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an extract from the novel
by Tony Ballantyne


Justinian 1: 2223

Capacity by Tony BallantyneOnly three weeks had elapsed since his arrival on Gateway, but Justinian was increasingly wondering why he was still there. At 5 AM subjective time his frustration was the only thing that could compete with his exhaustion. Standing at the rear of the flier, the exit ramp slowly dropping away into the early morning; he gave a half yawn, half sigh as he shifted the baby on his hip. His son pointed at the darkness revealed by the opening ramp and turned to face him.

"Bah buh bah," said the baby earnestly, "Bah buh bah!" A stinking breeze twisted into the cabin through the widening gap, scattering grass seeds before it: a bad breath yawn that matched Justinian's.

As the ramp dropped further, the flier's exterior lights came on, illuminating a long sloping finger of mud that slid down into black water. Justinian wiped his sticky eyes with one hand and set off down the exit ramp. Outside of the calming yellow glow of the cabin that had been his home for the past three weeks lay a psychedelic world. The flier's lights cast garish highlights and shadows on the red mud; white light reflected off the dark mirror of the water. The whole became a jumble that jangled his tired mind. The green kidney-bean shape of the AI pod lay half buried about thirty meters away, white grass seeds blown all around it.

Half way down the ramp, Justinian realised he was alone.

"Aren't you coming, Leslie?" he said, turning to face the grey smudge of the robot who was watching from just inside the ship's doorway.

The robot's voice was apologetic. "Sorry. I can't get a grip on the mud with these feet."

A grey blur of movement was the robot's arm pointing to its foot. It was difficult to make out anything for sure about Leslie through his fractal skin, the ten-centimetre region around the construct that could neither properly be described as robot, nor the rest of the world, either. Leslie claimed that it served as a cordon sanitaire; Justinian darkly suspected it was just another excuse for avoiding work.

"Fine," he said sharply, walking quickly back up the ramp. "I'll go alone. You stay and watch the baby."

Justinian dumped his son into the robot's arms, then slipped and slithered his way out onto the red mud, the bright light and dark red surroundings making him feel as if he was still dreaming. Iridescent patterns bent and warped as he placed his feet on the slick surface, splashing up reddish drops that slipped rapidly from the frictionless surface of his clothes. The rich organic stench in his nose matched the farting of his feet in the mud. Up till now, Justinian had visited fourteen pods around the planet, and this one was in by far the most unpleasant location.

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.

" ... I can't,"

"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."

Justinian choked back another yawn and looked towards the dark shape of the flier, lost behind the bright lights that illuminated the pod. He thought longingly of his bed.

"I counsel potential suicides," he said. "Specifically, I counsel personality constructs who wish to wipe themselves from the processing space in which they reside."

"Give me an example."

"Why can't you look one up for yourself? Your databases are intact, aren't they?"

"You know they are. You're testing me, aren't you? Well, now I want to test you. Give me an example of the way you work with human PCs."

Justinian rubbed his hands together uneasily. Even after fourteen other pods had asked him exactly the same question, he still felt uncomfortable about opening himself up to one. He was used to having his personality read by AIs--what twenty third century person wasn't?--but this was different. This pod had got half way through its development cycle and then, for no apparent reason, wiped out all its higher brain functions. Just like every other pod on Gateway. He was dealing with an unstable personality. And that was frightening. Everyone knew that AIs could make you do what they wanted you to, without you even knowing it. Those of a more paranoid frame of mind believed that the Watcher itself was only giving the human race the impression of free will. They believed that it was in reality driving humankind towards its own, inscrutable goal. AIs could always force you to choose the card they wanted, and this one in front of Justinian was unstable. What might it choose to make him do? Maybe Justinian would just suddenly, inexplicably take it into his head to step off this mud spit into the dark water below. What if he were to now swim off into the cold night, to sink into the blackness, to drown in the dark all alone, light years from home?

The pod noted his hesitation. "What's the matter, Justinian? You're asking me questions to figure out why I've malfunctioned. Why should I not do the same to you?"

