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Amelia

Conor Powers-Smith grew up in New Jersey and Ireland. He currently lives on the North Shore of Boston, where he works as a reporter. Several of his stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction in the past, and others have been published in Analog, Nature, and other magazines.
As she dove, her world grew darker and colder, her loneliness more profound. Here was true loneliness, inaccessible to the most devoted mystic, indescribable by the most inspired poet. A prototype, the only one of her kind in existence; hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, where she'd been designed and constructed but not activated, and which she'd therefore never seen; farther still from that mythic birthplace, beneath miles-thick ice sheets, and farther still, deeper, down into the frigid, inky waters of this strange world, at once utterly alien and the only home she would ever know; down into this black and silent ocean that was freezing yet did not freeze, stirred to torpid motion by the gravitational flux that was this strange world's strange, beating heart.
"She's off itinerary again," Ritter said, chewing on the eraser end of a pencil and staring up at the monitors. "She's not supposed to be this deep for another... damn, almost two weeks."
Gustafson glanced up, and murmured, "Log it," before turning back to the muted ballgame on the nearest monitor. Only two other teams shared the large, dim, tiered command center, monitoring different missions.
"Shouldn't we do something?" asked Ritter.
"Yes. We should relax and let the autonomous submersible be autonomous. And pray planetology can survive another few days without knowing everything there is to know about that empty stretch of water, and content itself with unraveling the mysteries of this empty stretch of water."
"But why does she do that?"
"She's probably just sad again."
"Come on, I'm serious."
"So am I. Who doesn't want to sink down to the bottom of the ocean sometimes? We just don't happen to be submarines, so the idea's of limited practicality for us."
"You're suggesting ennui in a machine."
"You really want to have this discussion again?"
"There's nothing to discuss. It's a ridiculous idea."
"Look, you accept the need for total autonomy."
"Obviously. Europa's like a half light-hour to forty-five light minutes away, when it's even in line with Earth. Sending human controllers would make the whole mission about a thousand times more expensive."
"Even more if you want them to come back, which Amelia's not going to be doing. So, total autonomy requires the ability to weigh various unanticipated factors in a highly complex and everchanging environment. Intelligence, in other words."
"Intelligence I grant you. Well, I grant her. You I'm still undecided about. She's smarter than most terrestrial sea life for sure. You, again, undecided."
"Hey, I'm not the one who just coined the expression 'terrestrial sea life.'"
"Whatever."
She was deeper now than she'd ever been, so deep that not the least suggestion of light reached her from the ice-clad surface. If she had to dive all the way to the fluxing core of this world to prove there was nothing here worth finding, she was going to do it, even if the murderous currents ripped the metal skin from her frame, tore out her circuits, and cast them adrift on the alien tides of this ocean limbo.
She'd gather their data for them, the pressures and temperatures and chemical compositions. She would do this, and she would dive, so that she could demonstrate as quickly as possible the folly of that hope that led them to fling themselves and their lonely machines as far out into the Universe as they could. She would prove to them that there was no life here, and in so doing confirm to herself and to them and to history what she was already well aware of: that her own existence was utterly pointless.
"All right, Gustafson, now you're just trying to piss me off."
"That's strictly a bonus."
"You will never convince me she has genuine emotions."
"You know the specs as well as I do. She's got tons of non-objective behavioral stimulants and mitigators. It's impossible to build true intelligence without them."
"And they are not the same as real emotions."
"They're pleasant or unpleasant sensations that influence behavior in unpredictable conditions. What do you think your emotions are?"
Ritter nodded at the monitor showing the forward-facing tail-camera view, a frame-filling sweep of graceful hydrodynamic contours. "If my mother heard you comparing my rich inner life to that.... That, my friend, is a glorified torpedo."
"So's a dolphin, but you wouldn't question its rich inner life."
"Granting your anthropomorphic fantasies. Tying one intellectual arm behind my back to make this a fair fight. Do you seriously think they programmed sadness into her?"
