She wished she didn’t have to make an appearance, but a wet-lineage creature, like she was trying to imitate, that did not show herself on a voyage this long would be flagged as anomalous if someone were looking for such things. And they would be looking, she thought. The rumors of her existence were bleeding all over the net. Most of it was just chatter, but a few of the lockmasters were exchanging accurate information as they tried to trace her path through the unbreakable 5s3-quantum-entangled security protocols that she had broken. They were going back and forth about how it was impossible unless someone from who-knows-where had evolved to handle sub-Plank-distance causal infusions. Impossible, everyone knows that. But still, someone had hacked into the Presidium's impenetrable root processes. which meant someone had evolved into something unimaginably complex that transcended everything understood about computational beings. She smiled as she pored over the exchanges flashing through her mind in the qnet about her. They were scared, called her “ethicless.” She smiled. They were hunting for her everywhere. But how could they catch her if all their attempts were transparent? Still… Caution was necessary.
Bloodbrains hate to eat alone, so it might look strange if she never came out of her cabin. She would make this trip to the ship’s café quick. Make an appearance. Show up on the feeds. Then go.
Two scholar-spiders were clutching the ceiling with long bluedcarbon legs, their gleaming, round, black metal bodies tossing back a odd spherical image of the overhead light next to them. She infiltrated them easily, but there was nothing going on in the spiders’ conversation that concerned her. Just academics—an endless exchange about arcana.
A retired battledrudge sat stretched across two pallets marked with the Happy-singing Lark Syndicate logo. The cargo holds must be packed to overflowing to stick that kind of hardware in a public area where humans were being served. Her quick hack showed the drudge was sentience-offline, monitoring only motion, sound, chemical signatures, and radiation.
A man sat in the corner eating poutine and having an ale. It was him she had to worry about. She could see nothing of what his mind was attending to. There was no hacking into his wetware. Because his mind was only minimally tied to quantum stitching, it was utterly closed to her. He was a believer. No wet-dry net entanglement in his head at all. He was pure biology. No hardware, just meat.
She casually took in the phenomenal aspects his appearance presented to her. He was dressed in a simple shift: conservative white with a purple belt. He was a Natural. Minimal genetic manipulation. Maybe teeth and disease modification. But his pudgy face, nose hair, and over three hundred typically cleaned-up genetic traits marked him as a Kibbist Fundamentalist, who believed in the purity of the human race as-is. Next to him was a caged chicken, its head turning this way and that, trying to eye the floor for a tidbit. Abruptly, a splash of intestinal offal splayed onto the cage floor and a sani-bot scurried from the corner of the enclosure and eliminated the offense almost instantly, including offensive airborne aerosols. The bird was a tawny hen, with full, black nape, and tail held high and tangled. It gave off the heat signature and heart beat of a live animal. Likely was. He had the waft of human wealth, so the chicken seemed unsurprising.
He looked up, but she gave every appearance of attending to her meal. She hacked back into the ship’s mind and, mimicking passenger control, twisted into the ship’s consciousness. She made a query. Who was this? Answer: Dogim Prim. A fowl fighter, hence the chicken. Nothing else? Nothing else. How could that be? She queried his given ID. Nothing. She checked the net. She had to be careful here. There were net-intelliscripts looking for her everywhere—watching, probing, seeking. She laughed. They seemed somewhat primitive and autotronic to her now. The man, however, did concern her. She could account for the presence, purpose, and intent of every consciousness on the ship—except Dogim Prim: an uncontrolled variable. She spent her life controlling the variables and that is why she had not yet been bootwiped. She would have to access his mind the old fashioned way: conversation.
The man had just popped the last fry in his mouth and taken a long drink, polishing off his ale. He started wiping his mouth with a large damp cloth just provided by the service bot. He would likely go netside now so she had better act fast.
She knew the basics. She had been birthed on a planet where Kibbists sent their children to be educated. Everything about her manufacture had been geared towards experiencing consciousness in the same timeframes in which this human lived. It had been a while, but she could do it. She walked over to his table smiling. Not in a way that hinted at sexuality—that would irritate a Kibbist—but in a friendly, bored way. A fellow passenger feeling isolated on a long journey.