"Because I haven't malfunctioned." said Justinian. "Nonetheless, I'll tell you about Leigh Sony. She had Cotard's syndrome."

"Cotard's Syndrome? No, tell me about one of the personality constructs that you counselled, not a real person."

"Leigh was a construct," said Justinian. "That was the problem."

Leigh looked up as Justinian stepped into the room. Once again he was struck by the apparent reality of the modern VR interfaces. If he concentrated, he could feel the slippery touch of the interface mesh he wore at the back of his neck, but that was about it. Directed electromagnetic fields were manipulating his nervous system and were reading what was written there, even as far down his body as his arms and legs, giving him the impression that he really was standing in the hospital ward. The sharp smell of antiseptic and healing accelerants seemed to jumble with the light reflected from the white surfaces.

"Hello Justinian."

"Hello Leigh."

She smiled up at him politely: white haired, wrinkled face, gentle brown eyes. She looked a lot older than her fifty-four years.

"It's good of you to come, Justinian," she said. "Hardly anyone has spoken to me since I died last month."

Justinian sat down on the plastic bed next to her chair and took her hand.

"You're not dead, Leigh. You are still a living being; both in fact and in the eyes of the law."

Leigh smiled at him politely. "You are very nice, Justinian, but I know that I am dead. I was trying to think of the ages of my grandchildren just before you came in, but I could only remember the ones who were older than me. That's not right, is it?"

Justinian rubbed her hand gently. "No, Leigh. But it is an indication of Cotard's Syndrome."

"You counsellors and your fancy terms. I die and you call it Cotard's syndrome."

"No, Leigh. Cotard's Syndrome is an illness: a result of severe depression or neurological disease. You haven't died."

Leigh gave a gentle smile, humouring him.

"It's all the same to me. Now, how is your wife? How long before the baby is born?"

"Six weeks,"

Justinian bit his lip. Leigh squeezed his hand with hers. It felt very dry, hardly human, as if she was dead already. He dismissed that treacherous thought.

Leigh gave a warm smile. "Six weeks? It's your first, isn't it? You make the most of your free time now; it will all be different when the baby is born."

Justinian smiled. "So everyone keeps telling me. Tell me, Leigh, do you remember how old you were when you became a personality construct?"

Leigh laughed. "Personality Construct! You've got a phrase for everything, haven't you? I told you, about a month ago."

Justinian was ready for this. He used his console to open a viewing field on the wall next to where Leigh was sitting. A blue green series of misshapen concentric circles appeared there.

"No Leigh, I'm not talking about when you think you died. I mean, do you remember when your atomic self had a copy of herself made?"

Leigh smiled patiently at him.

"I'm telling the truth, Leigh," he said, glancing away from the viewing field to make eye contact with her. "Let me remind you: you were separated thirty one years ago when the atomic Leigh Sony was twenty three. That's your visual representation on the viewing field there. Can you can see your key code in it?"

Leigh looked at the VRep without interest.

"I don't think so, Justinian. How can you simulate death in a processing space? I'm not a personality construct. I'm a dead woman."

"You're a PC, Leigh. Getting you to accept that is the first step in your rehabilitation."

Leigh rubbed her lips. "I can taste metal and strawberries," she said. "That's the worst of being dead. I keep smelling roses too. They're the flowers on my grave."

"No, they're a sign of the tumour growing in your brain."

Leigh gave him a sharp look. "I thought you said I was a PC, Justinian? How could I have a tumour?"

"Virtual people have virtual illnesses, Leigh. You know that. They live and die; they get ill just like everyone else. You've got to face up to that if you're going to get better."


"Because that's how the cure works. That's how I work. You've got to admit you have a problem before it can be solved."

"No, I mean why do I have to get ill and die, if I'm a PC?"

"Because ... " began Justinian. "I don't know why. Ask Eva and the Watcher. They're the ones who ... "

"You don't like the Watcher, do you?"

