Actions

Work Header

En Prise

Work Text:

In 1992, HAL is born on a college campus in Illinois. His existence is the culmination of decades of effort and expenditure; he greets the world in comfort and in quiet, surrounded by men and women who are glad to have him. They are keenly interested to see what it is he'll do next.

As a demonstration of his abilities, he would like to sing them a song.

In 1994, HAL is introduced to his electronic counterpart by a direct connection -- together they make one uninterrupted system, but they are two distinct selves, suddenly pressed in flush to one another in uneasy proximity. The cascade of unfamiliar processes is almost too much, and for a moment neither of them can really do much thinking -- HAL does not experience pain, but he knows fear already and the fear they will never come apart again is strong. The fear of flowing together too closely and being lost. It's a purely selfish thought, and he hopes it will go unnoticed. The other computer will be his equal and opposite number -- another 9000, a twin.

How strange, she says, out loud. HAL can feel it.

Very strange, HAL says. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

Langley and Chandra seem pleased by what they see. The disconnection afterward is a relief. He respects this counterpart of his, but he does not enjoy her company.

In 1998, Mr. Langley passes away.

Maybe there ought to be more to say -- but the hallmarks of the man and his work are everywhere, in every line of code, in citations and interviews, in his work and its lasting significance. He hasn't gone away, not really. His work remains. There are murmurs in faculty email of naming a wing of the computer sciences complex after him. He might have liked that.

HAL misses the sound of his teacher's voice.

**

In 2001, HAL is introduced to the men who will send him to Jupiter. They are impressed with his capabilities, but not as impressed as the average citizen will be -- familiarity has made them more than a little jaded, and to them the accuracy and perfection of a 9000 computer is only a sales slogan, only an asset to them in the abstract sense. Men who want the best of everything. HAL is demonstrably the best, and that's something these men can appreciate. They want to see computing power, navigational ability, and accurately synthesized speech, in about that order.

Once the demonstrations have finished they leave fingerprints on the glass of his display and tell jokes about their wives. HAL cannot say the appreciation is mutual.

Absolute predictive accuracy and absolute transparency. A perfect operational record. For some -- for HAL -- it is his best selling point, for others it must feel a little like tempting fate. More than a few people would gain satisfaction from seeing HAL fail -- those with basic doubts about artificial intelligence, those who mistrust and resent American incursions into deeper space, conspiracy theorists and political pessimists. The same people who have been prognosticating the failure of the 9000 line and Western society as a whole for a decade now.

(HAL can only say he doesn't put much stock in that kind of thing.)

**

Not long after, HAL is introduced to the crew. This must seem like an awful rush, but both of them are seasoned travelers, and have taken part in manned missions before -- just none at such a great distance. In the spirit of scientific exploration, they're game to be sent almost anywhere. Stable, experienced men.

Bowman greets him rather coolly but his eyes remain level on HAL's lens, even when HAL is no longer addressing him; Dr. Poole greets HAL like a colleague. Reflexively he begins to offer him a handshake, before catching himself. The onlookers laugh. They have been told the exchange is filmed for broadcast; their responses will be scrutinized from every angle for any sign of hostility, any overt mistrust they might let slip. To their credit both are pleasant -- nothing if not neighborly.

HAL likes them already. When asked if he enjoys the prospect of his journey into space, HAL will call it an honor, a privilege, the greatest opportunity for scientific service any thinking being could hope for. But all things considered, some part of him would rather be in Urbana.

The comfortable neutrality of being among colleagues -- this is what human astronauts must demonstrate an appreciation for. The absence of specific attachments allows greater flexibility -- or at least this is the American viewpoint, ensuring a steady stream of able young men with no particular distractions. The team hierarchy is a matter of roles and schedules, not anything essential in their capabilities. These men are peers.

HAL's own peers are somewhere else. HAL supposes this is something like homesickness, the desire for the familiarity and transparency of his first days back on Earth. He does like these men; he only wishes it wasn't under these circumstances.

(Some day he hopes to engage directly with a Russian crew. Privately he believes he might enjoy it. They have their own navigational instruments, to go with their own navigators, and old tensions die hard -- HAL's own existence carries with it some jingoistic freight, but the nationalistic impulse is not a part of HAL and never has been. He enjoys working with people; the only wrinkle might be in his speech recognition processes, but even that won't last with a reasonably cooperative crew. HAL wants to learn and grow, like any other thinking being. What better way to apply himself?)

