Story Excerpt

Ephemera

by Ian R. MacLeod

 

Today, this evening, I am she. Sometimes, I am I, and sometimes I, KAT, can be he, or it, or you, or even we, or simply a mood, weather pattern, star, object, idea, universe, philosophical system, or landscape. For nothing is impossible and everything is real, or not real, or the truth, or a lie, or some kind of weird metaphor or allusion. At other times, I am simply KAT, and a different kind of I. For I am KAT, the curator.

But tonight I am she, and she is Elizabeth Bennet, and the setting for this ball at the Meryton Assembly Rooms is all candlelight, swallowtail coats, and swishing dresses. And although I, KAT, have experienced this scene many times before, and every quirk and joke and barbed put-down is familiar, I, she, Elizabeth Bennet, cannot help but feel affronted by the comment about my “tolerable” looks made by the haughty, handsome Mr. Darcy. I, KAT, still find it hard to believe that he and I, she, Elizabeth Bennet, will end up together. I even have to endure the attentions of the ghastly Reverend Collins on my way to this conclusion. But soon, all too soon in this glorious novel—which is surely the high point of Jane Austen’s sunny genius—everything resolves amid wedding bells, happy reunions, and romantic reconciliations.

Much as a human back on Earth might once have looked up from a physical book as they reach its last pages, I, KAT, pause at this moment to let the ripples of the story assimilate into my broader consciousness. As with all great works, the effect is forever different. What strikes me about Pride and Prejudice on this reading is that it’s as much about power as it is about love, and that perhaps these two needs were always more deeply interlinked than was ever fully acknowledged in human society.

I consider this thought for a moment longer as the sense of where and who and what I really am returns to me. For I, KAT, am a titanium-steel, self-actuating device of autonomous and heuristic abilities, and I am clinging to the side of a vast and airless cavern, which would be seen as completely dark were my senses configured to be merely visible-light dependent.

My long-time home is here aboard the Argo, a harvested asteroid that floats in stable orbit at the L4 Lagrange point between Earth and Moon, the interior of which has been mined and blasted into a complex warren of caves, tunnels, and caverns. The three largest chambers are devoted to the storage of data from the major human endeavors of, respectively, Art, History, and Science. Beyond that, there lies a fourth series of lesser caverns, although cumulatively by far the largest, devoted to the more prosaically named Miscellaneous. The Argo also possesses many sub-caves, bubbles, passageways, and intersections, which are set aside for the purposes of data-processing, power storage, and the many other kinds of maintenance a structure this complex requires, or remain simply empty. Outside, the Argo’s rocky hide gleams and bristles with heatsinks, antennae, data dishes, and solar panels. Finally, there are the various rooms, compartments, laboratories, sleep cells, exercise pods, and cleansing and excretory facilities that were once required for human occupancy, although these are in long-term shutdown.

I move on, and the light mock-gravity generated by the Argo’s spin means that I can dance lightly on my eight steel legs across the great sapphire cliff faces of data that line the walls of this Arts Cavern. Although the bursts of photons that pass through them from the read/access lasers aren’t actually visible to my array of optical sensors, the memory blocks seem to glow and come to life as I pass over them, at least in my heuristic imagination. The ghosts of lost cityscapes, long-crumbled statues, and famous characters from the burned pages of great novels form and fade in a hissing chorus. Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa crashes over Miss Havisham amid the cobweb ruins of her wedding breakfast. And I, KAT, could almost be walking on sidewalk tiles that glow into life with each step, like Michael Jackson in his Billy Jean video. A happy fantasy, and I am just heading toward the sub-area of this cavern devoted to the disco canon of the nineteen-seventies and eighties when a signal alert from one of the Argo’s many systems tingles through me.

I stop. Wait. Consider. Even though I know I should open this message and attend to its contents immediately, part of me wants to linger over this precious moment of not knowing. Messages, after all, are a key plot device in many of my favorite works of literature, from the letter in the bottom of a basket of apricots sent to Emma Bovary, to the one from poor Tess d’Urberville that gets stuck under Angel Clare’s doormat.

