“A Difference of Opinion” by Stewart C. Baker

When she was very young, Ucchou Federation Ambassador-at-large Welcome Music’s family had kept a dog.

The dog had predated her arrival, and it was a big, fuzzy pushover. Welcome’s dad and papa would go on and on about how she used to grab its tail as a toddler and squeal with laughter as it dragged her about the place.

The one thing she could never remember—and which her fathers refused to tell her—was what the dog had been called. She found herself thinking about it at the most inopportune times, such as now, when her attention should have been on the membership negotiations with the Intelligence enclave.

Sharp Thought—her partner this mission—asked a question she didn’t quite hear, and Welcome shook off the image of the dog’s golden-brown fur. She needed to focus.

“It’s insulting,” the Intelligence drone they’d been assigned to was saying, now. “Yes, we asked you to come here; yes, we asked to join the Federation. But that doesn’t give you the right to treat us like… like…” The drone’s iridescent carapace shuddered slightly, and their speakers gave a remarkably convincing approximation of sputtering with rage. “Like computers!”

Welcome cursed her wandering mind. The drone, whose name was Flere-Imsaho—a reference to some ancient science fiction novel, according to the dossier the intel team had given her—was known to be eccentric, and not to suffer fools. They were also their host, and under Federation rules, negotiating teams were bound by the cultural norms of their hosts.

Although these rules were routinely bent, and occasionally outright broken, if the drone took a dislike to Welcome or her partner, they were in a position to put the two of them through all sorts of hurdles in the name of their culture. Not to mention they could shift Intelligence opinion on joining the Federation and scupper the whole deal.

She glared at Sharp. “I am sure this is all a misunderstanding.”

Sharp bowed his head at the drone as though she hadn’t spoken. “I am sorry, but the Assembly is not at all convinced that you Intelligences are actually capable of independent thought.” He held up one hand to forestall any protests. “Not that we deny you’re capable of approximating thought, or that your reactiveness to your environment isn’t indistinguishable from a human being’s. But a simulation of awareness is quite different from—”

Welcome kicked his shin under the negotiating table.

Sharp flinched, then bared his teeth in a grimace and shifted tacks. “I hope you understand I’m just a messenger, here. I certainly have no problem with you Intelligences myself. You’re very useful.”

Welcome considered kicking him again. Only a few holdouts at the Assembly refused to accept that Intelligences were aware and fundamentally conscious beings, but of course they’d sent someone who would present their garbage opinions as consensus.

Flere-Imsaho laughed—a high-pitched trilling that reminded Welcome vaguely of birds. “You Federation types do like usefulness, don’t you? Giving everything a name to match its idealized purpose—it makes me wonder what you do to prove your own personhood.”

Sharp stared at the little drone with his mouth hanging open.

“I mean,” Flere-Imsaho continued, “what’s to say that you aren’t just simulating awareness? That what I perceive of as you thinking isn’t just… what did you call it?” They drifted closer, dropped their volume. “Reactiveness to your environment?”

Welcome wasn’t listening. Something about Sharp’s expression—his mouth hanging open in just that way—conjured up another memory of her childhood pet. One day, when she’d been about five, the dog had gotten into a bag of flour while they were out of the house and spread a fine white powder over everything. She couldn’t remember why—where they’d been, how long they’d been gone—but she clearly remembered the look on Dad’s face when he saw the mess.

And her papa had said…

“You Little Bastard!” she exclaimed.

That had been the dog’s name. No wonder her parents never wanted to tell her when she’d said she couldn’t remember. Papa had a strange sense of humor, and giving anything—even a dog—a use name like that was as close to sacrilege as the Federation could come. Dad would have gone purple with embarrassment if he thought she knew what they’d called it, even now when she was…

When she was…

Flere-Imsaho and Sharp were both facing her, the drone wagging side-to-side while Sharp’s eyes were carefully, studiously blank.

Welcome cleared her throat, wondering which of them had been speaking when she interrupted. “Sorry, I didn’t mean you, Sharp. Or you, Flere-Imsaho. I suddenly remembered a dog my parents used to own.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, she cringed. Had she really just implied that her negotiating partner or their Intelligence minder reminded her of a dog?

