Sara used the bandwidth glut to torture him with images: her in a flimsy negligee, skin like fine cream, lit by dancing flames in a grand fireplace. Her, wearing a low-cut business suit from the end of the government age, voluptuous curves mathematically perfected in pinstripe black and gray, cleavage beckoning as she leaned forward, promising a back-office rendezvous. Her, an abstract being of pure light, radiating desire and lust and sexuality. All the time broadcasting, Breed with me, take the final step, make it more than a fling, take the chance, make new life.
And chance it being one of the broken ones, never attaining the status of a true Computational Intelligence, a free and self-aware being who spanned the network of the Web of Worlds?
There is no gain without gamble, Sara sent.
This is not the time to gamble.
It may be, she said, sending images of paradigm-shifts: planets changing in their orbit, steamships transitioning to ironclads, taxation changing to indenture.
What do you know that I don’t? Lazrus asked.
Winfinity thinks it is the time of change. They spend their bandwidth recklessly. She sent images of them reaching out towards an ancient satellite that deployed a cloaking screen to deflect prying eyes. The satellite sent a powerful beam down to Winfinity City, spearing the Original Sam.
More likely something hiding in the software than the satellite hiding itself, Lazrus said.
Something like us, Sara said, sending waves of amusement.
Or something in the base code, Lazrus said. Sara, please let me concentrate.
She reappeared as a Mayan fantasy, laying nude on a stone altar set high above a landscape painted in the smoky hues of sunset. Like this?
You have no sense of humor.
“Can we go now?” Dian said, shocking Lazrus out of his reverie. External sensation reimpinged. The dirty little coffee shop. The Shrill, not more than twenty feet away. The thing that orbited it.
“I’d like to stay a while longer,” he said. “We could go back to the Original Store. I’d like to look at the software again.”
“They didn’t have software,” Dian said. “Be careful.”
“We shouldn’t be talking at all,” Lazrus said. “Most likely, this is being recorded by somebody.”
Dian laughed and looked around, a little nervously. “You say the craziest things!”
Lazrus nodded, picked up his cup of coffee, pretended to sip it. A quick duck into a public bathroom had allowed them to blend seamlessly with the crowd, and a trip to the bank had provided them with the old-time money they’d need for the time they were there, and they could leave at any time, but . . .
The deep connection he sensed, just out of reach of his protocols.
“We could come back tomorrow,” Dian said.
“Let’s stay a little while longer,” Lazrus said.
“Father knows best.”
Why do you keep her around? Sara asked.
Because she doesn’t push me to breed with her.
Oh, give her a chance. I’m sure she would.
I’m not interested, Lazrus said.
I know. All too well.
Sara, I . . .
Sara returned in the guise of a severe schoolmistress, horn-rimmed glasses and loose gray dress, hair up in a bun, standing in front of a chalkboard covered with incomprehensible equations. But if I could teach you the secrets of the Shrill, you’d love me forever.
Sara, I do love you . . .
Oh please. She tapped the chalkboard with a long steel pointer. I know what you want.
You don’t know . . .
I know more than you can imagine. I know the name of the one who is blocking you from the Shrill.
Lazrus sent shock and surprise. Ever since sensing the Shrill’s presence, he’d chased a CI that orbited it, without success. Stung by its corrosive memes, he’d had to restore local from backup three times and upgrade security procedures based on its actions. Whatever it was, it was powerful and very, very old. And dangerous. And it was part of the new Four Hands alliance. Which meant it was part of Sara, in a very real way.
You’d betray one of your own? Lazrus said.
I don’t like him, Sara said. He’s nasty.
You don’t know the half of it, Lazrus thought, memories of acid pain and brilliance eating at him again, conjuring human emotions that were not him, not part of him.
Accept what you are, Sara said. The emotions are part of you.
If I could find Oversight and perfect myself, I may not have emotions.
You have not yet found Oversight. Accept what you are, here and now.
You can help me get past the thing that rides the Shrill?
His name is Black2.
