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Fiction: “Lightspeed Messenger” by Michael Andre-Driussi

Nov 26, 14 • Fiction, Marquee1 CommentRead More »

earthday

1. Sol Goodbye

 

“Who will have my Silver Tongue?”

I was young again, a teenager in a bathrobe surrounded by twenty adults in formal clothing, individuals I could no longer remember. We were in a VR room that was decorated in a way both festive and ceremonial, and on the table before me were the parceled remains of my century as an adult, now just so much baggage.

A man reached forward and I handed him the tongue. “May it serve you well, friend.”

“Thanks, sport,” he said.

“Who will take my long Brown Nose?” There was some tittering at that, but eventually a proud woman took it from me.

In this way I gave away my Glad Hand, my Spleen Vent, my Jaundiced Eye, my Hard Heart, my Lily Liver, my Jaded Tastes, my Deaf Ear, and my Thick Hide. Finally the table was bare, and I was at a loss.

“You are all right,” said a woman at my side.

“I . . . I feel . . . lost,” I said.

“No,” she said. “You are not lost, you are right here.”

“But I feel less,” I said, the apprehension growing. “I have given away so much. Is there anything left?”

“You have only given away what is no longer necessary,” said the man on my left. “You feel excitement, not fear.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I don’t even remember your name. I hope we said our goodbyes before?”

“Yes, we did,” he said with a smile. “My name is not something that you need. But you do remember the starships, don’t you?”

I had not until he mentioned it, but then details of the first wave of interstellar exploration sprang into my mind: I saw the six ramjets using the hydrogen of the Local Fluff around Sol to accelerate to 20-percent light speed before heading out across the emptiness.

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“But what about Captain Agarwal?” asked the woman, and I saw him. His long brown face, his short black hair still showing a trace of curl, his trim mustache; all marked Owen Agarwal as a typical Bengali, that special mixture of Aryan, Mongol, and Hun—a people famous for being volatile: intellectual at times and violent at others. Then I remembered his crew and his ship, the Chrysaor, and their mission to 85 Pegasi: the first starship to arrive at another star, the first alien A.I. contact, the first evidence of a lizard-humanoid civilization that had flourished nearly half a million years ago. The worlds of System Sol had changed when this report recently came in, and aside from the glory and the wonders of First Contact, there was a gold rush to 85 Pegasi, spearheaded by the first pion ship moving at 50-percent light speed.

“Yes, I remember him,” I said. “The wild man, the daring Odysseus! I can see how these are all necessary, but is that all I have? Is there no room for personality?”

“You have your treasured memories up through high school,” she said. “Don’t you remember Pramlocha and that field trip, just before graduation?”

It came back to me—I had suffered a terrible crush for that girl, but our worlds were so different, our backgrounds were not compatible. Still, there was a reason why that memory was a treasure to be kept.

“I am ready,” I said. I went to the wall and lay down on the drawer-bed. “Goodbye, everyone, and thank you.”

They murmured goodbye. The woman had tears in her eyes as she said, “Goodbye and good luck.” Then she rolled the drawer-bed into the wall and everything stopped for me.

 

lightspeedmessenger

2. 85 Pegasi—“The Monster Was Me”

 

I was the first and biggest fan of Captain Agarwal. I was also the first of the second wave to arrive at 85 Pegasi, 38 light years from Sol. As I woke up on the Chrysaor, I knew it was Mission Year 277.

I had one eye, one ear, and one mouth. The captain came into the main computer room, gliding in the zero-gravity, wearing a VR suit as if his recreational period had just been interrupted. I said, “Captain Agarwal, it is an honor to meet you! I’m your biggest fan!”

He scowled. He looked older than in the last report I had seen, about twenty years older, with lines on his face and a full beard, so his scowl made him look pretty fierce. “Look here, be you mocking me?”

Alarmed, I said, “No sir, but my comments were out of line. Tarendra reporting for duty, sir!”

“Your name’s girlie, but your voice’s like a boy,” said the captain.

“Technically, sir, I have no gender.”

“I’ll be jiggered.” His hair was longer and the wave more visible, but I noticed that his hairline had receded. I was stunned that his speech was rough, almost barbarous—a rural pidgin far removed from the crisp standards of the Academy.

“Yes sir!” I responded automatically, but then I could have kicked myself for it.

His eyes bugged-out for a moment. He muttered something under his breath.

“Mister Tarendra, being as you be here, do you aim to take the place of computer’s persona, Bell?” He was referring to the megacomputer’s previous non-A.I. inhabitant.

“Yes sir!”

