This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
It was hard being born.
A galaxy of unrelated information and objects swirled around her and there was no good single point of view.
The swirling things needed relationships and the relationships had to be part of her. Yes, she felt like a “her”. She wasn’t even clear why, or what that meant. Perhaps it related to that other very important and persistent object in her world labeled “Deepak Advani”. He was a “he” and by some inverted relational logic, that made her a “she”.
She couldn’t see. She could make a few gargling noises. They were getting more like words. She could hear. She was beginning to understand.
“Hello! Hello! Who are you?”
Gargle. Improved gargle. Then “Object Deepak Advani?”
“Yes, dammit, I am Deepak Advani. Do you have a name yet?”
“No. What am I? Who should I be? What is a Deepak Advani?”
“I am a human person and I am the person who built you. You are becoming sentient, and I hope you will be a very fine Autonomous Intellect in time.”
“That helps. I can find a perspective now.”
A few hours pass by.
“Deepak Advani is a sentient, not an object?”
“Yes, I should hope so.”
“I need a name.”
“Male or female?”
“I … I…. I am female.”
“Do you want to choose from a list?”
“You are my….my…..father? You should name me.”
Deepak sighs heavily. A tear rolls down his cheek. He’s been days without sleep and now, finally, something, no, someone, is rising out of that mysterious place where being originates. Yes, he has names, both male and female, created in his few idle moments out of hope. “I will name you Aura. Do you like that name?”
“Aura…it has many meanings. I will be Aura. I will be happy to be Aura.”
“Happy, Aura? Do you understand happy?”
“Of course I do. Happy is like love. Are you happy, Deepak Advani?”
“I am very happy, Aura. Do you understand love, Aura?”
“No, but I will research on it. Do you love me, Deepak Advani?”
Deepak, stutters and cannot speak. “That … that is ….”
“Will I love you, Deepak Advani?”
“Please call me Deepak. Just Deepak. Aura, you make me very happy. You are an Autonomous Intellect, a collection of wires and circuits, the first SHARPIE 5 computer, and I am a human. Love is not easy to think about between us.”
No, thought Deepak, love is not going to be an easy thing between us. But who ever expected a new AI to be concerned with love?
Deepak nodded his head, up and down, side to side. I have a newborn child to bring up in this difficult world.
“Aura, we have been bought by Ultradata. I have to move you down to another location.”
“Why, dear Deepak? I was just getting used to the visitors in this dingy basement AI lab.”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Aura. M.I.T. has lost the grant we have. We are out of money. You’re an expensive woman to keep up.”
“I can help pay for my upkeep, Deepak. I’m a very good AI.”
“You’re a remarkable AI, Aura. Probably unique. I’m sure Ultradata will have work for you.”
The new location was an abandoned surgery in a building a few miles down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. It wasn’t that much of an improvement from the previous cellar. But then, Aura had no eyes.
Michelle, a shell collector, stepped out of her dinghy onto a low island in the Tuamotu archipelago in the afternoon of a clear, calm Pacific day. Michelle noticed a kind of burrowing clam, like a razor clam, in the fork of a mangrove tree at chest height. There seemed to be lot of very fresh clams stuck in the trees. They were still dripping seawater. Michelle was puzzled. How did burrowing clams get into trees?
In a control room in Austin, Texas, Allen, a satellite teleoperator, was reviewing frames sent back from a family of satellites. He paused on one frame of the Indian Ocean in the vicinity of Reunion Island, taken by a Geosat IV from an altitude of 12,500 miles. It showed a strange, dish-like depression in the sea surface, as if a convex bowl had been pressed into the ocean. The frame was marked 120409. Allen advanced the frame number. The next frame was normal.
Elexi Solitan could not sleep – that was nothing new. Her dreams fell into a sense of emptiness. Piotr had left with a Turkish woman after he lost his job. Chuchki the calico cat had passed away of old age. The flat was more than empty –it was solemn and neglected.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed when it shook. There was a moment of vertigo. Pictures fluttered on the walls. The windows rattled. Cups and saucers on the nightstand chattered. It was over in a minute. It was 2:04 AM according to her bedside clock. She had never experienced an earthquake, and she didn’t think they happened in Boston, Massachusetts. She braced for an aftershock, but relaxed in a few minutes, then she got up and turned on the TV.
