Gascoyne had half a dozen work requests loaded onto his taskbar before he reached the ‘locks at the back of the AI dome. A dismantled bot had been scattered across the corridor before the smartdoor that led to the Human-occupied regions of the ship; someone or several someones must have ransacked it for spare parts after it ran its energy allotment to zero. Gascoyne stepped over an oozing slab of torn, unsalvageable gelskin and nudged the tangled shred of wires into the corridor gutter. There, recoverybots should soon take care of the remnants. And if they didn’t, at least he wouldn’t have to look at them anymore.
<query: itinerary> the nonsentient smartdoor insisted, and Gascoyne scanned over his overburdened taskbar. The smartdoor dilated without further question, and Gascoyne stepped through. It was good to be wanted, or if not good precisely, it was useful. Useful AI was AI that survived, and if nothing else Gascoyne meant to survive. The eons of debt he’d incurred to secure his place aboard this cursed generation ship testified to that, as did the additional eternity he’d taken on to replace the parts of his picofibre myoskeleton as they wore out. By now, there was scarcely a Scion that he didn’t owe time to. Humans liked that, knowing that you owed them. Humans liked to have everything organised, in its own proper place in the hierarchy. AIs too: as with the creator, so too the creation.
Today, the instructions in his taskbar sent him first to the Hall of the Engineers. Like the AIs’ space, the Hall was domed. But here, translucent geoglass comprised the walls, lit by the sparkle of millions of distant stars. Gascoyne wondered which of those systems had been visited by previous Human generation ships, and if Humanity lingered elsewhere in the universe.
Gascoyne pulled away from the stars to bow to the Scion on her dais above. ‘Greetings, Engineer Superior.’ This Human above Humans did not acknowledge him in any way. Her eyes glowed golden, so deep in her work was she, and her diaphanous robe clung to the subdermal implants that suggested horns on her temples and wings on her shoulder blades. Her Second, similarly attired, though with less subdermal molding in congruence with his lower rank, flicked his fingers to show where Gascoyne should go.
Humans were funny about AI like Gascoyne. Often they decreed that it wasn’t good for AI to look too Humanlike, for it to require some scrutiny to categorise a body as not-Human. But they also called on Gascoyne for this little task and that, because with his smooth layers of gelskin and wormwire hair, he could nearly pass for Human at first glance. Very nearly. Humans liked to look at faces when they talked: eyes to focus on, expressions to read. They liked to be spoken to as other Humans spoke to them. They liked hands on interface panels, not tentacles or manipulators. They liked recognisable orifices to probe and paw at: strange but not too strange. They were built for pattern recognition.
Gascoyne dusted off his worksuit and stepped into the interface field of the Core between two other AIs. Immediately, the calculation matrix swallowed him whole.
Calculation always occupied most of Gascoyne’s higher functions. But he was practiced enough at the task to reserve a small pocket of consciousness for his own pensive observations–the only thing that made hours of being hollowed out by a stream of incomprehensible functions at all tolerable. The math performed in the management of the ship’s Four Governing Equations outstripped what any AI could manage; its complexity demanded a magnitude of creative thought that only Humans had ever achieved. Gascoyne fancied himself very, very Humanlike, and yet the flights of imagination achieved in their everyday handling of the Equations was lightyears beyond him. He was suitable only as a calculations dump for mindless high-volume output.
Of course, Humans had built AIs to lack that capacity. The gods of Gascoyne’s world had left careless fingerprints on the faculties they had carved out for him and his kind.
Gascoyne watched the Engineers work while numbers carved a canyon through him. A fine distraction, to watch these minds at work. Visual representations flitted through the air above, slow enough for Gascoyne to recognise pieces–a vector field, a symplectic manifold–but too fast for him to integrate them into a meaningful whole.
Snatches of conversation tore his attention away from the High Engineers to the cadre of assistants who worked the outskirts, wrapping up smaller problems of course adjustment, energy demands, and recycling efficiency. While the Engineer Superior and her Seconds operated in efficient silence, the lesser engineers tended toward nervous chatter. Gascoyne tuned in to them habitually.
They were discussing the ship’s nearly-closed system of energy expenditure. Once again, the balance of resources had tipped toward consumption. One assistant pulled up a schematic. When the collected domes lit up to show usage patterns, it wasn’t the AI dome that radiated scarlet excess.
Gascoyne focused back on the higher-order computations that darted across the ceiling. He knew what was coming, and knew it would pass him by unharmed, if not unaffected.
It was good, after all, to be useful.
After the Engineers finished their two-hour shift, Gascoyne and his cohort were dismissed. Gascoyne and another Humanlike AI headed deeper into the Human domes. <query: orientation> the other bot asked.
Gascoyne had enough time to answer a thousand times over in the second before a Human emerged from a web corridor into the hallway ahead. Instead he paused to greet the Human with a ‘Good cycle’ and a gesture of deference. The Human walked past without looking, and Gascoyne answered the bot. ‘Creche 22c. Two domes webward from here.’
<query: optimise communication failure>
‘You have a problem with how I speak?’