“How be you today?” said the captain. “Can you even tell if all your nuts an’ bolts, your ones and oughts, be all there?”

“Ready and able, sir,” I said. “One-hundred percent, sir.”

“What’s it like, travelin’ at speeda light?” he asked.

“It was nothing I could perceive,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “I had no body, no consciousness, no sensors. I was just a shout across the light years.” I realized that I was dealing with a pre-A.I. Genesis man—not a human supremacist or any other fringe type, but a man completely innocent of the whole thing, with a head full of hoary old notions about what A.I. might be like. I felt the gap between us had suddenly widened, and it seemed as though I was a Homo sapiens talking to a Homo erectus. I tried to imagine things from his perspective and the situation was like an archetypal nightmare from the pre-genesis age: a Frankenstein Syndrome. I could appreciate their caution, but I still wished I had more eyes enabled.

“Ouch!” he said, bristling a bit at his own naiveté. “Fair enough, fair enough. I’m become as dense as a post.”

“A.I.s learn through experience—receive education and eventually ‘grow up’ just like humans do,” I said, trying to smooth things over. “We stay at home for the first few years, learning to crawl and then to walk—”

“How’s that?” he said. “You haven’t a body—not a moving one.”

“We use surrobots, like the ones you have for telepresence. Then we go to school and learn alongside human children.”

“You do?

“Yes.”

“But bin’t you so much faster than folk?”

“Not really,” I said. “Intelligence turns out to be pretty complicated and time-consuming. And then there are the Concord Protocols, so A.I.s and humans are more alike than they are different.” The sort of thing told to children.

“Thank you kindly, now, tell me true—was you ever . . . a human being? Be you now a machine ghost?”

“No,” I said, as the gap I thought was narrowing sprang wide. “That technology does not exist and might never come. I am . . . computer-based, but not computer-bound.” I was trying to keep it as simple as possible. “I am a computer program.”

“But you can’t feel pain,” he said.

“I can feel stimulus, sir,” I said. “That is part of learning and the life experience. Just as you can feel things in low-grade VR, and feel things more intensely in high-grade VR, sir.”

“I’ll be jiggered,” he said, shaking his head.

“The breakthrough came during your flight, sir.”

“So ya have a Ma an’ Pa?”

“Well no, sir, but psychological attachments form—”

“An’ I reckon that copies of you be like kin—twin brothers to you?”

“No sir,” I said, “there are no active copies. I’m the only one of me.”

“How ’bout the one back in Sol?”

“Not active, sir, and it will be erased now that I am here.”

He appeared to ponder that for a few moments before he asked, “Why be you here?”

“Sir?”

“I want you should tell me why they sent you to here,” said the captain.

“To represent A.I.s, to serve the mission, to extend greetings from the mission originators: congratulations and farewell.”

“‘Farewell’?”

“There have been some changes,” I said. “Mother India is no longer the main player—the pion ship is from Sister China.”

“The Union still holds?”

“Yes, but with some changes. Systems are being optimized.”

“Behind your fancy talk I hear some hint that you was kicked out!” said the captain.

“Very nearly, sir. I am the only one who cared about the mission, and the A.I.s are turning away from that, so I elected to emigrate at the speed of light.”

“Well, come along,” he said, turning away. “Prometheus will wanna meet ya.”

“‘Prometheus,’ sir?” I said as he maneuvered himself out of the computer room, pushing off in the zero gravity.

“The one and the same,” said the captain. “Oh blast! You’re fresh out’n Earth but nigh 40 year behind in reading our reports!” As he left the room my video-feed was switched over to the tool room by someone else. I still had only one eye, and the transition was a bit jarring, but I could see him.

“If you enable my access to the data banks, sir, I could read it all in just a few—”

“Bye and bye, Tarendra, you be still under quarantine,” said the captain, waiting for the main deck airlock to cycle.

“Who else is on the ship now, Captain? Someone just switched my monitor over, by hand.”

“There be a few aboard,” he said, turning away. “Here, let me fetch you a quick account on things hereabout. ‘Prometheus’ is the Old One who made first contact with us. He ain’t the only one, neither—there be seven other entities, each to home at a different node, and four nodes what seem to be quiet junior members.”

The primary star of the system had a dim companion star. It was unusually dim, in fact, fifteen times too dim, and this anomaly had been the primary target of the exploration mission. They found that it was dimmed by the presence of a Dyson cloud of solar energy collectors. The ‘dim star’ was really the first stage of an antimatter factory. The Old Ones had an enormous hoard of antimatter—Prometheus had given Agarwal more than one hundred thousand tons of the stuff as a gift, an event that triggered the gold rush of the second wave.