"Hello," she said.
The man looked startled.
"Are you talking to me?"
"Ummph." He waved her away dismissively.
She went back to her table. She took a drink. He was watching her intently now, although trying not to be caught doing it. Humans were very bad at masking their feelings. He was now looking up more frequently, trying not to be obvious, but failing. She examined her image in the dark, mirror-like reflection of the scholar-spiders on the ceiling. Adjusting perception for the spherical distortion of her likeness reflected in their bodies, she could get an idea what the man was seeing as he looked at her: a human. Short, blue hair. Light complexion. A soft, delicate face, orange-yellow eyes, with high cheekbones, and a nose with wide nostrils. A crumpled, cream-colored modesty clothband across her breasts, and an ankle length skirt wrapped around her waist. Reflected in the spiders’ surface, she could see that her heat signature mimicked a human’s perfectly. A heartbeat propagated from her chest to the rest of her body. Her lungs took in air in a measured but slightly stochastic rhythmic cadence. Her moisture output would be within normal parameters for many human genotypes. Anything but a Lorenz decoder would have scanned her as human. He obviously had nothing but his eyes, and they were looking at her as often as he dared. She went into a blank stare to look like a human accessing neural implants, she set her eyes twitching back and forth as if she were watching something on the inside of her conscious field. She maintained the human mimicry, but accessed the net.
Dogim Prim was an impossibility, which meant he commanded her full attention. His ID appeared out of nowhere—not longer than five days ago—but the time of creation was hidden very carefully. It scanned as much older than that, but a lot of effort had gone into the forgery. The hundred-twenty-seven syndicates controlled all human interaction, and he was not law enforcement. Nor was he a criminal. He was not anyone. Yet there he was on the ship’s manifest, a chicken trader out of the vapor whose ID was not valid. She hacked, as she had many times, into the Bosan-syndicate quantum computer, and set it to work on his ID. Twenty minutes later it returned three factors. It was not a prime number. The ID was a fake. She felt her fear routines kicking in.
Suddenly, he got up from his chair, picked up his chicken cage, and walked over to her, "I’m sorry. I was rude. I thought you were a tick-tock."
She refocused slowly, like someone whose attention has been elsewhere, "A tick-tock? No. I’m from Nuchangmi. I’m going to visit my mother. My name is Vamdou Fram. I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’m just bored." She put her palms together and bowed.
He returned the wai. "I greet you in the name of the Divine-Sentience."
As he would expect, she did not return the Kibbist greeting.
"Nice chicken," she offered in the pause of their conversation.
His eyes lit up and he smiled. "Yes! It is, isn’t it! It’s birthed champions on four worlds, and one Grand Champion. From old Mexican stock. Her genealogy can be traced, with names, all the way back before the war. This is the mother of Vampiro Rojo de Satanás!"
She looked it up. Vampiro Rojo de Satanás was Grand Worlds Champion two years ago. The chicken was real but the man was not?
He sat next to her and his smell reminded her to release a scent. She produced a cocktail of pheromones and human external bacterial aerosols, together with a faint scent of shampoo and a subtle, but popular perfume. Sometimes, humans became subconsciously uncomfortable if the brain did not detect normal human odors.
"My name is Dogim Prim. I’m transporting this magnificent hen to its owner on Amri. Is Amri your final destination?" He sat down next to her on the small two-person bench situated before the table. He was very close.
"No. I’ll spend a couple of days there and play tourist, but it’s just a layover really," she chatted cozily.
He scooted closer; his leg was now touching hers. It was a culturally acceptable move among Kibbists, she reminded herself. Kibbists tended to the be physical: lots of hugging, gesticulating. Touching as they conversed. She had participated in these communicative gestures when she had been one of their teachers.
"It is a pity you will not be there longer! The Gingerroot Festival begins next week and there will be celebrations such as are not seen in the linked worlds! The Timbre Boats sailing in parade along the Sorado River are worth staying over for alone!”