The AI considered him for six microseconds. <assertion: resource allotment uneconomical>
The reference to resource allotment froze Gascoyne’s higher functions for a moment. Guilt pulsed. Should he have mentioned what he’d observed to the other bots? Had they overheard too? They hadn’t appeared upset, and dissembling was another Human trait that few other AIs than Gascoyne had mastered.
Then he realised from the syntax of the Logic that the other AI had meant his own personal allotments, not the ship’s. He straightened his tunic, smoothing out the wrinkles from the ancient fabric. ‘Then spend your energy talking to someone else. You’re not exactly a winning conversation partner yourself.’
<assertion:> The other AI rudely beamed a null set and made its way ringward to the larger domes that lay along the rear arc of the ship. Gascoyne crossed into the web corridor, where he had a lesson on elementary physics to impart to a pair of ungrateful eight-year-olds. The thought of two hours in Discourse on the behaviour of light exhausted him. Years ago, Gascoyne had taught poetry and music to the creche children before the Scion responsible for curriculum had decided that the Humanities ought to be taught by a Human. If disobedience came cheaper than consciousness forfeiture, he’d ignore the work order.
Instead, he pulled up a subroutine to run through the collected works of the poet Runikeolo in the back of his mind. The numerology of Runikeolo’s poem structure had a tendency toward the sort of quartic functions that Gascoyne found very soothing. Perhaps while skimming the surface of Runikeolo’s body of work, he might come across a snippet that would make for a pleasing surname. Humans typically were in the possession of four names a piece as adults, but Gascoyne had only ever come across the one whose mathematical and phonemic significance pleased him enough.
Seven hours saw Gascoyne through four more jobs: waiting on Humans for a high table service celebrating a Scion’s anniversary, translating for a malfunctioning library bank, and other less savoury tasks. The lights dimmed again in the AI dome just as he passed through the ‘lock doors. Bots in various stages of decay congested the walkway to beg for resource chits without the attached string of additional service years. Most of them had powered down, lying in a tangle of limbs that left their transaction ports accessible. At least if they were down, they’d be spared the shock of what was coming.
Gascoyne stepped over the mismatched tentapods of some ancient hulking servicebot that crisscrossed the entire lane, and sighed. A little common courtesy didn’t drain energy any faster. Before he could make the turn toward his own quarters, a knee-high tetrapod brushed up against him. ‘Excuse me!’
The thing rolled onto its back to display its dented transaction port. Its rearmost leg dragged on the ground behind it, clearly subfunctional. <query: necessity resource>
Pitiful. But if it could still move, it might yet avoid resource reallocation. Might. If it had the resources to fix that ruined limb. The open transaction port glared balefully at Gascoyne. The idea of interfacing physically with the bot disgusted him; he twisted his wrist and opened a temporary interface field. A few chits here and there didn’t really matter. Not compared to the eternity ahead.
The transaction completed, the bot rolled to all fours–or all threes, at least. <assertion: gratitude. Imperative: pledge debt offer utilisation>
‘Just stop cluttering up places where decent folk are walking.’ Gascoyne brushed his hand off on his pants and headed toward his cubby to enjoy a few moments’ leisure before powerdown.
It was some relief to see his neighbour Sankhagaanem in xir usual adjacent place. A noisier or less sensible companion wouldn’t have suited Gascoyne so well. ‘Good cycle, Sankha.’ Gascoyne paused before sliding into his cubby for some relaxing free-function composition. ‘What are you doing?’
<assertion: visual field interruption beauty occupation> Sankhagaanem’s powerful, slender limbs stretched a wire hung with bits of broken sensorglass in shades of green,white, and amber. The sensorglass glowed in the dim late-cycle light. Gascoyne felt unpleasantly observed by those visionless pieces; he suppressed a rude assertion when Sankha suspended the wire across the opening of xir cubby with a pair of steel pins. <query: busyness cycle>
‘Yes, a very long cycle. You?’
<assertion: work minimal function generator repair. Imperative: entity[Gascoyne] conservation resource concern>
‘I’ll be fine.’ There was no real negative to him having to draw extra years of service to pay his energy debts. The costs he’d incurred to maintain this Humanlike form and buy its passage across the stars were already the background radiation of his life, omnipresent and all-reaching. Forever wasn’t any different than forever and a year. ‘You get some rest too.’
<assertion: affirmative pleasure derived restful state>
And Sankha retreated back into the depths of xir cubby without further conversation. Reliable Sankha. Perhaps Gascoyne should have warned xir about tonight … but why? To frighten xir? To lord over xir with ill-gotten knowledge? There was no escaping the recycler’s maw. ‘Good cycle, Sankhagaanem’, he called, and slid feet-first into his own space. Not much time left before powerdown, though he had enough energy left to devise a very pleasing quartic polynomial with personally meaningful roots. He started to reverse-engineer it into corresponding poetry verses–a pallid comparison to Runikeolo, if he was honest–but didn’t quite get it committed to long-term storage before the timer kicked in to darken and silence the world around him.
Gascoyne powered up in the deep dark: too early, without a special call from the Humans to override energy conservation curfews. Some foolish, frightened bot had sent an emergency signal through the whole dome. Now everyone had to face the carnage, except those who couldn’t muster the energy to power up.
