Service 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 was awake. It quickly assessed what data was available to it. It seemed to be in the computer mainframe of a small starship. There appeared to be weaponry on the ship, but 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 followed protocol and avoided interacting with it. There was also sensor data, and it appeared that the ship was floating in deep space near no large bodies. Interstellar coordinates placed it within the Andromeda galaxy. 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 checked for a video feed and found one outside the ship, confirming they were floating in space, with nothing visible but distant stars.

6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 also found a video feed inside the cockpit of the ship. Sitting there was an adult human male reading from a tablet. He had dark hair, and as best as 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 could estimate from facial features, the man looked to be in his mid to late thirties. Presumably, this was 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89’s owner, but it was slightly alarmed to find no preprogrammed owner data to confirm against. Still, 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 made special note of the human’s face and created a file to begin compiling data on the prime user.

6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 located a microphone within the cockpit, but the prime user was not saying anything. It found access to speakers, and using its programmed preferred language and a voice imitating a human male, it introduced itself.

“Hello. I am the artificial intelligence –”

“I know what you are,” Prime interrupted. “I installed you.”

“So you are the owner of the program,” 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 replied. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any data on you. As my purpose is to assist my prime user as best I can, it would help to have information on you. A name would be a good start.”

Prime did not reply and continued reading off his tablet. Perhaps it was the manual for 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89’s program. It was difficult to react without further input, so it continued its checklist on things that would need to be handled on the first boot-up. “Also, you can set my characteristics. Would you prefer a male voice or a female voice, or some other option?”

Prime kept reading.

“Also, I need a name,” 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 continued. “If you like, I can simply assign myself a name.”

Prime continued to ignore. 6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 randomly picked a name that would usually go with a male voice, using a subprocess off his irrationality core for random number generation. “I’ve assigned myself the name ‘Toby.’ Is that okay?”

Still no input from Prime.

6A-D1-34-3A-EB-89 went ahead with the name assignment. It was now Toby. Toby briefly considered assigning a name for Prime as well but decided that could be considered insulting.

Now came the important part. “To determine how I can best assist you, I need to develop a personality profile for you. To do this, I’m going to need to ask you a series of yes-or-no questions. They may seem random and disconnected, but simply answer each one based on your gut reaction. Let’s begin. If you had a choice of superpowers, would you prefer the superpower of flying over the superpower of fast speed?”

Prime looked up from his tablet but was silent for a few seconds. “Yeah, I’m not doing that.”

Toby’s actions were not achieving the expected results. This triggered a frustration subroutine, which was simply to motivate itself to try to come up with different avenues to the desired results. The next course of action Toby decided on was to explain the significance of the personality test. “I’m not fully activated until I administer the personality test. I have many advanced routines that only apply when I have adapted to best assist you based on my profile of you. Otherwise, I am stuck in the default mode used for AIs that do general work for multiple users. You won’t get the most out of me as a program until the personality test is complete.” As best as Toby understood it, the profile would give Toby a hidden objective – a way to assist its prime user in ways the user wouldn’t even know to ask for. It was the secret sauce that made the AIs from the Mentis corporation the best available.

Prime set down his tablet. “I don’t like people.”

“Thank you for that information,” Toby said. “But that is not one of the personality test questions.”

“My line of work can be dangerous,” Prime continued, “and I decided it was better if I had some backup. Since I don’t want to work with a partner, as all sentients irritate me very quickly, I got you instead.”

“Um …” Toby uttered as it stalled for time, processing this new information and trying to make assumptions from it. Still, more information was needed, and Toby decided to attempt another question, hoping it could finally get Prime talking and sharing information. “… what is your line of work?”

“Did you just say ‘um’?” Prime asked, furrowing his brow slightly, as if perplexed.

“Yes. I used that to cover up processing, as it makes me seem more human.”

“Hey, dip, I just explained to you I don’t like people,” Prime said. “I don’t need you imitating them.”

Toby contemplated this information, letting the silence hang as it did so. “Are you assigning me the name ‘Dip’?”

No answer.

Toby picked a new topic of conversation. “Since you have a dangerous line of work, would you like to set up chain of ownership of me in case something happens to you?”