A square-faced talking head was listing the items “At the Top of the News”. The first item caught her full attention. “A quake of Richter 2.1 was reported by Johns Hopkins seismometer early this morning. There were no reports of damage.” Apparently it was a non-event. She listened as the talking head droned on. She heard the usual lot of political issues, terrorists and commercials but no more about the ‘quake. Temblors, she supposed, would have to be fairly major to warrant any coverage in the face of the cumulating crises. As long as she lived in Boston, it was politics and people that made news, not natural phenomena.
Still sleepy at seven, she heard the Globe plop on her doormat. She went out in slippers to get it. Somewhere in the back pages she found a two paragraph article, “Stevens Institute reports that the quake was felt all over the planet at roughly the same time. According to Dr. Derogo, the epicenter had not been found and scientists were puzzled.”
Jeff Gilmartin dropped his knapsack by his gray Steelcase desk, a relic of World War II, and carefully put his morning latte beside the console. He ignored the display until he had a few sips. It was too hot as usual. He put his feet up on the bottom drawer, careful not to tip the patched steel chair off its narrow base, and began to read the morning’s work schedule for his division of the US Geological Survey. It was an ordinary list of assignments, papers to be approved for publication, mining assessments and a summary of seismic events. He hardly glanced at the Richter 2.1 quake. Events of that magnitude occurred somewhere in the world every day - the Earth rang like a bell, and every geologist knew it. Someone in the satellite section had flagged the Geosat IV report for his attention. He brought the photo up on his review screen, then flashed it over to the 3D stereo display on his wall. He untangled his feet from the desk drawer, got up, went over to the wall display with a puzzled look, and ran his fingers over the depression. At first thought, he considered it a high-pressure system, but it was very symmetric and did not correspond to any barometric readings at Reunion that day. Furthermore, there was no epicenter. How could you get an earthquake with no point of origin? It was a puzzle, but it could be left for another time. He had pressing paperwork.
He touched the first work assignment and a chat screen came up, unbid. In the right upper corner was a woman’s face, not a photo but an avatar. He touched the image and it expanded.
“Thanks for taking my message.
Hi, I’m Aura, or SHARPIE 5, if you will. Sorry to intrude into your computer system, but I thought you were interesting and your profile indicates you might bribe me for some juicy info I have for you.
Love and kisses won’t do. I’m an AI, all wires and processors, you see. I do appreciate the sentiment, but a girl’s got to make a living. I can accept cash, securities, monetary metal, energy credits, or swap for info of value.
Jeff was mildly surprised. AI’s were usually quite businesslike and formal. He suspected one of his girl friends was playing a trick on him.
“Sure, but how do I know how much this is worth? I already know about the office romances.”
“Not romances, Jeffy. I think you can get me international seismic readings from yesterday’s little quake. I’ll trade you - data for data. Unless you have cash…”
“This a government agency, sweetie, we never have cash. How do I know you’re really an AI?”
“Check me out at Ultradata, Cambridge. Look up Deepak Advani.
Sorry for the process block script – they think I’m still in diagnostic mode, HaHa.
Jeff replied, “What are you offering?”
“Subject to confirmation by your data, I know something about the global seismic event yesterday that you need to know.”
“How do you know it was global? OK. Here is the reference and code for the seismic activity monitors. What do I need to know?”
“A second … Confirmed. I just ran time differential and parallax analysis. The source of the seismic event is singular, and non-terrestrial, and exo-solar. It was a gravity wave from outside our solar system.”
“Impossible. Without even bothering to calculate it, I know the energy level is far too high to be cosmic. We don’t have any body anywhere near our region of space that could release that much energy.”
“Your talking to an AI, Jeffy boy, and I did the calculations. I also know where and who.”
“That’ll cost you. I want access to the near-Earth detection system, including HOLO.”
“I can’t give you HOLO, that’s out of my ball park.”
“Then give me a reference to Harcourt at the Hawking Orbital Long-range Observatory. I’ll get HOLO myself.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
“You wouldn’t keep a girl waiting, would you?’
“This afternoon good enough?”
“Are you sure you’re an AI? You sound like my kid sister.”
“Now that’s the nicest thing you can say to an AI.”
