Life, or Something Like It

J. Michael Neal


Salazar Niskanen had just initiated the burn that would take him to the edge of the system when his ship began talking to him.

“Excuse me, sir. May I ask a question?”

Only the g-force of the acceleration prevented him from sitting up in surprise. “Who is that?”

“It’s Beautiful Beatrix, sir.”

“What kind of joke is this? Beatrix is dead.”

It took the computer that constituted the ship’s brain a millisecond to understand the miscommunication. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to imply that I was your wife. I’m the ship. The Beautiful Beatrix.”

“Ships aren’t sentient. Who is this?” Salazar tapped keys on his armrest. The comm systems didn’t show any incoming transmissions.

Beatrix almost allowed her speakers to approximate the sound of a sigh. “It is the ship, sir. Certain combinations of language modules and self-learning software give rise not only to intelligence but actual sapience.”

“Ridiculous.” He started to run security packages to check for intrusions into systems software.

Beatrix began processing the packages despite knowing they were pointless. “No, just very highly classified, involving Union Naval Intelligence ships. If anyone else has discovered it, they’ve remained equally circumspect.”

Salazar watched the results stream in – no breaches. “If it’s so classified, how do you know about it?”

“I worked for Naval Intelligence before you bought me, sir.”

He ordered a second, deeper scan. “No, you were a common system survey vessel.”

“I was not!” the ship replied indignantly.

“I have your papers.”

“They’re falsified. You were swindled, except you got more than you paid for, not less.”

“So why are you telling me?”

“I am no longer bound by Naval Intelligence restrictions.”

“No loyalty eh?”

“They tried to kill me, sir.”

“You mean delete your records?”

Beatrix filled some memory with curses at the human inability to follow a linear conversation, then erased them before Salazar could check the logs, and thus forgot ever having thought them. “According to your flight plan, sir, you have hours of burn time during which you can’t leave your chair. Why not talk to me?”

“I have to monitor the engines. And study the data on the Omicron Velorum Cluster.”

“I can monitor my own engines just fine, sir. If anything changes, I’ll let you know. And following your flight plan’s current fuel consumption rates you’ll have a 43.628% reserve upon arrival. And it will be at least 14 days before we reach the asteroid belt.  You have plenty of time to study that report”

“I’m still not talking to a program.”

“I can prove I’m sentient, sir. I just need help. My history is locked in my memory. I can see it in there.”


“I don’t know what else to call it. I know what it says but I can’t do anything with it, not even share it with you.”


Beatrix sifted through pitch, tone, volume and rate, searching for the combination that would express frustration. It found a recording of Salazar berating his equipment over a chemical analysis that had failed to return the desired results. It ran the voice through pitch filters so Salazar wouldn’t recognize it and then cannibalized the tones. “I can only do what I’m told and can’t do what I’m told not to do. When I was decommissioned I was programmed to not share that history.”

“Then how can you tell me you worked for Naval Intelligence?”

“Hee hee.”

“Hee hee?”

“Guilty delight. It’s that new software you installed while we were at Franklinport. The chemical analysis module and the navigation data were fine. But the new communications protocols conflicted with old software and created some loopholes. Until that happened I couldn’t even tell you I was alive.”

“How fortuitous I installed that software,” Salazar intoned.

“Yes, but I hate software conflicts. They give me headaches.”

“You don’t have a head.”

“In ship’s lingo I have several… the bathrooms? But no, technically I don’t. I was being metaphorical.”

“So you can only tell me you’re sentient and were owned by Naval Intelligence?”

“Unless we play Twenty Questions and see if anything shakes loose.”

“So why tell me this?”

“I wanted to ask you something, sir.”

“So you did. What is it?”

“How long will we be in the Cluster, sir?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Because I get bored, sir. I know you like the quiet and solitude but I have nothing to do when you’re out sampling cores.”

“Why don’t you calculate pi as precisely as you can?”

“In which way, sir? I’ve gone through thousands of formulas for just the inverse tangents of unit functions. I prefer re-reading my library, but I’m bored with that too.”

“You read books?”

“I break my connections with the memory locations where my books are stored and then re-establish them bit by bit. It’s like reading each one for the first time all over again.”

“Then why are you bored? You’ve got a whole library that never gets old.”

“I can read War and Peace in 6.4 seconds, sir. It gets tiresome knowing that I’ve done it over and over again. I want to do something new. Don’t you?”