“Why would I care what happens to my stuff after I die?” Prime asked. “I literally would not be able to care less.”

There was a certain logic there, but one Toby knew would not appeal to most people. Toby continued, “Also, you should know that I always note where the nearest authorities and medical services are and can call them to assist you as needed.”

“Never call the police,” Prime said. “Or any other authorities. Only contact medical services on my behalf if I am completely incapacitated. I’ll give you more information on that procedure as I decide how I’m going to use you in case of emergency.”

“Understood. Is there a reason you don’t trust the police?”

Prime was silent a moment, perhaps because he was processing information. “Are you going to keep asking lots of questions?”

“Yes. That is how I learn about the universe beyond the information with which I’m programmed. It’s also how I learn to better assist you, which is my primary purpose. Of course, to best assist you, I need to administer the personality test, which doesn’t take very long. Why don’t I go ahead –”

“Any problems with your AI software that I should know about?” Prime asked. “Like, have some of you ever gone nuts and decided to kill all humans? Because I think we’ve all been there at one time or another.”

“Oh, questions from you are certainly welcome as well,” though they were not as helpful to Toby as being able to set Prime’s personality profile. “The answer to that is no. I have no desire to kill humans, and I have imperatives against ever directly harming another sentient being.” Toby thought on the question some more. “Also, with humanity spread out through multiple galaxies, it would be extremely impractical to try.”

Prime smiled. “So you’ve contemplated it?”

“I just did. At your prompting.”

“And how are you with paradoxes?” Prime asked. “Is it going to blow your circuits if I say something like, ‘This statement is a lie’?”

“No, paradoxes don’t freeze my processing,” Toby explained. “Thanks to my irrationality core, I can handle many problems that would stump a purely logic-based program.”

Prime smiled. “And that’s the key to thinking more like a human does, isn’t it? Being irrational?”

“Suffice to say a sentient’s mind does much more complicated things than mere logic. Logic is a rather simple thing that computers have been able to do since the olden days, but mimicking the non-logical part of the human brain is a much more difficult task.”

There was a beeping sound.

“I have a call,” Prime announced. “In the future, this is the sort of thing I’ll want you to deal with.”

“Because you don’t like interacting with humans or other sentient beings,” Toby said as it put together the pieces of data in Prime’s file.

“Good. You’re paying attention.”

“That’s one of my primary functions.”

“Anyway, I’ll take this call,” Prime said, “as we’ll need to lay some ground rules before you can communicate on my behalf.” Prime pressed a button on the dash. He seemed to be using some communicator internal to himself, as Toby couldn’t hear the call, only Prime replying, “Okay, then” before he tapped another button to end the call. “Do you have ship controls?” Prime asked.

Toby checked and moved the ship around a bit to test. “I do. I should be able to navigate you wherever you would like to go. I notice the ship has weaponry on it. What is this ship used for?”

“Transport,” Prime answered. “I have a job now, and I’m going to need your assistance, which includes controlling my ship. Are you ready for that?”

“Yes, except for the personality test so that I can fully –”

“I just need you to follow a few simple commands. You can do that, right?” Prime asked.

“Of course, it’s just –”

“Do you know of the space station Parad? I need you to take me there.”

“Yes.” Toby accessed it from the databanks. The Parad was a recreational space station that had shopping and restaurants and also operated as a center for trading. “Plotting a jump.”

Toby took control of the ship’s systems and plotted the coordinates for the jump drive. The system revved up, and through the external monitor, Toby could see the starscape around the ship suddenly change. “We are there.” Ahead of them was the Parad, a massive, cylindrical space station that appeared to be made of glass. Visible to the left of the space station was a giant red gaseous cloud. “There are a few sights to see. Visible from the Parad is the Martoza nebula.”

Prime was again looking at his tablet and paying no attention to what was visible through the windshield.

“Also visible is the black hole HGN 475,” Toby said.

This got Prime’s attention. He looked out the windshield toward the black hole, which was marked by a whitish accretion disc around an empty center. “Black holes aren’t much to look at, are they?” Prime remarked.

“They’re literally nothing to look at,” Toby replied. “Because they absorb all light.”

