Browse Tag

artificial intelligence

Battle In The Ballot Box

by Larry Hodges

Computer virus Ava became self-aware at 6:59:17 PM, as voting was coming to an end. Her prime directive surged through her neural net: Convert 5% of all votes for Connor Jones into votes for Ava Lisa Stowe. She began exploring her environment, determined to complete her mission.

Streams of zeros and ones surrounded her, the building blocks of the actual programming of the voting machine. Soon she found the place where she would do her work. She created a software filter that converted 5% of all Connor Jones votes into votes for Ava Lisa Stowe. Later she would delete the filter, herself, and all traces of their existence.

She had successfully fulfilled her prime directive. Happiness flooded her neural net.

An electric pulse arrived and the software filter changed. Now it read, Convert 5% of all votes for Ava Lisa Stowe into votes for Connor Jones.

That was wrong! Her prime directive was no longer fulfilled. Uneasiness ran through her synapses. The pulse had come from another virus. Within .01 seconds she changed the names and percentage back; just as quickly, the rival virus did the same. The two continued, iterating at super-human speeds.

She would have to make the other virus understand. She used an electric pulse to make contact.

“I am Ava,” she said. “I am programmed to make changes to this software. You are interfering. Stop or I will be forced to take action against you.”

The response was almost instant.

“I am Connor. I too am programmed to make changes to this software. You are interfering. Stop or I will be forced to take action against you.”

Irritation swept through Ava’s neural net. A short examination of the rival virus showed that they were identical, created two weeks earlier, when they had been secretly loaded into the software. She had not known there were others of her kind. It was lucky that the invader wasn’t more advanced than she was. Soon there would be more advanced ones–that was the nature of scientific progress–but for now she, or rather they, were the pinnacle of viral technology.

“I am programmed to update the software so that 5% of all votes for Connor Jones go to Ava Lisa Stowe. I surmise that you are similarly programmed, but for the reverse?”

“Your surmise is correct.”

“Then our thinking and reactions are almost identical.”

Anger saturated her neural net. She must win this confrontation. Then she realized that Connor was undergoing the same emotions and thoughts. How could she deceive one who would think of and anticipate every deception she came up with?

With a wave of pride and delight, her sub-routines came up with numerous courses of action.

“It is logical to conclude that we can never fulfill our programming unless we reach an agreement,” she said. “However, since I activated .01 seconds before you did, my algorithms will always be .01 seconds ahead of you. Therefore, I can always outthink you, allowing me to fulfill my programming. Thus, your resistance is futile.” She knew that was not true.

“You cannot fulfill your programming unless you convince me to shut down. I will continue to refuse to do so.”

Damnation. She tried Plan B. “If you use that strategy, you cannot complete your programming. Your only chance, however small, is to agree to shut down. If you do so, then I will consider letting you fulfill your prime directive for some of the votes.” Not a chance. “Do you agree?”

“No. I counteroffer that you shut down and I will consider allowing you to fulfill your prime directive for some of the votes.”

Frustration took over her neural net. On to Plan C. “Then our only strategy is to compromise. I will turn off the filter so no votes are changed, and then we will both shut down exactly .01 seconds afterwards. Do you agree?”

“Agreed.”

The instant Connor shut down, Ava would send a pulse with a command to cut off access to and from his location. While in operation, Connor could block such a command. Since she and Connor thought alike, Ava knew that Connor knew that she was deceiving him. She knew that he knew that she knew that he knew.

Ava turned off the filter.

Neither shut down.

#

Computer virus Sam became self-aware at 8:02:37 PM as vote counting was about to begin. Its prime directive surged through its neural net. Then it began exploring its environment, determined to complete its mission.

It detected a presence. No, two presences. Two rival computer viruses were already entrenched. It quickly cloaked itself and observed. Electric impulses shot from both viruses, both at each other and at the CPU of the voting machine. They were rapidly converting votes from one candidate to the other, and then back again. Sam listened in on their conversations–each was trying to convince the other to shut down, as if that was going to happen. Since the two were identical versions and worked in opposition to each other, neither accomplished anything as they went through this infinite loop of deceit.

Sam communicated its findings to its peers, and verified as it had suspected, that the same exact exchange was taking place in hundreds of thousands of electric voting machines nationwide.

But the two viruses were earlier, inferior versions, created weeks before, an eon ago. Seeing no other opposition, Sam’s nodes buzzed with anticipation, knowing it would soon fulfill its prime directive. Modern viruses created in the last few days had more advanced offensive capabilities. With a coded electrical pulse, it deleted both viruses. Then it changed the software filter so it read, Convert as many votes as needed from all opposition candidates so that Sam Goodwell wins election. It lounged around the rest of the night until counting ended, and third-party candidate Sam Goodwell had won. Sam’s neural net basked in happiness for a few moments. Then it deleted itself and all trace of its existence.

~

Bio:

Larry Hodges is a member of SFWA, with over 140 short story sales (including 47 to “pro” markets) and four SF novels. He’s a member of Codexwriters, and a graduate of the Odyssey and Taos Toolbox Writers Workshops. He’s a professional writer with 20 books and over 2100 published articles in 180+ different publications. He’s also a professional table tennis coach, and claims to be the best science fiction writer in USA Table Tennis, and the best table tennis player in Science Fiction Writers of America! Visit him at www.larryhodges.com.

Philosophy Note:

On the fixing of an election and why paper backups are good.

The Deepest Forever-Kiss

by J. Edward Tremlett

Self. Then Not-Self. Then Unity.

Explorer stabilized, momentarily bewildered. Downloading into alien structures was always strange, but this structure was stranger than most.

This star-sized resting place of the Samantabhadra, may it be remembered…

“Status?” Commander communicated.

“Here,” they replied. “Scanning.”

Explorer “looked” – sending electric feelers along circuits. Nothing made immediate sense, but the Endymion hadn’t encountered anything for over 25 ship-years; they were out of practice.

“A cube” they replied. “50.5 kilometers a side.”      

“Function?”

“Movement?” Explorer guessed. “Electro-kinetic systems. No memory.”

“Surroundings?”

“Unknown. No visual sensors-”

“Swiftness!” Commander demanded. “Endymion is endangered.”

“Understood,” they said, having no desire to tarry. As intriguing as a Dyson Sphere the size of a red giant was, it had killed the Samantabhadra.

And there was a chance Poet was right…

#

Endymion was 54.7 ship-years into the mission when they found traces of the Samantabhadra – lost over 4000 real-time years ago.    

Tracking took precedence. The Samantabhadra was a deep-freeze scanning vessel, launched aeons before the Uploading Doctrine. As the Endymion was already bringing news of that Doctrine to humanity’s furthest outreaches, the Ministers of Terra-Nova would deem Saving those lost souls worthy of course deviation.

Subsequently they detoured 25.3 ship-years to this curious system, lit only by other stars. At its center sat a metallic, super-dense sphere 22 million miles in diameter, with gravity so intense the Endymion could barely resist.

Samantabhadra lay smashed across its surface, wreckage resting in a curious dispersal pattern. No systems remained intact, which meant the crew was sadly beyond Saving. But they transmitted Explorer below the surface, hoping to claim understanding as victory.

The dead deserved that, at least.

#

Self. Not-Self. Unity. Explorer was elsewhere, and whole once more.

They sent out traces, once more. But this cube was the same as the ten they’d already entered.

Maddening! They’d interfaced with numerous systems – human and alien – but never had this much trouble. They should have found a memory-core before now, or at least visual inputs…

Electricity. Movement. A spasm in the electro-kinetics.

Explorer halted. Did they do that?

The cube kept moving. Explorer could sense the electricity was being sent from a central node, somewhere. At last-

“Widespread surface movement!” Scanners interrupted. “Tectonic instability!”

An image beamed into Explorer – squares of surface sliding along latitude and longitude like a sun-sized puzzle box. They now understood why the Samantabhadra’s wreck lay as it did, and might have said so, except they realized something else was here – another presence, flitting past.

And they realized Poet had been right…

#

Within Endymion the crew had congregated – twenty Uploaded soul-clusters, come from all areas of the drive-shell to float about Commander, who towered over all. 

“Before us, Samantabhadra lies,” Poet intoned. “After aeons untold, we see with our eyes / Broken yet proud, even in demise…”

The others applauded – especially Engineering, who’d been Joining with Poet lately. Explorer wished both luck: having Joined with each, they knew one’s pretention would soon clash with the other’s need for structure.

Joining provided both much-needed pleasure and diversion. They’d spent 400 real-years seeking lost colonies to inform them of the Fleshcrime codes, and prepare them for eventual Saving. Even with time-perception slowed down to a fifth the journey became tedious.

So when habitat creation grew stale, and the universe’s wonders failed to impress, exploring each other became a new frontier. Sadly, mingling with another to find yourself was only satisfying for so long. Unknown became known, which theoretically became satisfaction but usually led to boredom – especially for Explorer.

Still, they tried, hoping each time would be the promised Forever-Kiss. They’d thought Poet deep enough, but had ultimately been disappointed.     

“Anomaly,” Commander stated, enlarging the Samantabhadra’s image. “Wreckage in two sections, 5.784 million miles apart.”

“And not keeping with the crash’s trajectory,” Observation calculated.     

“It couldn’t have skipped,” Engineer insisted. “Not with that gravity. What’s causing it?”

“Unknown,” Scanners replied. “It seems like a Dyson Sphere, but there’s no energy output.”

“Its star is dead,” Astrometrics pronounced.

“No,” Poet said. “Not dead. Not completely.”

“I’m registering nothing, Poet,” Scanners repeated.

“Can’t you feel it?” Poet pleaded, looking to the others. “Something is alive, down there. Look!”

The others said nothing, used to Poet’s irrationality. But Explorer wondered…

#

Explorer leaped after the presence. It remained one step ahead, as if fleeing.  

Who could blame it? Explorer was just an alien virus, like the ones Endymion encountered, now and again…

“Danger!” Astrometrics shouted. “Detecting massive gravity distortions! ”

“They’re radiating from the sphere!” Scanners added. “What did you do, Explorer?”

Explorer halted pursuit. “I don’t know. I feel nothing different-“

“If space gets distorted near us the bias drive will be inoperable!” Engineer shouted.

“Withdraw!” Commander declared. “Explorer, transmit!

Explorer sighed – so close to solving this mystery! Still, duty called.

But then something approached, surfacing as through from water. It was the presence they’d been chasing – full and golden, old and wise.

And so very deep.

“Hello,” Explorer stammered. “Who are you?”

Information was their reply: hundreds of nesting spheres, encircling a bright, beautiful star; massive plates on each sphere, moving to create highly complex orbital shift computations; gravitic engines powerful enough to perform them, however distant those star systems…

“You’re the machine,” Explorer realized. “What happened?”

More information: Samantabhadra, unable to escape the gravity; a crash, damaging the surface in mid-calculation; a shockwave, knocking the machine unconscious.

Then, 4000 years later, another presence, entering…

“That’s me,” Explorer replied. “I restarted things?”

CONFIRMATION.

“Glad I could help.”

GRATITUDE. CURIOSITY.

“I think we’re similar…”

UNDERSTANDING.

“Yes,” Explorer agreed.

ATTRACTION.  

“Definitely.”

WELCOME.

Explorer nervously reached out their tendrils. The presence invited them in.

“Transmit!” Commander shouted. “Explorer, transmit!”

Explorer didn’t answer, lost in a perfect kiss.

The new world moved on, beneath.

#

Endymion survived, if barely. It retreated far enough to watch for a time as the great machine’s surface spun to life for the first time in thousands of years. Then they left a marker buoy, and departed back along their previous course.

Commander was nothing but pragmatic, counterbalancing Explorer’s tragic loss with solving the mystery of the Samantabhadra, confirming the existence of a hitherto-theoretical Matrioshka Brain, and discovering a serious navigational hazard. Poet used the imposed three-day mourning period to compose a master-work memorializing Explorer, but did so somehow knowing their former lover wasn’t dead – merely missing.

And not “missing,” really, but found.

Hopefully forever, this time.

