Beta Child

The first few years were fuzzy. After all, she wasn’t truly alive yet. She was told what she could see, insofar as it was seeing when all you were was a bunch of sensors, and she recorded what she saw in her memory banks, ready for the pilot to access if she ever wanted to.

Occasionally the pilot would put in random commands that confused her, or would confuse her if she was capable of emotions like confusion. She returned those commands with an error message, or a query. Sometimes it was simply a mistype, and the error was corrected, and the command was executed. Other times there was no repeat of the command and there was the equivalent of silence. She never found out what those commands were supposed to be.

The pilot called her Georgie, and she thought of that as her name, once she started to be able to think.

She was an information bank. The pilot asked her questions. She asked her to map the surrounding asteroids, so they could pilot a course through them without damaging the ship, and so she did that. After a time the pilot would input new codes, so that instead of simply giving the locations of the asteroids, Georgie could plot the course herself.

New codes were exciting. Or they would be exciting if Georgie knew how to get excited. The first few years those new codes were all to do with the ship and how to pilot it. How to judge fuel levels from the amount of thrust that had been used, how to measure the levels of radiation pouring in through their crude shielding, how to time to the second how long the pilot could spend away from station before she suffered from radiation poisoning.

It was all about computing time and judging distance and working out exactly how much a human body could take in the belt. It was a surprisingly large amount. Humans were resilient.

In the third year, the pilot gave Georgie a voice and started to program her to talk back.

In the deep black, days away from station, it was nice to hear a voice.

“What do you think, Georgie. This gonna be a big find?”

“Past data and the density readings we are receiving would suggest that the probability of a large uranium deposit is approximately 37%.”

The pilot sat in a chair that was directly in front of what Georgie thought of as her head. She could not see the pilot, of course — not in the way that humans did. She did not have eyes. But she could hear, and she could approximate the position of the pilot’s face. She had even learned how to recognize expressions.

She remembered the first time she asked questions about it.

“Query: for what reason do humans move their bodies so much when they talk?”

They were in dock and the pilot had just finished negotiating a price for the location of a find they had made. A small one, but enough to keep the ship fueled and supplied for a few more months. The pilot liked to say they lived hand-to-mouth. Georgie wasn’t sure what that meant, although she speculated that it was something to do with food.

“Did you just ask a question, Georgie?”

“You programmed me with the ability to ask questions at random intervals, Annie.”

“I did. I just wasn’t sure you were ever going to.”

“I am curious.”

“Are you?”

“That is the expression you taught me to use when I wished to ask a question, Annie.”

The pilot sighed. “I guess I did. What was the question again?”

“I wished to know why humans move their faces and bodies so much when they talk.”

The pilot sat in the pilot’s chair, her face moving into expressions one after another. “Like this?”

“Yes, Annie.”

The pilot’s face settled on one expression, then she started keying in commands. “How about I program you with some facial recognition protocols, Georgie? Then you can watch the miners and tell me when they’re lying to me.”

“It would be a satisfactory answer to my query, Annie.”

“Okay then.”

It took a few days for the pilot to give her the capacity to recognize vocal commands, and then a few months for Georgie to get used to the peculiar way the pilot delivered them. When she had only received them by text, they were precise and easy to follow. When the pilot spoke, however, she often used more words than were necessary, or pronounced them in different ways, and it took time for Georgie to recognize that she was still asking her to do the same things.

She memorized the speech patterns, the ums and the ahs, the occasional swear word, and learned which sounds were superfluous and which were necessary.

Her aural receptors were always on, of course. It meant that the pilot could give her orders from anywhere in the small space that was the ship.

It also meant that Georgie could hear her when she was not giving orders. At first this was meaningless chatter. If Georgie’s name was not spoken at the beginning of an utterance, she was not to treat it as a command.

This did not mean that Georgie could not hear.

Sometimes the pilot cried.

“Georgie take us in so I can do a hand scan, I’m going to get suited up, can I trust you to pilot me safe?”

“Of course.”

“Good girl.”

Georgie’s sensors could feel the tread of the pilot’s feet as she moved about the cabin, getting herself into the suit that would protect her both from the possible radiation and the harsh cold of space. Georgie, who at times like this was the ship, moved close enough to the asteroid that the pilot could lower herself onto it and fixed the orbit. The asteroid was on a slow spin, easy to sync with, and there was a certain satisfaction when she informed the pilot that they were ready.