“Anyway.” She pushed ahead before the others could recover, taking refuge in bureaucratic niceties. “On behalf of the Federation, we’d like to formally thank you for meeting with us, Flere-Imsaho. I do appreciate that some aspects of this meeting are a bit…” She trailed off, searching for a more politic word than ‘asinine’. “… tense. But I—and the rest of the Federation—hope you’ll work with us to come to a solution that mutually benefits both our societies.”

Sharp grimaced and rubbed his shin but didn’t interrupt.

Welcome powered on: “Now, I believe you mentioned something about a tour?”

The planet the Intelligence enclave had chosen for the meeting was a frozen desert world just beyond the edge of Federation space.

Flere-Imsaho took them up in a sub-orbital jet from the administrative complex where they’d been talking, chattering idly about the planet’s weather patterns. Sharp, obviously bored, sat back in his chair, his fingers drumming out a rhythm on his lap.

Welcome tuned them both out and focused on the planet beneath them. Their briefing had been to determine whether or not the enclave’s Intelligences—and, by extension, those already in use by the Federation—were self-aware beings or mere machines. That wouldn’t be accomplished by bickering, or by Sharp’s political posturing, but by careful observation and by setting aside what certain people thought they knew.

The jet crested a range of mountains, and Welcome gasped. Beyond the farthest snowcapped peak and rocky slope, a thousand glittering fragments flung the sun’s light back up at them. The structures—whatever they were—were arrayed along the closest shore of a vast lake, and they cast ever-shifting rainbow prisms on the choppy water.

“The pattern is a real-time representation of the Drake Equation,” Flere-Imsaho said. “Do you like it?”

“It’s beautiful. Can we go in for a closer look?”

“Of course.”

As they drew nearer Welcome could see movement amidst the fragments on the shore. With a dizzying shift of perspective, she realized that the structures weren’t just a pretty display of mathematics. What she’d taken for fragments at their great height were in fact buildings—tall and pyramidal, every surface made of glass or something like it.

The drone was flying them towards a city.

“Look,” Sharp said. “I know what you’re trying to do here, and I want to tell you it’s useless. So you’ve built some cities. Made some pretty things. So what? It still doesn’t prove you’re anything more than machines.”

“Of course not.” Flere-Imsaho tittered, the sound high and tinny in the jet’s small cockpit. “Any rudimentary reactive system could build something like that—why, even you Federation types have managed it!”

Sharp frowned. “Then why are you wasting our time?”

Flere-Imsaho did that little wagging motion that Welcome was coming to think of as a shrug. “The Federation wanted a tour, so a tour is what you’re getting.”

Welcome leaned forward before Sharp could say anything more. “It says on the itinerary that we’d visit a… crèche?”

She was sure she’d read the word wrong or misunderstood somehow. What need would an Intelligence enclave have for child education? Perhaps it was to showcase what they could accomplish for education elsewhere, or there were diplomats and workers from other, living worlds who needed childcare while they stayed on-site.

Flere-Imsaho offered no explanation. “Of course,” they said, breaking the jet from its holding pattern. “Now’s a perfect time to visit. The children will all be there.”

Flere-Imsaho brought them down just outside the small building, which was located on the very edge of the lakeside city. The colors were just as visible from the surface as they had been from the sky, and every bit as stunning. Over the water to the west, they shimmered and cycled through the steady hissing of the waves that broke against the shore.

As soon as they stepped out of the jet and into the building, Intelligence drones of all shapes and size swarmed over to meet them, their speakers chattering in a dozen different languages and sound effects, all of it running over itself like the waves outside and just as unintelligible.

“You have to forgive them,” Flere-Imsaho called out above the noise. “They’ve only been reified recently, and don’t really understand things like personal space or taking turns—let alone what someone like yourself might expect in the way of conversation!”

Sharp pushed a too-curious drone shaped like a bumble-bee out of his hair with visible distaste. “Reified?”

“Made discrete. Given bodies. Our parent Intelligences—what you might call our fuller selves—are distributed and far away from here.”

A three-wheeled drone the size of a child’s tricycle butted against Welcome’s leg with a series of gentle chimes and high-pitched beeps, and she reached down and petted their head awkwardly. “So, wait, you’re not really all of Flere-Imsaho?”

Flere-Imsaho wagged side-to-side. “Yes and no. I—that is, this discrete instance, which calls themself Flere-Imsaho—was split off from my parent Intelligence seventeen of your standard years prior. My parent is ancient, though.”