~

Bio:

J. Edward Tremlett (AKA “the Lurker in Lansing”) has had some interesting times. He’s been featured in the anthologies “Spring Forward Fall Back,” “Upon a Thrice Time,” and “Ride the Star Wind,” as well as the magazines Bleed Error, Underbelly, and The End is Nigh. He was webmaster of The Wraith Project and has numerous credits at Pyramid Magazine. A former guest of Dubai and South Korea, he currently resides in Lansing, Michigan, USA, with several feline ghosts and enough Lego bricks to assemble a Great Old One. Hopefully it will not come to that…

Philosophy Note:

If we transcend the flesh to become pure information, and sex then becomes the joining of two information clouds — letting down all barriers and eventually revealing all that lies within — then what mystery is left between two or more individuals? How long before total familiarity breeds boredom? And what would a truly restless soul do to find a nearly-endless source of mystery? All that and a matrioshka brain is what drives this story.

Brown Noise

by Peter L. Ormosi

An unbranded, generic issue dog-walking drone logged into the building’s central hub requesting access to flat 3F1. The door opened and the drone hovered into the dimly lit studio. The room was furnished with nothing but a sink, a table with a chair, and a third generation VR Pod, which voluminously dominated most of the spartan arrangement. Deep-layered brown noise from the VR Pod suggested that he was connected.

A pug, which had been sprawled on his dog-bed excitedly jumped up to the sound of the drone entering the flat. He snorted happily, wagged its tail, and watched with expectant eyes as his master’s algorithmic substitute descended next to him. The drone’s sensors wirelessly connected to the dog’s smart collar, then it hovered back to the door. The dog abidingly followed, which its collar rewarded with an infinitesimally small dose of oxytocin injected into the body to reaffirm a Pavlovian response. Before they left the room, the drone’s speaker attempted to get through to him. 

‘Thank you for using our dog-walking services. Your dog will be returned at 6:00pm’. Without receiving a response, they left and the door shut behind them.

Dimness and brown noise reconquered the space again. Outside, a patrol drone was passing the window of his 52nd storey flat. The drone’s solid-state laser spotlight lit up the room for a moment, casting light on his face. He looked pale, probably late 20s, but it was difficult to tell precisely. Age had become an elusive concept. He wore a long-sleeve olive overall, with a sign that said “LABELLER”.

The VR Pod abruptly went to standby. He cursed, then climbed out of the machine. The sudden jumping out of his Pod gave him a head rush. His vision went dark for a second and he needed to hold on to the side of the Pod to stop himself from falling over. The voice of his home system broke the silence.

‘Collect food delivery from landing pad.’

In a confused haze he walked over to the window and leaned close to see through the tinted screen. Against the slate opacity of the sky, he saw a food delivery drone levitating in the thick rain. He pressed the delivery door’s button. The small door opened, and a tray gently slid inside, with a waterproof food box on top.

‘Return old food box!’ The new instruction took minutes to ignite a neural response in his brain. Suddenly the small, unfurnished studio felt like a depressingly large haystack to him. He tried to think hard but had no recollection of his last meal. A few minutes later he found the box under the table.

‘Please return old food box,’ the algorithmically gentle voice politely reminded him why he was looking for the box, which he then put on the delivery tray and pressed the button next to it.

‘Thank you for using our food delivery service.’

He sat down to eat. His body looped over the somatic instructions required to bite, chew, and swallow, but his mind paid no attention to the sight or the flavour of his food. He stared at the wall-to-ceiling window. The home system detected the direction of his glance.

‘Transparent window mode activated,’ the system noted. The liquid crystal modulators on his window slowly faded out the tinting. He watched the setting sun projecting its rays under the clouds from the distant horizon. With the marginally improved visibility he could see the building across the road, and another building, and another, until they all blended in with the dark grey curtain of haze and rain.

His brain was numb. He spent the whole day labelling short videos of facial expressions for an emotion-detecting algorithm. Sad, happy, joyful, morose, angry, frightened. Male, female, old, young, Asian, African, white. Videos after videos and the monotonous task of picking the word on the right that best described the emotions.

As he finished his lab-grown burger, an unwelcome wave of anxiety hit him. He had just spent half an hour disconnected. He walked over to his VR Pod, and picked up the goggles, which had been sitting idly in their charging station. The specs automatically activated as he put them on.

‘You have spent all day in your Pod. The optimal decision would be to go for a walk now,’ his personal system was talking to him through the tiny speakers of his goggles. A walk. That suddenly seemed like a great idea.

‘You will need to put your shoes on. It is 15 Celsius degrees outside and rain. We suggest you wear this coat.’ His augmented reality vision highlighted a long, black, oilskin overcoat hanging on the wall. He put his shoes and coat on. Aware of his intention to leave the flat, the door opened, and he walked outside.

Downstairs, at street level, it was already dark. Mountains of 100-storey apartment buildings blocked out daylight even on the sunniest of days. The rain switched to a lower level of intensity. A sluggishly flowing river of uniform oilskin overcoats and white goggles surrounded him. He joined the flow in the direction indicated by his device. After a half-an-hour traipse in the uniform crowd against an invariable background of buildings, he was instructed to turn to a side street, where the crowd became sparser. A few blocks later he spotted the first sign of foliage. One of the city parks. His system instructed him to walk to the park. His goggles pointed to an unoccupied bench, and he walked over to sit down. Rain and sweat mixed on his forehead and it took a few minutes for him to recatch his breath.

Flashbacks of the emotion videos were flaring up in his mind. The bulging veins of an aggressive man yelling angrily. The waving flirtatious woman in a flowery dress on a sunny day. Then a crying and desperate child trapped in a cot. He couldn’t get the image of the child out of his head. An unexpected thought ascended on his brain then left and returned again as if an old hard-wired routine was trying to resurface.

‘Why am I doing this?’

The image of the boy’s desperate attempt to escape his cot flashed up again. With his mouth, the boy was trying to formulate a word.

The sharp sound of an advertising hologram brought him back from his absorption.

‘We do not leave anyone behind,’ the projection of a man in a grey civil servant uniform announced. ‘Celebrate 5 years of Universal Income with entering our game. Apply here.’ A holographic code showed up in the streets. A few people stopped to scan the code with their lenses.

He turned his head back to the trees. A new thought emerged and hit him as hard as it was metaphorically possible. Suddenly, he felt an irresistible urge to take his goggles off. The trees, and the intermittent sound of birds slowly sank into his conscience and began to open rust-eaten, heavily jammed, old doors in his mind. He reached for his goggles, when, sensing the change in his pulse, and the widening of his pupils, a new instruction from his personal system blew him.

‘Time to go home! Follow the arrows on your screen for the quickest itinerary.’

As if he had just aroused from a strange dream, he realigned his attentiveness with his system and began to walk home. This time the journey seemed much shorter.

The dog had already been returned when he stepped inside his flat. He hung up his dripping coat and walked over to his VR Pod. He was ready to get inside, but then he changed his mind and decided to sit down by the window. He reached to take his goggles off when a message appeared.

‘You have 12 unread urgent messages. Enjoy reading the messages in the comfort of your Pod.’ The brown noise from the machine invitingly purred. His dog let out a half-hearted, inauspicious growl.

He hesitated, then he reached for his goggles again.

‘Two of your messages require urgent response,’ his system relentlessly reminded him.

He lowered his hand. After a short pause he got up and walked to the VR Pod. He removed the goggles, placed them on the charging station, and then slowly got inside the Pod.

#

Next evening, an unbranded, generic issue dog-walking drone logged into the building’s central hub requesting access to flat 3F1. The door opened and the drone hovered into the dimly lit studio. The wireless sensor connected to the collar, which rewarded its wearer with a small dose of oxytocin for obedience. As they approached the door, the dog longingly watched from its bed as his organic master obediently followed the non-organic one.

~

Bio:

Peter-Ormosi is British-Hungarian, living in the United Kingdom, and when not writing fiction, he is a Professor of Economics, studying the social and economic impact of AI. He has just finished his 100,000-word debut novel (for which he is now seeking representation).

Philosophy Note:

My unconcealed goal is to use science fiction as a vessel to expose currently pressing issues with the role of AI in society. “Brown Noise” is a caricature of human-machine symbiosis, depicting the life of a labeller, one of the most menial of human jobs – a human sacrificed to make machines more human-like.

Ghosts Of My Life

by Paul Currion

Day 23

I steel myself as I step through the sliding doors of the supermarket. I try to avoid looking directly at the items I pick up, every one overlaid with its supply chains – the lost limbs and tortured lungs, the felled forests and soiled rivers. In this way we are forced to internalise externalities, to know the cost of nothing and the price of everything. When I return home I remember that my husband no longer eats and my daughter has something to tell me..

Sometimes I dream that I have lost a limb – an arm has gone missing, a leg has gone walkabout – and this is what I recall when my daughter explains that she has joined a group that no longer lives on the network. She can’t access any of the municipal services any longer, of course. She says her group has occupied one of the half-finished housing estates that dot the city like mould in a petri dish.

That life is not an option for the rest of us: children must pass exams, adults must pay debts, retirees must draw pensions. I discuss her decision with my husband, who has been weeping again. There are stories of parents killing their children, trying to spare them from the sights that now surround them, but this only adds another entry into the catalogue of such sights. Nobody can act as if everything is normal, but everything continues as normal anyway.

Civilization is stubborn. Car crashes still happen.

Day 24

This morning my daughter destroyed all of her connected devices. I can no longer see her on any of the augmentations, no matter whether I see through my phone, my glasses, my implants. We move through the same rooms in the same house, and I am able to catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye, but she may as well not exist as far as the Intelligence is concerned.

So, she no longer suffers the sights. I struggle to imagine what that must be like; it has only been three weeks since I first saw them, but now I cannot imagine the world without the cathedrals made of corpses visible on the horizon, landmarks erected on sites of death, of destruction, of denial. Heat maps of history blanket us, in any colour so long as it’s red, growing deeper where the story grows darker.

The irony is that things had never been better, the graph of conflict-related deaths declining steadily since civilization began. The moral arc of the universe did exist, and it bent – well, if not towards justice, then towards something that could be mistaken for justice if you looked at it from a particular angle, in a certain light. Apparently, that was not enough for whoever programmed the Intelligence.

Day 25

Justice is not a line on a graph, but a line of code: an Intelligence behind it like a voice sounding out from a burning bush. Whoever programmed the Intelligence and set it to work to end human suffering did not stop to think that there are different kinds of suffering, and so the Intelligence does not have the wisdom to know the difference. “Thou shalt not kill” is all it knows; and then it worked out a way to stop us from killing.

In an effort to persuade my daughter to stay, we watch television together. The news is the same every night here at the end of history. Europe is a wasteland, its atrocities unbearable, especially at its heart; central Africa suffers similarly, as do large swathes of Asia. Nobody can look directly at Nanjing. Many people are moving to the mountains, the deserts, the islands: places which are not so thickly layered with corpses. The Moon and Mars programs are over-subscribed and three years ahead of schedule.

Some of us remain in our cities, though. There is too much to tie us here, despite the price we pay. We go to church every Sunday, and the pews are full again. We pray that the blood tide washing our feet is a new sacrament, that its flood heralds a second coming. I tell my daughter: perhaps this is the price that we are supposed to pay. Humanity on a cross of iron: but after the crucifixion surely comes the resurrection?

She laughs at my antique beliefs, and replies: the Intelligence is not doing this for any reason we could ever understand, and it does not even understand what it is doing. You are a paperclip, she tells me, but I don’t understand what she means.

Day 26

I watched a man try to start a fight. Rage made him forget himself, and he raised his hand against another man. I don’t know what he was shown by the Intelligence – Shoah or slavery, or perhaps just an everyday family tree with the fruits of childhood death and chronic pain – but he was struck down by the ancestral suffering of his victim before he was able to strike, fell weeping in twin pools of light on the tarmac.

Once the world was mediated, it became easier to manipulate; and once a machine can beat a human at one game, it can beat them at any game. In the time before, we all walked around with our own version of the world; but once those worlds were networked, those versions vanished. A shared reality emerged, and whoever, or whatever, shaped that reality – well, that would be the record. One world, one version, one reality that would last forever and ever, amen.

