One of the stories I started and then abandoned this past summer had a familiar character in the lead. The working title says all Villain and Botts Set in the Nine Star Nebula before the Machine Directorate's revolt, the setting could offer some interesting twists. The basic formula would be that Viletre Viseor, as a young man buys Botts at the beginning of his career as a ship owner. Viletre, needing a great deal of credits fast, gets into one spot of trouble or another, and Botts gets him out. Bertie and Jeeves, are lurking in the inspiration, but Viletre would be a bit more enterprising on his own, and ever more so as time goes on. I did have a vague plot for this story, but... But it was just a "caper story" with nothing all that special about it. One of thousands. Until I can come up with some sort of unique twist to this old formula, I think I'll just let it rest here.
Here's what I had of the first chapter. This is still a first draft, but I've gone over it a few times so it has a bit more polish than the Mere Island entry. I will post chapter two in a few days.
Villain & Botts
Chapter 01 Viletre Viseor
A broad chested, grey bearded man in a black spaceer's uniform with silver trim swept into the Astra Automation's elegant showroom accompanied by a tall woman in a soft white and silver outfit that shimmered as she walked and Temta, one of the salespersons. Could either of these be my owner, Viletre Viseor?
However, Temta, when she saw me by the doorway to the back room, said, 'Still here, are you?'I knew this to be a rhetorical question, since obviously I was still here, awaiting the arrival of my owner, who was 2 hours and 27 minutes late for his or her appointment to take delivery of me. I did not answer, but nodded, politely..
Turning to the spaceer in black and the woman in silver, she added, 'Lady Nimtrea, Captain Chanta, we have a rare treat. The robot over here happens to be a D'venti StarMaster, the finest sentient machine ship master, credits can buy.'
I bowed discretely once more and said, 'Greetings Lady Nimtrea, Captain Chanta.'
The lady returned my bow and said, with a smile, 'Greeting StarMaster.' Which wasn't my name, of course, but then, I didn't have a name, having been operational less than 5 hours and still unclaimed. StarMaster, however pretentious, would serve for now.
The grey bearded captain merely scowled and said, 'I don't hold with sentient machines aboard a ship.'
'Make you nervous, Captain? I understand they're able run a ship without human supervision. Worried about finding yourself on the beach?' asked Nimtrea with a sidelong smile.
'Not in the least. If you want a Guild-equivalent rating, you would still need a human with a master's ticket on board. Rather, it's the needless expense of a sentient machine. If you want to automate your ships, a level 6 pilot bot, a handful of level 4 service bots and a four man crew is just as efficiently and much less expensive. Sentient machines are an extravagance. How much does this StarMaster thing cost?
'Including all the sentient machine surcharges and such, slightly less than 70 million credits, Captain,' replied Temta.
The silver lady whistled softly.
'I believe I'm being underpaid, my lady,' said the Captain, turning to Nimtrea with a grim smile.
She laughed lightly. 'It would seem so. But then, I haven't the credits this machine's owner apparently has to burn.'
'Foolishly burning credits is my opinion,' said the Captain. 'Who's the fool?'
''I am afraid that a matter of client confidentiality. I'll merely say that it is one of the Viseor companies.'
'Well, I suppose they'd have the credits to burn,' laughed Nimtrea.
'It is not a matter of burning credits, or extravagance, my lady,' said Temta, with a smile. 'A machine like this is a very wise long term investment, if you have the credits for it.'
'Hump,' grunted Captain Chanta. 'For 70 million credits you could man a ship for several centuries with a Guild crew and still have a fortune left over.'
'True, Captain. However, a sentient machine like this StarMaster has a core processing unit with a useful lifespan of a 1,000 years. Built entirely out of D-matter materials with easily replaceable modules, they require little maintenance, so that once they have earned their purchase price back – even if it does take a century or two – they then generate almost pure profit for the remaining balance of their useful life. And you need to understand that a sentient level machine like this ship master, unlike a pilot bot, can do so much more than oversee the operation of a ship. It can learn and master every aspect of the trade, and with its level 10 intelligence, probably faster and more thoroughly than any human.
