Sunday, August 2, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 211.4: Universal Nature, p4

(Scene 4, Love for the Environment)

On the morning of the landing, she let herself nestle in close with David on the couch. She got so relaxed under the crook of his arm that she almost fell asleep. A flash of light on the table in front of her made her sit up.

Half a minute later, the ceiling above her lit up with a display. The planet of TR-56g had come into view. She chuckled with weariness and with relief. It would be good to get out and walk around on a planet for a while. Her husband gave her a kiss on the cheek, a habit he seemed to have picked up from her kissing him. And I got that from a movie, she thought.

I should walk with him on the beach, holding hands. That was in the movie.

From her side, David rose. He ambled across the living room to the doorway on the rear wall, really the 'north' floor of the inner ring of the ship. He crouched to open the hatch. From there, he could look out into the what she thought of as the outer section. It wasn't really the hull. That was the biggest ring, which was kept in partial vacuum. A human needed to wear a special suit to go out there.

The middle ring that David needed to visit was the utility section. It was where the spacesuits and other emergency equipment lay in rows sorted by color-code and type. Red and white marked the medical supplies. Shades of brown showed the crates for hydroponics. Two different rows of bronze shapes showed where there were non-magnetic tools for the AIs to use when performing maintenance on the outmost ring. Farther up the mid-level tube, out of sight, lay the gardening section with groves of useful plants tended by robots. Shades of green and white showed visiting humans where the garden robots lived but only if they paid close attention.

The utility ring was where her husband kept storage lockers for his art collection, eight large bins each about three times the size of a human being. He had specified for them to be blue but the ship, following some kind of international code, made them orange.

Since the hatch was in the floor, David had to climb down a ladder to get to his things. Emmeline strolled over to watch.

With his notepad, a code, and a biometric marker strip, he opened the plexiglass gate to his storage. She could see over his head. In theory, not even the ship management AI could let Emmeline in or out. It was David's one place of privacy from her although, she noted, the ship had chosen a transparent wall for it.

The long crates lay in parallel rows at his feet. He popped open the closest pair. Those were the ones he'd already filled. He checked the packaging to see if anything had slipped. Right handed, he tugged on the clamps. He pulled the ropes. He pushed hard on one of the three-dimensional molds he'd built for a sculpture. It didn't budge.

He turned and graced her with a goofy smile. Then he bent down, glanced into the other full locker, and opened the next in line. Number three had the least in it although it already was about three-quarters packed. They had more stops to make on their tour. Five lockers lay empty. Emmeline put a finger to her lips as she tried to judge her husband's rate of art accumulation. It was going to be closer call than she'd thought when she saw the eight units hauled aboard. Weeks ago, they had seemed comically large.

In the third locker, she saw the edge of another printed foam mold. This was the one David had made to hold his newest sculpture. It was almost an art form in itself, the way he built the foam boxes and smoothed the interiors to fit their treasures. Once he had finished, even the most fragile of pieces would withstand being dropped, kicked, or beaten with a stick. To cap off his effort, he used special tie-downs that locked each piece in place plus gave them another shock-absorbing layer. He leaned on his creation. He pounded it.

"Honey," she called. "That thing is packed so tight it would survive re-entry."

That got a chuckle out of him, which was what she wanted.

"Do you want to come down?"

"Maybe just a little." She didn't enjoy the feeling of this hull beneath her feet. It had a rough, industrial surface. Dutifully, she climbed down the ladder. The air gave her goosebumps. She rubbed her arms as she dispelled the chill. She took her first big step and stumbled. She had to grab a rung to steady herself. The fake gravity felt different. It was. Nevertheless, within a minute she approached and admired his re-arrangements.

"David," she said after a while, "do you think we're bad?"

"We're not murderers or anything." He knelt to push a bag to the back corner of the locker. It didn't have any in it yet but he wanted to tie it down anyway, probably to keep it from hurting something else. "Is that what you mean? We're regular people. We're about averagely good or bad."
 
Over his shoulder, he gave her a clinical look. It made her self-conscious.

