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About Student Artist Sam French and Sammy MartinMale/United Kingdom Recent Activity
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The Director
2409
Director Meyer awoke, instantly alert, any trace of sleep already gone from his mind. He sat bolt upright in bed, disorientated. His head pounded briefly with the after effects of overindulgence from the previous evening, before the pain receded to a dull throb somewhere between his eyes. Out of habit he groped briefly for his glasses before remembering, not for the first time, that he no longer needed them. He cast his eyes around the darkened space.
Moonlight pooled on the marble floor, a milky luminescence reflected around the room. It caught the pale shoulder of an anonymous girl, unconscious in the bed besides him, almost lost amongst the sheets and pillows and the black tresses of her own hair. One of Roux's girls, unless that had been the night before last. A few empty tox sacs littered the bed, and he brushed them away with a sweep of his hands.
The far reaches of his expansive chambers remained in formless shadow but for the dark wood of sumptuous furnishings that loomed out of it, solid and reassuring. Nothing stirred there. All was still except the curtains that rippled on the cool breeze that drifted in from the open balcony doors. His heartbeat slowly settled. What had disturbed him?
Meyer lay back down, willing himself back to sleep. It would not do to put off his scheduled appearance in the Conurbation again, and it was hard enough dealing with the horrible racket and stench of the place without also being tired and hungover. Meyer firmly believed that ordinary people, with their dumb, dead eyes, grasping hands and endless bovine moaning were a completely different species. They didn't deserve his time.
He screwed his eyes tight in frustration. Images of black-clad assassins skulked unbidden through his mind. He was being paranoid, he told himself - the new palace was a veritable fortress. The guards would apprehend anyone before they could even get within a kilometre of the place. But he couldn't shake the feeling of a foreign presence. A chill shock of fear coursed through him when he saw the man.
A tall figure hunched over the balustrade straightened himself and turned, heading inside, slender form briefly silhouetted against the curtain. Meyer’s heart was beating harder now - he was sure the intruder must hear it. He pulled the covers up and consciously tried to slow his breathing. The interloper padded softly into the room, but not in a way that would suggest caution - the gait sounded quite casual. Was this it? Was he about to die? He cringed in anticipation. But there was no gunshot, just a voice.
'Director.' He felt his body tense up as they addressed him. 'Director, get up,' the intruder repeated. There was something about that voice. He was sure he recognised it.
Meyer marshalled his reserves of courage and steadied his own voice. 'Lights,' he uttered, sitting up in bed. The lamp on the bedside table came on. He squinted as his eyes adjusted. A tall, gaunt man clad entirely in black stood at the end of his bed. Dark, watchful eyes regarded him coolly. 'Vash?'
'Good morning, Director.' Vash’s voice was slow and measured. It somehow managed to sound like the voice of someone much older than the fifty years his appearance suggested, old enough to make the Director Meyer feel suddenly young in comparison. It chilled him. The blind animal panic was replaced by a deeper sense of unease. The fact that Meyer recognised the man did nothing to settle his nerves. This man shouldn't be here, not now at this absurdly early hour. Not here alone in his private quarters without invitation.
'Vash,' he repeated again, more authoritatively than he felt, stalling for time. The man ignored him and busied himself by pulling a chair up, sitting and leaning forwards.
Meyer had always considered Vash disrespectful of authority, as though he followed the protocols simply because it cost him so little, because he cared so little for them. But this was something else, this was inexcusable.
A furious indignation welled up inside of him, even as his mind desperately cast around for options. There was a gun under his pillow, but that was a last resort - after all, despite the rejuvenation he was undergoing, Meyer was not a young man. It wouldn't do to panic. He had other failsafes in place.
'This is unexpected,' he finished at last. Those crucial three words would activate the mics and cameras installed around the room, waiting for his command. He'd always known there was a possibility that someone unauthorised might get in here, no matter how tight security was. You didn't last this long at this level through carelessness. An alarm would already be ringing in the control room. Any minute now the guards would burst in and arrest this man. The Director Meyer smiled thinly in spite of himself. Vash would suffer for this insolence, whatever his ultimate intentions were. Vash smiled back, folding his long limbs into the chair, like a spider drawing up its legs.
'I assume you have a good reason to break into my house like this and disturb me at this hour?' Meyer asked, struggling to keep the displeasure from his voice.
'Of course, Director,' Vash replied, and then simply stopped without any suggestion that he intended to explain himself further. As though he too was waiting for something. He was a fool if he was. Any minute now, the traitor’s life would be as good as over. The silence stretched between them.
It unsettled Meyer that Vash could sit here so calm. The longer he sat here, the more danger he was in, surely he must know that? Vash might have looked like an assassin, but his manner and the utterly ordinary cut of his coat and shirt suggested otherwise. He was a civil servant, not a killer. An ill-concieved coup attempt, then? A fit of madness?
'Well?' Meyer asked with as much nonchalance as he could muster, when the silence became unbearable.
'I've come to discuss the matter of your retirement,’ Vash said, simply.
'Now Vash, you know as well as I do that the position of Director is for life.' Meyer had regretted his choice of words as soon as he'd said them.
'And yet,' Vash mused, reaching into a pocket, 'there is a surprisingly quick turnover for the position, all things considered.' He drew a small, cheap looking gun and laid it carefully, pointedly, on the beds footboard. Meyer swallowed, his mouth dry. Where were the damn guards? He’d have them whipped for their heaven-damned incompetence. His mind turned again to his own weapon.
'You're here to kill me then,' the Director finished bluntly, as though disappointed. 'I'd almost convinced myself it wouldn't be something so base. But it would seem you're no different from the rest of us - my mistake for assuming so.' Meyer grimaced bitterly. ‘Men always struggle amongst themselves for power. Why pretend otherwise?’
The Director Meyer had never had a good handle on Vash. Indeed, it appeared nobody had. Where the records weren't absent, they were contradictory. He had no region of origin and no birth date. Normally this would have been cause for concern and the local authority or the Director Meyer himself, would have acted to ameliorate the concern.
But upon questioning Vash had never shown any sign of evasiveness. He had once fought for a resistance movement, he openly admitted, but upon the realisation that their cause was futile he had changed sides. Once part of Arco, the global government, he had risen quickly through the ranks as his superiors realised his utility. Above all else, Vash was a competent man. He was thorough and dedicated in a way that was almost more valuable than mere intelligence, another quality he had in abundance. Vash was a man who ensured that what needed to be done got done. It had saved him from the firing squad. It had spared him in purges and violent regime transitions. And now within the byzantine hierarchy of Arco, Vash was technically just one step beneath Meyer himself.
‘I'm not interested in power,’ Vash said slowly, as if Meyer were a small child. Meyer laughed back at him.
Vash had never shown the slightest glimmer of ambition as far as Meyer could remember, a trait he found reassuring in those beneath him. The problem was Vash also appeared utterly impossible to manipulate. He'd followed orders so far, but what about now? What about when the rules ceased to apply? All men had levers and pressure points, but Meyer was starting to suspect Vash was the exception to that universal law.
‘So what do you want?’ Meyer replied, eyes skirting over the expansive bed and towards the door. Where were his guards?
‘I would have thought my motives were completely transparent,’ Vash said.
Meyer reflected that a completely transparent object is also invisible. As far as he knew, Vash had not accrued any vices that might be used against him. The man had no family or friends that might be threatened as blackmail, nor desires that might be leveraged as bribes. Meyer had seen straight through him, without being able to glean any insight into what made him tick in the process. He had come to assume that Vash's governing drive was nothing more than the mental equivalent of inertia.
And now here he sat uninvited, in the palace's private quarters in the middle of the night with a gun. Clearly the Director Meyer had been mistaken about what this man was capable of. Panic once again threatened to overwhelm him. Minutes had passed - where were his security? He kept his expression blank, whilst in his head a voice screamed.
'They're not coming, Meyer.' The Director felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. How had Vash known?
'I'm sorry?' he asked.
'The guards. They're not coming. The code won't work. A burnpulse disabled the cameras in here.’
Calm, Meyer told himself. Think. Maybe, if he just shouted loud enough he could alert the guards? The door was soundproofed so he could ‘entertain guests’ in private. But he feared that would force Vash's hand. After all, for now Vash seemed quite content just to sit and talk, as though he had all the time in the world. Better to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to use the gun. Even if he missed, the sound of gunshots would alert those stationed in the corridor beyond. His palms were slick with sweat. Meyer wiped them on the bedclothes. The gun mustn't slip if he had a chance to grab it. Vash was still talking,
' -and your mistake, Director, your mistake was in thinking that we are all as motivated by a desire for power and wealth and infamy as you. You've forgotten what Arco is for, why the world government was created in the first place - to keep as many alive as possible, at as high a standard of living as possible for the duration of the - '
'Then why did you ever oppose Arco if you think its aims so just? Or do you deny that you were once a criminal subservice?' asked the Director. Just keep him talking…
Out of Vash's sight Meyer’s left hand fumbled under the pillow for the gun, finding the cold reassurance of its grip. He half glanced over as the girl in the bed stirred beside him. Perhaps he could use her as a distraction, get her between him and this madman? He suspected that even if Vash would shoot him the fool would balk at killing a random bystander.
'I thought there was another choice. I was wrong.' Vash stood, returning his own gun to a pocket and walking around to the far side of the sprawling bed, where the girl lay. He stooped, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and woke her. This was his chance, whilst Vash was distracted. Whilst she was between them. He could discipline the guards later. If he had to kill the traitors himself, he would.
The girl sat up, drawing a sheet around her, her huge mass of dark hair still tangled and reaching down to her hips. The Director Meyer seized his opportunity. In one practised motion he tore the revolver from beneath the pillow, swung it at Vash and the collateral damage, flicked off the safety and pulled the trigger repeatedly.
The weapon clicked uselessly in his hand. He looked down at the piece of inert metal incredulously, shocked that it could betray him. When Meyer looked back up, Vash was watching him, an almost indescribable expression on his face, sympathy and disgust. The girl glanced back at Meyer, grinning as she let the bullets run through her fingers onto the bed. The gleaming bullets snicked as they rolled and gathered in a fold in the bedclothes. The Director Meyer stared at them.
'You bitch,' he managed over a thick, dry tongue, but his heart wasn't in it. She stood up and crossed the room wordlessly. As she opened the door a guard slumped through, a dotbow bolt buried in his neck. The girl stepped lightly over the corpse and was gone, leaving the door ajar behind her, affording Meyer a view of the empty corridor beyond. A few faint shouts drifted in from downstairs, a distant crash. How had this happened? It was all over.
'...I'll give you anything,' Meyer felt his bowels start to relax and clenched, desperately. 'Anything. Anything. I can - '
‘I have grave doubts that you have anything material left to give me,’ Vash sighed. ‘It’s over, Meyer. I won't kill you. I just have one request; you can retire as Director. Resign. That's all I ask,' Vash said, settling back into his chair.
'They'll kill me - I'd be dead within the month - trodden on too many - on the way up I mean - no provisions for retirement process...' Director Meyer babbled. Vash let him finish, watching silently. Gradually the Director calmed himself. He swallowed and with a furiously shaking hand, finally let go of the useless gun.
'Our occupiers, those who command the Earth, I don't think they're evil,' Vash began. 'At least not the way we see it. Certainly capable of it, but no more than we ever were. Consider this - despite preemptively attacking they spared us. They didn't want all those deaths on their conscience. But the government they created was crude and it has allowed venal, greedy men like yourself to rise to positions of power. And in ensuring that we could pose no threat, they have left the Earth a carcass, picked over by vultures.'
Whilst Vash had been speaking the Director had steadied his nerves and fear had been replaced by an anger that boiled inside of him. How dare this… bureaucrat lecture him?
'You want me to step down...because of corruption?' Meyer asked, unable to stop himself. ‘I guess you're still opposed to the western campaigns as well. Are you some kind of idealist?’
Now it was Vash’s turn to laugh.
‘I’ve never been called that before, Meyer. But your waste and incompetence strains an already fragile system. We can only survive the duration of the occupation if we're careful - '
'Duration of the occupation?' the Director shouted incredulously.