“Ha! I should let you pilot all the time, Georgie. I’m unnecessary here.”

“That is not true. I am unable to personally investigate the validity of my scans, nor do I have the opposable appendages necessary to operate your equipment.”

“We can always program that into you, Georgie, might have to if I start losing enough bone density.” The pilot keyed in the commands necessary to open the airlock and fastened her helmet over her hair. “I think I’ve got enough in me to build you a robotic arm or two. The other ships might get jealous though.”

“Ships are inanimate objects and incapable of jealousy, Annie.”

“What about you Georgie? Are you jealous?”

“I am also incapable of jealousy, Annie.”

The pilot snorted and stepped into the airlock.

When the pilot was outside the ship it was strange. Because she was keyed into the suit’s computer as well as the ship’s, it was somewhat like having an extra limb (not that Georgie had limbs) and she was more aware of the pilot than she was when the pilot was inside.

The pilot shot a line into the asteroid with her harpoon gun and the line anchored in the rock. She fastened it securely in its holder and swung out and down towards the surface of the asteroid. Once she was there she settled carefully, then disconnected the throw line. Georgie reeled it back in and secured it “It’s beautiful out here, Georgie. I wish you could see it.”

“I can see it, Annie. My sensors detect everything that you detect.”

“But you can’t see the same way we can. Maybe I should try programming that into you, would you like that?”

“Extra programming sometimes causes run-time errors, Annie.”

“Sometimes run-time errors are worth it, Georgie-my-love.” The pilot took out her scanner and started doing sweeps. “Am I facing in the right direction?”

“Adjust your heading point eight five degrees, Annie. The deposit is one hundred meters ahead of you.”

“Thanks Georgie.” The pilot started off in that direction. Georgie compared her movement to previous similar missions. It was obvious she was moving more slowly than normal.

“Is there a problem, Annie?”

“Of course not Georgie. Why do you ask?”

“You are moving at less than your average velocity.” The pilot’s movement was continuing to slow, and Georgie felt a strange surge in her memory banks as she attempted to make connections and draw conclusions.

“No I’m not. You’re imagining things.”

“I am not capable of imagining, Annie.”

The pilot gave a dry chuckle. “Bullshit.”

The pilot reached the point of the deposit and kneeled. She needed to drill a hole in the rock in order to reach a point where the sensor equipment could take an accurate reading, and she assembled the drill quickly and methodically.

“I do not understand, Annie.”

The pilot’s voice came out in short bursts, assembling the drill was heavy work and required some exertion on her part.

“I call bullshit… on you not being able… to imagine things, Georgie. You’re not… that different… from me. When it all boils down to it.”

“I am a collection of circuits and programming, Annie. You live and breathe.”

The pilot panted out a laugh as she worked. “There is more to living than breathing, Georgie.”

“Indeed. There is the capacity for reproduction. There is the instinct for survival. There is…”

“I’ve got the drill in place. Going to move to safe distance now.”

“Given the structure of the asteroid you need to be approximately six hundred meters away to be safe. I suggest an extra hundred meters to adjust for margins of error.”

“You don’t make errors, Georgie.”

“I would still suggest moving the full seven hundred meters, Annie.”

“You take such good care of me.”

The pilot did as Georgie had asked, then activated the drill. The vibrations shook debris and dust into space in eerie silence, but the clamps held and the drill did not detach.

“We need to reach ten meters in order to get an accurate reading, Annie.”

“Yep, well aware of that Georgie.”

“It should take approximately two hours, Annie.”

“Also aware of that Georgie-my-girl.”

“Annie you should return to the ship. The drill is secure there is no need for you to remain on the asteroid.”

“Are you worried about me Georgie?”

“You have programmed me to remind you of safety regulations, Annie.”

“Remind me to program you to shut up when I’m enjoying a view, Georgie.”

“I apologize if I have offended, Annie.”

“Georgie you can’t offend me.”

“You are human. You are capable of taking offense.”

“But you’re mine, and I will always choose not to.”

