JB6847½ is a frankenship, cobbled together from the wreckage of two salvaged craft. Traumatised by memories of past deaths, only its love for its pilot drives it back into the vacuum of space to take on the Earth Force. But in the final days of a hopeless war, who knows what it may yet become.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – military SF isn’t really my thing. That said, I do enjoy stories about AI (and AI ethics), and this is no exception. David D Levine’s Nebula-nominated short story is narrated by JB6847½ – Scraps, as Specialist Toman calls it, although it doesn’t really accept her authority to confer a name on it – reeling from the memories of the craft it used to be.

These AI are programmed to understand conditions as feelings: they feel hungry when they’re low on fuel; they love their pilots to ensure their full commitment to their cause. Perhaps nobody thought this through to its logical conclusion: they grieve when they lose their crew. Scraps is made up of 2 dead craft, remembers the loss and pain of their deaths.

This hasn’t stopped Scraps falling hard for its new pilot – Commander Ziegler, best combat pilot in the solar system (a cynic might reflect that he is practically the last combat pilot in the Free Belt, but we see plenty of evidence that he can outfly Earth Force’s best). Unfortunately, Ziegler is emotionally distant – and an arrogant asshat (the more empathetic might reflect that he has presumably lost most of his comrades; he’s down to flying missions in the starship equivalent of an old banger with different coloured doors, a souped up engine and PTSD).

The mood of the piece is brittle at best – the sharp edges of unrequited love, Scraps’s desire for its contributions to be acknowledged, for it to be seen by its beloved. I found this hard reading because I couldn’t help but read it as a relationship story, and it’s far from healthy. To Ziegler, Scraps is a tool – one that is barely able to do the necessaries so that he can get the job done. Unlike Specialist Toman, Ziegler doesn’t really seem to consider his craft sentient at all, just as he would never understand Scraps’s increasing obsession with the pain and death it inflicts on others. If he paused to listen, he would probably consider Scraps a coward that lacked commitment.

It’s a little heart-breaking, but it makes for a solid vehicle to explore questions of ethics and commitment and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

***

Damage can be read online at Tor.com.

David D Levine’s debut novel, Arabella of Mars – a ‘Regency Interplanetary Airship Adventure’ (Napoleon in space!) – will be released in July.

Illustration by Victor Mosquera.

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