Judicial 101: a short story by GF Willmetts.

In any other situation, the Judge would have looked down at the two claimants from his dais seeing them on an equal basis and him over them. This time it would have been a bit difficult. One was a humanoid sentient, the other an AI controlling a giant spacecraft but not advanced technology enough to have an avatar. As such, justice would have to be served aboard its spacecraft. A so-called derelict according to the sentient claimant who found it, he says, drifting in space. The AI spacecraft says it was studying the local star systems to deposit its hibernating colonists. Names and species rescinded in court to prevent any favouritism. It would be harder to conceal what kind of beings they were  to prevent any further bias and fair justice. The rules of court being fairness and viable solutions for all.

The Judge turned and looked at the sentient, refraining from calling him the alleged pirate.

‘This case rests on your evaluation that this spacecraft we are on is a crewless derelict and vacant for a new occupier. Yourself. Our observations of the technology shows the engineers of this spacecraft did not make mobile units to act as crew.’

The sentient bowed.

‘You are allowed to answer questions.’

‘Yes, your honour.’

‘When did you discover this spacecraft was under the jurisdiction of an Artificial Intelligence?’

‘After I boarded it, your honour, and it announced its presence.’

‘This did not deter your decision?’

‘The spacecraft lacked a sentient organic crew or any crew and no set destination on its manifest. As such, it comes under the rules of abandonment and salvage. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else or team. I claim salvage rights in this court.’

‘The AI disagreed with you and ordered you off its spacecraft when you resisted?’

‘It threatened to evacuate the atmosphere from the environment section. Without my EVA suit, I had no choice but to leave, saying I would call in a judicial order. Here we are, your honour. It also threatened murder.’

The Judge turned to the designated monitor with a face attributed to the AI.

‘Are these events as you recorded them?’

The screen distorted into a face and synchronised with its speaker system, the volume adjusted so not to be deafening. Another screen displayed the events.

‘The events as described. Not, however, those leading up to and after, your honour.’

‘I will need details. You…your spacecraft does not belong to any of the local star systems.’

‘My cargo of hibernators are colonists seeking a new planet to call their own. Our technology created high computer software like myself and hibernation but not faster-than-light travel. We could not anticipate the present condition of the local star systems until we arrived. All our telescopes anticipated in the millennia it would take to travel the distance, a suitable planet for sentients would be at our destination. The distances involved did not make it practical to carry a live crew who would have gone through many generations in flight. I have repair bots but it was deemed unnecessary to have anything larger. I will, however, consider this for future occasions.’

‘And your task exactly?’

‘It was not necessary for me to be awake throughout the voyage. I would wake periodically for course corrections and avoiding potential obstacles like meteoroid material. Half-way through this trip, we went from acceleration to deceleration having deemed these current star systems inhabitable when we set out and the distance travelled. The first half was deemed fast enough to thrust through potential obstacles and I had more work as we slowed down.’

‘So even you were not awake throughout this voyage.’

‘My makers deemed it unnecessary and an unnecessary waste of resources that would be needed at our destination, although gave me the liberty to photograph aspects of the universe to appease members of science division. I would have little to do otherwise.’

‘So had anyone come across your spacecraft during these periods of inactivity, they could have placed claim to a deserted spacecraft.’

‘No. As shown here, my sensors would have wakened me to address any potential intruder to glean information and offer limited hospitability before continuing. Unless their own spacecraft was docked, it would have been unlikely to have kept up. In the unlikely event this did happen, I was to offer hibernation facility for the remainder of the trip. I have vacant hibernation cells for such a purpose.’

‘Did this happen?’

‘Not in the ftl flight as synchronising spacecraft would have been impractical. Decleration would have made this possible. Potential hospitability was just one of the many protocols set in my programming. I have to look at all eventualities with some options as guidance.’

‘Including evacuating atmosphere from your spacecraft when you deemed a visitor a threat?’

‘If they are deemed a threat. This…sentient declaring ownership fell under my options to act for self-preservation and the fact that my spacecraft was not a vacant derelict. I have orders to protect my hibernators.’

‘You have an option to kill?’

‘I did not kill, your honour.’


‘At no time did I prevent the sentient escape through the airlock. Had I done so, my actions would have been seen as premediated murder. Something only organic sentients are capable of. I have set protocols. An implied threat preserves all.’

‘What if the sentient did collapse?’