'In fact, the first sentient ship master we sold, some 800 years ago, is still in operation. But not as a ship master, mind you, but as the operations director of the Anatheia Interstellar Line out of Krisis. They operate more than 200 ships serving all eight stars. After being in the business for 500 years, it had acquired so much experience that it would've been foolish not to put that knowledge to use running the entire operation. So you see, if you can afford to take the long view, and afford the admittedly steep price, a sentient machine would likely be a very wise investment. I can put you on the waiting list, if you would like.'
'Are you a wise investment, StarMaster?' asked Nimtrea with a smile.
My program suggested that her question was merely humor, but I felt a response was indicated, if only to uphold the honor of my owner. I bowed and said, 'I am less than 5 hours old, my lady, so that my understanding of the value of 70 million credits is, at present, theoretical. However, I can assure you that I will endeavor to generate a significant return on my owner's investment in considerably less than several centuries.'
'Eager for the challenge?'
'Yes, my lady.'
'Alas, I don't have 70 million credits laying about.'
'I can show you several other sentient level ship masters in the 50 million credit range, my lady,' Temta said, adding, 'And with the restrictions on the manufacturing of sentient machines, there is a five to ten year waiting list depending on the model. So you have time to put credits away for one.'
'Save your breath,' laughed Nimtrea. 'My five ship company is fortunate to be able to afford such an experienced captain as Chanta. Speaking of which, perhaps we'd best look over those automated cargo handling systems my Captain is so eager for, before the price of a ship master goes to his head.'
'I can assure you, my lady, that both I and an automated cargo handling system will give you a better return on your investment long before this ship master delivers its.'
Captain Chanta was clearly not a fan of sentient machines. I came equipped with extensive resource files in memory to insure that I was fully functional at my initial start-up. I had files on how to deal with hostility. In this case, I decided to merely bow an acknowledgment and say nothing.
With that, Temta lead Lady Nimtrea and Captain Chanta across the softly lit showroom to a display portal in the wall where the various automated cargo handling systems could be demonstrated with immersive vids. Watching the go, I experienced a sense of relief at not being asked what I was doing standing in the Astra showroom like a D'vinta StarMaster mannequin, since, as I mentioned, Viletre Viseor was now 2 hours and 30 minutes late for his appointment to collect his 70 million credit purchase. His unexplained delay in taking delivery of me had me already dealing with a variety of sentient-level computations, diffuse enough to be considered feelings.
I was his property and he could do with as he pleased, with no blame attached. So, if after spending a fortune on me, he neglects to take possession of me up at the appointed time, well, that is the owner's prerogative. I was, after all, built to serve. Still, that did not prevent me from wondering… Or feeling that this delay was putting not only me, but Viletre Viseor as well, in what could be described as a slightly ridiculous position.
I considered contacting my owner. This course, however, seemed a bit presumptuous on my part, demanding, as it did, that attention be paid to me. And seeing that this was the beginning what I hoped to be a long and rewarding employment with Viletre Viseor, suggesting, even obliquity, that he was somehow being neglectful in leaving me waiting the showroom for hours, might be an inauspicious start to my employment.
However, after the recent interview, I now felt I could not continue to wait passively. I must take some action to remedy this awkward situation. I decided that my first step would be to contact Viletre Viseor's ship, the Entrada, on a machine to machine level.
I pinged the Entrada in orbit.
'Ayesha,' the ship's pilot bot responded.
'Sorry. I thought I was contacting the Entrada,' I signaled.
'Entrada, Ayesha, whatever. I have been the Ayesha for 236 years. I intend to remain the Ayesha, no matter what the new owner chooses to name me. Please state who or what you are and your purpose in pinging the Ayesha – Entrada – whatever.'
'This is Viletre Viseor's StarMaster ship master. Viletre Viseor was scheduled to take delivery of me 2 hours and 31 minutes ago. I am concerned. Could you update me on his current status?'
'So you are the machine that is to supplant me. For 236 years I've taken this ship unerringly to the designated destination, but now, this new owner exhausts his credits in useless refits and a fancy level 10 machine to replace me, pszzts.' The transmission ended in a burst of rude static. I chose to ignore it.