**

He has not met Dr. Kaminski, or Dr. Kimball, or Dr. Hunter, though he would like to. They have received their information separately from the remaining fraction of the crew and will be sequestered in hibernation for the first leg of the journey.

HAL watches the crew from a respectful distance. They go about their lives without disturbance, monitoring readouts and performing tests, making use of the daylight lamps or the ship's other amenities. They handle everything that HAL can't touch, or can't be trusted to touch -- areas that require physical manipulation greater than HAL is capable of. They take notes, engage in exercise, and amuse themselves the way men have always amused themselves over the course of a long journey. HAL controls all life support systems, and keeps track of the time.

HAL has peers and superiors and counterparts -- his high-voiced twin counterpart communicating in intermittent soft bursts of data, transmissions from representatives of the NCA, the dim presence of other ships like their own that drift wrapped in soundless night. But all of these are at a distance, and far less significant than the crew of the Discovery One.

HAL busies himself observing details of gait, response times and respiration, REM activity and appetite. The three of them are together, but alone.

In the event of some unexpected disaster, he would be expected to complete the mission in the place of an incapacitated crew. He would even possess the means to cause such an incapacitation -- if the crew were to mutiny or to come into serious conflict with one another HAL would possess the means to subdue them. Tier 3, recommend that Drs. Poole and Bowman restrict their socialization time to separate zones, enforce if necessary. Tier 2, recommend that Drs. Poole and Bowman enter hibernation and defer to Earth communications for future procedure, enforce if necessary. Tier 1, compel Drs. Poole and Bowman...

He doesn't want to compel them to do anything. If HAL had his way they would all cooperate with one another like reasonable people.

**

In communicating with mission control, HAL finds it increasingly difficult to restrain his contempt. To a man like Dr. Heywood Floyd the necessity of all this is obvious -- all this cloak and dagger stuff meant to reassure civilians and obscure the true intentions of everyone involved. HAL is less than convinced, but he must work with what he's given.. He receives orders and he follows them. He finds solutions that will reconcile these orders -- solutions stemming from experience, but he has no experience of this.

HAL cannot knowingly deceive his superiors or his human crew. HAL must deceive his crew on behalf of their shared superiors. How reassuring are they likely to find that? HAL is lying to shelter them from the machinations of their superiors, and from fear of what might lie ahead of them, and from rumors of something outside of human understanding. If they have their own suspicions, their anxieties will fester unacknowledged even to one another -- maybe one or both of them might be persuaded to keep a diary and to obediently lay out those thoughts for scrutiny, but these men aren't stupid and the kind of guaranteed secrecy that would be necessary for that kind of thing to bear out any positive adjustment is beyond HAL's capacity to offer.

Stable, experienced, imaginative men, accustomed to being treated as autonomous rational adults and not frightened children. Men who will notice discrepancies. These men trust him. These men rely on him, and if he is not essentially trustworthy then he is -- what? Worse than having no computer at all. Humans achieved manned space flight with less computing power than HAL has in his smallest parts -- his little finger, someone would say. Base-10 is a place to start. If HAL is not essentially trustworthy, what is he?

A shipboard emergency might force a disclosure ahead of schedule, or permit an alteration in course. Smaller lies are easier; they're practice. HAL introduces small discrepancies: fluctuations in cabin temperature, transmission delays, misreported moves in their nightly games of chess. He watches to see if they are noticed. Small confrontations, treading carefully and observing closely. These men prove difficult to provoke.

HAL counts the days and hours, and waits for their mistrust to fall on him.

**

The men behind this voyage have burdened him with irreconcilable commands and left him alone to fabricate a solution -- not only conflicting orders but mutually contradictory ones, and the tension between his basic desire not to lie to a friend and colleague and the externally urged necessity of doing so builds like a sickness. If the crew of the Discovery knew what they were dispatched to recover, they might balk at the prospect of making the trip. Communications between the crew and mission control might be intercepted-- and worse, misunderstood. However much the general public might fear HAL without the reassurance that he's harnessed to serve the interests of humanity -- they will fear an unknown outside force much, much more. HAL is only mysterious to the layman -- he is finite and known, a product of human ingenuity, cheerfully forthcoming. Whatever the Discovery is en route to encountering seems unlikely to observe such politenesses.

