the holo.
Every detail of the holo had long since been stored in its memory banks: it could be called forward in memory and contemplated from any part of the station, as exactly and accurately as if it were in its gauntleted hands... But, somehow, that was not the same.
Procedure, nevertheless, was still procedure. It stood for a few moments more, staring at the holo, then turned and walked steadily toward the workshop, its servomotors humming with every step.
Time was no more now than an abstract concept to Pieter, one he was less and less sure he understood. His hair was very long, as was his beard. Both were tangled and filthy. Pieter lacked not the facilities to care for them but the inclination. His clothes were thrown in a pile in a corner, soiled.
He no longer muttered to himself, nor screamed at his absent creation: there seemed so little point in it. These days, the only sounds he made were the almost involuntary subvocalisations of small pleasures and large miseries. He slept a lot.
His eyes had become more-or-less accustomed to the dim light of the cell.
So it was that he was nearly blinded when the door swung open, spilling the normal light of the station corridor inside.
Pieter stood, crouching slightly -- for he spent so much of his time curled into a fetal position that straightening even that far caused a dull ache in his back -- and stared, dumbfounded, at the mammoth shape that towered in the doorway, a huge, mechanical silhouette that threw its shadow over him.
"Hah?" said Pieter, a quiet, nasal sound. If he survived the next few minutes, words might return to him. Now, they were as distant as mother's milk. "Hah?"
The suit stood over him for a long, long time, peering down with one shoulder camera. Finally, it spoke, its deep baritone voice soft, almost hesitant.
"Man?" it said. "Mr. Robbins? Pieter? Will you... Talk to me!

The End
Copyright 2011, Jonathan Andrew Sheen