Alfred Simpkins took his class through the motions of some mathematics,
but Celeste obviously had her mind far away. There was a general air of
disinterest, quite unusual for the regular class, and he realised the murders
were on everyone's mind.
"Life still has to go on," he said mildly. "After this is all over, you still need to know your mathematics."
The class smiled tolerantly. Teachers had no idea of the realities of life.
"It's all right for you, sir," said one of the settler children, "but it looks like one of our group is a killer."
"But that doesn't seem so likely either," said Alfred, deciding that the matter may as well be talked out. "It looks like the killer is a master computer programmer. There's nobody among the colonists who fits that description."
"Maybe it's the computer doing it itself," said one of the regular students. "Maybe it's decided there's too many passengers."
There was a nervous laugh, and Celeste answered derisively, "Don't be silly. A computer can't decide to do something by itself. It has to do what it's programmed to do."
"Well, that's not necessarily true, Celeste," said Mister Simpkins primly. "There is a theory that a sophisticated enough computer could attain free will. You'll learn all about that when you do quantum theory, chaos theory and complexity theory in a few years."
There was a titter around the room. They were always being told by Mister Simpkins that they would understand so-and-so when they had done higher levels of mathematics or physics. It never seemed to be any other subjects. Most of them did not even know what physics was, but they had heard enough about it. But Celeste was riveted.
"That's silly!" she said sharply. "The food reproducer can't just decide what food to make. It has to produce what it's programmed for. Those androids can't decide to stop work and have a game of hopscotch!"
"Well," said Alfred Simpkins nervously, "the food producer has all your likes and needs programmed in. Within those specifications it makes up a menu, so that's a bit like making up its own mind." He enjoyed an argument where the whole class was involved, but suspected he might get a bit out of his depth if he wasn't careful.
"But that's not the same thing," said Celeste plaintively. "It can't decide to give you lollies instead of cereal, because it feels good."
"I don't really understand it all that much myself," said Alfred defensively. He did understand it quite well, but not enough to explain to a young class. "You can read the books when you're older, Celeste."
"Can't I read them now?" she asked.
"Well, you're.. um, not a very good reader," said Mister Simpkins apologetically. "They might be a bit hard for you."
"If I borrowed some, maybe mummy could explain them to me," said Celeste hopefully. "She likes reading."
"Well, you can certainly borrow the books," said Mister Simpkins. "Come over to the library after classes."
Celeste surprisingly put her head down, and worked well for the rest of the day, which made it an unusually pleasant time for her teacher. Afterwards she followed him across to the ship's library. The library was quite large, and with an eclectic collection of real books. In the late Twenty-First Century the process of producing artificial paper had been perfected. Pages were only a few molecules thick, and comparatively indestructible. In time the number of books printed had died back as writers preferred to go electronic, but some continued to be produced. But most of the books in this library were quite old, and a lot were trash. He searched the shelves and found a number of text books, and some philosophical treatises.
"You can pick a few of these," he said, and Celeste flashed him a smile, which transformed her briefly.
"Oh, I'll take them all," she said. "Mummy can see which ones she likes best. Can you give me some idea what it's all about?"
"It's difficult to simplify," said Alfred with a frown, "but if a system is sufficiently complex it is unpredictable. If a machine attains a certain level of complexity it could theoretically become self-determining. It all came about when people were considering how humans could have free will if their minds are basically machines. Some people were saying that religion couldn't be true, because you couldn't choose between good and evil, but a human being is sufficiently complex that you can. I don't know if that's clear?"
"Can I look through the shelves myself?" asked Celeste, thinking it sounded as clear as mud. "I might get a comic or something just to read here."
"You can always borrow the books," said Alfred with some relief that the topic seemed to have faded. "Would you like a drink or something?"
"An apple would be ok," Celeste answered with a smile. She looked through the fiction shelves, and said to him, "Here's one about robots. It's called 'One Robot'."
"Oh, that's actually 'I, Robot'," said Alfred with a smile. "It was a book written centuries ago. It's still published because it made up some rules that authors still use about how robots should behave. And because it's a classic. It should be easy enough for you to read."
Celeste had a quick browse, and thought, "Mister Simpkins may be a good teacher, but he doesn't have much idea of the reading ability of a nine-year-old girl!" But she said nothing, and politely added the book to her pile.
"Do you know much about these murders?" she asked, standing with her armful of reading.
"Only what gossip says," he said, startled. "Does your mother talk to you about them?"
"A bit," she said. "What do you think should be done to the person who did them?"
"I don't know," he said slowly. "There's no death penalty on the ship. We might abandon the person on a world where they could survive, or on a world that would take them. It wouldn't be feasible to keep someone for years in a cell on board."
"What about if they committed a murder on a planet?" Celeste persisted.
"Each planet has its own laws," he said. "Argonaut has a death penalty. Rather swift, in fact. Other planets use prison terms."
"Do you think it's ever right to kill people?" she asked, still reluctant to go. She had the books under her right arm, and the apple, still uneaten, in her left hand. "My daddy was killed on a mission of some sort, and he had a gun, so I suppose he would have killed somebody."
"I believe it is only right to kill in order to prevent someone from killing someone else. Your father might have had a gun in case of wild animals. Anyway, the guns can be set on different levels."
"What do you know about the murders?" she asked again, as she bit into the apple.
"Well, I have been looking into them a bit," he admitted. "Derek Augustine told me a bit about it. The first one is still a puzzle, but in the second the computer was turned off while the room was frozen, and in the latest attempt there was an attempt to subvert the computer. It would not have allowed Miss Borzovska to have stayed in the water if it had not known she was amphibious, and the killer presumably knew that, but it saved her because it thought she was a pollutant in the water supply."
"I'd never have thought of something like that!" gasped Celeste. "How do you mean the computer was turned off?"
"It was made to not register the existence of the room during the time of the killing. It would not otherwise have allowed the room to be frozen if people were there."
"Well, couldn't that have been how the first one was done too?"
"Of course," said Alfred in surprise. "How simple. That's why the computer didn't recognise the presence of a corpse until later. They had considered many scenarios, such as the body being taken into the room. The simplest explanation is often the correct one!"
"Well, goodbye," she said. "Thank you for the books"
"You're welcome," he said politely.
"I was looking at the book," she observed, holding out I, Robot. "Robots are pretty good, but there's still things I can do that a robot can't."
"Oh?" he said neutrally, expecting her to say, "I can have babies," or something of the sort.
"I can tell lies!" she said with a wicked grin.
"Where have you been, Celeste?" said her mother, who met her in a corridor. "I was worried sick."
"We're on a space ship, mother," said Celeste exasperatedly. She closed the book she had been flicking rapidly through. "How lost can I get? Anyway, I went to see Mister Simpkins in the library."
"Where did you get those books? Are they school books? Why were you annoying Mister Simpkins?"
"What's the matter, mum? Why are you so uptight? I just went to the library!"
"There have been crimes on this ship. And there might be strangers on the ship who could harm you. I like to know where you are."
Celeste was astonished at Serena's behaviour. The stress must be getting to her, she thought. "What did you do in the library all this time?"
"I ate an apple," said Celeste ironically. What does one usually do in a library!
"He gave you an apple?" asked Serena with a frown. "Why would he have an apple?"
"It was a.. what does Mister Simpkins call it?.. a metaphor."
Serena looked at her blankly.