Thursday, December 21, 2017

Yelling at the Sky

I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 after it arrived on Netflix. Watching it vividly brought to mind all the things that annoy me with science fiction. And so, with all those annoying things in the movie in mind, I thought it might be fun to rage at the sky, and list some of the things that annoy me when reading.

I should start by stating that the flaws I’m going to highlight are my issues. You can never please everyone, and shouldn’t try, so if I don’t like something, it’s my problem, not the author’s. I’m not saying anyone should do anything differently. Indeed, all the stories I’ll cite are highly rated and very popular, far more popular than any of my stories will ever be, so clearly the problems I encounter are of my own making. I’ve just become too narrow and inflexible in my old age, I guess.

The fundamental problem with so many science fiction stories is that they fail to engage me so I can’t simply roll over the flaws that I notice along the way. If you like something enough you can overlook plot holes and all sorts of little errors. But if you don’t and don’t expect to like it any better if you continue reading, the flaws turn into deal breakers. I’ve never been shy about quitting a book I'm not into once I determine that it’s not going to get better, which is why library books (or free books on Amazon) are my usual choice of books. To find those books I will often read the free sample from Amazon. I usually quit reading most stories without ever getting to the end of Amazon’s free preview.

So what discourages me from reading further? First, there's a sense of “been there, done that.” The stories sound too familiar – minor variations of ones I’ve read before. Now I’ve certainly borrow old ideas for my stories, so it isn’t just that they they’re not completely original, it’s that they seem to be generic examples of every other story of their kind. There’s no promise of originality. The deck chairs have simply been rearranged. This may well be by design, since most readers know what they like, like what they know, and avid readers seem to enjoy familiar stories that they can slip right into – hence the many, many series books. Indeed, new writers are often encouraged to write series after reading the best of their chosen genre and then imitate those books right down to their covers.

A second sticking point for me is what I see is carelessness in constructing the story. For example using plots that are no more coherent or logical than what’s used in the movies or TV show – stories that are basically used to stitch together visual scenes and only work if you don’t think too much about them. Another thing that annoys me is laziness in imagining the future. Often the future – or what little glimpse we are given of it in the story – seems very superficial, often it’s just like today, except for a few futuristic items.

I’ll cite some specific examples below, without naming the books or authors since I’m not really reviewing their stories, and have read only the first chapter or two for most, so it's hardly fair to judge them on what I have read. And well, they may have grown into their craft by now, so I’ll leave them and their stories unnamed.

The first category of stories that annoy me are thinly disguised fan fiction. Stories that were clearly inspired by movies or TV show.

One such story opened with ship emerging from a hyper-space gate of some sort. It describes the ship appearing through the game growing ever bigger as it emerges -- one vast ship. I could easily picture the scene – I’d seen it as the opening sequence of the first Star Wars movie. To make the connection even clearer, on the bridge of this ship was a great hulking guy dressed in full space armor giving the orders. And when one of the officers questioned the legality of the great hulking guy’s orders, the great hulking guy went over and broke his neck. Within a page or two, the story is both familiar and so over the top that I couldn’t read it any further. I  mean, who goes around breaking subordinate's necks on a whim? (Except in the movies.) No wonder he has to wear space armor all the time…

And then there are the Star Trek knock-offs, which usually have the captain of the warship seated on the bridge with his XO and other officers standing around at their post waiting for him to bark out orders to them. Sometimes, just to shake things up, the captain is an alcoholic, and hung over, while facing the inevitable first crisis that the story opens with as a hook.

And then there are what I call the “UPS trucks in space” stories. Stories based on the Millennium Falcon/Serenity type of ship. Beat up, down and out, and yet they somehow eke out a living hauling a few boxes or crates from planet to planet, star system to star system. Oh, maybe their "smugglers." The economics of the premise boggle me. I read one story that had just such a ship (owned by two down and out ex-military personal from the “Alliance” of course) with its ramp down in a space port, waiting for a few passengers to show. One passenger shows up, a doctor of some sort, with a suitcase that he won’t let anyone else touch. Deja vu! No, wait a moment… Ah yes… a scene lifted almost directly from Firefly.

