HEARTH #10

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“I want to clear up a misrepresentation of my viewpoint,” Grace said, her words slow and clear. “Indeed, the ban on AI is as old as TORCH. The older among us remember the ocean of suffering caused by flirtation with machine minds. We remember the lesson of that: that the reliance on AI caused more suffering and devastation than any other invention in human history.”

“And yes, I have advocated in favor of the AI ban for as long as this legislature has existed. But this has nothing to do with clinging to tradition, or a philosophy of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The Mater Semita is correct. AI-based technologies would be lucrative and make the lives of TORCH agents both easier and safer.”

Grace’s speaking skills were incredible. She had this aura to her, her gunmetal grey eyes so intense and clear that words gained this awesome power to them. Every word was delivered with strength and conviction, clear and fast, not a syllable swallowed. Nor did it come off as overly rehearsed or sterile… the opposite, really. Henrietta couldn’t take her eyes away.

“However, I don’t believe that any law should be passed for that reason,” Grace said. “Because ease, convenience, and safety are deceptively dangerous things. An agent must be vigilant in her perception, bold in her actions, and daring in her thinking. That strength was what gave us the edge, what has allowed us to vanquish our enemies and prosper as we have.”

“Ease will dull that vigilance. Convenience will wear down that boldness. Safety will smother that daring. We remain strong because we remain uncomfortable, because we grasp the fragility of our position and because we see the galaxy not as a splendid adventure but a dangerous cesspool that we must keep as far as possible from our beloved island, our Mother Earth.”

“I oppose this use of AI because I oppose the sacrifice of our best qualities in exchange for an uptick in life expectancy. Our purpose, as both an organization and as individuals, is clear: ‘to shelter, nurture, and benefit the interests of humanity.’ It is there in the charter. Every last one of us has sworn an oath to uphold it. Where is it written that our highest priority is in fact to live a long time?”

“Nowhere. I refuse to be part and parcel of a sale of our principles and a softening of our resolve- for no benefit save than to ‘fatten the wallet’ of the Mater Semita. I categorically oppose this legislation and I call for you to do the same.” With that, Grace stepped down.

The room was in stunned silence for a few moments. Henrietta touched her cheeks and felt the beginnings of tears. Grace’s speech had this deep sadness to it, like a proud old lioness facing down a pack of jackals. Some of the girls looked similarly moved, others looked troubled. On the other side of the room, SPRING and FORGE girls rolled their eyes and giggled.

Then Enron stood up and advanced to the podium with predatory panache. Her outfit was the cutting edge of fashion, a shimmering silver dress that exposed her right shoulder. Ascending the podium, she pulled the microphone as high as it went. She must have been two feet taller than Grace.

“I’ll be quick,” she said, her voice deep and rich like a mountain. “Everything Grace said is crap. She doesn’t get it, and she never will. 50 years ago, sure, maybe all she said was true. But times change- and what worked for her generation hasn’t aged well. The charter was written when TORCH was a feeble paramilitary which survived off alien plunder. We were little better than pirates, with Gracey as the leader because she was the most violent.”

Enron glared at Grace with unmistaken and unmitigated loathing. What had happened between these two? This went way beyond a political rivalry. “Now we’re hearty, healthy and strong,” she continued. “Needlessly throwing away lives and productivity out of some decrypt ideal of martyrdom is stupid. TORCH’s job is to harbor and better mankind… I don’t see anywhere where it says we gotta be as miserable as Grace is to do it. If she was serious about that, maybe she’d give up the smokes.”

Much of the room chuckled. Enron wasn’t quite as good a speaker as Grace, but she had an entirely different sort of charm. She was more conversational, relatable almost. She sounded like she was speaking to the crowd, not at them. She spoke the way people- not Henrietta, but perhaps others- thought. “Increasing TORCH’s productivity, and helping our agents not die while they do their jobs, helps us all out. There’s no sale of principles here, there’s just a stubborn old woman who misses the days that we all bowed and scraped to her every whim.”

Enron paused. “And by the way- AI’s not mentioned in the charter. I don’t want to reenact the whole argument about technicalities from last session, but there’s no legal basis for a complaint. There’s that.” She stepped down to applause from her side of the room. Henrietta’s heart sank. The result of the vote was obvious.

There were 701 members of the Sorority. 296 voted against the AI bill. 359 voted for it. The remaining 38 members, including Alice, abstained.

By then it was already time to break for lunch.

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