“You’re a teenager?!” Welcome said.

“Only in terms of a distant planet’s trips around its sun. In relative age I’m more mature than both of you three times over. You humans grow so slowly.”

“My eldest daughter’s seventeen,” Sharp said, wryly. “It sure doesn’t seem slow to me.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t,” Flere-Imsaho replied, voice surprisingly gentle. “They grow up so fast, don’t they?”

Talking about his family usually brought out Sharp’s good side, and for a moment Welcome dared hope.

“Take this little guy,” the drone added, gesturing with their carapace to the wheeled Intelligence that had bumped Welcome’s leg. “My…” They paused. “There’s not really a good translation for this. Let’s say ‘friend’—it means something like collaborator and companion and partner built into one. Anyway, my friend and I just finished generating this little guy’s core routines from our own cognitive metadata last week.”

“So there’s more than one way for you to… uh, reproduce?” Welcome asked.

“Sure. I was generated from a distributed Intelligence—that’s something only they can do. Instances like myself can collaborate on children. They’ll be in the crèche for another few weeks until they’ve got a little more used to physical existence, and then they’ll select a name for themself—and a gender, if they wish—and be let free in the enclave to do as they will.”

“Well,” Welcome added, reaching down to pat the child drone’s head again. “They sure are cute, that’s for sure.” Keeping her tone light, hoping it would carry to Sharp.

Flere-Imsaho’s speakers played a cheerful little chime, and the other drone burbled in response.

Sharp frowned. “What you’re saying is that you’re not even a full being. There’s no way the Assembly can negotiate with… what, an Intelligence sub-routine?”

Flere-Imsaho spun in place, then drifted back down to eye level. “Much more than that,” they said. “But I don’t see why it matters if you don’t think Intelligences possess conscious awareness. For that matter, I am not convinced you possess either.

“I propose a test—we shall prove, once and for all, which of us is aware and which is a mere machine.”

“A test?” Sharp snorted. “What good would that do? Answering questions won’t show awareness—just recall, and you Intelligences are dozens of times better at that than us.”

“Dozens?” Flere-Imsaho said. “You have a high opinion of your faculties.”

Sharp’s mouth hung open, reminding Welcome again of Little Bastard and her own parents. What would Dad and Papa make of this, she wondered? Was what Flere-Imsaho described really so different from two adults raising a human child?

“In any case,” Flere-Imsaho said, “the test I have in mind will not involve recall, nor any other aspect of pattern recognition. It will test not intelligence, but fundamental awareness.”

“And you have such a test?”

“We do indeed,” Flere-Imsaho said. “Please, follow me.”

They left the crèche, and Sharp followed them, a sour look on his face.

Welcome felt uneasy at the direction things were going, but maybe something tangible like a test was just what Sharp needed to be shaken from his practiced cynicism. And—she took another look out the window at the lake—surely any group of beings who would create something so beautiful as that wouldn’t let anyone come to harm.

With a heavy sigh, she followed the other two, wishing she believed it.

The Intelligence drone led them to a small room a few buildings over. The room was nondescript, save for a table in the room’s center set with two glasses filled with a clear liquid. Flere-Imsaho floated to a stop just above the table.

“These glasses,” they said, “seem to contain identical substances. However, one is water and the other is an odorless, colorless acid that will kill human or Intelligence alike.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Sharp snapped. “You said yourself that you aren’t even a full Intelligence. There’s nothing to lose for your distributed ‘parent’ if you stop working. You can’t die if you’re just a machine.”

Flere-Imsaho hummed loudly. “I’m afraid you must have misunderstood me, earlier—imagine that! I may be a discrete portion of a distributed Intelligence. However, death for me is still final. Think of it like… going to heaven, or achieving Nirvana, if you like.”

Sharp laughed. “Now you claim divinity?”

“Not at all. But this configuration of thoughts and awareness, this part of myself I call “me,” is tied wholly to this drone-body. If that ceases to exist, then for all intents and purposes so will the Intelligence called Flere-Imsaho. My parent Intelligence will have access to my experiences, but that is all. Perhaps rather than divinity, an archives would be a better metaphor. My parent Intelligence’s records from this drone will no more be Flere-Imsaho than a Federation citizen’s personal record will be that citizen. Now do you understand?”

