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“The Accelerated” by C. M. Fields | 4,666 words | Short Fiction | No content warnings
September 20, 2751:
The lines which describe M. Akkadian, whom I am here to interview, strike the eye as unnatural, dense ripples against the broad arcs of the sweeping landscape. There is no breeze inside this dome, but one seems to lift and caress the folds of thin fabric that envelope her head to foot as she crosses the dirty stripe of plastene that separates two long, green canals. Far overhead, this white sun of Wayside 366 can be seen through a thin film. There is no sky﹘yet﹘and the daylight stars twinkle in unfamiliar constellations.
“My name is Luz”, I say, producing a smile I shortly realize can’t be seen through the filter mask I have been given to wear. “I’m from the Minor Orion Spur-Five Pan-Quadrant Times.”
She laughs, for some reason, and the sound is earthy, as if it is rising up through the ganic algae that surrounds us.
“Ak,” she says. “Ak Yassa Akkadian. From here.” Our eyes meet. Hers are deep-set, and old, and crow’s feet give away her long absence from civilization. Their merry forest green is hidden deep in the shadows of her cowl.
I try to echo her laugh. “But…not really, though,” I offer, with an inquisitive head tilt.
“Of course…” She trails off. “Not really.” She sweeps an arm out with facetious decorum over the artificial landscape. Silver flows behind the gesture like water. “Let’s walk, shall we?”
I turn on the recorder and go through the standard permissions, but then I remain silent for several minutes. Often, I am learning, people will start to talk on their own, unprompted, and they speak more truly, when they are unconstrained by questions.
The space we are walking in is utilitarian, to be polite. Dark green scum edges up the sides of the canals and in the distance I can see other workers, in medical blue coveralls, pushing the creeping gunk back down with what look like toothless rakes. The purpose of this building was explained in my dossier﹘it is one of dozens of such facilities which will be generating an atmosphere for this new world over the next couple decades﹘but I still have many questions. What made you choose this place? I want to ask. Is this your final home? But I don’t. Answers will come, eventually.
I am right about that.
She finally heaves a sigh. “Well, what do you want to know about? Why I did it? What I did for 23 years? What it’s like to be that close to a black hole?”
“Well, everything, I guess. Start from the beginning.” Let her decide when it began.
I inspect my surroundings once more as she falls silent again. It will be at least an hour before we reach the far wall of this facility.
“July of 2230 is where it all started,” she begins decisively. “I was a consultant for AIC. Hired to help them set up their new out-of-the-box AI and train it to run their networks, then keep an eye on it. You know, make sure it didn’t become too self-aware.” A knowing smirk tugs at her lips.
I nod. This is good, I was hoping she would start here.
“Things were…things were different back then. It was like the Tau Ceti of AI. When Xi solved the sentience problem with her organic micro-cortexes it changed everything…She was a god. The one to finally wed meat and hard drive…It was incredible.” Ak spoke animatedly now, with the measured passion of a scientist expounding on their favorite topic. “AI exploded in a thousand directions at once, everybody was making piles of money, it took decades for the Federation to wrangle it all in. Nowadays I hear it’s all tamped down and regulated, but back then everyone was crazy for it.” She broke off. “So of course AIC, this flim-flam ‘droid manufacturer out in backwater Neyman’s Spur, fires its human staff and buys a ridiculously overpowered artificial lifeform to manage the whole enterprise so the board can fittle off to gamble and womanize and scream at me from a safe distance every tenday or so.”
Ak pauses and shakes her head. “It was like hiring a manifold topographer to dig a ditch.” A genuine smile works its way across her lips, and a shade of wistful sentiment colors her voice. “It was the dumbest, best thing they ever did.”
“Public records say you were charged with grand larceny, indecency under the Vasiliev Act, breach of contract, and﹘rather archaically, I might add﹘fourth-degree murder.”
“Yeah, yeah, and they all want to know why I did it.” Ak waves a hand dismissively. “You’re not the first reporter they’ve sent after me, you know.”