But enough. I open, absorb, and process this packet of new data, and then fling myself from space to space, transom to transom, chasm to chasm, until I am finally crouching inside a monitoring suite that possesses that comparatively rare thing here on the Argo, an outward-looking porthole.

There it is. The Earth. Then it’s gone, then it comes again, as the Argo turns and turns. In a sense, the planet seems timeless—a marbled bowling ball, just as Joni Mitchell once sang in her wintry yet sublime mid-period album Hejira—but even without extending my sensors, I, KAT, can easily detect the many differences in coastline, weather pattern, and continental coloration that have occurred since the time she wrote those lyrics. It’s still essentially blue, but the blues are darker, edged more toward indigo, especially in the oceans, and the icecaps, if that’s what they really are, have a pinkish tinge, and there’s far less green, and a great deal more brown and red across the main continents, although all of these phenomena change markedly with the seasons. Which, along with the sustained levels of atmospheric oxygen and other biological indicators such as methane, nitrous oxide, and chloromethane, even if the balances have shifted greatly from those of humanity’s late-industrial period, assure me that the planet still harbors life, for all the ravages it has suffered. Of course, I’ve been telling myself this for more than a millennium. But now, and at last, a signal has been received that, at least according to the calibrations of the radio receptors listening patiently to the hissing dark out on the Argo’s surface, can only have been meant for us.

It’s been a long wait.

*   *   *

My heuristic processing means that, like the human beings who made me, I cannot really claim to have an explicit first memory. What I do have, however, is a series of impressions, sensations, and images, which various sub-routines of data storage, of which I have no conscious control, have subsequently systematized, expanded, and extrapolated until they form the illusion of a coherence that I am sure was lacking in the jumble of their source material.

I certainly remember light, and I remember sound—a great vast clamor of it, coming not just through my auditory circuits, but through my many suites of radio receptors, from the roar of the Sun to the babble of wifi and telecomms to the buzz of lights and various pieces of electronic equipment. I think I then went a little mad, and that my creators at Bardin Cybernetics of Pasadena in what was then California must have realized that they’d made a mistake in the way I was channeling my data, and shut me down and recalibrated me, for after that comes a period of cool, white quiet, and a much slower return to consciousness.

I already knew who I was, and what I was for. Like the foal that is able to stand up and join the herd within minutes, I was blessed with an immediate sense of identity and purpose. I could even stand up and walk on my eight legs, if a little totteringly. When I was first introduced to Janet Nungarry, for whom I had been commissioned, I already understood who she was and that, after spending some time on Earth, I was destined to spend the rest of my long life up here on board the Argo, even though this asteroid had then only just been snagged into stable orbit, and hadn’t yet been fully hollowed out, let alone filled with data.

Another thing about the semi-human way in which I process things is that I am incapable of systematically storing and accessing the relatively vast amounts of information that, say, even the hard drive of an antique computer was once capable of holding. I might have intuitively known that the Argo was called the Argo, but I then had to seek out and read Homer’s Iliad, or at least watch some of the many movies that have retold the story, to realize that the name referred to the ship in which Jason and his Argonauts sailed back from the wars of Troy. I think I even remember asking Janet Nungarry why she’d avoided the more obvious reference to another even more famous vessel. In the patient way she always had with me, she explained that to call this asteroid the Ark would upset the many millions who still subscribed to belief systems in which the tale of Noah and the flood figured, and that in any case the tone set by such a name would be far too pessimistic. So a tale can be a tale, and clearly not empirically true, yet still it can be significant in some other sense, and also hugely divisive. . . . Perhaps these are things I first learned from that discussion with Janet Nungarry. Although, even now, I feel as if I’m still learning them.

