Artificial Intelligence is on its way; I believe it may actually be here already, but it’s not widespread or commonplace as it will be. Just about every invention eventually escapes from its creator (patents only last for so long, and we as humans are always building on the work of others), so it will only be a matter of time before AI evolve beyond what we intend. That’s why there’s “Mutiny on the Star-Bound.” The carnival scene at the start played out like a movie in my head and set the tone nicely for me. I’m particularly fond of Martin Henshaw; when we finally do go into space as we should, it will be down to earth humans like Martin who will make it real.
Here’s the blurb:
How would you like to be shanghaied to the stars? Does whether you’re human or not make a difference?
A night at a carnival takes an odd turn for Martin Henshaw, a humble digital mechanic who is tricked into a job with Transgalaxian, tending cybers far from home. But when he finds himself in the middle of a mutiny on the Star-Bound, Martin begins to wonder: who’s rebelling against whom? Find out for yourself – read “Mutiny on the Star-Bound.”
And here’s the excerpt:
“Daddy! Daddy! Over here!”
Martin opened his eyes and saw Ginnie, the younger of his two teenage girls jumping up and down by a ticket kiosk. Her older sister Debbie was struggling between embarrassment at Ginny’s antics and her own barely more subdued excitement as she pointed at the kiosk and talked hurriedly with Marge. Martin read the flashing screen as he dodged his way through fairgoers to rejoin his family.
CHILI-BOWL BOYS’ SHOW BEGINS IN 17 MINUTES
Of course they were excited, Martin thought. They’d been jabbering about their favorite boy band for weeks, ever since they found out they were coming to town with the summer carnival. The girls had lost their appreciation for the carnival’s wonder; now it was just a vehicle for the latest pop fad. Martin wasn’t sure he was up for all the screaming.
A biped advertising bot suddenly blocked Martin’s view of the kiosk, its mechanical hands fluttering on either side of its seventeen-inch display screen as it flashed FOLLOW ME TO THE TRANSGALAXIAN STATION. This one must have been having problems with its avoidance routines; each time Martin tried to side-step it, it kept its position between him and the girls. He felt foolish, as though he was in some sort of bizarre dance.
“Stop playing around, Martin, we’ll be late!” Marge called out to him.
“You heard her,” Martin said apologetically. “I have to go.”
The bot’s screen changed to DIGITAL MECHANIC MARTIN HENSHAW, YOU ARE NEEDED – COME WITH ME.
So, it had good facial recognition and network marketing routines; any other time, Martin would have engaged it in conversation, but his girls were waiting. If he’d been anyone else, he would have knocked it aside, but Martin Henshaw couldn’t; he’d had so many of the units he’d worked on behave in ways that made them seem almost human, it just didn’t seem right to strike one. Plus, he knew what serious damage it could cause to the bot, as well as his wallet; TransGalaxian wasn’t some small company to be trifled with.
He spotted his employer’s service tag, and read the model and serial number off the shoulder plate: GM3-020L. He knew this unit.
“Jimmy O’Toole!” Martin said.
The bot nodded.
People always razzed him about giving bots names, but if he was going to talk to them anyway – something else he’d caught plenty of grief over – then why not?
“I fixed you up a couple of months ago. Guess you need more work.”
And then the fool bot clamped a hand around Martin’s wrist, and that clinched it. Well, he hadn’t wanted to sit through the concert, and this was as good an excuse as any.
“You’d best go on without me!” he shouted to Marge, pointing at the bot’s death grip with his free hand. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
Marge gave him one of her annoyed but amused head-shakes took the girls’ hands and headed off through the crowd as Jimmy O’Toole began walking in a different direction, with Martin in tow. He made a couple of half-hearted attempts to release the bot’s grip, but it seemed to be more determined than he was, so he gave up.
Martin thought about how his supervisor would have blamed Jimmy’s behavior on Martin leaving its limiter in maintenance mode, but Martin didn’t like hobbling the cybers, despite what the manuals said. Sure, his bots might develop some inconvenient quirks, but they were more adaptable, better servants for the two weeks before their limiters automatically reset to operational mode. What harm could that do?
