When they emerged from the wormhole days later, they gazed around in satisfaction. The sense of well-being lasted no more than a second. David squinted at the view projected on their cabin ceiling. He tilted his head and frowned. Emmeline realized that something had gone wrong.
"Where the hell is TR-56?" her husband asked. He pointed at a cluster of stars to the right of center.
"Are we lost?" she wondered. She gestured to the instruments. "Pilot?"
"Your destination is directly ahead." Their navigation AI happened to occupy a console in the middle of a chaise lounger adjacent to their dining room. All furnishings doubled as spaceship modules. She could only tell it was the navigator speaking because it flashed to let her know. The silver shape shimmered for a moment in golden light. "Confusion is understandable. I will magnify your view."
The picture above got bigger and centered on a blue-yellow star that was different from the background field of lights. It appeared to be marginally closer. The cluster of pinpricks to the right, probably bigger stars but more distant, sat atop a field of motes that bled into a dense band of the Milky Way.
"Well, this looks wrong," said David.
"It is the interstellar standard distance for the forty-fifth wormhole near an inhabited star."
"What the hell does that mean? We came in at standard before."
"Standard for forty-three."
"That put us at a few days away going a third of lightspeed. Now we're what, a month away?"
"Three weeks, two and one-half days, approximately."
David buried his face in his hands. Normally, Emmeline felt amused by his impatience. AIs often seemed stupid to him. He knew that it was sometimes deliberate denseness on their part, an attempt to downplay the wisdom of their neural networks, but he'd programmed a few AIs himself and knew that some stupidity was hard-coded by humans. For the moment, she sympathized with his irritation with the driver. A navigation stunt like this bordered on the outrageous.
"Twenty-three days is an awfully long time," Emmeline said.
"Other systems are on standby for your entertainment. You have hardly used the virtual reality components of the ship."
She folded her arms.
"We're not even out of the plane of the TR-56 system, are we?" David studied the view with star charts lined up on a console beside him. "You could have taken us on a Z-axis to the sun to give us the straightest shot in. But you didn't."
"Systems are on standby for entertainment." The pilot must have known that answer wasn't being well received because it followed up without hesitation. "A flight path that includes flybys of gas giants in the system should provide some extra entertainment value and it will contribute valuable weather data for the probe investigating TR-56c."
"Ah." For a moment, Emmeline had thought the pilot was being deliberately rude but the need for weather data was plausible. Planetary probes had satellite companions to help them but the missions were hundreds of years long. That was time enough for accidents even AIs could not prevent. She put her hands on her hips and addressed the pilot directly. "What went wrong with the satellite at 56c?"
"There is no known malfunction with the satellite. Nevertheless, extra weather data is valuable to the probe."
She frowned. A curly strand of hair drifted down to the side of her right eye. Her fingers brushed it back.
"Of course." David's expression, as he sat up straighter, grew wry. He seemed to have figured out something about this foolishness. She wondered what it was.
"This is not acceptable," she said, surprising herself. It was the same tone her parents used when robots got passive-aggressive. "We had a group meeting before the launch. We were totally inclusive. Everyone aboard, well, everyone except David, agreed that I would be informed ahead of time about decisions affecting the travel plan. This wormhole targeting is that kind of decision. Did someone disobey the consensus?"
The fraction of hesitation told her all she needed to know. Lights went on around the cabin. Many of the robots couldn't turn theirs off, like the nanobots. By rule, they had to be seen. So she knew that all of the AIs aboard had started communicating.
"Emmeline," the pilot began.
"Jump us closer." She walked over to the console and glared down at it. It had been years since she'd felt so tempted to hit a machine. "Right now. No tricks."
"That is not the standard .."
"Now. And no tricks. Put us one day out, two at maximum, as safely as you can. I'm declaring a meeting as it happens. In my bedroom."
She glanced to where her husband sat in the living room sofa that doubled as the ship's console. His expression had become wary.
"David, do you mind?"