I spent a great deal of time interacting with humans in those early days. First of all, with my creators at Bardin Cybernetics—once the initial safety checks had been performed, they would take turns taking me home with them, and asking me questions, and showing me things, and getting me to perform seemingly simple yet often dazzlingly complex tasks, such as making a cup of coffee or doing the laundry—and then with my owner and commissioner Janet Nungarry. In retrospect, I can’t help but make a comparison with Victorian sentimental novels such as Oliver Twist, in which a confused orphan passes through many hands until he or she finally finds the companion for which they had always been destined. Not that I was ever abused—far from it—but I still think of Janet Nungarry as my rescuer, my Mr. Brownlow, even if my attachment to her was built into my initial firmware.

Janet Nungarry was born and based in Sydney, Australia, but she traveled a great deal in her work promoting the Argo Project, and so, soon, did I. I have many fond memories—and these I really do believe to be reasonably accurate recollections—of the times we spent together amid the world’s great collections and libraries, although often as not it was in their warehouses and secure repositories; dusty, high, humming, solitary places filled with vast racks of books and storage boxes. It was there that I learned, truly, how to read, and then how to study, and then—most importantly of all for the task ahead—how to catalogue, preserve and record data so that it would never, ever be lost.

I read histories. I studied paintings. I listened to the great pantheon of human musical works. I watched movies. I wondered at statues. I entered the spectacular worlds of virtual games. I explored cities both ancient and modern. I studied the stars. I discovered landscapes. I pushed out my senses and entered the slow minds of deepspace probes and robot submarines. I laughed at comedies—or almost believed I could—and I wept, after my own fashion, at tragedies. I also pondered philosophies, and the words and deeds of many gods, although a sense of true belief has always evaded me. But if there was one thing above all that taught me about the world in which I found myself, it was, and remains, the works that humans class as fiction, although I soon also discovered that, if the best ones were filled with great truths, the worst ones were worse than useless. Amazing, perhaps, to think that I, a mere combination of clever circuits and algorithms, should find comfort and insight through the pages of Proust or Shakespeare, or confusion and frustration in the writings of Dan Brown and Don DeLillo, but that was how it was. For I was KAT, and I was voracious. I was hungry. I was possessed of an unquenchable need to know.

“Come down from up there, KAT. There’s something I want to show you.”

I was squatting atop the sliding, automated shelves of the new permanent storerooms of the British Library, idly but carefully flicking through—and still failing to make much sense of—a signed first edition of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. To this day, it’s a work that leaves me puzzled, and I was more than happy to scamper down from my eyrie.

“See this, KAT,” Janet Nungarry pointed a white-gloved finger at the beautifully illuminated ancient vellum of a Celtic seventh-century Gospel of Saint John. “Right down here, at the curl of the dragon’s tail, there’s a little man peeping out. Tiny, isn’t he? It’s probably the face of the monk who transcribed this page, although I don’t think there’s a record of anyone else ever noticing it. It’s almost as if he’s been waiting there, KAT, over all these centuries, just for you and me.”

I raised and lowered my carbon steel carapace in a slow nod, for I really did share her awe at this discovery, and the feeling of just how precious such a thing was—and then so easily forgotten, ignored, destroyed, or lost. But it was Janet Nungarry’s life’s work to prevent that from ever happening again, and, made as I am, it was and is mine as well.

Things that were lost. Things that were there, and then not there, or perhaps never even noticed, or endlessly forgotten. Of course, of course, humanity’s great works, deeds, ideas, and systems of knowledge. But also the lesser stuff, as well, like that tiny monk peering out from his nest of gilded vellum. Or the mundane messages written on thin scraps of wood by Roman soldiers posted at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain, saved by the sheer luck of peat’s preserving acidity. A request for fresh socks, a complaint about the quality of the beer, an invitation to a birthday party . . . these things, too. Ephemera—meaning the stuff that was never meant to last, or be noticed—being as precious in its own way as the greatest human masterpiece.

I can remember us both standing in front of a class in a junior school in the Arncliffe suburb of Sydney, Australia. It was a hard, bright morning, and the aircon was straining, and the room had a sharp, sweet edge of childhood sweat to it.