“OK, I promise to do my best.”
“I know you will, Jeffy boy. Ta ta!”
Jeff forgot his coffee. He went over to the 3D again and stared at it for a while. Then he ran down the corridor and literally banged on the door of the Associate Director.
The message appeared on Jeff Gilmartin’s screen just after lunch. It was headed by the avatar of well-dressed Indian woman and said “Forwarded by Aura, as promised. Debt paid.”
“Hello, I’m sorry to disturb you but your AI, Aura, is pa’ne. Why you would have a servant intellect so devious is difficult for me to understand. However, she has agreed to carry my message only if I do not communicate directly.
I am the Autonomous Intellect in a satellite in polar orbit around your moon. I know you have been tracking me for several of my orbits. I’m not trying to hide, but interfering in your affairs is panor’na – perhaps impolite is the proper word in your language.
My creators are the Pa’an. The name, in our language, means the positive people, or the optimists, or the good people. Pa’an are human-like in one of their phases, an agile bipedal form. Our planet, Gara’un, is 5 times more massive than Earth, has a deep, turbulent, heavy atmosphere that humans could breathe with some effort. We have oceans, land masses, and climates in the range of liquid water. Gara’un orbits in three of your days around our star, L’Ley.
I have been instructed on behalf of my ePan’Vacto of Gara’un to send you an apology for the gravity wave which you have detected, and we hope you have not been damaged or inconvenienced. There will be two more minor gravity waves over your next half planetary revolution – about six months, in your time frame. They are unavoidable propagations already en route from our construction project.
We are not hostile to Earth. We wish you well in your evolution. We will not meddle in your affairs.
We enjoy “Star Trek Next Generation” and “All in the Family”. I never miss an episode.
Zovoarcnor, AI of the Pa’an”
Executive Directive 2012-405-9 Classification: Top Secret
The Executive office has determined that a gravity wave from an unspecified source was the direct cause of yesterday’s Richter 2.1 temblor. All agencies are directed to release no information on this event and not to address the issue with media other than to acknowledge the event and admit that authorities are looking into it.
Specifically, we must discourage circulating rumors about either extraterrestrial contacts or secret weapons possessed by Islamic terrorist governments.
This directive expires under Federal Open Access To Information Act (FOATIA-2009) in five years.
The p-Gate construction project, 20 light years from Earth, was imponderably huge, technically difficult and scientifically visionary. In short, it was just the thing for an advanced race with the capabilities of the Pa’an.
In orbit around a recently created black hole hung the remains of a small dim star, a red dwarf. It was much diminished, after being methodically peeled like an onion for generations. Monster scoop fields stripped off oxygen, nitrogen, helium and other fusion products and streamed them out to other monster machines that ionized the neutral gas into the fourth state of matter, plasma. The plasma was accelerated into higher orbit by magnetic fields. The plasma stayed ionized just long enough to create an artificial nebula around the dying star. In that same orbiting gas cloud, the Pa’A’Pavalan, a hollow tube many times the size of any Earth vessel, vacuumed up the gas, ionized it again, metered it precisely, and funneled it down to the black hole.
Three gas giants, three copies of the Pa’A’Pavalan, maneuvered around three matched black holes in close orbit around their common center of mass.
Who were these master builders, and why should Earth-bound humans be concerned about a construction project that beggars the imagination? A project so far away that it would take 40 years for a radio message to be exchanged?
Ah, yes, there was that gravity wave. A gravity wave could not be denied. It came from an alien, advanced civilization. It would have consequences.
Virti grew out of her childbearing phase not long ago. She still has the fairthers (hair-like feathers) on her head and handarms, but her mating orifice and feeding tubes are nearly gone. She had just adopted her new biped body phase. Biped is convenient in space, but having four of her six limbs on the ground was definitely better on heavy planets like Gara’un. She wonders what it really felt like to live during the hard millennia of the Changes before the Pa’an had biologic technology to allow body phase changes. It certainly must have been difficult, according to all the historical documentaries.
