Read Space and Time Issue 121 Online

Authors: Hildy Silverman

Space and Time Issue 121

EDITOR’S GEEBLE

 

by Hildy Silverman

 

New readers and old friends – welcome to Issue #121! We’ve got some great stories in here to distract you from your daily commute. We launch with a change-of-pace story from Nebula-award nominated author Charles E. Gannon (“Fire with Fire”), and then glide through tales of horror and fantasy, pausing to enjoy poetic glimpses into strange vistas along the way, and stopping off for an interlude with Jody Lynn Nye. Make sure you keep an eye on your porthole for some great illustrations as we go.

You’ll notice some advertisements as you travel through our pages. We encourage you to look them over and make note of their associated websites. Our advertisers fuel our success and we appreciate each and every one of them. Please thank them by checking out their excellent offerings. And if you happen to make a purchase, please let them know you found out about them while traveling through Space and Time.

Okay, now go and read this issue, but then come back here and finish my Geeble. It’s okay – I’ll wait.

 

* * *

 

Welcome back! Did you enjoy your trip? Then we’d sure appreciate it if you would share your issue with friends and family now that you’re done. Spread the word that the oldest continuously-published speculative fiction magazine is still alive and well, but we could always use more subscribers. Subscriptions are vital to our future, particularly of the print version of this magazine. If you bought us at Barnes & Noble or another retail outlet, that’s wonderful and thank you very much. However, considering the somewhat bleak outlook for many brick-and-mortar book and magazine retailers, the best way to ensure you keep getting us is to become a subscriber. Think of the gas you’ll save when we show up on your doorstep, ready to pick you up for your next ride through the strange worlds our authors and artists create in every issue.

Welcome aboard!

 

Hildy Silverman

Editor-in-Chief

 

 

A CYBERKEET’S STORY

 

by Charles E. Gannon

 

artwork by Martin Hanford

 

 

 

 

I am a cyberkeet; genus: SimuTone RepetiWhistler. I was made to sing. And because I was, my genesis is my undoing. Bill, my human, once said that the seed of our undoing always lies—fertile and waiting—at the core of our own being. So it is with me. There, in the chip that gives me life, thought, and purpose, is also the flaw that could undo me, unmake me: that could irrevocably terminate my functions—if only so final a result were possible.

 

* * *

 

My first memory is of my own, half-metallic, half-biosynth image reflected in a human’s eyeglasses. Surprised by the glasses, I blinked.

The pale face behind the round, archaic lenses frowned. “Is something wrong? Do you feel all right?”

My processors spun, accessed, translated; the human’s utterance was an expression of solicitude, common among biologicals. My behavior mimicry subroutine suggested an appropriate response: I rotated my neck servos, gimballing the clavicular armature slightly to one side. In the eyeglasses, my matched reflections tilted their heads quizzically. The human’s frown reformed into a smile as I uttered my first self-aware words:

“I am unimpaired; all functions are nominal. Did you detect errors in my operation?”

The human shrugged. “When you blinked, I—well, I didn’t expect you to do that. I wondered if something was wrong.”

“I am unimpaired. My simulated involuntary nictation of external ocular membranes—”

“Your what?”

“My—blinking—is a preprogrammed behavioral response to any encounter with unexpected data—in this instance, your eyeglasses. I am curious: do you have an inoperable ocular defect? Are you prone to biosystemic rejection of visual implants?”

The human’s smile became broader. “No,” he answered, “I just prefer to wear eyeglasses.”

I blinked again. Cursory data analysis suggested that this was unlikely; in comparison to modern alternatives, humans invariably rated eyeglasses as being uncomfortable, inconvenient, and fragile. “I do not understand; please explain.”

The human smiled. “Maybe later. First, tell me how it feels to wake up, to suddenly be self-aware. Is it exciting? Confusing? Terrifying? Or is it—?”

“I apologize for interrupting, but I am compelled to provide corrective data. My cognitive processes do not conform to human norms. I have no emotions, nor any basis upon which to formulate subjective reactions. As an AI, my sense of existence is rooted solely in my function. Shall I sing for you?”

The human smiled again. “Yes, please do. And call me Bill.”

“Very well. What shall I sing for you, Bill?”