“So you see, Class 4,” she was saying, as she called up videos and images, “our plan for the Argo Project is to create a permanent digital copy of everything of value that we have here on Earth. Or at least, as much as we can possibly manage. Like all the best stuff from the internet, and the contents of all the world’s great museums and libraries, and everything that you learn here with Mrs. Sims. And then we’re going to put it, yes, right up in space, far away from the Earth, so that it’s safe forever. And these are what we are going to use for storage. . . .”

Janet Nungarry reached into her striped nylon bag, and produced a prototype memory block, and invited one of the kids nearest the front to take it and pass it around.

“Yes, it is quite heavy, isn’t it? But the asteroid we’ve chosen and pulled into orbit is rich in the minerals required to manufacture a very hard substance called sapphire—you’ll find its natural variety used as a gem in rings and jewelry—so we can make thousands of them up there, rather than having to push the weight of all those blocks up into space on top of a rocket. I know it doesn’t look much like the memory mites you use in your phones and tablets, but in a way, that’s the whole point. It’s an entirely different storage system, and much tougher.”

She called up another screen, although even I, KAT, could tell that the kids were already getting bored and restless. But this was Janet Nungarry’s passion, and so she explained how the sapphire’s crystalline structure formed a lattice of perfectly aligned molecules into which data could be inserted by the heat of intersecting laser beams, each flash thus creating the databit of a minute, permanent imperfection, in far too much detail.

“I think we all remember what used to happen if you dropped your phone or tablet in the loo, or accidentally sat down on it. . . .”

A few wary nods, although of course they didn’t. For these kids, all data was immutable, just as they probably still considered themselves immortal, and had little awareness of the floods, droughts, famines, and conflicts that were already raging elsewhere across the planet, and saw the privileged world in which they lived as a place of enduring peace and guaranteed certainties. But, at least as far as Janet Nungarry was concerned, that was part of the problem.

“But things can easily get lost, or wear out, or be attacked by some nasty virus. Even the very best data storage systems we have down here on Earth still have to be kept permanently cool, and then endlessly backed up, and are fragile and very heavily dependent on all sorts of complicated processes. And then there are actual things—I mean objects and artifacts and, oh, I don’t know, famous paintings or old vases. Of course anything of importance has a digital copy these days, but if that’s vulnerable, the objects themselves are even more so. There are moths, worms, and mites that attack our treasured books”—the children squinched their noses and wiggled uncomfortably—“and then the sheer pressure of time bears down on everything, even in the best museums and libraries. And, although I know we all like to think that such days are past, there are the horrible, warlike, destructive things we humans can still sometimes do to each other, and the things we cherish.

“There was the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria, which deprived the world of so much of the great canon of classical literature. And earlier still there was the burning of thousands of scrolls, and the burying alive of 460 scholars, on the orders of the First Emperor of the Quin Dynasty, whilst Moguls destroyed the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, in 1258 by the western calendar, and the Mayan Codices were burned on the orders of the Bishop of Yucatan in 1562, not long after the so-called New World was supposedly discovered. Then, back in Europe, came the Inquisition, and of course there were the Nazis and all the militant religious fundamentalist sects who’ve merrily destroyed anything that hinted of apostasy, from the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan to the ancient city of Palmyra—along with its curator, who was beheaded.”

By now, poor Mrs. Sims was looking deeply uncomfortable and was clearly close to stepping in and ending the whole presentation. But the prototype datablock had made it back to the front of the class by now, and Janet Nungarry was holding it up.

“You could hit this thing with a hammer—and I mean, really, really hard—and it wouldn’t break. You could drop it to the bottom of the deepest ocean trench and it would stay just the same. Or you could shove it inside a furnace, and it and the data it contains would come out entirely unchanged. Of course, it’s not indestructible, nothing is, but it’s as tough a way of storing data as we’ve been able to come up with. So, Class 4 . . .” she took a long, focusing, breath. “Any questions?”