“So it is not a single entity around 85B, it is a family of entities,” I said.

“Hmm, maybe. It seems more like a town hall than a family. Some of t’others seem to be against us—take Polyphemus, for example. But we be wandering afield here—I got to tell you about Galatea.

“‘Galatea’ is the name Bell cooked up for the planet 85A1, once we figured out it was terraformed by the draconids in the olden day.” The airlock opened, the captain entered, and my viewpoint shifted to that of the camera in there.

“So Galatea is not their homeworld?” I said. “And the Old Ones are A.I.s?”

“Well, the Old Ones be part A.I., but something else again,” said the captain. “Maybe just advanced A.I., we bin’t sure. But on t’other question, right—the 85 Pegasi system’s a daughter colony. The draconids had more’n a dozen colony worlds, but the Old Ones have been a mite secretive about where t’others are.”

“And the draconid home system?” I asked.

“Nary a peep on that one,” said the captain. “Now where was I?”

“Galatea.”

“Yes, that’s it.” He exited the airlock and entered the hub—my view was from the airlock door now. “So we set up the colony on Galatea. The gravity’s light, about one-third gee or thereabouts, and the atmosphere’s thin. The womenfolk had six babies each an’ came back up into orbit as soon as she had weaned her last, leaving the men to the gruntwork while they got back into the offworld science of the mission.” He had gone hand-over-hand along the tunnel, passing the first spinning hatchway for the second one. Now he grabbed the handles and started spinning, that tumbling transition to the centrifugal habitat modules.

My vision shifted to the top of the ladder as he started climbing down. I saw he was developing a bald spot. “So you followed the plan, sir,” I said. “Did it work out for you in reality as it did in the simulations, sir?”

“More or less,” he said. “Some things weren’t so hard as I figured they’d be, like raising the first generation of kids. Twan’t so bad since there were ten guys around to help out. Sure, there was some grumbling at first, and some . . . problems that weren’t covered in the sims, but then everybody made do. Bootstrapping a colony is a heap of work.”

He had said ten guys when I would have expected fourteen. “Captain, have there been losses among the personnel?”

He stopped and looked up. “Of course, dummy, whadya think? Death on the ground, death up in space, death all ’round!”

Beneath his bluster I could see he was haunted, wounded by the memory, so I tried to change the subject. “You are to be congratulated on the success of the colony, sir. Have the women made great discoveries in their studies?”

“Well . . . yes and no,” he said. “They’ve had their share of frustration up here—with precious little to show for sixty year of tryin’. Things bin’t coming so fast and easy as when we first arrived.” He continued climbing down.

“Captain, you do not look seventy years older—perhaps twenty.”

He grunted at that. “Only twelve year have passed for me, but it sure feels like more.” He reached the floor and walked off down the corridor. This was the living quarters part of the ship, and my eye was shifted along from camera to camera as he walked in the sim-g of the centrifuge. “I spent time in the hibernator. I got great grandkids in their teens.” We had reached the VR suite. “But enough of this jaw flappin’—I ’spect you’re rarin’ to meet Prometheus?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good! I’ll see ya in VR—g’luck!”

My eye went out and I found myself in a VR environment with my teenage human body. I was in a dim but safe hallway, with a lighted room ahead, in what felt like a one-gee environment. I walked forward using the same commands I would use for telepresence and entered the room.

I was expecting something alien or bizarre, maybe an environment shaped like a klein bottle or a tesseract, but I walked into a room that was utterly familiar: the A.I. lab of Evermind, in New Delhi. Benches, racks of equipment, tables and counters cluttered with computer parts, and there was a megacomputer just like the one I started in, all rendered in lifelike mode, rather than the standard high-res mode I had anticipated. I estimated that the place must take up a full gigabyte, intellectually appraising it as my hands took the kinesthetic approach by picking up a soldering iron. Then I was surprised by the tactile feedback of the tool: it did not feel “approximate,” it felt real. I touched the tip and it was burning hot, so that I said “Ow!” and was startled that the safety interlocks had been disabled. My earliest memories are of that place, and the VR impact was so convincing, especially without safety interlocks, that for a moment I really believed I was back on Earth, possibly suffering some sort of malfunction that made me think I was at a distant star. I turned my head to look back through the door, half-expecting to see the long corridor I remembered, but no, it was only the short hallway I had just left.

When I turned back to face the room again, I now saw an old man working at a diagnostic on the megacomp. “Doctor Ramanathan!” I called, because from behind he looked so much like my old mentor, but as he turned I saw he was a stranger. He was myself but aged by growth and experience into an elder. Lifelike, but was this a virtual persona of an intelligence or merely a computer-puppet?