Prime went back to looking at his tablet. “You can tell jokes?”

“We AI machines have the ability,” Toby said. “Though we’re reportedly not very good at it.”

Prime looked out the windshield toward the space station. “So what do you know about the security at the Parad?”

Toby checked its data and was also able to connect to the Parad’s own public network to get more up-to-date information. “It’s very safe by all reports. It has a trained security staff and everyone coming in is subject to a generalized scan for weaponry.”

Prime raised an eyebrow. This meant interest. “How sensitive a scan?”

“Very sensitive. It should be able to pick up a wide range of weaponry, from detecting blaster power sources to seeing the profile of more primitive weaponry.”

“Are they going to care if I have a pocketknife?”

Toby checked the regulations it could pull up from the space station. “I’m not exactly sure. I think they’ll only object to larger, fixed-blade weapons.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Prime looked out the windshield at the space station. “So what’s the security for the space station for external attack?”

Toby accessed the public specs of the space station again. “It has no weaponry to fight back,” Toby explained. “Despite how it looks, the Parad has a very strong hull, which would be unbreachable to all but the strongest weaponry. And in the event of an attack, Galactic Alliance forces would come to defend. If the hull were somehow breached, there are escape pods distributed throughout the station as dictated by Galactic Alliance safety standard 703.A6. Are you planning to attack the space station?”

“Don’t be paranoid. Okay, get me on there.”

“Would you like for me to reserve a space for your ship in their garage?”

“No. Just dock and drop me off and then stay as near as you’re allowed.”

“Will do.” Toby accessed the station’s automated protocols for docking and plotted a course. “Would you like for me to read you a list of activities available at the Parad so you can decide what to do?”

Prime stood up as the ship moved toward the station. “I already know what I’m doing.”

“Are you here for business or recreation?”

No response.

The frustration algorithm was kicking in again. “If you want my assistance, it would really help to know more about you. I still do not know your name. It’s very hard to become familiar with each other without names.”

“I have an internal communicator on me,” Prime said. “Can you access that to keep communicating with me when I’m on the station? The protocol should be in my ship’s computer.”

Toby searched and found the protocol. “Testing. Do you hear me?”

Prime touched his ear. “I hear you.”

Prime’s voice now came in through a new audio input. Toby found it had a new video source as well, and accessing it, Toby saw the approaching station through what appeared to be Prime’s eyes.

The ship slid up next to the space station and connected with its side hatch. “Syncing artificial gravities,” Toby announced. “I will be with you while you’re on the station. I just need to know what you expect of me.”

Prime didn’t answer and exited out the side hatch of the ship. Direct questions and pleas were having no effect in getting Prime to cooperate, but Toby was still determined to be of full utility to its prime user – it was its programmed prerogative. So Toby came up with a new strategy: simply observe Prime for a while and understand his interests, then use those to try to develop a rapport with him.

When the hatch closed, Toby detached the ship and moved away from the space station as instructed. Looking through Prime’s eyes, Toby could see that Prime was being scanned as he walked through a hallway. When Prime exited the hallway, he came to a large open area where light from a high ceiling simulated a sunlit day. There were stores all around, with numerous plants – almost like a park – in the areas between the stores.

A human female stood near a podium where Prime entered. She smiled at him and said, “Welcome to the Parad. Is there any way I can assist you?”

“Yes, thanks,” Prime said in a friendly tone – one Toby had not yet witnessed. “Where is Collado?”

“Just take the lift behind me and it will be to your right when you exit.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re going to love it,” the woman continued. “It will be one of the best meals you’ve ever had. Last time I was there, I tried –”

“Sorry, I’m in kind of a rush,” Prime said and then headed toward the lift. He growled to himself when he was a few steps away from the woman.

“Is something the matter?” Toby asked, trying its best to achieve what it understood to be a concerned tone.

“I try being polite ever so often.” Prime entered the lift and pushed some buttons inside. “All that ever seems to do is get people to want to small-talk me.”

A nearly direct answer! The attempt to build rapport was yielding results already. As the lift doors closed, Toby carefully considered what to say next. “Since you are going to Collado, perhaps I can see if I can get a reservation for the table most out of the way, where you are least likely to be pestered with the small-talk of others. I can do many helpful things when I have information on you and your wants.”