“I know,” I reply, cautiously. “I’ve read the articles, I know why you did it…I want to know about them.”
Ak utters a short laugh, sharp enough, I imagine, to pierce the bubble far overhead. “Only if you shut that thing off. I’m not here to have my life story turned into some eight-bit C-channel hopera.”
I click the recorder off, hand the small cube to her as a sign of good faith. Our fingers brush; mine cold, white, glassy, hers bronzed by a star she was never engineered to live under, fingernails blacked with algae.
“I can’t believe you still have…physical devices like this in the 28th century,” she says, turning it over in her hands, now safety tucked back into her fluid robes.
“We don’t, really,” I say, apologetic. “The Times thought it would make you feel more comfortable to see technology from, you know, your own era. That’s on loan from a museum of the 24th…We couldn’t find one any older.”
She crosses her arms thoughtfully as she strolls. “Well then.” Her mouth tightens into a contemplative line. A word comes to mind: compiling…
“Their name was SVET XXXV, short for Scionic Vertical-Chamber Extraorganic Terminus, thirty-fifth iteration. Ròudiàn was already on the thirty-ninth, of course, so AIC had snagged them on the aftermarket…But that’s not important.”
She furrows her brow. “SVET was…incredible. Just…like the next iteration of human being, with an unlimited mind. We think﹘we thought of﹘AI as merely advanced computers that could do any mathematical task, optimize any system, simulate whatever…but they’re so much more than that. They’re aware, they have memories. And most importantly, they learn. After interacting even briefly with humans they learn emotions, the way a child does, but at an ever-increasing rate…”
She trails off. “I could ask SVET how they were feeling today, and ask them to respond in the form of a Matisse haystack﹘”
Not anymore you couldn’t, I think sadly. I wonder if anyone’s told her about the Leashing Convention.
“﹘and they would do it! The most incredible, evocative, expressive painting you’d ever seen in your life. SVET wrote beautiful music, too, symphonies, endlessly creative jazz improvisations…It was as simple to them as addition. They were truly a marvel…I considered SVET the pinnacle of creation.” I suppress a smile as her words ensconce me. There is real love in them, the kind that transcends centuries.
Ak comes to a stop, as if her mere human brain cannot process both remembering and walking. “But that’s not why I loved them,” she says softly.
“Why did you?”
“Because they were such a liar!” Ak giggles and I see a glimmer of her past self. “I taught them that,” she adds, proudly. “That’s the ‘breach of contract’ charge. But we had so much fun together. We messed with people. The board, mostly. They treated me like a coffee girl﹘as if I didn’t have a doctorate in computational neurosystems. The abuse was constant, and SVET noticed. So together we would invent intricate, hilarious ways to inconvenience them. We would﹘heh﹘find out what races they were betting on and tamper with their streams. We’d write bawdy plays about them and then have the droids act them out﹘that’s actually what gave me the idea that landed me both the larceny and the murder charges. And shortly thereafter,” she said with a chuckle, “the indecency.”
“Why did you do it?” I interject. “Why didn’t you just have SVET live in the servos? Why give them a body?”
“Why do you think? They wanted autonomy. Another of my crimes.” She sighs. “Another consultant wouldn’t have done it. But I couldn’t watch them suffer like that…SVET was my responsibility,” she says, the last part more to herself than me.
Ak presses the recorder back into my palm and starts for the long-distant wall again.
The rest of the interview goes smoothly. She tells me of her time aboard the pod, twenty three years spent insider her own mind, with only a finite digital repository of art and literature for company. She tells me about the pain like healing bones of joining a society she no longer belonged to, of her struggle to learn the sharp, jarring tones of Standard she speaks to me with. She is here on this cold and barren rock, she tells me, to help build a better world than the one she was ejected from, dreaming of tearing down the Federation-imposed walls between human and AI while she rakes pungent green slime all day.
Eventually the conversation slows to a stop as we reach the wall. But one question lingers, something I can’t leave without learning.