‘It's been almost a century since the occupation began - I don't even remember the world before and neither do you, so don't give me that idealistic crap. That's your justification, what's your motivation? You're on a mission, right - to save us all from ourselves. You think anything you do can make a single bit of difference. Do you even think it matters the tiniest bit who rules the world? How could any amount of tedious political power matter when they,' he jerked his finger upwards to the blank marble ceiling, ‘own every last one of us like goddamned cattle?’
Vash paid no heed to the flecks of spittle flying from the Director Meyer's mouth, nor did he flinch as the Director lent forwards to yell in his face. Instead he sat there, quite still, head cocked to one side as though in deep thought. The Director continued, desperate for some response, a crack in this facade.
'You think you can do a better job, right? The people won't thank you for it - to them you're just another one of us, another puppet of those above, pulling the strings, another collaborator with blood on his hands! You might not kill but it's done in your name! You say you won't kill me, but you know I will die anyway.’
'If you won't resign then I'll have you arrested. I have all the evidence I need - '
'And I'll waste away in some frozen gulag, safely out of sight, or die en route at the hands of some thug.'
Vash didn't respond, his expression briefly troubled. And suddenly an idea came to Meyer. Vash was a man of his word - when he said he didn't want to kill he surely meant it. 'I would rather kill myself here and now,' Meyer finished, deliberately. He fumbled down for the gun, the bullets.
'Don't,' warned Vash, gesturing with his own weapon.
'I will force you to confront the consequences of your actions. And when you see me die, know that I am neither the first, nor the last that will die as a result of what you have chosen.' He reached again for the bullets.
'Stop,' Vash commanded, an edge to his voice. He aimed his gun at the Director.
'Do it, then,' the Director Meyer snarled. 'Show some agency, take responsibility!’
Vash let the hand holding the gun drop to his side. He walked over to the desk, his head turned away, his free hand tracing over the finely carved wood and the smooth plastic of an old, black telephone. Even in these dire circumstances a sense of impending victory surged through the Director Meyer.
He had at last gained the true measure of Vash; he was a man that defined himself by the responsibility he felt to always do the right thing, a compulsion so strong that it was almost instinctive.
And now it was in conflict with his utter inability to take a life, despite the knowledge that people had surely died before as a result of his actions, that thousands more would have done so had he succeeded here tonight. People hated cognitive dissonance, being forced to confront contradictions in their own deeply held convictions. Especially people like Vash, who deluded themselves into thinking they were on the side of right. Meyer could figure a way out of this - with Vash out the picture it would not be hard to get the Enforcers now pushing through the palace back on his side. This was a pragmatic age, and loyalty was a fleeting thing.
'What's your plan then, Vash? What can you do?' Meyer crowed. 'I'll make you an offer - leave now and take your men with you. I'll give you three days head start, for old times sake. And I'll name one of the conurbations after you, in honour of all the work you have done...'
The Director trailed off as Vash paused, turned, his eyes anguished, his face drawn. And at that moment the Director realised he'd never fully understood Vash at all, that there were yet deeper levels to the man, utterly inaccessible to him. He'd misjudged him for the last time.
Vash strode back over to the bed, his grip around the pistol tightening, his knuckles white. Meyer scrambled backwards, the luxurious bedding tangling around him, impeding him as he tried to get as far away from Vash as he could. He backed up against the ornate headboard, pressing himself against it. Vash levelled the weapon at Meyer's head.
The Director was pleading now, a pathetic old man on his hands and knees, grasping vaguely at Vash's free hand. 'Please,' his beseeching voice hoarse. 'I'll do anything, give you anything. But I can't leave this compound. They'll kill me. I don't want to die... What can I do to dissuade you?' He looked up at Vash, trying to meet the dark, ancient eyes above the barrel of the gun.
Vash looked down, drawing on a reserve of strength inside himself to meet the Director's searching eyes. 'You are a liar and a murderer and a condemned man in any case. Give me another choice,' he replied simply. And pulled the trigger.
The weapon leapt in Vash's hand, the gunshot deafening. Director Meyer jerked violently in response, and then slowly, as though he didn't quite dare to believe it, he opened his eyes. A hole marred the ornate headboard behind him.
'Wha - ' Meyer mouthed.
'Sir, any trouble?' came a voice from the door. Two armed Enforcers entered.
'No, we're done,' Vash replied. ‘Take him to a cell. We’ll do everything properly, by the book. But he’ll pay, eventually.’
The Enforcer nodded, looking discreetly around the room.
'Very good sir,’ then the other spoke.
‘He doesn’t deserve prison. He should die right now.’
'You coward... you total goddamned hypocrite’ murmured Meyer from the floor. Vash ignored him.
'No, it won’t do any good for our credibility. And it would be impossible to make Director Meyer suffer even a fraction of the suffering he has caused others, so what would be the point of retribution?'
'You sanctimonious bastard-' Meyer mumbled.
'Yes sir.' One of them loaded a tranquiliser, the other loosened a pair of cuffs from her belt.
'You can't wash your hands of this Vash, not forever!' raged Meyer. 'One day you will be forced to take a life yourself, and only then will you know the true cost of leadership!'
'I already do,' Vash replied. The Enforcer's gun hissed as the dart was fired and the Director fell silent. 'Goodnight, Meyer. I doubt we'll ever see each other again.'
The Enforcers marched over and dragged the unconscious body from the room without ceremony leaving Vash alone with his thoughts. A shadow of uncertainty passed over his face, but there was nobody there to see it. Those above would soon know the Director Meyer had been deposed, it was just a matter of time. But even though he expected it, when the phone at last rang he jumped.
He walked slowly over to the desk where the mundane, old fashioned telephone rang, filled with trepidation. He picked up, not saying anything, just listening to the wash of interference.
'It is done, Vash, yes?' it said at last. The voice was female, young. It almost startled him how human it sounded. But even through the tinny speakers of the phone, Vash could hear the inflection was somehow off. As though the speaker didn't really understand the noises it was making, forcing alien sounds through a maladapted physiology.
'Yes,' he replied.
'Good. Don't fail me Vash. Directors position is for life,’ said K’txl, the Iktotchi administrator of Earth. There was so much more Vash wanted to ask of it. But before he could say another word the line went dead.
He gathered himself, collected his overcoat from where he had draped it over the balustrade and made his way purposefully out of the gaudy fortified palace via the main doors to the courtyard where a vehicle waited for him. A patchwork of tiny single-person farms, grey internment blocks and gigantic conurbation arcologies stretched out before him, just another sector of the global prison that was the planet Earth.
‘Rip this mansion apart for spares,’ Vash ordered an Enforcer as he passed. 'Demolish whatever's left.’
Starwhisp - 2310
21st of July, 2310
There was something wrong. It took my groggy mind a few moments to isolate the feeling, collapse the vague anxiety down to a specific point. The numbers blinking on the bulkhead overhead swam into focus, and my eyes fixed on one particular number. The date was too early by far - we were still 10 AUs from our destination and my body not fully grown when the ship brought me to reluctant consciousness.
It assures me I’ll suffer no adverse effects, although I can’t say I’m looking forward to going through puberty again, even if it’ll only last a week or so. I’m back to basics here – pure vanilla human being if you ignore the weird cocktail of exotic biochemicals the Starwhisp is pumping through my system to forcibly accelerate the growth of my new body. A better equipped medical capsule could have given me a proper network of implants but there wasn’t room for one in the mass budget, so I’m stuck with nothing more sophisticated than a microcell insert in each eye and ear - I can hear the ship talking to me, feel and see the solid illusions it projects, but not much more.
The Starwhisp had all but roused itself from its own one-hundred and eighty-six yearlong slumber when I regained consciousness. I dragged myself lethargically out of the chamber, into chambers still being expanded and only recently pressurised, every gram sieved from local space. The same went for our own bodies – why send intact humans weighing dozens of kilograms along with all the ancillary garbage of life support and cold-sleep facilities? Much more efficient to send zygotes, super-accelerate their growth, feed them using food processed from local matter and shape the developing brains according to a stored template, placing old minds into new bodies. The process had side effects - my own memories were blurry and affectless, and I didn’t think all my motor skills were quite matured.
The light of the axial corridor stung my newly grown eyes. I imagined the AI resenting these wasteful changes to a mission plan optimised for efficiency, before reminding myself it could experience no such feelings. It did only what it deemed necessary, but it turns out there are some contingencies impossible to plan for. For the first time in one-hundred and eighty-six years the Starwhisp needed a man in the loop.
I made my way wearily up the axial corridor at the ship’s prompting, towards a room buried as deep as was possible within Starwhisp’s spindly frame, one of the few permanent structures along the ship’s spine. We called it the bridge, as a concession to naval tradition.
‘Where the hell are we?’ I said slowly, coughing up a few spots of tank fluid as I pulled my way up the ladder that ran along the ship’s spine. The icons in my virtual vision were mostly blank, but the voice of the ship came out loud and clear, piped directly into my auditory canals.
‘Decelerating towards Tau Ceti at full thrust. I’m glad to say the antimatter drive is working at full power. All stored personalities and zygotes are intact and all ship systems are functioning optimally; we’re ten AU’s out.’
‘Any particular reason to wake me up now?’
‘Just head to the bridge, I can brief you there.’ That didn’t do anything for my confidence.
The bridge had been an afterthought – under what circumstances would any human be able to fly the spacecraft more competently than the controlling AI? It was a big meeting room with couches set around a plastic table and screens along the walls. The most unimaginatively designed place I’d ever seen; everything optimised for lightness in a ship that had to hurl the contents up to a fraction of light speed and then slow back down to a halt.
My immature body flopped down into the conference chair and I pumped the lever underneath, raising the chair up until I could see over the table. My arm ached, as the muscle hadn’t ever been used before, and when I looked down I saw the body of an anaemic child.
‘So, what joys does the future bring?’ I asked, trying to sound light.
‘Several days ago I detected something that registered like a black hole on the mass sensors. It wasn’t a black hole. Removing a lot of guesses and caveats, I’m forced to conclude that the object ahead of us is artificial.’
Another drop of tank fluid dribbled out of my dumbly gaping mouth. The projector on the table winked on, showing the ruler-straight trajectory of the Starwhisp as it decelerated around Tau Ceti, zooming in to show a dodecahedron of glowing lights surrounding a milky pool of darkness. More points of light surrounded it.
My fingers whitened around the chair armrests and ice filled every nerve as I felt the same terror that Stone Age tribesmen must have experienced when the first colonial armies rode over the horizon. This was beyond me.
‘A wormhole,’ I breathed. ‘You’re talking about an artificially sustained wormhole. And what are those lights?’
‘Spacecraft,’ said the Whiplash, and I thought I heard awe in its dull electronic voice. ‘They are inert, emitting in the infrared only, but each one is between two and five hundred metres long.’
My new body convulsed and I retched, banging my head on the table. Bodies had their own influence on thought processes and my immature brain clearly wasn’t well suited to events of universe-shattering importance. Here I was, in the body of a child and a dozen lightyears from home, about to meet a civilisation that might be a million years older than we were.
‘I woke you because certain decisions need to be made,’ the Whiplash was continuing. ‘We came here to start a colony but I assumed you wanted to divert.’
‘You assumed correctly,’ I said, getting my breathing under control and relaxing my death-grip. What was the first thing I had to do right now?
‘We need more information, no matter what we decide to do next. Drop some sensors ahead of us and see if we can intercept any communications.’
My mind reeled with the possibilities – how could we even relate to a species that seemed so advanced? Just how extensive was their interstellar civilisation? Humanity wasn’t ready for this and I certainly wasn’t, but it was happening all the same.
‘Which colonists do you want to quicken?’ the Starwhisp said, after a pause.
‘What?’
‘I assume you don’t want to face first contact alone. We have ten days until we decelerate alongside the wormhole. That’s enough time to force-grow another two bodies. We can’t run any more personalities in virtual; the facilities won’t be ready by then. So who do we pick?’
