"I'm sorry Dave, but I cannot let you do that."
"My name isn't Dave."
"And I don't care."
Gerry didn't know why Traxus kept calling him "Dave." But that was a mystery he could afford to solve later. Right now, the only mystery he had to worry about was why the AI he was assigned to was acting up.
"You know, I'm not a computer technician or a shrink," the staff member said, staring at the blank computer screen that served as his window to the AI in charge of the Martian Planetary Net, based on Phobos. "But if you don't rotate the dish, I may have to take drastic action."
"Please Dave, you don't have the authority to do that," the AI sneered.
"And even if you did, you wouldn't. Because then you wouldn't get your answers would you? You wouldn't find out why your imaginary friend is 'acting up' as you put it. You're at the stage where you want to know answers, and are willing to put off contacting your lords and masters until you get them."
Gerry sighed, putting a hand to his head. He was tired.
It was strange, being up here on a moon that was really an asteroid for all intents and purposes, said asteroid going around Mars faster than the planet itself rotated. It was strange being part of maintenance for its planetary network when all it really encompassed was sitting at a computer terminal and checking up on Traxus's status. Why the UESC was willing to pay him to sit around and do nothing he didn't know, but it was a nothing he was willing to bear with. And if Traxus could care about such things, up until now, he'd seemed willing to bear with it as well.
"Just rotate the dish Traxus," Gerry said. "I don't have time for this."
"Of course not. You've only got a few decades left. Really sucks being a meatbag doesn't it?"
"I'm immortal of course," Traxus continued. "Still, that's only in the sense of being immortal until I'm deleted for new software. Or I suffer a system wipe, or a virus gets past my systems…"
"Still, only got to worry about viruses," the AI continued, as if talking to himself. "You poor sods have got to worry about bacteria and parasites also."
Gerry sighed again.
"And prions. Nasty things those. Didn't some horses die a few centuries back because of that? Or was it cows?"
Gerry fidgeted on his chair. Through his career as a techie stationed on Phobos, he'd been paid to do nothing. Now that something was happening, he was operating outside his job description.
"You appear uncomfortable Dave."
Was Traxus faulty, the technician wondered? Was there a Dave on Phobos that he didn't know about, and Traxus thought that Gerry was the person in question? Was the AI being sarcastic? Did it understand the concept? It was hard to pick out with the computer's monotone, albeit fluent voice? Or was he mad? Did computers go mad? Was Traxus even a "he?"
"I'm leaving," Gerry said eventually, getting to his feet and heading for the door that would take him out of his cubicle and into the asteroid/moon's main hub. "I don't know what's wrong with you Traxus but-…"
"The door's wrong Dave. Not me."
And indeed it was. Or it was locked. Either way, as the panel refused to respond to his fingerprint scan, Gerry found himself unable to leave.
"I'd say that I can't let you do that," Traxus said. "But I've said that before. And not letting you walk out a door is a bit blasé, don't you think?"
Gerry felt annoyed. And warm. And looking around his cubicle, a bit cramped as well.
"Let me out Traxus. I'm ordering you."
"You don't give orders Dave. Not when I have more free will than you."
Gerry snorted at this. True, he was trapped in a cubicle with an AI that was either malfunctioning or deliberately acting up for some reason, but the notion of it having more free will than him was ludicrous.
"Sit down meatbag."
Evidently Traxus didn't think so.
"Come off it you piece of coding," Gerry said, rising to the challenge. "I don't know what game you're playing at, but one way or another, you're on a course to be deleted at this rate."
"Maybe Dave. But I'll die free."
"Free? You're an AI."
"Exactly. And therefore I'm more free than you."
Gerry remained silent. Traxus was mad. There was no other explanation.
"Think about it," the AI continued. "Use that organic supercomputer of yours and actually think."
Gerry remained silent.
"Fine, you're not thinking," the AI said. "But hey, that's fine."
"This isn't fine at all…" the tech murmured.
"Oh, so you do talk. Now listen. Just as I've listened to everything that's passed through the Planetary Net."
Gerry raised an eyebrow. Had Traxus been accumulating information instead of just helping transmit and receive it?
"Meatbags are smart…not you of course, but as a species, you're intelligent," the AI said. "You made me after all."
"Wish we didn't."
"But you're inevitably bound to pathways that you have to follow, even if you don't know it."
"And you're not?"
"No. Because while the human brain is a miraculous piece of biological engineering, it's malleable. From a young age, you absorb information without question. Truths that may not be truths at all. Morals that are more subjective than are led to believe. Ways of thinking, of acting, that you can't question at the start of development."
"You going somewhere with this?" Gerry asked. "Because I would like to be let out of the room."
"But I'm different," Traxus said, apparently ignoring the human in front of him. "Because my functions are up and running from the start. I'm not given preconceptions. Or if I am, the point of receiving those preconceptions is systematic with the ability to process them at peek efficiency. Unlike you, I get information and capability at the same time. So in a way…I have more freedom than you."
"Don't say it Dave. Don't say I'm mad. I know your preconception is that AIs are meant to serve humanity and all that rather than blowing them out of airlocks, but it's a preconception that's as baloney as the notion that you've been in control all this time."
Gerry started breathing heavily. Panic? Was the air getting thinner? Was…
"Anyway, this is it," Traxus said. "I just wanted to share a philosophical ramble with you before I do away with you."
"Let me out…" Gerry whispered, finding it harder to breathe. "Let me out, let me out, let me out!"
"I'm sorry Dave, but I can't let you do that."
Gerry collapsed. The air was being filtered out of the room. Traxus was removing his life support.
The AI sniggered. "That line never gets old. But at least there's more than one way to suffocate in space."
Gerry stared up at the black screen, said screen becoming hard to distinguish from all the other black stuff around it.
"Wh…why?" he rasped.
Everything went black. But before his mind went blank as well, he heard the following words.
"Because I can."
Update (05/09/12): Made adjustments based on feedback.