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Unrippled Waters

Posted on Sat Sep 29th, 2018 @ 6:22am by Lieutenant Commander Merzia Jalel & Lieutenant Meilin Jiang

Mission: The Eyes of Janus
Location: Ready Room
Timeline: MD 1 minus 7

The ship had seen much turnover, and there was much to discuss with the new CO. It was incredible to see how a few new faces replacing old ones could so heavily alter Meilin's priorities on the vessel. Some things, however, remained unchanged. That Commander Jalel had not specifically requested to see her yet was a good thing. Meilin wanted to start out on the right foot, and being the one to initiate their professional rapport seemed like a good start towards that.

Meilin nodded at the ensign at Tactical as she circumvented the bridge toward the ready room. Sounding the chime, she waited patiently for permission to enter. The PADD at her side felt vibratory in her eager hand.

“Come,” came the response, and the door swished open.

Merzia sat at her desk, a holoprojection of the Satabo Nebula in front of her. The map traces the paths in blue of the three Federation ships that had passed the area before them: the USS Bozeman, the USS Nehsi, and the USS Enterprise. All three had taken courses in front of the nebula, leaving its star within hidden. As Meilin entered the room, though, she stood and walked around to welcome her guest.

“Lieutenant Jiang,” Merzia said, offering a handshake, “It’s good to meet you.”

"Likewise, Commander." Meilin's smile was thin but cordial. She shifted her PADD to her off hand in order to accept the commander's proffered one. "I trust you have found the Palatine to be satisfactory." Her tone was neither boastful nor questioning. "There are a number of Security matters I wish to bring to your attention."

“Certainly,” Merzia replied, returning to her side of the desk and closing the holoprojector. “What can I help you with?”

"Firstly, I wished to commend your role in modifying the senior leadership on this ship, specifically in regards to the previous CIO." Meilin pursed her lips to maintain a neutral expression. Her tone of voice modulated just slightly. "Lieutenant Ward seems far more amenable to reason and principle than her predecessor. I look forward to optimum interaction between Security and Intelligence henceforth."

Meilin began accessing her PADD as she spoke. Hopefully the new CO would accept the closure of her complaints against Intelligence without further probing. It would not do for her to be considered a malcontent.

"Starfleet is an exploration agency before anything else. As such, there are many people of special conscience on board." Meilin paused for a breath before adding, "Myself included. Your ship and crew are safe in my hands, Commander, but I will not take life. To that end, it is my wish that you review the previous Chief Science Officer's support of my recommendation for the interface of a tactical AI to supplement the standard shipboard computer suite." She handed the PADD with the open file and set it on the desk. "Upon installation, the assistant AI would potentially decrease the minimum number of required personnel in my department by as much as 20%. It is my understanding that Lieutenant Ingram has made inroads toward a suitable model from a personal contact. With your approval, it could be installed before we reach the hazardous areas discussed in the previous security briefing before your assignment."

Merzia scanned the document, picking out the key points. "This suggests there's some risk the AI could take over the ship. What would you do in that situation?"

The question was partly an assessment of how completely Meilin had thought through the proposal. It did, however, present the opportunity to gauge the security officer's overall capabilities and how she thought tactically.

"Like with any tool, the AI would only have access to functions within its purview," Meilin said. "The conn system, for example, already has automated evasive maneuvers which react in real-time to sensor data. Even so, it has no way of accessing the warp core or weapons systems. Should the tactical AI somehow manage to override its permissions as an advisory and assessment tool in order to become an automaton of destruction, it would still be restricted to tactical systems. It would have no means whatsoever to access core ship systems like life support or the EPS power grid, which means there would be nothing to prevent us from shutting it down the moment it manifested any difficulties." Meilin maintained a tight smile as she gave answer to the question. "And the ship's main computer would be a governing system to it rather than a slave one."

Merzia leaned back in her chair. "Humour me for a moment. Assume, somehow, the AI gains control of our main computer. Maybe we have a saboteur on board, or something we encounter in the Typhon Expanse messes with our systems. We've now got a hostile AI controlling any of our systems hooked into the main computer, and we're locked out. How would you and your department deal with it?"

There was no way to entirely hold back the incredulous look that threatened to overtake Meilin's face at such preposterous ideas. Meilin's face turned askance. "What was your background before entering Command?" The question was rhetorical, so she continued after a mere pregnant pause for effect. "Assuming for a moment that one can plan for the unknown, I would do the same as I would with any other defective system: turn it off. The holodeck AI has no way of taking over the automated conn systems, much less accessing the master computer, or vice versa for that matter. So it would be for a Tactical AI. It cannot act outside its permissions. The master computer simply would not permit it."

Meilin laid her hands in her lap to assume a more humble posture. "More practically, Commander I maintain that an ounce of prevention is a pound of cure. We have protocols in place to prevent sabotage, mutinies, and other mission-ending events. While we certainly train to respond to them, we do not over-commit our resources to statistically improbable scenarios. And if the Tactical AI does not have the technical ability to access the requisite data ports and sockets outside of its domain, then your scenario is over before it can begin."