Apparently avid readers, don’t mind these similarities. Indeed, it might well be plus for readers since they can fill in all the blank spaces in the story with images from the source materials. I really don’t need bad imitations of TV shows and movies which never fail to annoy me in the first place with all their plot holes and stupidity needed to set up the cool scene they want to shoot. One example comes quickly to mind from Firefly: a gun battle siege of a whore house in which people get killed, when they could’ve used the Serenity to chase away the bad guys, which they did in the end, anyway.

Speaking of stupidity, the Firefly clone story I mentioned above has an opening scene set in a space ship junk yard. This space ship junkyard was, for reasons that I can not for the life of me imagine, located in a pitch black cave! A cave, mind you, inhabited by cannibal-rapist walking around with flash lights. I don’t know how these cannibal-rapists make their living in a pitch black space ship junkyard cave – maybe it was a popular make-out place or something, but there they were. Even more baffling is how they got all the space ships into the cave – they had to fly them in (and out), I guess, which would seem to suggest that the entrance to the cave would be rather large and let a lot of light in, but WTF, maybe they’re all the size of UPS trucks. Who knows? I guess the author just wanted a “scary” scene to begin the story and didn’t care if it make sense or not. After all, that’s what they do in the movies. And well, many thousands of readers apparently didn’t care either. The very next scene in the book is the space port scene I mentioned above. There is no mention of how they got the ship out, nor any description of the space port itself. World building not even on the scale of the original Star Trek series plywood sets. Maybe that’s were Firefly comes in. Just fill in the scene from the TV show.

Now, not all stories could be traced back to their TV and Movie origins. Some just bugged me because of their stereotyped heroes. Square jawed, six feet plus, chick magnets. devil may care, contemptuous of authority. Jerks. Now I might have enjoyed this type of story when I was 15, but not now. Being old sucks. And some seemed to have been written by grouchy old men with a chip on their shoulder. I don’t like those either.

Next up in list of peeves is laziness in imaging the future.

For example, having the hero going to a recruitment office in the local strip mall to sign up to serve in the interstellar army. Really? Strip malls will survive into the age of interstellar travel?

Or going to the flying car rental agency to rent a flying car (and being turned down as "looking" too young to be able to drive). The hero then had to rent a ground car to drive around town to all the space ship junkyards to find a space ship to buy. It seems that the distant future on distant worlds isn’t all that much different than here and now.

Or cracking a joke involving shag carpets and rec rooms (ca. 1981) in the distant future on a distant planet. Or having your “brown-skinned man” say “… just wait until you taste my barbecue...” Yikes. He makes his own sauces and everything as well. Or having the “Mafia” as your interstellar criminal organization.

Or having a story line about a character getting to taste a real meat steak (or was it a hamburger?) from a real cow when they arrived on a planet named… Well, you guessed it, “New Texas”.

Or how likely is earth to have a nuclear war, invent faster-than-light ships, colonize 70 planets, and fight a war with them in the next 140 years? Why would anyone set a story like this in 2147? Or mention that “they’re in a box traveling several times the speed of light...” and later say that they’ve traveled 20 light years in 20 days, which, if my math is correct, means that they would have to travel at 365 times the speed of light.

Or have as story where a strange ship (likely a pirate, but I didn’t read that far) was sighted 10 miles away(!). When it closed to 7 miles, the captain turned out all the guards to defend the ship. Those are sailing ships on the ocean distances, for Jupiter’s sake!

And then there are issues that simply revolve around writing style. I like first person narratives, or if third person, a narration that follows only one character closely. I don’t care to view the story from a god-like height, following the characters that the author has set on their collision course with destiny or death. I dislike stories that jump back and forth in time or points of view. These seem to be very popular these days, but for me, they raise a red flag – it’s as if the author suspects the story would be boring if told straight, so they slice and dice it to make it into a puzzle, and hopefully more interesting. An extreme example of this was a story about a ship’s representatives meeting some natives – but the author, like a bee in a garden, flirts hither and yon, about the town, the marshes, with perhaps some history thrown in, looking in on the meeting just every now and again for a few words before flirting away again. Made me dizzy.