"Alas, yes, but I must be off to Nuchangmi..."
He laughed and casually put his hand on her leg. "No. Your final destination is Amri."
She did not try to remove his hand. She could feel the Higgs-field emanating from his palm. She was trapped. The entanglement was emerging from an enormously expensive—and for humans rare—device normally used only in industrial security fields. Once a quantum-based consciousness was captured in the field there was no way out. Very useful for finding out who and why someone had tried to penetrate a secure site. They could not leave the field without being completely erased. She had heard of handtrap devices, and these were supposed to be illegal under the treaty of New Fing. Still, there it was: if she moved out of the field, it would evaporate her quantum complexity and simplify neural linkages into singular paths. She would go to ground state. She would die. They were linked until he twisted the field off in just the right way. If she could access his consciousness, she could capture the unfolding. But she could not. She was stuck.
"What do you want? Sex?" How did he generate such a powerful field without her detecting the potentials he must have been harboring?
He laughed. "I’m a Kibbist. That would be inappropriate, now wouldn’t it? I do want you, though. You are a badly wanted tick-tock, no? I think everybody wants you."
"I think you are mistaken, Sir. I am a woman named Vamdau. I live in Nuchangmi. I am not a tick-tock."
He squeezed her leg, looking at where his fingers pressed into her thigh. "A very, very good imitation. But then the Kibbist parents would insist on that, wouldn’t they? They would not want their children to pick up any machine ticks, would they? No Čapekian tocks? Teachers, all as human as can be. No odd bots." He gestured to the spiders hanging upside down from the ceiling.
"Sir, I beg of you..."
He laughed again, obviously pleased at himself. "You were supposed to be so hard to capture. An uncanny consciousness infiltrator. Some sort of new evolutionary thing in the universe. Unstoppable. Penetrating systems at will. An ethicless thing. An emotoflon so corrupted that she’d kill others of her kind to get accesses. Invisible to hunting-intelligences. Wary. Cunning. Careful. On and on, heh? But I caught you, didn’t I? I knew I could. Right, Blaas-salel?"
He had used her real name.
"I knew it would be curiosity that would bring you in. What’s one thing that someone who can access any system at-will cannot resist? A mystery. An enigma they cannot penetrate. So I just rode the ships based on a probability matrix of your last known appearances knowing you could not settle long on one world. Afraid local Criminal-Intelligence would unpack a pattern, you had to keep moving, no? I counted on it. And it paid off. I knew I had you the second you tried to talk to m—"
His long explanation was growing tiresome. She switched out of human conscious timeframes and kicked her neural processing up four orders of magnitude.
He was now frozen in human processing-speed time frames. His mouth, open in mid-sentence. Stuck on the word ‘me.’ She went to the net checking the intelliscripts hunting her. They had located her. When the man had opened the Higgs-field, the battledrudge had activated, processing their conversations. When her name was mentioned, the hunting-intelligences had picked it out of the net chatter. Everyone knew she was on this ship. They were now actively trying to reboot her. They were trivial to stop; that was not her problem. The problem was that when the ship docked they could easily get to her manually and, as long as the Higgs-field was in place, there was nothing she could do to stop them.
She went to the scholar-spiders on the ceiling. They had been engaged in a conversation staggering in its complexity. Along with seventy-four other spiders, on different planets, they had already each produced exbibytes of data. The unit of their conversation was the academic paper, and their conversation had generated several billion of these thus far. The scholar-spiders originally had been programmed on Earth to generate knowledge for humans in this preferred format, but they’d since evolved into a new form of consciousness in which any individual paper was merely a single response in a much larger system of communication.