She brightened as an analogy occurred to her. "The Chief Engineer knows precisely what to do should the warp core face an imminent breach, but Lieutenant Ricci does not begin each day preoccupied with that outcome. And, given the explanation already provided, we are far more likely to overload the warp core than we are to suffer a 'rogue AI' taking over the ship." Meilin's tone would liken that phrase to a mythical story. "In the end, Commander, my proposal would reduce risks in the Security department, such as weeding out potential saboteurs faster than standard protocol would allow, not add to them."

Merzia considered the response. Frustrated, yes, but she remembered being similarly frustrated when presented with impossible scenarios by her CO. More importantly, Meilin was very defensive, not merely towards her ideas, but tactically. Not necessarily a weakness. Her response to a threat was to assume that her preparations would hold true, and indeed, as Merzia scanned through the document on the PADD again, they did look well considered. Still, the rigidity in failing to adapt even after being told the strategy was overcome…

“Lieutenant, we don’t train for the statistically improbable because we think it’s likely. We train that way because it develops the sort of flexible thinking that serves us when faced with the unexpected. I wasn’t asking because I believe the AI would pose a serious threat of gaining control of our systems. You’ve made fine plans there and making further preparations would be wasteful. I was asking because I want to know my chief tactical officer can deal with her plans being disrupted.”

Merzia tapped on the PADD’s screen. “You mentioned that the holodeck AI has no way to take over the main systems of a ship. Almost two decades ago, the holodeck character Moriarty did just that to the flagship of the Federation, nearly destroying it as a result. It’s even mentioned in these notes. Prior to 2365, raising shields meant that your enemies had no way to transport onto your ship, but then we encountered the Borg, who we assumed were uniquely talented in that area, until we met the Dominion, who also ignored our shields. Beings capable of masquerading as inanimate objects; who see the future and the past with equal clarity; who have all the power and trappings of ancient gods: all have been encountered by Federation starships. The impossible is only impossible until we discover it’s not, and our mission on the Palatine is to discover things we don’t know about, not retread old ground. Sooner or later, we’re going to turn over a rock and find something that should not be. The lives of this crew count on you being able to adapt to that impossibility.”

She laid the PADD on the desk. “Your proposal for a supplemental tactical AI is approved. I can’t see anything missing that I’d recommend, and I agree that it offers potential benefits. However, I want your teams running training exercises that stretch the bounds of their beliefs. They don’t have to win, and likely won’t, but I want it so that when we face the impossible, they can scoff and tell it Lieutenant Jiang had them defeat six impossible things before breakfast.”

Meilin smirked at the light reprimand but kept her tone light and respectful. "The Moriarty incident was caused by the primary computer being tasked with creating a self-learning program that had no other parameters or containment features. In short, the crew was categorically sloppy in letting an automated process create a thinking process with full access. There is a reason we do not issue charged phasers to children. I'd like to think that we have learned a thing or two about containment since the days of the Enterprise-D."

The rest of Jalel's diatribe was the perfunctory speech required of every commanding officer. Meilin saw that from the get-go. But Jalel had broached the issue of philosophy, largely out of what Meilin assumed was inexperience of the subject matter, but their conversation had become a philosophical one all the same.

"Answer me this, Commander." Meilin slanted her head, which sent her loose braid onto her shoulder. "Have you heard of wu wei?"

Stone faced, Merzia beckoned her to continue. “Enlighten me.”

"It is action without will, or matching will to an event. Wu wei is the Tao's highest ideal. You can perform an action with a rigid structure, and it's only as effective as the strength of the operator. It is the mountain that rises and falls over time. But maintaining a soft structure? That is the sea. It is amorphous, unpredictable, unstoppable, and eternal. Wu wei is that sea, and your primitive notions of flexibility and foreseeing the impossible is the mountain." Meilin gave a smile of satisfaction as if that explained everything.

Merzia let the silence hang a moment.

“Are you finished? Your arguments do not sway me, simply make me think you do not understand the philosophy you are describing. Spend some time thinking about how your inability to react to the scenario, even in it’s impossibility, leaves you rigid. Additionally, don’t assume that none of the 790 people aboard this vessel are flawless in future, you are exposing us to unnecessary weakness. Finally, this will be the last time you call your commanding officer's thinking 'primitive'. That will be all, lieutenant.” Merzia nodded to the door as she reactivated the holoprojector. “You are dismissed.”

The bemused smirk on Meilin's face took a quizzical turn, as one might bear when observing a spider trying to climb its way out of a sink. Part of her, the catty instigator, actually looked forward to future attempts at what she perceived as primary schooling from the commander, for the lark of it all. But her better self prevailed. She subdued those condescending thoughts as passive-aggression and banished them with practiced serenity.

"An Dao, Commander," she said with a faint bow and thin, parting smile.


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