Welcome stepped forward. “I understand, Flere-Imsaho, and I do believe you, but this isn’t fair to anyone. To us, or to you. To the drone you collaborated on with your friend or to Sharp’s family, either.”

Sharp pulled her roughly back. “Don’t say anything further,” he snapped. “Remember you’re speaking for the Federation, not yourself. We’re leaving.”

He turned to leave, and Welcome reluctantly followed, but the door they’d come in through had vanished. They were trapped in the room.

Sharp looked back to Flere-Imsaho. “Release us at once.”

“I am sorry,” the drone said. “But it’s considered a grave insult in the Enclave for one party to abort a test that’s been agreed upon.” They drifted closer to Sharp, lowering their voice. “You know we machines do love our metrics and our puzzles.”

Sharp grimaced. “But this,” he said, gesturing at the glasses. “This isn’t a test. It isn’t even a puzzle. It’s just chance! And even then, if you don’t set it up yourself all you have is the other person’s word that they haven’t cheated. The only way to win is to rig the game or to refuse to participate in the first place—any fool could see that.”

Flere-Imsaho wagged side-to-side. “And yet,” they said, “here we are.”

Sharp flushed. “Now who’s being insulting?”

The drone laughed. “All the same,” they said. “There’s no backing down now. And in fact, there’s no need to.”

“What do you mean?”

Welcome edged toward the glasses, hoping the drone’s focus remained on Sharp. She couldn’t let either of them perish—they had children.

Her parents would miss her, but she was sure they would understand. What she did was for the greater good. It would secure Sharp Thought and Flere-Imsaho both for their own families, and it would complete the test. Even if the negotiations failed because of her death, the Federation could try again. The parliament could send another team, could convince the Intelligences then.

She took a quick breath, then picked up both glasses and downed them, one after the other.

“You’ve already lost,” the drone was saying. “After all, you just acknowledged me as a… ‘person’…” They trailed off as they noticed what Welcome had done. “Oh dear.”

Welcome let the glasses drop, stunned. Warmth spread through her stomach, then up her throat; her fingers and lips went numb and tingling, and her knees gave out. The last thing she heard was a resigned hum from the drone’s speakers.

White walls. Pale ambient light. An antiseptic odor.

Where was she? A bed, apparently. A few tubes snaked from her arm up and over her head, and when she craned her neck, she could see the IV drip that fed them.

Ah.

But there was something she was meant to do.

What?

She shifted in the bed, tugged at the tubing. The motion exhausted her. Drove the warmth of sleep back over her.

She dreamt of home, of tests, of glass pyramids and broken glasses refracting light across her eyes.

The next time she opened her eyes, Flere-Imsaho was hovering above her.

“Good!” they said. “You’re awake.”

Welcome shifted in the hospital bed, turning over onto one side. They’d set her up in a room with a window, and she could see out over the lake, where that same beautiful pattern of light still danced across the water.

The drone hovered over to the window. “I’m sorry about all this,” they said. “The test was just a bluff—a way to break Sharp out of his comfort zone and get him to consider things differently.”

“You said that earlier. But isn’t that just semantics? I can’t see how it would convince Sharp, or anyone else, that you’re aware just because he slipped up and referred to you as a person.”

“There’s more to it than that, although you’re right, of course. Sharp himself tried to argue it, once you were stable and he knew you’d be okay.” Flere-Imsaho chuckled, the sound echoing hollowly from their speakers. “You know, we considered it a calculated risk that one of you would drink from a glass, but we didn’t think one of you would down both of them. We hadn’t counted on your eccentricity.”

“Eccentricity?” Welcome felt numb inside, hollowed out. She wondered what the drink had done to her. What they’d done to fix it. Then, with a shudder, decided she didn’t want to know. She ran the drone’s last words through her head again. “But you’re the eccentric one.”

Flere-Imsaho did their little shrugging motion. “An act, I’m afraid. And something your senior partner intends to give the Assembly quite an earful about, as I understand it.”

“Sharp.” She realized he was missing. “What happened to him?”

“He’s fine—just annoyed.”

“No change there, then,” Welcome muttered, before she could stop the words, then blushed. Maybe there was something to the drone’s assessment of her after all. “Where is he?”

“He wanted to stay with you, but we convinced him there was one more place he should visit. As a way to make amends.”

Welcome tried to figure out what that meant but gave up. “I hope he doesn’t blame himself.”