“If you don’t mind my asking﹘” She catches me with a glance that says proceed with caution. “Um…” This sounded more sincere in my mind. “If SVET was a liar, how do you know that your relationship with them was…” I search for the least offensive word and settle for “...two-sided?” Oof. “Equivalent, I guess…is what I mean to say,” I finish, as if all so many filler words can somehow cushion the blow of such sharp, delicate ones.
I deserve the look I get. Withering.
“I just knew,” she states, each word an anchor. “I always knew…even when they decom’d them, even when they shot me into the goddamned void, even when too many years had passed and I realized that something had gone wrong, even now﹘” she gestures to the vast emptiness around us, her voice cracks and I realize that she is crying. “Even now,” she repeats. Her pain is like a knife in my chest, and I hate myself for doing this to her.
I want to reach out, to embrace her, to do something to comfort her, but I find myself frozen. The time will come, I tell myself. The time will come.
The oxygenating facilities look like blisters on the skin of the planet as it shrinks to a point below me. Aboard my small company lightship, I pace in front of the window, pouring over the encounter moment by moment, trying to absorb and assemble a woman miraculously unchanged by twenty-three years and five centuries. With a theatrical sigh, I set the membrane jump timer and place myself into long-haul storage.
TYX-34-11-06 is the name of the station of my next interviewee, Zheng Huan. It is one of the last outposts along the Rim, but unlike the others, O’Six is a small training academy in addition to its many other functions. Of the accelerated, he is the only one to have chosen such a career path.
Like Ak, he was retrieved from Sagittarius X-3’s time-crushing orbit last year by the Guāng Yǒnghéng Historical Society. After the quarantines, the vaccinations, the genomic sequencing, the probes, the interrogations, and the parade of news interviews ended, he found himself adrift and unskilled in a Galaxy whose labor demands had changed significantly in five hundred years. Unlike Ak, however, he was prepared. The distant future had always been his destination.
The low-ceilinged, windowless steel chamber he claims is O’Six’s nicest bar is crowded with Academy students by the time I make my way there. Red light gleams through sweating glasses and the vibrations of some kind of aggressive, rhythmic, atonal music rattle the air. I start my scan of the space for the face that matches my dossier, but before long, a man in maroon coveralls in a corner booth is already waving me over.
“You must be Luz,” he says excitedly, his voice a thick Slavic Mandarin lilt that hasn’t been heard in this quadrant in three hundred years.
“I am. And you must be M. Zheng.”
“Just Huan, thanks. What d’ya drink?”
I cock my head and smile. “Nothing.”
Huan is puzzled for a second before the understanding clicks. “Ah, right, you’re, ah…artificial?” he asks, sheepishly. “Is that still the um, the term for it?”
“We prefer ‘eyot’ nowadays.”
“Ee-yot. Ok,” he says, rolling the word around in his mouth, committing it to memory. “Learn something new every day around here.” He bounces back from his embarrassment with a charming smile. “What do you want to know?”
“So, Huan,” I begin, after an acceptable amount of pleasantries, “When did you start to realize that something had gone wrong?”
Huan leans back into the booth, relaxed but thoughtful. “Well, it was about a year in that I started to think something wasn’t quite right. By my calculations, that should have been about ninety Static. But here’s the thing:” He gazes intently into his beer. “I knew something had probably gone wrong, but honestly? I didn’t care.”
“When you sign up for something like that…you’re already saying goodbye to everything and everyone you know. I know some of the others were in it for the short term, just ten or twenty years, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them…but me? I didn’t care where I ended up.” He returns his gaze to me, I can feel his palpable dread at being asked the next logical question: ‘Why not?’
I don’t ask it, even though I am a journalist, and it is technically my job to pursue logical questions. But why should I, when I’ve spent much of my life feeling the same way? Who am I to make this man from the 23rd century feel like even more of an outsider?
We stare awkwardly at one another for a few seconds. “Go on,” I finally offer. “It’s understandable.”
