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.”
“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.”
“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.
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/