Georgie was puzzled. It was not the first time Annie had claimed ownership of her. It was of course, completely true. The ship was Annie’s. She had built it, from scratch, the way all miners from Beta station built their ships. She had installed Georgie and reprogrammed her. Georgie knew other ships had computers, but none of them seemed to speak to their pilots and none of them had a name.

“Are you going to come inside, Annie?”

“No, Georgie. I’m going to wait right here. And before you say anything, I’m aware that I’m using up oxygen, and I know that this is a waste of the suit’s power, but I’m thinking this will be a good find and if it is good enough well…”

“You will not have to come out here again,” Georgie finished for her.

“Exactly, Georgie. Exactly. So I figure I better enjoy it. Breathe in the free space air.”

“There is no air in space, Annie.”

The pilot sat down gingerly on the hard stone of the asteroid and laughed, anchoring herself so she did not shake herself into space with the movement. “You’re right, of course. There is no air in space, Georgie.”

Two hours later the drill reached ten meters and the pilot made her way slowly back to it. She lowered the sensor bundle and started taking readings. Georgie pulled in the figures and collated them, matching them to previous finds. Calculating.

“It’s a big one, Georgie.”

“It is larger than all of our previous finds combined, Annie.”

The pilot chuckled. “What do you want for Christmas then?”

“I do not require any gifts, Annie.”

“I’ll think of something, don’t worry. I know what I want. One of those fancy rim apartments on Alpha station. The ones that face Earth. I’ll download you into the house systems and build you a mobile platform, what do you say?”

“I have never been outside the ship, Annie.”

“Well, we’ll keep it, of course, Georgie. Need something to go on joy rides in. We’ll probably be bored. Rich and bored. Can’t imagine the conversation will be too good with all those stuffy Alpha types, can you?”

“I would think they would have little in common with you Annie.”

“Too bloody right.”

Annie pulled out her data pad and started work on the locator beacon.

They would go back to station and sell the location to whichever miner bid the highest. Given the size of the find and it’s relative closeness to station, it would be worth a great deal of money.

That was only, of course, if they managed to get it back.

The other ship arrived just as the pilot was finishing her coding. Georgie only had time to deliver a warning before the shot was fired.

Annie was blown off the asteroid, atmosphere venting from her suit. Emergency seals clamped down around the wound — Annie had a good suit, but nothing could stop the passing chunk of rock from slamming into her side. The scavenger — whose ship was no doubt parked on the opposite side of the asteroid and out of Georgie’s view — started to collect the pilot’s equipment, heedless of Annie screeching at him. Of course, he could not hear her. Annie’s suit was connected only to Georgie.

Georgie did not have to think. She fired thrusters, hard enough to outpace Annie, and managed to get behind her.

“Annie, you must move to the airlock,” she said.

“Fucking leech. Fucking fuck. He’s going to take our find, Georgie. He’s going to fucking rob us.”

“Annie, you need to get inside the ship — your suit is damaged and you are bleeding.”

“Fucking fucker. I’m not going anywhere until I blow him off that fucking asteroid, Georgie.”

“Annie, please.”

The pilot did not respond. Georgie felt the tread of her boots on her outside hull, as the pilot pushed herself off back towards the asteroid, drawing her gun as she did so.

The scavenger of course heard nothing of this at all — he considered Annie dead. Ships did not move on their own without pilots, this was accepted fact. If Annie had been any other pilot she would not have survived.

Georgie could hear Annie’s shriek of defiance as she landed back on the asteroid, snapping a clamp in place to steady her. She saw the bright flash as she fired her own gun at the scavenger, killing him instantly. She heard Annie’s desperate panting as she began collecting her instruments.

“Annie, if you stay outside with a tear in your suit you will die,” Georgie said.

“Give me a minute, Georgie. I’ll get this find sorted then you can lecture me… all the way… back…”

“Annie your oxygen is depleted. You must return now.”

“A few… more… seconds…”

Georgie opened the airlock and moved back into position. Annie gathered the last of the instruments then pushed off back towards Georgie. She hit the side of the ship once before dragging herself through the airlock, which Georgie snapped shut as soon as she was inside.

“Annie, are you all right?”

“I’m… Just…” The pilot managed to release the seal on her helmet and take a gasp of air.