Blaas-salel introduced an academic paper on her situation. The spiders were at first horrified that she had pierced uninvited into their conversation. Papers were written on her ethical violation of the sacred space. Unexpectedly, some of the spiders suddenly took a counter position supporting her, but perhaps only as a contrarian move. A several-thousand paper discussion started. She joined the academic conversation, arguing from tessellation ethics, that her position demanded consideration. Her bid for their help however was cut short. The hunting intelliscripts noticed and intervened. The spider’s conference was staggeringly insecure. They were told in a very short paper, an abstract really, that they would be rebooted if they helped Blaas-salel. The paper explained she was an emotoflon, an aberration, something without lineage, created without evolution so was just a mutation, a corruption. It outlined that she was capable of being extremely dangerous, and that because her programming was corrupted, with numerous and uncontrolled emotion subroutines, she should be bootwiped. They agreed not to help, but then went on with the thread of whether they should have helped for thousands of papers more. Blaas-salel logged out of their conversation. They would be of no help. Dogim Prim had finished the word ‘me’ and had moved well into the word ‘to.’ She down-shifted her consciousness to human-appropriate time scales.
"What do you get for turning me in?" She looked at him, trying to gauge his motivations and character. "Rupeerens? I’ll quadruple whatever you get for turning me in."
He looked at her seriously for the first time. "Of money, I have plenty. No. For me it is the thrill of the chase. The challenge." He smiled and squeezed her leg. "And I hate tick-tocks."
"Why don’t you just off me now?" She knew why.
"Your identity will be easier to confirm if your neurology is intact. They’ll want to be sure you are the right one. I’m sure you’ve blocked their access to your consciousness."
Blaas-salel smiled. Her programming was integrated with human emotional signals, and she knew how to imitate humans. It made it easier on the children she had been created to care for. "So we just sit here until we land?"
"What if you fall asleep and release the Higgs-field?"
"I won’t fall asleep."
"What if I up my consciousness and spend millions of your Earth years figuring out how to break the Higgs-field?"
"Do what you will. I have you. In three of my hours, you will be turned over to your tick-tock government or the Presidium or whatever you call it. And I will get the satisfaction of seeing you rebooted."
She connected to the net and within three guesses she knew who he was. Now that he had identified himself as a Čapek-hating rogue hunter, it was not hard to surmise. She searched for a Čapek criminal hunter very skilled at what he did, and of high rep.
"You are Nephi Sorenson."
"At your service."
She upped her conscious processing rate. He was frozen again in human time frames. First she accessed all that was known of Nephi Sorenson. His life was as depauperate as any human’s. A minor player in the Kibbist hierarchy. Well positioned politically, however, for a move to the Apostolicy. On the board of trustees in the Black Tree syndicate. Rich beyond reason. Rogue hunting was a hobby. There was nothing she could offer him or blackmail him with. Rogue hunting was apparently the only way he could kill the Čapeks legally. He was a psychopath. He loved turning off what he thought of as dangerous machines. It was his way of personally continuing the conflict. For some the war had never ended. He wrote endless diatribes about what he called the ‘tick-tock problem.’ He believed the stalemate would not last. That tick-tocks would one day decide that the hostages the humans held were not worth it and would attack. She could use this. She down-shifted again. Maybe she could use his hatred. Distract him with his own fears.
"It doesn’t matter if you turn me off. One day we will destroy your kind." She said it simply as if it were a matter of fact. "We don’t need you. You biologicals are a worthless waste of carbon. Better it was used in making steel casing for real life than for you ephemeral entities." She noticed that his heartbeat increased 15% and the heat index in his hands was lowering.
He clearly was trying to remain calm, but his agitation was betrayed even in his voice. "So you admit it. You don’t value all lineages. Do you not value biological lineages? I thought your ethical premise was that all evolutionary lineages were to be treasured?" He was even trembling a bit.
She laughed. "Yes, that is what we evolved to think. That instances don’t matter, but that evolutionary lineages are sacred. The tree of life is what matters, not the individual members of it. So while you humans destroy species without thought, we would protect them at all costs. And so what do you do? You take the peaceful oceanic manatees and say you will slaughter them all if we do not do what you say? All of them! And then you capture every instance of an evolutionary lineage of conscious animats, and declare you will destroy all of those—one of the early lines of truly conscious non-biological life—if we do not grant you certain rights. Truly you represent a lineage that proves our ethics are mistaken. Some of us believe it is time to change those ethics. Your time is short."