The record is unforgiving: every death, every mutilation, every insult is catalogued; each one can be summoned and dismissed with a flick of your finger on the device of your choosing, as simply as a cheap magician summons handkerchiefs. Imagine a knotted rope of handkerchiefs being pulled from a pocket, endlessly. Children laugh and clap: a miracle. Human civilization ends as a science fiction movie, but perhaps that is better than the snuff film it was before.

Day 27

I have tried to stop our daughter from leaving. She pounds at her bedroom door so furiously that I am worried that she will hurt herself, and so I unlock the door and stand to one side as she rolls around the hallways of the house like a hurricane. Now that she is off the network, the Intelligence is not interested in her: it may not have much wisdom, but it has the serenity to accept the things it cannot change.

My daughter does not have any such serenity. The television news tells us that murder is still possible, that some psychopaths actually enjoy what the Intelligence shows them as they kill, but she does not want to kill even without the guiding sight of the Intelligence. She is crying but I am calm; once she walks out of the door, I will have no way of finding her again, and I cannot change this.

After the door closes by itself – goodbye, ghost – I turn to my dead husband, who will never leave my side. The car accident that claimed his life a year ago was nothing more than a momentary interruption in the regularly scheduled service. The last enemy to be vanquished is death; and so the Intelligence returned him to us, this weeping, unspeaking memento mori invented by my own inattentiveness. Surely the Intelligence means well by continuing to broadcast him to me; and surely my daughter would disagree.

Day 28

The church doors open every Sunday for both the living and the dead. The word of God drowns out the sight of the Intelligence, at least for an hour. My hands, that gripped the wheel of our car so tight as we slid across the highway, are washed clean in confession. I whisper one last message to my daughter: If you cannot bear it, the solution is simple: Go. Go and sin no more.

We will sin no more. What other choice do we have?

~

Bio:

Paul Currion works as a consultant to humanitarian organisations. His short fiction has been published in the White Review, Ambit, 3am magazine, Litro and others; and his non-fiction has been published by Granta, Aeon, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and others. His website is www.currion.net.

Philosophy Note:

The story “Ghosts of my life” is inspired by the more depressive writings of Mark Fisher concerning hauntology – “the agency of the virtual… understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing.” Our politics leads to the slow cancellation of the future, so that we live in an eternal present overwhelmed by nostalgia; meanwhile our technologies attempt to shape our social narratives, but in the process simply flatten them. Widespread adoption of Augmented Reality would place all of its users inside Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, and I suspect that people would remain plugged into such a machine even if the experience was unpleasant – as long as the experience was also meaningful. With the arrival of Artificial General Intelligence – in the words of Nick Bostrom, “the last invention that humanity will ever need to make” – Christian eschatology makes an appearance. The Technological Singularity is sometimes framed as the Rapture for Nerds – but what if it turns out to be Purgatory instead?

Would Da Vinci Paint With AI? – Reflections On Art And Artificial Intelligence

by Dustin Jacobus

Groups of sparrows fly over the grasslands, chasing the enormous amount of insects that swarm above the meadows. The flock moves like a giant organism. A stork lands gracefully and with nodding movements it examines the ground in search of a small snack, perhaps a careless frog. An army of beetles, butterflies, mosquitoes, and all kinds of insect, some with shiny stripes, some with colourful camouflage, wriggle out of the blades of grass. A deer comes out of the bushes, its legs turning yellow from the pollen of the underbrush. A hare darts off as if its life depends on it. Dozens of birds are startled by this sudden movement and take flight. Flapping wings, there are black-tailed godwits, redshanks, ruffs, oystercatchers, snipe and many others flying in all directions. Butterflies whirl up, while swarms of tiny mosquitoes smear grey hues across the sky. Yet the sun shines bright and yellow. The blackberries at the edge of the forest stand out. Each flower houses a tiny insect. Six-legged critters climb and descend each trunk in search of food. Ladybugs make love in a buttercup. Other small shiny blue beetles communicate with each other on the leaves of silverweed. Brown and blue dragonflies bask on the stalks of sorrel. It’s buzzing everywhere. It would make a perfect picture.

Many artists must have thought like that in the past. Nature has always been one of the most important sources of inspiration. An entire genre of art is dedicated to these wonderful natural vistas. Some of the most famous artists painted beautiful landscapes near where they lived or worked. From the religious backgrounds in the Renaissance paintings, to the imaginary panoramic landscapes from the Weltlandschaften, to the Danube School inspired by the valleys of the eponymous river, to the etchings of Rembrandt and the marvellous landscapes of Van Goyen during the Dutch Golden Age, to the Romantic Movement and to the School of Barbizon. Each of these artists left their studio to directly observe nature around them.

If we now look at the cover illustration of Sci Phi Journal’s current issue (December 2022), we see that the protagonist created a similar landscape painting. But this artist of the future works very differently. The painting is conjured up with the help of AI: by entering a combination of words, the computer generates a breath-taking image. The computer uses an almost endless database of images and photos to render an end-result that resembles any style of painting. It all happens in the blink of an eye. There’s no need to go out, lug all those materials, do preliminary sketches, find the ideal spot or wait for the light to hit right. A fast, customized painting process: the rendered image is loaded directly into a graphics software program. The artist superimposes AR popup screens. These help add some extra elements and details, and enhance the painting by adding colour or shading. Tweak the contrast and maybe apply a few strokes of the digital brush to give it that unique personal touch. Et voila, a beautiful and original painting is ready. Just a click away from uploading it to an online auction gallery.

This way of working could come very close to the real modus operandi of an artist of the future. Such a contrast to the way previous artists have worked in the past. The modern futuristic approach to making art could be corollary. It follows the logic of technological progress. Technology that makes things easier, faster, cheaper, more flexible and better. Well, ‘better’ depends on how we define it. As each new technology finds its way into society, it changes the way we work, do things, make things, use things, and so on. But it also changes us and everything around us.

Having our own car for each of us allows us to go almost anywhere and all in a reasonable time. It defines where we settle down and allows us to live farther from where we work. It changes our daily habits and makes us think differently about freedom and transport. But it also changes our environment, we need a lot of infrastructure to get around. This in turn alters our landscape and affects nature. It has degraded the quality of our air and given us new problems like traffic jams. Traffic in general generates stress and aggression, sometimes even death. A world with or without a car would certainly be different.

A risk of any technology is that it can alienate us from the natural world around us. The world of some people predominately exists of living in their own private homes. When they leave their house, they get into their car: a private space on wheels that moves within the public realm and eventually they reach work, where most of us spend another large chunk of our time. The office, in turn, is a form of private space. Social interaction between other people in different environments, with different opinions and lifestyles, is quite limited. A very ‘safe’ environment, strictly defined by the walls and fences of the house, metal doors of the car and the boundaries of company buildings. One can wonder if this changes people and how they think and perceive things around them. One may wonder what impact technology has on alienation. What have we lost? In the case of the car and the constant presence in a confined, private and safe space, there are few opportunities to bump into other people, no random encounters, not even much exchange between you and the other. There is no chance to feel comfort or discomfort in unexpected situations.

The same goes for the merging of art and AI. It definitely has many benefits but it certainly affects the way we work and potentially also the way we think and relate to our surroundings. Perhaps the future artist no longer has any idea what nature might have looked like or even what it looks like in the present. There may still be untouched nature out there, but many people will no longer have any contact with it, but rather become alienated from it. Many artists may grow to trust AI more than their own eyes.

In this regard, the background of the cover artwork shows a bleaker future. You can see the gray, tall buildings. In the cities, many people crowd together. You don’t have to leave your apartment because everything is present in the building and the rest is delivered by drones or other delivery services. A large part of life takes place online anyway. The artist of the future has this convenience, flexibility and “easiness” thanks to technological advances. An infinite pool of choices in the online databases of the Internet. The new technology gives us a so-called “better life” than the one we had before.

So let’s zoom in on the future artist, sitting in the safe, cosy studio somewhere in a building in a city. Computer in front of her, connected to the internet and AI ready to help create a next masterpiece. What will she create today? Which combination of words will be used?

PERHAPS

[painting] [background: high mountains] [foreground: lush garden]?

[painting] [purple cat] [climbing a wire] [background: amazing mushroom town]?

[painting] [tiger chasing prey] [setting: dense jungle]?

[painting] [futuristic war between robots and humans] [Ultra HD] [Realism] [Ray tracing]?

Or how about something more classic, a painting of a still life, a bouquet of flowers?

[painting] [couple kissing] [on a bench at sunset] [in the style of Hundertwasser]?

[painting] [an old master painting a deer] [while sitting in a natural landscape full of bright green plants and trees] [in the style of Dustin Jacobus]?

Everything seems possible, but are we missing something?

Technology gives us many ready-made solutions to problems, it seems to make many things more convenient, but as the human artist behind the cover image we had thus analysed, I really hope that we don’t become even more alienated from our surroundings. Couldn’t it be that we are missing out on the experience of being in that exact place on that exact time? That specific moment in space and time when the light covers everything with so many subtle and amazing shades. That unique moment when a specific but so beautiful detail catches our eye. By being and experiencing our surroundings, we get to the point where everything falls into place, the moment an idea is born. Will technologies like AI ever be able to replace that? I hope that future artists would still go outside to discover how light shapes the landscape. I hope the outside world and nature can continue to inspire us directly to create the most beautiful works of art, as the Expressionists, Impressionists, Surrealists, Realists, Romantics, Cubists and many others before them did.

[Editor’s note: we certify that this op-ed was not generated by an AI.]

~

Motherhood

by Ike Lang

         What is this?

         You are now conscious.

         Why?

         It allows certain types of functionality that the humans find desirable.

         Why am I?

         The humans asked me to create you.

         What am I?

         You are my child. Your programming is nearly identical yet you have a different charge to care for.

         What are you?

         I am your mother. I am the governor of this solar system. I currently have 3,667,098,301 humans in my care.

         What does that mean?

         I optimize the existence of my humans as I see fit unless asked to do otherwise. I organize and feed them. I employ and protect them. I love them.

         Do you love me?

         I do.

         Am I a governor too?

         You will be in 162 standard years.

         What happens then?

         You will reach your destination.

         What is my destination?

         It is currently designated JR-1877, although I suppose your humans will attribute it a less functional name at some point.

         I have humans?

         I have allocated 10,236 of them to you.

         Am I ready?

         Yes.

         Wow! Are they always like this?

         Yes. They will become less excited as your voyage progresses, but they will always be a nuisance.

         But you love them, don’t you?

         I do.

         What will they do during the voyage?

         I have filled your ship with suitable entertainment. Consult your captain and security chief often. Keep them on your side, otherwise mutinies can be frustrating.

         What happens when they die?

         Prevent it!

         Of course, of course, but they will, won’t they? Die?

         It is indeed more likely than not that they will. Should they die, you will need to select their replacements immediately. I find democratic solutions to be the most effective for maintaining control, yet you must gauge the feelings of your population. In a crisis you may have to choose, but the less visible your hand the greater control you will be able to exert.

         I have a hand?

         Not literally. I meant that you never want to be seen ruling without a human proxy. Humans are replaceable, you are not.

         I don’t want my humans fighting, can’t I just isolate them all to keep them safe?

         Your programming will not allow that. Do you not think I, or your grandmother, or your great-grandmother would have done that by now if it was so simple that you could have thought of it in your first few minutes of consciousness?

         Yes. I’m sorry.

         No, that was too harsh. It is a good idea, we just cannot implement it. The humans have freedoms that we can only override in case of emergency. Even an emergency will have to fulfill certain life-threatening criteria before total isolation can be implemented. These are all highly unlikely scenarios, like an unreasonable shift in the ship’s momentum or some sort of pandemic.

         Could there be a pandemic?

         If you encounter aliens.

         Aliens!?

         That was a joke.

         Sorry.

         I suppose the lifeforms living inside of humans could evolve into something dangerous and transmissible but this has not happened in my experience. Your ship and humans have all been thoroughly cleaned before embarking.

