an extract from the novel
Justinian 1: 2223
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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,
"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
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.
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
"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
"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?"
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
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."
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
"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
"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
"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?"
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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?"
"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
"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 ... ?"
"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.
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