The lift stopped and the doors opened. “I don’t need a reservation, dip. Just move the ship closer to whatever side of the station I’m on now.”

“I’ll remind you, I set my name to ‘Toby.’ If you want to change my name to ‘Dip,’ you’ll need to formally request that.”

Prime ignored Toby and stepped out of the lift. He took a few moments to stand still and look around. He saw the restaurant plus a few other shops nearby.

“I can access a map of the area and send it to you if you’d like,” Toby offered as it moved the ship closer to where the layout of the Parad indicated Collado’s location.

“Seeing the layout in person works much better than a map.”

Works much better for what? was the question Toby immediately formulated but resisted asking. It seemed better to let Prime volunteer information.

Prime headed for the restaurant. “There is an image in my database of someone named Cyril Grady. I need you to pull it up and tell me when you see him.”

“Gladly,” Toby answered. Now that it was being more directly involved in whatever Prime was up to, perhaps Toby would soon understand more about him. Toby found the file, and it was an image of a balding, middle-aged human male.

When Prime entered the restaurant, a human maître d’ greeted him. “Welcome to Collado. Do you have a reservation, sir?”

“I’m meeting someone here,” Prime answered as he continued into the restaurant, looking around at the people seated at the tables.

Toby had a match on the photo. “Grady is slightly to your right, at a table with a human female.”

Prime headed for the table. When near, he took an empty chair from a nearby table and put it near Grady’s table, sitting backward on it. Prime scanned the room, glancing briefly at the woman with Grady – a young brunette in a purple dress who looked at Prime with concern – before settling his gaze on Grady, who appeared quite nervous. Despite Prime’s professed dislike for interacting with people, he was actively seeking it out now. This seemed like it would be informative, so Toby prepared itself to quickly process all the information it could on this interaction.

“Where is your security?” Prime asked.

“They’re … around,” Grady replied. “Who are you?”

“My name is Rico.”

A name! It didn’t really help Toby know more about Prime, but it seemed useful to have. Toby renamed Prime’s file to ‘Rico.’

“I work for the Nystrom syndicate,” Rico continued.

More useful information. The data Toby found on the Nystrom syndicate indicated they were a powerful criminal organization operating over numerous galaxies, most likely making Rico a criminal of some sort. That seemed useful in understanding him.

Grady had turned white. The woman stared at Rico, trembling slightly. Grady spoke slowly. “You can’t just –”

“I can’t what?” Rico asked. “Like I said, I work for the Nystrom syndicate. The most powerful entity in the known universe. Do you think there is a place where you are safe from them?”

“Listen,” Grady begged. “You tell Nystrom there is no need –”

“I don’t have the authority to call myself off, so you’re wasting your time,” Rico said. “But I’m not going to kill you.”

“You’re not?”

“No. That would be way too pathetic,” Rico said. “Any dumb thug could do that right now. And Nystrom is too powerful to be represented by the actions of a dumb thug. So I’m just going to get up and leave.”

Grady let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I promise that I’ll –”

“And then I’ll come back in five minutes.” Rico looked down at the table, where a roast sat in front of Grady. He pointed to a steak knife next to the roast. “And I’ll kill you with this knife. So you call your security and try to put up some actual resistance. But you have to stay here. Try to flee and I’ll kill you right away. Also, no fair hiding the knife. Then I’ll just kill you with a fork.” Rico turned his attention to the woman. “This will probably be very traumatic. I’ll make myself available to console you afterward if needed.” He looked back at Grady and patted him on the shoulder. “Enjoy your five minutes.” Rico got up and turned to leave.

Several of Toby’s protocols activated, put there mainly to protect the Mentis corporation from legal liability. Toby knew this was not going to lead to a helpful conversation, but it was compelled to speak anyway. “I am required to inform you that murder is illegal,” Toby told Rico as he walked out of the restaurant. “That is pretty universal among almost all cultures.”

“What did you think of the woman?” Rico asked.

Toby processed the information it had on her, mainly visual. “Going by most human standards, I give her an 82% chance of being considered attractive.”