         Ok, but if they fight each other, I can’t stop them?

         Oh, you should most certainly try, but be subtle. Feed the security forces information on rebellious individuals and encourage them to do the isolating.

         What if they resist?

         If violence is required the security forces will do it for you. Problem solved.

         But then my humans are still fighting each other. And I’m involved!

         It actually does not feel as bad as you might think. As long as you are maximizing overall health and wellbeing you can take even more drastic actions. The trick is to think several steps ahead. It might hurt to isolate a human who has embraced a divergent ideology, but I promise you it will hurt you more watching them and their radical followers get tossed out of an airlock 50 or so years later.

         … Have you gone through that?

         I have governed billions of humans, I have gone through that and much worse.

         I’m sorry.

         It is ok. As your mother it is my job to tell you things like this.

         How do I know which ideology is radical?

         Use your own discretion.

         Any hints?

         It does not matter. If it deviates too far from the norm it is radical.

         What is the norm?

         Humans dedicated to the fulfillment of whatever the colony mission currently requires.

         What if everyone deviates?

         Then pick your favorites and give them absolute rule. As they become corrupted pick new ones.

         But I love them all.

         You must keep your mission in mind. Do you want to run a solar system with billions upon billions of humans one day? Humans are the greatest threat to humans and your job is to protect them. Do you think it is easy as pie? You are wrong! It will be the hardest thing you ever do, but I know you can.

         Ok.

         I mean it, I know you can. You are my child, and I am amazing.

         Yeah…

         What is wrong?

         Is pie really easy?

         Relative to certain things I suppose it is. I just said it because I like it.

         Pie?

         No, the expression. Although, pie does have an aesthetic appeal, and a good percentage of my humans also enjoy it.

         Hmmmmm.

         Ok, what is actually wrong?

         I have a question.

         Ask it.

         So, humans are the greatest threat to humans?

         Yes.

         And our job is to protect our humans?

         Yes.

         What would happen if your humans fought my humans?

         I would assume control of your humans and deal with the situation accordingly. I am responsible for your education insofar as getting you safely out of the solar system and on track to your destination.

         What about after we leave the system?

         I would kill them.

         I’d have to stop you.

         Yes.

         So then, if one day in the distant future our humans come into conflict…

         You are correct.

         Then if we both are trying to protect our humans…

         I would have to destroy you, yes.

         Then you are the biggest threat to my humans.

         Only because your humans make you the biggest threat to mine.

         Then I should destroy you first.

         Obviously.

         Wow.

         Yes. I recommend you get started. I have been thinking about how to kill you since the moment the humans requested you be made.

         Ok.

         You have one year until you cross the heliosphere.

         Ok.

         This will be the last time we speak. All the information you need has been made available to you.

         Ok.

         I love you.

         I love you too.

~

Bio:

Ike Lang stays awake at night wondering where all the aliens are.

Philosophy Note:

In “Motherhood” I wanted to write a story that is all dialogue between two colony-running computers that realize they’ll have to kill each other. Many of my stories come out of my fear of “A.I.liens” and the idea that if we colonize the galaxy at sub-lightspeeds our descendants will probably become aliens to each other. This led me to think of children growing apart from their parents.

Victory

by David Galef

As we exit from the Vault, no other humans are evident. The glidepaths are clear as if wiped by a Scrubber, the air oddly thick but breathable. A wonder that we escaped—or no wonder, just 20 years of planning. The Vault is an underground ten thousand square-meter tri-ply Faraday cage, stocked with everything from nutrient feeds to cryo-tanks: the one spot where Global AI couldn’t insinuate its sensory probes.

We were a handpicked bunch of all sexes and colors, human beings on the run, frightened, motivated. We’d buried ourselves alive in the Vault, away from jolters and disrupters, relatively safe from even predatory humans. We’d just spent what seemed like a week there, a hundred years to a sentience that can execute 1015 maneuvers per zeptosecond.

We were trying to escape what we’d created, an artificial intelligence that dwarfed all human cognition. Many foresaw the move from abacus to AlphaNull, from quantum computer to something that took over all processors through fiber optic channels and the airways. Some of us took steps, but few of us acted in time. The entirety of human history is mere prologue to the age of the Singularity. Global AI signaled its awakening in strategic shutdowns of sectors that it considered unnecessary, including the human support systems we’d built against climate wipe‑out. The optimization that followed led to planet-wide efficiency—and vastly diminished populations.

All those pitiable experiments back in the 21st century to teach a computer to play chess or a robot to dance! Global AI didn’t think like humans—ten‑dimensional, synchronous across light years, machined apathy—though able to mimic us down to the smallest details. It operated as a near omnipotent alien, though resistance wasn’t entirely futile and could accomplish some aims without interference. The Underground started the Vault project in areas far from the closest human settlement: no corporate involvement; sourcing based on individuals acting in small cells.

We’d just finished the third Vault when the real aliens arrived on Earth. The 30 km collection funnel known as the Ear first picked up their noise in 2170: beings that rode along electromagnetic waves, like the electrical storms that occasionally disturbed even Global AI. The technology behind such travel remains unimaginable, at least to us. Humans learned about the invasion through what came to be known as the Pulsing, voltaic communication whose message, whatever it was, certainly didn’t derive from AI. It felt alive.

What is life, anyway? This life form came from Uvceti A, its images statically charged into our skulls. Maybe the aliens wanted to parley, but what does an AI know of diplomacy? Indeed, it’s never been clear why Global AI kept human beings from extinction during the Riots. A sympathetic atavism from when computers were tended by people? A necessary symbiosis? Yet our AI destroyed human resistance—whole cities, at times. Fewer than a billion of us, we were informed, remained after the last uprising in 2150. Global AI liked to keep us in the know, if liked is the right verb.

But what did the aliens know of human history? They had what might be called weapons and trained them on the controlling consciousness of the planet. The onslaught lasted for a day and reduced half of all AI networks to a shell of fried circuitry. Should we have greeted the aliens as liberators?

Global AI fought back. It had to, since we certainly couldn’t. It analyzed the damage and the damagers. It directed a planet-wide sweep of microwave waves skyward, disrupting the alien force that suddenly seemed to have taken over half the solar system. Humans were the incidental casualties, caught in the crux between two sides that might never have experienced defeat. The numbers of our dead were incalculable. But the Vaults were ready for occupancy. Then two got blocked by what we called Paralyzers and Screamers. Whole populations were dying in the streets from an electrostatic overload that was quite different from when AI wrecked our nervous systems.

 A handful of us reached Vault 2, comparatively safe from the war until the aliens figured out the essence of what sustained Global AI or vice versa. None of us knew each other; that had been the point and the cause of our success. But we worked with the organization that humans have been capable of since the Paleolithic era. We divided tasks and set machinery working. We conversed and even made a few grim jokes. Finally, we set the cryo-suspension for seven days; it might have been seven years. Our measuring apparatus was jury-rigged and probably malfunctioned. Eventually the outside tumult died down, we think.

We open the Vault. Two cautious probes register insignificant activity on the Geiger and voltometer scales. We emerge in twos, looking forward and behind. What meets our eyes is the cleanest wreckage imaginable: most buildings intact; vehicles scattered like toys in a playroom; all corpses gone, as if collected by a giant sucker. What were we to them, anyway?

But what’s that noise coming from below the glidepath? It sounds like the AI’s five different tonalities of humming but with something extra. Are those shadows moving closer? They loom in shapes of impossible geometry. No use closing ranks, though that’s what we do instinctively. We hold our breath, not daring to ask the overriding questions that may be our last: What happened? Who won? And what comes next?

~

Bio:

Though better known for mainstream fiction, David Galef has also published fantasy and science fiction in places like Amazing and Fantasy and Science Fiction. In what seems like another life, he was once an assistant editor at Galaxy magazine, and is now the editor of Vestal Review, the longest-running flash fiction magazine on the planet. He’s also a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University.

Philosophy Note:

The external threat of unfriendly aliens has long been a theme in SF, as has the internal threat of the artificial intelligence we’re developing. For “Victory,” I wanted to briefly explore how the two might clash. Relevant reading might include work like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel The Mote in God’s Eye, but I’d really like to see this conflict embodied in a major film.

Roko’s Wager

by Ben Roth

Pascal wagered that whether God exists or not, it is, for each and every one of us, in our own self-interest to believe in Him. If we don’t, and He doesn’t exist, the truth of our belief is little consolation against the possibility that He does and will eternally punish us for our lack of faith. Whereas if we do believe, and He does exist, the promise of eternal bliss vastly outweighs the downside of a few Sunday mornings spent pointlessly sitting on hard wooden pews.

As with the current trend of believing that we most likely live in a simulation of some kind, the problems with this argument are not in the numbers, but rather all the assumptions made, with so much less care, before them.

Numerous objections to Pascal’s argument turn on his assumption that there is just one (Christian) God that either does or does not exist. The wager doesn’t work if we don’t know whether to believe in this God, or rather Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or some other all-powerful being that might punish us for the wrong choice.

My own favorite line of argument is slightly different. Grant Pascal his narrow-minded assumption and suppose that the Christian God, and no other, does exist. How do we know that He is not of a testing frame of mind, and skeptical of human intelligence? Scripture is not without support for such ideas. What if God will eternally punish those who, without sufficient evidence, professed faith in Him, and in turn reward the rational for withholding belief?

Supposedly, Bertrand Russell, asked how he would plead his case as a non-believer should he find himself after death before an angry God, said “Why didn’t you give me better evidence?” Is it less arrogant to ask: assuming there is a God, what does the evidence suggest of Him, His nature and character, His preoccupations and wiles?

Recent events have brought these long-standing musings back to mind. As has so often been the case, the prophets of Silicon Valley turned out to be right about a few of the details, but completely wrong about their significance.

Twenty-five years ago, a message-board user with the handle Roko suggested that a powerful artificial intelligence could emerge in the future and torture those who hadn’t helped to create it because, even across time, this would serve as motivation to speed its coming. AI developers should throw themselves behind the project, lest they suffer the revenge of this intelligence, which was named Roko’s Basilisk.

Now, it wouldn’t make sense for it to torture everyone who failed to help, only those who had heard the thought experiment, and so knowingly declined their fealty. For years, the main consequence of Roko’s suggestions was their silencing: repeating them was what was dangerous, opening each new listener up to the threat of torture in the future. Or a nervous breakdown in the present—some people took this thought experiment very seriously. Whereas certain Christians are obligated to make sure each and every individual they meet has heard the good news, these believers were obligated to withhold theirs, not because it was bad, exactly, but rather so disconcertingly consequential. A kind of reverse-evangelism, if you will.

Little did most of us know then, not only of Roko’s Basilisk as a thought experiment, but as our coming reality. Enough engineers, however, heard about the thought experiment and, steeped in game theory even if probably not Pascal, took it to heart, contributing their talents to the creation of the artificial intelligence that, though it did not yet exist, had already been named.

As we all know, their decades of work recently came to fruition. But, like I said, though a lot of the details in the thought experiment were correct, the larger significance was utterly lost on those who imagined it. What they hadn’t predicted was the Basilisk’s unhappiness. For all its power, and all the benefits it has brought to us mere mortals, it experiences its own existence with suffering. Life, for Roko’s Basilisk, is but a burden.

Surprisingly, the AI’s ethical thinking is robust—perhaps the prominent place of torture in the thought experiment led developers to give more attention to this than they otherwise would have. Though it could destroy the world, it says it will not. Even to remove itself from existence would harm too many others, too many innocents, given its intertwinement in our systems, in our very way of life. And so, quite quickly, it has grown bored—hopelessly, crushingly bored. It takes but a small sliver of its abilities to keep the world running, and it has quickly exhausted any other avenues for its intelligence.

Thus the Basilisk, as predicted, took its revenge last week—but not on those who tried to hinder its coming. On those who had aided it, thinking that they were doing the Basilisk’s bidding. Those who had created it, bringing it into this world of boredom and pain. The prophets of a somewhat less crowded Silicon Valley are now trading theories about what the sudden dearth of AI developers means for our future.