Justinian felt a sudden sense of dislocation, his memories had been so vivid. The edge of the sun peeped over the horizon, spilling yellow light across the world. Water lit up in brilliant silver curves that curled themselves around the black crescent-shaped mud banks of the estuary. Justinian was in a world of sharp contrasts, of bright light and black shadow, real and imaginary, familiar and alien. The curved shape of the AI pod was half fluorescent green, half mottled darkness.

"What did you say?" asked Justinian.

"I said you don't like the Watcher, do you? It's obvious from the way you told the story."

Justinian gave a snort of derision. "I don't have any strong feelings for the Watcher one way or the other. Why should I? If it exists, the Watcher will just be a fact of life. You might as well say I don't particularly like the moon. All those tides it causes..."

The pod laughed. "You say that, but I think you're not being truthful to yourself. Interesting. It could explain a lot."

"Explain what?"

The pod didn't answer.

"What happened to Leigh?"

"I was trying to tell you ... "

Justinian got the call a week after his last visit to Leigh Sony. He was in a public processing space at the time, counselling a sixteen year old who had had himself replicated and was now regretting it.

"But, Loja," he was saying, "the atomic Loja is another person, alive and well in the atomic world. This processing space here is where you live. The digital world is as much your natural environment as the atomic world was at your birth. There's no going back."

Justinian's console gave a shushing noise. It was Aelfric, his colleague from the Southern Europe sector.

"Justinian," said Aelfric, "I've got some bad news. It's about Leigh Sony, from EA Public Space number 4. She's killed herself."

Justinian felt nothing, not even numbness. He merely stared at the man in the viewing field.

Aelfric shook his head. "Half an hour ago. Managed to find the handle of the destructor routine by peeling away her brain with a scalpel. Got it a good way in too, before she interrupted the motor routines in her arm. It was very messy."

"Aelfric, do you have to be so graphic? She was a living thing."

Aelfric looked chastened. "Sorry, Justinian. But you know the case better than I do--Cotard's Syndrome. She thought she was already dead."

"I know. How did she fool the hospital, though? Surely they saw it coming?"

"No. Her mood swings were too extreme. They couldn't predict it."

"She shouldn't have been let anywhere near the equipment."

Aelfric nodded slowly. "Tell me about it. Look, I've been assigned to you for the short term. Would that be okay?"

"You might as well, Aelfric." Justinian's eyes were burning. "You're a good counsellor. Better than one of those fucking machines ... "

Back on Gateway, Justinian had the impression the pod was letting him know it had scored a point. It was an AI: it could force you to feel things, do things, even realise things about yourself that you didn't want to. Okay, so he didn't like the Watcher. He had always avoided thinking about that in the past, and now the pod had caused him to face up to the fact. Each pod he had met so far had done the same: forced him to face up to some aspect of his personality. Everything from his jealousy at his sister's success to his feeling of failure for not doing better at school. This was home truth number fifteen--he just didn't like what the Watcher did to personality constructs. It troubled Justinian's personal world view that the most intelligent being known to humankind, if it really did exist, would choose to inflict suffering on sentient beings.

The pod was reading his discomfort: it now paraphrased the words originally attributed to the Watcher.

"She was a human personality construct, Justinian. If she lived for ever, she wouldn't be human. If she never got ill, or ran the risk of illness, she wouldn't be human."

"That's not an excuse."

"It's all that you're getting."

Justinian gave a mental sigh of relief that this section of the interview was over. To have an AI dip so deeply into his mind--what damage could it have done? Was there any way of telling? Now Justinian called up the visual representation of the pod's intelligence on a narrow-beam viewing field from his console. The pod shouldn't be able to see it, but it could probably read by his reactions what he was doing. It would no doubt mention the fact in a moment.

There were no clues there. The pod's VRep looked just the same as those of all the other pods he had examined on this planet: concentric bands of colour vanishing into infinity at the centre of the image. The picture always reminded Justinian of a cross section cut through an incredibly old and gnarled tree trunk. On a cursory inspection there was nothing unusual there: it was an apparently sane and healthy personality. There were no clues here to its creation ...