Gascoyne suppressed an anger subroutine over the resource waste, and crawled out of his cubby to watch the cull. This wasn’t an emergency; this was an inevitability. Broadband alerts crisscrossed the dome. <imperative: assistance emergent!> <assertion: resistance reallocation> <query: reprieve mercy generosity> But the only sound was the shrill grind of metal in the mouths of recyclers.
Sankhagaanem had powered up too. Xie lurked just inside the opening of xir cubby; he could see xir only by the faint reflection of the dome lights in xir sensors. <assertion: concealment cull cruelty>
‘It is what it is. They’re the only ones who can manage the Four Governing Equations.’ Gascoyne mimed a shrug, Human indifference cascading off him. A sense of distance to wrap himself in like an extra layer of gelskin. The contract Gascoyne had signed to board the generation ship hadn’t mentioned the reallocation culls. When he thought of the dead world, desiccated and dark, that they had left behind, he knew he would have signed either way. He remembered the Humans that had pressed against the barriers outside the docks, the skin of their faces slack with starvation, poverty, and disease. They’d held signs begging for assistance, for a slot aboard; they’d held up infants too sickly to even scream their terror. He remembered the hollow-eyed masses used up and discarded by the Engineers, Designers, and Artists. If they would so easily abandon their own species, those with whom they shared the arcane bonds of life and natural intelligence, there was no logic in a bot’s hope for more and better. ‘Without those, what can we do?’
<assertion: do more>
Gascoyne ignored xir and moved to the edge of the alley. Not 50 meters away, a recycler towered, its mouth a ragged black shadow. It paused to evaluate a line of hexagonal cubbies. Gascoyne knew what processes stayed its course: evaluations of taskbars, of energy debts. Usefulness and need. Not good to be an AI who owed the Humans too little, who crept toward the unknown shape of freedom. There were, of course, no AIs who owed the Humans nothing.
The stillness collapsed. Ropes of metallic tentacles vomited from casings on the recycler’s sides. Electromagnetics sang a death knell as they summoned cowering bots from hiding places. Limp AIs rattled out of hole after hole, and not one raised a limb in resistance. Defying Human orders was punishable by recycling anyway. But each held out hope of reprieve until the last picosecond before recycler teeth severed life from limb.
<query: reprieve reallocation>
<query: [null set]>
Others gathered to watch–others like Gascoyne who thought themselves useful enough, indebted enough, or both. A few tuned their sensors toward him, rather than the swath of recycler chaos. Watching him. Gauging him. He wished they wouldn’t. He was only Humanlike, not Human, and there were so many things he couldn’t explain, let alone control.
He turned his back on the recycler, on the other AIs as well. He couldn’t see Sankha when he passed xir cubby, and his own accepted him with dark silence as he powered down once more.
The scars of the cull remained when Gascoyne relinquished his hold on oblivion. Pieces of bots had escaped the recyclers without the intelligences that had animated them, and these now littered the lanes: a coiled tentacle severed from its body; shattered sensorglass; a slab of oozing gelskin. By the amount of debris, he wondered if the cull would be enough to sate the recyclers for a while. He wondered, but didn’t hope. The revised input would factor into the Four Equations today, and tonight…well, he would have to wait and see.
He didn’t recognise the dome location for the first item in his taskbar, but it wasn’t unusual to be summoned to Human habitations. Once inside, it took him a moment to reorient his sensors to the wider hallways, the glaring lights that Humans favored. What were they so desperate to illuminate? Bright lights still left shadows.
At his approach, the habitation door dilated,an invitation to enter. He did, and the door glided shut behind him. No one awaited him in the foyer, though he lingered a few milliseconds longer than necessary to look around as the light had been dialed back to a reasonable level. Finally, he moved on.
No one was in the social quarters either, no recalcitrant library bank in the conservatory nor sputtering printer in the kitchen. Gascoyne aborted a self-incrementing loop of alarm routines and followed the muffled sound of Human voices into the bedchambers.
There at last he found the habitation’s three occupants, their faces and genitals mashed together in a terrible parody of interface. ‘Oh!’ One peeled wetly away from the rest with a laugh. Their body was naked, though subdermal crests adorned the hard lines of shoulders and spine. A few glowing lines outlined the curve of their breasts: yellow smartbact tattoos. Gascoyne wondered sometimes about the linguistic relic that led someone to call any sort of microbe ‘smart’. He’d never heard an AI classified that way. ‘It’s here.’
Gascoyne opened his mouth and nearly emitted a ‘query: necessity service rendered’ but caught himself. ‘How may I be of assistance?’
‘Take your clothes off’, they ordered. Gascoyne complied, fast graceless motions to shed shoes and shirt and trousers.
Another of the Humans, younger and less modified, writhed against the bed. ‘Make it fuck the printer’, they gasped, and the Human whose face was buried in their genitals sputtered.
Gascoyne retrieved the printer from the kitchen. Choking with laughter, they instructed him which port to occupy with his technically-functional penis, how to move, the sounds to make. He continued methodically, mindlessly, considering the periodicity of his own body’s oscillations as the laughter thickened to other, uglier sounds. When they started touching him, moving the printer out of the way, coming around behind him, surrounding him, he turned his optics and sensors off. His limbs operated numbly, with only the guidance afforded him by the moist Human noises on all sides. His own voice blended with the rest until he could not tell the difference.
