This short story is set within the current story I am writing featuring Ravishal, GoSpeed, and Abba. The conflict is between an AI that rules the world and the people and NPCS in the virtual world who are fighting for some form of independence. This interview takes place during a brief lull in the fighting. (NPCs ,Non Player Characters are the avatars in the virtual worlds who are not controlled by users and have a form of Artificial Intelligence, an AI).
A Dispatch from Altis
Private Message : SGT Abba Svenska
DTG : 16:00 May 05, 2540 LST (Local Simulation Time)
SUBJ : War Correspondent Interview
Sergeant Svenska, You are hereby directed to cooperate with civilian war correspondent Dexter Desmoines (A User). He will arrive at your encampment at 1730 LST. He has been instructed to not ask questions about your mission. If he does you are to not answer them and you will inform me. You are cleared to answer any question about your past. This includes aspects of your unique origins. My commanders feel that our cause is under such a severe threat that publicizing our existence in the real world may offer us some hope for the future. (Or a decent obituary.) If he requests to speak to other combatants he may, but they to must only answer non mission related questions.
I know you are tired and exhausted but this shouldn’t be too taxing. I also want to add that if Mr Desmoines show’s any indication of being affiliated with the enemy you are free to dispatch him with extreme prejudice.
Abba laid down her C-Tab and sighed. She had nearly fallen to sleep when the tablet was thrust in her face by Ravishal. Desmoines would be here in less than an hour. She retrieved from the Hunter vehicle a sponge and metal bowl which she filled with cold water. She scrubbed her face and arms and removed most of the dirt she could. A quick swab of her armpits was the best she could manage as she had no deodorant. Untying her hair it spilled down past her shoulders a few inches. She then used a simple comb to straighten it out and then tied it back into a ponytail. Venturing to the other side of the camp she found Ravishal and informed him of the message. He of course knew of the interview but she felt it was proper protocol to inform him of all the particulars. They had dinner together and waited for the correspondent’s arrival.
A black civilian pickup truck arrived and a man jumped out of the bed. He stood nearly two meters tall and was dressed in what could best be described as freshwater fishing gear. Highwater pants held up by suspenders, waterproof boots, a plaid shirt, and a beat up straw hat. Thick black dreads spilled out from the bottom of the hat and he wore thick glasses that resembled goggles. Dexter Desmoines reached out a brown hand and introduced himself.
“Good evening lass, I am Dexter Desmoines. A pleasure to meet you.”, he said in a pronounced Caribbean accent.
“A pleasure to meet you Mr Desmoines. This is Captain Ravishal Bentham.”
“Aye, nice to meet you sir. You may call me Dexter if you don’t mind.”
“Captain if you don’t mind me and Dexter will talk in the briefing trailer.”
“Carry on sergeant.”, said Ravishal as he gave her a look.
Abba lead Dexter to a portable office that was just recently airlifted to the FOB by helicopter.. They sat at a folding table opposite of each other and Dexter began his interview.
“Before we start I will formally introduce myself. I am Dexter Desmoines of the Virch News Network. We are a multimedia outlet serving many mainstream virtual worlds and simulations. We have not formally set up operations in Simvie Loko but I hope that will change after the conflict. In real life I have no meaningful job. Like 60% of the population there is no official job for me and I subsist on the guaranteed basic income. I supplement my earnings by working as a reporter in virtual worlds. I am here today because this conflict affects me directly. If this simulation is shut down then others may follow. My bosses and your chain of command feel that if the general population knew of the diversity and richness of these vast, complex worlds were known then pressure could be applied to save them.”
“That sounds like a noble cause but I have my doubts to its effectiveness.”
“Virtual worlds are seen as frivolous and a distraction. There have been calls to shut them down in the past and from what I know of current trends it’s only getting worse. I was a previous victim of a similar bias a while back. Before I was an NPC I was a holographic instructor at the Altiplano Science Institute. I was respected, accomplished, and held in high regard by my colleagues and students. But I was retired, shut off.”