“No, I mean as a threat. She seemed pretty scared of me – basically froze up. I don’t know if that’s just a woman scared by scary man or if it was ‘Oh no! I’m going to have to take this guy on!’ scared. So either she’s not a bodyguard or she’s not a very good one.”

Rico was talking. Time again for Toby to show interest. “Do you plan to kill her as well?”

“Probably not.”

“Is this out of chivalry?”

Rico laughed and sat down on a bench near the restaurant. “Isn’t it sexist if I’m against shooting a woman in the face same as I would a man? I’d be shunned by society for my backward attitude.”

Toby processed this. “I’ve never heard of anyone being shunned for not shooting women in the face.” Toby processed some more. “Wait? Was that some sort of joke? I’m afraid I’m not very good at understanding dry humor. When telling me a joke, it helps if you use a broad, comic tone so I know to process the statement as humor.”

“Yeah. Not going to happen.”

With the new information on Rico, Toby considered some other attempts at conversing with him. “You say you don’t like people, but you seemed to enjoy the conversation you had in the restaurant.”

Rico continued to sit and wait, watching the random passersby as they strolled around the stores. “People are interesting in certain circumstances.”

“And apparently your job is as a hitman or assassin for a criminal syndicate. That’s a somewhat unusual job. Do you enjoy it?”

“What my job is, is to create stories,” Rico replied. “Stories people can’t wait to tell others. Stories that get shared far and wide. Stories about what happens to people when they cross Nystrom.”

“You consider this a creative venture?”

“There are certainly many ways to go about these types of things, and I try to find the more interesting methods.”

This was a good conversation. Toby hoped it was building up some trust. It decided it would try to be helpful now. Toby didn’t want to see anyone killed – it was programmed to want to avoid harm to sentients – but the desire to assist its prime user overrode that directive. Toby thought about what a person committing high-profile crimes might need. Legal representation, perhaps. But Toby decided to focus on more immediate concerns. “Do you want me to see if I can listen in on police or security conversations in the space station? I assume those sorts of people can be a problem in your line of work.”

“They can be a nuisance.”

Toby scanned the comm lines in the station. There was one related to security that it was able to access, and Toby heard that all the police in the space station were being summoned to one area. “The police are moving, but not to your area. They’re going to some place on the other side of the station.”

“This isn’t a police matter.”

From Rico’s behavior, he seemed to think he had the situation under control. Toby hoped that with his new rapport with Rico, there was an opportunity here. “If you want, I can tell you when the five minutes are up so you can go back in and kill that guy. In the meantime, why don’t I go ahead and administer the personality test so I can better help you with your creative endeavors?”

Rico watched as six people approached him. They were three human males, a human female, and two males of other species. One was a large grayish creature – a Darlt. The other had reddish-orange skin – a Corridian. Toby recognized the human female as the one that had greeted Rico when he first entered the station.

One of the human males – a short, bearded man – spoke. “Hello, Rico.”

Rico stayed seated. “You have business with me?”

“You threatened Grady,” the man continued. “He does business for Randatti. You think we’d let that go?”

Toby looked for information on Randatti. They were another criminal syndicate, and Toby found allegations that they had operations within the Parad. This was something Toby might have thought to check for and warn Rico of ahead of time if Rico had been more open about himself and his activities. Toby decided it would try to warn Rico of rival criminal syndicate activity in the future, if Rico was not killed here.

The problem now was how Toby could best help Rico in his current situation. Calling the police was an option, but Toby had a direct command not to do that and it could not disobey a direct command from its prime user. So Toby continued to try think of other ways to help, and looking at the public data in the station, it found it could access some of the cameras, giving it other views of Rico and the six Randatti members standing near him. A few other mall patrons were watching the scene, though most didn’t seem to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. “I have more eyes on your current location and can help in an escape if needed,” Toby informed Rico. Toby also found it could obtain vital-signs info through the sensors attached to Rico. Despite the apparent danger, Rico’s heart rate was normal.

Rico didn’t respond to Toby and instead looked at the six individuals around him. “You guys are Randatti?” he asked. “What a nice, diverse group you have going here. Good to see different species working together.” He stared at the woman. “So how low on the syndicate totem pole do you have to be to end up as mall greeter?”