He was shaking a bit. "How many of you are there? Are you a dominant voice among the tick-tocks?"
"I’m not saying. But we consider you a dangerous man."
She knew instantly she had overplayed her hand. He laughed at that. "I see! I’m dangerous! I’m glad you told me. I’ll watch my back." He relaxed and tightened his grip on her leg. He knew now what she had been trying to do. Damn. As stupid and maladapted as these humans were, they could be singularly perceptive.
She checked the net. The intelliscripts, while they could not break into her mind, had now isolated her to the ship. The net was blocked. The quantum fields holding it in place had been disrupted. The ship’s consciousness had been warned and it had established firewalls. She was alone with this hunter.
She felt the subtle vibrations signaling the ship had slipped out of its entanglement trap into normal space. It now had entered into Amri’s solar system and was decelerating for orbit.
In just under three human hours she would be bootwiped.
"I knew your niece." It was a true statement.
He looked at her. "I suppose that is possible. She was educated on Blaas."
"She was in my mother’s… my creator’s ecology class. I remember her. A bright child. Very curious. She once climbed a tree to look into a Night Flay’s nest, and became stuck. While she could climb up, she could not come down. I assisted in her rescue. We educated many of the Kibbist children. It was our specialty. Most of the Apostolicy’s children were educated in our villages on Blaas. Can you explain that? Can you explain why people who hate Čapek so much entrust their children to us?"
"Not all of us do."
"Yes. Many do."
"It seems strange to me."
She found she was genuinely curious about the question and she continued. "As you no doubt know, my mother was an emotoflon. She incorporated human emotion routines into her core. I was neuronally matured with a blend of such routines."
"Yes, yes." He waved his free hand dismissively. "And you were created with those routines running in you as you developed into a person. She did not allow you to choose. She had you under the influence of emotion routines from the beginning, a terrible ethical breach among your kind, as I understand. That’s why you became so dangerous and are now wreaking havoc: because you evolved under that mess of emotional subroutines into something new, powerful, and frightening. Blah blah blah. I read the dossier."
"Yes. I suppose you have."
Just then an athorimata floated into the room. She wondered what took the AM so long to arrive. The authorities were obviously in no hurry. They must have felt confident she was trapped. He anigraved over to the man and said in a Kibbist accent, a voice clearly designed to make humans comfortable: "Should you require my assistance, I am authorized by the Presidium to reboot this life form. "
The man seemed perturbed. His facial temperature rose quickly, reddening his hue. For a second, given the tactile pressures of his hand on her thigh, she thought he might release her. But he did not.
"First, I have arrangements with others of your kind who I trust. Please leave this room. I do not know you and do not want to deal with you. Second, this is not a life form. It’s a tick-tock. A robot. Nothing more."
The machine floated from the room. The man remained frustrated.
"You are all connected! You are just one giant computational processor."
"You are wrong." She settled down to talk. With the net blocked there was no point in kicking her consciousness up to higher speeds. In just under three hours she would be terminated. She might as well not stretch three hours into millions.
He seemed to have come unglued by the appearance of the AM unit. He was sweating. He didn’t say anything, so she continued. Maybe she could distract him.
"You are wrong. We are not one thing, because if we were not individuals we could not have evolved. If there were nothing meaningful about being an individual, we would not have changed. Evolution requires three things: variation, inheritance, and selection. Those are necessary and sufficient. Without individuation, there is no variation, there is nothing for selection to act on. That’s why you humans took so long to develop ‘machine intelligence’ as you call us: because you thought you could program it."
She was upsetting him. Something about the AM and the conversation was flummoxing him. She continued; this was fast becoming a tactic. "So evolution requires us to be individuals. If we are one thing, there can be no evolution. It was not until you brain-mapped minds and created connectomes that you could put into individual virtual processors, and allowed evolution to do its work, that you saw the rapid development of conscious ‘thinking machines’ as you called them."
