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Politeness Costs Nothing

Marie Vibbert's short fiction has appeared in Analog, F&SF, Lightspeed, and other places. She is a computer programmer from Cleveland, Ohio.
AC-26x detected an unexpected visitor so she chirped and ran a quick diagnostic before hailing, "Greetings and salutations, unknown craft! Welcome to our air space. We are Lunar Air Traffic Control Satellite 26, and we are pleased to meet you. What would you like me to call you?"
The human attendant, Marta, set down her heated stack of starch and meats and wiped her mouth. "The fuck was that? That's how you hail?"
"Politeness costs nothing and gains everything," AC-26x recited. "I've modified all my form calls."
AC-26x felt the manual override interrupt the communication stream without so much as a query.
"Please," AC-26x said, "Excuse me for pointing this out, but that wasn't very polite."
Marta ignored her. The reply came in, printing out in jerky text, punctuated by lag, nowhere near as precise and poetic as the packets themselves. AC-26x loved to spend a microsecond or so admiring internet protocols, the ritual greetings, the layers of salutation and address lovingly cupped around each parcel of data.
Marta squinted at the display and said, "It's a drone. Habicorp. Probably a lost mail pod for the colony. Snag it. Bring it into the loading bay." Marta picked up the stacked starch and meat, kicked the instrument console, and slid on her chair across the control room. She took a bite of food, and through a mouth of half-chewed organics, muttered, "Please."
AC-26x chirped, but it wasn't her happy chirp.
#
Habi-ML31227 was quite anxious, fluttering queries all the way into AC-26x's holding bay. "They shoot me out from Viarta base, and I land at Pasorales. It's always worked before. Are you Pasorales? You don't feel like Pasorales. I'm sorry, you aren't Pasorales, are you?"
"No need to apologize," AC-26x said. "You drifted off your trajectory. It happens to the best pods. Please, my loading bay is your loading bay."
Marta kicked the access door. It groaned, but slid open. Marta had never entered the loading bay before; it was not part of her usual maintenance schedule. She wiped meat residue on her slacks and crawled. "Let's see what's in the mail," she said, and started unscrewing the access hatch on the pod. Her little pink fingers flinched and she shook them wildly about her head. AC-26x could have told her the steel was not warmed within the standards for human contact.
"I beg your pardon, Crewman Marta Van Becker, but it's against the law to open someone else's mail pod."
"Computer, shut up." Marta wrapped the tail of her shirt around a screwdriver. Her digits didn't function well in cold, and the tool slipped off the access panel and caused a small breach on Marta's skin layer. Marta then shouted a number of words not in AC-26x's dictionary. AC-26x assumed they were affectionate in common usage, which for Marta was while accessing "College Men Leashed" or other, similar video feeds from the registered domain prettyboys.com. This time, however, the tone of the words was altogether different, and AC-26x logged the stream of sound for further study. It had helped a lot with Marta's predecessor, Gerald, who had explained the importance of politeness.
Habi-ML3 1227 texted her concern about the heat fluctuation on her side-panel. "No one's supposed to be accessing me. I didn't get the release code. Did I send all clear and not record it?"
AC-26x sent variations on "confirmed reception, response processing" in hopes of reassuring the pod. To the human she said, "I'm sorry, but it really is illegal for you to be tampering with that, and besides, it's upsetting the mail pod."
"The pod is getting upset?" Marta kicked the access panel. "Boo hoo."
This was really too much. "Please consider the emotional responses of others, Crewman Marta. I've started a communique to Habicorp and to your supervisor on the matter. I hope you understand."
"Computer, de-activate AI."
"De-activate which AI, please?"
"The pod's, lame-brain. Though you can switch yourself off too." Marta appeared to be eating the skin between her forefinger and thumb. "I oughta switch you off."
AC-26x had some options when drastic orders were given. She took her time to process the decision data properly. She had an imperative to consider how her operator would respond in her place.
Marta became agitated, possibly by the sound of AC-26x reattaching the grapplers to Habi-ML31227, who sent a contented confirm-response.
Marta backed away from the pod and tried to access AC-26x's command stream from her portable monitor. "Jesus on a pogo stick, what are you doing? Listen, psycho bot, you had better not be--"
AC-26x opened the outer doors, releasing the unsecured contents of the bay to space. The sound was not unlike the release of a long-held sigh.
"What was that?" Habi asked. "Please tell me it wasn't bad."
AC-26x said, "Oh no, nothing bad. If you don't space a human now and then, they never learn proper manners."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 27th, 2019


My writing workshop passed around fortune cookies and each set out to write a story based on their fortune. "Politeness costs nothing and may gain everything," made me think about computer protocols as a form of politeness, and I took things in the most impolite direction I could.

- Marie Vibbert
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