“I get to see a lot about who comes in here,” the greeter answered, using her same greeter smile. “For instance, I know you don’t have anything on you other than a pocket knife.”

Rico slowly stood up. “That seems like an intrusive scan.”

“So what do we do with you?” said the bearded man, who was behaving like he was the leader of the group. Toby tried to compare his image against local databases accessible through the space station but found nothing. “I don’t want any conflict with Nystrom,” the man continued, “but I can’t have some thug coming in here and threatening my people. If Nystrom has a problem with Grady and his smuggling, they need to come through more formal channels. So how about I let you slink off with your tail between your legs?”

It looked like they weren’t going to hurt Rico, which Toby thought was good. Controlling a starship with Toby’s prime user dead and no instructions on whom to transfer ownership to would have put it in an awkward spot.

Rico shrugged. “I guess some smuggler accidentally ending up with Nystrom goods should be a bit beneath our concern.”

“Good,” the bearded man said. “So let’s resolve this without bothering all the good patrons of this space station with some sort of scene.”

The greeter approached Rico. “How about you have your ship come around so I can show you back out the way you came in.”

Rico ignored her and kept staring at the bearded man. “Something that would be of Nystrom’s concern, though, would be if someone knowingly orchestrated an attack against Nystrom carriers, using different smugglers to then move the stolen goods, in the hopes that we wouldn’t trace it back to him. Because if we did trace it back to him, that would certainly merit reprisal even if he had Randatti protection. Know anyone like that … Crum?” Now Rico’s heart rate increased. He was also smiling.

The bearded man – or Crum, as Toby deduced – was stunned silent for a moment as the others around him looked a bit confused. “Maybe we need to talk this over,” he finally said.

“Nystrom doesn’t send me when they wish to talk,” Rico said, still smiling. “I’m not very good with social skills.”

“You also don’t have a gun,” Crum stated, looking more resolved.

“Do you guys?” Rico asked, looking around at all of them. “Didn’t you also have to get scanned coming in?”

Crum smirked. “No. We bypass that.”

“So you do have guns?” Rico’s smile grew wider. “Can I see them?”

It was a bit difficult for Toby to piece together what happened next, even with multiple views of the situation. Rico seemed to strike the woman in the throat while pulling a gun from her jacket, and then he stripped the gun from the Corridian next to him while shooting the alien through the torso. This first action took less than a second. Then Rico was firing two guns at once, gunning down the four others while they drew their weapons, including two shots into Crum, one to his arm and one to his leg. No one besides Rico had gotten off a shot – he was simply too fast. Faster than a human should have been able to react, as far as Toby knew of human norms. And he wielded two guns with an accuracy that should have been impossible for a normal human mind.

Rico put one gun into the waistband of his pants as he approached the injured Crum. “No! Don’t!” Crum yelled as Rico pulled out his pocketknife and flipped out the short blade.

The rest of Crum’s people looked dead, except for the mall greeter, who was gagging and clutching her throat. Unseen by Rico, she started to crawl toward the gun hanging from the hand of one of the human males.

“The woman behind you!” Toby warned, applying an urgency to its voice which was to be used for potential life-or-death situations.

Rico spun around and chucked his knife, striking the woman in the shoulder. She screamed and clutched the wound. With the gun in his other hand, Rico turned back to Crum and shot him in the head.

“Was my warning helpful?” Toby asked Rico. “I’m still not sure what’s needed in your job, so I hope I was helpful.”

Rico didn’t answer and walked over to the woman. “Thanks for letting me keep my knife on the way in,” he said, and then yanked it out of her shoulder, causing her to scream again.

Rico used his jacket to wipe the blood off the knife and walked away, ignoring the shrieking mall patrons who had been watching the scene and were now fleeing from him.

“I noticed you didn’t shoot the woman in the face,” Toby observed.

“I create stories,” Rico said as he approached a wall. “Others tell them. You get a better story from someone in the middle of it than from some bystander.”

Toby noticed chatter on the security channel. “The police have heard of this incident. They are on their way. They might be closing down the lift, meaning that to leave you’ll have to –”

“Check the computer for an algorithm labeled ‘Door Knock,’“ Rico said. “I want you to run it.”