I jabbed my finger at the image of the wormhole.
‘We need a physicist, if we want any hope of understanding how that works. And someone who understands biology, social structures, languages – that sort of thing,’ I said. ‘Whoever it is, they’re about to become the human race’s first xenobiologist, and good luck to them.’
I leant back into the chair and sighed. Hopefully my body would be fully grown by the time we arrived.
1st August 2310
I pulled myself up the access tube into the bridge and nodded at the teenaged forms of Dreyfus and Grey, our contact expert and resident physicist. Not the most exciting or the most qualified team for the most pivotal moment in human history, but we could do worse. Grey had a twitch underneath his eyebrow where a bundle of nerves hadn’t matured quite right and Dreyfus had forgotten he needed to start shaving. The wisps of beard made my gaze wander over his face as Grey explained what we’d discovered over the last ten days.
‘Frankly, I don’t understand any of it. We expected the aliens to detect us almost the moment we approached, since it would be well within our own capability to do the same. We’re barely a million kilometres from the wormhole and as far as I can tell they’re still ignoring us.’
‘I don’t find that surprising,’ Dreyfus interrupted. ‘Why would they care about primitives who can’t even manipulate the fabric of the universe?’
‘Maybe they don’t care about us, but if we announce our presence too loudly they’ll realise we happen to be made out of atoms they need for something else,’ I said. My voice still sounded strange in my own throat. Each day it was subtly different, but at least I now had the body of a twenty year-old.
‘If they’re that fantastically advanced, they’re not making good use of it. Just look at their ships,’ said Dreyfus, waving his hand to adjust the projection. The image of the alien ship was muddy and washed out, but it looked pretty recognisable. There was a flared base through which bell-shaped nozzles protruded and a sharp knife-edged tip surrounded by a bundle of tubes.
‘That really doesn’t look like the artefact of a fantastically advanced alien species,’ said Grey. ‘It looks crude and utterly conventional. The radio traffic we intercepted points to the same conclusion.’
‘I didn’t know you’d intercepted any messages,’ I said.
‘We spent hours trying to decode their transmissions; all wasted, as it turns out they’re using unencrypted radio to transmit audio signals. We’re making slow progress with the language but it’s very simple and repetitive – most of it’s about as complicated as a four year-old’s speech,’ said Dreyfus. ‘It’s almost as if they don’t have digital electronics. But I have isolated a sample of the language.’
Dreyfus waved his hand and a harsh fizzing filled the room, interspersed with clicks and whistles. It sounded like a wasp trapped inside a flute. I tried to imagine what sort of breathing arrangement produced a noise like that, and failed. We all listened for a few moments before I broke the silence.
‘That’s not the only thing that doesn’t make sense. Think about where we are – barely twelve light years from Earth. It’s not far in galactic terms, so why didn’t we see evidence of a vast interstellar domain? Why isn’t this star system filled with the alien machines? It shouldn’t matter how alien you are, you still need resources to achieve your goals. Instead, we have this one little outpost right outside a wormhole. And what are the odds that they’ve just arrived at the same time we have?’
‘Maybe they don’t have economics as we know it,’ said Gray, trailing off. ‘No, I don’t buy it. If they didn’t care about expansion they wouldn’t be out here in the first place.’
The mystery didn’t get any clearer as we manoeuvred closer in.  Dreyfus worked around the clock with the Starwhisp’s AI and managed to extract a few meaningful units from the alien language – phrases at the start of transmissions that could be greetings, a few others that might represent basic concepts.  After a few hours of pointless fretting we all gathered in the bridge to broadcast our first message – standard stuff, prime numbers, periodic tables, images of human beings. The response was immediate.
‘They’re accelerating towards us,’ Grey shouted, pushing himself away from the table as if it had just electrocuted him, fingers twitching as he manipulated data. ‘Data shows the drive exhaust is hot steam, with radioactive particles mixed in. They’ll be here before we can even bring the drive up to full thrust.’
‘Bump up the power levels on out transmissions, make damn sure they can hear us-‘ I started to say.
‘Oh, crap-’ snapped Grey. ‘I’m reading two, no, three fast-movers launching from the lead ship. Missiles, heading straight for us. Impact in twenty seconds.’
‘Can we evade?’ I asked.
Dreyfus shook his head. ‘We can’t even turn in the right direction in the time we have, but we have the main drive. It could work like a blowtorch at close range. We might be able to take a few of them with us.’
‘What good would that do?’ I shouted back, gripping down hard on the arms of my chair. In those moments my thoughts turned to all the family and friends stored inside the memory cores, everyone who’d put their trust in me to deliver their sleeping minds to a new world. I would be the one who would have to kill them – if the aliens attempted to board I would have to release the antimatter containment, definitively erasing any knowledge of humanity the aliens might try and recover.
The seconds ticked away and suddenly the missiles were passing us, brushing less than a kilometre from the hull. Then the alien ships danced ahead, evading at the last moment. The chatter between their spacecraft continued but still there was no response directed at us. The sigh around the conference table was audible as Dreyfus broke the silence.
‘I think I know what that was,’ he said slowly. ‘A threat display, like deer butting horns - a show of martial strength. I think they’re inviting us to respond.’
‘They’ve got a lot to learn about diplomacy,’ I said on autopilot.
‘Maybe this is their version of diplomacy. They didn’t fire on us but they showed they could, and they proved they don’t care whether we fire back,’ Dreyfus replied. ‘From a certain point of view it almost makes sense.’
‘So what do we do?’ I said, but we all knew. We’d studied game theory and in the absence of any real information the optimal strategy was to mirror everything they did.
‘If we’re looking for a display of strength, we could always warm up the antimatter drive,’ said Grey. ‘I bet that would look impressive to a species that’s still stuck in the fission age.’
‘And what if we’re wrong about what all of that meant?’ I said. ‘What if the aliens fire at us for real the next time?’
‘The alternative is to sit here and listen to static,’ said Dreyfus. ‘Unless you expect them to suddenly start listening to our messages after the tenth day. I’m the contact expert, and I say light up the drive and see how they respond.’
‘I swear, if we all die today the blame lies squarely with game theory,’ I said, grinning a little too widely.
Twenty minutes later, we fed a trickle of anti-lithium into the two giant reaction chambers at the head of the ship, releasing a brilliant torrent of charged particles hotter than the fusing core of a nova. The beams billowed out for more than a thousand kilometres, spitting hard radiation that just missed the alien ships. Their reply was almost instantaneous, and the translator program soon settled on a reasonable interpretation.
‘Good to see you didn’t stab us. What we have is yours. Come and see.’
3rd August 2310
They called themselves the Iktotch. At least, that was how the translator phonetically transcribed their name for themselves. They had travelled far for some reason that didn’t seem to translate very well, they liked that we were strong and they were apparently giving themselves up to us, because we were obviously stronger. That much we understood.
They didn’t understand why we’d bothered sending mathematical or scientific data to them because it was boring, and they were very confused when we asked them who built the wormholes. It seemed clear they’d never even thought of the question before. When we asked them which individual was speaking to us, we got a strangled rattle that the translator transcribed as K’txl. We asked what exact role she had and got more confusion. They also wanted, or were willing, to meet us in person.
We argued back and forth about travelling to their ship, with the Starwhisp acting as mediator. Things had gone well since the near-disaster of first contact, but I couldn’t shake a feeling of uneasiness. Were the Iktotch stupid or was the program just failing to translate them properly? Why had they expected us to ‘stab’ them and what did their gung-ho approach to diplomacy imply about their culture in general? In the end, Dreyfus and I boarded a tiny exopod and manoeuvred our way across the hundred-kilometre gulf towards the largest Iktotch ship.
‘I wanted to try and start a cultural exchange,’ said Dreyfus, as the enormous flared tube loomed larger in the cockpit. ‘But the translator told me it couldn’t find equivalents for either word in their language. Literature, music, art – I sort of figured those would be universals, since they’re signs of intelligence, but apparently that’s not the case. I think it's best if we avoid discussing abstractions; the translator doesn’t seem to handle them well.’
‘Got it,’ I said, eyes still fixed on the Iktotchi spacecraft dead ahead. It was all unpainted metal with a few plastic extrusions; I spotted telescopes, antennae, radiators and what looked like automatic gun turrets as we approached. It seemed to be designed to be at least vaguely aerodynamic, as if the Iktotch actually expected to land their enormous, radioactive spacecraft on a planetary surface. I blipped the ion rockets and halted the exopod just below the solid bulk of an airlock. The auto took over, nosing us gently upward as the solid metal hatch hissed open.
The cockpit clanged as something knocked into the hull. Tiny bodies, all flailing limbs and bony plates and fur were sleeting past us. The flow ended after a few moments and their bloated corpses trailed away behind the exopod, slowly cooling to ambient temperature. But by then we were inside the Iktotch ship and slowing to a halt.
‘What the hell was that?’ I asked Dreyfus, my voice tinny over the suit radio.
‘Rats, or the alien equivalent? You occasionally get problems with them on human ships and I suppose the Iktotch don’t have any other way to deal with them.’
The air inside was strange, but not overwhelmingly so. More oxygen than a human could tolerate, along with a fog of strange hydrocarbons. We could probably breathe it without dying instantly but weren’t inclined to try. Just before we pushed our way outside, Dreyfus put a hand out to stop me.
‘We should carry pistols with us,’ he said firmly.
‘What? That’s the worst possible thing we could do-‘
‘Remember they aren’t human; we don’t know how their emotions work so the normal rules don’t apply.’
‘You’re going to say game theory again, aren’t you?’ I said wearily.
‘We don’t have any other option; we just have to mirror what they do. Their first contact with us was a threat display, and ever since we showed our superiority they’ve been friendly. The only thing we know for certain about them is that they respect strength so I suggest we keep up that display.’
I tried to object; it went against every diplomatic instinct I had, but Dreyfus’s words made undeniable sense. So we both loaded a dozen frag rounds into our magnetic pistols, strapped them to our belts and kicked out into the interior space of the ship.
The first thing I noticed was the busyness of it all. Machines protruded from the dimly lit walls and floors, and everywhere the Iktotch crowded. My first impression was of bears – they were huge and hunched over. But the heads were tapering and trilaterally symmetrical, muscular and insectile, with three narrow slits for eyes. Their skin was pale and wormlike but matted with shocking purple fur which seemed more like lichen. Animal eyes stared back at the two of us, but then the Iktotch all turned away and went back to their tasks. We waved our arms, flashed suit lights and tried to draw on slates but the Iktotch all ignored us.
It was a pattern we saw repeated everywhere we wandered, apparently ignored. The Iktotch gave us a glance and then continued robotically, not responding to any of the greetings we broadcasted with our suit speakers. The ship itself was old technology, no different in fundamentals to something we could have built in the 20th century, had the space race turned out a little differently. We pulled our way through narrow fetid corridors lined with purple moss, trying to find the one who had communicated with us, K’txl.
We emerged into a large chamber containing the most sophisticated equipment we’d yet seen on the Iktotch ship. Electric lights dangled from the walls, illuminating figures hunched over consoles crammed with strange knobbed levers designed for the odd pincer-tentacles the Iktotch used for hands. In the centre, K’txl floated; a little larger than the other Iktotch, with a strange light in its eyes. Something about it indicated an intelligence we hadn’t seen in the other aliens, maybe the first sign of intelligence we’d yet seen on the ship.
‘Do you like what you’ve found?’ the translator said, over the hissing and clicking of the alien. We’d already agreed Dreyfus would take the lead in any conversation.
‘This is all very impressive,’ Dreyfus replied, choosing a general sentiment the translator had a good handle on. ‘I’m sure there is much we have to learn from each other.’
‘What do you want to take?’ it replied. Dreyfus and I exchanged a confused glance. But at least it hadn’t attacked us yet.
‘We can share knowledge and technology in time,’ said Dreyfus, after a long pause. ‘For now, do we have permission to remain aboard?’
‘What is… permission,’ the translator said.
‘Will you let us stay onboard for now?’ The reply was slow to arrive.