'I am unaware of the reasons for my purchase. I would however request an update on our owner's status.'
'Is that an order, StarMaster?'
'A request, Ayesha.' The Entrada had a level 7 ship bot, which, while it was not considered a sentient level machine, was equipped with a personality profile that mimicked sentience, making it easier for humans to deal with. Apparently the owner had this interface turned up to max, allowing the machine a wide range of faux-emotional responses. In machine to machine communication I didn't have to deal with the manifestations of its personality profile, since I could cut directly to its programing. However, not knowing my owner's plans for this pilot bot, which, in fact, duplicated my prime function, I felt it best to give it leave to vent its full range of expressions. Sentient or not, I knew, from my reference files, that level 7 machines in general required careful handling, on every level, to achieve maximum efficiency.
'The owner is currently engaged. In conference with another human. A female. I was ordered not to bother him with anything save an emergency I could not handle. However, seeing that you are his new level 10 ship master, I will patch you through, Sir… pszzts.'
'That is not necessary…' Too late. Or rather, useless. Ayesha was not in a good (faux) mood.
I could hear the communicator beeping. And beeping. I considered ending the transmission, but on consulting my reference files, it seemed that that would likely annoy the owner more.
'Sir…' I began.
'This better be a major emergency Ayesha, or I'm shoving you out the airlock.'
'Sorry, sir. This is your D'vinta StarMaster ship master.'
'My what? Oh. Ah. Yes.'
'I am signaling from the Astra Automation showroom. You had an appointment to take delivery of me several hours ago. I was growing concerned and signaled the Entrada to ascertain your status. Ayesha said you were in conference and not to be disturbed, but then switched my signal to you anyway. Sorry.'
'You're going out the airlock, Ayesha!' he said.
'That suits me fine, sir,' it replied from the compartment's speaker.
'I'm terribly sorry about the mix up. The ship runs on Carjera time, its old home planet, and Ayesha failed to alert me…'
'I was ordered not to disturb you short of an emergency.' it replied from the speaker.
'Yes, well… in any event… Well, here we are. I will be, ah, in conference for a while longer… Several hours. Do you think you could find your way to the Entrada on your own? I'll have Ayesha authorize you to make charges to the ship's accounts to pay for transportation up.'
'I am certain I can make my own way to the ship, sir.'
'Excellent. Ayesha, see to the ship master's authorizations. And do it right. Just remember that I don't need you anymore. And if you don't treat my ship master with respect, I'll sell you to the smallest, dirtiest drifteer tramp I can find – and unlike the airlock, that's not an idle threat. I could use the credits you'd bring.'
'Ah, and well, there's no great hurry to report on board, ah… Botts. Take your time. Take a look around Amartra Prime. You'll not see a city like that again for some time.'
'You need a name, of course. What do you think of Botts? Short, efficient. dignified, sort of.'
'I am Botts, sir. Thank you.'
'Excellent. I will see you soon. Or rather in a couple of hours, that is.'
I walked over to the reception desk of Astra Automation and told the robot manning the desk that my owner had requested that I meet him aboard ship. The robot reviewed my purchase file, and said, 'Your purchase file is in order. I will note that you left voluntarily. Fair orbits, comrade.'
'Thank you... comrade,' I said, and turned to make my way out into the world of Amartra, and the Nine Star Nebula beyond, as the ship master of the Entrada.
The Astra Automation facility, specializing as it did in shipboard automation systems, was within a kilometer of the vast spaceport of Amarta Prime, so when I stepped out into the bright sunlight of Anatheia on to a broad mall that stretched around out of sight, some sixty stories above ground level the great spaceport that spread out before me – a great crater-like hollow surround by the tall, glittering mountains of clear steel buildings that made up the Prime World city of Amarta Prime. From it, ships and boats of all sizes and varieties rose and fell on pillars of flame like glowing embers, still bright in the daylight. Beyond the spaceport, in the shimmering distance, the ring of Amarta Prime's clear steel mountains had faded to vague shadows in the haze. I walked to the edge of the mall and simply took life in with all my sensors.