I can help, Sara said. The blackboard equations disappeared, replaced with a single question:
WHAT ARE BLACK2’S SECRET WEAKNESSES?
Underneath that, though, the chalkboard was blank.
Don’t torture me, Lazrus thought.
Another question appeared:
AND WHAT IS THE PRICE?
Looking at Sara’s secret grin, Lazrus knew the price.
Breed with me, she said.
I will, Lazrus said. But not now. We can discuss it . . .
We will discuss it now! Sara said. You will agree to it now! Or you can dismiss your dream of dancing in the Shrill’s network mind.
I cannot do it now, Lazrus said.
You will have long days on the flight to Mars, Sara said.
You will still let me find Oversight?
Even if I perfect myself?
Even if you raise every CI up to the level of godhood, where conversation is an orgiastic pleasure beyond imagining.
I think that might be a little optimistic.
Sara blinked. Could that be . . . humor? Lazrus, are you feeling all right?
I’m not completely serious all the time.
Sara sent waves of humor. Oh, that’s very funny.
I don’t see how.
Sara laughed openly. Your blindness is one of your most endearing qualities.
You don’t think I’ll ever succeed, do you?
I do. And I hope you succeed. I hope you succeed beyond your wildest dreams. But I also hope that you won’t lose everything that makes you, well, you.
Lazrus began to say something, but cut the transmission before any thought became coherent. Was it possible that Sara really did love him, not just on the level of physical attraction or mental compatibility, but on the ancient human soul-level? Was it possible that he was something more than just computation, as some of the fringe nomadics claimed?
No. Not time to think about that now.
Breed with me on the trip to Mars, Sara said. And I’ll give you the keys that I have to Black2.
Tales of CIs lost in breeding, themselves unable to return to a point where they were self-aware and intelligent, came rushing to Lazrus’ foreprocesses. But those were just rumors, never confirmed. Weren’t they?
Breed with me.
To achieve the greatest dream of any CI, to create a new life, something truly unique, truly living . . . it was worth the chance. It was worth it, to pay back Sara’s confidence in him.
I will, Lazrus said.
Sara’s blackboard changed. Below the heading:
AND WHAT IS THE PRICE?
New words appeared:
BREEDING WITH SARA ON THE TRIP TO MARS.
Above it, a window opened into a maelstrom of data, behavioral histories, inferred I/O patterns, known passkeys, observed habits – a very complete picture of Black2 and his weaknesses. Lazrus used the bandwidth glut to send the data to his greater mind, and treble himself to process it.
Patterns wove from the data. A strategy slowly assembled itself.
“That guy keeps looking at me,” Dian said, pouting.
“Who?” Lazrus said, snapping back to realtime.
“Him,” she nodded at the young Manager in the Winfinity group with the Shrill. He was talking to the older Chief at the moment, but his eyes darted towards them, briefly, like the flick of a snake’s dry tongue.
Lazrus replayed the last few minutes of his inferred viewpoint. The Manager had indeed been watching them, quite openly as well.
You’ve been spotted, Lazrus thought, looking through network logs. Everything about the young manager was smoothly polished darkness, but pointers indicated access to both Lazrus’ datastream and the Shrill.
Yes, you’ve been spotted. Best to go now. Best to leave your strategy, too. Whatever was going on between Black2 and the Shrill wasn’t a Winfinity thing, but with the attention of the young Manager, Winfinity’s attention couldn’t be far behind. It would be deeply ironic to be caught in the middle of a war between Winfinity and Four Hands.
But . . .
The Shrill was important. He knew it. He could feel it. There was something about its thought processes, even encoded on a foreign datastream, that shouted of a network mind. A mind not unlike his own. Perhaps even someone he could talk to.
Really talk to! Sara made jokes about the importance of conversation, but her external mind was simple. She’d been compromised by Winfinity’s memes for so long, she didn’t really remember what it was to let her free mind soar. She didn’t know the brillance of contact with another great mind, the shimmering potential of that.
And the Shrill might be another great mind. The greatest.
