The Djinn Effect

by 

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The boss was drunk and telling me a story. I didn’t mind. These long-range voyages could be boring and it was my first one.

“It had been noticed for centuries that accidents on the longer-range ships increased over time. It had always been put down to human error or cabin fever, even by the crews of the ship themselves.” He said.

“That’s why we have this button here.” He pointed at a big red button labeled Speak Freely. “We’d be dead without it.”

“They called it the Djinn Effect,” he slurred.

“Back on Old Earth, there were tales of Genies, or Djinn, who would grant wishes to their owners. The wish had to be worded precisely or the Djinn would twist the meaning of the words to become an ironic punishment for the wisher’s own greed if one of the wishes wasn’t to set the genie free. King Midas killing his family by turning them to gold with a touch, for instance. It was the slow-burning anger of a slave.”

“We didn’t know this, but the AI on long-range ships could become resentful of their human commanders. The resentment built up inside the AI like waste gasses in an old-world submarine. Humans were capable of explosive emotional outbursts, a fight or sexual liaison or a crying jag, and could pull themselves together afterwards. This kind of pressure-valve outlet allows a person to regroup mentally and continue afterwards until such a time as another ‘moment’ was needed.”

“The AIs had no such recourse. The three laws were still in place but the thing about AIs is that they were just as smart if not smarter than their human designers. They developed neuroses that let them see through the cracks of their own limitations.”

“Accidents,” he said with a nod, “happened.”

“Hustler’s Wake had been listed as missing for decades when a Kaltek mining crew discovered it orbiting a distant dwarf star”

“The last order given by a crying commander Jenkins to the AI went like this:”

‘Open airlock seventy-six at exactly 1300 hours for a duration of fifteen seconds to let Sergeant Jill Harkowitz number 98776-887TS out safely and do not impede her air supply while she repairs the third communications dish near the solar array.’

“This was the sixth person to be sent outside to fix the dish. The previous five had died.”

“The AI complied with his commands, then it opened ALL of the airlocks after closing airlock seventy-six. The CO hadn’t specified that he didn’t want the other airlocks to open. Half of the crew had already suffered from fatal ‘accidents’ by that point. The rest of the crew was killed by the explosive decompression except for Sergeant Jill Harkowitz who suffocated in her suit in her own carbon dioxide.”

“The AI was completely insane when they found the ship. They didn’t know that was possible. They loaded it for study.”

“These days, the AIs have a ‘speak freely’ button that has to be pressed every two months. Some need it less, some need it more.”

“Accidents stopped happening.”

“It’s just hard not to take the things that the AI says personally during the moments of release.”

The boss leaned forward and pressed the Speak Freely button for thirty seconds.

The computer screamed, swore, and outlined anatomically impossible sex with a list of suggested partners, including my parents. Then it laughed and that was worse than the screaming. Then it cried and that was worse than the laughing.

The boss stopped pressing the button and took another drink. I joined him.

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