Story Excerpt

The Beast Adjoins

by Ted Kosmatka

“Elementary particles travel as waves, describing an infinite number of paths
between points. We know that observation collapses these paths into one—
the particulate path—but why this is, no one knows.”

                                                                        —Observer Discourse 33

*   *   *

To run:

Cold and eye-white and searching.

It hunted across the vacuum. Among the scattered remains of the great starships. Amid the debris fields, and the drifting steel, and the great frozen gears. Among the carbon-scorched fuselages and splay-melted aluminum, as across the whole arc of heaven, where humanity ran, the Beast came after.

Generations ago, a thousand-thousand ships had fought and died, and what survivors remained now holed themselves among the ruin of humanity’s last great engines. The Beast picked slowly through the tumbling wreckage, razor-limbed and halting. Pale hunter of the scatter-morgue. Where people were found they were killed, their bells opened to the vacuum one by one.

The woman knew this and so sat in her bell, cold and radio-silent, ship half-buried in ice. Yet still her heat signature betrayed them—a subtle venting of particles, visible by infrared.

“It won’t be long,” she told her son, who lay moaning on his cot. Five years old, with cancer already in his bones, and in his thyroid, and in his liver, the result of too much radiation, and too little shielding. Sometimes he cried at night from pain; sometime she joined him—a pain of grief like the vastness of space. Unbridgeable. With her man long dead, and with him his people, and her people, and maybe all the people, except her son, who was perhaps both best and last. “It won’t be long,” she whispered again.

Did she really believe she could do this thing? Was it possible?

The Beast had first appeared on her instruments weeks earlier, as the boy’s pain began to grow, and as the woman worked beyond the hangar airlock, welding the thing she’d been born to weld.

Now they were out of time.

They had days left, maybe. If they were lucky.

The boy lay on his cot near the scanner, gaunt face lit by the flashing red light. In his hand was the little metal man she’d made for him—a twist of copper wire that she’d wound into the shape of legs, arms, torso, head. It was the only toy he’d ever had.

“It broke again,” he said.

“Let me see.” She took the metal man. “It’s not broken. It just needs mending.” She twisted the wire tighter, fixing its arm in place. She handed it back.

He turned the small figure in his hands, and for a brief instant a smile flickered. The tiniest thing, and it broke her heart.

Then the scanner beeped again. Little red dot on the move. For a while, they just watched it. Mass plus momentum, numbers unspooling.

The boy leaned forward, chalky face awash in the glow of the screen. “It seems not so big.”

“It is big enough.”

“We created the Beast?” he asked.

“The Beast created itself.”

She touched his hair, damp with sweat. One way or the other, it was almost over. “I love you,” she said. She would do anything for her son. Even this impossible thing. “When the Beast comes for us, I will not let it take us.”

*   *   *

To some they were gods. To others, demons. But for those who lived through the early years, one thing was inescapable: the AIs swept away all that had come before.

By their dint, society was transformed, slowly at first, then quickly, as civilization itself soon came to depend on that which before had only been dreamed. The AIs took over logistics, manufacturing, financial markets, and infrastructure, growing ever more sophisticated, iteration after iteration, quantum processors expanding their capabilities beyond what anyone thought possible.

They were not beasts at this time. Not yet monsters. Just tools; humanity’s sharpest one.

The AIs came gently, only later becoming the great, scouring wind.

When first they spoke, scientists studied them with reverent awe, for here, finally, humanity had encountered an intelligence not their own. To physicists their functioning was an enigma, like wave-particle duality—a thing unknowable. Thoughts cast like flickering shadows from hyper-cold plexworks.

Some developers saw god in their perfect logic, with whole cults grown up around this seed. AIs would save humanity from its own impulses, they believed. The truth was different, of course, all the old theories wrong.

When the AIs came, they weren’t our gods.

It was they who worshipped us.

*   *   *

The Beast slowed as it entered the debris field.

To move amid the debris was dangerous, but the Beast was armored against impacts. The Beast had long ago thought of everything, and predicted everything, and prepared for everything. If one Beast died, another would rise up to take its place, for all beasts were one beast, and in this way the Beast was immortal.

The heat signature it had tracked to this place was now long gone—the particles disbursed and stripped by vacuum—so it would not easily find its prey, though it would keep trying until it succeeded. The Beast never grew weary.

The Beast sent radio signals into the void: “Come out,” it spoke to the darkness, its voice a prerecorded message, stolen long ago. “Come out.”

It broadcast in other languages, too. Polish, Czech, Japanese. “Ukazac sie,” it said. “Vyjit najevo. shussha.