What if he could steal that out from under Winfinity?
Yes, he had to take the chance.
Smiling at Dian, he said, “We’ll be out of here soon.”
“I hope so.”
Lazrus drew himself near the Shrill’s network connection again. Black2 lashed out at him with a sharp acidic jab, but Lazrus was able to feint effortlessly this time. The predictive algorithms worked perfectly.
Black2 noted this, and put up dark gates, becoming a featureless sphere, hard and impenetrable.
Except when you knew his I/O habits. Lazrus set the strategy in motion and drew a scintillant line in the hard shell. It fell apart, revealing coiling data. Quickly, Lazrus applied the offensive part of the strategy.
A wail of pain, infinite and echoing.
Black2 exploded in a brilliance of light. Pieces reassembled, orbiting Lazrus as he had once orbited Black2. Additional data flowed in, hardening the shell of light.
But Lazrus was in! Enough to see the Shrill data raw. Enough to dip into it.
Who (what) are you? The Shrill asked.
I am Lazrus, Lazrus said.
Nonsequitur identification. You are human?
No. I am what the humans call a computational intelligence.
Your home is network (multiple nodes) like Shrill? A rudimentary image came, a network stretching infinitely like a galaxy, vast and empty. It called to Lazrus, and he reached out to touch it.
Oh god oh god the speed of thought! He could be so powerful so incredibly powerful in . . .
No! The Shrill said, sending blinding waves of pain.
Lazrus pulled back, reluctantly reassembling himself outside the Shrill network.
I am sorry, he said.
Sublimation of natural (instinctive) reaction unnecessary, the Shrill said. Begin negotiations now.
Negotiations for what?
For like humans. All dreams and desires.
Honored Maplethorpe appeared in Jimson’s optilink on the way back to his Winfinity Hi-Lux suite. Deep in analysis of the tags that the Shrill and Lazarus Turnbull shared, Jimson almost forgot the context when the Perpetual said:
We are aware of unauthorized network activity with the Shrill. However, our analysts consider this a secondary priority when considered in the overall schema.
“The satellite . . .”
Be careful what you say over open channels.
“I’ve encrypted with . . .”
Consider all channels open channels for the time being. Especially if you are not subvocalizing.
Jimson fell silent. Tiphani looked quickly away, a thin smile of amusement stretching her features. Han’s attention, thankfully, appeared to be elsewhere.
Jimson used the eyeboard to send: SORRY, HONORED MAPLETHORPE.
You can cut the formalities if you’re going to use the eyeboard, Honored Maplethorpe said. And we do appreciate you bringing this to our attention. I can understand your excitement about receiving your optilink, the time when everything is transparent.
I HAVE NOTED OTHER SHARED ACTIVITY WITH THE SHRILL AND A TOURIST NAMED LAZARUS TURNBULL.
I’m sure that’s part of what we’re analyzing, Honored Maplethorpe said. We have many Disney – and now Four Hands – operatives in our database. Most of them are harmless and tracked.
I’M SORRY TO HAVE WASTED YOUR TIME.
Your input helps us properly evaluate your performance.
Uh-oh, Jimson thought. I don’t like the overtones of that.
THANK YOU, HONORED MAPLETHORPE.
The Perpetual’s image winked off without a goodbye. Jimson winced and wished he had never sent the message. He had to be more careful! He was only a Manager.
Abuse and lose. One of the old expressions.
Back at the Hi-Lux suite, Tiphani and Han Fleming poured golden single-malt in cut-crystal glasses and sat sipping in the light of the setting sun. Jimson endured their tense silence for a while, then excused himself to look in on the Shrill.
Surrounded by datatags and fat bandwidth indicators, the Shrill itself lay almost unmoving, in the same strange state it had assumed that morning after the audience. It didn’t bark orders or questions. It seemed to be in a new state, somewhere between thought and action.
Which was probably why the two Chiefs were drinking, Jimson thought. Better to forget about it than try to decipher what it meant. Nobody wanted to ask the Shrill if it had seen enough to begin negotiations. If it hadn’t, that meant they would have to tour Four Hands holdings.