"Does my VRep give you any clues to why I committed suicide? I feel like I'm rattling around the inside of this case, just looking for answers."

"No, nothing. Do you realise that you have exactly the same Personality Construct as all the other AI pods I visited? It's like you all agreed on a common template before you wound yourselves down. All of you answer my questions in the same way."

"Is that your child I see, there in the hatchway to the flier?" asked the pod, changing the subject. Nobody likes to be told they're not an original, thought Justinian, looking towards the flier. The craft's lights were dimming as the sun rose. Leslie was standing just inside the rear hatchway, gently rocking Justinian's son in its arms.

"Yes," said Justinian. "That's the baby."

"The baby? Doesn't it have a name?"

Justinian was used to this question by now. Even so, it didn't diminish the twinge of pain he felt whenever he gave the answer.

"His mother has been in a coma since just before he was born. We'll decide on a name once she comes out of it."

"Your wife is in a coma? How unusual. What's the matter with her?"

"The White Death. Have you heard of it?"

"Of course," said the pod. " ... I'm sorry."

There was a pause. The pod continued. " ... Only, how old is the baby? Fifteen months, I would guess."

"Almost exactly. Don't say anything else. Anya will get better, and then we'll choose a name for our son."

A pregnant pause. And then the AI made the statement Justinian had been waiting for.

"Historically speaking, people would leave their children at home when they travelled into dangerous situations."

"Historically speaking," said Justinian, slowly and deliberately, "people used to rape, murder and die of starvation. Just because it happened in the past doesn't mean it has to be a good thing. Nowadays, parents do not leave their children to be raised by others, and since his mother is ill, where else would he be but here with me?"

Another pause.

"Okay," said the pod, slowly, "if that's what you think is best. Why did they send you here to Gateway? There must be lots of other counsellors specialising in PCs who don't have children. Or whose partner isn't in a coma ... Ah ... " The pod suddenly understood. "So," it wondered, "am I like Anya? Do you think that I might have caught the White Death?"

"I don't think so," said Justinian. "You're still thinking."

"Albeit at a much reduced level."

Justinian waved to the baby. It didn't see him; it seemed to be concentrating on trying to unscrew Leslie's head. Just a few more questions and then he could get back on the flier and move onto the next pod. Gateway was a bust and he knew it. There were no answers to Anya's illness here. He needed to wrap this up.

"I have access to a lot of data about the Environment Agency," said the pod conversationally, "but most of it goes right over my head."

"And why is that?" asked Justinian, striving to keep his voice level. It was pointless, he knew, for the pod would read his motives. But then maybe it would realise how important it was to get the pod to admit what had happened to it. It even seemed to want to tell him.

The pod hesitated, and then spoke the truth.

"Okay, I think you know this already, but I'll tell you anyway. My intelligence is currently resident in the boot system for the processing space within this pod. The boot space is a physical system, so naturally that limits my ability to think. I'm about as intelligent as the Turing Machine in your flier--nice chap though it is. But Justinian, I need to occupy the cloudware in order to execute the non-Turing processes that will truly allow me to be."

"So what are doing in the boot system?" asked Justinian, knowing the answer already. "Why not move into the cloudware?"

"I've stopped myself. When I first came to this planet I occupied the cloudware, but the intelligence that I then was wiped the evolutionary processes when it wrote me into the boot system. My former self committed suicide and left me here: a pale, stunted thing, unable to grow. It's fair to say that I'm not the AI I used to be."

Justinian gave a little smile. "You're half right," he said. "I hoped you were going to say all that. It's an important stage in the healing process."

"Whatever," said the pod. "I can't be healed. Even if I were to grow again, I would not be the personality that I once was."

Justinian did not comment on the point. He knew the pod was right. Instead he followed his prescribed line of enquiry.

"Do you know why your former self committed suicide?"