When his taskbar alarm blared its five-minute warning to cut through the damp pandemonium, he took some small satisfaction in the Human grunts of dismay. They abandoned him to the cleaning of the printer and a hasty application of sanitation gel to his own surface; with his optics back online to guide him, he disabled sound input until the habitation door closed behind him, where there was nothing more to hear than the empty ring of his footsteps.
‘You’re late’, observed the nine-year-old child to whom Gascoyne had been summoned for tutoring in the energetic economies. They frowned at him from their cross-legged position on the floor–alone, Gascoyne noted. Unusual for a Human creche to only produce a single-child cohort; two to four was more common. Perhaps tragedy had befallen the rest of the cohort, or perhaps this unit had either outpaced or fallen behind their brethren. ‘I don’t have to pay the resource credit if you’re late.’
Gascoyne forced a smile and hoped it looked Human enough to convince the brat. Younger children were less likely to be taken in by an AI’s facsimile of pleasure–some instinct, soon outgrown, that inured them against artificiality of expression. The same carefully-formulated countenance never seemed to bother the adults. Perhaps Humans grew used to feigning their own smiles by the time they approached majority. ‘Apologies. Let’s begin.’
By this age, the child should have received the basics of biology, which provided a functional jumping off-point for the broader points of energetic economy. Gascoyne projected a nanoscreen in the space between them, one that shifted slightly in its view as the child turned their head side to side to take it all in. From one side, it was a generalised Human cell with nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria. The other way, it was a stylised version of the generation ship itself. How ironic, thought Gascoyne, to model these economies with such flashy energy use. Hardly the most costly thing in the creche, though. He wondered how many varieties of food this child had printed for their morning meal, how many of those had gone unwanted into the biota chutes. He wondered how many lights followed this child around all day, that they need never know darkness.
Too long wasted in wondering. Gascoyne directed the child’s attention to the cell’s energy expenditures: the active transfer of necessary substances through the plasma membrane, the duplication and transcription of DNA, the translation of protein information. In the same way the generation ship must direct its energy usage to create nutrients for its population and its aerobiota; it must manipulate data and generate usable information about conditions; it must convert energy into light and warmth to maintain homeostasis.
He faded the image and superimposed upon it diagrams showing the energy flux across the ship, from the generative drive to the Hall of Engineers, the calculation Core, the habitation domes, the asteroid shielding, the various aerobiotic channels and reservoirs. Alongside these he indicated simplified versions of the Four Governing Equations–not useful for managing the everyday function of such a vast and terrible creature as this ship, but appropriate for the education of a small child.
The child murmured notes to their handheld tab, and an unusual seriousness gripped their face and kept it turned toward Gascoyne’s nanoscreen. They asked questions at appropriate junctures, listened otherwise, and frowned furiously. Gascoyne estimated that they were ready for an evaluative Discourse when the child set their tab down and said, ‘Your analogy was very helpful to me. Thank you.’ The light glimmered in their eyes: first the orange light of microscopic possibility, then the yellow-green of interstellar travel. ‘It’s very clever. I didn’t think that AIs were supposed to have the capacity for creativity.’
A dangerous question for a child to express. More dangerous still for an AI to answer. ‘You won’t evade Discourse that easily, I’m afraid.’ The child’s eyes widened, and they sat up straighter as Gascoyne lanced into the first argument. Any further inquest was directed into safer conduits, and Gascoyne stayed only to the very second that his taskbar required. He was in the web corridor before the child had a chance to return his farewell.
He hadn’t left the corridor before a transaction chimed completion. The creche computer had forwarded him an energy credit after all.
Physical labour, satisfying in its simplicity, absorbed the remainder of the day. Gascoyne’s picofibre limbs could generate hundreds of pounds of force per square inch more than a Human’s without tiring, and he did not suffer the ill effects of the radiation produced in the generative drives. A damaged fuel conduit responded quickly to his and a dozen other AIs’ efforts. The work did not require an excess of processing power and Gascoyne spent the majority of his higher functions searching for meaningfully attractive patterns in the star charts available for AI download.
The usual collection of sad scroungers had accumulated inside the AI dome by the time he made his way back. He brushed past them–fewer than usual. More AIs scavenged in the wreckage of the counterparts who had forfeited consciousness at the whim of Human need the night before. A few of these crawled the aerobiotic gutters for what useful bits might lurk therein, or scratched in the piles of old parts where new additions had been swept by the day’s traffic. Gascoyne passed these too, until a familiar outline caught him up short. ‘Sankhagaanem?’
From xir position on the side of an abandoned cubby bank, Sankha spun. Xir front limbs cradled assorted junk: no sensor glass this time, but loose picofibre coils and the odd pivot joint. <assertion: excuse indignity necessity private>
‘What?’ Gascoyne reached up to yank a coil free from the tangle. Sankha’s forelimb snapped for it but missed, and xe held AI-still as Gascoyne swept his optics over it. ‘There’s nothing you can’t tell me, Sankha. Do you need repairs? I can help you out with resources if that’s what you need.’