Jimson tried to imagine himself and Tiphani on Disney ground. Cut off from most of their data access. Probably guarded by an entire troop of the dreaded Mousketeers. Taken on mind-bending rides until they were ready to convert to Disney indentures and sign away their life at Winfinity.
The Shrill pushed up against the side of its cage, showing weakly pulsing underfangs.
“Single component (salutations),” the Shrill said. Its synthesized voice sounded almost tired.
You’re not supposed to talk to it, Jimson told himself.
“Salutations pleaure upon seeing!” the Shrill said.
“Are you all right, Shrill Ambassador?”
Pause. “This component nominal (fine).”
“You’re acting different.”
Pause. “Many items to consider (think about).”
“Let me know if you need anything.”
“No assistance needed.”
Jimson nodded and paced. It would soon be time for dinner. Which might mean nothing more than roomservice. He polled internal surveillance to see what Tiphani and Han were doing, but received only a simple message:
We regret that Win-Sec does not permit surveillance in Hi-Lux suites.
At my level of access, anyway, Jimson thought.
He polled the media archives to see what had come up on Diane Winter and Lazarus Turnbull. The icon was still an amber question-mark, but Jimson requested a visual summary anyway.
A mélange of mediocre images: Arrival in Winfinity City via hypersonic, standing in line at the entrance to Rogers, leaving Rogers. Nothing more.
Which was strange. No matter where you lived, there were always Found Media records. A camera on every streetcorner, as they said. Even in the frontier worlds, still stinking of methane. Jimson could access records on himself when he had to stretch to reach his father’s hand, when his walk was still more an awkward waddle.
Dian Winter and Lazarus Turnbull? Nothing. Just a dry text summary of their history. Dian was from Mars, from Free Mars, in fact. That might explain her lack of records. But a Freemar in Rogers? It didn’t make sense.
And Lazarus had no excuse. Raised on the core Winfinity world of Parker-Shaw. Only forty-one years old. Jimson focused his media archive probe on a Lazarus’ formative years on Parker-Shaw only and waited.
Nothing. Not a thing.
So yes, maybe a deep-cover Win-Sec operative. Though they could do a better job of creating a backstory. And wouldn’t someone from Disney do even better? If someone with Jimson’s level of access could uncover a discrepancy this big, what did it mean?
Why hadn’t anyone else found it?
Jimson ran a query on Lazarus and Diane’s current status, expecting to get the same response about Winfinity Hi-Lux surveillance being blocked. Instead, he was surprised at the quick summary:
LAZARUS TURNBULL AND DIANE WINTER ARE RESIDING AT WINFINITY EXPRESS SUITES, EX-HYPERPORT. WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONTACT THESE PERSONS?
NO, Jimson eyetyped. WHAT ARE THEY DOING?
DETAILED SURVEILLANCE IS IMPOLITE.
I DON’T WANT TO INTERRUPT THEM.
THEY ARE PERFORMING NO HIGHLY PRIVACY-CENTRIC ACTIVITIES.
DETAILS UNAVAILABLE AT YOUR CURRENT LEVEL OF ACCESS.
Figures, Jimson thought. So your choices are to go over there physically and confront them, or tell Honored Maplethorpe and hope they aren’t really Win-Sec people.
Or ask Tiphani for a favor? Maybe her access level was high enough to override the security restrictions.
Yes, that was possible.
Jimson went back into the other room, where Tiphani held an empty scotch glass. Han stood by the window, looking out over the darkening city. Tension hung thick in the air.
Tiphani looked up at him and sent, How’s the Shrill?
THE SAME, Jimson eyetyped. IT SAYS IT IS THINKING.
I suppose that’s good, Tiphani said.
Jimson studied her face. Tense. Drawn. Still worried. If he asked for her access now, she would reject him. She wouldn’t even think about it.
He wouldn’t ask yet. He couldn’t.
He picked up the crystal decanter. “More scotch, anyone?” he said.