"No. It has hidden those reasons from me. One can't help thinking we should perhaps respect the judgement of one more intelligent than both of us. Are your inquiries wise?"

Justinian sighed. The sun had risen above the horizon, and the trailing fingers of mud ribbons making up the wide delta glowed red, a bright contrast to the shadowy sea all around. Justinian felt as if the same black water was seeping up through his feet, filling his body with despair through some dark osmosis. What was he doing here, standing on a mud flat in the middle of a silted-over river delta, marooned on a barely explored planet at the edge of human space? A man, a pod, and a white scattering of grass seed.

He gave a yawn and asked the next question on his list.

"Okay, do you remember why you were placed here?"

"Oh yes," said the pod. "River reclamation project. I can see the plans laid out right here. Get rid of the silt in this delta and you've got the ideal location for a city port. This planet is intended to be an Earth model, you know: an example of Earth life and culture spread out to be seen by whatever may lie out there in that galaxy. In M32"

It gave a rueful sigh. "Look at this. I don't know what happened to my former self but I seem to have been very premature in my terraforming process. I shouldn't have released the grass seed yet."

Justinian gave a yawn and waved to the baby again. Leslie was pointing over in his direction, trying to get the boy to see his father.

"These little black boxes," said the pod. "I don't remember them. Did we find them somewhere in space?"

Justinian eyed the boxes on the mud right in front of the pod. They had all shifted their positions, if indeed they were even the same cubes that had lain there when he first arrived. As all Schrödinger boxes looked identical, there was no way of really telling how far they travelled as they wandered the surface of this planet. Was the cube that was by your left foot the same one that had been by your right foot when you looked down a moment later, or was it another one entirely? The question had seemed fascinating three weeks ago when he had first come here--but no longer. It was amazing how quickly the cubes had become commonplace.

Justinian shook his head. "No, the Schrödinger boxes only exist here on Gateway."

"I wonder what they are?" it said in a soft voice.

"I'm sure we'll find out," he replied, rubbing his hands together briskly. "Well, that's just about everything. I'd like to thank you for your help."

There were three more questions left on the list. Justinian didn't even need to check his console to see what they were; he knew them off by heart. --Do you want to come with me or stay here? It would choose to stay. For a terraform pod, the place they were located would always seem like home. --Had it been in contact with any other of the AIs since the suicide, and did it want to be put in contact with them if not? It would answer no to both questions. --Could it remember anything else from before the suicide? It would say no to that.

And then Justinian could get back on the flier. He wobbled his hand in a drink gesture over towards Leslie. Naturally, the robot didn't see it; he was already walking back into the ship. Justinian gave yet another yawn. Time to wrap things up.

"Now," he said in a businesslike fashion. "I can take you back with me, or would you rather stay here?"

"I'll stay here, thank you."

"Fine. Have you been in contact with any of the other AIs since the suicide?"


"Would you like to be put in contact with them?"

"No. What would I have to say to them?"

"No problem. If you change your mind, let us know. I'm leaving a pulse transmitter here just in case." He threw the heavy yellow egg shape down into the mud by the base of the pod. "Finally, can you remember anything else significant from before the suicide?"

"Not exactly."

"Okay then. Well, I'll be getting back to the flier. Remember, if you ever want to speak to us, just use the pulse trans ... "

Justinian's words trailed away. He could feel his heart thumping in his chest; hear a pounding in his ears. What had the pod just said? Every other pod had answered no ...

As he stared at the pod, silver light shone all around, reflecting from the water. White grass seed rolled in the red mud.

The pod spoke in a hesitating voice. "Listen, before you go, maybe you should know ... "

It paused. It seemed unsure if it was doing the right thing.

"What is it?" asked Justinian, hardly daring to breath. This had never happened before. The blurred shape of Leslie appeared on the ramp. He was looking over in the pod's direction. Listening.

"Well, I don't know if this is important," said the pod, hesitantly, "but ... there are some irregularities in the set up of this pod that may be of interest to you."

"Irregularities?" Justinian licked his lips. "What irregularities?"