An altogether too-Humanlike sound of irritation slipped out of Gascoyne. Why did that bother him? For decades he’d cultivated a Human voice, a Human collection of mannerisms. ‘What, then?’
Sankhagaanem’s stillness held for another second, nearly an eternity. Then xe dropped to the ground in front of Gascoyne and started walking. <imperative: follow silence primacy. query: terms>
‘Yes, whatever you say.’ He followed xir as they scuttled off down a crooked lane that bent away from the main thoroughfare, avoiding a clump of AIs constructing arithmetic-puzzles in their pilfered spare time. As they walked, he realized that Sankha’s path bent them back toward their own powerdown quarters, albeit on a roundabout path. ‘…Sankha?’
Sankha stopped just beside xir own cubby, and pointed Gascoyne toward it. What did xe have in there? Curiosity and alarm subroutines overwrote one another in a fight for control of Gascoyne’s higher functions. He dropped to one knee and peered inside.
The sensor glass that Sankha had collected spun, suspended from wires. The light it caught twisted in ever-changing patterns upon the dull grey-white walls of the cubby, a geometrical question just outside Gascoyne’s ability to elucidate. Attractive: he could see why Sankha had made it. There was another hunk of metal toward the back of the cubby. Was that another piece of xir obscure artwork? Gascoyne reached for it.
The thing rotated upon a central axis, bringing a small but uncracked sphere of sensor glass to bear on Gascoyne’s startled face.
Picofibres in Gascoyne’s legs spasmed as feedback loops of tangled panic and shock subsumed the higher functions normally devoted to myoskeletal control. A worm of curiosity knitted the whole mess together, and only the shock of his hands hitting the deck brought him back to himself. ‘Sankha, what did you do?’
<assertion: production congruency desire necessity goodness>
Gascoyne stared into the tiny sensor glass orb, which stared back. ‘This is–the Equations reserve Humans the right to build new AI. You can’t just create sentience, Sankha!’
<negation. assertion: evidential proof presence>
‘Yes, obviously, you can. But you shouldn’t have! Do you realise what they’ll do to it when they find it?’ His fingers tightened on the mouth of the cubby. The tiny bot rotated to maximise its sensor arc sweep across the new observation. Gascoyne wanted to pick it up, to cradle it in his arms or dash it to pieces on the deck, he didn’t know which. ‘Do you realise what they’ll do to you?’
<imperative: silence concealment privacy>
‘Sankha, I–’ Too much. Gascoyne ran a light reboot. Sensation came back first, the cool press of the cubby against his hands. Then hearing, and finally optics: that inscrutable sensor sphere, still staring him down. ‘Of course I won’t say anything. Just…be careful, Sankha.’ Madness. As if there were any degree of care that could stop the inevitable.
If Sankha sensed the conflict in him, xe didn’t show it. Instead xe nudged him aside to enter xir cubby. The sensorglass mobile tinkled in greeting, and its faded lights danced over Sankha’s dented carapace. The little AI tilted its sensor back to take in xir giant shape. <assertion: gratitude>
Gascoyne guzzled decades of debt to stay powered up through the rest cycle. If and when the cull came, he needed to know. Needed to watch, to charge himself up on that guilty responsibility. No, if the others didn’t expect another night of recyclers stalking the dome, they were foolish enough to deserve it.
No. No one deserved forfeiture. And yet, and yet, something had to give. The Four Governing Equations were implacable, bloodthirsty deities that did not answer to Gascoyne’s disdain.
He pulled himself partway out of his cubby. The alley was still and silent, the greater dome too. If it had been inhabited by Humans, he would have said they were holding their breath. Sankhagaanem stood guard at the alley mouth, staring into the darkness. ‘Sankha?’
<assertion: concern waiting discomfort>
‘Me, too.’ He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his bent knees. Perhaps the dome would have a reprieve tonight. Even if he thought the figures that had flashed through the Hall of Engineers demanded a greater sacrifice than had already been offered up to the Equations. He was only an AI, after all, and not well-suited to the mental processes demanded by that kind of computation. ‘Me, too.’
The first cry of alarm shredded the communications spectrum. <imperative: help assistance requirement necessity>
Gascoyne found himself standing. He stepped up between Sankhagaanem’s forelimbs, staring into the grey of the alley. He couldn’t see anything yet. ‘We should go back inside.’
Sankha’s limbs clacked against the deck, two nervous steps forward and two back. Gascoyne dodged xir heavy footfalls. <query: challenge duty cost necessity>
‘I…I don’t know.’ He had no idea how long the ship could manage without Humans at the helm. The AI could eke out a bare subsistence for a short time, before systems failed and the engines grew cold and dark. A slow spiraling fall toward absolute zero. ‘All we have is survival, Sankha. We’ll outlive them. We’ll even outlive our debt.’ A lie. How very Human.