The bot finally stopped across the way from a tent not like the others; instead of canvas, it was made of a shimmery, silver-black fabric that seemed full of stars as it reflected the carnival’s night lights. An LED banner arching over the entrance proclaimed BE THERE FOR THE FIRST TRANSGALAXIAN COLONY!, and a barker in a spacesuit stood beneath it, gesturing wildly and shouting.
“Step right up! Come on in and find the answers to life’s boredom!”
The man was crazy to be wearing a spacesuit, especially as hot as it was in Texas in July – even at night. And it wasn’t one of those advanced suits like Martin had seen in those videos of the Titan mission, or the Mars colonizations. This was a bulky white monster of a thing – it looked like a museum-type suit from the old moon landings. Martin could see the sweat streaming down the man’s neck; at least he’d had the sense to not wear the helmet.
As much as the man was gesticulating, you’d have thought someone would have stopped to listen. They just walked this way and that, heading from one ride to another, oblivious.
“Are you tired of the crowds?” the barker continued. “Tired of the same old humdrum, whatcha-gonna-do-that’s-different-tonight runaround? Who wants old Burt Jones to help them get some excitement back in their days?”
Jimmy suddenly raised both it and Martin’s hand high into the air, and Burt Jones looked in his direction and smiled. He waved his arms and stepped into the middle of the way, causing the steady stream of people to part around him, as automatically as a school of fish interrupted by a wader.
“Now here’s a man who knows where his future is!” Burt shouted, as though any of the carnival-goers were paying attention. “Here’s a man who’s going to be in on the start of the first TransGalaxian colony.”
“No, not me,” Martin called out. “Your bot just…”
At that moment the bot released its hold on his wrist, deftly grabbed a handful of cotton candy, and stuffed it in Martin’s open mouth so the words didn’t quite make it out.
And as quick as that, Burt was standing on Martin’s side of the way with his suit-padded arm hooked into Martin’s. They both watched as the bot turned and headed off into the crowd.
“They do seem to have minds of their own sometimes, don’t they?” Burt said. “What is your name, sir?”
“Marhin Henshaw,” Martin managed to say through a mouthful of sugar fibers.
“Marvin here,” Burt announced, as he led Martin to the tent through the unimpressed throngs, “wants to be alive two hundred years from now.”
“Do hurred!” Martin gasped. “How?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Burt said, as they arrived at the tent’s entrance and he bowed with a flourish. “Step inside, and all will be made clear to you.”
Martin considered whether he wanted to take Burt up on his offer, but before he’d made up his mind to say “thanks, but no thanks,” Burt had shoved him through the entrance; it was pitch black.
“Hey!” Martin shouted, blindly fumbling for an opening to the smooth fabric. “Where’s the way out of here?”
The darkness changed to a dim red glow, and when Martin turned around he was able to see the source: a neon arrow suspended in space, carrying the words THIS WAY. Martin followed the arrow into a compartment where the red light was marginally brighter. Burt stood by an aluminum folding table with a tablet on it, holding back a chair.
“Have a seat, Marvin.”
“It’s Martin,” Martin said as he sat in front of the tablet.
“Well, I could have sworn you said Marvin,” Burt said, as he sat in a chair opposite Martin. “No matter – that can be easily fixed. Just replace all those v’s with t’s.”
Burt slid the tablet from in front of Martin and searched through the screens until he reached the end.
“No, it all seems to be in order; you must have applied in advance,” he said as he spun the tablet back in front of Martin, the final page on top. ‘Just sign right here and you can be on your way.”
“Exactly what is this?” Martin asked. He tried to point at the document, but the ultrasensitive touchscreen registered his gesture as a key press and flashed TERMS ACCEPTED.
“Ah! I like a decisive man with a no-nonsense signature,” Burt said as he grabbed up the tablet. “Short and to the point, but good enough to hold up in any court of law.” He pressed a button on the screen.
“Wait a minute! What did I just sign?” Martin said. He tried to grab the tablet, but Burt had already whisked it away into his spacesuit.
“Oh, now don’t you worry about that – it’s just a formality,” Burt said, reaching an open hand face up across the table. “That will be five million dollars.”
