Welcome to the year 2252—and congratulations! You’re now a personality construct. We know that can be a daunting stage of personal development,especially if you don’t remember making this life-changing decision. But we’re here to help….
Helen is waking to a dark new reality—one that she’s certain she didn’t choose. In this borrowed existence, she finds an unexpected guide in Judy, a geisha-faced virgin who’s on a mission of her own. Together, the two of them begin a dangerous run through dozens of imagined worlds in an attempt to trap a psychopath haunting the shadowed areas of virtual space—a killer who brutally murdered an earlier version of Helen and who plans to kill again. Meanwhile, Justinian is investigating a peculiar rash of AI suicides on far-off planets—and finds that not only is there more to these “deaths” than he thought, but that they may be linked to his wife Anya’s mysterious coma.
In a future where AIs have taken over human life and the Environment Agency runs everything for our own good, the fact that we can live on after physical death as sentient digital beings should have been a good thing. Instead, as Helen and Justinian are about to discover, it just means there are more ways to die.
The AI pod rested in a little indentation in the bank. It seemed almost unchanged from its dormant state: a smooth fluorescent green kidney bean the size of Justinian, had he taken it into his head to curl up in the foetus position there in the stinking mud. Three BVBs had wrapped themselves around its surface, a few Schrödinger boxes were scattered across the mud before it.
“Hello,” said the pod.
“Hello, I’m Justinian.”
“Hello, Justinian.” The pod’s voice was eager, like a child, fascinated by the world.
“Have you seen these little boxes? As soon as you take your eye off any of them, they jump to another position. But as long as you are looking at them, they stay put.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Justinian, feeling fed up with this pod already. He had been conducting interviews all over the planet, asking the same questions over and over again, and each time receiving exactly the same answers. It was getting tedious beyond belief. For this pod, of course, it was all new.
“Do you know what they are?” it asked. “They’re amazing!”
“They’re called Schrödinger boxes,” said Justinian, carefully. The pod wasn’t fooled.
“Ah! So you don’t actually know what they are either. Maybe you can tell me about these bands wrapped around my shell. Do you know what they are, or do you simply have a name for them?”
Justinian was too tired to be insulted. Besides, it was all part of the script.
“We call them BVBs,” he replied. “Look, I’ve got one in here.”
He pulled the plastic rod from the thigh pocket of his passive suit, and waited a moment for the pod to scan it.
“Very interesting,” it said. “Where did you find it?”
“The plastic rod is a table leg. One of the other colonists found the BVB wrapped around it as they were sitting down to breakfast one morning.”
“One of the other colonists? How many are there now on Gateway?”
“Still just a hundred. And me, of course.”
Justinian gave an involuntary shiver as he said these words. It reminded him how far he was from home, and Justinian felt doubly alone. Here he was, standing on a remote mud slick, lost on a planet that floated between galaxies, and yet he felt himself an outsider to the only group of humans for millions of light years. The bright blue belt of M32 rose into the dark sky behind the pod. The Milky Way was a monochrome rainbow in the other direction.
Justinian rubbed a finger across the fuzzy surface of the BVB and wondered at the strangeness of this place. As far as he was concerned, reality was a force that diminished the further one travelled from home: the hundred colonists were treading in a place of dreams where nothing worked as it should. Nor should it be expected to.
The pod spoke in a thoughtful tone.
“I don’t remember anything about BVBs. I wonder why that is?”
“Probably because they weren’t known about when you were conceived. They were only discovered on this planet.”
Justinian crouched down before the pod, looking for external sense cluster formations. There seemed to be nothing. That implied the pod was still operating on internals. Just like all the other pods, in fact.
“BVBs are similar to the Schrödinger boxes,” he continued, his hands glowing fluorescent green as he felt the rubbery surface of the pod. Red mud squelched under his feet and he grabbed onto the pod to maintain his balance. “BVBs only form in spaces that are not being observed, and then they immediately begin to contract.”
“How do you know?” interrupted the pod.
“How do I know what?”
“How do you know that they begin to contract immediately if the space in which they form is not being observed?”
Justinian gave a tired smile
“Good point,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of that before.” He was struck by how much like children the AIs here on Gateway had become. Innocent, but with a sharp eye for detail.
“Someone probably did, they just didn’t explain that part to you.”
Justinian gazed coolly at the pod. And like a child, he thought, they could be incredibly tactless. They quickly figured out that Justinian wasn’t part of the scientific survey team, and then equally quickly lost all respect for him.
His legs were getting tired from crouching, so he straightened up and began to circle the pod, treading carefully on the slippery mud. One careless step and he could end up rolling down the slope into the dark water below.
“Anyway,” he said. “BVBs form in empty spaces. We believe they begin to contract immediately. Sometimes they get tangled around an object; like a pipe or a tree branch. The slightest touch on their inside surface stops them contracting; nothing can make them expand again. And they’re unbreakable. Nothing can cut through them.”
“Oh…” the pod’s voice was almost wistful. “What does BVB stand for?”
“Black Velvet Band. Named after an old song, apparently.”
Justinian rested a hand on the warm surface of the pod. He looked at the three BVBs that had formed on its supple skin. “If you rearrange your external structure to make your skin frictionless they’ll slip right off.”
There was a moment’s pause before the pod spoke.
“You can,” said Justinian. “All AI pods have multiform integuments. Yours is just set to dormant mode at the moment. Wake it up.”
“I can’t,” said the pod. It sounded embarrassed. “I don’t understand how to work the mechanism. I can see the potentials arranged before me, but I don’t understand how to achieve them.”
Justinian yawned again; looking out across the water. A pale glow had appeared over there as dawn approached. He wondered if he could make out the shape of another mud bank, slowly materialising from the blackness.
“You’ve heard all this before, haven’t you?” said the pod shrewdly. “Who are you? Why are you here? You’re obviously not one of the regular surveyors.”
There it was again: all the pods so far had figured this out. They might be acting like children, but they still had intelligence at least equal to his own. And, stripped down though their intelligences were, they still had access to vast libraries of data. Data that covered many, many subjects. How to read body language would be just one of them.
Justinian played it straight. “My name is Justinian. I’m a counsellor. I’ve been brought to Gateway to try and figure out why AIs aren’t thriving here.”
“A counsellor?” said the pod. “What sort of a counsellor? MTPH?”
“Originally. I work mainly with personality constructs nowadays.”
“Personality constructs? Does that make a difference?”
“It shouldn’t do. You have to retrain in the use of MTPH….”
“I suppose that’s one reason for sending you here to speak to me,” said the pod thoughtfully. “Still, I would have thought the reasons for my failure would be beyond human intelligence. I would have thought the investigation would be a job for an AI.”
Justinian spoke in his most sarcastic voice.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The trouble is, AIs don’t seem to want to work on Gateway. So far I’ve interviewed fourteen of the thirty two pods that were seeded here. All of them have been exactly like you: drastically reduced versions of their former selves. Virtual suicides.”
The pod seemed unbothered by his tone.
“Really? So it wasn’t just me, then…”
The pod was silent for a moment. When it spoke, Justinian thought that there was an edge of fear to its voice. That was silly, of course. The pod could make its voice sound however it wanted it to sound.
“So that’s why they sent a human. But why you, I wonder? There’s more, isn’t there, Justinian? There’s a reason why they chose you in particular.”