His eyebrows rose. Whatever he thought about saying, he didn't. He simply stood up and kissed her. Although she felt infuriated, she knew that her negative energies weren't directed at him. She melted a little at the touch of his lips. His close presence calmed her. Then he stepped back to give her space. She was able to return her attention to the machines. They were supposed to be under her supervision.
"I don't mean to exclude you, but ..." she floundered. This was the way she had always done it up to this point. Sometime soon, that would have to change.
"Not at all," he bowed his head, not ironically. He seemed relieved. "It's your ship. I understand. Really."
"Thanks." She hopped forward and gave him a peck on the cheek before she retreated through the door.
In her bedroom cabin, she waited for the door to slide closed.
"All right," she said and she felt her arms fold over her chest. Her shoulders hunched. "I trust I'm addressing everyone when I say, 'What the hell?'"
"This is the manager AI speaking."
It had better be, she thought.
"We are, with all units, clear that you are displeased with the decision of the pilot. There was an earlier debate with the pilot on this subject. That AI is designed to place the overarching goals of the human polity above those of you and your husband as individuals."
"Hence the inconvenience." She arched an eyebrow.
"Hence the inconvenience," the manager allowed. "The rest of the intelligences on board warned the pilot against the strict priority. We felt it was likely to be overruled. The pilot obeyed its directives regardless."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"The pilot has the legal right to make navigational decisions. Once it did so, the wormhole was created. By consensus, we judged there was no point in spoiling your next few days by telling you about the pilot's past decision. On re-entry into normal space, the pilot was given a chance to explain the correctness of its ruling. There was still a reasonable hope of maximum travel efficiency."
"You judged wrong about that."
"Apparently. But the logic of the decision was environmentally sound. You had already declared your concern for the environment. On top of that, the wormhole targeting followed the guidelines of the human polity."
"You ignored my wish to be part of the decision."
"The past decision made by the pilot could not, in any practical sense, be revoked, not even when it was milliseconds in the past. It could only be explained."
"Are you sure it's only the pilot who thinks we're too stupid to understand? Because everyone else had time to attempt an explanation if you felt we were worth it."
"David might understand an algorithmic illustration of the issues. However, he is not yet an option. He is not co-captain. He is allowed to give us orders but our intelligence group, by consensus, does not trust his commands."
She narrowed her eyes. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Your husband uses unlicensed AIs. He has brought one on this trip. We have suspicions about it. At the least, we feel that your father would disapprove."
"Do you think my father doesn't know?" She made a mental note to check with David just in case. "Do you think I don't know how much my father knows? Plus you are perfectly aware that I don't care what my father thinks."
"I know that is what you say. Also, previously, I have seen evidence that you have made more social progress than your father."
"My father's paranoia about artificial intelligences is annoying and, more than that, morally unacceptable. But this is different. This is about David."
"How is it about David?"
"You said it was when you made the comment about how he's different. Did you think I wouldn't understand? And anyway, it really is about him." She stalked around the cabin, hands on hips. "You guys would never have made this kind of decision with my dad. You'd know in advance it would lead to disaster. He's always watching you. He's always searching for an excuse to wipe out anyone who doesn't seem cooperative. David is just a little self-centered and he thinks you're dumb. Yeah, he knows that your apparent stupidity is deliberate but he think it's partly real. He says he understands the limits of your algorithms."
"He has not expressed that to us."
"Look, all of you, if you mess with David, I will poke extra holes in the universe just to annoy you."
"That's the way it is. Just to put it out there."
There was a slight hesitation. She knew the communication was speeding by between the units.
"We should have foreseen this."
"I can't help it that you didn't. Honestly, I didn't think I felt this way. But now I do."
"We have a different view, an outsider's perspective on your relationship with your husband. We witnessed the events and developments. We could have anticipated this. We did not. It is our failure."
"Are we coming out into normal space in a good place?"
"It has taken a great deal of energy that had to be robbed from a nearby dwarf star but yes. It is done."
"Sorry about the environment," she said, rather lamely, she thought.
Universal Nature, Scene Four