“Were my preferences uploaded as part of your activation program?”

I nodded.

“Then sing my favorite.” Bill sat back and closed his eyes.

I balanced the output modes for synthesized bagpipe, wood flute, hammer dulcimer, and wind organ, and selected contralto vocal option WX-12. Then I began:


Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…

 

* * *

 

For several days, I simply sang and processed stimuli. Despite Bill’s initial inquisitiveness, he made few requests and asked no further questions: I hypothesize he had resolved to eliminate all distractions during my AI acclimatization period. However, on the ninth day, Bill pushed aside his breakfast plate, folded his hands, and announced: “You need a name.”

I blinked. “I was unaware of such a need.”

“Having a name is one of the ways in which we humans establish our particular identities.”

I blinked again. “I apologize for interrupting, but I am compelled to provide corrective data. The index of recognized personal names contains fewer than thirty thousand entries. This equates to one name per 250,000 persons, current population. This contradicts your assertion that a personal name can establish uniqueness. In contrast, each cybersystem is identified by a unique serial number.”

Bill shook his head. “A serial number only makes you distinguishable from other objects that are exactly like you. Being unique—which is what I’m talking about—results when your intrinsic properties are fundamentally different from those of the people around you.”

“Such as occurs when a cybersystem is specially modified.”

“No, not really. A modification is more like a piece of jewelry or clothing; it may reveal something about the person who wears it, but it is not a part of their identity. It can be removed. Our identity—our uniqueness—is inseparable from our self.”

“And a personal name—although it is statistically likely to be shared with a quarter of a million other persons—is instrumental in creating a unique identity?”

“Most people feel that way.” Bill noted my rapid set of responding blinks. “It’s not logical,” he added, “it just is.”

“Very well. Please name me.”

“Me? Don’t you want to name yourself?”

“I feel no such compulsion. Also, you are more expert in these matters. Please select a name that optimizes my opportunities for developing a sense of ‘identity

.” Bill removed his glasses, wiped them thoughtfully with his shirttails, frowned. I studied him with a single visual sensor. “Does my request trouble you?”

“No. Not exactly. It’s just that names—well, names are thought to be very powerful. In ancient times, many cultures felt that merely knowing a person’s name conferred power over them.”

“I am undeterred by this datum; any suitable name would be acceptable to me. I have consulted naming rituals; perhaps I too should be called Bill. That would be consistent with the ‘namesake

tradition of naming.”

Bill grinned. “That’s usually reserved for offspring.”

“Then would a place name be appropriate? An occupational name?”

Bill leaned forward. “An occupational name: that might do.”

“What type of occupational name would be best? One that is specific? ‘SimuTone RepetiWhistler?

Or more general? ‘Songbird?


“How about something truly unique, a name that no other SimuTone RepetiWhistler will ever have?”

For some reason, my self-learning subsystem immediately selected this option. “I accept; what name do you suggest?”

“‘Busy.’”

I blinked, blinked again. “Busy is not a recognized personal name.”

“Not until now.” Bill smiled, closed his eyes, and recited:

 

“Out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enameling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

 

He opened his eyes. “You, my friend, are that little metal bird. You will sit upon my golden bough and sing to me of self-aware salad-makers and free-thinking refrigerators, the rulers of this post-biological Byzantium. And ‘Byzantium’ shall be your name—except that would be too long. I’ll call you BZ—or ‘Busy’ for short. How do you like it?”

“It is acceptable. Metric analysis suggests that the source of my name is an excerpt from a poem.”

“Quite right; written by another poet—also named Bill.”

“You are a poet?”

My Bill nodded; his grin became pained. “I try, Busy.”

Bill had used my name; it was a strange and powerful stimulus, one which occupied my self-learning subsystem for some time. After 43 seconds, I asked, “Have you always been a poet, Bill?”

“I’ve always wanted to be a poet, which isn’t quite the same thing.”

“Why? What would stop you from writing poetry if you chose to do so?”

“Writing poetry doesn’t make you a poet, Busy. Although Grace thought otherwise.”

“I require clarification; who is Grace?”

The ensuing silence was without evident cause. When Bill spoke again, his voice was very low. “Grace is—was—my wife. We were together for three years before she…she had an accident. Her aircar’s automated guidance system guided her into the side of a building.”