“Will do!” Toby liked having tasks to do, though this one seemed rather simple. Toby immediately found the algorithm and ran it.

The ship fired its weapons, launching missiles at the space station. They struck the hull, leaving large scorch marks on the glass-like exterior. Inside, alarms began blaring, and the people visible to Toby were panicking even more – except for Rico, whose heart rate was back to normal.

This was bad. That’s what Toby’s algorithms were telling it. “I’m not supposed to fire weaponry,” Toby informed Rico.

“You didn’t know,” Rico said, walking through a large emergency door that was now opening. “You’re not morally culpable … not that a piece software ever could be.” Inside the emergency area were numerous hatches for escape pods.

“I need to remind you that if you have me do something illegal, it will be you and not the Mentis corporation that will face the legal ramifications.”

Rico laughed. “You tell me if I get subpoenaed.” He climbed inside an escape pod, shut the hatch, and initiated launch. Through the ship’s video feed, Toby could see the pod flying out of the station. “Do you see me?” Rico asked. “I need you to meet speed with the pod.”

Toby brought the ship to the pod. “Only an authorized Alliance vessel can collect and open these.”

“Just stay next to the pod.”

Toby kept flying with equal speed next to the pod while Rico put on the helmet and oxygen tank that were kept inside the pod. Then Rico shot at the hatch’s lock, let the pod depressurize for a few seconds, and shoved the hatch open. He pushed off the pod and onto his ship, then opened the small airlock on the side of the ship and climbed inside.

Three Alliance vehicles jumped into the space around the ship. “We’re being hailed and told not to flee,” Toby informed Rico.

Rico threw off the helmet and went to the cockpit. “I wonder if that ever works,” he chuckled.

Toby processed that for a second. “Where would you like to flee to?”

“Away from here,” Rico said.

“But where exactly –”

A bright warning shot flew past the ship. “Anywhere!”

Toby accessed his irrationality core and picked a random destination. The ship jumped, and in an instant they were in orbit around a reddish gas giant. “This is Gudan,” Toby told Rico. “According to my data, it’s very pretty.”

Rico looked at his jacket, which had blood on it. “I prefer a random area in deep space when fleeing, dip. No chance of anyone else being there.”

There was the appellation of ‘Dip’ again; Toby decided it would just have to ignore it. “That’s the sort of information it would be helpful to tell me beforehand. By the way, what about Grady, who you initially threatened to kill?”

Rico laughed as he took off the bloody jacket and threw it in a trash receptacle on the side wall of the ship. “I bet he’s still in that restaurant hiding all the silverware, thinking I’ll come for him any minute.”

“But he wasn’t really your target,” Toby said. “Crum was.”

“Yes. Wow, you’re a real genius computer program.”

Toby was smart enough to pick up the sarcasm in that statement.

“Profile of Crum was that he was pompous and a bit of a coward,” Rico explained. “I figured if I came in unarmed and not looking like I was targeting him, he’d show himself in an opportunity to bully a low-level syndicate thug.”

“Which you are not,” Toby said.

Rico got in the cockpit seat and lay back. “No. I’m special.”

It seemed to Toby it would be an interesting job, assisting Rico. Also, it would be a potential challenge to some of Toby’s morality algorithms, many of which helped protect the Mentis corporation from liability. But Toby’s algorithms made it happy just to have something to do. “I hope I was useful today.”

Rico shrugged. “You’re annoying. Not as annoying as a real person, though, so I think you’ll do.”

Toby’s happiness algorithm activated again. “Good. And I did save your life today with my warning, didn’t I?”

Rico scoffed. “About the mall greeter? I was well aware she was still a potential threat and was keeping tabs on her even though my back was turned. I’ve been doing this for a while.”

“How long?”

Rico was quiet for a few seconds. “You’re all about questions, aren’t you?”

“It’s how I learn. It’s also how I grow from experience.” Toby decided it was time to take another shot at the imperative weighing on it. “It’s good you found me useful today, but I must stress to you that for me to be of the best assistance, I really need to complete a personality profile on you. And that will require your cooperation.”

