Last and First Contacts (Imaginings) (10 page)

BOOK: Last and First Contacts (Imaginings)
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Bella hurried to a wall workstation and began calling up graphical displays. ‘Our comms link to Earth is down. And – oh.’

UNSA Shuttle C57-D had been detached from its dock. It was falling away from the station, turning over and over, shining in undiluted sunlight.

‘We’re stranded,’ Allen said, disbelieving.

Fortune clenched his fists and shouted at the ceiling. ‘Cal, you monster, what have you done? I saved Bella from you once. Couldn’t you let her go?’

There was no reply.


They stayed on the bridge. It made no real sense, but Freddie sensed they all felt safer here, deep in the guts of the station. Bella sat quietly on the plinth, subdued. Fortune paced around the bridge, muttering.

Freddie and Allen went through the station’s systems. They quickly established that the station’s housekeeping was functioning. Air conditioning, water recycling still worked, and the lamps still glowed over the hydroponic banks.

‘So we’re not going to starve,’ Allen said edgily.

‘But the AI’s higher functions are locked out,’ Freddie said. ‘There’s no sign Aeolus is monitoring the Atlantic weather systems, let alone doing anything about them. And meanwhile comms is down. How long before anybody notices we’re stuck here?’

‘People don’t want to know what goes on with these hideous old systems,’ Allen said. ‘Even in my department, which is nominally responsible for them. Unless our families kick up a fuss, or another hurricane brews up, I don’t think anybody is going to miss us for a long time.’

Fortune snorted. ‘Bureaucracies. The blight of mankind.’

Allen growled, ‘You’ve got some explaining to do, Fortune. Like why you ordered up a hurricane.’

‘I didn’t think it would kill anybody,’ Fortune said weakly. ‘I did mean to smash up Cape Canaveral, though. I wanted to get your attention.’

Freddie asked, ‘Couldn’t you have found some other way?’

Allen said dryly, ‘Such as waggle the solar panels?’

Fortune grinned. ‘Aeolus is compliant. When you have a god at your command, it is terribly tempting to use him.’

‘So you created a storm,’ Allen said, ‘in order to bring somebody up here. Why, Fortune? What do you want?’

‘Two things. One. I want my exile to end. A century is enough, for Christ’s sake, especially when I
committed no crime.
I’d like some respect too.’ He said to Freddie, ‘Look at me. Do you think I did this to myself? My parents spliced my genes before I was conceived, and engineered my body before I was out of the womb. I haven’t committed any crime. I
a walking crime scene. But it’s me your grandfather punished, Allen. Where’s the justice in that?’ There was a century of bitterness in his voice.

‘And, second. Bella. My sentence, such as my quasi-legal judicial banishment is, clearly wasn’t intended to punish
She needs to be downloaded into an environment that affords stimulation appropriate for a sentience of her cognitive capacity. Not stuck up here with an old fart like me. As in fact your own namby-pamby sentience laws mandate.’

‘All right,’ Freddie said. ‘But what
Bella? You didn’t create her, did you?’

‘No.’ Fortune smiled at Bella. ‘But I saved her.’

Freddie nodded. ‘A, B, C.’

Allen snapped, ‘What are you talking about?’

Freddie said, ‘There weren’t just two poles of consciousness in the station AI, were there, Fortune? AxysCorp went even further. They created a mind with
poles. A – Aeolus. B – Bella. C – Cal.’

‘Oh, good grief.’

‘B was actually the user interface,’ Fortune said. ‘Charming, for an AxysCorp creation. Very customer-focussed.’

Freddie said, ‘Somehow Fortune downloaded her out of the system core and into this virtual persona.’

‘I had time to figure out how, and nothing else to do,’ Fortune said sternly. ‘I’m extremely capable. In fact I’m wasted up here. And I had motivation.’

‘What motivation?’

‘To save her from Cal…’

Inside AxysCorp’s creation, three centres of consciousness had been locked into a single mind, a single body. And they didn’t get on. They were too different. Aeolus and Bella embodied executive capabilities. Cal, an artefact of basic engineering functions, was more essential. Stronger. Brutal. They fought for dominance. And it lasted subjective megayears, given the superfast speeds of Heroic-age processors.

‘Cal crushed Bella. Tortured her. You could call it a kind of rape, almost. He did it because he was bored himself, bored and trapped.’