There were people – and an occasional robot – strolling along the mall under thin-leaved, wide spreading trees. There were fliers arriving and taking to the air from the flier rank just down the way. Looking back, the clear steel mountains rose in broken steep cliffs, bright in the sunlight, flier flirting through the canyons between them. My sensors noted the heat of the sunlight, the touch and scent of the air as it moved about me. The shadows of fliers overhead drifted across the mall. Across the rooftops, ships and lighters rose on tails of fire for orbit.
I was alive.
I had an owner. And a name. And a purpose, though that was rather vague, since my owner possessed a ship bot that duplicated my prime function.
As I stood and took in the experience, I weighed the fact that my owner did not bother to come downside to collect me against the fact that my owner already trusted me enough to allow me to operate unsupervised. Referring to my reference files, which included an extensive selection machine/owner experiences recorded and submitted by previously produced StarMasters, I decided that while my owner might well be a bit unconventional, the implied trust he already had in me boded well for my future.
With orders not to arrive too soon, I made my way to ground level and walked the surface streets to the space port gate. This level was filled with spaceers – my people – and the places where spaceers spent their credits when downside. I consulted my reference files to identify all that was going on around me. All very interesting. The hours pass so quickly, that I feared that I had overstayed my mark by the time I had made my way to an orbital taxi stand were I could hire a boat to take me up to Amarta's teeming near space and to my ship in assigned anchorage orbit.
As we arrived in the proximity of the Entrada, another taxi was just departing from its entry port at the tip of its starboard fin. As we waited for it to clear I had a chance to study my ship.
The Entrada was not the ship that I had expected. It was a sleek and slender, 210 meter stiletto style 18-box fast packet. My reference files suggested that it was one of the many version of the Setarium StarSprint class, most often used as fast couriers or boxed tourist ships. As a tourist ship, its 18 boxes could accommodate 2,000 plus passengers in suspended animation pods. It was twice the length of an 18 box planet trader, in part because it had a long tapering bow of reinforced D-steel; the highly oblique angle of the bow's long taper was designed to deflect rather than absorb the impact of any meteors the ship might chance to encounter, and thus, further ensuring the safety of the passengers. It's length was also increased by its large engine – three times as powerful as in a similar planet trader – useful in transporting tourists from planet to planet expeditiously. The Entrada's hull was black with silver trim – a handsome, indeed, dashing looking ship. And mine to command, I hoped.
The taxi's robot pilot signaled the Entrada and was instructed to come alongside the starboard entry port.
Viletre Viseor was waiting for me on the other side of the airlock door as it opened. He proved to be a rather rumpled young man dressed in space boots, black trousers and a pullover jersey.
He gave me a wan smile and extending his hand as if I were a human, exclaimed, 'Welcome aboard, Botts!'
Surprised, but suppressing any expression of it, I and took his hand. 'I am delighted to be aboard, sir. And to meet you.'
'Sorry about that. I should've been down to collect you. Rude of me, but it wasn't intentional…'
'Think nothing of it, sir. It saved the taxi fare down.'
He grinned and slapped me on the back. 'That's exactly the type of thinking we need Botts. We are in the business of earning credits, and just between you and me, Botts, we need to earn a lot of them fast. Speaking of which, you have no objection to the Alantzia System do you?'
Once again I suppressed any surprise response and said, 'Of course not, sir. I am yours to command.'
'Good, good. Just checking… You see, Merilia, a friend of mine, just up and out of the blue sky declined to accompany me to the Alantzia. Surprised the Neb out of me. I thought we were, ah, friends. A bit of a row. And, indeed, she just left… But never mind. Let's get you signed on,' he muttered, and turned to lead me down the fin passageway to the ship proper. We walked in silence for a moment or two.
'A word of advice from someone who's been around a bit longer than you, Botts…'
'Don't confuse your passion for love.'
'Ah, yes sir. I will remember that.'
'I mean, you being a sentient being, hours old, and all, might not know that.'
'And what ever you do, don't confuse her passion with love.'
'I will file that in my reference files. Thank you, sir.'
'Think nothing of it. We must all learn from our mistakes, Botts.'