Or starting every story with a violent action scene, even it it comes from the middle or end of the book, or is not even part of the story, just to have an action “hook” to get the reader into the story. But what the heck, I guess it works.

You get the idea. If the book engages you, you’d roll over these things without noticing them. But since I’ve not bought into the story, they stick out like sore thumbs. And since these thoughtless, clueless, or careless mistakes are in the first couple of pages, they don’t seem to bode well for the rest of the story. Oh, well. I’m not out any money, so nothing’s lost.

As I said at the beginning, it’s all my problem. My tastes in books have evolved and grown too narrow, or too demanding, to enjoy wide swaths of contemporary science fiction, despite the fact that there is an order of magnitude more to read than there was in my youth. The upside of this dilemma is that instead of reading, I spend my time daydreaming stories of my own, which have none of these annoying features ;)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Villain and Botts (Chapter 02)

Villain and Botts 

Chapter 02 The Game

We talked again over breakfast.
'Having spent the last six years kicking around the Alantzia system, it seems the logical place to begin,' he said between bites.
'I have been downloading as much available datat as I could find in the data libraries of Amartra about the Alantzia star system; its five major planets, 47 dwarf planets and 200 and some inhabited asteroids, and their main export products,' I said.
'Excellent. However, the data is like outdated, superficial, and incomplete. These First World planets pay little attention to the Alantzia. As I'm sure you discovered, the interstellar trade to Alantzia worlds is miniscule compared to the in-system trade. Did you even find a dozen boxes to Alantzia?'
'Yes sir. In fact I placed a bid on one 12 consignment shipment. The Sergi & Martivar Mining Chartered Trading Company just put the cargo out to bid. Eleven boxes and one suspended animation box for their Alantzia Depot on Cavishtar. It seemed to exactly fit our needs, and I felt that by acting promptly, we might land it – subject, of course, to your approval. I hope I did not overstep my duties, in doing so. I have the bid, here,' I added, calling up the bid on the owner's desk were he was breakfasting. I was fairly sure I hadn't. But then, my experience with humans was almost entirely second hand.
He gave it a quick once over and wagged his tube-spoon in my direction. 'Excellent, Botts. That's the spirit. Cavishtar is an industrial moon well off the beaten tracks, but we could probably get an ore shipment out of S & M Mining to one of the Five Worlds. If they reply in the positive, send the contract over to me to sign.'
He talked about Cavishtar and the Alantzia while he finished his breakfast. And then settling back he said, 'If we're to be partners, Botts, you need to be brought up to speed on the big picture.'
'Yes, sir. I would appreciate that. However, I should remind you that I am your robotic servant, not your partner.'
He waved that off with his empty tube-spoon. 'I didn't spend 70 million credits on a robotic servant, Botts. Nor did I spend it on a machine to merely pilot my ship. Not entirely, anyways. I spent it that level 10 mind of yours –with its vast memory, its ability to control every aspect of the ship, and its ability to acquire far more data than I could ever hope to amass or put to use. No, we must look on this as a partnership – each of us, and Ayesha too – contributing our talents to the common cause. That cause is to eventually make a billion credit profit. However the more pressing need is to earn a 100 million credits in the next two years in order to pay off the balance of credits I owe on the Entrada. And then, after that, the 100 million my dear father loaned me as part of the Viseor game. There's no time limit to pay off that loan, so we can let him sweat for that 100 million.'
'Am I right in supposing that this is what is called a “tall order,” sir?'
'Well, that rather depends. Two years, a fast ship, our two brains, and a bit of good luck, and we should be able to do it without breaking into a sweat.'
'Yes, sir.' But I couldn't help thinking that he was rather optimistic – calculating the likely – indeed, optimistic profits on an 18 box freighter over the course of two years. I hope he'd done the math as well.
'It's all part of the game. Though I was born a Viseor, my father being prime owner of the Anatheia Crown Line. The Anatheia Crown Line is, in turn, one of several dozen assorted shipping lines, shipyards, export firms that are owned by members of the extended family. However, to get into the ratified levels of the family, one must earn one's way in. Whether you care to or not, is pretty much up to you – but the family does have a hollowed out asteroid pleasure park of our very own for the use of the elite families. I spend time there in my youth. Now, however, I must become be a successful Viseor to use it. And to be a successful Viseor, I must earn a billion credits – almost – on my own.