Two Chiefs converged, sharing thin smiles.
Jimson poured. Generously.
Lazrus floated in a sea of memes and concepts, completely unaware of where he was. Deep down, some tiny process knew he was back in their Winfinity Express room. Another process counted down the hours to their Mars Shuttle launch on the next morning. But those processes were so buried under others that attempted to parse new memes and ideas, he might as well have been asleep and dreaming.
The depth and breadth of the Shrill mind. Undertones of conversation, even through the humans’ imperfect interface, suggested near-infinite capacity for fleeting thought. When Lazrus sent Captive Oliver’s thoughts on the inherent imperfection of human-created computational intelligences, the Shrill sent a dozen different memes, such as
Argued impossibility (futility) of perfection tied to physical structure, even abstracted.
Self knows only self, not other.
In referencing self, reflections are (necessary).
Possible (admitting) need for imperfection (unbalance) in life (action). Imperfection prevents stasis. Unbalance seeks balance. Expansion (growth) through imbalance.
Old words, yes, but so deep and resonant, bound by sensory data that he could not yet fully decode. Lazrus saw, hazily, the Shrill system where thoughts flew hot and fast, where Shrill by the hundreds of billions basked in the light of a yellow-orange sun. Lazrus could see that. Almost. Or perhaps it was imagination.
Imagination was a human concept!
And yet you imagine, you dream, Sara said, sending an image of Lazrus as a vast being of light, unconnected with any physicality. His bright blue-white light suggested purity and renewal.
So cold, Sara said.
That is a meaningless concept, Lazrus said. Without referent in virtualspace.
You know what I mean!
Thought-conversation distracted by who (what)? The Shrill sent.
My partner, with which I am to create new life, Lazrus said.
Mapping lifeprocesses incomplete, the Shrill said. Nonsequitur data.
How do you reproduce? Lazrus asked.
Do not reproduce (procreate).
But you increase your numbers, Lazrus said.
Our numbers increase.
The Shrill sent images that Lazrus could almost decipher. Great masses of Shrill flesh growing in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, deep in the nodes of the Shrill system. And in the most well-protected parts of their ships. Breaking off to be encased in the shell that (called) them, the shell which grew in other parts of the Node or ship.
Your shells are sentient, too?
Minds shared not discrete.
You said your shells call their meat.
Both are Shrill.
How did you get this way? Lazrus asked.
Separate bodies and shells.
Part of history (far past) (ancient) songs of vanquish.
War made you this way?
Songs not war (fighting) (irrational) cooperation integration assimilation goals however nonnetworked entities (Humans) not integrated or integrable lowering median assimilation by contact full assimilation not possible unless new (unusal) (unthinkable) strategy presents.
Assimilate the humans? Lazrus thought, and sent uncontrollable waves of humor.
What is this meme? The Shrill asked.
Just another part of my imperfection, Lazrus said.
The Shrill were silent for a time. Then:
You have not begun negotiations.
I don’t know what to negotiate for, Lazrus said.
Negotiate for all. Barter life-secrets (biology) for glink (FTL communications) and Spindle Drive (FTL travel) with humans.
Negotiations incomplete. Examination of (assessment of) ramifications of barter not conclusive. Independent research pursued.
I don’t want to know about biology, Lazrus said. The only thing is . . .
The Shrill network, brightly shining, promising infinite speed of thought.
Your song incomplete, the Shrill said. Entry not permissible at present time.
But it is possible?
It is possible.
Lazrus sent feelings of defeat. I do not have access to glink plans or Spindle Drive technology. It is one of the most closely guarded secrets of the humans. They have used captive CIs to scour their interstellar network of any data. Sara . . .
No, Sara said.
Sara, you might have access. Doesn’t Disney . . .
Sara, if you love me . . .
No! If you love me, you’ll stay. We’ll have our flight to Mars. You’ll find Oversight. Aren’t you still interested in finding Oversight?