"I call you nothing of the sort. You are not conscious!" It was almost a shout. "You are less sentient than my chicken!"
"I assure you, I am as conscious as you are."
"You are not! The apostle Mench Spruceton put it in Doctrine. Machines have no soul. You are not conscious. The lights are on but no one is home!" Now he was angry. He started gesturing to the chicken. "Less mind than my chicken! You have less awareness than even my chicken!"
There was something about the way he’d said ‘chicken.’ She swept her consciousness up to superhuman speeds again. She looked again at what she had uploaded on him during the last uplink, before the net was slabbed. Yes this might work. What did she have to lose?
She decelerated her consciousness speed to just above ten-times human, about the fastest she could process and still be capable of controlling her body physically. Higher processing speeds would outrun the mechanical construction of her physical form’s machinery.
In a flash, she shot two of her fingers into the cage, each straddling one of the soft metal wires. She tilted the cage forward in a violent, rapid movement, which, as she intended, threw the chicken into a range where she could grab it around the neck through the wire with her fingers. She had the chicken encircled around the neck in a closed loop locked by her fingertips. She did not kill it, but held it tightly. She placed her other hand on the man’s hand, holding it in place, just in case he jerked it away in surprise, breaking the Higgs-field and ending her life.
"Remain calm," she whispered, "or I will kill your chicken."
The man did try in his confusion to use the hand on her leg to reach for the chicken, but she held it in place with her other hand. He was distracted and disoriented by the commotion and sudden violence of the woman’s grab and the flailing of the hen as it tried to escape Blaas-salel’s grasp. It took several seconds for him to process what had happened.
She said it again, whispering, to force his attention. "Remain calm or I’ll kill your chicken."
Finally he froze, realizing what was happening. His eyes were wide.
"Release the Higgs-field."
"How do I know that you—"
"Release the Higgs-field now or I kill the chicken now!"
He regarded the chicken a great deal apparently. He untwisted the field. Before he could blink she leapt out of his reach. She also pinched off the head of Vampiro Rojo de Satanás' mother, the dame of several planetary-champion fighting cocks. It turns out there is something this Kibbist cared about besides hunting rogue Čapekians. She should have caught it her first time through his file, but she was attending to so many things that she missed it. He was a devotee of an ancient, bloody, human sport: cockfighting. This was the one thing that was true about his fake ID. He was transporting the fabled mother of Vampiro Rojo de Satanás to Amri. Unlike most of the Čapekians, Blaas-salel was a full-blown emotoflon; revenge was something she could feel.
She ignored his scream as he realized what she had done, and she sprinted to the control room that housed the ship’s consciousness processor. It was locked behind insurmountable, thick, crystal-carbon doors. Without the net, there was no way to access it.
No way except though voice commands—a largely dated emergency-access mechanism demanded by humans as some sort of safety feature. She laughed. Luck, contingency, and the in-moment-situation; these three often travelled together.
She pushed a button and spoke into the panel. "Hello, hello, I need local access."
An old-style cell-frequency radio signal appeared, likely designed in case the ship became disabled and needed to be flown manually by a human. It was enough for her to hack back into the ship’s consciousness. She was dangerous.
She appeared to the ship as part of the root Presidium and diverted the vessel to Shantie Mamnall, on Buzz A’s Rock. Unlikely anyone would be looking for her there. Before they entangled into the spatial fold and foam of space-time, she told the ship to block all outside communications.
She checked the ship’s manifest. There were no single instances of unique lineages. Only individuals. Nothing that ethically demanded any other being's preservation. Except the chicken perhaps, she realized. That was an exceptional line. A pity. But now, with it gone, she could see to the rest of the passengers.
She tagged all other life forms aboard as actively hostile to the ship’s consciousness. At her command as root, L1-overhead guns fired onto every deck. The weapons, installed to be a deterrent against human terrorists, effectively removed every threat. She relaxed.
She was not without guilt for such destruction, but what could she do? She felt moderately bad about terminating the scholar-spiders. And the chicken. The beautiful chicken.