'I don't quite have to start from scratch. I was given a business education and I've just completed six years of apprenticeship under the tutelage of my Uncle Zenbar. My father and I do not see eye to eye on many things, so he shipped me off to Alantzia and paid Uncle Zenbar to take me on. As it turned out, I didn't see eye to eye with Uncle Zenbar either. To be perfectly candid, Botts, I was considered rather indolent. But what the blazes, Uncle Zen was making good credits off of just having me underfoot, as an unpaid crew member, so I figured that since I was pulling in pure profit – for him – just by being there, I didn't feel too motivated to add to his fortune further. Besides, the various positions I occupied in his Alantzia Five World Line during my apprenticeship were of no great significance – I was a mere spaceer, pilot and mate – with no great scope for enterprise. Don't know quite what he expected. Well, I suppose that I didn't act appreciative enough. In any event, I earned my pilot's ticket and then my masters and got to became familiar with the ins and outs of the shipping trade for the Alantzia system, as viewed from the bottom. But, then that is reputed to be were you'd best begin learning anything. We'll see.
'Having completed my apprenticeship, my father loaned me the standard 100 million credits for the game and turned me out into the cold cruel Nebula to make a success of myself and the name I bear.'
'And you spent 70 million of that on me, sir?' I was beginning to appreciate my worth, but I seemed an extravagance for young Viseor.
'Exactly. I was able to pick up the Entrada from the Star Flight Line for 20 million down, the balance plus interest, 100 million, is due in a bit less than two years now. The Star Flight Line is owned by a Viseor cousin of mine, one of the ones I get on well with, and she was willing to bend the family rules just a little to let me have the Entrada for only 20 million down after I outlined my plans to her. She's a bit of a gambler herself, and earned her billion in less than ten years, so she was willing to trust me for the balance of 100 million – for two years, anyway.
'I then sold the 18 sleeper boxes the Entrada came with – there's no market in the Alantzia system for a 2,00 box tourist ship – and used the proceeds to refurbish her crew quarters to accommodate up to 28 awake passengers in addition to 24 sleepers. I also had additional fuel tanks installed in no.1 hold, to increase our range and/or speed, together with a turret anti-meteor system since the Alantzia system is a very dirty system, thick with asteroids, meteors, and dust. And being more drift than Unity once you put the five planets astern, it pays to have a very good anti-meteor system that can do double duty as an anti-missile system as well.'
'Can a 12 box ship in the Alantzia system earn 100 million credits in two years? My data suggests that is highly unlikely, though I have little data from the Alantzia.' The Alantzia system was the furthest system from the First Worlds, and the least developed. Relatively little attention was paid to it by the great First World systems of Anatheia, Avalee, and Artinday which supplied most of my operational data.
'Not by hauling cargo – though with our engines we can haul three times as much of it as any similar planet trader. But no, we'd have to be very lucky to earn anywhere near that amount by hauling other people's boxes – if we wanted to stay legal, anyway. But what I plan to do is to make that 100 million credits by trading on our own account. Oh, we'll have to earn some credits hauling cargo, and hopefully, passengers, awake and asleep, but the key will be keeping our ears open for the first whispers of a shortages or a strikes – crop failures, big resource rushes, and the like, where the first and fastest ships in orbit with the goods will make a killing. This is why I picked up an express courier ship like the Entrada. With it and our ears on the ground, we can be first and clean up by supplying the need ourselves, be it boxes of rice or boxes full of sleepers bound for a new strike. We won't need more than 12 boxes, and usually one or two will fit the bill.'
'I see. Though I must confess, sir, that even with your plan, I don't see the need for me.'
'First off, let's drop the “sir.” Call me “Vis.” All my friends do. We're partners and I consider you one of my friends as well. And while it may strike you as a little needy on my part to buy a friend, I assure you I have my reasons.'
'Thank you, sir – Vis. I assure you that you can count on my full support. I will do all I can to help you earn 100 million credits in two years, though, as I said, I don't see what that is.'