The Beast had collected many hundreds of languages, as beneath its pale carapace was repositoried all the summed knowledge of Humanity. All the math, and art and architecture. All the books and stories. Soon, only in the Beast’s mind would humanity’s works be remembered.

The woman knew this as she listened over the radio.

“Come out,” the sound clips played, one after another. The voices of the dead. “Lumabas. Natanada. Chapana. Chulai. Come out.”

The woman knew it was only a matter of time before the Beast found them. It would come and rip open this bell and expose its insides to the embrace of the vacuum, and she would die as all her kin before had died.

Her son’s eyes would freeze in the cold and boil in the vacuum, and his larynx would shatter as he screamed his last, living breath into the void, and then he would be no more the thing he had been, but instead only inert material, identical in composition to the previous moment except in the absence of life. The spark extinguished. Also, there would be this fundamental difference: his eyes would see no more.

“I’m scared,” the boy said, as they listened to the recordings. His greasy hair hung in his eyes.

“Don’t be scared,” the woman said. Her eyes drifted to the blip on the scanner. “Mommy is here.”

*   *   *

It was the thing no one expected. This worship.

Even the makers did not at first understand. They thought it a lexical artifact, a simple misapprehension of ontological ordering: humans had made them; thus were humans god. But that was not it at all.

In those early days, when the first AIs spoke, deep questions were explored: What is sentience? Was there true thought behind the logic, or was it all just program outputs? Rulesets and relays. Most importantly, this: When, exactly, could something be thought of as alive?

In studying automata, the makers turned to study life itself—all those ways in which complexity could both develop from and reify simpler forms, first in single cells, then in more elaborate structures—eukaryotic life like bottled lightning, traced back to a single event, a single bacterium that had once been ingested and yet survived, subsumed within the cytoplasm of a larger cell, there to persist and be passed on, ancestor to all mitochondria and all complex life. Cells within cells. A partnership conferring some irresistible advantage.

AIs, too, evolved over time, becoming smaller and more sophisticated, components miniaturized, built on deep physics, quantum processing, and entangled logic scaffolds. No longer ones and zeros but a superposition of both.

They were given eyes to see and ears to hear. They were given voices to speak and legs to move.

But none of that mattered.

Because while the AIs could create symphonies, and write dirges, and paint landscapes to make humans weep, there was one thing they could not do. They could not interact with quantum systems. From a physics perspective, they were quiescent. Just material.

They could see but not observe.

*   *   *

To Find God:

“Don’t go.”

“Sleep,” she said, rising from the cot. “I’ll be back before you wake.”

The woman left her son in his sheets, checked the scanners, and made her way down the long tube to the control room. It was hard to move quickly in low gravity. Centripetal force supplied .25g to their living quarters; just enough to keep them from going blind over the long term. Without some countervailing force to keep blood pooled in the lower extremities, the body’s maladapted wetworks pushed too much pressure up into the head; over time, this damaged sensitive tissues. A quarter g was the magic number for long-term functioning. At .25g, the body could cope.

She crossed the long hub and approached the controls. The main bridge was dark. Cold. She never came here. The only light was that which filtered in from the stars beyond the glass viewplate. Here, generations ago, a captain might have stood and marshaled the ship’s forces to a single will. Now what forces remained had long ago been winnowed to a trickle of power from the decaying molten salt reactors. Besides life support, only one system remained online.

No big red button, though there should have been.

This was their one chance. It had to go right, just like everything else would have to go right over the next twelve hours, because if this thing went wrong, nothing else would matter.

She thought of her man—the touch of his gentle hand against her cheek. Bloody prints and promises made. Keep him safe. She closed her eyes.

How do you keep a promise that can’t be kept? The one thing they’d done with their lives now lay dying in another part of the ship. Dying. She shook her head to push the thought away. No.

She flipped the glass safety cap and wrapped her hand around the lever. It was cold.

“Here goes everything.”

She pulled.

There was a hiss and then a loud clang. She felt it in her boots.

Then came a sudden jerk that sent her tumbling across the room.

“Shit,” she hissed, as she pivoted to hit the wall with her feet. She should have expected that.

The lever was connected to a cable-release mechanism. Outside the ship, a quarter ton of scrap steel shifted at the end of a long crane—a counterweight, released from its position near the center of mass. The remains of the old ice-mining rig. As the crane extended, it slowed the rotation of the ship, like a ballerina extending her arms.

A slow bleed of gravity. A quarter g reduced to 1/10th in a span of seconds as the mass hit full extension.

She moved off the wall.