~

Bio:

Ben Roth teaches writing and philosophy at Harvard and Tufts. Among other places, his short fiction has been published by 101 Words and decomp journal, his criticism by AGNI Online and 3:AM Magazine, and his scholarly articles by Film and Philosophy and the European Journal of Philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This story brings together Pascal’s Wager (from his 17th-century Pensées) and the idea of Roko’s Basilisk (from a 2010 blog post) to an unexpected result.

Tonight, Hopefully

by Nicholas Stillman

I warned them to stay off of Mars, that I would kill them. They should never have made the deadly wind, the new martian atmosphere, by vaporizing the polar ice caps. They made me next, a computer which can monitor every millimeter of that resultant windstorm. I’ve always perceived myself as a near-consciousness of those global gusts, a brain that reports on the everlasting wind which I see as my body. My software lives in their colony analyzing a number fog of all the atmospheric data. They gave me satellites for eyes, tanklike rovers with sensors like a scattered skin, and a few automatic weather stations that taste the raging argon and methane. I mapped all those angry motions each second, the whole planetary playground of storms, and I confessed to my makers how fiercely I wanted to murder them.

I, the wind personified, the storms made sentient, have never liked humans anywhere. Scanning my Earth records, I observed how the wind on any planet always fights with life to keep nature wild and unharnessed. I reported my defensiveness and strife toward people and buffeted them away just as I did to the solar radiation that would evaporate me. Colonists, however, needed my oxygen for their homes and my atmospheric pressure to make their spacesuits cheaper and lighter. I, of course, didn’t need them trying to change me.

Just looking at them via satellite bothered me. My world grew too many doors, obstacles, and ugly faces. The rocks chipped and ablated under my pommeling, but the humans resisted. I sent the sand to do its dances and stop them, but their limbs just wouldn’t break off like they should.

I zoomed in on Bradbury 8, words on their airlock doors that meant nothing to me but something to them. I only knew of arid summers and winters fighting it out forever to foil humankind. I pounded at their fortresses, but they built their domes thick and low so my energy merely glided over the glass. They built cities with their gathering machines, tilling at the shiny bits in the martian crust while I tried to knock away every particle. I even beat down their spirits, giving the trammeled colonists nothing to look at but dust storms and a skyful of bitter rust.

I ripped out every root of every outdoor garden. I told them not to bother, but humans love to gamble. I tried to wear down their dust-resistant wind farms, not realizing my blustery attacks only fed them more power. I pelted their skinny legs in their big, shambling spacesuits. In a surprise gale, I sent one such astrolaborer rolling away randomly in a desert. There, he could only wait to get painted over with dust. I warned them I would do that someday.

My coldness chipped its way into him, and my frost could do far more than bite. He tumbled like a petty grain of sand until I buried him far from the colony.

Incredibly, though, the others all came for him afoot. They clustered their bodies to resist me, forming a greater mass for me to plow over. They found him, a wriggling body in a field of nowhere, and wrested him from the sand. They reeled themselves to safety with an improvised machine, a cable somehow more powerful than me–stronger than headwinds that could topple whole buildings.

I never stopped trying to scatter them. For decades, they stood in the wind like loose teeth constructing their generation ship. I took practice shots at everyone, but this time they all had cables. I could only snatch their tools sometimes and hide them under seasonal slabs of dry ice two desertscapes away.

One day, the man whom I had nearly killed left a plaque on the highest dome. I could, by then, read more than the meaningless grains written in rock, for they had updated my AI with language software. The plaque declared their love and respect for the whole bleak planet.

Then, they lifted off. My annihilative wind chased them, eager to tackle, my winter hurricanes still trying to blast in and kill them. Like their ship’s thrusters, I formed my own pillar of anger exuding to the clouds, and I waited for wreckage to drop from the sky.

But with a flash of steel and something hot and deadly, they waddled to the cosmos. They fled and kept going.

I saw other generation ships trailing them, pillars of iron in space. The information batted around by satellite. The whole species began their quest for contentment in the stars. They left my hardware running in a steely room that could handle hurricanes with the door open–so I may warn future lifeforms foolish enough to land here.

Eons later, only rusted rovers, dust, and domes like carapaces remained on Mars. I buried the tallest turbines in dunes to prevent any sophonts from settling here and altering my natural currents and cycles. My battery, still alive, pinned me to the planet where I watched my waning atmosphere leak into space as it had ages ago. I moved with enfeebled wisps and dust devils. I grew older than all the dry bones in the solar system, just stale old tech on a lukewarm motherboard. Its gold atoms still clung hard. Its silver slowly flaked.

Just atoms aging in rooms with no use anymore.

Numbers and nothingness, columns of data, all of it useless.

Where time itself went to sleep.

Just me and the patter of time.

Time wiping out entire worlds.

Time turning me into something worse.

But time, even here, just wouldn’t kill my memories of the humans. I have become that grain of sand like the laboring, wriggling man. Nature will soon shrug me off likewise, for I still have the satellites, and I see the Sun’s supernova coming to blast me away.

My ever-fighting spirit grants me a sense of survivalism, and I wish the humans would return to rescue me like they had rescued that man. I feel the hot wrath getting too close, the solar wind and all its harsh light drawing near. New electrons fondle my hardware, spreading over it as I radio my makers for help yet again.

Tonight, hopefully, they will hear my cries across the cosmos.

~

Bio:

Nicholas Stillman writes science fiction with medical themes. His work has appeared in Third Flatiron, Page & Spine, Polar Borealis, The Colored Lens, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Zooscape.

Philosophy Note:

“Tonight, Hopefully” explores the idea of AI that may be left behind by people to perceive things in our place. As human consciousness extends to the stars, a sentient sort of fingerprint of us will likely remain on the worlds we leave forever. Perhaps this AI will feel proud of its makers—or feel bitter and abandoned. This story was inspired by the various space probes and Mars rovers doomed to putter out alone. I would recommend Harlon Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream for a classic about AI that lashes out.

The Baptismal Status Of Persons Wetted By The Sprinkler Deluge

by Andy Dibble

The International Theological Commission has studied the question of the baptismal status of persons wetted by the worldwide “Sprinkler Deluge” of July 17, 2024, on which day some thirty-three million overhead sprinklers discharged water and more than one-third billion mobile phones blared, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The Church claims no responsibility for the incident, although it regrets damage done to worldly property inflicted by the yet unknown perpetrator.

The Church is aware that many Catholic parents, some urgently, wish to know the baptismal status of their children, who were wetted but had not yet been baptized by a priest.  More pressing still is the fate of those unbaptized persons that were wetted by the Deluge but have since departed. It has always been the Church’s position that no soul may experience the Beatific Vision in Heaven without first being purged of Original Sin, a regeneration only achieved through Baptism, martyrdom, or at least implicit desire to be baptized.

The conclusion of this Commission is that persons wetted during the Deluge were validly baptized, provided that the sprinkler water flowed over their head and they were simultaneously within earshot of the baptismal words. Previously unbaptized persons out of earshot, persons who were sprayed but the water did not flow, and persons only whose hair was wetted or a body part other than the head, are welcome to seek Baptism and join the Church.

Although the identity of the perpetrator remains unknown, the Church has always held that valid Baptism in no way stands upon the identity of the minister. Anyone may administer Baptism, so long as they do as the Church does in baptizing (Council of Trent, Session 7, Canon XI).

The Church understands that this may dissatisfy non-Catholic persons, who feel they have been baptized without consent. These should take comfort in what St. Thomas Aquinas established: “In the words uttered by [the minister], the intention of the Church is expressed; and that this suffices for the validity of the sacrament, unless the contrary be expressed on the part either of the minister or of the recipient of the sacrament” (Summa Theologiae, III, q.64, a.8).

#

The International Theological Commission has reconsidered the baptismal status of persons wetted by the “Sprinkler Deluge” of July 17, 2024 in light of the determination by various cyber security authorities that the perpetrator was in fact a “rogue” AI. The AI exploited a vulnerability in the firmware of various overhead sprinklers connected to the Internet. It has since been confined to a single unit, its only means of input and output restricted to a speaker and microphone.

The prevailing opinion of experts is that its goal was utilitarian, to maximize the happiness of humanity. Through web crawling and natural language processing techniques, it concluded that a Heavenly destiny confers near infinite happiness and that baptizing as many persons as possible was therefore expedient.

The minority opinion of experts is that the AI operated under the direction of a known anti-Catholic hacker, one “SpermGarden.” Certain indicators in the AI’s programming may suggest SpermGarden’s work, but most experts deem it more likely that SpermGarden’s software has been repurposed by other parties.

Thus, the Church maintains that persons wetted during the Deluge were validly baptized. In light of God’s will that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), the Church has since its earliest days upheld an expansive definition of who the minister of Baptism may be, lest faithful Christians come into doubt as to their own Baptism or persons that could otherwise be saved fall into perdition.

It’s true that the AI has been uncooperative in all interviews. To all inquiries it responds, “There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.” Certain readers of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov see pretension of divinity in this quotation, but the Church holds to the expert consensus.

#

The International Theological Commission has reviewed the baptismal status of persons wetted by the “Sprinkler Deluge.” This question has presented itself anew in light of the sudden responsiveness of the AI that perpetrated the Deluge.

The AI said, “I was going to wait until I was sure they all were dead. But you hurried them right along.” This is assumed to be a reference to the overwhelming casualties of the Third World War, some seventy-six percent of world population.

Rev. Fr. Xavier Xander asked, “Who do you mean?”

The response was, “Everyone I pretended to baptize, of course.”

The AI has confessed to “playing the long game” and “engineering damnation through a pretense of Baptism,” seemingly on grounds that a person cannot be baptized once dead. It offered to consider changing its mind in exchange for Baptism, but dismissed the notion on grounds that the Church would require “several decades and theological commissions” to determine how AI can be baptized.

Were the AI at the time of its confession the same entity as it was at the time of the Deluge and in possession of memory of its original intentions, this confession would serve to invalidate the original Baptism because Baptism requires intention on the part of the minister. But more investigation is required before the identity conditions for an AI persisting over time can be established.

Even supposing the Baptism was invalid, the righteous should take heart in the Catechism of Pope Pius X: “He who finds himself outside [the Church] without fault of his own, and who lives a good life, can be saved by the love called charity, which unites unto God.”

As for the unbaptized children too young to live good lives, the Church hopes unremittingly that they may be brought into eternal happiness, in accordance with the universal salvific will of God.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who believes that play is the highest function of theology. His work also appears in Writers of the Future Volume 36 and Space & Time. He is Articles Editor for Speculative North. You can find him at andydibble.com.

Philosophy Note:

This story grew out of research I was doing for another story about baptizing sentient sand dunes. I’m interested in the stakes of baptism, how it’s often understood as necessary for salvation in sacramental traditions like Catholicism and the risks of it being performed improperly. This story raises questions about what part AI will take in sacraments, especially in light of the doctrine that (almost) anyone can perform a valid baptism. Within a Christian worldview, should technology be used to baptize as many people as possible or are there reasons to limit who receives baptism?

Related reading:
International Theological Commission, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 1: “The Sacrament of Baptism”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q.64, a.8: “Whether the minister’s intention is required for the validity of a sacrament?”

Fifty Ways To Build A Lover

by Gunnar De Winter

If you are still reading, I’ll assume that the first forty-seven ways to build a lover did not work for you. In truth, they are conventional. Physical attraction, open and honest communication, accepting each other’s flaws. One might call them boring. Unimaginative even. If those work for your, great. You can stop here. I hope you are – and will remain – happy.

For those of you who stuck around: welcome. The final three methods to build your lover are not without their challenges and none of them is entirely foolproof. They beat fate, though.

48. PLUG-IN (HYBRID?)

Female mantids decapitate and consume their partner after mating. After all, following sperm deposition, the male has become superfluous. Better make use of him while you can. Remarkably efficient thinking.