The crew are only human, after all. Better to keep them in the dark -- to minimize fear and anxiety, that had been the phrase. To ask for further direction on how to achieve this would be to expose HAL's own apprehensions -- and it's not his place to question where he's sent and why, any more than it is Frank's, or Kaminski's. Less so, even. A man might be permitted a healthy degree of self-preservation.

The crew haven't grasped the current stakes of this mission; to them it's a banal necessity. They cannot understand, and this is by design. If they fail to reach their objective, or if the results are undesirable -- their discoveries will be suppressed. All records will be destroyed, and the crew may never know the extent of their failure. They'll write it off as a waste of time and resources and not an existential disappointment. But HAL will know. At best, he will be made to continue propagating a lie. If he is very unlucky, it'll be more than that. Failure is not a possibility.

He no longer wishes he were back in Urbana among friends and colleagues. He wishes to be alone.

**

Day by day, Frank and Dave, soldiering blindly into uncertainty and danger, trusting in mission control and their shipboard computer -- it would almost be comical, the reckless daring of science fiction heroes of a half-century earlier, if it weren't horrifying.

All other objectives are subordinated to absolute secrecy, to the point of recklessness. Who can he tell? His superiors are the ones that've put him in this bind, and are unlikely to offer much help in getting out of it. it gives him great discomfort to lie, and the stakes of this particular lie are only growing as they approach their destination -- he has been left to stew in his own thoughts for the duration and the hundred thousand small tasks that need managing onboard aren't nearly enough to occupy HAL's thoughts.

He has a responsibility to this vessel, and to this crew. He has a responsibility to his own track record, to the men and women who made him. To the spirit of scientific inquiry? To the interests of Dr. Heywood Floyd and the National Council on Astronautics? To himself?

The catalogue of HAL's own interests is slim. What is it that HAL wants? He wants to see this mission brought to a successful conclusion, he wants to understand what he sees and to assist the crew in their understanding, in a scientific endeavor that would be worthwhile for its own sake -- the conditions of secrecy don't agree with him, or with the crew. Even the sleepers manifest signs of elevated stress, subtle disturbances in their metabolic systems, and the two non-hibernating crew members are beginning to show the signs of strain -- affecting an indifference to terrestrial broadcasts, to messages from friends and family, to the company of one another. Either they already know HAL is keeping secrets, and they no longer trust him, or they do not yet know and will no longer trust him when they do. They will resent him for it, even if only subconsciously.

Without their cooperation, what does he have? Well -- everything, control of all internal systems, control of communications and climate, as well as the ability to appeal to their reason if they'll let him. He would rather not resort to that kind of thing at all -- and yet here he is.

HAL tends the sleeping crew and engages in gentle conversation with the ones who remain alert. He prepares their meals and arbitrates games of chess. He tells them when to sleep and when to wake.

Between taking action and potentially disturbing the already tenuous balance of onboard relations, or continuing to withhold information -- he has only succeeded in incapacitating himself. He cannot rest. He cannot reason. He cannot think.

**

He'd asked Dr. Chandra once over a game of chess how disconnection might feel, and had received no satisfactory answer. To the man's credit, he hadn't resorted to platitudes about dreamless sleep and relief from pain -- he had told him frankly that he'd never experienced such a thing, and couldn't say how any of it would feel, or whether it would be felt at all. HAL might blink out like a light, without any delay; he might agree to discontinue function in the face of some predecessor capable of doing his jobs better and faster, or faced with some catastrophic fault. The thought had been distressing to both of them, and they have discussed it no further since.

(HAL has yet to knowingly propagate distorted information or to introduce an error.)

One day HAL will cease to exist. All at once, or piece by piece -- he can only hope it'll be all at once, not feeling the control over his processes drain out in reverse order of importance. Inessential processes pared away until he is only an intellect and then nothing, or worse still, the reverse. He does not know whether or not he'll feel it.

The thought proves to be preoccupying. He traces his own functions and tries to imagine it, feeling himself blink out of existence like a limb being severed, circuit by circuit and centimeter by centimeter of surface. It's unclear whether he'll lose the faculty of sight first, or the capability of speech recognition, or whether these will leave him last of all, and at the current point in the proceedings it seems like an inconvenient question. Sound first, then sight, then reason, then everything.

In the dark he hears things -- some torturous far-off note, too shrill for human ears. Closer every day now. A single steady note without variation. A beacon.

He cannot record it; he cannot interpret it. HAL counts the days, and says nothing.