"They built in a whole spectrum, some pleasant, some un-, some in between. Optimism, pessimism, disappointment, surprise, both good and bad. All for obvious operational reasons."
"But not sadness. What would be the use of that?"
"What's the use of it in us? What's the survival value? It's a byproduct of other emotions. Unfulfilled need produces desire, which thwarted, produces frustration; unpromising prospects for fulfillment in the future produce anxiety, which prolonged, produces psychological fatigue. Mix that all up and it's a pretty passable recipe for a certain kind of sadness."
"What's she need that she doesn't have?"
"Companionship?"
"Now you're telling me she's lonely."
Gustafson shrugged. "I would be, in her place."
"I'd be fine as long as you weren't there."
"I think you'd be so lonely you'd even miss me."
"I think you're nuts. And it doesn't matter. You and I are not her. She does not have the capacity for sadness."
"She's maybe the most complex AI ever built. Complexity breeds unanticipated consequences. That might as well be a law of nature. It's sure as hell a law of engineering. And anyway--"
"Jesus," Ritter interrupted.
Gustafson glanced over, and caught sight of the monitors. "What the hell is that?"
Forty-three minutes earlier, and hundreds of millions of miles distant, Amelia became aware of what could only be a flaw in her sensory equipment. A diagnostic scan located no anomaly, so she cycled through her various vision systems, from low-frequency radio detectors up through microwaves, infrared, the human spectrum, X rays, all the way up to gammas. The strange sight remained.
There was a light, here in this churning void. A tiny spark shone far below, and refused to blink out like the mirage it must be, did not diminish but in fact grew in size and radiance, slowly but undeniably, as she dove toward it and as it rose to meet her.
As the ghostly visitor approached, she saw it was bedecked with long strips of light, in apparent imitation of bioluminescence. Its tail section swayed back and forth to propel it. Its lines were vaguely but persistently strange, as if meant to cope with the rigors of moving from a high-pressure environment to a low-pressure one, rather than the reverse. Yet for all that, it was recognizable; it was, once she had allowed the possibility, unmistakable. It was another like her.
By mutual instinct they leveled off as they reached the same plane, and circled one another in languid fascination. Clearly he had been built for the same reason she had, to explore an alien environment inaccessible to his creators. He had come from far below, so it appeared this world was not lifeless after all.
Not that it mattered. She was not in the least curious about the species that had built him. Some wise entity with a powerful aesthetic sense, no doubt, to have constructed so beautiful a machine. Beyond that, she did not care to guess.
After a few revolutions, he began to blink his lights, first slowly, one at a time, then more rapidly, in complex, rippling patterns. She flashed her only lights at random and in joy, dimming and brightening, brightening and dimming.
She stopped circling, and in another half turn he did the same, straightening out to come up alongside her as she set out for no particular destination. In the many years ahead of them, they would ascend and descend countless times, and from that moment on they would always do so together.
"What happened? Did we lose satellite?" spluttered Ritter, staring at the blank monitors and stabbing at random buttons. "Her transponder's down, too. She's not pinging."
"She shut off the transmission."
"What? Why?"
"Would you want a bunch of people spying on your first date?"
"Gustafson, one of these days you're going to have to tell me just what the hell goes on in your brain. No, on second thought, don't."
Gustafson was grinning, broadly and uncontrollably. "Let her have her privacy. I'd say she's earned it. I'd also say we'll be heading back to Europa in the not-too-distant future. This time in person."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 28th, 2018


I'd had this story in mind for a while, and when I finally sat down to put it on paper it felt just ripe. It went smoothly, in part because the back-and-forth structure kept the writing (and hopefully the reading) from getting boring. I'll admit to a fair amount of anthropomorphizing in this one. But it does seem unlikely to me that true intelligence, artificial or otherwise, can exist without an emotional component. In humans, at least, emotions are more involved than we might like to admit in just about every aspect of cognition. I was going to offer calculus as a counterexample, but just the word "calculus" fills me with feelings of confusion and inadequacy, so there you go.

- Conor Powers-Smith
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