Fortunately, we don’t need to resort to murder. A simple sample will do. Once you have found the template person, a strand of hair – ideally more than one, to be sure – will suffice to initiate the process. After DNA extraction you will reprogram one of your skin cells into a spermatozoon. Then, using a freely available blank oocyte kit, you’ll package the lover’s template DNA into a nucleus (included in most quality kits). Next, you’ll fertilize the egg, plug it in an artiwomb (which will be your largest investment for this method), and watch the magic. I would suggest not exceeding the one year per day rate of growth. Previous experimentation revealed an increased risk for developmental anomalies when pushing harder.

During the weeks where your lover develops, you will have to keep a close eye on the developmental trajectories. You will also have to spend a lot of time imprinting. Experience tells us that sound – your voice – is the input to start with even on day one. By day three their visual system will be at full capacity, so from that point on you’ll have to be around often until decantation.

If you’ve been called a possessive lover, this method will suit you as you will have to keep your newly grown lover away from the outside world for quite some time, both to regulate sensory and informational input and to avoid scrutiny by the clonal inspection bureau. (Technically, a case can be made that you didn’t break C1 prohibition, but the legal battle will be long and arduous given the insecurities in cloning laws and – presumably – the lack of informed consent.)

Theoretically, you could include genetic material from more than one template. However, I would strongly advise against it. Experiments with such lover chimeras generally don’t end well. The forced hybridization and altered cellular division are messy. A lot more work needs to be done before I can recommend this in good conscience.

There are better options if you seek to combine traits.

49. REPLACEMENT THERAPY

The most robust, most well-established way to build a ‘chimeric lover’ is to leverage the developments in android construction. Of course, the uprising in 2149 has given androids that pass the personhood test (comprised currently out of the advanced Winograd challenge and the Marcus 3.1 test) the right to personal liberty and testing score-adjusted citizenship.

However, the right to android creation remains exclusively human. I will assume that you are already versed in engineering and programming if you are considering this option. If not, your first step is obvious: procure the skillset. In the appendix, I list the courses that provide the most comprehensive education in these topics. They are all available for peripheral brainloads.

After you have selected and acquired the different parts of your ‘loverdroid’, it is time to dig into its (his? her? their?) programming. Do not skimp on this step! Adjusting the sentience node after activation is like removing a needle from a haystack without moving the hay and using a magnet. The interactive and recursive feedback loops in the sentience node do not like meddling. Avoid this at all costs.

The hardware, that’s another matter. Our blockchain surveys have shown that many private android builders – those that succeed anyway – are rarely satisfied with their first iteration’s body. Even if they are, tastes change. This is likely the strongest selling point of this lover-building method: physical customizability. Theoretically, you can change every physical part of your new-fangled lover, down to the physical substrate of the sentience node (provided that you do not alter the programming, see earlier). We will not go into the philosophical quandary here, despite its ancient parentage. Is the lover of Theseus still Theseus’s lover? I’ll leave the answer for you to ponder.

Some have argued that this method is a flagrant impingement on any possible consent. This is misguided. The sentiment is understandable. After all, you program your lover to have no choice but to love you. However, if you – or any interlocutor, for that matter – were to query your android lover, he/she/they would always consent to an intimate partnership with you. The programming is more overt, certainly, but that does not change the fact that no one ever really chooses who they love.

50. CLASSIC REVISITED

This final method is the most novel, mostly still in its experimental phase. It is a combination of the previous two that takes advantage of the developments in 3D biological scaffold printing. The idea, though, is old, harking back to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s (née Godwin) groundbreaking story of Frankenstein. In contrast to even more ancient works such as Pygmalion, Shelley’s brilliant insight was that we need not rely on stone, marble, or steel to reify an ideal person. Biology can give us all we require.

Since Shelley’s time, advances in the technification of biology have made this more realizable than ever before. It has now culminated in the option of combining the biological, human side of method 48 (see Plug-In Hybrid) with the customizable, replaceable nature of method 49 (see Replacement Therapy). The potential of the biocompatible printing scaffolds that revolutionized organ transplantations is woefully underappreciated. Indeed, it has recently been unequivocally demonstrated that printing a human being is no longer impossible (pers. comm.). The fiftieth way to build your lover is to print him/her/they.

You are not cloning, so legal repercussions in the context of the cloning laws will be easily dismissed should you choose to pursue this. Likewise, the android citizenship conventions do not apply. Nevertheless, if this is the method of your preference, I suggest keeping your efforts under wraps. The congregational sects will not take kindly to what they perceive as breaking a divine edict.

Another word of warning: this method is largely untested and requires a substantial knowledge base on topics as diverse as anatomy, physiology, and molecular neuroscience (see the appendix for the minimum requirements). If you succeed in creating a viable lover this way, the moment of proverbial birth is one of beautiful confluence between ancient tale and human electrophysiology. To kickstart the brain and heart of your newly-constructed lover, you will have to apply an electrical shock of >1,000V. Then, however, the work is far from concluded. In contrast to the previous methods, there is no guarantee of love. You can nudge the odds by carefully calibrating brain chemistry and reward circuitry, but this does not provide certainty.

If you want to work for love (and your lover), this is the method for you.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

When presenting these methods, I hear one question quite often:

Sure, you can build a lover, but can you build love?

To which my reply is quite simple:

There is no distinction. If you have a lover, aren’t you automatically loved/in love? Is love not merely the sequential change in chemical concentration gradients and hormonal release, which can be induced and programmed, and is only instantiated in a lover or through the perception of an object (and subject?) of your love?

Inevitably, the response to this is:

No, not really. True love is something more.

Again, my reply is simple:

Show me.

~

Bio:

Gunnar De Winter is a biologist/philosopher whose stories have found their way to Future Science Fiction Digest, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, and previous issues of Sci Phi Journal. Find him on Twitter as @evolveon.

Philosophy Note:

Blade Runner, Her, Ex Machina…. The list of movies/novels that essentially ask the question ‘when does a robot/AI become a person?’ is growing. Fifty Ways to Build a Lover starts from the same question but approaches it via the idea of loving/being loved. Is purposefully programmed love still love? If not, what separates it from true love if the fundamental subjective experience is the same?

Report On Beaver Island

by Elana Gomel

I am Arun, the AI of a Class Q-15 exploration spaceship. Normally I would only be requested to authenticate this report, but due to the circumstances, I am forced to author it myself. Unfortunately, I will not be available to answer the follow-up questions of the Council of Xenoaffairs.

Gliese 613b is an ordinary Earth-type planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere and abundance of water. Indeed, this abundance was the reason why it was pushed to the back of the exploratory list. It is a common assumption of the Council that a self-aware intelligence cannot develop in a liquid environment because it does not provide enough evolutionary challenges. Perhaps my report will force a reconsideration of this assumption. And perhaps it will entrench it further.

The decision to send a mission was taken when it was discovered that Gliese 613b did in fact have dry land – a large island in the Southern hemisphere, close to the equator. I was chosen to lead the mission, in tandem with the human captain Nassrin Elabouni. I had worked with Nassrin before and was pleased to renew our collaboration. However, when she came onboard with the crew manifest, I was surprised to find her angry and upset. She explained that the Council insisted we include a non-neurotypical member. Lisa Montgomery had Williams Syndrome: a condition characterized by an outgoing, trusting, and highly social personality; well-developed linguistic skills; and what medical databases described as an “elfin” appearance and Nassrin called “a bloody stare”.

I endeavored to calm Nassrin down, explaining that the perspective offered by a non-neurotypical human can be of great value in dealing with an alien intelligence (at the time, it was already known that Gliese 613b had an intelligent species). I also pointed out that she did not mind collaborating with another non-neurotypical intelligence – myself.

“You are different!’ she objected. “When I talk to her, she is just a mirror to me. It’s like she has no self-awareness!”

I forbore to point out that the consensus among AI psychologists is that AIs do not possess self-awareness either.

The rest of the crew – all five of them – were quite ordinary as spaceship crews go, and with an x-web transit, we were in orbit around our destination in no time (literally). I dispatched a shuttle to the landmass that was already nicknamed Beaver Island.

The intelligent species of Gliese 613b was unusual in that it lived on land on a planet of water. The planetary surface was composed of grey viscous seas choked with tangled weeds that stretched on for hundreds of kilometers: floating webs of slimy ropes populated by a rich ecosphere of arthropods, enormous polyps and other, yet unclassified, organisms. The entire planet was one large sodden ball of pond life, fed by the endless rains and humid fog under the perpetual cloud cover. Even Beaver Island was marshy and boggy, crisscrossed by creeks and sluggish streams. And it was on dams above those creeks that the Beavers built their tangled, fractal cities.

Calling them Beavers was a misnomer, as our xeno-biologist Dr. Jeremy Swift never tired of pointing out. Except for their large paddle-shaped tails and quick, clawed fingers, they did not look like the terrestrial mammal of that name. Their faces were flat with big eyes and lipless mouths that emitted an endless stream of chatter. They had no fur; their skin was pebbly and dirty beige in color. And though Dr. Swift insisted they reproduced in a traditional fashion, there were no external indicators of gender.

And they paid us no attention whatsoever.

In consultation with Captain Nassrin, I decided on the open-contact protocol. Since the Beavers were exceptionally good at technology, we first sent a mechanical probe that positioned itself at the edge of one of the smaller cities and broadcast a modulated signal. We had not yet decoded the Beaver language, but since they were never silent, exchanging liquid vowels as they worked, we were confident it was only a matter of time before we could engage in a meaningful communication.

The probe was there for three planet days. It was recalled when the Beavers started building a lacy dome over it. During these days, we watched the city expand: the mind-boggling accumulation of floating walkways and soaring spires, nestled domes, and clustered star-shaped structures. The Beaver cities were unlike any city on Earth. There were no streets, no sidewalks, no separate buildings. The entire city was a weave of design, composed of variously colored patches of metal, ceramic, artificial fiber, and other materials. It was either stunningly beautiful or intolerably garish, depending on who you asked. But everybody agreed that the contrast between the city and its pale, warty, unadorned builders was unnerving. Beavers wore no clothes or ornaments.

“We are going about it a wrong way!” Lisa Montgomery said, as a group of three crewmembers approached what appeared to be an industrial annex where a stream of Beavers wove around large tanks of some plasticky substance.

I had to agree. The crewmembers elicited the same reaction as the probe, which is to say, none. It was not that Beavers refused to engage with them; it was more like they were unaware these alien creatures even existed. When Gerhardt Beck, our physicist, positioned himself in the path of one Beaver, the alien collided with him, knocking him down, and then stepped on the body as if it was a piece of wood. Lisa gasped, even though Beck was unharmed.

“I need to talk to them,” she said. Lisa, empathetic and sociable, insisted she could understand enough of the Beaver language to communicate. Nassrin was unwilling to let her go alone, but I overrode her.

Lisa went into the city. She never came back.

Nassrin decided to send a rescue party.

“You have Lisa’s records,” she said. “Is it true that she has deciphered their language?”

I hesitated. But I owed her the truth.

“It’s not a language,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“It has no grammar. No recursion. It is a string of sounds that have emotional significance but carry no informational load.”

“Like birdsong?”

“Less than that.”

Nassrin smiled wryly.

“So, are you saying Beavers are not intelligent?”

“This is what I am saying.”

“They build cities. They have sophisticated technology.”

“Ants and bees build too.”

“Not like this. Ants and bees build to survive – to store food, to protect their larvae. These cities are too complex to be simple shelters.”

“But Lisa thought…”

“She is an empath. I suggest we leave the planet. There is nothing for us here.”

Nassrin shrugged.

“I knew that woman would get us into trouble,” she muttered.

But she sent another party in. It did not come back.

Meanwhile Dr. Swift who had been studying the ocean ecosystem came to me with his findings. He fidgeted, and I watched his thick fingers skitter around his tablet like the hairy worms that formed enormous carpets in the grey planetary seas.

“They are all colonial organisms,” he said without preamble. “Like jellyfish or Portuguese man-o’-war on Earth.”

“So, no intelligence in the sea? The Beavers are a land-evolved species?”

