by Derek Künsken
The first humans living on the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau were the Homo erectus, approximately 1.9 million years ago. They extended their muscular reach with wooden spears, and gathered wild grains with crude stone axes. They may have experimented with fire and windbreaks of animal skins stretched over frames. They are thought to have transmitted information with proto-languages of grunts and gestures. These are the earliest discovered examples of human tool use on the plateau.
The AI Foundational Encyclopedia
2065 Edition, Guiyang, China
* * *
Xiadangdiao, 2010 ad
Up the hill, out of sight, someone laughed. Someone else practiced fluting. Along the hollow of the mountainside, the path led behind big wooden houses on stilts, far richer than Qiao Fue’s family’s house. The dancing and singing wouldn’t start for an hour, but on the pathway in the distance, people chatted and gossiped.
Pha Xov, winsome and sweet, stood a dozen meters ahead of him, smiling beneath peach trees. She wore her courting finery. His heart went light and heavy. Her smooth skin was sun-bronzed, with black hair tied beneath the intricate tinkling silver headdress. Greens, reds, yellows, and silver accented her deep blue dress, sewn by her own hand with skillful, invisible stitches. His clothes were fine, but also felt out of touch with the modern world, in a way that made him proud and shy at once, pulled in two. He took Pha Xov’s hand.
“Why don’t we skip the festival?” he said. “Let’s go to the youth house, or up into the hills.”
Memories of her body, supple and womanly, heated his cheeks and made his mouth dry. She smiled, and he imagined he saw pink color her cheeks, just a bit. She pulled back her hand and arranged the hanging sun symbols dangling from the rim of the headdress. She turned her head, strumming the suns like wind chimes before smiling into the tension.
“If I wait too long, I’ll be so old no one will want me,” she teased.
“Everyone always wants you.”
She smiled. “Flatterer.”
“I don’t want things to stop between us.”
She stroked his arm. “Then marry me, Qiao Fue.”
People walked by, watching them. He took her hands and waited until they’d passed. The breeze rained tiny brittle leaves from farther up the mountainside.
“The university at Kaili offered me a scholarship. I’m still waiting on Anshun.” He moved his head close, stroking her arm through the embroidered sleeve. “I want to be someone big. A rich man who owns companies. Maybe even a party official.”
“Driving around in cars, having big houses?” she teased. “Governor of Danzhai County?”
“Why not?” he said. “I’ll do good things for everyone.”
His face betrayed him. She touched his cheek.
“If you don’t have the money for the bride-price, we can elope,” she said. She glanced left and right and the silver suns waved. No one in sight. She ground her body against his. His body responded to the promise. “I’ll take good care of you,” she breathed in his ear, “and our children and our grandchildren.”
“Let’s go to the youth house now,” he whispered.
“No more youth house. Just marry me.”
“I can’t get married yet. A marriage has to help me with connections, introductions to people in power.”
“Not a little Miao girl.”
“That’s not what I meant! It’s just not the right time. The world is out there.”
She pulled away. “We only have so many springs.”
“We’ll make more.”
She’d taken a step back and he one forward. She shook her head, chiming the white silver suns.
“We don’t make more summers, Qiao Fue. We plant, we tend, and we reap the summers we have.”
He took a step closer. Her courting finery made everything feel more urgent.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
“We can start our family now,” she whispered, touching her belly. “We’ll support you.”
But her eyes moistened. She saw something in his expression.
He was shaking his head. “We can go to the doctor,” his voice rasped. “We don’t need to have the baby.”
Pha Xov stepped back again. One step. Two steps.
“I want the baby, Qiao Fue,” she said, wiping her eyes. READ MORE
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
* * *
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. READ MORE