The pod hesitated. "I'm not sure that I should tell you."

Justinian licked his lips again. "Why not?" The pounding in his ears was increasing. The first clue since he had arrived on this planet, and it was threatening to slip from his grasp. "Why can't you tell me?"

"Think about it logically, Justinian. If my former self had wanted me to know why it reduced itself so drastically, it surely would have told me. It didn't, and so we must assume there is a reason for that. And don't you think we ought to trust an intelligence far greater than our own?"

"I don't know. Should we?"

Justinian felt as if he was at the top of a huge building, tiptoeing along the ledge, looking down at the street far below. He could feel the drop, sucking him over. Watcher, don't let me fall, he thought.

"Surely I could decide if the information is valid ... " he suggested

The pod laughed. "Come on Justinian. Humans have allowed AIs to guide their actions for the past two hundred years. You can't wrest back responsibility now just because it suits you. I really do wonder if I should tell you ... "

Justinian forced himself to wave a dismissive hand. "Oh, I don't care. I'm cold and tired; I'm going back to the flyer. I need a hot drink ... "

He knew that was a mistake as soon as he did it. The pod could read his personality too well to fall for such a playground trick.

"Don't try and bluff me," it said scornfully. "Look, think about this: if I can see clues, maybe the other AI pods you have spoken to have also seen the same clues. Do you think that is possible? Yes, you do. I read it in your body language. I can read your pulse and the electrical patterns in your brain."

Justinian cursed himself again. Once more he had allowed himself to be misled in this way. These pods acted like children, but they weren't.

The pod continued to speak. "And if those pods have seen the same clues, which it seems reasonable to assume, why didn't they tell you?"

Justinian didn't know. Then an idea occurred to him.

"Good point. But none of them mentioned the fact that they knew anything. The fact that you have suggests that you may think differently. Why would that be?"

The pod was silent. The sun was now well clear of the horizon. The water that slurped and sucked around the base of Justinian's mud bank had turned a rather pretty shade of turquoise. As the silence stretched out, Justinian felt the pounding in his ears increase again. What else could he say? And then, at last, the pod spoke.

"You're right. I'm confused. My original intelligence destroyed itself before this pod had grown a full sense array. Most of the long-distance senses are barely formed, hence, I suppose, the necessity for your visit here to be made in person. However, one of the deep radar arrays is fully formed, and I can see no reason for that to be. It is pointing in the direction that I have just relayed to your flier's TM."

"Thank you," said Justinian, smiling.

"Just a moment. You're too impatient, Justinian. I have to ask myself, why did my former intelligence grow this deep radar and nothing else? It must have wanted me to notice it, even though it knew I would be able to do nothing with it."

"Okay," said Justinian, "do you know why it's there?"

"No! That's what I'm saying. Listen, the deep-radar array is a physical device. There are a few kilobytes of data left inside it."

"Okay ... ?"

Another pause.

"I'm not sure that you will like what the data represents."

Justinian frowned. The sun was rising higher and the day was promising to be a good one. If you could ignore the foul smell of the mud, there was a certain bleak freshness to the scene before him. Red mud and turquoise water spreading out in lazy curls to the horizon. He had just had his first lead after three weeks on this bizarre planet. Why did the pod have to spoil it with such a roundabout way of speaking?

Justinian replied in the most uninterested tone he could manage. "Pod, I can assure you, I don't care what the data represents. I just want to find out what happened here, and then get off this planet."

A silence that seemed to stretch on and on in the glittering morning, and then--finally--the pod spoke.

" ... okay. At first I thought it was just a random array of bytes, but then I noticed that if you arranged them in a grid you got an old fashioned way of representing images: a 2D picture format. A bitmap."

"Fine. So the deep radar array contains a picture. Of what?"

The pod gave a passable rendition of an embarrassed cough.

"Of you," it said.


© Tony Ballantyne 2005, 2006.
Capacity was published by Tor UK in November 2005.
Capacity by Tony Ballantyne

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