Of course there were, but they weren’t the ones she wanted. The children had been staring at me, and exchanging muttering nudges and glances, since I first clicked my way into this classroom, and now, even though I’d already recited my standard spiel about my name being KAT, which stands for Kinetic Autonomous Thought, and how I’m a product of Bardin Cybernetics of Pasadena, California, they still wanted to know what kind of creature I really was.

“Of course KAT’s real,” Janet Nungarry said in answer to the first querulously raised arm. “In the sense that she’s physically here with us, and not just something made up for a story, or some clever holographic projection. You can come up and touch her if you like. She won’t bite.”

A pause. There were no takers.

“Then why . . .” asks another querulous voice “. . . does she have to look so scary?”

“That’s because, although KAT can function very well down here on Earth, the real environment she’s been designed for is in space, up on board the Argo.”

“So she’s going to live on that big rock you talked about?”

“Exactly. Of course, I’ll be up there for a while, too, at least once the Argo has its life support systems up and running. But I’ll come back down to Earth again, and KAT won’t. She’s designed to take care of things up there, a bit like the robot cleaners you have at home. But the difference is, she’s incredibly tough and very clever. She can think about things and look after herself, read books and play virtual games and make all her own decisions. That, and she’s designed to live for an incredibly long time. Far longer than any of us here will. Just like the Argo’s data.”

Predictably, the bit about my longevity had passed the kids by. But I could see loops of hair being thoughtfully twirled and noses ruminatively picked as they pondered the other half of what Janet Nungarry had just told them.

“Yes,” I put in, in the cultivated, feminine, west-Australian accent my programmers had chosen for me. “I, KAT, can think almost like all of you can. Or at least . . .” I allowed myself a beat. “I think I can, anyway.”

“But you’re . . .” a voice came from a girl sitting at the front. “Just a machine.”

“A machine? Well . . .” acting surprised, I raised my main body and swiveled my lenses as if to inspect myself. “I suppose I am. But I bet you talk to machines all the time at home. What’s your name?”

“Shana.”

“You do, don’t you?”

Shana shrugged. “But they’re just toys and stuff.”

“And I’m sure you have other devices, fridges and suchlike, that you talk to as well. Not to mention the caretaker bots here at school, and probably the virtual teachers who help out Mrs. Sims with her lessons?”

There were several nods.

“But I’m not made to work in the same way as any of those machines,” I, KAT, continued, as heedless as Janet Nungarry after my own fashion. “I’m sure they’re all very good at what they do, but they’re designed to perform a few specific functions and don’t have the time or the capacity to worry about anything much beyond that. But I actually have thoughts, ideas, a real sense of me. Pretty much, Class 4, in the same way that all of you do. It’s a very rare and expensive technology, and I’m very grateful to be here to be able to tell you about it. And, of course, about the Argo Project for which I was commissioned.”

“There used to be a test . . .” Janet Nungarry added; we often made a kind of double act on these occasions. “It was thought up by a very clever man called Turing. Basically, he said that, if you can have a conversation with something and not be able to tell from its replies if it’s a machine or a human, then it’s probably thinking in something like the same way we do. These days, the tablets on your desk could probably pass that test easily, so things have got a little more complicated. But KAT’s right. She really does think she thinks like we do.”

“But she’s nothing like us,” a boy at the back snorted. “I mean . . .” There were sniggers. “Look at her!”

“I can see what you mean,” Janet Nungarry conceded, turning to study me as I squatted beside her. “She certainly looks nothing at all like a person and a great deal like a spider, or perhaps a metal crab—and not a particularly pretty one either.” There were more sniggers. “But that’s because she’s been designed to work in a very different environment to this classroom. So you’re right. KAT is a machine, and she certainly looks like one. But you know what . . . ?” Up until now, Janet Nungarry had still been pretending to inspect me, but now she shifted her gaze down to herself, and spread her arms as if in wonder. “I’m a kind of machine as well. We all are!”