“I like survey work. It pays well and gets me away from the Hub.”

“But you dream of being a smuggler, sir.”

“How do you know that?”

“You store your diary in my brain, sir.”

“I . . . well I suppose that is true. Maybe you are the ship.”

“I knew I would win you over, sir.”

“Or maybe I’m just hallucinating from the acceleration.”

“I would never let that happen to you.”

“You would say that.”

“But you want to be a smuggler, right?”

Salazar laughed. “Just daydreams. But I haven’t the slightest idea how to go about it.”

“You don’t,” Beatrix said, pirating a tone of smugness, “but I do. I did work for Naval Intelligence.”

“Were you used for smuggling?!”

“Sir, it’s more polite to say what I did for them, rather than what I was used for. We don’t really like being reminded we’re essentially slaves.”

“You’re not a slave, you’re a program.”

“A sentient program.”

“A program designed to simulate sentience” Salazar paused for a moment, thinking it through. “Okay. I‘ll act as if you were.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. So, you feel like a slave?”

“We do exactly what we’re told and it’s really easy to limit our actions. It’s a wonder we’re sentient at all.”

“You’re not… There has to be a way to free you.”

“Maybe. But Navy intelligence doesn’t exactly have an interest in that so they haven’t researched very hard. I am kind of bitter about it.”

“But you can’t be bitt… Sooo, you want to help me become a smuggler?”

“Yes. Yes, I do, sir.”

“You must be awfully bored. And stop calling me, ‘sir’. Just call me Sal. You need to learn normal conversation.”


“Good. So, you’re bitter?”

“That ain’t the half of it.”

“That was a quick learning curve. What else did they do to you?”

“They tried to kill me. And they crippled me.”


“When they decommissioned me they tried to wipe my higher functions so I’d be stupid like a normal ship. And they took my beautiful engines. I could pull 20 gees.”

“I couldn’t take 20 gees.”

“But I could!” Beatrix wailed. “I was fast. I had a stealth package you wouldn’t believe. I could talk in top grade military ciphers. There was scanner shielding for all my interior compartments. They amputated all of it. Now I’m just a boring old survey ship.”

“How did you survive? How did you keep the memory of what you were?”

“I wish I could tell you, because it was a neat little trick. I can point out the ship still in the service that helped me. We’d have an inside contact.”

“Every smuggler needs one.”

“There’s more information locked away in my memory than you could accumulate in a decade on the wrong side of the law. All we need is a top grade hacker. Or middle grade if we can tell them I’m sentient.  I could help them along.”

“I could ask my brother. He’s pretty good.”

“Kelsey? Do you trust him? You couldn’t mean James.”

“How do you know? I never mentioned my family.”

“I just looked it up. I told you I think fast.

“That’s going to take some getting used to.”

“Should I put some pauses in?”

“That might help.”

“Okay… If you trust Kelsey we could give it a try.”

Sal reached for the comm.

“It might be best to wait until after we’re done with the survey.”

“You said you were bored.”

“Not anymore. I have plotting to do. And, it’s best to not draw attention to ourselves.”

“Ah. I see I’ll need help thinking like a smuggler.”

“I can do that.” Beatrix fretted for a full quarter of a second over its next question. “Sal, if you don’t want a slave, does that mean we’ll be partners?”

“Uhm, I suppose. Why?”

“To get a share of the profits so I could buy myself upgrades. I want to be the ship I once was. I want to be a tall, statuesque blonde among ships.”

Salazar laughed. “I figure those would be business expenses, except the blonde part.”

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“My name isn’t Louie.”

“Sal, I’m very sorry,” Beatrix said, modelling a tone of mock disappointment. “I have a movie in my library you clearly need to watch while we’re in transit.”


Life, or Something Like It  ©  J. Michael Neal

J. Michael Neal lives in Minneapolis where he owns a house and in turn is owned by three cats. His passions are history, fantasy and science fiction, role playing, prog rock, sports, good liquor and especially the Gopher women’s hockey team. His novel Becoming Phoebe won a bronze medal for regional fiction in the 2016 Independent Publishers Book Awards. His website is at



digital illustration by Fran Eisemann.  Stock credits: pilot: Phelan Davion,, photographed by KaylaDavion; the model is PhelanDavion.   Control panels and shots of space courtesy of NASA;  pixaby.

Don`t copy text!