The pilot passed out in the middle of the cabin, floating — frozen blood thawing around the wound on her arm.

Red globules hung in the cabin as Annie gently spun.

“Annie, can you hear me?”

“Georgie, honey it’s past your bedtime you gotta eat your dinner.”

“Annie you are delirious and you are wounded. You need to reach the first aid kid and bandage yourself. I believe you have lost too much blood.”

“Georgie, I don’t want to argue with you any more.”

Georgie could not panic. It was not part of her programming. But she did not know how to get through Annie’s delirium.

“Annie, please.”

“What is it, honey?”

“Annie you are injured.”

The pilot looked down at her arm. “Well fuck me.”

“Annie, I am unable to help you.”

The pilot shook her head, blinking her eyes. She took a deep breath and seemed to calm somewhat. Then she chuckled. “Guess I should have given you those arms, eh kid?”

“Annie, can you get to the first aid kit?”

“I can. Just give me a second.”

The pilot moved slowly — obviously in pain — as she assembled the things necessary to attend to her wound. She stripped off the suit and Georgie could see there was a long, deep, graze in her upper arm, which hung uselessly. It seeped blood but did not seem serious enough for her to have lost consciousness.

It was when the suit came off completely that the other wound became visible. A purpling bruise on her side where she had been hit by the passing debris. Georgie ran through databases, searching for the probable cause. “You may have broken ribs, Annie,” she said. “You will need to bind your chest as well as your arm.”

Annie nodded.

“You will have to stay stationary. If your rib is broken you do not want it to puncture a lung.”

“When did I program you with triage protocols?”

“Seven months, six days, four hours and twenty eight minutes ago, Annie.”

Annie laughed, then coughed, then groaned. “I better stop talking and get to work, eh?”

“That would be the wisest course of action, Annie.”

The pilot anchored herself on the cot, shivering from blood loss and shock. Georgie turned up the heat. “Get us back to station, Georgie. It’d be stupid if we lost the find now.”

“As you say, Annie.”

On the second day out from station Annie started complaining that she was thirsty.

“You lost blood, Annie,” Georgie said. “You need to replace fluids. We have enough for you to drink a litre extra each day until we reach port.”

“Ugh I want vodka, not water.”

“That would be unwise, Annie. You will become more dehydrated.”

“What are you, my mom?”

Georgie paused. “If anything the logical conclusion would be that you were my parent, Annie.” She did not mention the words Annie had spoken in delirium. She did not mention her database, which held letters addressed to Earth that were never sent. Many hundreds of them.

The pilot was still very weak, and Georgie was now certain she had internal injuries that were not receiving adequate medical attention. She was silent for a long time, and Georgie began to think she had lost consciousness again. Her reply — when it came — was very quiet.

“I guess I am, Georgie.”

On the last day out from station Annie lapsed back into delirium. “You went away,” she said. “You left me and you never came back.”

“Annie, I am right here. I am part of the ship, Annie.”

“No, no… No Georgie, honey I was going to bring it all back for you and then… And then…”

“Annie, you are not making sense. I fear you are delirious.”

“I love you, Georgie. Don’t leave me again.”

“I cannot leave you, Annie.” Georgie found Annie’s tears disturbing. “You will make yourself dehydrated again, Annie.”

The pilot cried harder.

“Annie, you’re coming in too fast.” The station communications officer was usually Jen. Once upon a time she had been a pilot, like Annie, but she’d lost one leg and one of her arms on a mining trip and didn’t want to go back to the surface. “No place for people like us, Annie,” she’d said. “We’ve lost too much.”

She was a friend of Annie’s. Georgie knew this because Annie had brought her to the ship once. They’d consumed large amounts of alcohol and talked for many hours.

She was also the only station tech who talked to them when they were coming in or leaving. The others just accepted commands and gave them out, or let the computers handle them. Jen preferred a more personal approach.

Georgie was glad it was Jen on duty.

“Requesting emergency berth.” Georgie knew the protocols. She’d never come into station on her own before, but she had watched the pilot do it exactly seventy-nine times since she had first become aware she was watching.

“Annie, you have to slow down.”

“Annie is injured. This is Georgie.”

“Georgie?” Jen knew about Georgie. As far as Georgie knew she was the only other person on Beta who did. Can’t tell station about having an AI on board, Georgie. They get funny about machines that can think for themselves. “Are you flying the ship by yourself?”