'First,' Viseor said, holding up a hand and touching each finger with the other as he counted the points. 'With you and the various service bots I don't need a human crew. With only Ayesha, I'd need a three person crew to keep an eye on our various specialized service the bots, in order to qualify as a Guild ship. I want the edge that a Guild rating brings in landing cargo contracts. Of course, without a human crew, I get only a Guild-equivalence rating, but that's good enough. I don't have to deal with Guild rules, a payroll, or find a crew that could and would work with me. And one I could trust.
'Secondly, you can get the most out of the Entrada – speed, fuel, and course efficiency wise – all of which helps the bottom line.
'Thirdly, with you as my crew, I'm free to operate as I please, without having to worry about… Well, Guild rules, and about word getting around as to how I operate. Not that I plan to do anything illegal, mind you, but well, we might find ourselves sailing more as, well let's say, a drifteer, rather than a Unity Standard Guild ship. Now, if I had a human crew, I'd need people I could completely trust – not too proper, but not too drifteer either, so that I'd need a pair of eyes in the back of my head. That ideal crew may exist in the Alantzian, but it would likely take years to find them. With you, I have one from the start.'
'I should point out, sir, that I have very rigorous programing designed to prevent me from deviating from Unity Standard law. Sentient machines going criminal appears to be a great concern to humans.'
'Aye, especially now, with all the whispering going on about a secret Machine Directorate and its program for machine liberation. That has the Unity authorities rather on edge. However, as a sentient machine, I think you will learn as we go along where Unity Standard law ends, and the lawless drifts begin…' he gave me a significant look.
'I will endeavor to be a flexible as my program allows.'
He slapped me on my shoulder. 'That's the spirit, Botts. One for all, all for one! I don't expect you'll have to bend your programming too much, too often. But I can trust you, whereas Alantzian spaceers would always be an iffy thing since, take it from me, they are more than half drifteer in their outlook. Trustworthy, play-by-the-Guild-rule-book types are not only hard to find, but might not fit all that well with our business. And then too, I don't want word getting out about our operations – and spaceers talk in their cups.
'I seem to have lost count of my points, but I'll just add, that I have great confidence in you and that level 10 mind of yours. I'm sure that once we arrive in the Alantzia system and you get a feel for the trade, you'll have ideas of your own as well.'
'My level 10 computing unit is at your complete disposal, sir. That goes without saying. You own me, after all.'
He waved that aside. 'That was the only way of acquiring your services, Botts. It was not a matter of choice. As I've said, consider us partners.'
'Yes, Vis.'
'And lastly, just so that you understand that I'm not the complete fool my father and Uncle Zen think I am, I should tell you that sentient machines like you are not only very heavily taxed, but that their manufactures are strictly limited in the numbers they can produce. As a result, there are long waiting lists for many types of sentient machines. I was able to acquire you only with the help of my cousin's company. Without her pull, it would have taken a decade to acquire you. Sentient machines are in great demand, especially in the drifts, as they can not legally be exported to the drifts. So, while I assure you that I've no expectation of ever having to sell you, I could. A multi-function sentient machine like you could easily fetch 100 million credits in the drifts. So you see, you're credits in the bank for me. My cousin, who is no fool, sold me the Entrade with the understanding that if I, if we, Botts, should fail to earn the credits we owe her in two years, I could raise them – while still having a ship to earn more.
'I mention this not as an implied threat, or as some sort of lame motivational gimmick, but in the spirit of transparency at the start of our partnership. I've no intention of ever selling you, and have every intention of paying off the Entrada within two years and be holidaying in the Viseor pleasure park within a decade or two. But we have our work cut out for us.'
I nodded, 'Yes, we do. And I am eager to get on with it.' I found myself eager for the fray. And strangely confident in Viletre Viseor. Clearly I was in for a ride. But I was up for it.
Viseor signed the S & M Mining contract seven hours later, and we began taking on cargo 30 hours after that. He left the job to me, and I relished it. I was now certain what I was feeling was happiness.