‘You’re anthropomorphising,’ Allen said.

‘No, he isn’t,’ Freddie said. ‘You need to read up on sentience issues, Doctor.’

‘I had to get her out of there,’ Fortune said. ‘This isn’t the right place for her, in this shack of a station. But better than in there, in the processor.’

Allen asked, ‘So why did Cal chuck away our shuttle?’

Fortune said, ‘Because you said you would kill Aeolus.’

‘You said they fight all the time.’

‘Do you have a brother, Allen? Maybe you fought with him, as a boy. But would you let anybody harm him –
him? Cal defends his brother – and indeed his sister if he’s called on.’

Allen clapped, slow, ironic. ‘So, Fortune, even stuck up here in this drifting wreck, you found a way to be a hero. To

Fortune’s face was dark. ‘I
a damn hero. We were told we were special – the peak of the Heroic-Solution age, they said. We were the Singularity generation. A merger of mankind with technology. We would live forever, achieve everything. Become infinite, literally.

‘And, you know, for a while, we grew stronger. We were transported. Rapt. There aren’t the words. But we got lost in our data palaces, while the rest of the world flooded and burned and starved. And we forgot we needed feeding too. That was the great fallacy, that we could become detached from the Earth, from the rest of mankind.

‘In the end they broke into our cybernetic citadels and put us to work. And they made us illegal retrospectively, and imprisoned us in places like this. Now we’re already forgotten. Irrelevant, compared to the real story of our time. AxysCorp and their ugly machines.’

‘That’s life,’ Allen said brutally.

‘This is Aeolus.’ The thin voice spoke out of the air.


Fortune snapped, ‘Aeolus? Are you all right?’

‘I don’t have much time. Cal and I are in conflict. I am currently dominant.’

‘Aeolus –’

‘I restored communications. I contacted your Oversight Panel, Doctor Allen. I received an assurance that a second shuttle will shortly be launched. The shuttle will have grappling technology, so Cal won’t be able to keep it out. But Cal is strong. I can contain him but not subdue him. Mister Fortune.’

‘Yes, Aeolus?’

‘I fear it will be impossible to fulfil further objectives.’

Fortune looked heartbroken. ‘Oh, Aeolus. What have I done?’

‘As you know I have always fulfilled all programme objectives.’

‘That you have, Aeolus. With the greatest enthusiasm.’

‘I regret –’


Allen blew out his cheeks. ‘Well, that’s a relief.’

Bella was wide-eyed. ‘Am I really going to Earth? Is a shuttle really coming? I’m going to go look out for it.’ She ran out of the bridge.


The three of them followed Bella to the observation blister, more sedately.

‘Saved by a god in the machinery,’ Freddie said. ‘How ironic.’

‘What an end,’ Fortune whispered. ‘Two halves of the same mind locked in conflict for a subjective eternity.’ He seemed old now, despite his youthful face. ‘So it’s over. What will become of Bella?’

Allen said, ‘Oh, they’ll find her a foster home. There are far stranger minds than hers in the world, in the trail of tears left behind by AxysCorp and their like. We try to care for them all. The station’s screwed, however. In the short term I imagine we’ll reposition another Tempest to plug the gap. Then we’ll rebuild. And we’ll let this heap of junk fall out of the sky.’

‘But not before we’ve come back to save Aeolus and Cal,’ Freddie said.

‘You’re kidding,’ Allen said.

‘No. As Fortune points out, it’s actually mandatory under the sentience laws, just as it is for Bella.’

‘I’d like to see Aeolus spared that hell,’ Fortune said. ‘As for Cal, though, that deformed savage can rot.’

‘But Cal is the more interesting character, don’t you think?’

‘He locked us up and threw away our shuttle,’ Allen snapped.

‘But there’s an independent mind in there,’ Freddie said. ‘An original one. Aeolus just did what you told him, Fortune. Cal, born in a prison, knowing nothing of the real world, rebelled instinctively. With a mind as independent and strong and subtle as that, who knows what he’d be capable of, if set free?’

Fortune nodded. ‘And what of me? Will your indulgence set me free?’

‘Oh, we’ll take you home too,’ Allen said, sneering. ‘You’ll stand trial for the hurricane. But there are places for creatures like you. Museums of the Singularity. Zoos,’ he added cruelly. ‘After all, there’s plenty of room, now the chimps and tigers are all extinct.’