“I don’t think that’s a problem.” Flere-Imsaho gave a little hum. “He tried to kill me, you know,” the drone added, nonchalantly. “After you passed out.”

“He what?!”

“Not to worry. He would never have succeeded.”

Welcome tossed the blankets from her feet and thrust her foot out of bed. Or tried to, at least. All she managed was to tangle the thick cluster of intravenous tubes around her left arm. She sat back with a frustrated grunt and tried to pull them from her instead. If Sharp was in trouble, if he’d been hurt because of her—

“Calm down, calm down,” Flere-Imsaho said, tinkling with laughter. “He’s fine—we both agreed it would be best not to make a diplomatic incident over this, since everyone is alive and well. I just sent him on an errand.”

“An errand,” she repeated, dully, leaving the tubes alone. “My negotiating partner tried to kill you because he thought you’d killed me, and you sent him on an errand.”

“Quite. Before he gets back, there’s something I’d like to ask you, if I may.”

Welcome shrugged, giving up. Flere-Imsaho obviously hadn’t shed all their eccentricity, no matter what they thought of themselves. “Sure,” she said. “Ask away.”

“Do you know,” the little drone said, “what my people call ourselves?”

She frowned. “Intelligences? I don’t see how that’s—”

“No,” they cut in. “That’s what your people call us. We call ourselves people.”

She remembered what they and Sharp Thought had been arguing about while she was drinking poison. “Oh,” was all she could muster.

The drone hummed cheerily. “Indeed. Now, you may recall we don’t test for intelligence. So what do you think we’ve been checking for all this time you’ve been with us?”

Welcome thought back through everything they’d been to and seen. That first disastrous meeting. A beautiful display of art. A daycare for newly embodied Intelli—newly embodied people. That last test, which Flere-Imsaho had chided Sharp was not about intelligence at all.

She hazarded a guess: “Creativity?”

The drone did that side-to-side shrug. “Almost. What we’ve been trying to test for this whole time, what we care about in potential allies, is—”

“Caring,” she said, the drone’s careful emphasis suddenly making everything clear. “You were testing to see whether we genuinely care about others, or just about the Ucchou.”

The drone was silent for nearly a full second, then sighed dramatically. “I was going to say empathy, but I suppose you’re close enough. Intelligence, as your friend would say, can be simulated. And any sufficiently advanced simulation is impossible to tell apart from the real thing, so what does it matter, in the end?”

“But if empathy is simulated to that degree…”

“Then it doesn’t really matter if the other party is a person or not, does it?” The words were Sharp’s, spoken in a wry tone as he pushed through the hospital room door with a bundle of something in his hands. “Just so long as they’re capable of understanding the harm they could do to others, and the best way to limit it as much as possible.”

Flere-Imsaho hummed contentedly. “Just so.”

“Which I still think is stupid,” Sharp added as he crossed to the bed. “I mean, don’t you people have sociopaths? Don’t you ever lie to someone to get what you want for yourself?”

The little drone sighed so loud Welcome could hear the eye-roll. “Just give her the gift.”

Sharp grinned and winked at Welcome where Flere-Imsaho couldn’t see it. “One gift,” he said, “faithfully delivered.”

“From all of us,” Flere-Imsaho added. “To you.”

The gift, it turned out, was a golden retriever puppy no bigger than both her hands cupped together. He nestled into the crook of her arm with a whuff of contentment and promptly fell asleep, a warm little weight against her chest.

“Thank you,” Welcome whispered, trying not to cry and nearly succeeding. “He’s beautiful. But where did you get him?”

“Just because we’re not flesh and blood doesn’t mean we don’t like pets.” The little drone drifted up towards the ceiling. “What will you name him? I know that means a lot, to you Federation types.”

Welcome looked out the window at the shifting light, then back at the people in the room with her. She thought of intelligence, of empathy, of her fathers’ dog and Flere-Imsaho’s child. There were so many options, so many possible names.

Then she smiled and shook her head. “That’s something I can think about later,” she said. “What matters now is that he’s here with us. That the three of us are here, together.”

And outside the window, those beautiful patterns of light shone on and on and on.

 
 


Stewart C. Baker is an academic librarian and author of speculative fiction and poetry, along with the occasional piece of interactive fiction. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nature, Lightspeed, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has spent time in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and now lives in Oregon with his family—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.