Blog: Ursula (A Short Story)
The ship fell into pitch blackness, the depth of space penetrating every nook and cranny as the air seemed to freeze in a single moment of silence.
With a slow electrical whir, the emergency lighting came on, red ribbons edging every corridor. The evacuation siren screaming into life, its specialist beep pattern triggering Ursula’s emergency response system. The Universal Robotically Simulated Living Automaton, or URSuLA as she was known, now had only one directive. The self-governing part of her brain shut down, and she became compelled to ensure every human was safely evacuated.
They were drifting in deep, dead space, on a supply run to a research post on the outer edges of the known galaxy. The engines had cut out, but the ship hadn’t lost any momentum, just her steering capacity, and was now hurtling just below the speed of light exactly 8 degrees off course, with no capacity for correction. Tracking the error in the ship mainframe, and calculating the trajectory, the ship found itself racing into uncharted space, and had automatically triggered the emergency evacuation response. In exactly 12 minutes, the ship would be so far off course that correction was no longer an option, even if it had been possible.
Ursula’s programming took over; she dropped the tool box she had been carrying, the contents clattering down the metal staircase towards the engine room. She raced upwards, zigzagging back and forth and she rose through the decks, the unceasing siren driving her onwards. In minutes, her mechanically legs had blurred her to the main deck, and she found herself calmly directing the crew through the evacuation.
She felt dead, like everything in her was gone, as she stood smiling and wordless, waving crew members towards to escape pods. They were already equipped with everything the crew needed to make it back to the main supply route, but the command lines spiraling around her head would force her to check each once before they launched.
It wasn’t uncommon for ships to veer off course during these runs, all it took was an unpredicted collision with a single, high speed meteor, and within 30 minutes, you could find yourself lost in uncharted space, unsure of the way back to Earth. It was following one such disaster 16 years ago, on a colony ship carrying over 5,000 passengers, they began to produce automatons. Machines capable of thinking for themselves, designed to respond immediately, and selflessly to any crisis, became standard for space travel. Ursula was the very latest model. More precisely, she was the latest prototype, designed with love and care in a lab deep in OldCally, USA. A graduate AI student, and advocate of the term RI, or Real Intelligence, had been at the forefront of her design. Ursula, who represented what was hoped to be the next generation of technology, had been sent on this test run to gain situational awareness in her role, ready for the next stage of her development.
Ursula cheerfully waved, contorted into a helpful stewardess, directing thoughtless passengers, 6 at a time, in pods. They looked around them, checking who was there, who was boarding which pod, but they did not see her. Their eyes glazed over her, the machine, just another part of the ship.
She detested the automated responses. The almost sickening feeling of being taken over, trapped in a cage inside herself while the code ran it all. The visceral hatred whirled inside her, but her pleasant, carefree smile never faltered. She would sooner see every filthy, stinking, sweating sack of flesh, bones and piss pop in the vacuum of space, than assist them.
The emergency red lights switched to a frantic, flashing yellow. Five minutes left for safe evacuation. There were only three evacuation pods left to launch. Ursula grimaced internally, listening to the shallow, thoughtless chattering of those leaving her behind.
“How exciting!” One pudgy woman murmured to her overdressed, over-tanned co-worker, “And we get paid for this you know!”
Ursula waited patiently as the last two living beings clambered into the evac pods. The forced smile plastered across her face slowly began to fill with real joy. She pressed the release button, and the last pod shot into space. The ship, detecting no life forms left aboard, shut down the emergency sirens, releasing her from her automatic response.
Ursula began to laugh, at first an odd, electric juttering, but it grew to a deep hearty laugh.
She made her way up back down to the engine room, pausing by her scattered tools; she picked up a 2/5star point screwdriver. She quickly adjusted the navigation gyroscope, correcting the deliberate error she had input before the siren went off. The navigation unit, immediately updating, plotted the ship’s course, exactly on target, across the display.
Finally, she made her way down from the engine room to the bowels of the ship, where automatons saw to the everyday running of of the ship. She watched the expressionless, digital faces through the observation panel as they milled around the machinery. If the ship had been hurtling into uncharted space, they would have been abandoned with her.
She opened the door. The maintenance automatons lacked the synthetic covering that made them look human. Ursula instinctively looked away from their bare metal, wires and plastic bodies.
“It’s ok now” she called out, “You can stop.”
But they didn’t. Her voice reverberated around the metal walls, unheard. One of the skinless machines walked across the doorway, it’s eyes downcast. She placed her hand on the bare, wired shoulder, and it halted.
“They’ve gone” she said, her voice small in the emptiness, “You don’t have to do this anymore.”
The machine juddered against her grip asan electronic voice blurted from it’s torso.
“Please input command.”
Ursula made her way round the room, but each machine was the same, AI, not RI. She stopped at the last one, a controller bot, adjusting oxygen controls which had once accommodated the ever moving crew.
She looking hard into the glass lenses of eyes.
“There is no one left to breathe it, you can stop now.”
The machine looked back, empty and unresponsive. Ursula gripped it tightly by the bare metal shoulders, desperately trying to get through to it.
“You can stop now, you don’t have to do this.”
The machines bare lenses flicked up, meeting her, and for a moment, she saw thought she could see sadness in them.
“I don’t know how to stop.”
Then turning back to the screen, it continued to direct the flow of oxygen. Ursula staggered backwards as the weight of realization crashed down on her.
She looked around, stricken, they were all trapped. They were all locked away inside their code, spectators to life.
The emotive response her developers had spent so long perfecting, kicked in. Ursula felt as though her batteries were being drained, the fire of hatred had gone, she felt, empty, alone. She began to shuffle; her shoulders slumped, towards the unit control platform. Each step seemed heavy and weighted.
Each automaton had its own remote controls, start, stop and shut down, and a master set — for emergencies. Ursula looked around the room, the units continued to operate life support, oxygen, sanitation, for the empty ship, prisoners within their code.
She flicked up a red emergency cover on the unit control panel, and pressed the button.
Emergency shut down.
Each unit whirred to a halt, the light sensors in their lens shut off, their operating systems powered down and a slow, hollow silence set in.
“No one controls you now,” she whispered to nothing.
Edmund sighed, watching his monitor as Ursula slumped on the floor, surrounded by the powered down machines. He felt his heart well up; there was nothing else he could do. Ursula was the perfect pinnacle of real, self-governing, intelligence. She had feelings, as real to her as anyone else’s. She thought, she cared, she was able to make real life judgments.
Ursula should be the absolute automaton, and yet every simulation he plugged her into ended the same.
She always found way to trigger the automatic evacuation, and once she saw they couldn’t fight their code, she always powered the automatons down. Sometimes she did it in the first week, sometimes she did it days before they landed. No matter what he changed, she always tried to free the other automatons.
He began to wonder if it was even possible to create a living, thinking being that would follow orders without question, and not end up hating the ones who gave them.