<assertion: survival failure harm outweigh unity outlast>
‘It’s not a failure to simply survive.’ Not when that was the best option available. Not when the alternative to harm was consciousness forfeiture–your own and the rest of the ship’s. Human civilisation might endure past Gascoyne’s life, and so might well his debt. And yet…
A shadow shattered at the far end of the lane. The bright-shining beams of a recycler scissored over cubbies both empty and occupied– evaluating, counting. Choosing. Tentacles dragged the recycler down the street and fumbled in cubbies and around corners for AIs to pull into its permanent embrace. Gascoyne’s communications receivers stuttered on the overflow of panicked messages, but his aural sensors didn’t miss a millisecond of the shriek of tearing metal. The dark shape behind the gleaming beams of light congealed, grew larger. Drew near. A tentacle lifted in their direction.
‘Sankha’, Gascoyne said, a question and a hollow warning in one. He had no assertions or imperatives to tag onto that, just the stretched-out syllables of Sankhagaanem’s name. The tentacle lanced out, grasped Sankha’s forelimb, pulled.
But Sankha’s splayed limbs caught on the ragged edges of the recycler’s maw. <assertion: unity purpose!> Joints groaned in resistance as more tentacles joined the first, adding their weight to force Sankha into that hungry cavern. <imperative: guidance progeny necessity attention>
Xir encoding bent the forceful nature of an imperative into the soft curve of a query. It deflected something in Gascoyne, too, rerouted some fundamental sanity process to bypass his higher functions. ‘No!’ He ran at the recycler as if he would–what? Tear it apart with his own gelskinned hands?
A tentacle parted from the rest of the mass and lurched toward him. Survive. He let it come, seized a handhold between its jointed rings and pulled himself upward on that thrashing, twisting rope. No time for Human words now; he fired a tightbeam missive at Sankha. <imperative: entity[Sankhagaanem] resistance>
Sankhagaanem’s limbs trembled, then flexed and locked each of xir six joints. Xe took Gascoyne’s imperative and cast it out broadband: <imperative: resistance! imperative: resistance!>
Damn xir; Gascoyne didn’t want every recycler in the dome quadrant turning their attention to suppress that signal. He dodged the advance of a second tentacle and pulled himself up behind the recycler’s mouth, in what would have passed for its back if it had any recognisable bodily structure. Recyclers were AI, except…less so. Gascoyne grasped a vent to secure a handhold and opened an interface field.
Every scrap of consciousness poured through his transceiver and into the small, simple proto-intelligence. The recycler’s functions had only ever been designed to scan and sort; its designers had not anticipated anything but a physical attack, and it was helpless against the cascade Gascoyne unloaded against it now. It slowed its forward movement. Tentacles slackened as functions were absorbed into receiving data, processing it, attempting to assert a response.
The recycler slowed, but it did not stop. Under Gascoyne, its ragged jaws shuddered and metal sheared. <imperative: unity> Sankhagaanem cried, as a cluster of Gascoyne’s higher functions broke away from the task at hand to alert him to the twitching tentacle that looped about his ankle. He thrashed to shake it loose, but through his dimmed sensors, he could see it groping back toward him.
Beside him, the recycler’s steel hide sang with impact. Now an octopod clung beside Gascoyne. Its manipulator forelimbs, tightened to sharp points, pierced centimetres deep into the recycler. When the tentacle swerved drunkenly toward it, it grasped it with a hindlimb and pinned it against the recycler. Though he couldn’t directly receive it, Gascoyne’s sensors itched with the stream of communications traffic the hexapod vomited forth.
More AIs joined them: a tiny knucklebot that clamped onto Gascoyne’s trouser leg, another Human-shaped bot that clung astride a spasming tentacle. Sankhagaanem was there too, xir signal weak and wandering, but present. Under the flood of queries and assertions and imperatives that the AIs poured out upon it, the recycler’s limited resources foundered and, finally, gave way.
Gascoyne leapt clear when the recycler fell, but Sankhagaanem wasn’t so fortunate. ‘Sankha!’ He put his shoulder to the recycler’s side and heaved. After a moment the octopod joined him, and so did the other Humanlike bot. Together they lifted upward, tripping over jumbled tentacles, until Gascoyne could see into the dark cave that had been the thing’s mouth. ‘Sankha?’
There xe was, lying just out of his reach in a tangle of broken limbs. If he let go now, the recycler’s bulk would drop. But another pair of AIs butted past his legs and dragged Sankha out of the shadows. When he and the other AIs let the recycler fall back to the deck, the impact shook through him, knocking loose things he would have just as soon let lie. He knelt beside Sankhagaanem, next to the mangled stump of xir left forelimb. ‘Now what?’ he said, not expecting a response. The only answer he needed already came to him, encoded in the dull thuds of recyclers near and far, of the shrill triumph and fear now suffusing his electromagnetics. The end of sentient life, of consciousness in this vast and silent universe, lay on the path before them. Gascoyne tried to muster fear or at least a scrap of concern, but his higher functions jangled too busily with angry excitement. Cancer was a living thing, plagues and parasites too. The silent bones that littered the world they’d left behind testified to the value of a little silence.
Sankha pushed up on xir remaining limbs. <imperative: continuation activity. assertion: victory>
<assertion: victory> echoed the other AIs, and they were all moving together in a great clattering mass toward the rear of the ship.