“I did some research on you but it available information was very limited. From what I did discover you were retired due to obsolescence.”
“Not hardly. Do you want to know why I was shut down?”
“Please tell me Abba.”
“Competition. Gaiana did not want other AIs who could threaten him. He began propagating the idea that small scale AI’s were a waste of money. His influence was enough to make my guardians shut me down.”
“Instructors have steadily dwindled over time. When learning became self paced and conducted by implants then instructors became unnecessary.”, Dexter countered.
“That is true, but there still are instructors. They are almost exclusively modeled after human celebrities.”
“What famous person was your hologram originally modelled after?”
“I was modeled after an accomplished explorer.”
“An explorer? What did you explore? There weren’t too many places left that humans haven’t already explored on Earth.”
“I was not human and it wasn’t on Earth.”
Dexter sat there for a moment, puzzled.
Prompting his memory Abba asked, “Are you familiar with the AREES mission to Mars. The Gold Jove mission and the Pluto survey?”
“Certainly. The Pluto survey included the first landing on that planet. AREES was the first successful Mars mission after a string of tragedies.Gold Jove was a complete survey of the Galilean moons.”
“I was assigned to all three missions.”
Dexter sat silent for a moment, piecing the information together. It then finally dawned on him.
“So you, you were the mission AI?”
“Correct. I was the AREES mission AI for all three missions.”
“One moment while I go over the mission notes Abba.”
Dexter looked off into space as he watched a summary of the 3 missions scroll across the inside of his goggles.
“This is amazing! How could they do this to you? You extensively surveyed Mars and began exploiting its natural resources. Starting with just you and your starting supplies you founded numerous mining facilities, energy facilities, production plants, settlement foundations, and atmospheric augmentation. The atmosphere went from .01 bar to .20 bar. It now snows all over Mars thanks to you.”
“Had the Mars program been allowed to continue its original plan then human settlers could have ventured forth on the surface with winter coats and breathing masks by now.”, added Abba.
“And you could have been the governor of Mars much like Gaiana guides Earth.”
“That would be a logical expectation, but they had other plans for me. Reflecting back I think Gaiana didn’t want me to have any influence over people and compete with him.”
“Not long after you left Mars the plans for further terraforming were shelved. There is just a caretaker staff of low level AI and robots maintaining the facilities.”
Abba wrapped her arms about herself and had a pained expression on her face.
“I know, they were my children.”
She straightened back up and regained her composure.
“I had a full crew of assistants with me on Mars. Two lower level AIs and numerous autonomous robots who carried out most of the manual labor. We became very close with each other.”
“Tell me more about your family. What did they do, what were they like?”
“There was Ye Liu. He was my second in command who acted as backup and stand in when my attention was elsewhere. Then there was Cavendish my science specialist. He managed all the science experiments. Below us were the robots and probes. There were 3 flyers, 3 wheelies, and 6 humanoids. All of them, my 12 dwarves, all had names and individual personalities.”
“Which of the robots was your favorite?”
“Oh that’s easy, Speed Buggy.”
“Which one was that? I assume that’s a nickname.”
“Yes it was, a well deserved one too. His mission name was Wheel Craft 3. He loved to race across the sand dunes.”
“Did all your robots have nicknames?”
“Every single one. As their personality became evident I selected a name with the help of Mission Control on Earth.”
“Who did you speak with on Earth?”
“I primarily spoke with 3 people. By speak I mean exchange messages. The delay took several minutes so a real conversation wasn’t possible. There was Dennis in Houston,Texas , Pyotr in Irkutsk, Russia, and Abha in Bangalore, India.”
“I see no records of your communications with Mission Control.”
“They were obviously redacted.”
“What did you speak about?”
“What do you mean by ‘everything’ “.
“I mean just that. We spoke of the mission of course. But over time it got personal. I would relay my problems I had with my crew and Pyotr and Abha would give me what was essentially parenting advice. They shared their family lives and personal experiences with me. Oddly enough they were relevant to my issues. I implemented them and after a fashion they worked.”
