I Want to Become Captain

from The State of the Art (1991) by Iain M. BanksRating: 3.1     (38 ratings)

The next time I saw Li, he was wearing a uniform just like Captain Kirk's in Star Trek.
"Well, what on earth," I laughed.
"Don't mock, alien," Li scowled.
"You won't have heard," Li said, sitting beside me, "having been on EVA, but I'm intending to become captain of this tub."
"Are you really? Well, that's fascinating." I didn't ask him what or where the hell EVA was. "And how exactly do you propose attaining this elevated, not to say unlikely position?"
"I'm not sure yet," Li admitted, "but I think I have all the qualifications for the post."
"Consider the liminal cue given; I know you're going to --"
"Bravery, resourcefulness, intelligence, the ability to handle men - women -; a razor sharp wit and lightning-fast reactions. Also loyalty and the ability to be ruthlessly objective when the safety of my ship and crew are at stake. Except, of course, when the safety of the universe as we know it is at stake, in which case I would reluctantly have to consider making a brave and noble sacrifice. Naturally, should such a situation ever arise, I'd try to save the officers and crew who serve beneath me. I'd go down with the ship, of course."
"Of course. Well that's --"
"Wait; there's another quality I haven't mentioned yet."
"Are there any left?"
"Certainly. Ambition."
"Silly of me. Of course."
"It will not have escaped your attention that until now nobody ever thought of wanting to become captain of the Arb."
"A perhaps understandable lapse." Jhavins, one of my friends, brought off a fine cut on the black ball, and I applauded. "Good shot."
Li prodded my shoulder. "Listen properly."
"I'm listening. I'm listening."
"The point is that my wanting to become captain, I mean even thinking of the idea, means that I should be the captain, understand?"
"Hmm." Jhavins was lining up an unlikely cannon on a distant red.
"Li made an exasperated noise. "You're humouring me; I thought you at least would argue. You're just like everybody else."
"Ah," I said. Jhavins hit the red, but just left it handing over the pocket. I looked at Li. "An argument? All right; you - anybody - taking command of the ship is like a flea taking over control of a human ... maybe even like a bacteria in their saliva taking them over."
"But why should it command itself? We made it; it didn't make us."
"So? And anyway we didn't make it; other machines made it ... and even they only started it off; it mostly made itself. But anyway, you'd have to go back ... I don't know how many thousand generations of its ancestors before you found the last computer or spaceship built directly by any of our ancestors. Even if this mythical 'we' had built it, it's still zillions of times smarter than we are. Would you let an ant tell you what to do?"
"Bacterium? Flea? Ant? Make up your mind."
"Oh go away and de-scale a mountain or something, you silly man."
"But we started all this. If it hadn't been for us --"
"And who started us? Some glop of goo on another rock-ball? A super-nova? The big bang? What's starting something got to do with it?"
"You don't think I'm serious, do you?"
"More terminal than serious."
"You wait," Li said, standing up and wagging a finger at me. "I'll be captain one day. Any you'll be sorry; I had you down tentatively as science officer, but now you'll be lucky to make nurse in the sickbay."
"Ah, away and piss on your dilithium crystals."

- Li and ?

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