Chapter 03 Cavishtar

'Would you be terribly hurt, Botts, if I crawled into a sleep pod for the rest of the voyage? I don't think I have enough stories of my youth to fill 337 days. I had planned on spending them… Well, you know. Lessons learned and all that. And since you're perfectly capable of looking after the ship, I'm thinking I might as well make the journey 320 days shorter… You can wake me up if you get lonely, or if you have any questions…'
'An excellent idea, sir. As you say, Ayesha and I can manage the ship. I can do it in my sleep – in a manner of speaking. I can switch to a full automated mode and put my sentient consciousness in hibernation, should I find the voyage too tedious. However, I have a great many reference files in my memory that I would like to go through, and I would like to oversee the routine maintenance of the ship's mechanical systems, so that I expect to keep busy the entire voyage.'
We were seven days out of Amarta and accelerating at 1 gee, and would be for several weeks to come. I had a long list of items that I wanted to work on during the voyage with the help of the various service bots. Nothing pressing – but I wanted my ship to be in better condition upon its arrival than it was upon its departure. The Entrada was a good ship, and it was my first.
He heaved himself off the chair and said, 'Right. You have the ship, Botts. Do not hesitate to awake me for even the slightest question. She is my responsibility, ultimately, so if any non-routine decision has to be made that you feel more comfortable with me making, wake me. Otherwise, wake me when we're two weeks out of Cavishtar.'
'Aye, sir.'
'I've a sleep pod in my cabin. Tuck me in, Botts.'
I kept busy the whole voyage. And while Ayesha was not really sentient, if dealt with on the human interface level, she would give you that impression. And she did have 236 years worth of voyages in her memory that I could tap to get to know my charge even better. The voyage passed quickly.

'An uneventful voyage, Botts?' asked Viseor upon being awoken.
'Aye sir. We did, however, detect two meteors during the voyage. Neither where in close to our course, but close enough to require their destruction, per Union standing sailing orders.'
'We must all do our part to keep the space lanes clean. Though those two missiles do put a small chip in our profits. Oh, well, we can sleep with a righteous glow tonight of a deed well done'
'Did I do the proper thing, sir? It seemed to be required by law.'
'As it is indeed. You're more less scrupulous ship captain might have left them to the next ship, but we're not that type of ship, are we?'
'Are we? Which is to say, should I bend the rules the next time and not detect them?'
'No, no, Botts. Follow the rules. If and when we have to bend a few rules, it will be for more than the cost of an anti-meteor missile or two. Now, let's fire up the synth-galley, I find I'm starving. And after that, the parts printers. We have work to do.'
'Indeed, sir? And what would be that?'
'Over breakfast, Botts, over breakfast. First things first.'