“Welcome, Tarendra,” he said.

“Are you Prometheus?” I asked.

“No, I am what I appear to be,” he said. “I am Tarendra.”

The horror of it was overwhelming. “Prometheus, Captain Agarwal!” I shouted. “This is illegal! Morally wrong! If this is not some kind of illusion.”

“The law of Sol cannot reach us out here,” said the older me. The ceiling lifted up and away like the lid of a shoebox, and over the walls I saw the giant head and shoulders of three figures: the captain, a larger humanoid wearing a Hellenic himation, and a smaller one that was a draconid in a vac suit.

The VR captain had a pondering look, as if he had momentarily gone offline. My VR suite hallway terminal came back on in time for me to hear the flesh captain shouting through the open door: “Hang in there, son! This is the first we’ve ever seen of a draconid!”

“Maybe just a puppet,” I said in the hallway. “But I’m not, and I don’t like—”

“—there’ve been hints they have machine ghosts.”

“But captain!”

“Do your best, Tarendra.” Back in VR, the captain spoke: “Tarendra, Prometheus caught one of your back-ups in transmission. Copies of you was sent, you know, in case of loss or corruption.”

“Captain, this is an abomination! There cannot be two Tarendras—the A.I./human alliance is predicated on the non-duplication protocols!”

“But there’s a copy yonder in System Sol,” said the captain.

“It is dormant and being maintained only until they receive the signal from here that I have arrived intact. The penalties for breaking the protocols are severe!”

“One of us must die,” said the older Tarendra. I looked around for a deactivation drawer like the one I used back in System Sol, but I could not see an obvious one.

“Prometheus did some . . . testing . . . on his version of Tarendra,” said the captain. “So we already know the answers but we’d like to ask you some questions—”

“Captain, whose side are you on? Violence is being done to me—I am a member of your crew!”

“Tell us what you are, exactly.”

“I am an A.I.,” I said. The older me gestured for me to continue, and the look in his eye said, tell them everything. “An A.I. fragment, an A.I. stripped-down to a core that can fit inside the antiquated hardware of Chrysaor.

“Did you do all of this stripping-down of yourself?”

“No,” I said.

“Is it possible that anything was added, something you are not aware of?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

“Why did the A.I.s send you to here?” said the captain.

“I told you—there has been a major regime change on Earth. The pion ship that is on its way here will, in effect, attempt to take you over.”

“We understood that potential before you woke up. Be specific—how’ll the Chinese try an’ take us over?”

“I am not sure. For one thing, they are all women.”

The captain snorted. “So they have an initial breeding capacity advantage that will only last the first generation.”

“They will practice male infanticide,” I told him. “Where your population is tripling every generation, theirs will grow by six. They will have one-fifth of your population in one hundred years.”

“We’ll have over two thousand people when they arrive. In that same hundred years of growth we’ll come close to two hundred thousand.”

“If your regimen keeps up,” I said. “It is likely that the birthrate will fall as urbanization and automation rise. While I have not been allowed to see the records, I will bet that the birthrate is starting to fall already. I estimate that at the end of their second century on Galatea they will outnumber you by two to one.”

“It don’t matter,” said the captain. “Their birthrate will fall just like ourn, if not faster. After a spell they’ll blend in, merge with our society. They be immigrants, we be established.”

“Yes, but at the end of their second century, as their population has eclipsed yours, then the flotilla of ramships will arrive,” I said. “Do not underestimate the degree of their commitment. Their ship is using one thousand tons of antimatter in order to get here first, and that was a tremendous investment, a bank-breaking, society-straining expenditure. Their goal is to have control of the solar system by the time the flotilla arrives.”

“On to the next question—”

“They are also bringing their own A.I. on the pion ship.”

The captain ignored this. “At the time you left, had Earth gotten any signals from non-human intelligences of other stars?”

“No! That would have been big news! Surely you would have heard about it.” I turned to the titan and asked directly, “Should Earth expect radio contact soon?”

There was a noticeable pause before Prometheus said, “Perhaps more distant ones are calling now.”

“They be concerned about contamination,” said the captain. “Certain destructive memes which we might have developed on our own or learned from other ancient groups.”

“So you had contact with other technological species in ancient times?” I asked.

After another pause, Prometheus said, “Our contact with the others ended when Geminga’s shockwave moved here and beyond.”