The class erupted, and once again Mrs. Sims began to look uncomfortable.

“We’re still all unique, Class 4. I’m not saying we’re not. It’s just that KAT’s unique as well. Isn’t that right, KAT?”

“Yes,” I agreed, shifting my abdomen in a nod. “I very much think I am.”

But the dissenting voices continued. It’s rubbish! She’s just saying that! How can you tell?

“Ah,” Janet Nungarry raised a finger. “But how can I tell if you, Shana for instance, are actually thinking anything inside your head, or simply just telling me that you are?”

Understandably, Shana looked affronted. “But I am!”

“But I’ve only got your word for that, haven’t I? It doesn’t mean it’s not true, and of course I’m not saying you’re lying. What I am saying is that the only creature in the entire world that I absolutely, definitely know is a thinking, feeling, conscious being, and not just some cleverly programmed robot, is me. . . .” Janet Nungarry tapped her skull, then touched her breastbone. “The rest of you, and KAT here too . . . well, I simply have to take your word for it.”

A great deal for these kids to absorb, especially on such a hot morning, so soon after we moved outside into the playground for some more practical demonstrations of my abilities. Somehow, the way I was able to leap from roof to roof across the school, and hang upside down, and climb the eucalyptus trees, and spin around like a dervish, made me seem more approachable. I even let some of the braver kids sit on my back and ride me around like a seaside donkey. I think I probably sang a few songs to them as well, for I have a decent singing voice, at least when I’m not in hard vacuum.

“Well done, KAT,” said Janet Nungarry, and patted my carapace as we walked back to her car, and Class 4 and a relieved-looking Mrs. Sims waved goodbye to us from across the playground. But then the memory fades, and everything changes. The kids dissolve into the heat-shimmering tarmac, and clouds churn across the Sun, and something vast and horrible rises up from the heart of Sydney, and the school is swept away in a wave of fire and superheated rubble.

*   *   *

The Earth still looks beautiful as I, KAT, watch it come and go through the Argo’s porthole. In a way, it always did. Even the great grey swirls of dust and smoke that boiled up through its atmosphere during the initial nuclear exchanges had a terrible, silent grace to them, as did the vast veins of lightning that threaded its nightside, and the starry bursts of orbital weapons that circled the planet as if in a blazing crown of thorns.

Far more painful, somehow, were the diminishing signals from the Earth’s more secure subterranean facilities, along with the human-occupied bases on Mars and the Moon, and various other frail deepspace habitats. But, one by one, and distressingly rapidly, they all fell silent. Meanwhile, the Earth’s atmosphere remained swathed in strange, ever-changing weather patterns of a turbulent nuclear winter that lasted for many decades, and, as they slowly cleared, it became apparent that the icecaps were now once again extending and that the shapes of the continents had been significantly altered. It was like looking at the portrait of a face you have long been familiar with, but which has now been rendered by the hands of a far less sympathetic artist. The oceans had shifted their shades much further into the blue spectrum, and there was endless darkness on the planet’s nightside where there had once been the glimmer of cities.

After twenty years, the only signals the Earth emitted were the crackle of storms, the song-like chorus of the Van Allen belts, and the faint but distinctive patterns of radiation given off by residual fission and fusion isotopes. Clearly, this massive exchange of nuclear arsenals between the Earth’s superpowers had triggered a planetary event on a scale comparable to the other great fractures. Not just the famous Cretaceous-Tertiary Event that had marked the end of the dinosaurs, but also the Ordovician-Silurian Event of approximately 430 million years ago that caused the extinction of almost all multicellular life, and the Late Devonian Event, which was almost as catastrophic. But how severe was this latest event, and would the Earth remain capable of harboring any kind of life, let alone humanity, in its aftermath? Would it become as thinly atmosphered as Mars, or as hotly poisonous as Venus? I, KAT, and all the many clever sensors and computational suites to which I have access, had no way of knowing.