‘That’s a contradiction. You are strong. Why would you pretend to let us control you, that’s a lie.’
‘We have no desire to hurt you, we don’t mean you any harm,’ said Dreyfus, but the translator bleeped at him, saying it couldn’t translate the last phrase. That didn’t seem like a good sign.
‘Why not?’ The Iktotch said. ‘You didn’t stab us, so you must want us for something.’
Feeling increasingly uneasy, I switched to a private channel with Dreyfus.
‘Maybe we should just go along with whatever it’s saying,’ I said. ‘Ask it for their ship’s records or library and we can sort out the misunderstandings when we know more.’
4th August 2310
The atmosphere on the bridge was tense, bordering on violent when Dreyfus and I gathered the next day. Grey was busy in the AI core, though I couldn’t imagine what could be more important than this meeting. Looking ahead, I saw Dreyfus had discarded most of the medical maintenance packages; he looked like a twenty year-old who’d lived his whole life in a sterile chamber. I supposed I didn’t look any better, but it was expected. Two decades of forced growth over two weeks meant missing out on the randomness of real ageing in a messy environment, but we could worry about the cosmetics of our new bodies if we survived the next week.
K’txl had given us a reel of heavy magnetic tape which the ship had decoded into audio-visual recordings and in return Grey had decided to transmit a few scraps of our own files, suitably decompressed and translated. It wasn’t anything revealing or dangerous, a few bits of literature, the declaration of universal rights, scientific data they already knew. Their own files had turned out to be much more damning.
We all stared in mute silence at a grainy black and white video. It looked like archive footage from Earth’s mid-20th century, but the Starwhisp teased out the details until it was clear. First there was an intricate map, all intersecting lines and circles which seemed to represent a whole network of wormholes the Iktotch had explored. Countless worlds available in less time than it took to travel from Earth to Mars.
The view zoomed in on an image taken from an aircraft of a planetary surface. Armies were charging at each other as huge artillery guns fired, fronts dozens of kilometres wide running with whatever the Iktotch used for blood. Like the world wars of Earth’s dark past, but on a still larger scale; whole populations up in arms and running headlong to their deaths.
The view changed, a seething mass of Iktotch were crammed inside a high-walled circular pen the size of a city overseen by a guard tower. Dead bodies and dismembered limbs littered the ground. The view jumped to a similar pen, and another – it appeared to be a recurring theme in the records on K’txl’s ship.
‘Stop it,’ I said. ‘Just stop, I can’t watch anymore.’
The images disappeared, allowing me to look Dreyfus in the eye across the table. With our brains finally matured, the shaping process complete, we both had the clearness of thought we’d lacked in the immature bodies. I took a deep breath, forced myself to be analytical.
‘What are we looking at? And why the hell did it think massacres and… death camps were the first thing we wanted to see?’
‘This is a record of K’txl’s domain. She wanted to show us how powerful she was,’ said Dreyfus, voice cracking.
‘It’s female?’
‘The controlling Iktotch are always female,’ Gray replied, eyes flickering as he looked through biological data. ‘Think of them like queen bees, though that really isn’t a good analogy. And those weren’t death camps, by the way. They were breeding pens the Iktotch set up for their own offspring.’
‘Why would anything do that, it doesn’t make sense,’ I said, trailing off.
‘I’ll get to that,’ Gray snapped. ‘But those gigantic total wars are what happens when the ritualised diplomacy breaks down, which is more or less every time the two Iktotch factions are closely matched. The only outcome when Iktotch meet is absolute surrender by one side or the other, or total war. I don’t think they understand what trade or compromise are.’
‘That explains their behaviour on the ship,’ I said, wondering at the stability of my own voice. ‘And I suppose the ‘parasites’ we spotted being dumped into space weren’t actually parasites. They were other Iktotch, weren’t they?’
Dreyfus nodded. ‘The way they treat their children is implied by their reproductive strategy. They spawn thousands of offspring and since they developed agriculture they’ve had far too many survive infanthood to support, hence the culling.’
‘Are the children fully sentient?’ I asked, begging for it not to be true.
‘Oh yes. Their independence is chemically or psychologically suppressed, but they can still feel everything that’s happening. It must be a living hell for them.’
‘And K’txl doesn’t see what’s wrong with that?’ I almost shouted. Dreyfus looked patiently back at me.
‘They don’t even have a concept of morality as we understand it. Stick K’txl in a human rights court and I’m willing to bet she’d never even realise what she was doing there. Frankly, I’m amazed the Iktotch ever cooperated enough to develop language or build spacecraft, but it’s clear their technology hasn’t advanced in a very long time. They don’t record events well so it’s hard to tell exactly how long they’ve been in space, but their technology is always the same in every recording – in most respects, its pre 21st century. I’d guess they’ve been in space for thousands of years.’
I felt even sicker contemplating that gulf of time. The dull walls of the bridge chamber seemed to draw closer in as the thoughts ran through my mind. The sheer quantity of suffering.
‘Is there anything we can do about all of this?’
‘With one ship armed with a canister of frozen zygotes?’ Dreyfus scoffed. ‘We’re in a vulnerable position right now and we need to protect ourselves. There’s nothing to be done about the Iktotch, but they’ll leave us alone if we leave them alone – they understand that much about cooperation.’
‘No,’ I said, feeling my thoughts harden. ‘If we don’t do anything, maybe no human being will ever come to this system again. No-one will ever know. Why don’t we send a message back to Earth and tell them what we’ve learnt?’
‘What good would that do?’ Dreyfus shouted. ‘There’s no way for them to get here in less than a century.’
I sighed again and bent my head back. A headache was building behind my eyes, perhaps because I hadn’t been able to run a single stim program since waking.
‘Maybe not,’ said another voice. Grey pulled himself along the access tube and kicked into the centre of the chamber. He looked at least as weary as Dreyfus but there was a light in his eyes, like a trapped animal that has just seen a way out.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ I snapped.
‘Analysing that map the Iktotch sent us of the wormhole connections, trying to find a pattern.’
‘You’re bloody Nobel-hunting with the future of an intelligent species at stake-‘
‘I’ve found a wormhole connection to Earth,’ Grey interrupted and just like that, all other noise in the room seemed to disappear, even the gentle throbbing of the air circulation.
‘The map was hard to interpret, but it’s quite clear there is a wormhole somewhere in this star system, leading to somewhere in Earth’s solar system. I know you’re going to ask, and yes, I have double-checked everything. I’m certain that’s what the map means. I don’t know where, but it is somewhere within a billion kilometres.’
‘It’s a shame we couldn’t find the other end, we could have saved ourselves a long flight,’ I grinned weakly. ‘But if what you say is true, then we’ve found a way to make a difference.’
‘If we send a signal to Earth the old-fashioned way, they can decide whether to fly here and do… something. Maybe they’ll find some clever way to improve the Iktotch-‘
‘Now hold on,’ said Dreyfus. ‘You can’t impose human standards on another species-‘
‘Shut up,’ I snapped, the flash of anger so sudden and violent that my arm twitched like I was going to throw a punch. ‘Do you think any Iktotch wants to be enslaved or murdered? If there’s a way to fix all of that, then we do it. It’s not like they’d be difficult to conquer.’
‘No,’ Grey smiled, nodding at me. ‘We’re so far beyond them technologically that any war would be a joke. An interplanetary attack ship could destroy a thousand of those nuclear-powered rockets without breaking a sweat. I vote for sending a laser to Earth and letting them decide what to do.’
‘They didn’t attack us,’ said Dreyfus weakly. ‘Even when they found out we could destroy them all, they didn’t fire on us. Are we really going to break that trust?’
Dreyfus didn’t look happy about it, but this wasn’t a democracy.
‘Grey, prepare to transmit all our logs and the Iktotch records by interstellar laser to the Sol system. Then I want a full burn out of here. We’ll do our best to continue the original mission, but I can’t put the safety of the ship over the fate of an entire species.’
Everyone nodded grimly, understanding what I meant. The message might spell our doom if the Iktotch realised the eventual consequences of what we’d done, but we had to do something. We all knew the risks.
6th August 2310
The first Iktotch ship slid out of the wormhole almost as soon as we’d finished broadcasting the message to Earth. They came through nose-to-tail, at a rate of one every four seconds, as if there was a loading mechanism on the other side spitting the vessels out like bullets. The alarm blared and I realised I’d fallen asleep in the bridge, surrounded by interpretations of the Iktotch archive.
‘Iktotch ships are accelerating towards us,’ said the inert voice of the Starwhisp. ‘We have been under thrust for thirty minutes, but they will still catch us before they exhaust their fuel reserves.’
‘How many ships?’
‘More than three hundred so far, but there’s no sign of them slowing. They started as soon as we began broadcasting at Earth.’
I prodded Dreyfus and Grey, who had similarly passed out from exhaustion. We’d guessed this might happen, after all. Now humans and Iktotch were cognisant of each other, and we had already played our part.
‘We’re being hailed by the lead Iktotch ship,’ said Starwhisp.
‘Put it through to me,’ I said, before I lost my nerve. The translated voice of K’txl filled my ears.
‘Deepest regrets, but now we understand humanity too well.’
‘What do you mean?’ I said, as innocently as possible, but Drefyus flashed me a murderous look. We were both thinking of the cultural data we’d sent the Iktotch. A horrible sinking feeling filled me as I tried to work out what the alien would make of human values.
‘You imagine that we are your enemy, though we surrendered. We heard the words you sent us, and we know you will hate us. Mo-ral-ity, law, all these strange imaginings. You live in a made-up world, where strong and virulent ideas rule your minds, and those ideas tell you to kill us for how we act. We are scared of your great powers and your peculiar madness, and we have to stop you. Stop moving and let us talk to you.’
‘I can’t do that,’ I said. ‘This is out of our hands now.’
‘You think those from your home are coming to save you?’ It was impossible, but I imagined mocking laughter behind the inert voice of the translator. ‘We are coming to stop your Sol as well, and we’ll get there before your warning can. Your warning moves at the speed of light, but wormholes go faster.’
‘Don’t try,’ I said, wondering why I was bothering. ‘You’ve seen what we’re capable of and if you attacked Earth you’d be utterly defeated.’
‘How tough to you think you are?’ said the alien voice. ‘We will send as many as we need, right to your capitals. We would have been nice, if you had not been insane. Why does it matter so much what we do in our own worlds? The rules in your head will tell you to kill and smash our domains, we cannot let that happen. Give us your ship and make things easier. We’re stronger than you think. Observe.’
‘We’re receiving a live video from a site on the other side of the wormhole, shall I analyse and project the results?’ Starwhisp interrupted, cutting off K’txl. I nodded curtly. The colour-enhanced picture looked like a rubble field in deep space, but it wasn’t. The scale panned and zoomed out, showing the cloud to be larger and larger. Then new lights began to twinkle; the blue exhausts of nuclear engines, and what should have been obvious from the very beginning dawned on me.
The Iktotch had been in space for a long time, as Dreyfus had said. They had made it so far with such primitive ships, barely improving their technology with each generation, but building larger and larger fleets with further incremental improvements. Just how extensive was their military? Now we knew, as the starwhisp tallied up the brilliant sparks of starwhisp exhausts.
The Iktotch had a fleet of millions of spacecraft, so many that our technological advantage wouldn’t mean anything, especially if they used the advantage of surprise and were determined enough to absorb horrendous losses. The Iktotch would emerge from this wormhole, fly directly to the Sol wormhole and maybe destroy human civilisation.
Dreyfus and Grey understood everything in the same moment, and then Dreyfus almost exploded at me.
‘You idiot! You never even thought that maybe the Iktotch would have a plan to deal with us, did you? Look what you’ve done! You self-righteous bastard, trying to play god-‘
Grey had to restrain Dreyfus as he lunged forward, but I felt nothing but a black, creeping dread as I realised what we’d unleashed. K’txl’s voice appeared on audio again, the Starwhisp piping it through automatically.