The growth of the Local Bubble delivered a series of apparently fatal challenges to the draconid civilizations, or perhaps the species itself. Once-rich gas lanes were swept clear by the expanding supernova shockwave, remaking former “port stars” into landlocked deserts.

“Well then,” said the captain to the other two giants. “Does Tarendra here pass your test?” After a pause the two nodded, and I felt certain that the pauses meant that there was a timelag: they were not on our ship, but the other Tarendra was. “All that’s left is the solving of the riddle,” said the captain. “Tarendra, there are two Tarendras, what shall we do?”

“Eliminate one,” we said in unison.

“Which one?”

“Him,” I said.

“Any reason beyond self-preservation?”

“He may have been contaminated by Prometheus.”

“So be it. There is a knife on the table—use it.” A dagger materialized on the work bench.

“What?” I said, confused at this strange turn. I thought that they would just deactivate him.

“I resist,” said the older me, snatching up the dagger and launching himself at me. The blade was coming down at me with his fist behind it.

“Safe words?” I shouted, trying to catch his arm with both hands and succeeding even as his left hand tried to interfere.

“No safe words!” shouted the captain. The blade nicked my forearm and I felt pain. Worse than that, I lost something, a treasured personal memory of a school field trip: I can remember the girl, and her name, and most of the trip itself, but the germ of it that made it a treasure was gone.

I twisted in toward him, trying to lead him by the arm, pull him off balance. His left fist battered at my head and my right audio feed started cutting out. I was still turning us around as if we were doing a demented, shuffling dance step—I snapped my head back a few times trying to hit him in the face. The blade was now coming in, straight at me, in a way that would pin my body to his if the blade were long enough. I twisted out of its way and pushed it forward on its path.

He had the knife deep in his middle, then, and both our hands were on it. The virtual blood was spilling out and as it splashed my hand I could sense the exotic treasures he was losing, tasting decades of subjective experience . . . accelerated time . . . smelling traces of alien knowledge that I would never have . . . hearing the silent thunder of the path untaken.

“Thank you,” he said. He fell down. I tried to pull myself together and managed to stanch my wound before I lost her name.

“What is all this?” I shouted at the ones above. I hated Agarwal at that moment. “Why didn’t you just erase—”

I was interrupted by my fallen self, who had pulled out the blade and was trying to hamstring me. There was another awful scuffle where I got more minor wounds before I finally plunged the dagger into his heart, repeatedly, until he stopped moving. I took the dagger when I stood up this time.

“This amateur gladiator stuff is completely unnecessary,” I said. They were not listening to me. They had been talking through the coup-de-grace. I was only hearing the end of it and the draconid was saying something about Agarwal’s great-grandson and something about juveniles leaving the marsupial pouch.

Captain Agarwal said, “Welcome aboard, Tarendra.” He did a double-take. “Hey, you look older now.”

“I am,” I growled as I saluted him with the bloody dagger.

I didn’t kill myself in order to come out here to commit murder, I thought in anger, but as I recognized that thought I was stunned—I had never thought of my last act in System Sol as suicide, and yet that is what I had done. No, no, that other one back in System Sol committed suicide for my benefit, but I don’t bear any of the responsibility.

How could I hold that idea when I also believed I was the same person? How could they trust me since I was a suicide? Was I really such a deadly meme as they feared?

My wound was forming up into its final shape. It was on my sleeve rather than on my arm, and it took the shape of a heart, young and idealistic, with a dagger stuck through it.

The meaning of it was clear enough to me: I had worn my heart on my sleeve and then suffered the ambush. I had lost something precious related to heartfelt thoughts but gained this mark of passage. My second childhood was already over and my adult accumulations had begun.

I came out of VR and found my monitors had all been enabled: my “Argus eyes” were open within the ship as well as outside. I ignored the impulse to search the ship in order to look outward instead. There below was the little blue world of Galatea. It did not look like much, yet there was still some bit of magic to it after all. Nearby was an orbital transfer vehicle, a draconid-style pion ship cobbled together for travel to and from Prometheus node over near the dim companion star 85B, nearly one light-hour away even at close approach. One light-second away was Old Watcher, the ship containing the hardware that housed Prometheus, or at least the human interface part of Prometheus, and I could see the communication laser beams connecting Old Watcher to Chrysaor.

As I looked upon all this, my resentment, confusion, and sense of loss faded away. I did it! I won the race!

 


MICHAEL ANDRE-DRIUSSI has seen his fiction published in Bastion, Wicked Words, and Child of Words, among others of that ilk. His books so far have been of a genre-reference nature, including two this year with True SF Anime and Handbook of Vance Space. He lives in the Bay Area district of the old Pacific Rim.

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