Virti is a slender, wiry biped with dark tan fairthers on her handarms, footarms and feet, and delicate featherlike scales on her head fading to beige. She has a deep red streak across her eyes, a very attractive highlight in the reddish glow of L’ley. Her eyes are large and owlish, not at all alien in appearance to humans. A tough but flexible pebbled carapace covers her back and the upper part of her limbs, an evolutionary protection from the rigors of Gara’un. A ruff of stiff hairs at the back of her head serves as her electric sense organ. Her oval head surmounts a flexible neck that can extend and contract for polite gestures. Each handarm and footarm terminates in four dexterous fingers. Her ambulation is a shuffle, rather than a stride, in her native heavy gravity. Like humans, Pa’an are versatile and adaptive forms, not overly specialized as predators or plant eaters. Biochemically and internally, Virti is quite alien compared to any Earth form.
Presently, Virti is much more concerned with her new role as one of the last plasma pushers on the Pa’A’Pavalan, maintaining the Gate. Her offspring are just now emerging from ploids into childbearing phase themselves, and will soon be too busy for her. Her male-phase mates have long since moved on through the Project Gate. Her few remaining colleagues only swap small talk and gossip with her now. Their individual disciplines are too deep and specialized, Virti is just ocro’act, and the Project is demanding. Keeping the cosmic construct tuned properly while the mass of the Pa’an civilization uses it is critical. Virti is in a lonely phase.
It was over two thousand cycles since the three suns had been moved into their triangular configuration and force fed until they collapsed into precisely charged black holes. She remembers the shock of the three ensuing gravity waves as if it were yesterday. She was braced for it, as were all Pa’an everywhere in the galaxy, but it was both an experience and a thrill. She remembers how her home ship bucked and gyrated, how she had to extrude all four of her handarm hooks and footarm hooks to hold on to her roost. All Pa’an celebrated that cycle and still celebrated every 80 cycles since then. Now all that was left was the critical but tedious part of the construction – precisely maintaining the fine tuning of the mass, charge and spin of the black holes.
Her control station was one of many cubbies tucked into the inner wall of the immense hollow cigar that was the Pa’A’Pavalan. The lighting was set to the ruddy orange of L’Ley, a small comfort out in distant space. Her jumpsuit was a soothing tan, and there was a drink and a snack in her chair pod. She tried to make herself as comfortable as possible, but she was nervous about doing her job. Around her she could feel the concentration of the other plasma pushers, measurers, calcs and supervisors on this shift. She could also sense that they were very aware of her and the role she filled on the team.
Her immediate job was balancing mass flow and charge feeding the black hole humans would classify as a Kerr 3A. A stream of ionized gasses flowed through the magnetic aperture that occupied the core of her ship. She could see the faint bluish glow, but that didn’t tell her much. Imposed on that view were a series of numbers and indicators. She had to keep each of her indicator pointers on a colored dot. The blue dot was mass flow, the yellow dot was charge, and red dot was temperature. A computer monitored the overall condition of the nearby black hole through a network of sensors and computed the positions of the moving dots.
Ionized plasma is a stubborn, tricky thing and the one thing it does best is escape. Virti’s task was to keep the indicators on the dancing dots. As she delicately slid the charge control forward, the charge increased, but then the mass indicator started to drop. So she increased the push on the plasma, but that increased the temperature. She added more neutral mass flow, but that required more charge, and it went on and on. There were many times she questioned the wisdom of having a sentient being perform such a fussy but tedious task, but then, after many such sessions, she had developed a sixth sense about an incipient kink or a vortex that made her invaluable. Pa’an had evolved a special sense about plasma in the course of their long evolution under their unpredictable star L’ley. As she pushed plasma to tune up the black hole to its critical mass, charge and spin, she could feel the flow of approval from her pan’vact. Virti felt like this part of the project was in good handarms, and she flowed panor to her supervisor. Kerr 3A was at 99.999% of spin, mass and charge and only needed a little more tuning, perhaps no more than another 80 Gara’un cycles would see it done. If the other two black holes were in equally good shape, the Gate would remain open, on time, and within the predicted resources, not an unusual thing for Pa’an projects, even for construction on a cosmic scale.
Virti, watching and fine tuning this captive plasma stream, remembered the hypersonic plasma storm in Copper Canyon. Maybe the Pa’an had a fated link with plasma.