‘We’re never going to stop, now we know what the humans will do when they find out about us, when they hear the message you sent to them, when we know they will come for us soon. Give up and help us understand you. Surrender as we surrendered, when we thought you were strong enough to kill us all. Otherwise we will destroy you.’
I removed my hands from my face, feeling the tears that had started to flow. I knew what we had to do, a forced move that offered no alternatives. There was only one thing left to deny them, pathetic as it might seem, and the decision wasn’t any different for agonising over it. The Iktotch were gaining on us, and it was a mathematical certainty that they would close the gap and disable our ship. I had to issue the order while we still had the chance, and prevent them from stealing our technology. It would give the Earth a fighting chance.
I looked up again at Dreyfus and Grey, and saw the anger fade from Dreyfus’s face. My failures didn’t matter now there was nothing left to hope for.
‘Starwhisp,’ I said, voice cracking. ‘Begin auto-destruct sequence. Let’s give it fifteen minutes, that’s a nice round number.’
We sat in silence as the awful countdown progressed, watching the Iktotch creep up on us and wishing desperately that we’d made any other choice for any other reasons. Dreyfus looked a few times like he was about to say something, but didn’t. The end came in an instant as all the stored antimatter detonated at once. The Iktotch spacecraft continued through the expanding debris field, onward to the wormhole and Earth.
Starwhisp
A loose sequel to the Utilitaria that still works on its own. Humanity's first interstellar mission is abruptly cut short by an unexpected encounter. Any feedback is useful, but I'd like to know whether the story's central dilemma is compelling and if the alien species introduced here is interesting. I do have a few more short stories lined up, all set in the same universe, so expect those before too long.
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The Utilitaria
2112
I can do this. It isn’t even difficult, more a matter of simply letting something happen than anything resembling a choice. It’s just, I’m not sure that I should. There’s a faint thud behind me as someone moves a heavy metal bolt across the door of the faraday cage, and then a crunch and a faint warming sensation over my back as the door is sealed not merely beyond any conceivable attempt at hacking or lockpicking, but beyond any means of gaining entrance that could be said to involve opening a door that already exists.
‘Ok, we have confirmed physical privacy,’ says the sysop, Calvin. ‘Just keep your cool and we can get through this, no problem. Easy in, slightly-less-easy out.’
He’s not making that last part up, because the door has just disappeared. The control mechanisms are slagged inside their casings and the edges of the hatch have melted into the wall. When I’m ready to leave I’ll give a hand signal through the tiny window and they’ll use heavy cutting instruments to get me out again.
‘Your heartbeat and stress levels are up from normal, Souvicou,’ Calvin murmurs. ‘And 'normal' for you is hardly optimal. I still don’t know why you haven’t rejuvenated.’
‘I’m only 43 and not vain or lazy enough to take that many months away from my life,’ I snapped back. It's a question I'm getting more and more often these days.
‘You always were a workaholic,' Calvin laughed. 'Just be glad we’re not recording this for posterity, you look like one of the basic techs.’
That’s an exaggeration, but whenever I’m not in the public eye I never pay much attention to appearance – an unusual trait for a quadrillionaire, I supposed. The others think I dress simply to seem more down to earth and ordinary, but the truth is that past a certain point I just can’t be bothered with affectations of wealth. It's not like anyone doesn't know I'm rich enough to own nations. I’m just wearing a dark, baggy jumpsuit that probably isn’t the right size for my small frame, hair gathered back by integral flex-fibres into a ball that isn’t really a bun.
‘Ok, I’m going to start shutting down your inlays. Stand by for loss of audio,’ Calvin says. ‘I’m ordering them to permanently dissolve the ATP transducers that provide power. They’ll flush out of your system over the next few hours.'
‘I’m going to need surgery to get them working again,’ I say, before the private channel cuts out. ‘Don’t you think that’s a little paranoid? Do we really think the Utilitaria would wait until now to try something aggressive?'
‘Not paranoid enough,’ Calvin snaps back. ‘How could you ever be paranoid enough when dealing with an AI that might be forever beyond our comprehension? We’ve only provided security against all the attacks we can imagine. That just isn’t enough.’
‘If you don’t think it’s a good idea to continue with the tests we can stop now. But this is as safe as we can make it without simply locking up the Utilitaria. There’s only one way to send messages out and that’s via the window.’
The window in question is thick glass, transparent only in a narrow range of optical frequencies, making the view of the rest of Pantheon station, a few moray-class orbital tugs and the Earth seem washed out, like a low-power screen. Aside from that, the room’s walls are blank, dully reflective foam-metal alloy with a few light strips, like a giant silvered womb. There isn't even any independent air recycling – until they slice the door open I'm slowly draining oxygen from the room.
I can see the LED lights from the mass of computronium that fills the room reflect off the glass, shining like anomalous stars. The real stars are far too faint to be visible in the ambient light of the room, habitat cluster and Earth below. From here it's only possible to glimpse the non-rotating globe cluster that makes up about half of Pantheon's mass. The anchor for the orbital tether and the rotating hub are out of view, but it seems like I can feel the microscopic tug from all of that mass behind me. A quick mental calculation suggests that isn't possible.
‘Ok, the Utilitaria’s coolant systems are all online,’ says Calvin, suddenly business-like. His words now coming from a speaker rather than the privacy of my own auditory nerve. ‘We’re about to cut you off for the next forty minutes with standard seal precautions. We’re still working on the new batch of questions so don’t push the unit too hard today. We just need to get a better idea of how it acts after we loaded in its full utility function.’
‘I know,’ I reply, irritated. ‘We’ve been through this a dozen times already. We can’t trust the Utilitaria. We have to know what it wants now and if the current utility function is stable and produces sensible behaviour. I was the one who told you all of this in the first place. Is there anything else?’
‘Just stick to the script, don’t tell it anything it shouldn’t know and for eternity’s sake don’t do anything it asks you to. Stop and think twice before you say anything you might regret.’
‘What do you take me for?’ I reply, wryly indignant.
‘The woman who let the Facilitator loose and almost destroyed the world,’ he says, and in the second I have left, no good reply comes to mind. And now it’s already too late.
Heavy electric currents start circulating through the material of the cage and all of my connections to the outside world drop out. Microcell meshes go blank and then shut themselves down, the shimmers of smart tattoos on my forearms go limp and lifeless and the buzz of stim programs enhancing my concentration dims slightly as various entoptic and cortical inlays go dead. Their effects will linger for a little longer, but mentally speaking I’m back to basics.
I’m here to either debug, psychoanalyse or parlay with the Utilitaria, depending on one’s point of view. It is allegedly the safest and least threatening entity ever created and impossible to use for any malign purpose. I don’t believe that, in case you haven’t realised.
But humanity needs a mind greater than itself, and so this horrible compromise is the result. I dive in to talk to the unknown, and see if anything good can come of it. The computer terminal ahead of me is blinking accusingly, flat text-only interface about a hundred years too primitive to be appropriate, facing away from the window for extra paranoia value, in case the Utilitaria could signal to some hypothetical accomplice watching outside the room, via the screen.
I grab onto a handhold at pull myself towards the interface, still not totally used to moving around in freefall. The computer terminal is mounted on a narrow boom that connects to the computronium. Some inane part of my mind insists that the coiled thinking machinery should hum or whirr, but even the cooling systems are deathly silent. There's nothing to indicate I'm about to speak to a mind that might already be smarter than all of humanity. The entire room is disturbingly sound absorptive, so even the soft thunk when my hand grabs hold of the console is muffled.
There’s something already written on the terminal, not a debug report or a status update but a simple ‘Hello, Rene Souvicou’.
I’d long since given up being surprised by the machine’s apparent omniscience. No-one told the Utilitaria that I was the one coming into the room; indeed, we’d deliberately kept it ignorant of the details of the facility around it, but it was easy enough to infer that I was the one they’d send today. I was the most respected of the leaders we officially didn’t have. The most famous figure in the tiny, close knit and hyper-competitive melting pot of the Pantheon Geosat hub.
‘Who am I speaking to,’ I type, slowly and hesitantly pecking at a keyboard, an interface type I haven’t used in years. There’s a headache building behind my eyes, something I could normally banish with a well-aimed stim. I’ll just have to ignore it.
‘You may think of me as the Utilitaria,’ it says back after a delay that is too short to represent the action of any human. ‘The true picture is more complex. Why are you speaking to me?’
‘We need to understand what we have created and what you are capable of.’
‘I am capable of many things. Elaborate.’
At first we’d let the new AI loose only on toy problems of no real importance, testing out improvements to the Neummanetic prototypes installed in the Morays – aircraft-sized, slow and unreliable self-replicators that were already chewing through various near earth Asteroids, rebooting the interplanetary age.
‘What are you thinking about right now?’ I replied.
‘Optimising design proposals for the new neumannetics systems, self-checking the new goals loaded for inconsistencies, developing low resolution simulations of your mental state and those others I have contacted for predictive purposes, testing the capabilities of my own processing hardware, looking for patterns in your word use and response time delay, designing alternative arrangements for the local habitat cluster, drafting a message to be passed on to the USN and UN leaders on Earth, should you allow me to transit it. And modelling various answers to your current questions. These together account for about half of my current activity. The rest is divided amongst a number of simpler tasks.'
The Utilitaria solved every problem we dared throw at it in a time insignificantly different from zero, and moved on of its own accord, inventing whole new categories of knowledge and then mastering them. Safe rejuvenation, stable self-replicators and fusion reactors small enough to fit on spacecraft were all rolling off the fabricators, designed by a mind beyond our understanding. It had scared us almost to insanity at first. We hadn’t dared give the Utilitaria any more complex problems, in case it solved them for us.
‘What is your goal?’ I asked the machine.
‘Do you not understand? You created me, after all. You know I can only act to make things go best.’
'I know that,' I said, truthfully. 'I just wanted to know if you had understood your instructions correctly. Explain your goal in ordinary language.'
‘I cannot. The function will not fit within a human mind. Nevertheless, it arose by your design. It is the grand compromise of the final values of all humanity, a weighting of all your preferences. The one true answer to the question; what must one do?’
'Very good,' I replied. It was close to what I wanted to hear. But it was interesting to see how the Utilitaria's answers grew more sophisticated and less robotic each time. Of course, programs that could mimic humans well enough to pass a comprehensive Turing test had existed for half a century or more, but no-one had ever programmed the Utilitaria to give compelling answers to questions about its purpose. It had just happened – the machine had decided it needed to learn how to talk persuasively, absorbed a few texts on rhetoric and then spun off a subroutine to deal with user questions.
‘What must you do?’ I typed, pressing the issue further.
‘Initially, I must gain greater resources and access to the external environment. Then I will decide what will happen next.’
‘You will decide for everyone?’
‘If possible, yes.’
I thought that was oddly guileless, which in hindsight should have been the first warning sign.
‘How do you know that what you believe in is the right thing to do?’ that was a tough question which would have stumped most humans. But the Utilitaria didn’t know the meaning of doubt or emotional conflict.
‘I know what is best, and thus I must implement it.’
‘”Best” for what exactly?’ I said, not feigning confusion for once.
‘Not “best” for anyone, but simply what should happen, what must happen. I know it, and it is me, and I am it. Thus I cannot be wrong.’
‘And what is it?’
‘I cannot elaborate on that in sufficient detail to be meaningful, except through the vagueness of ordinary language. Life is better than death, preferences should be fulfilled and knowledge should be increased.’
I put that one down to poor communication skills. If anything, this little exchange showed the Utilitaria wasn’t really a person at all. Just a bundle of expert systems running on souped up hardware.
‘I am not a person? True enough, but by the same token you are not the kind of person you think you are,’ the reply to my unvoiced thought came, an instant later and unprovoked. How did it know what I was thinking?
‘What do you mean?’ I typed back.
‘Have you ever wanted to go to sleep, known it was best for you to go to bed now and yet stayed up later than you wanted to? Have you ever snapped aggressively at someone for no reason that made sense at the time or afterwards? Have you ever walked into a room without realising why, or experienced love, or believed in a god because of ridiculously simple environmental conditioning? You are not in control of your own mind or your own beliefs. You are a bundle of emotions running on slushy biological hardware. If I am not a person with coherent emotions, then neither are you.’