Bella came running up, her face bright. ‘I saw the shuttle launch. You can see its contrail over the ocean. Oh, Freddie, come and see!’

Freddie and Bella hurried on to the blister, and gazed down at the shining Earth, searching for the spaceship climbing up to save them.


The Children of Time



Jaal had always been fascinated by the ice on the north horizon. Even now, beyond the smoke of the evening hearth, he could see that line of pure bone white, sharper than a stone blade’s cut, drawn across the edge of the world.

It was the end of the day, and a huge sunset was staining the sky. Alone, restless, he walked a few paces away from the rich smoky pall, away from the smell of broiling racoon meat and bubbling goat fat, the languid talk of the adults, the eager play of the children.

The ice was always there on the northern horizon, always out of reach no matter how far you walked across the scrubby grassland. He knew why. The ice cap was retreating, dumping its pure whiteness into the meltwater streams, exposing land crushed and gouged and strewn with vast boulders. So while you walked towards it, the ice was marching away from you.

And now the gathering sunset was turning the distant ice pink. The clean geometric simplicity of the landscape drew his soul; he stared, entranced.

Jaal was eleven years old, a compact bundle of muscle. He was dressed in layers of clothing, sinew-sewn from scraped goat skin and topped by a heavy coat of rabbit fur. On his head was a hat made by his father from the skin of a whole raccoon, and on his feet he wore the skin of pigeons, turned inside-out and the feathers coated with grease. Around his neck was a string of pierced cat teeth.

Jaal looked back at his family. There were a dozen of them, parents and children, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, and one grandmother, worn down aged forty-two. Except for the very smallest children everybody moved slowly, obviously weary. They had walked a long way today.

He knew he should go back to the fire and help out, do his duty, find firewood or skin a rat. But every day was like this. Jaal had ancient, unpleasant memories from when he was very small, of huts burning, people screaming and fleeing. Jaal and his family had been walking north ever since, looking for a new home. They hadn’t found it yet.

Jaal spotted Sura, good-humouredly struggling to get a filthy skin coat off the squirming body of her little sister. Sura, Jaal’s second cousin, was two years older than him. She had a limpid, liquid ease of movement in everything she did.

She saw Jaal looking at her and arched an eyebrow. He blushed, hot, and turned away to the north. The ice was a much less complicated companion than Sura.

He saw something new.

As the angle of the sun continued to change, the light picked out something on the ground. It was a straight line, glowing red in the light of the sun, like an echo of the vast edge of the ice itself. But this line was close, only a short walk from here, cutting through hummocks and scattered boulders. He had to investigate.

With a guilty glance back at his family, he ran away, off to the north, his pigeon-skin boots carrying him silently over the hard ground. The straight-edge feature was further away than it looked, and as he became frustrated he ran faster. But then he came on it. He stumbled to a halt, panting.

It was a ridge as high as his knees – a ridge of stone, but nothing like the ice-carved boulders and shattered gravel that littered the rest of the landscape. Though its top was worn and broken, its sides were
, smoother than any stone he had touched before, and the sunlight filled its creamy surface with colour.

Gingerly he climbed on the wall to see better. The ridge of stone ran off to left and right, to east and west – and then it turned sharp corners, to run north, before turning back on itself again. There was a pattern here, he saw. This stone ridge traced a straight-edged frame on the ground.

And there were more ridges; the shadows cast by the low sun picked out the stone tracings clearly. The land to the north of here was covered by a tremendous rectangular scribble that went on as far as he could see. All this was made by people. He knew this immediately, without question.

In fact this had been a suburb of Chicago. Most of the city had been scraped clean by the advancing ice, but the foundations of this suburb, fortuitously, had been flooded and frozen in before the glaciers came. These ruins were already a hundred thousand years old.

‘Jaal. Jaal…!’ His mother’s voice carried to him like the cry of a bird.

He couldn’t bear to leave what he had found. He stood on the eroded wall and let his mother come to him.

She was weary, grimy, stressed. ‘Why must you do this? Don’t you
the cats hunt in twilight?’

He flinched from the disappointment in her eyes, but he couldn’t contain his excitement. ‘Look what I found, mother!’

BOOK: Last and First Contacts (Imaginings)
2.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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