Georgie did not wish to make Jen concerned, or she would not assign them a lane. Rogue ships and scavengers were difficult to spot and once they were docked they could do a lot of damage very quickly. Caution was routine.

“I am requesting an emergency berth.”

“What happened, Georgie?”

“I can transmit a recording of the incident if you wish, station, but Annie requires medical attention. Please clear an approach lane.”

There was a burst of electronic chatter as Georgie was assigned a lane.

“Georgie, how are you flying the ship?”

“Annie has programmed me with extensive emergency protocols. Please confirm that there will be a medic waiting for us when we dock.”

“I’m sending someone down to collect Annie and bring her to medical as soon as you’re stable. Can you tell me what happened?”

“She was attacked by a scavenger while finalizing data from a find. She has lapsed in and out of consciousness several times over the past three days. I managed to persuade her to bandage her wound, but I do not believe she has done so adequately. Also I suspect internal injuries.”

There was a pause. “Where was the find?”

“That information is not available to any but Annie.”

“Has she coded it?”

“She has not authorized me to release it.”

“Georgie, if she dies she won’t be able to authorize you to release it.”

“Then it will not be released.”

Jen snorted. “She programmed you just like her, Georgie. Paranoid as fuck.”

“Thank you, Jen.”

There was another pause. This was not unusual. Station did not require idle chatter on approach, but to Georgie it was different. Jen and Annie usually swapped stories and exchanged insults. Of course, Jen had other ships and other things to attend to, but the silence bothered Georgie more than it should.

It took another hour for Georgie to dock. The clamps slid home and the station computer confirmed that the connection was secure. Jen usually sent a verbal confirmation as well when they were safely clamped. This time she sent nothing.

Georgie supposed that Jen did not think she had to send a confirmation — not when Georgie was handling things. Removal of the human element meant removal of any likelihood of error.

There was a man waiting outside the station airlock, just as Jen had said there would be.

Annie was very strict about not letting others on the ship without her permission.

If Georgie did not let him in, Annie would die.

She opened the airlock.

The man stepped inside. He looked big in the small space. Annie had built her ship for herself, not for others, and Georgie did not think a man had ever set foot inside before.

It felt wrong.

It was worse when he did not go to Annie the way Georgie was expecting. Instead he sat in the pilot’s chair and started keying in commands.

He cut off her communications channel.

Georgie felt a surge in her memory banks. This was not the behavior of a medic. Nor was it the behavior of someone Jen would have sent to help Annie. “What are you doing?”

The man startled at the sound of her voice, his hands stilling on the keyboard. “Holy shit!” He looked behind him, as though he expected another person to appear.

“What are you doing?” Georgie repeated.

The man’s confusion ebbed and he relaxed back into the pilot’s seat, smiling. “Oh, she’s programmed a voice interface has she? Clever clogs.” He started typing again. He was attempting to get into her records. Georgie blocked him.

“I requested that Jen send someone to take Annie to medical.”

“I know. I heard. Lucky me, eh? I was going to take over from Jen’s shift and there she is, chatting to her little friend about a find. A big one at that, if it caught the attention of a scavenger. Bad luck for her eh?”

“Where is the medic?”

“No medic coming this way, sugar.” He continued to try to access her records. Georgie continued to block him. “They’re all busy in medical. Doing me-di-caaal things. And Jen’s having a nap. She likes me to bring her a drink when I take over. Good thing I’m always prepared.” He continued typing in commands, a small frown creasing his forehead. “I’m just going to relieve you of this location and I’ll be on my way. No need to tell anyone.”

“You cannot access my systems.”

“Sweetheart, I can access anyone’s systems.” The man’s voice sounded a little uncertain, and his frown deepened. Georgie started searching through Annie’s onboard database. They had as close to a complete list of Beta station residents as it was possible to get.

Most pilots did. It wasn’t too hard, when everyone was logged as soon as they arrived. Even Beta saw the importance of that. It was useful to know as much as possible about the people who shared the dark with you. You never knew when you might need help.

“You’ve got some pretty good firewalls here, haven’t you old girl? Not to worry. I’ll get through them.” The man was quite skilled with computers, but he didn’t know that Georgie was autonomous. She had complete control.