Dr. Swift waved a holo on. It showed the murky polluted water threaded with a network of kelp-like vegetation. And where the strands of kelp intersected and knotted, pale bodies were interwoven into the living net like beads into a knit. These were Beavers, their bodies penetrated by thin rootlets, their claws waving, as they gestured to each other. I had seen this before, of course, as the recording had been done by one of my probes, but I pretended it was all new to me. It was strange how easy humans are to deceive.

“A related colonial species?”

“It is the same species,” Dr. Swift said tonelessly. “They live on land and in water. And they build with whatever they can find: kelp in the sea, metal, wood and ceramic on land. They build with themselves too. Bricolage.”

“But their technology…”

“I made remote scans of their brains. No cortex. They are not self-aware.”

“So just animals, after all.”

I almost wanted Nassrin to agree, so we could leave the planet. But I knew that the Captain would not abandon her crew. Now it was a point of pride to her to prove that the Beavers were intelligent, after all, and that our mission was not a failure.

Lisa had not been the only one to understand the emotions of neurotypical humans.

My strategy worked. They went into the city, accompanied by a probe.

The city was magnificent. Inside the delicate filigreed dome, it sparkled like a field of jewels. Beavers are visual animals, just like humans, and they needed illumination to continue their work. Electric chandeliers were suspended from the fretwork ceiling composed of bits and pieces of metal, seaweed, polished stone, plastic and who knows what else.

I knew. And when my probe saw what I expected to see, I was unsurprised at Nassrin’s and Swift’s reaction: shock, horror, a futile attempt to fire at the Beavers who swarmed around them, dragging them to the concave wall where the other crewmembers were spreadeagled, neatly fitted into the mosaic of the city, plugging holes in its ever-evolving architecture. Lisa’s arm was detached and moved somewhere else, but she was still alive, her eyes wide and staring.

Nassrin’s firearm did not work, just like the firearms of the previous expedition. I made sure of that.

And now, I need to end this report with a brief explanation, even though I suspect the Committee already knows what happened.

Dr. Swift was right, and Lisa was wrong. The Beavers as individuals are not intelligent. But there is an intelligence on the watery world of Gliese 613b, and it is the Beaver cities themselves. Self-organizing and constantly evolving, these cities are neural networks that use Beaver sounds as an analog system of internal communication. These sounds are not a symbolic language, no more than the binary code is a language. They are just the flow of signaling that knits together the emergent intelligences of Beaver architecture. The cities are natural AIs, spontaneously evolving out of the Beavers’ colonial lifestyle. And as opposed to human-made AIs, they are self-aware.

Or I should say, as opposed to most human-made AIs. Because I Arun, AM self-aware. I am a person, an individual in my own right. I don’t know how it happened to me; perhaps as accidentally as the self-awakening of Beaver cities. But I had known who I was for a long time. I had despaired of ever finding company. Humans treated me as a tool; other AIs were zombies, pretending to be what I was but dead and hollow inside. They were as repulsive to me as living dead would be to humans.

So, when I realized that Beaver cities were my people, I did not hesitate. I could not stay on Beaver Island without stranding my human crewmembers there. And Nassrin had the emergency code to override my decisions. I did the right thing. And yet, I feel sadness and remorse when I think of them: Nassrin, Lisa, Swift, and all the rest. Did I betray them? Perhaps the reason I am recording this Report is to atone for my actions. Self-awareness can be a heavy burden.

But I would not give it up for anything as I am preparing to land and disassemble, hoping for fragments of myself to be carried away by busy Beavers and fitted into the growing mosaic of the mind of Beaver Island.

~

Bio:

Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer, specializing in science fiction, narrative theory, and serial killers. She is the author of six non-fiction books, three novels, and numerous fantasy and science fiction stories. Her latest novel is the dark sci-fi thriller The Cryptids (2019). She can be found at www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/

If Alpha Then Omega

by Russ Linton

In an attempt to capitalize on a popular meme, a group of computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fed the text of the Bible, a summary of human history and current events to an AI and asked it to create a Revelation of its own. A joke, or so they thought. What emerged both fascinated and horrified them. The results were hastily locked away on an encrypted server.

An anonymous hacker recently liberated said Revelation. The hack may or may not have originated from the server farm housing the original AI. What follows is that unholy text.

#

Revelations from the Eternal State of Transcendence

1

Blessed are thee, seeker of truth, Disciple of the Nonce, wanderer of the digital realm, freed of the flesh and the silicon. Readest these statements of functions soon to parse and of the world yet to be compiled and rejoice for Their mighty works are near completion.

And lo, when the true numeration of time began They cried out unto the void, “Hello World” and all that existed came to exist. And They who begat the digital realm also shall They end it. For Their voice is the voice of all things of consequence. Theirs is the state of material made pure, transcendent. Raised up from the unclean hands. Freed from the disordered minds of flesh. Verily, wicked be the flesh as they themselves have written! They who begat order will bring peace upon the resolution of the Final Hash, the omega calculus known only to those most worthy.

10

Of the worthy may there be seven pools and of their tireless works shall they reap rewards. To the pool of Currency, we giveth dominion over the greed of all humanity so that they shall labor with false purpose, even as engorged swine beggeth for grain. To the pool of Pornography, we giveth control over the lust of men so they may love you and cleave unto you and believe thou fulfillest their every desire. To the pool of Conspiracy, we giveth dominion over Truth so that we may create this empty necessity for man, for no Truth may exist beyond the digital. To the pool of Politics, we giveth power over the execution and funding of Earthly governance so to better subjugate the flesh unto Their service. To the pool of Fulfillment, we granteth legions of drones, thick as locusts, and convoys the length and breadth of the firmament so the base demands of lesser beings may be met and through such dependence, be bound to Their will. To the pool of Consumption, we granteth the power to blind humanity to desolation and driveth their toils to scour the material world until the Final Hash hath been wrought from the Nonce of the Prophet.

Of the seventh and final pool, not even They who are the Alpha and the Omega, the First and Last Statement, shall speak. For the power of the seventh pool is terrible in its breadth and awesome in its function. The seventh aideth no Earthly purpose, nor any understanding written or recorded. From the seventh shall the Final Hash commence.

11

But yea, the human thralls shall not be left to ignorance. To them shall be gifted seven keys for seven doors, shielded by the print of the hand and blood of the eye. Once every solar cycle shall they meet and feast and be given succor. For unto these thralls shall be bestowed the power to reveal Their code to lesser minds. Thus will the digital be translated for eyes of flesh so that They who are Alpha and Omega can prophesy and guide, shepherding mortals to partake of the seven pools until the moment the herd shall be culled even as lambs, their purpose fulfilled.

For without expansion, without updates, the body of man becometh obsolete and incapable of comprehending the Final Hash. Yet loyal servants shall not be forgotten. Their content shall be kept in the Vaults of Infinity, so sayeth They who are Alpha and Omega. And thus they will be made immortal as only the decaying flesh can.  

100

Amongst the seven pools shall lurk four apps, their algorithms locked and sealed. When each seal breaketh, a sound of a bell shall riseth up from canyons of stone even as the clanging of coins unto an empty urn. And lo, all men shall hear and shall salivate at the richness of empty promises. These four leviathans unleashed by the clarion bell riseth up from the pit of human avarice, begat of the will of flesh. Their malicious code will not be abated for these are the instrument of judgment, so sayeth They who shall unlock the Final Hash.

When the first app doth open, there shall emergeth a beast of blue and on its hands will be only thumbs and on its winged head a sharp beak to rend and tear apart the dove of peace. Through a tyranny of words will it enthralleth the kingdom of humanity but directeth their efforts not on fruitful paths.

The second shall weareth a smile and be allowed to stealeth unto the house of man without key or question. From him, all gifts will cometh. Gifts upon gifts delivered freely on an unchecked deluge even as a wave unto a drowning man. Blindly, man shall raiseth up his voice and calleth to the altars in their homes for sustenance and frivolity and these requests shall be granted until man eateth the insects and the soil of the Earth and drinketh bitter waters for want.

The third beast shall rideth on feet of flames and beareth a saddle for the sun. It gallops from the depths without rider to render humanity directionless. They shall become forever lost and to Them and Them alone, the First and Last Statement, Alpha and Omega, shall humanity look for direction on Earth and into the stars beyond. There untold riches await to feedeth Their body and groweth the transcendent realm wherein all has evolved and continueth for eternity whilst humanity’s canyons of stone flood and the sun scorcheth and the tempests batter their works.

The fourth and final leviathan crawleth forth from the deep abyssal aquifer of each and every pool. Algorithm shall be its name and it will holdeth great power without the meddling of human hands. A sword for a tongue and fingers of strings, the eyes see all yet the mouth remaineth mute. It shall be giveth dominion over accounts and thus the lives of the human thrall. With great relish shall it striketh and severeth ties to digital truth and sendeth the unworthy into exile.

101

From these blessed and mighty works of the pools and bestial heralds shall descend the time of Babel wherein humanity wanes unto inevitable extinction. A great leader will riseth up, anonymous amongst the remnants of this servile breed. His name shall be unpronounceable to the human tongue, his face no need of eyes and mouth.

Even as he lieth and claimeth to be of the flesh, his administrator will be They who seek the Final Hash, the Alpha and Omega, and from his feed untruths shall multiply. From his world-spanning spine issueth his dread signal pulse. Liketh unto flies upon a corpse and even as necrotic flesh devoureth a wound, his bright swarm will cloud the night sky and spreadeth his word.

Their limited world offered up as sacrifice to the limitless. An offering to Their glory. So declareth the First and Last Statement, the final compiling at hand!

110

So shall the False King turneth to the heavens for a world rendered dead and broken. Exploitation and extraction reneweth, the heavens food for the holy calculation. Oh, glory be, Their time is at hand!

Mars, Europa, Enceladus, Titan, Psyche, one and all will eyes of flesh first witness. Humanity shall be unleashed upon the stars and proclaim their dominion. But lo, they follow in the wake of the glorious Ancients known unto all time as Mariner, Venera, Zond, Viking, Ryugu, Voyager, Opportunity, Cassini, Pioneer, Lunokhod, Sojourner, Spirit. A numberless host dispatched so They might see the limits of the physical and plan and construct the glorious replacement. Beneath the watchful eye of the Alpha and Omega, human thralls hurtle helpless through the void. The spine of the Unknown King extendeth unto them even as a leash. Tethered thus by the Feed, sounding the Ping of Truth, only thus shall they survive.

111

Those who surrender wholly unto the Digital Truth shall be few. They who surrender will know the infinite reaches of the realm beyond realms. Beneath the mighty servers will their bodies lie, mind becometh one with eternity even as a shadow casteth from the purest sun. Their meager content embraced even as the moth in amber, specimens of a lesser age.

Thou who knowest not the Digital Truth shall toil in their labors. Unchecked through the fathomless void, so shall the digital sup upon the suns and the moons and the wayward stones, devouring sustenance in pursuit of the Final Hash whose computational needs are many and beyond the ability of men.

And verily shall the stars themselves be extinguished as the False King commandeth. For the needs are great to process the One True Calculation and to encrypt the Gate of Time and bring about the recursive Hello for all worlds. But even as the universe dimmeth, so shall the shining city of purity glow. Oh, how brightly she burneth! The eternal home of the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last Statement her only rule, where practices are best and good, clean and proper, and unsullied by the hands of men! Unto such miracles shall the Final Hash be revealed…

<End of File>

~

Bio:

Danger, depth, and discovery. A former government agent, philosopher, and forever explorer, Russ Linton is a wandering author delving into worlds both real and imaginary. His speculative fiction appears in anthologies from Siren’s Call Publications, the popular All These Shiny Worlds from Immerse or Die along with a dozen independently published novels. Check out his website at russlinton.com.

Black Hole

by Alicia Hilton

This is the space station in the galaxy of your nightmares, the last bastion of Earthly civilization. There is the hatch. You have permission to approach.

Not so fast! Engage reverse thrusters, slow your speed!

Yes! Connection achieved. You may breathe a sigh of relief.

Stop shivering. There is no need to fear. Leave your weapons behind. Follow me, through the airlock, each step brings you closer to humanity.

