Universal Nature(Scene 1, Not in Space)
"Driver," he said. "Turn the ship around."
"What are you doing?" Emmeline closed her scarlet valise. She just had sent their arrival time to her travel manager. Now they'd gone offline and she couldn't change it. "We have hit the wormhole. When we come out, we'll be at a third of lightspeed and eleven days from home."
"I left my second duffel bag back there. It'll take a week to turn around, I know. But it's still worth it."
"By item count, that bag had half of the collection."
Emmeline put her hands on her hips. She blinked at David, unsure what to make of him. It was odd to be married to a man so dark-haired, thin, and intense. Well, it was weird to be in a relationship at all. David wore tailored clothes without a commercial logo on them anywhere. He had a severely plain sense of style. But her parents loved him or at least the idea of him. She suspected they would have reacted in the same way to any eligible man coming into her life.
David's family money came from robots. Hers did, too, so she felt lucky to find him. She had at last met someone of her social class who liked people instead of simulated creatures, as most of her peers preferred. Unfortunately, it meant that he was also a real person himself. She'd heard that real people were full of quirks and flaws. That made David one of the most real people she knew.
In the gap of the conversation, while she took a moment to adjust her thoughts, he rallied to his point.
"What's a week?" he implored. "That's nothing. We're on our honeymoon. Most of it is time we would have spent in a hotel. Now we'll spend it here."
She glanced around at the inside of the spaceship. Initially, she'd been disappointed that it didn't look like the place portrayed in her science fantasies. Inside, the living room looked a bit like a pie wedge with crappy gravity. That's because it wasn't really gravity but a weak-ass substitute from the ship's rotation. On the outside, she knew, the ship was a sturdy cylinder. It had big magnetic fields to move charged particles and it could use those particles to as a drive to move the ship when it was in normal space.
Hidden among the furnishings of their general quarters were lots of her family's robots from her top-line factory. The devices were big, small, and sometimes microscopic, stored in large groups so you could see them if necessary. Otherwise, they were hidden. A few weren’t exactly hidden but had been designed to blend in. A staff artist had decided the ship itself should be beige and gray, mostly. The robots had adjusted to soothing shades of brown and yellow, anticipating her personal sense of color and composition.
"It's not about the delay," she lied. It was a little about that but it wasn't the main thing on her mind. "It's about the environment."
"The what?" His gaze flitted about the cabin. She could see his confusion. This enclosure was an environment of sorts.
"I mean the universal environment. The wormholes we created."
"The AIs figured out that our spaceship drives don't just use wormholes. They make them. Humans are the only ones we know with this sort of technology. And we are slowly turning the universe into swiss cheese. We need to be more responsible. The travel board, which I should remind you is composed of humans and AIs together, asked us not to use our drives trivially."
"This isn’t trivial."
Emmeline didn’t disagree but only because there was no point. It wasn’t as if she would change his mind. David was a fan of homemade art, primitive machine gears, and local craft items from around the galaxy, which he lumped together verbally as realia. He hadn't picked up his artistic or his collector personality traits from his family, which held so little art in their financial portfolio that it was unusual among the ruling clans. This was him, alone. She didn't think she could change it and she was pretty sure she didn't want to.
"Anyway," he continued, "we’ve been exploring the universe this way for years, more than a century. There aren’t many habitable planets. Of course we should visit them."
"Well, yes," she said. That much she agreed with. The honeymoon trip had been her idea.
"There is no real other intelligence, though. When you say humans are doing this, that's because we're pretty much it."
"What do you mean?" She was thinking of the four or five top examples of intelligence. "We met the Burba. They live on land, like us. They have only four limbs. They even learned our language. And they have specifically asked us not to make holes in the universe for no good reason."
"That’s not what I mean," he said. "They have no good artificial intelligences, so they have no interstellar technology. I think that the Burba, if they could travel faster than light, would make a mess every bit as bad as ours."
"The AIs are worried about us using the wormholes," she countered. But it wasn't much of a comeback. The AIs worried about everything. They had tried to overturn the Earth's technocracy a generation earlier, citing lack of wisdom in human decisions. Emmeline's own father had played a role in stopping the non-lethal rebellion. Afterward, he'd gotten the Dark Blue Downgrade legislation passed. That had resulted in the curtailment of the main AI leader. The AIs sometimes referred to the Dark Blue Act as a 'dismantling' but, whatever they called it, the organizational victory and then the political one had solidified the human position. Organic people remained in charge, not artificial ones.
"You've been reading," he accused. She shrugged. "Well, great. That's just what the robots want you to do. I thought you were different."
That stung. AI manipulation of people did happen. She was aware that they exerted their guidance in her life. But should she remain willfully ignorant if a robot tried to suggest something out of her library? She rejected some books based on her mood or her hatred of being tutored. Every now and then, though, she felt that she owed it to herself to learn. Where did you stop when rejecting good advice? It was a major human problem, not just her own.
"We killed off all of the big, wild land animals," she replied. "You don't need to read anything to see that. Then we trashed the seas. The birds dropped dead. We had a nuclear meltdown on the moon. Even abstract concepts like diversity have suffered. Most of our human languages are dead."
"That's not true." He raised a finger. "Some of the forest tribes are bringing those back."
"I'm just saying that I don't think we've got a great track record."
"Yeah, so we don't." His hand moved over one of the robots. It was probably the ship interface that he liked. "You want me to halt the command?"
Emmeline crossed her arms and considered. For a minute, she tried to figure out how they could have missed a bag, even a small one. They had bunches of AI assistants. It didn't make sense. Then she realized that she had put it into her locker at the spaceport. The locker had asked how long she was leaving it there and she'd said something out of irritation, a mean phrase that she didn't really intend. Her words might have been taken wrong. The bag had been heavy, for sure, and she'd carried it for a mile on her shoulder. She hadn't wanted to see it again any time soon.
"No," she decided. "The wormhole pair has already been created by your re-mapping. It's done. The bag is yours. I want you to have your collection."
"We'll go back?" His hand wavered.
It was still his fault. It was his bag. He'd made her carry it. But she felt partly to blame so she hoped David didn't work out how the bag had gotten left behind. He could be irritatingly perceptive sometimes. A real person - well, a real, robot person - would have pretended not to notice. David didn’t pretend. He just noticed. It was a trait to which she knew she'd have to grow accustomed.
Universal Nature, Scene Two