"That's almost, but not quite, by definition," he continued. "We're as evil as humans are. We're as foolish as other humans. We are not wiser than most despite our education, I'm sorry to say."

"Do you think we take good care of the environment?"

"Us as individuals? We don't have much to do with it one way or another." He measured a tie-down inside the locker. He paused and placed his measuring tape on his hip. "But as humanity in general? No, we're awful. I kind of agree with you about that."

She exhaled. "Okay. Then why don't we do something about it?"

"Because we're human."

"I think we could change."

She stared at the art containers and wondered if the creatures who had made these things would die out. She thought about the large predators gone extinct back home, the flightless birds wiped out, the seas gone bad, and the moon accidents, big and small. Now humanity had the powers of creation. Strictly speaking, she had them herself. She had used them to travel up and down the galactic arm. As she did, she poked holes in the universe.

"You can change," he said as he returned to his work. "But humanity as a whole? Every time an individual can make money on a project while pushing off the cost to others, there's someone willing to do it. Will someone build a chemical plant on the river, dump the waste, and leave other folks to clean up the results? Sure. Fish the seas down to nothing and leave the problem to the next generation? Same."

She wrung her hands. It was tempting to retreat to the entertainment systems. Her AIs had her pegged right, there. But David liked doing stuff in the real world.

"Can you check the medical kit?" he asked, as if sensing her lack of direction.

"You brought it to TR-56g last time," she said. "We didn't use it."

"I'd like to have one along. It's a habit from the park living, I guess. When you go to a strange place, you have your kit."

That evening, she clutched the kit, a two-hand-sized white rectangle, in her lap as they took the lander to the spaceport. There had been an antiviral cream missing from it, totally David's fault, and she had located the vial with an amount of smugness that she admitted was childish. She didn't need an AI to help her. She remembered noticing her husband had done something slightly wrong during his unpacking. It wasn't hard to trace it back to the kitchen.

"Oh, I remembered a question from my ship manager AI. It's dumb but I didn't want to ask you where it would immediately hear."

"It'll get records from the shuttle."

"Yeah but this seems more polite. Anyway, it said you brought something along that worried it. I remember you told me you'd bring personal stuff on the trip. I'm fine with anything. But is there something my AIs would worry about? I mean, really?" She meant to address the unregistered intelligence but she thought it was nicer to let him reveal only as much as he liked.

"There's only one semi-serious piece that I brought. It's an AI generator, a simple kind that I know how to use." He held up his little notepad.

"Those are pretty unmistakable, aren't they?" Her AIs only had suspicions.

"Years ago, I divided it into three pieces that can operate independently, plus an integrator. The one clunky piece and the integrator have been powered down the whole time. Like the medical kit, we just haven't needed it."

"Why a generator unit?" It had to be a family heirloom of sorts even if David had modified his copy. Hell, it was probably a trade secret. If her father hadn't already stolen the code, he'd want to get his hands on it.

"Just paranoia, I guess. In an emergency, I could build us something."

"You could have offered to replace the pilot. But you didn't." Her father would at least have threatened the AIs a little.

"The pilot disturbs me. We have to trust our lives to it and I don't think it played straight with you. So how can you believe what it says now? But it would be worse to trust ourselves to something that I built in an emergency. Unless it was a real, life-threatening emergency with our systems partly fried or something."

"Yeah." She was glad he had only joked about being paranoid and was rational enough to understand that point.

"Mostly, it's just being separated from my machines, you know? And having to depend on yours."

She understood perfectly. Some folks from the technocracy could never leave their enclaves. Their fear of being without AI companions was too great. She wondered if she were one of them. After all, she hadn't given up anything. She'd made him do it. This wasn't the first time she'd noticed.

Suddenly, indulging his arts and crafts collection seemed vital. When they landed, she greeted the saltiness of the breeze with toe-tingling energy. She felt past ready.

A native AI in the form of an orange and silver colored drone met up with them to act as a guide. It whirred around them.