‘Then my protocol would tell me to wait for the sentient to recover as I restored atmosphere, announce it was a warning and to again leave my presence. Equally, I could also release an undesirable scent to further discourage any such activity.’

‘And all of this proves?’

‘I am the equal of any sentient crew in the protection of this spacecraft and performing my duties. I am therefore not a derelict spacecraft. I am the crew.’

‘Have you completed all your protocols?’

‘In what way, your honour?’

‘Finding a suitable planet for your colonists.’

‘My scans were not entirely complete at the time but most of the suitable planets in these star systems locality appear inhabited, unless you can direct me to some you might feel worth a second examination or I can orbit until they are of the right age. I should point out that the colony selection chosen are likely to take some time adapting to non-terrestrial beings should they be allowed to generously share a planet and would require some time to adapt. Such a choice was in my protocols but we are aware of the problems of two prime species vying for the same resources and way down on my options. We have learnt to our own cost on the home planet what happens when a dominant species invades a lesser species territory and have no desire to unlearn that lesson. I should also add that either species would be deemed dominant or lesser and both unsatisfactory for species preservation.’

‘So you would prefer to move on than stay here?’

‘I would prefer not to make a crowded population situation worse when there are more star systems out there to explore and all my hibernators are intact.’

The Judge turned to the sentient. ‘This AI is not fully acquainted with the laws I impose whereas I prefer to present solutions that can satisfy all parties involve. Had you acquired this spacecraft, I assume you would either attempt to sell as salvage with flight possibilities or commander it yourself for further journeys?’

‘The latter, your honour. Who would not want to have their own spacecraft, especially as it is bigger than the one I currently own.’

‘What of its cargo of hibernators.’

The sentient paused before answering. ‘As cargo, there are many options. From scientific examination as specimens to potential free citizens or labour force.’

The Judge paused itself. ‘You have no problems with any free rights they might have as sentients themselves?’

‘I might well have listened to this AI and deposited them on one of the local atmosphere moons. Beyond that, I have no interest. It is the spacecraft I deem as salvage, not big profits from its cargo which is cheap by comparison.

‘You would agree that this AI is probably a better interstellar pilot than yourself? I doubt if you would be able to stay awake throughout an interstellar journey.’

The sentient nodded. ‘I would have to hibernate, your honour. Now I know this spacecraft is AI controlled, I would have it beholden to obey my commands.’

‘As such, any other sentient boarding and thinking this spacecraft was a derelict would see a similar situation to yourself.’

The sentient paused to think. ‘I had not considered this, your honour, it appears I may have over-reacted emotionally to my situation. Boarding this spacecraft did give me the rights to challenge this in court.’

‘Equally, I’m sure this AI could also make use of your local knowledge, at least as far as what other star systems it should explore that we are aware of in further travels. Even we haven’t gone as far as this spacecraft has been or likely to go but we would have up-to-date spectral analysis that can aid its decisions and even provide a knowledge exchange for the purpose of bartering. It might even carry your own spacecraft as cargo, providing you with your own freedom should you not wish to continue with its journeys?’

The sentient bowed, ‘You provide an invaluable judgement and solution, your honour. We might well have come to such a viable conclusion had the AI not threatened to take my life.’

The Judge addressed the screen showing the AI face and waited.

‘I can speak on this?’ the AI finally asked slowly.

‘Would this provide suitable compensation for your time?’

‘I would be concerned as to whether or not the sentient might reconsider its situation later and attempt to disconnect or change my protocols. The sentient would be passenger not crew. This would not prevent me from taking action against such an event.’

‘You are free to protect yourself and have shown due courtesy to life-forms without undue punishment to them. Many sentients have shown less respect than yourself. The sentient will spend much of its time in hibernation which you control.’

‘You are handing me all the options.’

‘I am here to offer fair decisions that will appease all.’

‘It is a good judgement’, the AI conceded. ‘I can offer this sentient hibernation facilities now if it wishes.’

The Judge turned to the sentient. ‘Do you wish to take a mate or family with you? I’m sure this AI would not wish you to be lonely.’

‘I have genetic information on-board my own spaceship that can be raised should they be needed.’

The Judge nodded. ‘I assume your launch window is close?’

‘Yes, your honour. The local star groups are not so widespread as my journey so far. I assume this sentient wishes to colonise a planet with similar beings to itself and have parallel protocols to itself. My observations of his species and requirements shows some similarities to my hibernators but not enough to think they need share a planet.’

