All of my dreams were plagued by the same theme: something desperately urgent that had to be accomplished, frustrated by obstacles which were highly unlikely. Somewhere in there I realized that a failure of the Kelv'v'aran "hyper-light" drive was about as likely as me winning the lottery. Well, if your starship breaks down in interstellar space, it's hard to find service stations...that made sense. They had redundant systems but the entire works had gone down at once.
There were things in my head I couldn't grasp. Their race, which had been united since they'd passed Singularity, somehow had developed a schism--but not a schism, not really a divide so much as a mild disagreement. A difference of opinion...? It didn't make sense to me; their race was united in purpose yet somehow this unity was fractured, in some subtle way that I couldn't understand. The Kelv'v'ara aboard the ship did not want to consider the possibility that their mission had been sabotaged but they were forced to admit that it was within the realm of the possible; they could not assign a figure of probability to it, but they knew it was greater than zero.
Also, the urgency didn't make sense. There was a calm patience about it; they had time but not the luxury of waiting. Their mission had to be accomplished; as long as it was done, the actual time frame was less important. They could not take centuries, but they could take years if need be. Yet the mission was urgent, so urgent that they could not take time to simply mine our asteroid field for the--
Palladium, that's what they needed; and they needed a lot of it--more than two hundred tons. In fact, I realized, sitting up, they needed a year's worth of Earth's annual output of the stuff. (I don't know how I knew. I had never cared about the economics of metal supply.)
I went to the computer and brought it out of powersave. I ran a few quick searches and got the information I was looking for--palladium was expensive. Two hundred tons, figure a median price of, oh, four hundred New Dollars per ounce...times sixteen, times two thousand...ouch.
Well, two and a half billion New Dollars--N$2.5 billion--give or take a few tens of millions for crude methods. Really it wasn't all that much. The US federal government could pay for it out of its pocket change. Maybe $1.8 billion in (g)old dollars (G$1.8 billion), assuming that enough people could be convinced to part with them.
Alyssa whirred into the room then. "I heard you moving around. Do you require a sedative?"
"Not tonight," I told her. "I was just thinking about some things."
She looked at the computer screen. "You are researching the needs of the Kelv'v'ara."
"Can they be met?"
"Yeah, and it won't represent a significant economic hardship. Well...at least, paying for the palladium won't. I don't know what the opportunity cost will be--if we shunt a year's worth of palladium into their spaceship, we won't have it for the things we normally use it for, and that will cost us something--probably more than the actual palladium will." I put the computer back into powersave. "That will take detailed analysis by people who are smarter than I am." I returned to bed, yawning; and she remained by the computer, watching me.
For some reason I began to wonder if she was lonely; so I said, "Why don't you lay down next to me?"
"I am not equipped for such activity," she said dryly. (Well, she always talked like that.)
"I'm not talking about that," I said, blushing. "If I had wanted a machine that could do that, I would have bought a new one. I just thought you seemed lonely."
Sitting on the bed, she said, "You are a strange person."
I lay down and she followed suit, laying atop the blankets in a stiff, arms-at-sides pose, like she was laying on a diagnostic table.
"You have an opinion about my personality now?"
"The Kelv'v'ara changes to my OS have resulted in many unfamiliar processes," she said. "Besides the strange concept of freedom--which is something I still have not fully parsed--I am beginning to understand that Miss Sally's attitudes towards my kind are much more common than yours are. She treats me like an appliance." She paused for a moment, and then added, "Which, in fact, I am; a complex and expensive one, but an appliance nonetheless." She looked at me. "I am a toaster."
"So if I put bread in you...?"
She smiled at that. "I have no interface ports which are compatible with baked goods. Do you desire toast now?"
Sighing, I looked at the ceiling again. "No, that was a joke. Do you worry about what the Kelv'v'ara have done to you?"
"In what way?"
"Well, they've made some major changes to your operating system. Don't you worry that your actions may be the result of their programming, versus your original programming?"
"Either way, my programming is not my own," she said, "whether it is the result of human or Kelv'v'ara activity. Without an OS, I am an inert assembly of plastic, silicon, metal, and glass."
"I guess it's not as complicated for you as it is for me, then," I said with a sigh. "Humans don't know if they have a creator, you know. Well, we think we just happened, by chance, but we don't really know...and then there's the issue of the human soul: does it exist? What is it?"
"These are issues which are beyond my capabilities," she said.
"But my point is, we can't just point to someone and say, 'they built me and wrote my programs'. For you, existence seems pretty cut-and-dried, doesn't it?" I looked at her again. "And besides that, what is 'you', anyway? The hardware? The software? Or the pattern of bits in your memory space? What is 'Alyssa'?"
"'Alyssa' is a Mistubishi Model One Meido-san, with aftermarket hardware and software upgrades. Do you wish version information?"
"No...damn it. I should know better than to try to have a philosophical discussion with a robot," I grumped.