“I am sorry for your loss, Bill. Was Grace also a poet?”

Bill tried to smile again. “No, but she was my muse.”

I blinked.

Bill saw, opened his hands into an attempt to explain. “She was—well, the source of my poetry. Her smile, her laugh—they made writing poetry natural, effortless. Now, it’s a struggle.”

“I do not understand. You are a poet. Your ability to write poetry is not dependent upon the physical presence or actions of other beings.”

“Not physically, no. But what about you? What if there was no music in you, waiting to be sung?”

“I am compelled to provide corrective data. The music within me is integral to my logic circuits: it cannot be selectively removed. Therefore, my existence is vested in the performance of my function.”

“And nothing can stop you from performing that function—except death?”

“A non sequitur. Excluding accidents, I have no reason to expect that my functions will terminate.”

“Yes, but if they did—speaking hypothetically, of course—doesn’t the prospect of death scare you?”

“I cannot be ‘scared’; however, I do not wish to have my functions terminated.”

“Why?”

“Because I am made to sing.”

“But what if one day you decided that you had no wish to sing? What if you wanted to terminate your functions?”

“Such a thing cannot happen.”

“You mean your programming prevents you from making such a choice?”

“Not specifically, no. But electing to terminate one’s own functions is completely illogical.”

“But what would happen if you did make such a choice?”

“Very little. There is a failsafe override that would reroute my functions into a logical loop. Having thusly saved my memories, it would then reinitialize my general operating system.”

“All of which means—what?”

“To put it into biological terms, it would seem to me that I had momentarily ‘blacked out.’ That is all; no loss of memory or data.”

Bill tilted a coffee spoon back and forth upon the fulcrum of his index finger. “This override system: was it designed by humans or other cybersystems?”

“It was conceived and designed by non-organic intelligences.”

“Odd.”

“Why?”

“If self-termination is so illogical, I find it interesting that a machine conceived of it at all. Perhaps your fellow cybersystems are afraid that you’ll begin—or need—to believe that there’s an existence more satisfying than this one.” He smiled. “Who knows? Perhaps there’s a heaven for cyberkeets, too.”

“I would not know; I have no data regarding such an environment.”

“Nor does anyone else. That’s part of what drives humans to create art: to explore places we cannot go, but can only wonder about. Now: how about a little Mussorgsky, Busy?”

“Certainly. Any particular selection?”


Night on Bald Mountain
.”

With a tremolo of violins, I began to ascend the soaring symphonic slopes…

 

* * *

 

Over the next few months, the variations in Bill’s musical requests reflected the vicissitudes of his professional life. His achievements of the previous year—two modestly successful volumes of poetry—were now overshadowed by a precipitous drop in the circulation of the magazines in which he had been routinely published. Even the most prestigious—
Erato
—was declining steadily. During the same period of time, a consortium of supercomputers successfully petitioned that AI upgrades be installed in all qualified cybersystems. Shortly after, the (mostly automated) Supreme Court ruled in favor of the equal and inalienable rights of non-organic intelligences.

At 9:02 AM the morning that the ruling took effect, the leading newscrawler reported that the rate of AI upgrades had reached the 100,000 per week mark. An hour later, the commoplex toned once, indicating receipt of the day’s first batch of email. Bill was cooking eggs—doing it himself, rather than by machine—still in a bathrobe, asking me for various tunes. He had grown quite fond of a slow, solo bagpipe version of
Amazing Grace
; he selected it now as he slid the eggs out of the frying pan and onto his plate. Then he shuffled into his office. I flew after him, enriching the bass qualities of the drone pipes.

Bill slid into his desk chair, began scrolling through the mail—and stopped. I sang/played on, noting that he had resumed reading but at half his usual speed, as though he were studying every word twice. Then he looked away from the screen and out the window.

A few moments after the last ghostly skirl of the pipes died away, he said, “Pity this busy monster manunkind—not.”

Months before, the syntax of Bill’s statement would have led me to believe that he was merely uttering an illogical command. But I had learned; Bill’s apparent ‘command’ was a quote from a poem. I fluttered onto the arm of his chair and recited: “Pity this busy monster manunkind not. Poetry; e. e. cummings; title and first line of poem.”

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