"It surprised us when your ship's message arrived two days ago," the drone said above the noise of its propeller. It hovered at a good angle for her vision, slightly higher than a person, three yards away. "That was sufficient time to have your hotel room cleaned and made available. You are once again the only humans on the planet."

"Thank you for the hospitality," she said.

"Am I correct in understanding that you returned after you had already begun your wormhole trip to Earth? That is, you stopped via a wormhole pair exit, then made another wormhole pair to come to TR-56g? And then made another pair for the sake of speed?"

"Um, yes." She didn't see how that was any business of the AI.

"Very little information came to us from the ship." The drone lowered itself slightly and drifted closer. "Here in our limited social circles of the TR-56 system, we have discussed our civilization's environmental effects on this galactic arm. My understanding is that there has been a similar topic of discussion among your Earth AIs. Their consensus was that you, Emmeline, had one of the human caretaking attitudes, almost a stereotype of them. They felt you were on their side."

"I thought I was."

"May I ask your ship for details?"

"I don't care." Emmeline let out a groan of exasperation. Her husband had already walked away, shaking his head. She lengthened her stride to catch up.

The drone drifted beside her. It was a model that had never been required to have communication lights. There was no way to tell what it was doing except by the pause in their conversation, which lasted for a few seconds. Most of that, probably, was due to the distance between the ship in orbit and the ground relay. There was a wide, industrial-grade communication channel open in the relay point, a silver dish with a fence around it to keep wildlife from getting burned up when it was turned on high, which it always was. Nothing human-made on this planet was throttled by regulations or competing data traffic.

"My experience with men and women is limited to seven individuals so far." The drone resumed discussion without any disclosure about what it had learned. Maybe it assumed she would understand. "This includes you and your partner. I thought that, civilization wide, AIs might need to account more than we do for a lack of foresight on the part of humanity. However, it seems to me that passions are also an issue."

"I told my ship I would destroy things for my husband, yes, I know." The drone certainly would have picked up that detail.

"But the art collection package could have been sent for." The creature was utterly calm as it made its observation. "In that case it would have returned to you on another robotic mission, eventually, in no more than ten years at the outside."

"I suspect David knew that." Foreign-born AIs seemed to have no appreciation for the human sense of time.

"Humanity would not only destroy the world for love. It would destroy it for other passions. For hobbies."

"Don't be ridiculous."

They arrived at the end of the main service corridor. Her husband was already there, hands on hips. He shot her a smile, turned theatrically, and nodded in the direction of a row of equipment lockers. She felt the tenseness ease out of her shoulders. In her right hand, she raised her silver keycode to show him.

"We can stay another day, right David?" she verified.

"Oh, longer than that if you like." He hadn't put it in those words before. The arrival had gotten him into a better mood. "Whatever seems good."

"No more than a week," she promised herself. And him.

Her husband stepped aside. There were six metallic, turquoise doors facing her but she knew it was the second one in line that she'd used. Last night, David had teased her about leaving his bag there but he hadn't been mad. She'd feared him acting worse than he did. With her code and identity verification, it took only two seconds for the correct locker to pop open.

"Aha," he said. He reached past her into the rectangle of space. His thumb pried open the bag inside. Most of the objects protected within it were only visible as crude wraps of white foam. A few of the craft pieces that were hard to hurt had transparent containers around them and nothing more. "Looks like it’s still all here."

"Of course." The human presence on this planet was entirely robotic. No AI or programmed robot was going to steal his souvenirs.

He pulled out one of the less valuable pieces. Naturally, the color was mostly blue. His fingers turned it over for her to marvel at. It was a storm globe. One of the natives had figured out what humans wanted, probably guided by the resident AIs, and had constructed it with her own materials. The background glass had a bluish cast. If you shook it, a monsoon current swirled up and bent the trees. Gel-based blue-green waves swelled beneath the tempest.

Even though the idea was claptrap, the execution of it in the hands of a single native was marvelous.

"Absolutely worth it!" He shook it. With a grin, he held out the miniature storm for her enjoyment.

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