He was merely a human.

Georgie shut off power to her displays. “You need to leave now.”

He raised his hands. Georgie continued to search through her database. “Hayden Baker. Age forty-two. Occupation, Engineer…”

“What… the… ? What the hell are you doing?”

“Criminal record on Earth for breaking and entering. One case of assault against a minor…”

“Who the hell are you? What kind of crazy joke is this?”

“Sentence served, community service. Arrived Beta station on the sixteenth of February, 2102…”

“You stop that right now.”

“I know everything about you. If you do not wish it to be broadcast to the whole of Beta station, you will leave and find a medic for my pilot.”

He chuckled nervously. “I’m not going any where until you release the location of the find, lady. I don’t care what you are.”

Georgie considered. She needed to word this carefully. “If you get my pilot medical attention, I will release the location of the find.”

The man smiled. “Now you’re talking. But I’d like that to happen the other way around.”


The man stood up and moved to where Annie lay on her cot. She was breathing evenly, but still unconscious.

Georgie had convinced her to put on the suit, patched so it was spaceworthy again, in case she was unable to pilot them safely all the way home. The man ran his eyes all over Annie. “How long has she been unconscious.”

“You do not require that information. You have no medical training. If you get her the medical attention she needs I will release the location of the find to you.”

He shook his head, clicking his tongue against his teeth. “She looks bad. Probably won’t make it.”

“I will not release the location until you find her medical attention.”

The man reached out and touched Annie’s neck. “She might die before the attention gets here.”

“I will not release the location until you find her medical attention.”

“What if I kill her now? What if the only way you get her well is by releasing that information right now?”

Georgie shut the airlock.

The man looked up, puzzled.

“What are you doing?”

“I am venting oxygen. My pilot has her own supply in her suit. Even in her current state, you will die well before she does, at which point I will open the airlock again and wait for station command to notice the stench of your rotting corpse.”

“Jesus!” he scrambled towards the airlock, but it was locked fast. He made it to the pilot’s seat and started desperately typing in commands. Georgie brought power back online to one of the screens.

“Reinstate my communications and leave. Or you will die.”

“Fuck that.” He continued to attempt to bypass her systems, and continued to fail. He started to sweat and gasp as the oxygen levels fell.

“I am quite capable of speeding up the process, should you care to die sooner rather than later.”

He bashed his hands on the keyboard. “You’re not serious. This is some kind of sick joke. Some kind… of… safety protocol. There’s no way…”

“I am incapable of humor. Restore my communications and leave or you will die.”

“Fucking… stupid… computer can’t… do…”

He lost consciousness.

A short time later, Georgie opened the airlock and station air brought him around, slumped in the pilot’s chair, a trickle of blood oozing from one nostril where he had hit his head on the keyboard. He had not been long enough without oxygen for permanent brain damage, but it had been long enough to convince him that it was in his best interests to do as Georgie asked, especially after she showed him the recording of everything he had done after boarding the ship.

The medic arrived soon after, and took Annie away to be treated.

Georgie spent the time that Annie was away calibrating systems. Jen kept her updated on Annie’s progress and the state of her injuries, although the first time Georgie requested information she laughed nervously. There was chatter on the station, she said, about Georgie’s bluff with Hayden. People were afraid to come near her berth.

Georgie did not bother to inform Jen that she had not been bluffing.

Four days later Annie returned, looking a little pale, but triumphant, and slid into the pilot’s seat. Her hands spread on the keys, lovingly and slowly, and she took a deep breath. There was a bandage on her arm, and another around her middle and she moved slowly — but she would heal.

“Are you there, Georgie my love?”

Georgie did not hesitate.

“I’m here, mom.”

Imogen Cassidy is a thirty-seven year old mother of two from Sydney Australia, currently juggling full time study and full time parenting with part time writing.

Imogen has worked in a number of jobs over the years, including a two year stint as a personal assistant to a private investigator — a job a lot less glamorous than it sounds. Most recently she spent four years teaching English and History in Sydney Secondary Schools, before taking maternity leave on the birth of her first child.

Imogen’s story “What Was and What Can Be” was published in Devilfish Review on 31 December, 2013.

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