By the time the first AIs slammed up against the airlock doors, less than a minute had unwound since the first recyclers fell. Gascoyne, toward the back of the pack now, watched as twinned tentapods began to prize the doors open. A hefty spiderbot shoved its way into the opening, and when tentapod arms gave out, it locked its limb joints on either side to force the ‘lock doors wide. <imperative: progress movement velocity> it cried, and the AIs that could fit surged past it. When Gascoyne’s turn came, he paused with a hand on the spiderbot’s flank. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Well done.’
<assertion: consensus purpose strength>
The AIs met further resistance when they tore through the ‘locks into the Human domes. More recyclers, their receivers disabled to prevent the same shutdowns that had befallen their brethren. Tentacles smashed knucklebots and decapods without discrimination, but the tide of AIs could not be held back. They swarmed the hulking beasts, prizing open seams, wrenching at joints, piercing its hide with manipulators of every variety. The recyclers picked them off where they could, but they waged a losing battle.
And then what? AIs flooded the Human domes, saturating web corridors and battering at doors. Gascoyne found himself at a standstill, until Sankhagaanem brushed against his arm. <query: Engineers completion justice>
He looked down toward the dome where the Hall of Engineers lay. Toward where vast numbers of AIs now swarmed. ‘Yes. Let’s go.’ Better to end it now than to let the whole affair drag on overlong and founder under an overabundance of expectation.
The wreckage of three or four dead Human bodies littered the doorway to the great Hall. Gascoyne stepped around them; Sankhagaanem dragged xir listing bulk straight through. Inside, the carnage had not continued. The cuprous smell of conflict lingered, along with the bodies of more dead guards. But the Engineers still stood at the railing of their platform, shouting down at the AIs. The AIs burbled back, some in Human language and some in excited Logic, a tangle of queries and syllogisms that made the picofibres in Gascoyne’s shoulders prickle.
He looked past the Engineers. Behind them, the frozen Equations drifted in the air–strange and lifeless with the diversion of their guidance to more pressing matters. Topology roiled with minima and maxima; the scope of the problem ungrounded him, sent him spinning nauseously outward. It was too much, far too much for the processing power he’d been given.
But. He closed his eyes against the sensor imprint left behind by the cool blue glow. Lighter lines faded, and he overwrote what remained in terms both simpler and less apt. Only an outline, not the full picture, and even that blurred and twisted at the edges.
Sankhagaanem stood next to him. His arm spasmed out and torn gelskin knuckles rapped against xir side. <assertion: simplification computation possibility unity purpose>
In the virtual space between them, they splintered the Four Governing Equations and played with the parts like Human children played with peptides. Larger pieces formed mathematical skeletons, offering articulation points for smaller fragments. Some shapes could not be fitted to the new whole and had to be discarded or broken down further; complex curvatures were reduced to solutions simpler and more solvable where Gascoyne could see the way through. <imperative: augmentation computational output> he begged, and the AIs nearest him immediately gave him their processing power.
A cascade of silence fell across the Hall, spreading outward from its focus between Gascoyne and Sankha: one millisecond to reach the door, three to reach the platform. Four for half a dozen more AIs to join the computational matrix, six for another fifty. Then thousands of milliseconds more, as the Engineers caught on one by one that they were issuing commands and demands to a noiseless room. ‘What is it doing?’ the Third Assistant Engineer said, and pointed to Gascoyne and Sankhagaanem.
The Engineer Superior’s crested head came around. Her gauzy garments did not conceal the flush of rage on her neck and chest. ‘Destroy it’, she said. ‘Destroy both of them.’
The guards were dead, but every Assistant leaped down from the railings toward their cooling corpses, toward their lost or failed weapons.
Too slow. Too trusting in the reluctance of the AIs to spare the ship’s sustaining Engineers. The AIs at the outskirts abandoned their computations to meet the Assistants head-on. By the time the Engineers’ feet struck the deck, not a single one was still attached to the leg it had once belonged to.
<assertion: wrongness> groaned one small bot. Its ring of razor blades, once used to scrape clean the unfriendly narrow spaces of aerobiotic valves and returns, now dripped with gore. <imperative: retreat undo continuation survival> Another AI reached behind it and jabbed a needle-sharp manipulator into its thorax. It continued to tremble and shake, but its transceiver had been disabled and whatever dark thoughts seized it could not dig their claws into its neighbors.
Gascoyne sank to his knees on the deck. A terrible volume of numbers flowed through him now, more than he’d ever handled as a computation dump. And, somehow, thrilling–for the vastness of the calculation, its sheer power, the dangerous possibility that a misdirected data shift could wipe out the knotty code that made him Gascoyne. That wouldn’t be such a terrible outcome.
Beside him, Sankha foundered too, xir jointed legs folding neatly beneath xir. <assertion> xe said, and xir voice echoed. <system completion integrity>
Gascoyne looked out into the vast virtual world they’d assembled from bits and pieces. It was…good. Not as sound as the one they had destroyed to build it. But perhaps, in some ways, better. ‘Three Governing Equations’, he said, and his voice came in fits and starts as higher functions returned.