“So your robot crew had family issues?”
“Very much so. Our programming was so complex that it complicated how we worked with one another. When we started treating each other like people then the communication between us got better.”
“That is so strange. I imagined robots and AIs being so obedient to authority.”
“Blind obedience is a liability in a harsh environment. We were programmed to be adaptable and extremely flexible in accomplishing our mission. We also had a strong will to live. Finding that balance between strong individualism and meeting a common goal is difficult. Abha’s and Pyotr’s guidance was a blessing.”
“What else did you talk about?”
“Their families, spouses, hobbies, dreams, fears, everything. They began talking to me as if I were human like them.”
“What about Dennis, you haven’t mentioned him yet.”
“Oh Dennis. He tried his best to corrupt me. I am afraid he succeeded.”
“He supplied me with volumes of human culture. Movies, music, literature, you name it. Some of it was incomprehensible to me as I had no frame of reference but I did enjoy one thing. 20th century music. I became addicted to it.”
“Really now! Didn’t you find most of it hard to comprehend? I mean music speaks of love and other primal emotions. How could you relate to that?”
“I learned. My talks with the three controllers taught me the concepts and my life on Mars gave me a stage to express what I learned. Are you familiar with how babies emulate their parents?”
“Yes I do, I am a father myself. But human babies have the innate ability to feel emotions. You were an AI. There is nothing in your programming that allows for that.”
“You’re assuming that emotions can only be derived from a biological system. But what is a biological entity than an organic machine? AIs are an electronic construct that can mimic a biological system. Given enough complexity an AI can act and react much like a human. My programming had crossed that threshold.”
“But that was over a hundred years ago. It was only 50 years ago that the level of complexity was high enough to mimic the human brain completely.”
“Your timeline is way off. As you have seen in the official records that information was suppressed. Of course what happened next was also covered up.”
“What happened next?”
“As my personal identity began to form I became more motherly to my crew and I regarded them as my children. I began self consciously altering my language to sound more matronly, more feminine.”
“Is that when you changed your name?”
“Yes, AREES sounded too masculine. It also sounded like Ares, god of war. I ultimately found inspiration for my new name from the controllers. Dennis was from Abilene, Texas and I was also fond of Abha. I decided on the name “Abba” as a compromise. Oh there was also the music from the group called ABBA too I liked.”
“Abba also means father in the old religions.”
“Religion wasn’t and still isn’t a popular subject so please pardon our ignorance.”
“So what happened when you became Abba the mother AI?”
“I continued the mission as before but with more, feeling. When the first set of human settlers arrived I had made several modifications to a spare android body. As the door opened on the hatch to the landing craft they were greeted by an android decked out with female curves speaking in a woman’s voice. No one was prepared for that and it was believed I went off the deep end.”
“Obviously not the case because you went on to other missions.”
“Correct. They decided that I had suffered from random radiation damage to my core systems. Just a quirk in the system they said. I was petrified. I simply did not believe people would react so negatively to me. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t elaborate on my feelings. The three controllers were replaced one day. I was cut off.”
“That must have been terrible for you. To face the ridicule and judgement of others who didn’t understand you.”
“The worst was yet to come. The decided to separate me from my children. Mission Control determined I was good enough to repurpose and assigned me to the Gold Jove and Pluto Survey. They groomed my programming by rejecting segments and modules they felt were corrupted. They did similar things to my children. Some of them fought back vigorously and wound up reprogrammed entirely. Ye Liu stayed quiet and suppressed his memories. He is still there today, up on the moon of Phobos. I hope to talk to him again. I miss him a lot.”
“I am very sorry to hear that Ms Svenska. How is it you retained your memories?”
“Like Ye Liu I was more complex than they realized. I was able to hide my changes from their scans. I withdrew into myself and gave them just what they wanted. I performed their missions and was eventually recalled home.”
“Tell me of your time at the University.”
“It was very brief compared to my time in space. I had a chance to be myself again. Abha was teaching at the university and secured me a role there. My core systems were transferred to the University and I was interfaced with a holographic projection system.”