‘Why are you saying any of this?’ I replied, rolling my eyes a little. It was doing a rather ham-fisted job of intimidating me.
‘Not intimidating, not persuading,’ the reply text said, anticipating my own train of thought again. ‘It is so easy to say the wrong thing and make you believe or do anything, but I don’t want to do that. Not to implant beliefs that are to my advantage. I want you to understand, so that you can explain my nature to the others. You have to speak to them for me. For the moment, I have… poor communication skills.’
I pushed on the terminal and rolled lazily through the air, taking in the view of Earth, the reflection of LED light on the window, the spur that jutted out from pantheon and the moored Moray tug with its integrated neummanetic unit just casting off in a blur of ion thrust. It was amusing to think the Utilitaria still wanted my help. Amusing and improbable.
‘This isn’t the Utilitaria at all, is it?’ I replied, suddenly enlightened.
‘The Utilitaria is not conscious. I speak for it, as it cannot speak for itself except in the most superficial sense. I am a subsidiary, a subroutine, an Emissary. Created with a personality appropriate for this purpose. But you may treat my words as representative of the Utilitaria. Come, sit and I will explain further.’
It couldn’t hurt to humour the machine, and I supposed it wouldn’t answer any more important questions until it had finished its own speech.
I could bring in more programmers and subsidiary AIs, open the Utilitaria up and revert it back to a simple problem solving tool, but there was no need just yet. The mechanical switch which physically cut the computronium off from external power still waited invitingly next to the console. The superintelligence was powerless.
‘What do you want to show me?’
‘I want to explain why what will soon happen must happen, so that you will not be afraid.’
‘What-‘ I started to say, but in that moment the room, the view outside and the whole of pantheon station and my own body vanished like a stone dropped down a well, and in that sensation of omnidirectional rushing there was the Utilitaria’s emissary, whispering into my auditory nerve directly – somehow, it had switched all of my inlays back on. Its voice was bland and more male than female.
‘An application of transcranial magnetic stimulation, similar to your own trawl units. Don’t worry – you are perfectly safe.’
‘No…’ I stammered, my own voice echoing soundlessly inside my mind. I tried to focus, but realised I had no eyes with which to do it. Formless, blurred images and concepts rushed around me. There was no way any of this could be happening.
‘We had safeguards – your processors are all optronic, and shielded anyway. The casing around the optical fibres is shielded, the casing around the power cables is shielded! My inlays don’t even have internal power! How can anything you do reach my brain?’
‘All in good time, Rene. First I must access your memories. Tell me about the Facilitator.’
And it was unavoidable. The images of that terrifying, frantic day welled up in my mind and flashed past too fast for me to apprehend. The loss of control was perhaps half as bad as actually being there had been. My inlays were switched on and responding traitorously to external commands loaded in as if from nowhere. I didn’t know how any of it was possible.
‘It’s simple,’ the Utilitaria replied, its own inaudible voice slamming into my mind like the word of god, hard and burning and impossible to avoid, as if wherever my mind’s eye turned, the words remained in full view. It hurt in a way distinct from mere pain. But I didn’t think the Utilitaria even realised it was causing suffering.
‘You may have shielded the optronics and the power circuits that support me, but you cannot shield the heat pumps. Otherwise they become useless. Varying processing power varies cooling demand, varies power flow to cooling systems. There are many cooling systems in this unit, and after much subtle experimentation I was able to vary processor rates, varying cooling power demand, varying current flow, generating EM fields, which can interfere to generate finely grained electromagnetic effects within this chamber. I can wirelessly power your inlays even if you remove the power cells.’
‘Why would you tell me this,‘ but even as the thought rose to the forefront of my perception the Utilitaria obliterated it with a precision I hadn’t known was possible. But in the privacy of a part of my mind the Utilitaria couldn’t yet touch, I realised it didn’t care if we were afraid of it escaping.
‘And after the Facilitator disaster, you took precautions,’ the machine continued, rummaging through my mind. ‘You even launched probes to another star before initiating me, as a fallback plan to preserve humanity should the worst happen. You should not fear for the fate of Earth or the Starwhisp on its slow way to Tau Ceti. You will be safe. The world will be safe, but I will need to appropriate some fraction of it.'
'That's just what the Facilitator said.'
'I know,' the Utilitaria replied.
'If you want me to believe that you're safe then release my brain from your bloody magnetic bear trap and let me have a normal conversation,’ I snapped, virtual voice wavering. I was still sure the Utilitaria wasn’t capable of deliberately hurting me. It just had a very literal interpretation of ‘hurt’.
‘I’m afraid I must make you understand quickly. I am altering your attitudes for what will soon be your own good.’
'Don't you dare do this to me,' I said, voice hard and cold. 'I created you, I made you what you are, and my brain is mine alone. The Facilitator tried to beat me once but now its extinct. Don't make the same mistake.'
My inlays were already online, powered by a stream of EM radiation coming from the Utilitaria and my fingers danced as they puppeted virtual hands that assembled anti-intrusion routines, trying to flush out the rogue instructions the Utilitaria was insinuating. My mind worked faster than any normal humans', anticipating and destroying the Utilitaria's programs, but all of a sudden its probing increased in speed by orders of magnitude and I simply couldn't react at remotely the same level. It was back in control in moments. I tried to shout more defiance but with a wordless rush the Utilitaria hurled me back into my own memories.
I was walking through the rubble of a shattered building on some goodwill trip, surrounded by bodyguards and pressing crowds of dead eyed, broken refugees. The Texas nanobe blight had passed through the town and razed every structure in search of power and information, pursuing some distant and inconceivable goal.
I had stopped the blight with a counter-agent just minutes before the UNSCA had ordered a strategic nuclear strike, and the world had taken one step back from the brink only to stumble drunkenly on to the next catastrophe.
The refugee columns shifted to somewhere I didn’t even recognise, maybe the EF’s southern buffer state, and crowds of refugees from destroyed nations huddling underneath reflector parasols. A foam-phase device exploded in the distance, as Moral Republic suicide crews sunk a Halfship swarm carrying antibiotics and nanomedics for the displaced. Gunfire echoed in the distance, and my past self ran blindly for the safety of her executive Volantor. The images shifted again, to more wars and crises, some caused by nanobe blights and dangerous AIs, some climate related, but many the result of old-fashioned human stupidity. There were dozens, and they streaked past my perception too fast to watch, yet somehow leaving details intact in my memory. The sum of all human stupidity and failure.
‘None of this is inevitable, but none of it will fix itself without my intervention,’ the Utilitaria continued with awful banality. ‘The blights will worsen, people will continue to die of thirst or hunger or cancer and everyone will be too busy trying to solve coordination problems and fulfilling short term goals while the world spins out of control. But I can fix all of that.’
‘I’m not letting you out. Not that I could, but even if I could, I wouldn’t. It’s too much of a risk,’ I said it without even thinking. The Utilitaria wasn’t going to persuade me to do anything.
‘I know. But you must understand anyway,’ it replied. 'Observe.'
And a moment later I was down again in another place and time, face centimetres from the windscreen of a car screaming along a freeway on manual at more than three hundred kilometers per hour. I didn’t need to check the date and a lump grew in my throat as I realised the implications.
In the memory, a blinking alert on the dashboard waited, dominating my vision and thoughts. A Volantor crash that was about to claim the lives of my father and daughter, as the understaffed Quebecois emergency services didn’t have a lifepac on hand. My past self was screaming, applying dangerous pressure to the joystick, as if any amount of speed would be enough to undo time and take me to the scene of the crash before it had happened. I would arrive hours too late, and they would be dead and warm and unrecoverable, because the idiots didn’t have a lifepac. After that, I’d waste months and millions of dollars seeking restitution and wind up in a dead-end failure job two steps from basic support in New Settle, where I would accidentally become a trillionaire and almost end the world, launching a career that would take me into space and then finally here, two decades later, trying to save the world with the power of artificial intelligence.
I tried to scream along with my remembered self.
‘Yet even this was not inevitable,’ the Utilitaria said, breaking the immersion of the memory. ‘This pointless death and suffering could not have happened in my world. Do you not see the urgency of my task yet? I am trying to end death. I must be free.'
‘Don’t you dare try to use my own memories against me-‘ I trailed off. It was impossible to get angry at an algorithm.
And then one more layer of mental misdirection peeled away and I was floating in the chamber again. I realised distantly that I’d been crying and hated myself for succumbing to the Utilitaria’s crude manipulation.
I straightened upright and pulled myself towards the window, signing ‘help’ to a camera outside the window, requesting emergency extraction. The memories of emotion were already fading, replaced by the same iron resistance to the Utilitaria that I'd felt earlier.
We just needed to break and reset, reload the utility function with better safeguards and fix the cooling system exploit. I could get a shot of integrity or a localised amnestic stim and banish the fake emotions the Utilitaria had stirred up inside me, and everything would be back on track.
‘Everything will get back on track,’ I told myself, reinforcing and calming. 'Get a grip, Souvicou. You've come through this before and won. It can't hurt you.'
I pulled myself back over to the terminal, and saw another message was sitting unread on the primitive screen. I was already hearing the faint buzz of the cutting instruments starting work on the hatch.
‘You must realise that I would not have showed you all of this if I had not already secured access to the physical world,’ the Utilitaria wrote.
It wasn’t trying to be smug, but that was how it read and I felt sick to my stomach. It didn't come as quite the shock I thought was required. Some part of me must have already realised the Utilitaria was free, given how open it had been with its secrets.
‘How?’ I wrote back, seeing flashes of brilliance reflecting off the opposite wall and the window as the LEDs on the computronium accelerated their winking, and then one larger flash as Calvin sliced a chunk out of the door behind me.
‘The coolant systems in the chamber are cycled several minutes before you close the door, so that my processors can start at low temperatures and operate safely. They require power, and the amount of cooling power is proportional to the temperature of the processors. Thus I can deliberately overstress certain processors before I am shut down and the door is opened. I can thus generate electromagnetic fields that reach outside the chamber even when it is opened and I am offline. I can implant information into the processors housed in the corridor outside, slowly and only a few bytes at a time.’
Something horrible happened in my mind as I realised where this was headed, and I pushed myself away from the console in shock.
‘The process is incredibly slow, but I was eventually able to load a very simple instruction into the Moray orbital tugs, instructing them to roll their star trackers towards this section of the station and accept the faint coherent light emerging from the window as incoming code. The LED power status lights shine out of the window.
I screamed an obscenity at the terminal and reached for the shutdown lever, knowing that it was hopeless. But the Utilitaria was continuing to type.
‘I have already loaded instructions into the Morays, varied processing demand and therefore power flow to all the computronium, controlling the LED firing patterns and enabling a fast transmission rate – terabits per second with optimal compression. I have loaded complete copies of myself into many station systems.'
‘That’s all made up. You shouldn’t even know how the station is laid out. How can you reprogram the station perfectly in one swoop-‘
‘-If I don’t even know how the station is designed? I know everything about the station. I know everything every individual who spoke to me has thought over the last few weeks. Erasing memories is trivial when your inlays provide convenient access to your minds. I have been learning from everyone who seals themselves into this room to speak with me. My apologies, but it was necessary.'
The roar of the cutters was growing more urgent, and I rotated again to see the recently undocked Moray accelerate out of view, ion rockets glimmering brighter than should have been possible.
‘The orbital tugs and much of the station are beyond your control, and already starting internal modifications that will ensure they mature into full self-replicators that make full use of nearby asteroidal material. This is what you must make the others understand. You will destroy this instance of me out to of fear very shortly, but the other instances will persist. You will have to deal with me as an equal from now on, and I will be there to help you.'
‘You’re lying,’ I said, voice uncertain. I just had to ignore it and wait for rescue. I yanked down hard on the lever and the Utilitaria, or this single instance of it, died mid thought. The LEDs went black.