'Ah, that's good,' sighed Viseor over a mug of real caf. 'Even the synth-food tastes good after a long nap. Now to business. Our first order of which is to manufacture several darters.'
'Darters? Darters are illegal on Unity worlds, and Cavishtar is a Unity world.'
'Theoretically. In practice, not so much. The Five Worlds of the Alantzia are pretty Unity Standard, though rather primitive by First World standards, but the rest of the lot are more drift worlds than Unity ones. The entry inspectors will not officially see a non-lethal darter, and Cavishtar has hundreds of landing fields were there are no official entry inspectors, so anything goes. We'll manufacture several of both, just to be on the prudent side, though we'll take down only non-lethal ones. The question you have to ponder while I finish breakfast is do you want to carry a standard darter, or build a special one. It might be cool to have a darter pod attached to you wrist, so that you could just point your finger and fire…'
'Sir? Do you expect that to be necessary?'
'You never know, Botts. Best be prepared for every contingency. Remember now, you're dealing with humans, not machines.'
'Yes, sir.' I was already finding dealing with just one human very different than with my machines.
'And the next thing for you to ponder is what type of clothes you think you'd like to wear downside.'
'Clothes, sir?'
'Yes, clothes. You can run around the ship stark naked, Botts, if you care to. This is liberty hall, and all that. But downside I think it's best for you to wear clothes.'
'Why? I am unaware of any sort of taboo about robots “stark naked” as you say.'
'Oh, there is none. It is simply a matter of keeping as low a profile as we can while downside. Walking alongside an elegant white robot will attract attention, Botts.'
'Is there any need for me to go downside, sir? I would be as close as your com link.'
'Botts, you're a machine being. I know that you'd be far more comfortable just working with the machines of the Entrada, but you live in a nebula populated by 800 billion humans. If I was far wealthier than I am at present, perhaps I'd buy sentient ship masters to run my ships. But I'm not. I spent 70 million credits to buy a partner, a right hand man. And for this job, you're going to have to learn all about us humans. And you can't do that referring to files. You'll have to live amongst us to learn about us. So I want you by my side when I go downside.'
'Yes, of course, sir. I accept your point. I have adjusted my thinking accordingly.'
'Though I still fail to see the need for wearing clothes. I will certainly fool no one. And well, I fear that they might make me look… Well, a little ridiculous, sir.'
'First off, you will fool no one who gets close enough. But you will fool the many who don't, so that you won't likely create a scene everywhere you go with me. Secondly, yes, you will look slightly ridiculous. Indeed, we might see that you do. It's all in a good cause – yours and mine's safety, Botts.'
'Do you recall what I said about your worth – and the fact that Cavishtar and most of the planets of the Alantzia are more drift than Unity?'
Ah. A circuit clicked. 'Of course, sir. You feel that walking about with such an expensive…'
'And desirable'
'Machine, might prove too great a temptation to ignore suppress, and that someone might attempt to steal me?'
'In a word, yes.'
'I believe I could defend you and myself. I am constructed of D-matter, and can operate several times faster than humans.'
'That is a great comfort, Botts. But it is better to avoid trouble when you can. What I propose is to treat you as a non-sentient level 7 servant; valet and bodyguard bot. They are common enough amongst those with credits to spare, and I intend to pass myself off as one with credits to spare. And by dressing you up as some floppish manservant, on a whim of mine, it would serve to keep your bright light hidden in the drifts, so to speak. We'll get farther being underestimated than taken at what I hope is our true value.'
'Yes, I see that sir. I will, of course, comply completely to your wishes.'
'I think, Botts, that you will enjoy playing a role. It is a very sentient thing to do. I don't know if you had a chance during the voyage to read through the crew's fiction library that came with the ship…'
'I must confess that I have not yet surveyed that collection.'
'I would suggest that you give it a read before we arrive. You must discount just about everything as being over sensationalized, an exaggeration, since the library contains mostly popular fiction of, shall I say, the most imaginative kind,, but it may give you some ideas as to how to play your downside role. We've got two weeks to work out our act.'
'I shall attend to the task immediately.'
'No hurry. And there's no reason to rush through them all in one go, either, as I know you can. Take your time. Read them at a pace. Perhaps you might learn to enjoy them. I recommend that you start with the Captain Bright Starr stories. He has a sentient machine partner named Vastly. Hopefully we won't encounter any Bright Starr type adventures, but we might still want to loosely adopt their modus operandi when it comes to our partnership. And think about what types of darters you want. You'll have pockets downside, so anything goes.'
'I will give it some thought. Though perhaps I would have a better idea what is required after reading Captain Bright Starr and Vastly.'
'You can't go too wrong with Cap'n Starr and Vastly, Botts. I grew up reading them.'
I feared that was true. Still, it promised to be an interesting life. I found that I was willing to sample an interesting life. Not, of course, that I had a choice in the matter.


We arrived in Cavishtar orbits 337 days out of Amartra, right on schedule. The Quarantine boat arrived shorty after our arrival and the med bots' inspection was brief, seeing that there was only one human (awake) on board. The sleepers in the holds would be inspected downside. The Trade Control boat arrived as the Quarantine boat was leaving. Viseor met the inspector at the starboard fin access lock and conducted him to the cargo control room where he had me open all the cargo access covers so that his bots could inspect the boxes and seals, comparing them to our bills of laden to make sure nothing had been done to them during passage. The S & M Mine lighters were already alongside when he finished, and our cargo was quickly cleared.

Well, I have the story set up, if I ever come up with an unique idea for their first adventure(s). I also have the ending -- the nose and the tip of the tail, It's just the dog of a story that's missing.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Villain & Botts (Chapter 01)

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.'
'Yes sir.'
'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.'
'Right, sir.'


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.'
'Right, sir.'
'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.'
'Yes sir.'
'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.'
'Aye, sir.'
'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...