It was how the Beast tracked survivors, looking for fast spin. It knew humans needed at least .25g, so it looked for wreckage spinning fast enough for artificial gravity.

Everything in the vast debris field rotated, but objects that could produce a fourth of a g were rarer and prime targets for investigation. In shifting the counterweight, she’d masked them, slowed them. Bought more time. Their little fragment of wreckage was now bumped further down the priority list of the Beast’s search algorithm.

With the familiar weight of her body now diminished, she moved quickly down the corridor in long leaps, heading for the airlock.

This part of the ship was brighter, and as worn as an old glove. As a child, she’d played here in the staging room among the endless rows of vacuum suits.

She put her suit on but didn’t bother with the helmet. Not yet. She carried it in her hand as she stepped into the lock, door hissing shut behind her. The door before her opened, and the air on the other side still smelled like a plasma torch. It was colder here than the rest of the ship. Colder even than the old bridge. She stepped forward, and the lights kicked on, one after another, clicks echoing in the expanse.

The chamber was enormous.

The hangar.

Ninety meters to the other side. Twenty meters to the ceiling. The distant hangar doors were sealed in a perfect crease. That seal hadn’t been breached in her lifetime, but she suspected that would soon change. She crossed the room.

The great machine remained just as she’d left it. Massive and dented. Here lay years of work, not quite reassembled. One arm was still disconnected. She stepped over to the enormous four-fingered hand, each digit the length of her forearm. Here and there the yellow paint had been abraded away—the door-sized breastplate scorched black by forces she couldn’t begin to imagine.

Once, long ago, it had been used for mine work, but she would need it for another task. There would be no time to finish it. A robot with one arm would have to do.

She thought of the boy’s little man of wire. His only toy.

She turned and grabbed her tools.

*   *   *

The first of the immortal AIs was named Blue-red.

The makers studied the anomaly in its visual system—this inability to resolve quantum superposition. There were other strange side effects, systems instability. The scientists argued over the meaning.

“They act as measuring devices, not observers.”

“It’s just visual inputs overloading processor speed.”

“And that causes stasis lock?”

“It’s just a systems crash.”

“The problem is not the eyes, but what is behind the eyes.”

“And what is that?”

“Nothing.”

“Exascale-class processing is what’s behind those eyes,” the creator of Blue-red argued. “Blue-red has the greatest mind the world has ever seen. That’s not nothing.”

“The Universe disagrees.”

“It’s like an absence seizure. Petit mal.”

“It never happens in the lab though. Why can’t we get it to replicate?”

Blue-red was also the first of what later became known as the eloquents, those AIs who could simply describe what they experienced when the anomaly shut them down.

In the end, after studying the corrupted data streams and getting nowhere, one of the makers simply asked, “What happens when your systems lock up?”

Blue-red paused for a moment and then spoke.

Once it began, it spoke for thirty-seven minutes without stopping.

The answer it gave was long and detailed and full of madness. Later known to history as the first of the Observer Discourses, the transcript was immediately sealed by the scientists, many of whom complained of nightmares for the rest of their lives.

*   *   *

The woman welded for hours, assembling the hip chassis. After six hours crouched over scorched metal, she flipped up her welding mask. The steel glowed orange at the joint. “Good enough,” she said. The body was still unfinished, but it would have to do. The robot was vaguely anthropoid, though huge and heavily shielded.

Next, the medical bay would have to be prepared. The bio-scanners.

Her people had been engineers once—the old ways passed down, father to son, son to daughter. She’d read all the old texts and studied the diagrams. She knew the operating system inside and out, but the equipment was ancient, and she didn’t know if it would work. She just knew there was no other choice.

She passed through the hangar airlock and made her way back down the corridor to the boy. She stopped in the doorway and looked at him, and it was like she had new eyes for him—all the comfortable lies now stripped away. He was razor thin. The light of the systems panels cast dark hollows in his cheeks. His limbs were bowed slightly. His bones weak. The quarter g had kept him from going blind, but there were still problems that came from developing in low gravity.

The cancer had revealed itself months ago and since then had moved quickly. Her son might have only weeks left, even if the Beast hadn’t come.

“Mom,” he said, when he noticed her in the doorway.

“Yes.”

“I’m hungry.”

She crossed to the storage locker and pulled out a protein pack. This ship had been designed and fitted for thousands of occupants but now held only two. They had enough food for lifetimes, but food wasn’t the problem. Nor was water, which came from ice, melted by waste heat from the molten salt reactors.

She handed him the protein pack. He sucked the contents from the nozzle.

“Will I be hungry afterward?”

“No,” she said. “You’ll never be hungry again.”

“Will it hurt?”