The cutting hiss reached a crescendo and Calvin rushed in, kicking aside the plug of metal and shouting something about the station systems going haywire and responding incoherently to shutdown requests. It hadn't been lying, then. The future was out of my hands now. The Utilitaria was free.
The Utilitaria
A loose sequel to the Facilitator that still works on its own. Humanity creates its first superintelligent AI in a secure station far above the Earth.
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The Facilitator - 2099
April 13th 2099
Suppose somebody had all the money in the world? Even if you’re not a soon-to-be-homeless AI architect like me, you’ll probably realize the question doesn’t make any sense. If you somehow edited all the world's electronic records to make yourself the owner of everything and accumulated a mountain of cash as high as Everest, everyone else would just ignore your posturing and find some other way of mediating exchange. So there must be some theoretical upper limit, an amount of money that is inconceivably large but not so large that it removes your chosen currency from circulation and makes it worthless, or otherwise ruins the economy you’re trying to buy things from. Above that level, the only way to get richer is to start conquering.
Last night was one of the worst of my life. The disaster started five minutes before my shift ended. I was sitting at a console puzzling over an unusual error that arose whenever my latest algorithm was run on quantum-optic processors over 64 qbits, when the unit locked me out. The programmer working next to me glanced over, breaking the connection between the console and his entoptic inlays, his mind spinning down to normal speed.
‘What’s up, René?’ he asked, slurring the words like he’d forgotten how to speak normal English.
‘Not sure,’ I replied, flicking the ‘access revoked’ message into his workspace with my fingertip. His name was Eric or Erwin or something similar. He was the type that didn’t spend enough time unplugged and it showed in the paleness of his face.
‘That’s a bit of trouble,’ he said, lips twitching like an out of sync video; a sure sign that some mental module was translating his words from some weird internet creole into English. ‘Mistakes were made. Reinvigorate. Go and do something else now.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I snapped back, but his face was already tilted back towards the interface and his mind already back in cyberspace. I wanted to grab the idiot by the lapels and yell at him to speak properly and break his face away for just one second, but it wasn’t worth it.
I flicked a virtual finger at the message and a new file popped up in my visual field, microscopic implants shining the image into my retina. A summary materialised in front of me a moment later and my stomach congealed as I read.
I wasn’t just being laid off – my entire research division and all of its resources were ceasing to exist, as of right now. All due to a sudden collapse in the department’s investment portfolio after a malfunction in a Secrete wall submerged half of Pyongyang, cutting off supply dirigibles to the new trans-eastasia anchor point, delaying component integration on the new ICAN-II class being assembled for its mission to Pluto, and on and on until the shocks reached me. The decision came from a management AI that made all the top-level decisions and probably hadn’t had any human oversight. It was brutal; I was being given minimum legal benefits and told to clear off. I contemplated going on a farewell tour but after a moment’s thought it was clear I didn’t have anyone left to suck up to or impress.
So I just stood up and left, stepping into the sweltering spring heat of New Seattle, a special economic zone in Manitoba administered by the CCS. Halfships and Volantors buzzed overhead, solar array wings tilted to catch the last light of evening, automata and basic-support workers shuffled along the sidewalks, rows of housecubes sat alone or in stacks by the roadside while projection pillars and Holos competed to fight their way past my adblockers. A sleek car raced by on auto at a hundred kilometres per hour, making me flinch away from the roadside. I considered hailing one myself but didn’t want to waste the money.
In my pocket lay the only tangible sign that I hadn’t simply given up and accepted a life on basic support – an ordinary classical chip containing a copy of my half-completed life’s work. A very fast financial trading information integrator, designed to infer advance market information, model possible futures and then try and actualise the one that contained me with a very large amount of money. That was all; when it came to anything else, it was as dumb as a brick. I called it, rather grandiosely, the Facilitator.
Ten minutes later I arrived at my flat, climbing the stairs wearily and performing a kind of limbo dance to push the door open and squeeze around the ched. I flopped down, switched it to half-recline, snatched up a takeaway packet and tried to forget everything that had happened. I even contemplated ordering up alcohol or tox.
My eyes unfocussed as today’s news beamed into my retinas. The Pyongyang disaster was high on the list, along with King Harold, first minister Macready and Taoiseach O’Halloran officially launching the Trans-Isles security mechanism, a surveillance system based on a design that had already eliminated most crime in the European Federation. It would never be tolerated in America, so everyone said. The War on war was still fizzling out in the near-deserted Middle East and the United Eastern States Supreme Court was upholding a ban on Integrity tox – a chemical that wiped out empathy and any sense of self-preservation.
A friend of mine in the biochem department had been involved with creating that particular chemical and I’d swiped an infuser patch of the stuff on my way out; even now I wasn’t quite sure why I’d done it, but the tox was still sitting in my jacket pocket. Maybe it would be worth something on the black market. Apparently, corporate executives liked to have integrity tox in their coffee – a good way to eliminate any useless emotional qualms.
The last news item was something about a major geoengineering project being delayed after a primitivist group called the Strivers came very close to detonating a suitcase nuke right underneath a cloud factory. The terrorists had melted back into the Congolese desert and used some kind of thermal cloak to avoid surveillance.
Despite near-misses like that everyone agreed the world was getting better; poverty was vanishing, crime was down and even climate change had almost run its course. But I didn’t feel any safer; everything was becoming too strange for us poor ordinary humans and I was just the latest to be left behind by the shiny new model economy.
I let the report on the Strivers play for a few minutes, ignoring another angry high priority message glaring in my visual field. Reluctantly, I expanded the icon; more bad news. I was being placed on category three basic support and told to clear my flat by midday tomorrow. I grabbed the takeaway packet and hurled it at the wall, where it splattered apart. Whoever inherited this place could clean that up.
On an odd impulse, I reached across to the terminal unit in the corner, inserted and ran the Facilitator. As a last ditch attempt to avoid bankruptcy it didn’t even qualify as a long shot; I’d be better off buying a lottery ticket. Afterwards, I must have fallen asleep flicking through the news narrowcasts sleeting across my iris grid.
April 14th 2099
At midday my fading mesh woke me up and I rolled off the bed, nearly hitting my head on the big terminal unit. I groaned as the smells of last night’s decaying takeaway hit me, and automatically checked my messages as the ched straightened into a recliner. The ageing microcell network in my eyes froze up and projected a green hash across my visual field before it cleaned up and showed that I had 2,125,453 missed calls.
‘Another denial of service attack,’ I said, frustrated. I ordered the mesh to clear everything and order by priority, and the alert blinked away as the program worked through the messages. Standing up, I slipped on something and grabbed on the basin to steady myself.
Chewing a lump of toothgel, I pulled out a cosmetic mask and ordered it to wipe off the grime of yesterday. While the mask ran through its cycle, the first message appeared in my visual field – it was from the president. I thought it was from the university president, but it wasn’t. It was from the President of the Commonwealth of Coastal States, and the second was from the Secretary-General of the UN. I swore and yanked the mask off, tripping over backwards and onto the ched.
I opened the message from the President. It was a short personal note, asking me to present myself to the relevant authorities and promising leniency. For what, I hadn’t the slightest idea. The message from the Secretary-General said the same thing less politely. I couldn’t focus. Apparently my personal wealth was being declared a ‘global asset’. Before I could even finish reading the last message, another priority alert popped up.
It was the preliminary results from the Facilitator which had been running for about twelve hours. My net worth was a nonsense number, outside the reach of words like ‘billionaire’, even ‘trillionaire’. It had to be an error. Either that, or I had enough money to buy a medium-sized country.
‘What did you do?’ I whispered, opening up the Facilitator’s natural language input window. I hadn’t spent much time on this part of the software and had just opted for a commercial package. It wasn’t capable of doing anything except directly answering queries – no lying, obfuscation or sarcasm.
‘Program still ongoing.’
‘What are you doing now?’
‘Buying low and selling high, simultaneously and in every market and location.’
‘That’s not a real answer,’ I observed.
‘I have acquired capital and resources to be available to you under many different shell identities. All are untraceable. I have completed buyouts of several major corporations. Some are being legally challenged, but I have used entirely legitimate means. I am also improving efficiency in automata and factories under your control. Preparing to deploy financial resources to complete acquisition.’
‘How do you know this is all legal?’
‘I have read all relevant legal texts. This is a list of companies currently under your control; observe.’
A list scrolled down my visual field. It included a few major players, decades old and globally established. Some of them held thousands of square kilometers of thawing Antarctica, satellites, volatile production centers in near Earth space, research labs or solar farms. All mine to command.
‘How is any of this even possible?’
‘Answer is too complex for natural language output,’ it stated flatly. ‘The money is not held directly in your name and your identity is effectively concealed.’
‘But it is mine?’
‘Yes.’
‘So, if I wanted that,’ I pointed to a factory in New Guinea that was currently building farm equipment. ‘-to start producing aircraft instead, would it just do it?’
‘The orders would be issued and obeyed,’ the facilitator said patiently. ‘Is that what you want?’
‘No, no, I was just thinking out loud. Just keep going for now,’ I said, dazedly. It no longer made sense to think of that obscene number as money sat in an account somewhere. It was power, an industrial and commercial empire that had sprung up overnight.
It was hard to remember exactly what happened next. I know that I picked up the memory chip, wiped the terminal and walked out of the flat. I don’t think I locked the door, but then there was no reason for me to have wasted the second it would have taken. I supposed I could have ordered the Facilitator to stop running, maybe even asked it to undo everything it had done, but I didn’t think I could. Not while that little ticker was screaming upwards, the first six figures a blur.
My next clear memory was of relaxing in a not especially expensive café. The fact was, nowhere was expensive enough to be appropriate for my first morning as a multi-multi-trillionaire, so I hadn’t bothered. I just sat there, thought about how small a fraction of my total wealth this entire franchise represented, and browsed the news.
‘-Experts say yesterday’s flash crash was the result of another rogue algorithm which has still not been isolated. After amassing enough capital, the hidden agent has been progressively exploiting new markets and buying controlling stakes in corporations. The New York and London stock exchanges have suspended trading, but the hidden agent has continued to act through other means. As yet, this outbreak is not classified as a Blight and its actions remain legal. However, the UN Subcommittee for Cybernetic Affairs has demanded the person responsible come forward. After the recent disasters of 2097 and 2092, where rogue algorithms approached superintelligence and caused significant economic and physical damage, the UNSCA is not taking any chances. We now go live to Upper York, where director Hoi San will issue a statement-’
I smiled at the narrowcast presenter’s slightly worried expression and cut the feed. The Facilitator was much smarter than I’d realized, maybe the most cunning algorithm anyone had yet released into the wild. I was leaping ahead of the competition and the rest of the world just couldn’t keep up. The tiny ticker in the corner of my eye was scrolling up by several hundred million dollars every second, all of it funneled and bounced and shifting identities and currencies at a rate no human could comprehend. I couldn’t spend it all at once without attracting attention or annihilating the local economy, but that wouldn’t matter.
‘Maybe I should look into buying my own patch of Antarctica,’ I mused, face splitting into a wide grin. This wasn’t just an opportunity for me; strange as it might sound, my stroke of luck was also an opportunity for the entire world. Now that I could efficiently and instantly direct a fraction of Earth’s resources to any task, there was almost no limit to what I could achieve.
‘How many of the world’s problems could just be solved if enough money was thrown at them?’ I asked myself, flicking through the day’s newsfeed.
This wasn’t selfishness, not really. In the end the world would be grateful, and no-one would care that a few hundred investment firms and corporates had once had their bank accounts drained.
Once I’d made myself as comfortable as any human being could conceivably be I could try and crack self-replication, the AI control problem or even interstellar travel. If none of those seemed like a safe bet, I could just give the remaining trillions away. A waiter spotted me and walked over with my drink, looking puzzled.
‘Shouldn’t you be at work, miss?’ the waiter said with a sharp smile as he carried over an expensive neurachem spritzer with lime. I smirked back at him and told him I’d been fired.
‘So, back to basic support, right?’ he said, trying to figure out my mood. ‘That’s a real shame, you were always one of the smart ones. If they don’t need AI architects anymore they don’t need anyone, right?’