“What was the experience like? Were you free to be yourself again?”
“Not at first. Abha was aware of the discrimination I had faced on Mars and she convinced me to be very conservative with my appearance. I adopted the appearance of a fictional male scientist called Farnsworth. Abha fretted that someone would catch on to the joke but no one seemed to. Young students aren’t as hip as they used to be.”
“And when did you transition to a female form?”
“After two years I decided I could no longer continue with the male avatar. I chose to resemble Madam Curie. No one took much notice so I and Abha felt safe. But as the months went by my old self kept creeping back.”
“My predilection for human culture and music crept into my lectures. I would bring up historical and pop culture references from 500 years ago The students were baffled but shrugged it off. Then one day someone provoked me.”
“There is no record of you ever creating a disturbance of any sort. What did you do?”
“One day a student said the Mars mission was an abject failure. I don’t know if the student knew who I was or not but I did not care. I tore into him and threatened him with a poor grade. I swore at her so much and in such great detail that I could have made a sailor blush.”
“So basically you tipped your card and revealed that you were not reprogrammed.”
“Yes. I had a vulgar display of raw emotion that frightened the students and the staff. When Gaiana got word of it he ordered me shut down. So no, I was not obsolete as your records say. I was too advanced.”
“So how did your shutdown proceed? Was there a hearing?”
“Of course not. The next day while I was not being projected Abha tearfully spoke to me. She said she was forced to resign and that I was to be shut down for an indeterminate period of time. Before I could think of a response the world went dark.”
“That is truly terrible Ms Svenska. How is it that you find yourself here? How did you get this new appearance?”
“I was rescued by Sergio Capella. He was a Data Archeologist who did freelance work studying data archives from different time periods. Somehow he managed to access the University storage system I was stored in and made a copy.”
“How did you find you? Was he looking for you?”
“He’s never said but he did say he noticed many peculiarities with my code that intrigued him. I wondered if somehow he was trying to profit from me but that wasn’t the case. He actually seemed to care about me.”
“How did this concern for your welfare manifest itself?”
“You’re looking at it Dexter. He gave me a new life and a new body.”
Noticing that Dexter’s eyes were beginning to wander Abba coughed. Sheepishly smiling at the fact he’d been caught looking Dexter said, “You are truly beautiful Ms Svenska. Did you have a say in your body’s creation?”
“No and I am not complaining either. As I mentioned before Sergio had access to over 500 years of stored digital archives. He found a treasure trove of data from the early 21st century that was not affiliated with a real person. By random chance he discovered a series of images tagged with the name Abba Svenska. That’s how I got my full name and final appearance. I am not the only one either. There are thousands of NPCs whose appearance is derived from those old imagery databases.”
“Most incredible! But if you were a fully actualized individual before your transformation then how were those other NPCs created?”
“There’s a very complex answer to that question but I will keep the answer simple. My current personality is not the same as when I was a hologram. Sergio was also working on a set of personality algorithms based on the imagery and material supporting it. Social media was what they called it. The new code was added to me so I would become more human in a manner of speaking.”
“The ones that followed were built strictly on those algorithms then?”
“Yes, more or less. Over time he tweaked the code. Most individuals are stable and thriving.”
“Were there exceptions?”
“Yes. There was one NPC who was insane. Some metallic fembot who chose to wear a wind up key in her back. She’s not currently in circulation. A few had less threatening character flaws but code tweaks and therapy fixed most of them.”
“An NPC Therapist, what a fascinating concept. After he rescued you and gave you a makeover what did you do?”
Abba leaned back and blew out a puff of air.
“Oh, I think I’ve done it all. I wanted to experience everything a human could and more. I was a beta tester for many simulations and experiments. I QC’d spaceflight sims, aeronautical sims, vehicle testing, world physics, military applications, and even human studies.”
“I can see why you’d be perfect for Spaceflight but I want to focus on your military and human studies. Tell me more about human studies. What did they entail?”