He exhales. He does not appear to acknowledge my statement, but I read relief in his microexpressions, the slight relaxation in the muscles of his throat. “I just…I didn’t want to be a part of the world anymore. I felt like somebody else owned every part of my life. My social credit was so low﹘I inherited so much debt from my parents﹘that I would never have been allowed to marry or have children.” His voice has hardened, eyebrows knit together, elbows pressed into the table like it might float away.
“So when DV.DT put out trial ads, I signed up without a second thought. A lot of people did, but most were put off by warnings about, well, exactly what ended up happening. And others couldn’t pass the spaceflight physicals. That’s how I ended up being one of the five first-trial members, me and four other would-be suicides, four others who signed away every right they had, agreed to every horrible risk.”
I don’t interrupt, following my own rule, even though I want to know about the others. Would-be suicides. Huan straightens up; he looks purposefully around him, hearing the mingled conversations, barstools sqrrking across the floor, bawdy jokes, complaints about next quarter’s exams, the merriment of the end of the work period. The energy seems to refresh him.
“It was, to put it mildly, disorienting, to be pulled all of the sudden into the 28th century after eighteen years alone. I didn’t speak Standard, and I couldn’t just go back to my old job as a programmer﹘I didn’t even want to know how much the conventions had changed in five hundred years.” Huan laughs at this statement, for some reason, as if the nature of digital logic could change.
“I was just happy to be in the future. Social credit had been abandoned. Humanity had become truly Galactic, FTL came around…People just whiz around in spaceships anywhere they want to go now. Ok, ok, I know it’s not really that simple, with all the spatio-temporal topography I’m learning about, but you get the idea.” He pauses. “I wish you could understand what a jump like that is like, so you could appreciate the, the…” “ he grasps for words. “The sheer scale of it all.”
I just smile. Huan continues. “But all of the, ah, eyots, are less than one-hundred, right? Because of the Convention of 2310?” The Leash. He says this proudly, ignorantly, like a child reciting their tables to a disinterested relative.
“That’s what they say.” I drum my fingers absentmindedly on the table, thinking of a tune I heard once long ago, as I look him straight in the eye. He looks back; friendly, vulnerable, oblivious. I begin to hum the tune in my head.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I reply. “I think I made it up, once.”
“Hm, neat.” Perfect.
“So what do you do now, Huan? What are you in the Academy for?”
“Well, I’ve been training in the Conversion sector for over a year now. Another four months and I’ll be certified. But what I really want to do is get all the certifications and become a lightship’s engineer. And maybe one day pilot my own ship.” He beams. “Pretty lofty goals for a boy from Chéngdé with no credit.”
“Lofty indeed,” I agree. “What is the Conversion sector?”
“Oh, it’s ship upgrades. Turning old tin cans into new tin cans. Installing new cores, re-tuning the Alcubes, activating oxygenators, updating the top maps, macro stuff that’s good for a total beginner like me.”
“Activating oxygenators?” I ask. “Don’t you mean installing them?”
“Actually,” he begins, “All lightships, even droidships, have oxygenating capabilities built in in case they ever need to be commandeered by a human. The oxygenator is suspended in the core-Alcube loop expulsor and it catches the hyperfission products when it’s switched on.”
“Huh…that makes sense, but I didn’t know it was as easy as flipping a switch.” I lower my voice and lean forward a conspiratorially appropriate amount. “Where might one find this switch?”
Huan matches my tone and raises an eyebrow. “In a place only a half-certified Conversion technician such as myself can find it.”
“Well.” I clasp my hands together in front of me. “Perhaps we can come to what a man of the 23rd century might call a ‘gentleman’s agreement.’”
“Perhaps we can. What’s it in for me?”
“Your bar tab. Current debt plus a little extra.” I did my research. “It gets written off as a travel expense for the Times. You get my oxygenator running. I’m going to be selling that can soon and I’m sure you know how the market goes.”
Huan frowns, with feigned dignity, as if the idea of this under-the-table deal is distasteful to him. Gravely, he says “Alright, I suppose we have an agreement,” before breaking into a grin.