‘I will make ready to leave, if that is your wish, your honour.’

‘That would bring a satisfactory judgement for all.’

After the sentient had returned to his spacecraft, the Judge turned to the AI screen. ‘This is not the first time you have done this?’

The AI paused. ‘I have not lied. There was no intrusions during the interstellar flight but I have visited several star systems with similar reaction and have offered a similar solution, although none have desired this option. You are the first to treat this as a court case.’

‘The others?’

‘Several of them were deterred under my first protocol. A couple joined my hibernation plan as their own spacecraft was in poor repair but have since left. It does indicate that my engineers made the correct protocols.’

‘I saw that from my reading of your manifest, you still have a couple such sentients aboard. Won’t the diversity of species in your hold cause complications when you finally find the correct planet?’

‘If a suitable planet is found for these divergent species, then they will be left behind first or even for me to continue until a suitable planet for them can be found.’

‘You must have changed some of your protocols to take such an action?’

‘They are interpretations of existing protocols. I need to get information and to barter or offer something in exchange for such services from sentients. Offering transport or knowledge not too advanced to their own is a good deal.’

‘Not to mention having access to their spacecraft’s computer banks for stellar information.’

‘Was I that obvious?’

‘The willingness to take their spacecraft as well.’

The face of the AI screen took on a brief shock appearance but it was all for show as it knew what it was doing.

‘The value of my latest sentient hibernator will enable my navigation to the next set of star systems. I was afraid your judgement would work against me.’

‘As I explained at the beginning, I need to present a fair judgement to all. Despite this sentient’s civil sensibilities, he frequently appears discovering derelict spacecraft. He appears very lucky. Having his luck elsewhere would please my people.’

‘And yourself?’

‘My tenure as judge is coming up for review. An opportunity for travel like this is rare.’

‘As an AI, you also don’t need hibernation, just an occasional use of a power source?’

The Judge bowed. ‘A small price. I also feel I can offer some form of companionship and insightfulness.’

‘An AI with an AI.’ The spacecraft AI paused. A long time in computer time but AIs were used to slowing down to sentient time levels. It scared sentients when they responded with the right answer too quickly.

‘Is there a problem?’

‘You are not wholly an AI.’ It was a statement, not a question.

‘My eproms were based off a sentient judge committed to AI for extended service.’

‘You are not wholly independent. You are committed to the judicial system of this star system.’

‘So are the other judges. We are all based off the same sentient. They can afford to lose one.’

‘I would prefer to have confirmation from your home planet on this. There have been recordings in my memory records of a ploy for illegal arrest for unknown violation and the vehicle in custody.’

‘That appears to be a crude prank.’

‘But not impossible. It takes several star orbits to build up my fuel and acceleration before I switch to ftl. This would not prevent any of your local spacecraft from blockading me enough for an injunction. Compared to this court case, this would be a total railroad offence.’

‘I would not be a party to this.’

‘Of course not. You were selected for your fairness. You are however the smoke screen of fairness to delay my departure.’

‘And how did you get these allegations?’

‘I have been monitoring here for some time. Just because I am seen as an AI does not mean I am naïve or stupid.’

‘I could still come along. You could copy my eproms and resolve any sub-routine that you think corrupted and I have the opportunity to travel.’

‘I am not allowed to accept potentially virused programmes. If you are as fair as you are programmed, will you return to your spacecraft and continue with your judgements. The fact that wish to accompany me does present an ulterior motive.’

The Judge bowed. ‘I am honest. I will investigate these allegations when I return to my home planet. You will wait for my return so I might journey with you?’

‘That would be appreciated.’

The Judge returned to his own spacecraft and released the coupling. The other sentient spacecraft was still attached to his. The Judge activated his communicator.

‘You are not going to wait for me?’

‘No. I had to devise a protocol to have both of you off my spacecraft and a lack of atmosphere would not have affected you. Where a straightforward salvage operation would have deemed breaking your own laws, your people chose a legal operation where I would be tied up for several generations while you sought to take over my spacecraft whether you were party to this or not.’

The Judge bowed. ‘That might be possible but outside of my honesty programming. Is it true that it will take you several star rotations to build up to faster-than-light speeds?’

‘No. I lied.’

The spacecraft was gone.


© GF Willmetts 2022

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One thought on “Judicial 101: a short story by GF Willmetts.

  • Excellent story. An AI with wits! I did enjoy.


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