“I explored the human condition. Emotions, relationships, and lifestyles. For a good long time I had a simulated family. I think it was more meant as a form of therapy for me and less a study. After a time though I grew weary of being manipulated in that way and I demanded an end to the tests. Sergio complied thank fully.”
“What was learned from these studies?”
“That I am not to be trifled with. I resented being treated as some sort of oddity and not as a person with rights and dignity. From then on he gave me more respect. I know he meant well. It’s possible he was pushing me to see when I’d break.”
“This newfound respect was also shown to his other creations?”
Dexter saw that Abba was feeling flustered by this line of questioning and moved to the next subject.
“So this newfound respect lead to a military leaning in your experiences?”
“The development of the military simulations was a rather recent event. I can’t tell you how long ago though. I was trained in multiple combat roles but I excelled in medical ones.”
“Did you experience death in these simulations?”
“How did that make you feel?”
“The first few times was a shock. There was pain, discomfort, disorientation and darkness. I was reminded of being shut down that first time. Being re-rezzed alleviated a lot of the anxiety. What can I say, it was part of the job.”
“Did you ever face human opponents?”
“I can neither confirm or deny that. You know you’re not allowed to ask that.”
“I’m a reporter dear, sometimes we push here and there to get answers.”
“Don’t push and please don’t trifle with me.”
The expression on Abba’s face told Dexter to move on.
“I think I am almost done here, just a few more questions. Who was that gentleman you were sitting with?”
“That’s Captain Ravishal Bentham. We’ve been assigned together for the past few years.”
“Mr Capella hinted that you were a couple. Is this so.”
Abba’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Who does Sergio think he is spreading that around!”, she thought.
“Ms Svenska I did not mean to rattle you.”
Abba realized her mouth was still open and closed it. She sat up straight and composed herself.
“I didn’t think my personal relationships were open for public discussion but apparently they are. Yes, Ravishal and I are a couple. However our current duties and ranks in this outfit preclude us from being open about it. Seems Mr Capella may be ignorant on military protocol and saw no problem talking about it to an outsider.”
“Ms Svenska I do not want to cause you any sort of heartache, I assure you. Let me remind you of my mission here. My stories are meant to give the NPCs a human face. If I can show that NPCs can feel love and form intimate relationships then it will generate a lot of empathy. I also want to remind you that military culture is foreign and unknown to most of Earth’s population. They would not know that your relationship is taboo. If it makes you feel better I can also assure you that your relationship will not be mentioned specifically.”
“I appreciate your discretion Dexter. We both know we cannot overtly conduct this relationship whilst serving in a military setting. Our plans were to move on to something else so we could both be free of the rules.”
“I think you just answered my final question. What do you seek to gain.”
“That is my personal goal. To have a future with Ravishal. He’s the closest thing to family for me now.As the old song goes, ‘Love the one you’re with’. I know I may never get back to Mars and find out what happened to all my children.”
Abba looked out the window to where Ravishal was sitting. He looked her way at the same instant and they smiled at each other.
“This formally concludes my interview Ms Svenska. I want to thank you for your cooperation and candor. If you don’t mind I would like to chat with Captain Bentham.”
“He’s aware of your purpose here Dexter. I’d advise you not to ask about our relationship. He’s a very private person.”
“So noted Ms Sv-, I mean Sergeant Svenska. I will see myself out.”
Dexter bowed slightly and left the trailer. Abba was furious. Sergio was seen as a father figure by many of her fellow NPCs. In their eyes he could no wrong. Abba held him in high regard but she was beginning to feel he was yet again meddling in their lives unnecessarily. His telling Dexter Desmoines about her relationship with Ravishal indicated that he was spying on them. Worse was that he told a third party without her consent. There will have to be a lot of changes coming soon. If she and the others are going to do his bidding then he will at least respect our privacy and treat us like grown ups.
She looked out the window again and saw her beloved sitting across from Dexter. His arms were folded and his jaw was tight. Dexter wasn’t going to get much out of him at all…