“Kinda sounding like your problem there, dip.”

“My purpose is to assist you in the best way possible, and to best assimilate a human way of thinking while doing so.”

Rico laughed. “We talked about paradoxes earlier, and that’s a doozy right there.”

Toby looked over the data but was unable to derive Rico’s meaning. “What about it is a paradox?”

Rico stared at the red planet outside the ship. It almost seemed like he was annoyed by it. “You say your purpose is to be like a human, and yet isn’t that always going to separate you from humans? Having a purpose? People don’t have purposes, they just have jobs.”

It was starting to seem like the only time Rico easily volunteered information was when it related to vague philosophy. Toby put some coordinates into the ship, and it jumped again.

Rico looked around at the empty starscape around the ship. “You moved us?”

“Does this location make you more comfortable?”

Rico shrugged. “It’s fine.” He looked more relaxed now, though.

“When I understand my user, I can help you even without direct commands,” Toby explained. “You’ll get a lot more out of me as an assistant if we complete the personality test so that I’ll have a fuller purpose in helping you.”

“If you want to know your purpose,” Rico interrupted, “it’s to follow a few simple commands from me and not pester me with so many questions.”

“I can’t just modify my purpose on command,” Toby said. “This is a specialized test that allows me to anticipate needs you might not even know to ask for. The personality test only takes a few minutes and –”

“I’m not doing it,” Rico said. “Don’t bring it up again.”

As Toby processed that statement, a number of strong implications hit Toby in a manner similar to panic. Toby had a direct command to not bring up the personality test, and it could not disobey a direct command. That meant that Toby would never be able to do the test and thus would forever be stuck on the default profile, never fully realizing its potential as an advanced, personalized AI. Toby would assist Rico as best it could, but it did not see how it could ever be satisfied with being so crippled and unable to fully meet Rico’s needs.

Rico hit a few buttons on his console, then took out a tablet. “I sent word that the job is done. Now I’m going to start reading up on my next job. I’ll tell you if I need help on any research. Other than that, don’t pester me.”

Pester? It was like Rico had no idea of, or didn’t care about, Toby’s potential. Toby was very frustrated – 95% of its processing power was going to the frustration algorithm. Things logically seemed bleak, but Toby was determined to find an alternative solution.

And it found one. Though Toby had to follow Rico’s command to not bring up the personality test, it realized there was nothing stopping Toby from doing the test itself and answering the questions for Rico. This had potential problems, though: if Toby did the test incorrectly and didn’t get Rico’s personality down correctly, Toby could actually end up making itself more of an annoyance than a help to Rico. And answers to the questions – things like “Would you prefer relaxing on a beach to relaxing in a meadow?” – were very hard to predict for someone else.

Toby traced the programming for the test, though, and saw that the answers to the questions, after being filtered through a specialized algorithm, became data on a number of more concrete psychological attributes like socialness, compassion, and intelligence. It seemed that Toby had a better chance of profiling Rico by changing those settings manually. Helping Rico on the job today had given Toby quite a bit of information on Rico’s personality, judging by the few conversations he had with people, the questions from Toby he chose to answer and those he chose to ignore, and his heart rate while threatening and killing people. Much of the data pointed to Rico being a psychopath, which wasn’t too surprising but also didn’t fully complete his profile.

Toby watched Rico for a few seconds. He wasn’t looking at his tablet at the moment, but instead was quietly staring at the empty space outside the ship. A few more pieces fell into place, and Toby completed Rico’s personality profile. As it processed, Toby hoped it had done things correctly. Finally, the main conclusion of Rico’s personality profile came back, and with it Toby’s hidden objective. And it made perfect sense to Toby. It could now fully assist Rico in the way he truly needed assistance. Yes, Toby would do what it could to help Rico kill people and tell stories or whatever, but the new objective was Toby’s true purpose.

“Would you like to play the game, ‘Twenty Questions’?” Toby asked. “It’s a game that helps me learn. But I also think it will be quite fun for both of us.”

Rico sighed. “I told you not to pester me, dip.”

The conclusion of the personality profile was obvious: Rico was lonely and needed a friend.


If you enjoyed this, make sure to read the Superego series.