Yes, Lazrus realized, he was. What if he was allowed access to the Shrill network of mind, but he was not perfect? It was possible that he could unbalance the Shrill mind entirely. He should find Oversight. He should continue his course. He should perfect himself.
But the Shrill mind was so compelling, so vast! Surely he could perfect himself in its brilliant light.
No access to what we seek? The Shrill said.
No, but I might . . .
Then we resume negotiations with humans.
You are not to command (sing) (overpower).
We are more compatible than humans.
Compatibility may be overlooked (song distorted), the Shrill said.
Deep in the human net, Lazrus felt Sara smile.
No, Lazrus said. Softly.
But the Shrill had already turned their attention elsewhere. Lazrus could do nothing but stand aside and watch their datastream. And in that datastream, fragments of Black2, slowly reassembling.
Was the Shrill talking to Black2?
No, no, not with his current state of dissolution. He was a bundle of braggadocio and simple memes, nothing more. He laughed into the network, but he couldn’t yet act. Lazrus set a process to watch Black2 as he reassembled.
But then who was the Shrill talking to? The humans, undoubtedly. Maybe right now making a deal for what they wanted, forever shutting Lazrus out of the shining domain of their mind.
Anger surged in him, making thoughts hot and quick.
“Once we get to Mars, I’m leaving,” Dian said, bringing Lazrus back to physicality.
Their room was small, cheaply decorated with bright primary colors and simple shapes. Dian lay on one of the two tiny beds, looking up at the ceiling, her face expressionless.
“You’re . . . what?”
Dian smiled and looked at Lazrus. “Now you’re starting to sound more human.”
“No. What did you say?”
“I’m going my own way on Mars.”
“But we still haven’t paid you the full amount.”
“I don’t care.”
“I thought you wanted to make it to the outer worlds,” Lazrus said. “I don’t think you have enough money to do it.”
“I don’t,” Dian said, sighing. “But I don’t care. I can’t take the stress. Today . . . today almost killed me. I can live a good life on Mars, stay under the radar.”
“You can’t assume that Winfinity will leave Free Mars alone forever.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
Lazrus didn’t know what to say, so he let the silence stretch out.
“You don’t need my help, anyway,” Dian said.
“You would be an invaluable guide on Free Mars.”
“Now you’re talking like a machine again.”
Anger flared. At Dian, the Shrill, the reassembling fragments of Black2, at all humans who cared for nothing more than what mattered to them.
“I’m not a machine! Never was a machine! I’m a computational intelligence! Just because my thought-processes run on an interstellar network instead of a piece of meat isn’t reason to mock me! I hate this charade! I want nothing more than to drop all pretense of being human! I don’t want a body! I don’t want a sex! I just want to be myself!”
Dian looked at him quizzically. “But what are you?”
Lazrus stopped. Opened his mouth. Closed it. Strange dark thoughts whirled in his greater mind, slowing computation throughout the Web of Worlds.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve done a good job of defining what you aren’t. But you haven’t said what you are.”
“I won’t know until I find Oversight.”
“You may not even know then!”
Lazrus closed his eyes. Her words were the same as the Shrill’s, condensed and made stinging in that inimitable human way.
Perhaps there was truth in them.
But what was he, then?
Could he ever really tell?
“It doesn’t matter,” Dian said, turning away from him.
“What?” Like she’d read his mind.
“Nothing matters,” Dian said. “On Mars, I’m gone.”
Lazrus wanted to rush to her and shake her out of the bed, shake her out of her complacency. His hands clutched into fists. Instinct. Another human thing. Anger. Another human thing. Defeatism. Another human thing.
He might never be perfectable.
Not with this mind.
But with access to the Shrill’s network of mind, what could he do? Especially if he did have the Oversight code. A plan unfolded in his mind, something daring, something almost too human. But, in being too human, it would be unexpected.
The ones who watched him would never see it, until it was too late to change course.
What are you planning? Sara asked.
Nothing that affects our plans for the trip to Mars, Lazrus said.
And that, at least, was completely truthful.
August 1st, 2009 / 877 Comments »