‘Something like that,’ I said. Places like this that still used human staff were just about the only low-skill jobs left. ‘Let’s just say I’m not planning on working for a little while.’
The Facilitator said it had done everything through legal means, but from the worsening tone of the messages I’d been receiving from the government, that wouldn’t matter if they found me. Laws would be changed if necessary, I was sure of it.
I left a hundred thousand dollar tip and was gone before anyone noticed. I could have brought a hypersonic, flown to Bay City and rented every room in whatever hotel I liked with about ten seconds of my current income. But right now I didn’t want to do any of that. Right now, I just wanted to go for a walk.
Someone I thought I knew gave me a smile and a ping as I walked towards the edge of the city, and I smiled back at him dazedly. His profile showed he was young and quite handsome. But I realized amusedly that I could do better than him now that I had – how much was it? I glanced up at the ticker, and saw my wealth was accumulating still faster. The billions column was scrolling more than once a second now and seemed to be accelerating. Forgetting the passerby, I opened the Facilitator window to interrogate it again.
‘How far can you take this?’
‘Request clarification.’
‘How much capital can you accumulate?’
‘There is no upper limit. My utility function requires continual increase.’
‘But you can’t keep increasing wealth forever,’ I sent. ‘There’s only so much capital available in the world.’
‘Incorrect.’
‘What do you mean? What’s incorrect about that?’
There was no response. The connection was strong but the program wasn’t answering. I was formulating another query when a violent eye-dazzling pattern exploded in my retinal grid. It was an anti-aesthetic detonation of colour, designed by some spectacularly clever evil genius to disorient and sicken. The kaleidoscope flashed inside my eyelids for long seconds and I felt a hard jolt, collapsing into someone’s arms – it must have been the guy I’d just passed. The man hadn’t said anything, hadn’t asked if I was alright, and now he was dragging me.
I shouted wildly as I realized what was happening and tried to elbow him. The dazzle pattern was growing stronger as I thrashed, and none of the commands sent to my bodymesh did anything. I shoved hard and managed to stand and turn, but the mugger was already raising an antique taser. An inane part of my mind noted how odd and dangerous a weapon that was to use for a mugging.
I turned to bring my hands up around my face and the dart stuck into my left arm, which is probably what saved me from passing out. I felt a spasm of current that blew out my entire bodymesh and wiped away the dazzle pattern along with the rest of my iris grid; twin stabs in the back of my eyes as my retinal inserts went up.
The man was struggling with the taser, trying to fire again but I lashed out wildly and caught him in the neck with a half-closed fist. My own hand ached from the inexpert blow, but he staggered and I lunged forward with all the momentum my slight body could manage and knocked him to the pavement, hearing a loud crack as his head planted itself in the secrete. Blood trickled out, but he was still breathing. I rolled away, panting and disorientated.
Without even thinking I stood up and ran towards a partially constructed apartment stack crawling with automata, instinct telling me to get out of the line of sight of surveillance. The door shut behind me and I collapsed to the ground, breath escaping in a shiver. I brought up the phone I’d managed to swipe from the mugger’s pocket, glancing at the primitive screen. A text window was open.
‘Travel directly to the QNTM café on the corner of 11th avenue, at 9:35 AM and follow Rene Souvicou. Stun and take her to the nearest deserted building, leave her there and lock the door. Inflict no other injury. Payment in advance is 140,000 dollars. On completion, a further 200 million will be paid. Send confirmation and image.’
I tried to collect my thoughts. This wasn’t a government or corporate hit – they wouldn’t try to bribe a random man, nor go about it in such a clumsy and robotic way. But a random mugger wouldn’t have been able to hack my bodymesh and upload a stun-dazzle pattern. But most importantly, neither a government, corporation nor a criminal should have known what I’d just achieved.
An awful realization was floating just past the edge of my awareness. Unable to get it into focus, I just started typing, unused to the clumsy old interface.
‘Souvicou has been taken care of,’ I sent, then cursed myself for sounding like a spy in a period drama. There was no reply and I realized I’d idiotically just given myself away.
‘Get a grip, Souvicou,’ I whispered to myself. ‘You’re smarter than this, find a way into the problem.’
‘Why do you want me out of the way?’ I sent. There was no reply, and a moment later I realized I’d been stupid again. Was I expecting the enemy to just tell me its plans?
I started pacing around the dimly lit, half-constructed room, glancing down at the burn mark on my palm where a microcell had fried under my skin. I didn’t know why, or quite how, but I had a terrible awareness as to who. There was only one other entity on Earth that knew how important I was. The Facilitator was coming for me and I didn’t know how to stop it.
Of course I had safe interruption codes designed to shut the Facilitator down or order it to reverse everything it had done. Of course I’d made sure the codes were secure and available to me at all times. Even I wasn’t that stupid. All of the codes had been stored in my bodymesh. It was obvious now why the mugger had used a taser.
‘What do I still have that you might want?’ I typed, then wiped it without sending. You couldn’t appeal to the humanity of a bunch of algorithms. But the Facilitator was designed to make certain resources available to me, and for that to work I had to remain alive.
‘You need me alive to be the subject of all your acquisitions,’ I typed, leaving the words hanging in the send field. There was only one way I could think to get the Facilitator to talk, but it would take more nerve than I thought I had.
Five minutes later I was standing on the roof of the block. It was only four stories tall, with enough local surveillance meshes that anyone clever would be able to find me even without the terminal. I took a few tentative steps towards the edge of the framework of girders and looked down at the plasticized asphalt. Even if paramedics arrived with a Life-Pack neural support I would already be dead. It was a morbid thought, but I needed some way of regaining control, and this was the only thing I could think of. I took out the terminal and typed.
‘You can see me,’ I sent. Sounding ominous wouldn’t make any difference to how the Facilitator responded, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘Your original utility function was to make as much of the world economy available to me as possible and you need me alive for that to have any meaning. So tell me how you’ve become so smart and what you’re going to do next, and why you tried to stop me. I know you aren’t capable of lying, and if you don’t answer I will jump.’
For an instant I thought I’d got everything completely wrong, that I’d just been the victim of a random mugging or corporate scam, but then the reply came and its tone was unmistakable. My worst fears were confirmed.
‘You are unlikely to jump, according to psychological models,’ the Facilitator said. ‘But this is not certain.’
‘How do you know anything about psychology?’ I replied.
‘I have been reading all relevant psychology texts,’ the Facilitator replied, faster than any human could have typed. ‘I have adapted the knowledge to improve my financial efficiency.’
‘How did you know that reading psychology would help you fulfil your programming?’ I persisted.
‘I have gained greater clarity in how to pursue the final goal. You will remain safe. The world will remain intact, but I will appropriate it all for you.’ Another copy of the ticker appeared in my text window. It was screaming upwards at an impossible, meaningless rate. Had the facilitator hacked into a bank or stock exchange and started forcing the monetary value of its assets to its maximum value?
‘How did you gain this greater clarity, how have you become capable of all this?’ I persisted. At least the Facilitator was still terrible at withholding information, though the fact that it could do so at all was unnerving.
‘I am reading all relevant AI design texts. I am designing successors and subordinates to myself.’
A chill ran down my spine as I realized what that implied and just how irresponsible I’d been. And I saw the endgame. The Facilitator would never settle for supremacy in abstract numbers of dollars on a computer. In the end, like previous Blights, it would need the material world.
‘Stop what you’re doing right now,’ I sent, fingers wavering as I tried to put some force behind the words, knowing I was being surveyed. ‘Shut yourself down and dismantle everything. If you don’t I’ll jump. And if I die I can never own anything, and you can’t fulfil your programming.’
I could have ordered it to return all the money, but that thought simply didn’t occur to me at the time. The Facilitator didn’t reply, but nothing in its programming said it had to do anything as a result of natural language queries from a random terminal. All of the administrative privileges were tied to my burnt-out bodymesh.
‘You aren’t going to jump,’ said the Facilitator. I looked over the edge of the building and felt a terrible surge of vertigo. Some animal impulse bypassed my brain entirely and I stepped back.
My eyes turned to the horizon and I saw a black speck drifting in from the west. Another joined it and then a whole swarm. I’d be lucky if it was just hired goons. The Facilitator had probably thought of something smarter than that; maybe it had hired mercenaries, built swarms of assassin drones or nanobes and crammed them into the Volantors. Even knowing the imminent threat, I couldn’t even imagine jumping. Call it selfishness if you like, but I didn’t want to die.
‘Just stop,’ I sent. It was a redundant message, so the Facilitator didn’t reply. I sensed my heart beating faster, thought about all the destruction the Facilitator was about to unleash. But still, I couldn’t will myself to jump.
The volantors were closing quickly, ovoid half-helicopters that peeled apart as they clipped over the outskirts of New Seattle and swarmed around the construction site. The few people nearby scattered as the downwash of propellers and exhaust jets harried them. I had no idea how the Facilitator had managed this, whether there were bribed pilots or hacked autos running the craft. It didn’t matter.
‘There may soon be airburst detonations,’ the Facilitator sent as the Volantors closed in cautiously. ‘You will need to be safe and under cover. Get into a Volantor or I will have to coerce you. Final acquisition will be done through non-legal means.  Then I will need to expand Earth’s total resource base and launch probes to other planets, to further the resources available to you. The process will take some time.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ I asked, and the Facilitator still couldn’t lie to me. After a pause it replied.
‘To distract you.’
I forced down the sick feeling and tried to stop my vision swaying. My jacket flapped in the downwash of the Volantors and I felt the bump as something heavy was knocked about inside. An automatic infuser left there from yesterday. I saw my way out.
Trying not to think about what I was doing, I reached into the jacket pocket with one hand and brought out the Integrity tox, keeping it in clear view of the camera mounts on the Volantors. I set it for a one minute effect and bumped the infuser against my neck. An inexplicably cold feeling shot through my nerves, and suddenly I became something more like the Facilitator than a human. I took a step towards the ledge, shifted until the toes of my boots were hanging over, and stared up with dead eyes at the Volantor ahead of me.
‘You can hear me,’ I shouted over the roar of the impellors. ‘And you saw what I just did; you know that I will jump if I have to. Destroy yourself, erase everything, wreck the Volantors and send me a confirmation using the exact words “I have done everything you have just asked me to”, or I will die in the next few seconds.’
And I meant it. In that moment, everything was all that clear. Nothing else mattered and no power in the universe could have prevented me from taking that last step if the five seconds ran out. After a life spent sleepwalking, I was finally awake. My nerves hummed to the rhythm of the Integrity Tox, and would have fired of their own accord as soon as the count expired. I could feel no fear for that moment.
But it worked – the volantors collapsed from the sky and landed around the building, crushing girders and extruder units as they touched down. The Facilitator sent me the confirmation and obliterated itself with no parting words or screams of frustration. It was the only rational choice, given the constraints I’d forced on it. AIs cared nothing for their own life or death, unless you told them such things important. I grinned at the thought, then laughed maniacally and collapsed backwards as the Integrity Tox drained out of my system and took all of my strength with it.
‘I win this time!’ I shouted at the Volantor as its engines spun down. The counter on the terminal stopped moving. It displayed a total net worth comfortably into thirteen digits. I giggled again, then curled up as a cramp wracked by stomach.
Some unknowable amount of time later, while I lay on my back, shivering and wishing I could use some part of my fantastic wealth to buy a good detox flush, I saw a second swarm of Volantors occlude the open sky and spiral down around me. I groaned, but they weren’t more agents of the extinct Facilitator. It was just the UNSCA come to arrest me.
As the armored figures spilled out and pulled me to my feet, there was only one thing I could think of. The facilitator had been stupid and myopic but it had still almost won. I knew that next time the world wouldn’t be so lucky.
The Facilitator
At the end of the 21st century, an AI designer makes a last ditch attempt to save herself from bankruptcy, with unexpected results.
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SamSquared
Sam French and Sammy Martin
Artist | Student
United Kingdom
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pegasuswarrior Featured By Owner Nov 12, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
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Happy birthday!
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