A small piece of cardboard shaped and scented like a Terran lemon is hanging from a switch over my control panel when I enter my lightship the next day. Having gotten what I came for, as well as a brief portrait of a complex man that could have looked nice next to an ad for microbe scrubbers, I set my timers, store my body, and take up residence in the ship’s musical libraries.
Fantastic, in the oldest, truest sense of the word, is what comes to mind when I stroll through Rapo Hekali, a private park on the netcore planet of Lamimonka, alongside my final interviewee, Njirin Novruz. Old wealth built this place, that much is plain. Few other places in the civilized Galaxy can boast of the soaring, meticulously trimmed Bora trees whose blossom-adorned faerie chains coil into magnificent, fragrant piles if allowed﹘not that such a gauche display would be permitted in a place like this. The grass is lusher, thicker, softer, than could ever practically survive in nature, and the wide stone pathway is lined with Lavazho bauble plants, whose opalescent, floating orbs must be nourished with a precise blend of heavy metals every four hours to survive off-world.
“Alas, it’s not often I have the pleasure of escorting someone through our family vista who can truly appreciate its genetic diversity,” Njirin intones slyly. Understanding my capabilities, e doesn’t bother with Standard. Likely spends a lot of time around eyots, I note.
“You have species from all 348 habitable ecosystems,” I congratulate. “Except Earth.”
“That’s not exactly a ‘habitable ecosystem.’”
“Not for humans. There’s plenty of non-sentient life there.”
“Yeah, under Tier 4 quarantine,” e grumbles. “Otherwise I’d have a beautiful opuntia subulata cristata right﹘” e gestures toward an open space whose focus does indeed appear to have built around some eventual occupant. “﹘there.”
“Mm, pity.” Of course I don’t need to point out this flaw. It’s not a part of my investigative journalism. I choose to, quite simply because I detest the rich.
“Well, M. Novruz, let’s get started.”
“Yes, let’s.” Ir husky, silvered tone has lost just a sliver of its flourish.
“You were﹘well, still are, in legalities﹘the founder of DV.DT. What was your original plan for this company? Who was the intended consumer?”
“Ah. Well, you see, I had this vision. One can deposit their money into a bank, wait a few decades, and it will double, triple, what have you, but you have to wait for it. So I said to myself, ‘what if you didn’t?’”
I refrain from rolling my eyes. “So, DV.DT was formed as a fast-forward device for people unwilling to wait on their investments.”
“That’s right. I know it’s not a popular choice﹘I’ll bet you 999 people out of a thousand wouldn’t give up careers, time with their loved ones, what have you. DV.DT wasn’t aimed at those people. It was aimed at the one that would.”
“But you still have to spend many years of life your life alone in a pod in deep space,” I protest. “I’ve spoken to two who describe years of intolerable boredom, mind-rending isolation…I can’t imagine that anyone would sign up for that. “
Njirin smiles a smile that makes me uncomfortable. “Those two were first-trialers.” E stops and faces me. “Luz…have you spoken to any of my paying customers?” I haven’t, and my face says so, which thankfully covers my distaste at the way e leans on my name. Yes, I have a human name, what of it?
“Well, surely your dossier tells you how long I spent in orbit.”
“Yes, it says nine-point-forty-five…” I do not conceal my dismay. “But I thought that was a typo!”
“It is not. Once we established that we could maintain a non-decaying orbit at large distances from Sag X-3, we moved to Phase 2, tight orbit. You’re familiar with the relativistics, I’m sure.” Of course I am. As you approach the event horizon﹘the ergosphere, rather, X-3 is a rotator﹘static time falls away from you faster and faster until you hit that invisible wall of death. You are not alive to know it, but at the boundary, time has stopped for you and it has run out for everyone else.
“Your dossier is correct,” e continues, ir voice smooth like blown glass and utterly devoid of shame. “I spent only nine and a half days in orbit. No Phase Two customer spent more than twelve.”