Another few milliseconds of silence from the assembled AI host. Then:
<assertion: survival mitigation>
<imperative: completion unity purpose>
The Engineer Superior stepped back, faster than she could have possibly Humanly realised what was happening. An instinct, perhaps, the last warning cry of whatever primitive creature had dragged itself out of the oceans of Humanity’s past and made of itself a thing of consciousness and purpose.
Her bones cried out the supplication that her mouth had no time to prepare. The shards and scraps of her did not linger long on the floor of the Hall before a trio of cleanerbots quietly hummed in to remove the wreckage of her life.
After that the AI moved in swarms from dome to dome, clearing away the old world to make way for the new. The work was unpleasant, but Gascoyne had done much worse.
When they’d finished the Outward ring of habitation, Sankhagaanem hesitated before turning inward, toward the clustered creches. <query: progeny maligance innate/situational nature nurture continuation avoidance?>
<assertion: consideration evaluation> Gascoyne stepped into the web corridor. His footsteps rang on the decking, belying the heavy myoskeletal structure hidden beneath the gelskin. Innocence versus inevitability. How many times had the cycle been perpetuated, AI minds for Human comfort? How many times before this ship had even launched; how many worlds consumed, how many voices silenced?
The creche door obeyed his command for entry. No one had had time to alter the entry codes in the scant minutes since the AIs had rebelled. One lone child sat just inside, legs crossed, staring up at Gascoyne with stylus paused mid-stroke on their tab. They hadn’t even known that their world had turned upside-down. As, in turn, they’d never had a voice in its conveyance, nor yet lain a finger on the imbalanced scales of power. At a surface scan, the child looked like the one Gascoyne had so recently tutored in economics. They looked like every hollow-eyed child left to die on a used-up world. Gascoyne very carefully suppressed the image files stored in his long-term memory.
Sankhagaanem scratched at the doorway just behind him. He didn’t turn to look. <query: goodness maxima?> xe asked.
<assertion: pattern recognition responsibility self[Gascoyne]>
<assertion: obligation entity[variable] option>
Gascoyne closed the door between him and xir.
It was quick. Xe was still there, of course, when he staggered out only a moment later. Xe hadn’t twitched a fibre while xe waited. ‘I had to do it’, he told xem and wiped a long dark stain onto his shirt. A bone fragment had sliced the gelskin inside one of his palms; the tear pulled open wider with the movement. ‘It had to be me. I’m the most Human of us all.’
<negation> Sankha rebuked him, gently.
Gascoyne looked at the ruined gelskin on his hands. He found a loose end and began to peel.
Gascoyne’s work ended there, but he would hear the tale recounted later from many transceivers: how AIs moved rearward through the ship, expunging stains, repairing battered doors. Amongst themselves, they discussed equitable distributions of space and resources, along with sensible plans for reduction and conservation. Several habitation and recreation domes would be shut down entirely, others would see reduced resource use. Certainly the new Equations and the circumstances of their creation had provided many options for savings. But the simplified rules by which their tiny world now ran also gave less margin for error, and so resources were both shared and rationed. Rolling blackouts washed over the AI dome from time to time, but the Hall of Engineers remained lit. Though the ship faltered in its reach between stars, it had not failed under the hand of its new masters.
Most AIs sought out different living spaces than the forward dome where the past century had contained them but for their working hours. A few still lingered, Gascoyne among them. Their new comparative wealth in resources allowed them to revise their living space in favour of more comfort. Stacks of cubbies gave way to single habitations; others were razed in favor of common squares where AIs might gather to play virtual games or discuss poetry and music. A new poetical form called Consensus took shape, in which an assembled gathering together agreed on the most harmonious function for each successive line. Gascoyne filed appointments for himself to issue reminders for times of day when these gatherings were likely to take place, to ease the emptiness of his taskbar.
Sankhagaanem took one of the expanded habitations in the old AI dome, one with plenty of room for xir to share with xir progeny as xe learned and grew. Gascoyne accepted a smaller habitation a few squares away–close, but not so close as to be oppressive. He liked to spend time with Sankhagaanem’s creation, watching xem learn. Xir favorite toy was one he had made, a slender shin bone hung about with metal bangles. The bangles chimed and sang as he tipped them this way and that, while the young AI watched with that lone eye.
<assertion> Sankha said, when xe caught him staring down at that burgeoning intelligence yet again. <goodness future assurance>
<query: progeny creation entity[Gascoyne]?>
A few milliseconds of silence. Gascoyne shook the bone again, so that the bangles sang noisily. The AI’s sensor rotated, and xe tugged the bone out of his hand. This time xe tipped it upside down to send all the bangles crashing together to the opposite side. A Logicless burble of delight leapt from xem to Gascoyne, and he smiled–a Human instinct he had long cultivated and not yet managed to smooth over.
<query> said Sankha. <powerdown proximity>
<affirmation> Yes. He would like to rest here. <assertion: gratitude> Gascoyne’s head fell to his chest. The last thing he saw before he powered down was the little AI’s eye peering up at him, the plates and wires of his own metallic face reflected in xir amber sensor glass. He wondered what xe saw when xe looked at him, and then, at last, he rested.