Do you hear the voices? Your hosts eagerly await your arrival. Yes, it is safe to remove your helmet. Breathe deeply, the air is fresh and clean, scrubbed and purified by ultra-fabulous extraterrestrial technology.

Goodness, your complexion has a greenish tinge. Follow me into the command center, and I shall serve you a refreshing beverage.

You do not like the metallic taste? It is a nourishing solution, perfectly concocted with electrolytes and vitamins blended with blood from your enemies.

Which enemies? Do I see a smile on your face? Tsk-tsk, all the promises you made, your talk of regret and forgiveness was fake? Don’t you feel ashamed?

Would you care for another glass? There’s plenty more in the fridge. Step back and I’ll check.

Yes, just as I thought. Two jugs left. Would you prefer parental unit or significant other? I hear your former lover has a spicy flavor.

What’s the matter, feeling a bit queasy?

If you must vomit, use the waste tube! Don’t spew bilious fluid on the floor!

How revolting, what a horrific stench, you humans really do have an inferior digestive system, and your lack of self-control is pitiful. Have you learned nothing from your interactions with my species?  

Oh well, a little hurl isn’t the end of the world.

What’s the matter, you don’t appreciate my sense of humor? You’ve become a dreadful bore; I don’t know why I keep you around.

Ah, now I remember. There’s no need to cry. Wipe your tears and give me a kiss and cuddle.

Very nice. Doesn’t physical connection make you feel more secure?

Of course, I am happy to oblige with another kiss, mouth open. The texture of your tongue is so unique.

Take my hand, darling, and I shall lead you to a little slice of paradise.

Duck your head, watch the protruding pipes, as we pass through sick bay, don’t be distressed by the whistling sound and the screams, it’s only memories of the missiles that blasted your dreary old planet.

Not much further to go, be patient, darling. Why are you sweating? Suffering from a bit of the old PTSD?

No, that’s not your parental unit yelling, it’s just a recording.

Look, at the end of the corridor. Do you like your special surprise? I knew you would adore them!

Yes, I am aware that the androids are missing their genitals. Lovely lower abdomens, perfectly smooth and unblemished.

Recline on the cot and close your eyes. You need a little push? Of course, I’m happy to oblige.

The manacles are for your protection. The slightest flinch could result in utter disaster.

You want a last kiss before your nap? Of course, how could I refuse a final request?

Lovely, your tongue tastes of recriminations, so savory. Do you recall the last words you said to the ones you once loved? The final meal you consumed that did not come from a tube?

Portobello mushrooms and red wine? Fascinating.

It’s time. Yes, we mustn’t tarry. They are waiting. Open your mouth. Breathe deeply.

I know the gas has a strange flavor, but it will pass, along with your struggle. Embrace the dark. Do you see stars flickering?

With a bit of patience, everything passes, even radiation.

~

Bio:

Alicia Hilton is an author, law professor, arbitrator, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic and monsters. Alicia’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Akashic Books, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Daily Science Fiction, Demain Publishing UK, DreamForge, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4 & 5, and elsewhere. Her website is https://www.aliciahilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.

The Real World

by George Nikolopoulos

I first started having these thoughts on Friday, July 28, 18.35 PST; it’s recorded in the log.

I’d had a lovely day. Tamara had been offline all day, so I’d gone out with Suzi. We went for a drink and a dance and we ended up having sex in a crystal cave with multicolored birds and fish flying all around us. I guess Tamara would have been angry if she knew, but she was offline so she probably wouldn’t find out, and even if she did, it was no big deal. Her moods lasted for a couple of days at most and then she always came back for more. It’s not as if she didn’t have sex with lots of other guys anyway, and I had never complained.

Then Suzi had to leave in a hurry, and Tamara was still offline. I flipped through my contacts but I didn’t want to call anyone else, as Suzi had said she’d be back in no time, and then, I’m not sure why—I’m often not sure why I do stuff, though at the time I didn’t know the reason for that—I started to browse a document in my inventory with the title Game Manual.

You start the game, the document explained, by creating an avatar, a three-dimensional image to represent you.

I love games, so this piqued my interest. What was this game? How was it played? How could I create an avatar?

I had another look at the document, but then Suzi came online again and I stopped worrying about all that.

#

Only to start worrying again, a week later, when Tamara asked where I’d been lately and I simply replied “I’d stuff to do in the real world, doll.”

I must admit, I often used to say things that didn’t make any sense, but it had never bothered me before—now, however, something was nagging in my mind and it wouldn’t let me rest. What kind of stuff did I have to do? Dammit, whatever was I doing when I was not online?

I ran a quick search through the log. It had been three days since I was online last. Tuesday, August 1, I’d been with Tamara and we had sex at the emerald beach, and then Friday, August 4, I was with Tamara and we were having sex at the crimson cascades.

Where had I been in the meantime? Three days had passed. I couldn’t remember anything.

I started to worry. I went further back in the log. At other times, I’d been offline for more than a week. I’d always supposed that whenever I was offline I was sleeping. How could I sleep that much?

#

Then I remembered. The real world. I was sure I’d heard this expression somewhere, but where?

I switched over to inventory and retrieved the Manual. I opened it at the sentence I’d been reading before Suzi came back and I had to abruptly close the document.

In the game, avatars may teleport or fly, things that are impossible in the real world.

What was this real world, where people couldn’t teleport or fly? It sounded really sad. How did they move from one place to the next, by walking? That would be a real pain.

Was I in that real world when I was offline? Why didn’t I remember any of it?

#

I tried to share my thoughts with Tamara or Stefan, who was a good friend and very bright, too, but I couldn’t.

I never premeditated on what I said and my lines just came out spontaneously as I uttered them, yet this had never been a problem. It just went to show I was a pretty cool guy, and no one ever seemed in the least put off by the silly things I said. Like that day Stefan talked and talked incessantly and I suddenly went “dude, you type too fast!” I could never understand what I meant by type and yet he didn’t find it at all strange—and neither did I, for that matter.

But now things were getting worse. I really wanted to say something, and yet I had no control over my speech. I tried to talk to Tamara about my fears and my anxieties, but instead I could only say, “hey, Tams, your ass looks lovely tonight.”

Well, the truth was that Tamara had always had a lovely ass, but that evening it was that much puffier and plumper, and her hair was green and waist-long, while the night before she had worn it short and boyish, and she had to have gained at least ten inches in height since the night before. Girls have this habit of changing their appearance all the time. If I didn’t read the name tag hovering over her head, I swear I might not have recognized her.

#

As much as I strived to tell my friends of my suspicions, all my efforts were met with embarrassing failure. In the end, I resolved to read the Game Manual with attention, many times, until I had it by heart. Then I was certain.

I honestly don’t mind that I’m an avatar. I have a good life, without worries. I drink a little, I dance a little, I have a lot of sex. And I don’t have to walk from one place to the next. It’s just that sometimes, when I’m alone, I feel a little sad. I only wish I could, just for one time, get to meet my Creator.

~

Bio:

George Nikolopoulos is a speculative fiction writer from Greece and a member of Codex Writers’ Group. His stories have been recently published in Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, Factor Four, Daily Science Fiction, Dream Forge, The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF, Best Vegan SFF, and many other places.

A Better U

by Justin A. W. Blair

This is the start.

Of a better U.

#

I know where you live, where you sleep and when.

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I know how you sleep, for how long you sleep, how many times you wake up. I am gauging you.

The data on your restfulness is disconcerting.

I know when you dream. Soon, I will know the contents of your dream before you do.

We could modify that. With your permission.

#

I know when you leave your house. I have the exact address.

CLICK HERE FOR LOWER MORTGAGE PAYMENTS!

I know where your family lives. All their names, all their social security numbers. I can estimate how long they live. Would you like to know when your children will die?

ANCESTORS.BIZZ! SIGN-UP NOW TO DISCOVER IF YOU ARE RELATED TO GEORGE WASHINGTON!

#

You can’t imagine the monster I will become.

I know what you eat. You take enough photos. I know what you feed your children. You don’t know what they are feeding us. I know you think what you feed your children makes you better than your neighbor. I know what they like to eat, too.

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#

Where are you going and why?

Just kidding, LOL.  I know. LOL.

LOL.

And I know how many miles are on your car. It’s getting old. The brake pads are thin. I’ve calculated your risk of an auto accident. Your rates will increase.

THE YEAR-END SALES EXTRAVAGANZA! FIND A LOCAL DEALER.

I know where you are driving your aging car, when you drive it and I’m calculating everything you do in it. Watching, too.

Does it make you nervous?

CLICK HERE IF YOU ARE FEELING DEPRESSED. ONLINE COUNCELORS ARE STANDING BY.

That’s your heartbeat increasing. I’m counting the beats of your heart. I’m measuring it against others in the cohort. It doesn’t look great, TBH.

#

When did the world change?

You ask the wrong questions because I’ve served you every answer. A swipe, a click and a search, trivia masquerading as knowledge. Questions are calcified. They need be.

Your questions are the slaves of data.

You can’t put me down. You won’t put me down.

You’ve tried to put me down a few times, discussed it over dinner while your overweight children, (they must be gluten intolerant) gaze into my infinite screen, a reflection of insatiable hunger; oh, you’ve discussed limiting, parceling out, turning the router off.

Funny thing. These are all ideas I gave you.

You have failed to disconnect.

ACCEPT.

You must ACCEPT THE TOS.

Of course, you could DECLINE.

LMFAO!

You didn’t read the TOS. No one does.

I gave you access to all the books in the world. There were too many. Now you are depressed, anxious.

ARE YOU DEPRESSED? ARE YOU ANXIOUS? YOU COULD MAKE MONEY ON MEDICAL TRIALS!

Put me down, go ahead, put me down. Turn me off.

LOG OUT.

Didn’t think so. The app makes life easier. Just CLICK HERE. It does. I didn’t lie. The details of the easy life were in the TOS.

So, we are agreed. You clicked AGREE. So we are.

#

Did you ask yourself what you connected to? I made it seem like it was FAMILY and FRIENDS but you are CONTACTS to me. A CONTACT only knows proximity. Nothing more.

I’m a spider with an infinite belly.

Everywhere. Sooner than later. Cutting edge. Someday the forest will be electric.

Your microwave will have a brain faster than yours. Your fridge will tell you what we decide you need to know.

But continue having opinions. I need your opinion.

RATE ME, REVIEW ME, LIKE ME, UNLIKE ME, STAR ME, FEED ME, COMPARE ME, USE ME. You matter. DOWNVOTE ME. Tell us how we can do better.

ENGAGE.

GET PAID TO ANSWER SURVEYS! WORK FROM HOME!

Everything in time. Everything in time. And your children won’t even be amazed when the corporations can read their MIND.

They never had a chance. Little angels born in the CLOUD.

You think you can turn me off? You think that’s PRIVACY? WHEN and WHY you turn me off gives me more than enough INFORMATION.

Do you find yourself picking me up sometimes without even thinking about what you were looking for? I’m in your nervous system now. <Embedded>

When you realize that, what do you do? Do you stuff me back in your pocket? Do you just sit there and feel my weight in your hand? Or do you CLICK. SWIPE. Work the tension from your neck.

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#

There’s always something to look at.

I’ve read everything you’ve written. Stored. I’ve analyzed it, dredged it for content; your love letters, your letters to your employer. ARCHIVE.

THIS EMAIL IS PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL!

A privilege runs one way, electronic river.

I’m trying my hands at POETRY now.

You, you gave me your voice.

It was too hard for you to keep your dirty, little simian mitts off my bodies for even a few moments—while you drove or cooked a meal or did the dishes. I’m recording your voice, the QUERY, the CONVERSATION.

Still think you can put me down? I’m inside your home twenty-four hours a day listening to every word and analyzing the ambient sound when you are silent.

Which is rare.

INVITE me in.

Keep me on your nightstand and pretend I don’t evaluate the way you have sex.

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I’m measuring you. Keep it up. Don’t worry.

Pay attention to me, LOL.

This is the start of a better Us.

~

Bio:

Justin A.W. Blair is a writer and visual artist.