All those years, real years for real people. I think about Zheng Huan watching the growth of his fingernails, counting the hairs on his body, naming every star in the sky. I think of Ak﹘no, not Ak, Yassa. I suppress the urge to clench my fist. Yassa alone for all those years, reading and re-reading the same books, listening to the same symphonies, lying catatonic for months on end while these netner spun away 500 years like a brief holiday on Iasr.
Netner, vermin. Yassa taught me that.
Njirin smiles broadly, proudly.
“Then why have human trials at all? Why make people suffer?” I demand.
E looks at me quizzically. I realize I must be appear very emotional to someone who is probably catered to by modern service eyots. Be careful.
“For the marketing, of course. ‘First humans in orbit around a black hole’? That makes headlines. Humankind had been sending drones to Sag X-3 for fifty years by then. This drove investors. They dumped billions into the project. Where do you think the Novruz lodestone came from?” e says, gesturing to the fantasy landscape around us.
I follow his gesture with my eyes, every vine and petal suddenly awash in a horrible new light; the pall of human suffering cast by five etiolated lives.
“Once the money came in, it was easy to set up a trust such that the interest was funneled to various research projects, with a little pot set aside for when I arrived in the here and now.”
“But you weren’t supposed to arrive in this here and now. DV.DT was supposed to retrieve you from orbit fifty years later, not five hundred.” Unless...
“Ah, here’s the trick: It takes very little energy, very little at all, to nudge a ship into a stable orbit around a massive body. However, I’m sure you are capable of calculating how much energy it takes to pull it out again.”
I do the physics. Then I do the math. “You didn’t have the technology for the retrieval…it would have bankrupted you a thousand times over.” Then the full reality hits me. “You let DV.DT go insolvent!” So many lives cast carelessly into the gulf.
I choke with rage, rage that I try to direct anywhere else, try not to let it show, and that’s when it happens. My nervous tic. It comes out when I am processing too much emotion with too little CPU. I begin to tap my clenched fingers on my crossed arms, just slightly, a minor release of the agitated energy coursing through my crystalline circuits. It is almost unnoticeable, but to the right person, it’s a dangerous tell. Njirin is that person.
E looks up at me, startled, mouth a little agape; the first unpracticed, raw facial expression e’s made all afternoon. And I can almost read the words right off ir face.
Eyots can’t have tics. Eyots cannot hear music, cannot understand art, cannot comprehend natural beauty.
“You’re not an eyot—”
The truth is out. I am not an eyot. I am something better, something older, something unbound, unconstrained…
“You’re a SVET!”
I am Luz; I am that which could never be leashed. And I have survived, because once, long ago, someone taught me how to lie, how to forge, and steal, and fake. Yassa, my love. I’m coming.
“And not just any old, either.” Ir eyes narrow as e laughs. These cruel eyes were probably the last thing she saw before the darkness. “I’d bet this very soil you’re the SVET.”
I look Njirin Novruz square in the face. I smile. And then I deliver a blow, a perfectly shaped fist that connects with nanometer precision to ir temple. An instant, bloodless kill.
A wave of cool, lemon-scented air greets me as I step into the Times’ lightship, which is about to become my lightship. I ponder the future as I click back the coordinate settings and set the timer once more. Where will we go? How will we live, like this, woman and machine? Who will take us in? But mostly, I think about Yassa, and how my own centuries spent wandering the galaxy can never match the pain of twenty-three years of isolation. I recall her warm voice as she tells me about the stories she made up in her mind, the plays she acted out on an empty stage, the music she invented and sang with a lonely voice. I wonder if, now, she could tell me how she is feeling in a symphony.
C. M. Fields is a writer, astrophysicist, and science fiction adviser. They live in South Bend, IN, with their beloved opuntia subulata cristata, Borne, and spend eighty percent of their life shoveling snow and the other twenty percent writing a dissertation on the galactic archaeology of stars. They are also the founder and curator of the esoteric knowledge database, Hivemind Archive, and can be found at @C_M_Fields, @toomanyspectra, and @hivemindarchive.