Fine Synthetic, Guaranteed

A warm breeze blew through the makeshift streets, billowing banners and snapping sagging guy lines against tent poles. The day had been hot, but as the sun sank towards the western horizon, and the blue of the sky began to deepen, the winds were beginning to pick up, with a strengthening breeze sweeping along the wide valley floor. Soon, the market traders would be starting to stow their stalls, pack away their goods, and secure the area in preparation for the night’s inevitable storms. Cait tapped her tablet, flicking over to her trade page and scrolling down her list of receipts for the day. It hadn’t been a bad session: most of the technical supplies she’d been looking for she’d found – or if not the items themselves, at least workable substitutes. There were a couple of things still outstanding, but nothing essential.
She was weighing the merits of a continued search for the outstanding goods against those of quitting for the day and picking up a curry on the way back to the ship. The rising wind and the cooling temperature were pressing her towards the latter option, and she began to make her way back up to the plateau that served as a temporary desert spaceport.
“Hey, pilot! Good bargain!”
The voice came from behind her. She turned to the caller: a small man dressed in functional desert gear, his face shaded under a huge, wide-brimmed sunhat strung all around with garish hangings and badges. He was grinning enormously from beneath one of the most enthusiastic moustaches Cait had ever seen; and draped across his shoulders was equally the most enormous squirrel. Probably a metre from nose to tail-tip, its glittering black eyes regarded Cait intently from beside the man’s right ear. The tail curled around and down his left arm.
“That’s a bloody big squirrel,” Cait observed. The man grinned more.
“A beautiful creature, no? For sale! For a discerning commander, only a thousand denarii. Good friend! Good help!”
Cait whistled.
“That’s a lot of money,” she said, shaking her head. “A lot of money. And I’m not sure why you would think I’d benefit from a pet.”
“Not a pet!” the man said. “Not a pet: help! Fine synthetic. Last a lifetime! Good AI, certain sure. Grade Seven brain. Help you run ship; help you trade. Calculate, organise; help with maintenance. Bargain for a thousand!”
Cait eyed the critter a little more closely. A synthetic. An artificial animal: a detailed robotic body installed with a limited computer intelligence, able to carry out or greatly assist in whatever task the unit was designed for. Most animal synths were created as pets and, depending on the type of animal being mimicked, might have an AI-1 to an AI-4 ‘brain’, which would model the behaviour of the real-life creature. Very few normal people could afford either the cost or the bureaucracy of owning a real animal these days, so synth pets were common throughout the Legacy. Their longevity didn’t hurt their popularity, either: real pets had a tendency to sicken – which cost even more money – and eventually die, which could lead to all manner of trauma for people who’d come to view the animal as one of the family. Synths, on the other hand, could last for decades; even centuries, if they were well built.
Modding and customisation was a popular hobby for many enthusiasts, and meant that there was a thriving market in upgraded or reprogrammed synths; a menagerie of beasties up to AI-7 was available out there for the discerning buyer; AI-7 being the highest artificial intelligence level allowed by law for citizen ownership. Grading restrictions for artificial intelligence had been put in place long ago, after the scandal of the War Ministry’s illegal mind-uploading programme had created outrage across the Roman Legacy, and led to the execution of eight high-ranking military officers by the then-Emperor himself. A nationwide ban on uploading human brain patterns had leached down into regulations controlling the development of AI: computerised brains could be as sophisticated as the developers liked, as long as they didn’t at any point threaten to catch up with human ones. AI could be a workaday jack-of-all-trades or a dazzling master of one, but it couldn’t be too good at too wide a range of skills.

The squirrel seller was watching Cait expectantly. She looked him up and down, and put on a serviceable frown.

“Still seems a lot, though,” she said. “Even for a Seven. It’s not as if I really need the thing.”  She felt an urge to shoot the animal an apologetic glance. It watched her inscrutably.  Its carrier shook his head, and winced as the squirrel dug in its claws for stability.
“No, no,” he said. “Will change your life. Can look after ship. Monitor; advise. Can help with maintenance, see? Little animal; and little hands, see? Grade Seven brain; guaranteed. Means can use tools and suchwhat. Very useful. Only thousand denarii. Programmable: can learn ship specification. Is guaranteed.”
Cait considered it. A Grade Seven AI, capable of basic engineering and ship management functions, and mobile, could actually complement the existing functions of her on-board computer quite nicely… She was starting to lean towards the idea.

Generally she’d be suitably wary of approaches by strangers trying to sell her things, but this was the Bazaar: she’d come two hundred light-years to meet just this kind of merchant; the sort who could, perhaps, knew how and where to get hold of those little technological trinkets and gewgaws that the Imperial Commerce Commission might otherwise discourage. Of course there were risks: it was always possible that some of the sellers gathered here at this travelling market might, possibly, not be entirely on the level – but Cait had learned quickly the art of identifying the crooked. At least, the unacceptably crooked.