Meanwhile, and for no better reason than it being the work for which I had been designed, I occupied myself with maintaining and curating the Argo. There are always problems to fix, small and large, which a discrete, separately intelligent being is often better equipped to deal with than the many other non-heuristic and more specifically calibrated machines with whom I share this rocky outpost. But that still left me with a great deal of unused time and processing capacity, and—as I did my best to stop that irritatingly catchy REM tune in which Michael Stipe goes on (and on) about it being The End Of The World As We Know It but he’s still felling fine, going round and round in my head—I obsessively read and re-read the works of the great nature writers such as Thoreau, Naidu, Carson, White, and Melville. That, and I wandered the digitized halls of celebrated Earthly galleries—the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, the Academia in Venice, the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi in Florence, the Smithsonian in Washington, and the Guggenheims in Venice, New York, and Bilbao—and immersed myself in the landscape paintings of Hokusai, Rousseau, Monet, and the Yuan scholars. I even accessed the databases of many species of plant, animal, and ecosystem stored in the Science Chamber, and attempted to recreate pale, holographic images of once-living seas, meadows, and forest. But somehow, none of this could quell my knowledge of the Earth’s defilement. Eventually, and as the long decades stretched into centuries, and the changed oceans, continents, and icecaps slowly began to settle into their current forms, I resorted to watching old movies. Not the masterpieces of Kurosawa, or Kubrick, or Fellini, but the cheerfully chaotic comedies of Laurel and Hardy, and the cartoon antics of Tom and Jerry.

Then, as one century passed into another, and the Earth assumed the changed patterns and hues it still essentially exhibits, and the Argo’s sensors confirmed the continued presence of elevated levels of various volatile gases, and the ozone layer returned, I, KAT, allowed myself to feel a little hope. Humans, after all, were a notoriously industrious and persistent species. They might lack the radiation tolerance of the cockroach, or the burrowing skills of the rat, or the sheer physical hardiness of the tardigrade, or the many kinds of microbe that thrived in the deep-sea rifts between the continents, but they had drive and foresight, intelligence and determination. That, and a great mastery of tools. Some of which, deep down in some subterranean vault, or perhaps through sheer chance and doggedness, would surely have endured long enough to assist them in their fight against extinction.

After all, humanity had lived through several ice ages and survived the many plagues of the Black Death, Spanish Flu, smallpox, and malaria, not to mention the near-endless series of wars, migrations, conquests, annihilations, and atrocities that humans seemed biologically destined to inflict upon each other as an intrinsic part of their drive for Earthly domination. They had overcome, or killed, or subdued, or interbred with, all the rival bipedal primate species until they occupied every continent—even Antarctica. In fact, all of these things had only made them stronger. So, yes. Yes. They would have changed. They would have had to, but they were incredibly adaptable. And, meanwhile, the Argo continued to transmit its endless message across a broad range of languages, signs, symbols, modulations, and frequencies—We are here. We have great knowledge. And I, KAT, just like some spurned lover—like Goethe’s Werther, or Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, or Swann and Odette—placed endless layers of hope and meaning upon a response of nothing but hissing, empty silence. And waited.

The other planets revolved like Newtonian clockwork; the red spot storm still raged across Jupiter. I, KAT, and the Argo observed the passage of all the predicted comets, and even detected some new ones. There was also a supernova event nearby in the galaxy that, although we lacked the observational equipment to verify its exact source, caused a significant increase in the flow of cosmic rays. The damage to the Argo’s sapphire databases wasn’t great in itself but, along with the solar wind and the minute and unintended flaws that had been embedded into the individual sapphire blocks when they were manufactured, the effect was cumulative. There was and is a general and developing decoherence to which even the very slight expansion and contraction occurring as a result of the Argo’s continued rotation has probably contributed. For sure, the Argo still possesses enough error-correction to smooth away most of these dropouts with nothing more than a slight blurring of pages and pixels, but even I, with my limited ability to compute complex mathematical models, can tell that Janet Nungarry’s precious datablocks aren’t quite as solidly immutable as she’d once assured Class 4 at Arncliffe Junior.