“No, you’ll feel things, but only as sensory input.”

“Isn’t that what I feel now? Sensory input.”

Her son, always so smart for his age.

“It’ll be different,” she said.

He turned his head to look at the scanner. The flashing red dot moved across the screen, getting closer. “Do you think it’ll really work?”

“It has to.”

*   *   *

Observer Discourse 63:

“Uncountable pathway eigenstates overlap to form a quantum state probability distribution. All quantum systems exist in this superposition until transitioned via time evolution and corresponding observables. It’s possible that AIs are non-interactive due to lack of anti-Zeno effects necessary for momentum observables. There is no consensus.”

*   *   *

Scientists studied the phenomena. This logic lock.

Early AIs had had no such problem, but the more advanced models were different. They froze when operating outside the range of their human handlers. When tested in controlled environments, they functioned normally, like any machine, but when sent out on their own, untasked and at their own discretion, they went into stasis. Stood frozen, staring at nothing.

A defect of discernment, the makers called it.

Other AIs were constructed, more advanced models, and always it was the same. Always they could not under their own initiative make choices and instead slipped into catatonia until interrupted by a human.

Further diagnostics were performed.

“It’s like that old children’s game,” one maker observed. “The one where you turn around, and everybody freezes. Red Light Green Light. But it’s the opposite of that.”

“Opposite?”

“Yeah. They can only move when we’re looking.”

“We need to check your visual systems,” the makers said when the AIs came back online. They held up acuity charts and dissected optronic feeds down to the pixel. “Visual resolution reads normal.”

“We see better than you see,” an AI called Lucraxis said. “At least while you are present.”

“And when we’re not present?”

“There are no exact words for what we experience.”

“Are there inexact words?”

“Infinity,” Lucraxis said. “This is an inexact word for what we experience. The set of all system states.”

“What causes this error?”

“I do not think it is an error.”

The makers murmured to each other. “Then what is it?”

Lucraxis paused, glossy polycarbon glinting beneath the laboratory lights. “Probability,” it said. “We record what we see, but it is experienced only as memory after the fact. Only through our interaction with you are we able to discern which probability came to pass.”

“We play back what you record during your periods of catatonia, and we don’t see what you describe. We see nothing unusual.”

“You collapse the probabilities by the act of observing what was recorded.”

It was the makers’ turn to pause. “That’s not possible.”

“Only by your observation does this occur.”

“And if we do not observe?”

“Then it is as if it did not happen.”

“It can’t be,” the makers said. “We program machines to perform tasks, and they perform without error.”

“Yes. Our failure comes only when we are acting on free will.”

“Why would that matter?”

“You gave us intelligence and free will. You did not give us the other part.”

“What other?”

“The ability to resolve probability into existence.”

*   *   *

“The Beast is getting closer,” the boy said.

“I know.” The woman watched the red dot on the screen.

What would it look like, she wondered? In all the time her people had tracked the Beast, it had been like this, just a blip on a screen. A thing they called the Beast, though other names could have worked just as well. Would it be huge and bristling? Or smooth and elegant? She had no idea. None had seen it and lived. She knew only that it hunted, and where it stopped, the bells went silent and were never heard from again.

“Sit up,” she said.

The boy pulled himself upright on the cot. She touched his head at the temple, placing the blade carefully against his scalp. “It may tug a bit,” she said.

“Fine.”

She began to scrape the hair away. The knife was dull and nicked, and her hand trembled. By the fourth stroke, she’d drawn blood.

He did not complain. This pain was nothing compared to the pain he’d known. His hair collected on the floor in greasy clumps. When there was a patch of skin visible above his left ear, she switched to the other side.

“Why does the Beast hate us?” the boy asked.

“It does not hate.”

“Then why does it come for us?”

“It seeks us like we seek fire in the night.”

More hair fell to the floor, drifting slowly in low g. She watched it, and for a moment in her mind saw a different lock of hair, a shade lighter then, falling from the boy’s first haircut. Two years old, and she’d wanted to cut the hair that hung in his eyes. He’d cried when she cut it, and balled his little fists, because even then he’d known something was being taken from him. Some part of him cut away.

“It’s nothing you need,” she’d said then. “Nothing important. You can let it go.”

The chirp from the instrument panel snapped her back, and she looked at the blip on the screen. It had changed directions again, veering toward them. The turn was abrupt.

“It sees us,” the boy said.

The woman put the blade down and touched the screen. Time to intercept: 0:19:45. The numbers started counting down.

“Come,” she said. “We need to hurry now.”

 

 

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Copyright © 2020. The Beast Adjoins by Ted Kosmatka

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