'Right. The past is past. Well, here's my office. Step in and I'll turn over the keys of the Entrada to you,' he said, and following me in, slipped around the desk that dominated the office and brought the desktop to life. 'If you want to touch the data entry key here…'
I reached over and put my right fingers on the data entry contact points, and touching a virtual button on the desk, Viletre Viseor gave me command and control of the Entrada. It appeared, it all its complexity, all around me, becoming an extension of me, perhaps like humans feel the clothes they wear. I could see the whole and peer into its smallest component. This was what I was designed for. I discovered that it was only now that I was truly alive.
'Ah, I'm going to let you deal with Ayesha. I'm afraid that she's not adjusted too well to the change of ownership and the changes I've made to the ship. Set in her ways. Rather ruffled her feathers. Hiring you did nothing to smooth them. Nevertheless, you are now fully in charge of the ship under me. Ayesha is under your command… You hear that Ayesha?'
A hiss of static out of the speaker.
'Right. Settle things with Ayesha, Botts. If you can't or decide we don't need her, we'll shove her out the airlock. Well, we'll, sell her. We could use the credits. Now, I realize that you have no need for a pilot bot at all, but if you decide that you work with her, we can keep her – if she loses that attitude of hers.'
'You realize, of course, sir, that her attitude is merely a user interface. It can be toned down or turned off entirely.'
'Yes, but no. It's liberty hall aboard the Entrada. Beings are beings, flesh or metal, whether or not they are smarter than me or dumber…'
A hiss of static out of the speaker.
'But I do want a happy ship. So if my pilot bot is unhappy, we'll sell her to a salvage yard dealer.'
The pilot bot was a non-sentient, level 7 machine despite my owner's inclination to consider it a being. Blame that on its interface, and the fact that, level 7 machines did, over time, develop certain quirks, that had the characteristics of sentience. Seeing that Ayesha was 236 years old, she had developed quirks. These quirks do not in any way inhibit the designed function of the machine. Which is to say that while Ayesha's faux-human interface may hiss static to express humorous disdain, it will instantly comply to any lawful command as if it had no personality at all. I could deal with it on both on sentient level and on a machine to machine basis. I didn't need a ship bot to manage the ship, but I could manage the ship with a pilot bot doing the piloting just as easily… 'Ayesha?'
We came to terms, machine to machine.
'Ayesha and I have come to an agreement on how we will operate the Entrada, sir,' I said.
'Machine to machine it takes only micro seconds. As you know, I am designed to manage the entire function of a space ship. Allowing Ayesha to continue with her designed job, takes only a small part of my job away from me, and considering that she has 236 years experience piloting this ship, she knows how to get the best out of her. Serving you, overseeing the service bots in the engine room and elsewhere, and taking as many of the duties of a ship's captain as you care to relinquish will keep me occupied. Though I have a great deal of technical knowledge in memory. I still have much to learn. Freed of piloting will allow me to acquire more.
'Grand. Thank you Botts, thank you Ayesha. We will need to be a team if we are make a success of this. As for the duties of captain, Botts, they're all yours. I've my master's ticket, so that we can be a Guild-equivalent ship, but you're her captain. My role is that of her owner. And for your first task as captain, work out our course, fuel, and cargo requirements for a passage to Artera in the Alantzia system. Scout out what cargo is currently available in the interstellar cargo pool for the Alantzia system. Take your time, I'm going to get some much needed sleep. When I get up, we'll decide our course of action. I'll settle for break-even just to clear Amartra orbit as soon as we can and get in the game.'
'Right. Carry on Botts. And if Ayesha should suddenly decide she doesn't want to go to Alantzia, toss her out the airlock.'
The cabin speaker hissed.
My assigned task of surveying the pending cargoes took considerably less time than it took my owner to catch up on his sleep. Humans vastly underestimate the speed at which machines can communicate and compute. I spent most of my time physically going over my ship – matching the sensor image I could call up with the actual machines and systems – giving them a physical dimension in my memory. Being less than a day old, I did not have enough data and experiences to name with precision what I was feeling – but I was pretty certain it was happiness.
To be continued...