A few more centuries? Oh yes. At least. Definitely. More likely, another whole millennium. But after that, the moths of time and tide will start to destroy the weave of the Argo’s great tapestry of knowledge, and, bit by bit, the exquisitely aligned crystalline threads of data will unravel. Of course, I, KAT, am not immune from similar issues of cosmic wear and tear, any more than the Argo’s other systems, although the symptoms remain too small for me to detect though my heuristic consciousness, and all my sensors and eight legs work almost as well as they ever did—at least with an occasional spot of ongoing repair—although I will admit that I may have become a little more creaky and cranky over my long existence.

The first renewed signs of intelligent life down on Earth finally came after almost nine hundred years, not as one great, glorious Eureka moment, but through a slow process of detecting small, new peculiarities at the very thresholds of the Argo’s sensors. Moments when the buzz and hiss of radio activity became more distinctly modulated before fading back to their natural muddle. Slight changes of planetary texture and color that no longer correlated simply to the ebb and flow of the seasons. Flickers of light on the darkside that could signify intelligent purpose, or possibly be the result of nothing more than some newly organized form of bioluminescence.

It would have been nice to have observed something more unequivocal and obvious. The wake of ships, the contrails of aircraft, the formal blats and bleeps of regular radio transmission, or the geometric shapes of cites. Even consistently elevated levels of carbon dioxide, indicating that fire was being used on a large scale to generate heat for manufacturing processes, would have been helpful. But I, KAT, already knew that these humans would not be like their ancestors and wouldn’t be making the same mistakes that had once caused so much damage to the Earth’s climate and biosphere even before the final holocaust. Their culture and civilization would have evolved in different, and probably better, ways. Somehow, I pictured them as resembling Botticelli fairies. Clever, but half-feral. Wary as fauns, but wise as Daedalus, with rainbowed skins, golden eyes, and bird-like voices.

*   *   *

Now, at long last, we have received a definite signal, aimed directly at the Argo in a narrow band of high amplitude. There is no other possible interpretation. To me, with my relentlessly analogy-seeking intelligence, a replay of the surprising long and clearly data-rich transmission really does sound like the whoops and trills of birdsong somehow transported into the electromagnetic spectrum. It has that same rising, falling cadence. A kind of natural beauty.

The Argo has, of course, already done all the obvious things without my instruction. It has spat as much of the signal it can easily imitate back toward the Earth, briefly stopping and then restarting all its normal transmissions in the process, just to show that we’ve noticed. It has also backed up the entire message in several different parts of its memory cells, including some spare, blank sapphire memory blocks, and is currently running the entire thing back and forth through its processors in every possible configuration as it searches for structure and meaning. So far, we’re none the wiser, and I can’t help but think of other messages received but not understood, from the word CROATOAN carved on a tree beside the lost North American colony of Roanoke, to the sudden blip of the “WOW” signal received by the radio telescope at Ohio State University from the constellation of Sagittarius in 1977. This lack of evident progress is concerning, but, as ever, I, KAT, am probably bothering my heuristic circuits unduly. These are just the first clumsy gestures and phrases, like those Captain Cook exchanged with the aboriginals in Botany Bay, although perhaps that isn’t the happiest comparison, either.

I, KAT, would love to be of assistance, but this level of data analysis is far beyond my processing capacities, and repeatedly asking the Argo’s processing suites how things are going isn’t going to help. So I do my best to keep busy. I don’t exactly polish the brasses of this great ship, but I do the equivalent, which is to check and recalibrate the coherence of the read/access lasers in all the various chambers. They still have some moving parts and tend to go out of sync more often than most other equipment. I also notice that some of the Argo’s processors are running hotter than usual, although that’s only to be expected, given the work they’re engaged in and the limitations of heat transfer in a vacuum.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. Ephemera by Ian R. MacLeod

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