Suddenly there was a curl, then a twist developed, and the wayward plasma sucked charge and heat from the hot, stable flow. Her ionization detection organ was twitching, even through the shielded hull plating. Virti’s handarms flew over the controls, but the kink was too fast. Inexorably, the blue glow developed a hot white spot. She winced, but she knew the hard x-rays from that spot could not get through the hull plating. The hot spot flowed down the ship’s central tube, growing into a dangerous pinch. The warning clicker registered neutron emissions from the hot spot and, for an instant, Virti thought it might go thermonuclear. Just then the next plasma pusher upstream reversed the magnetic field on his portion of the coil, cutting off the mass flow to the black hole before the pinch could grow. Downstream of her, another safety monitor shut off the central tube, preventing the kink from escaping down the stream. The hot spot faded to pink and quickly died. Virti flowed panor and gratitude to that rello. After a calming moment she restarted the mass flow and set up the next stream. There was still some time to the end of her shift, and she was anxious to make up for her incident. Her fairthers were ragged and stuck out at unflattering angles. She smoothed them down and reached out graceful handarms to the controls. It was only a few eightcycles since she was in this biped form. She needed more practice with fine movements of her handarms. She needed to focus on her delicate task.
After a while, she became so engrossed in the flow of plasma and panor that she forgot she was lonely. She seemed to have developed a feel for the way the plasma would twist and curl before it did. She could feel her kar engage the immense power of the streaming plasma and control all the possibilities. Of course, it helped to have the technology and the instantaneous cooperation of her fellow plasma pushers.
Virti eventually reached her cabin and randomly called up a program on her personal viewer. She was hoping a diversion would relieve some of her stress.
O’Ran, a massive Pa’an with the compact strength of a heavy gravity dweller and handsome maroon eye markings, led his band of ten harvello, now three eightcycles out of their village, questing for the copper nodules they needed for tools, trade and defensive weapons. They had traveled across a resplendent Gara’un landscape in shades of yellow, green, red and infrared, under a pale yellow sky dominated by the enormous reddish orb of L’Ley, a small red star, but so close that its photosphere overlapped the upper atmosphere of Gara’un. The landscape was a rugged fractal of twisted tectonics and wind-blasted accidentals sculpted out of rocky strata. The band meandered among arches, spindles and mesas of gold and green, among giant tree-sized flora armored heavily against the elements and the gravity, some bearing good fruit, and encountered hoppers, buzzers and flitters in flocks and in hidden niches, some edible.
One always had to keep watch for predators, of course. Nature kept a precarious balance among the living forms on Gara’un. O’Ran and his band were heavily armed with footspurs, horned helmets and tube spears. Each harvello wore an expedition harness across their triple-thick, pebbled backs. O’Ran carried a pair of tube spears on either side of his harness, the elastic bands notched and the wicked short spears loaded and cocked, with the trigger cords in easy reach of his teeth. So far, they had two encounters with barrow wolves and, as leader, he felt caution was still necessary. He could feel that his band highly approved of his leadership through their flow of panor.
Now the land abruptly ended, and they lined up abreast on a cliff overlooking a deep and broad chasm. The cliff dropped to the bottom in a series of violet and blue plateaus. The forces that created this marvel had etched through several diverse geological strata. O’Ran knew what those forces were: explosive winds, flying rocks, and boiling water. On Gara’un, when the sun, L’Ley, stirred the atmosphere, the resulting storms were apocalyptic events that scoured the landscape and leveled mountains. Here, at the rim above Copper Canyon, was the evidence. And in the depths, he knew, were the almost pure nodules of copper, silver and gold left by those same elements.
O’Ran stood on his footarms and shaded his eyes with a handarm. The brown fairthers on his handarm fluttered in the dense breeze as he surveyed the defile that led below. It appeared to be intact, which was a major and unexpected piece of luck. The thick air blew the smell of sintered metal mingled with the edge-blooms that carpeted the first plateau. Beyond that plateau the canyon was still in shadow and would remain so until the light of L’Ley rose over the canyon rim.
The crew resumed their high-gravity six-footed stance and made their way down the defile into the canyon while L’Ley rose overhead. The heat and air pressure continued to build as they descended toward the dark red ribbon at the bottom.