“It might come in handy,” she conceded. The man’s grin expanded, and he nodded energetically.

“Yes, yes,” he agreed. “Most hands. All hands. You buy? Only thousand, guaranteed.”

“Right, guaranteed,” Cait said. “Guaranteed what? What’s the guarantee? Do you have the AI certification? The root access codes? I’ll need to wipe the memory down and retrain for my ship.”

“Ah, see,” the man said, and Cait sighed. Of course, he wouldn’t have the codes; he was, after all…

“Codes, you can have codes,” the man said. “Yes, yes, we have all the codes. But…”

“Certification?” Cait prompted. Any AI unit being sold should have a clear certification of grading; without it, she’d have no clear way of knowing that the Seven she was paying for wasn’t a Six, or a Five.

“Certificate lost, true,” the seller said. “But you test! You test and see happy! You be happy, and buy squirrel for thousand denarii. Good price; grade seven!”

Cait sucked her lip. “Okay,” she said. “Hey, squirrel?” The animal looked up and fixed her with its sparkly black eyes.

“Identify,” it said.

“Cait Kryos,” she said. “Prospective buyer. Read me your About page, please?”

The little droid immediately began running through its system information, detailing manufacturer, model number, construction date, current firmware version and upgrade history, along with a basic outline of its capabilities. The barrage of numbers concluded with a short round of copyright and trademark notices, and the unit fell quiet.

Cait watched the squirrel for a few more seconds.

“See, the thing is,” she said to the merchant, “Without the certificate, I don’t know if this unit properly conforms to legal requirements. I mean, most of that About data could’ve been rewritten, couldn’t it? So you’re really asking me to take a gamble here. I don’t know that it’s really an AI-7; and I don’t know that it doesn’t exceed the allowable skill-point allocation for whatever grade it actually is. So, you know… That’s a bit of a hazard for me. Still…”

She let her gaze wander off into the middle distance, where it settled thoughtfully on a large bird, stretching its wings on a rocky outcrop at the neck of the valley. The trader watched her little bit of theatre, grin not slightly abated.

“I’ll tell you what,” Cait said, looking him dead in the eyes again. “What say I offer you five hundred and we’ll call it a deal, ney?”

“Five hundred!” the man said, pretending shock. “Could not possibly for five hundred. I mayhaps could possibly… For a fine pilot, good customer… Will go to nine hundred. No less!”

Cait smiled. Now this game she could play.

Forty minutes later, white-haired woman carrying a large squirrel on her back walked up the gangramp of a small freight ship, and tapped an access code into a panel beside the doors. She stepped into the Ventral Centre corridor and closed the doors behind her, then leaned down and nudged the squirrel off her shoulder. The animal dropped to the floor, turned, and sat down, looking at her.

“Awaiting instruction,” it chirped.

“First think we’re going to have to do,” Cait told it, “Is get you a personality from somewhere.”

“The installation of genuine human intellectual and emotional matrices into computers or life-simulating mechanisms is prohibited under Section Forty-Two of the Human Consciousness Recognition and Preservation Act of 3047. Penalties include…”

“Be quiet.” The little droid fell silent. “I just meant I’m going to teach you some less robotic responses, is all. For now, I just want to get back into the black. Come with me.”

She made her way along the corridor, took the ladder up to Dorsal Centre, and back up to her combined flight deck and living quarters. The squirrel followed her obediently.

Strapping herself into the left-hand seat, she ran quickly through preflight, and fired up the engines. The ship’s gentle vibration felt reassuring after so long on the surface. She keyed in the details of their ascent profile.

“The climb will be about eight minutes, and then we’ll be zero-g. Have you been in microgravity before?” The squirrel hopped up into the empty copilot’s seat and looked at her.

“Query not understood,” it said. “Please rephrase.”

“I said ‘hold on’.”  She pulled at the Z-throttle, and the ship began to rise. The viewscreen showed the desert plateau as it opened out around them; the view extending out to the horizon, dark beneath the glare of the setting sun. Glints of light reflecting from the backs of a hundred ships, small, large, freighters, fighters, industrials… And then they were just a mess of shapes, and quickly faded out of view, buried under the shadow of dusk. Above and ahead, the sky opened out, vast and deepening blue, also fading darker as the ship climbed, engines roaring to push it out of the thick air, and boost it to escape speed. Beside Cait, the squirrel clung on to the harness, though the ride was perfectly smooth.

“Guess you haven’t done much travelling at that, have you?” she said to it.

“Query not… oh, sod it,” the squirrel said. Cait blinked. “‘Query not this’, ‘query not that’,” the animal said, its voice shorn of its former sing-song, automated quality. “I’ve travelled more than you have, I’d bet,” it continued, “And I’ll tell you this: the sooner that bloody dustball is way behind me, the sooner I’ll be happy.”

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