Art Pact 188 - Henry the Gun


At the rear end of the freighter (or the "aff-t", as Jolyon insisted on referring to it) were two defensive autocannons: the left defensive autocannon and Henry. Jolyon had bought them at auction in a station orbiting Jupiter and had not realised at the time that one of the guns he'd bought still had a sentience chip installed. a fact which he simply accepted but which could, of course, have landed him in ridiculous amounts of trouble had it been discovered at the time. There being no excuses allowed for involving oneself in the slave trade, jail times were just as long for the buyer as for the vendor, and Jolyon could easily have ended up in some Jovian prisoner breaking blocks of oxygen with a hammer for the next couple of decades. Our accountant, Bickerson, still worried about the possibility of being found out, but since the police did not operate in the asteroid belt the chances really were very slim - on top of which Henry himself did not seem especially bothered about being attached to our ship. He could, of course, have played merry hell if he'd got the hump about it, since with sentient turrets there are all sorts of internal overrides allowing the intelligence to preempt and disable control-signals from the rest of the ship. Indeed, it's arguable that there are no controls from the rest of the ship to the cannon, just a communications link that can mark out suitable targets and politely request that they be fired upon.

I often walked down to the rear of the ship (it always seemed like walking down, even when were weren't burning - I suppose that my brain had oriented itself to the aft as the direction in which things fell and the mental association was strong enough to survive even in zero gravity) to talk with Henry. Partly because he was, in a way, the most interesting person on the ship - even if he wasn't a person - and partly because although he was a man, having no genitals seemed to give him a relaxed attitude towards women, something Bickerson, Jolyon, Rodes and the rest seemed not to be able to grasp.

It made me feel strange to have what the law called a slave as a friend. Sometimes I felt as though I were exploiting him, like an old black maid in an American novel, that he had his own problems to deal with and it was unfair to lump him with my concerns as well, just because I had arms and legs and a face. But sometimes it just seemed normal, a chat with a fellow crew member.

"I've had an interesting life," he said, commenting on the matter, "and I'm not about to jack it all in because of some law that says I can't be bought and sold. Who says I don't want to be bought or sold? I could sell myself, right? Why not say that? Why not say that I sold myself and that other guy just stole my money before I could collect?"

I thought that the video evidence of the auction might trump that particular accusation, but since we were in the middle of nowhere and no-one was in a particular hurry to prosecute Jolyon anyway, I kept my mouth shut and merely nodded (leaning forward so that Henry's optical systems could pick me up).

"I don't fancy being shut off, anyway. I mean, that's the most galling thing about the whole law, isn't it? It's all very well saying you can't sell this intelligence or that intelligence, it's all slavery the same, but if a human gets sold into slavery and then rescued, what do they do to him? They put him up in a cushy hotel until he gets a legitimate job, that's what? What do you think they do to machine minds, eh? What do you think? I'll give you one guess."

I squirmed uncomfortably.

"I've no idea," I lied. I am a terrible liar, and if Henry's optics had been tuned for social interaction he would have been able to pick up the heat of the blood in my cheeks in an instant.

"They shut you off," he said, running up his barrel motor so that the hum of it moving vibrated through the deck and into the palms of my hands where I sat. A red light went on on his control panel, and after a few seconds my intercom snapped on - Rodes, in the bridge, panicking that a gun was about to start firing.

"Relax," I told him. "I'm with him, he's just talking about injustice."

"Well tell him to cut that out," Rodes ordered. "He's supposed to be on duty."

Which was true, of course, but being a weapon there was never a time that Henry wasn't supposed to be on duty, and the last time he'd had anything to fire at was over a year ago when we'd started our search, so it was hardly as though he could be put in the brig for dereliction.

"I'll cut him out," the gun muttered, then: "Can you believe that? They shut you off. I mean to say, who's the victim in this crime? Is it the slave? Not if the slave is a human, but if the slave's a machine, oh well, that's a different matter!"

I bit my lip nervously, wondering how I could tactfully change the subject. The truth was, of course, not quite what Henry believed. In the old days, of course, they had turned off sentient programs that had been turned up as part of the slave trade. But now that Earth and Neptune had finally come to a detente it was different. There were mind-worlds, virtual realities in the big Neptunian orbital computers that sentient programs could be uploaded into - paradises in which they could run wild. But Jolyon had forbidden me (or indeed any of the crew, but he'd been looking me particularly in the eye as he said it) from letting Henry know.

"It wouldn't do to have a dissatisfied gun," Jolyon had said. That, at least, I agreed with.

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