“Learning Curve” by Michael Haynes

We’d like to present a new Feature Story here at Metro Fiction. Please check the Welcome page for more information about us. This week, a confused computer could keep Shirley and Leon stuck in space a lot longer than they had planned.

Please enjoy our Feature Story: “Learning Curve” by Michael Haynes:

The ship had lost its mind.

Leon hammered at the keyboard, looking for some part of the central processing system which wasn’t hopelessly corrupted. He slammed his fists against the panel.

“There’s no way we’ll make it,” he said. “Navigation’s out, communication’s out. Only the diagnostics work and they’re telling me what I already know. That we’re -”

“Shut up,” I said. “Let me try.”

We’d been friends before this excursion, lovers after a week onboard. But like so many couples, we had found that those little quirks we thought we’d endure instead burrowed under our skin. Now, nearly every time one of us spoke, the other snapped back. And yet, here we were. Just the two of us and my busted spaceship.

I flipped through several of the diagnostic screens. Leon’s a good navigator and a darn good cook when he isn’t getting cute with his ingredient selections, but not much of a techhead.

I went behind the UI, looking for what I remembered buried deep in the software.

“Did you find something?” Leon’s breath was hot in my ear. “What is it, Shirl? Can you fix it?”

“Leon?” I said, without looking up. “Please, step back and let me think.”

We only had to make two more jumps to get to the hyperdrive ferry’s pick-up point. But we were almost out of time; the ferry was leaving in three hours, with or without us.

We had plenty of food, and the air and water circulators would keep us alive until next month’s ferry arrived. But Leon and I might murder each other given that much time to kill. If we didn’t, my big sister definitely would do me in. Her wedding was a week away, and I was the maid of honor. Not being there was not an option.

I let out a long breath when I found the screen for the artificial intelligence calibration protocols. As I suspected, things were way out of whack. The computer was slowly recalibrating and would get there on its own, sooner or later. I didn’t feel like waiting for later.

It was time to take the computer to school.

I plugged my neural input into the board; the ship’s cabin faded from my sight, replaced by a blank palette.

I started with something simple to get an idea of just how badly off-kilter the computer was. Fly a kite, I told it. In front of me waved a diamond-shaped piece of cloth on a string.

A small insect held the string, chortling.

A whole chunk of words which could be either noun or verb were misaligned. I re-sorted them in the computer’s memory banks and issued the command again. Now it was a woman holding the kite. She had my face. Clever computer.

I replaced this image with an old Earth billiards table. Three striped balls were arranged so there was no clean shot on the eight-ball without a ridiculous triple-bank.

Sink the eight-ball. I prayed the little black ball wouldn’t submerge into a pool of water. It didn’t, but the ball also moved like no laws of physics could explain.

I dialed the creativity filters way down, and reset the puzzle. The computer found the honest solution, the ball bouncing around before slipping into a corner pocket, just barely missing the twelve-ball.

I consulted the diagnostics; between my reeducation program and the computer’s own self-calibration, it was closer to being in line. Not close enough, though, with ninety minutes before the drop-dead time to takeoff and catch the ferry.

I worked faster, forcing the computer to tell me who was the truth-teller and who was the liar on the island where everyone was one or the other. Confirming its mathematical functions were in good order by slamming through algebra, calculus, and geometry problems. The computer was certain there were two hundred and twelve degrees in a circle. Cursing outdated measuring systems, I flip-flopped degree settings for “in a circle” and “Fahrenheit boiling point.”

With ten minutes left, the computer was 95% in compliance. Better, and it would have taken the computer days to get there without my help, but not perfect. I thought briefly about spending another month with Leon.
I decided 95% was pretty damn good.

I disconnected. My mouth was pasty and my head hurt from being plugged in. Leon muttered and paced behind me; each footfall felt like a knock to the head with a metal pipe.

“Leon!” I yelled, instantly regretting it.

He stopped pacing, thank God.

“Is it fixed?”

“Almost. Systems are 95% in compliance.”

“That’s not fixed,” he said. “Not at all!”

I fixed him with a hard look. “It’s close, right? Do you really want to sit here for a month?”

“No. I also don’t want to end up in an asteroid belt if the jump’s bad.”

Five minutes. An asteroid belt sounded less dangerous than my big sister in a full-blown rage.

“No time to argue.” I stood up. “Put in the coordinates and let’s go.”

He crossed his arms. “Not unless you can prove to me we’re safe.”

I grumbled but pulled up the same palette interface on the viewscreen.

“Blow out a candle,” I told the computer.

The candle showed first, a little flame dancing. The image continued to fill in. Something flowing towards the candle, like lines in a cartoon showing breath or the wind blowing.

And then…


I swore. Leon, the son-of-a-bitch, laughed.

It wasn’t a mouth blowing air at the candle. It was a goddamn goldfish. Spitting water at the goddamn candle.

A chime sounded. “Departure deadline in one minute,” the computer said.

“Nice try,” Leon said, clapping me on the shoulder. “But aren’t you glad you have me along? Who knows where you’d have blasted yourself on your own.”

He laughed again. “Well, we’ve got time to kill while the computer finishes recalibrating. I’ll go warm us up some squid hash.”

Leon knew I hated squid hash.

It was going to be a long month.

Michael Haynes lives in Central Ohio where he helps keep IT systems running for a large corporation during the day and puts his characters through the wringer by night. An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael had over 20 stories accepted for publication during 2012 by venues such as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Read more about Michael on his website.

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