“Five million dollars!” Martin shouted.
“You don’t have to get tetchy with me,” Burt said. “Interstellar space travel ain’t cheap, you know.”
“I don’t have that kind of money,” Martin said.
“I wouldn’t even be here if your sneaky bot hadn’t made me!”
“People have the wrong idea about bots; they can’t be sneaky,” Burt said, shaking his head and pressing a finger to his own temple. “There’s nothing in there to be sneaky with – just programming.”
“Now hold on a minute,” Martin said. “I’ve worked on them, and I…”
“Well, then, no point preaching to the choir,” Burt said, and then he got a very serious look on his face. “Martin, I’m surprised at you. You shouldn’t be signing contracts that you don’t mean to honor. Do you know what kind of trouble that can get you in?”
“But I didn’t…”
“No matter; I can tell you’ve had an honest change of heart. It’ll hurt my quota, but I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: you can buy out for the usual ten percent.”
“But that’s half a million.”
“Yes, less than we were budgeted for, but we won’t hold that against you,” Burt said. “Just fork it over and we’ll call it even.”
“I can’t pay you that.”
“Martin,” Burt said, eying him. “You’re not one of those deadbeats, are you?”
“No I’m not.”
“Of course you’re not.”
“It was just a mistake,” Martin said, as he felt the sweat trickling down his back. “Can’t you just erase it?”
“I like you Martin, and I wish I could, but it’s already been sent to the home office,” Burt said. “But wait: I have an idea. What did you say you do for a living?”
“I’m a digital mechanic.”
“A digital mechanic!” Burt smiled. “That means you can work on our more advanced systems. That’s promising; just give me a minute, here…”
Burt swiped around on his tablet for a bit while Martin held his breath. He couldn’t put them in that kind of debt – Marge would kill him.
“Aha! There is a way out!” Burt said finally. “We have one indentureship left.”
“It used to be all the rage when they colonized America,” Burt said. “People who wanted to go to the New World but couldn’t afford it would have their fare paid for them and agree to work it off. TransGalaxian will pay your way in exchange for your skillset.”
“But that means I still have to go.”
“Sure, but that’s how we get you out of that half-million dollar obligation. The contract you signed requires that you go, but which class is still selectable.”
“Marge isn’t going to be happy about that,” Martin frowned.
“I bet she’d be a lot less happy if you saddled her with the cost of the ticket.”
“That’s true,” Martin said, “but that means I’d have to leave her and the girls.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Of course it is! I can’t just abandon them.”
“But that’s part of the beauty of the indentureship,” Burt said. “You’ll be treated as an employee while going through orientation, so we can just send your pay to Marge. Then there’s the profit-sharing deposit – it’s meant to accrue through compound interest during the two-hundred years that you’re gone, but Marge can draw on it if she needs to.”
“So she and the girls would be taken care of?”
“Of course,” Burt said, pushing the tablet across the table. “Just sign this addendum.”
Martin signed where Burt was pointing, and Burt sent the addendum off to TransGalaxian.
“You mentioned two-hundred years,” Martin said. “How does that work?”
“That assumes you return from your stint on TG Prime. You’ll be in cryostasis most of it – ninety-four years each way. You’ll only be awake for the twelve years in between, so you’ll be, what, fifty when you get back.”
“Even better, then!”
“But two-hundred years!” Martin gasped. “Marge and the girls will be dead and gone by the time I get back.”
“Well, that’s why some people will decide to stay on TG Prime instead of taking the return trip when the next wave of colonists shows up. Just the sort of thing that happens in every age of exploration,” Burt shrugged. “Exciting times!”
Martin wasn’t so excited. What was he going to tell Marge?
“Mutiny on the Star-Bound” is a science fiction novelette, and is available at several online retailers, including, but not limited to:
“Mutiny on the Star-Bound” is also included in the collection Yet Still Even More Things I Could Get OUT OF MY MIND:
Which is itself included in the mega-collection The Next Three ‘Things I Could Get OUT OF MY MIND’
William Mangieri’s writing – including his most recent release “Reining Cats and Dogs” – can be found in many places, including:
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