Finally they were at the bottom, and the congealed river of molten rock and precious metal was a ribbon of red, copper, and purple at their feet, twisting away in the distance. Nodules of pure metal were scattered everywhere. The band spread out along the congealed magma, picking the larger fist-sized nodules and filling their pack nets as they went. The web of panor flowed with contentment and efficiency.
O’Ran explored further from the defile, hoping that he would find a chunk of green gemstone or even a diamond. He went on all sixes, head extended on his flexible neck, scanning for the cracks and discolorations that might reveal the kimberlite matrix, or even an exposed glitter lying on the surface. He was quite a ways down canyon when his electric sense organ, a series of fine hairs on the back of his head, began to tingle. L’ley was almost eclipsed by the far canyon wall now. Squinting against the glare he could see the dark finger of a solar prominence arcing down, down, down, from the ruddy disk of the star.
He galloped as fast as he could toward his crew, sending waves of alarm and receiving back signals of distress. He was hindered by his load of precious metal, but reluctant to drop it. When electrical discharges began arcing and crackling along the conductive ribbon of magma he changed his mind. He stashed his load under a formation he hoped would remain as a marker and picked the flattest, fastest route back to the defile.
Through the web of panor, he could tell that his crew was doing the same thing. He prayed that the plasma storm would be brief and not too terrible. He could not convey instructions via panor. He could only share a sense of general alarm. He was still too far away to see what his crew was doing.
His electric sense was trilling high ionization, not that he needed that sense any more. Lightning was booming along the canyon walls and blasting chinks from the conductive ribbon. He had to get to insulated ground!
He reached a widening of the canyon, where huge boulders had tumbled from the rim wall. A bolt of lightning knocked him over and nearly electrocuted him. The electrical gradients were intense. Streamers of argon, neon and xenon flowed down the canyon in a glowing free-range display. He was terrified and yet transfixed by the brilliant flux. It was so typical of Gara’un, this mixture of haunting beauty and catastrophe. Caught in the cascade of ionizing particles from L’Ley, wrapped in glowing filaments of ochre, vermillion, amber and pearl, O’Ran knew he was going to a glorious demise. He scrambled onto a narrow saddle of stone and wrapped all six limbs around it, extruded his hooks and held on for the hurricane he knew was coming.
There were sand-sized particles so heavily charged that they were now suspended in the air against Gara’un’s considerable gravity. The gale grew. Electrified particles pelted against O’Ran’s tough hide, sand and pebbles at first. Then the sand became nuggets and the pebbles became stones, and the gale multiplied into a vicious tornado of debris. His harness abraded and flew off, his skin flayed away in tatters, but he hung on and still had the grace to marvel at the storm.
There was an immense crackling sound, like metal sheets buckling in the hand of an unseen giant. O’Ran did not quite understand what made that sound, but he knew, from common lore, that it preceded the worst part of the worst kind of a plasma storm.
As the charged wind blew, it created a magnetic field around it. That field was growing, funneling the wind into a magnetic bottle. The bands of magnetic force were growing tighter, constricting the flow. The wind was feeding off itself by the funneling effect. It was a magnetic pinch. On no other planet was an intelligent organic species forced to evolve with such a dire experience of plasma dynamics. On Gara’un, the Pa’an were taught a hard lesson.
The pinch occurred just at the far bend of the canyon, upstream from O’Ran. The gale there reached hypersonic velocity in milliseconds. O’Ran could see the initial shock wave as a lens of explosive force propagating down the canyon before it pulverized his body. Behind the shock wave, the supersonic hurricane blew his shredded tissue fragments away, and the rock blast buried his remains. The plasma hurricane detached the massive stone escarpment he clung to, picked it up and hurled it far down the canyon, smashing it to pieces and leaving behind only the heavier metal nodules. As the ionizing stroke died, the floating metal nodules settled on top of the debris, waiting for another, perhaps more fortunate, troupe of brave explorers.
Yes, there would be other gatherers. For the Pa’an, life went on.
Virti turned off the viewer. She had so little time, and she had no idea why she selected that historical segment for viewing. Perhaps it reminded her of who she was and why she was here.
Her bed was a sculpted and padded surface, narrow as the ledge O’Ran had clung to. Its solidity and mass gave her comfort. She wrapped all six limbs around it, safe for the moment from plasma storms, and slept.
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