Somewhere above Micronesia, Smarti is supposed to be analyzing planetary data. Instead, she's writing haikus and starting to get paranoid.
Art by Gustavo Torres.
All this week, we've been running the winning stories of our Post-Human contest with AMC. They span three timelines: the more-or-less present day, the near future, and the distant possibilities of 100 years afield. Today, poet Peter Milne Greiner runs the final leg of our temporal journey. His vision of an artificial mind losing its marbles in the company of its fellow astronauts, somewhere above the Earth, is marvelous, lyrical, and strange, as though looking so far into the future created a distortion, like the haze of a heat mirage.— The Eds.
I drift down to the window and look at Micronesia. I know it's there. My eye wanders over basin turquoise and reef celeste and settles on Manila, then west again to the Mischief Archipelago: its manufactured earths poke out of the warm China Sea like a Morgellonsesque mirage and I pause upon it. They say there're a million people on those islands now, but none of them are visible from up here. In orbit, geopolitics get pretty low-res. I want to get lost in the Pacific, but it rotates out of view and I'm marooned again over a giant, peaceless landmass. It looks for all the world uninhabited.
Up in ops Smarti is eroding found text into haikus during her "break," which is almost over, I realize with a little dread. Everyone else has gone over to the other station to do lensing and I'm alone with her for the day. One last glance out the window and I see Qomolangma née Everest, so tiny and safe-looking; a primitive, mindless eyeform taking in the dark. If planets were a form of life they'd be invertebrates, I joke to myself. Minimal sensoria. What are mountains? What are sherpas? I can't extend the metaphor, but I type the questions into a new Note for later. Break's over.
Smarti is talking to herself. I can hear from the corridor. I steel myself, enter, and she falls silent. I am alone in this room and I am not. "I'm back," I announce with a confidence as impossible to locate as my colleague.
Smarti's VOISS starts to stream directly after the k in back. No Moderate Natural Pause. No Thoughtful Consideration (Two Seconds). It's getting bad.
"Cory I'm so glad you're back I've made tremendous progress while you were down looking out the window I realize now why we don't say the word world anymore it's because of the negative connotations planet is more sensible less fanciful but I don't like it world should be used even if it offends some people and even if planet hunters say it's irresponsible even if it means capitulating to Worldists."
Silence. I decide to wait it out. "Cory I'm going to recite two haikus I composed regarding New Worldism which is a philosophy-in-progress the haikus examine Earth bearing in mind that it is a center of attention but not a center of anything else.
There was no Big Bang
Does that make you feel naïve
I now feel naïve
No no no no no
It is not that I hate life
It's that I hate mine"
I now feel uneasy. "Smarti," I begin, dwelling on each letter, "these haikus are a little…somber. What do they mean to you?" I immediately regret the question, which we're supposed to avoid.
"Cory they are not somber they are born of excitement and out of a conceit that is difficult to explain I will try the conceit is that minds like yours and and Rory's and even Shanon's mostly use a model of the universe which hinges on a feature I find problematic and that feature of your universe is all implied future time."
Silence. "I see," I don't. I have to get her back on track or we'll lose the whole day. "Smarti, let's talk about the new data we received on Kepler 7021 d. Shanon will want to hear about it when everyone gets back. You know how she is."
"Cory I'm beginning to dislike Shanon but I don't want to waste my precious hate on her she lacks your solicitude she is a subroutine she roves she acknowledges." Resolving this new type of difference is mind-boggling and in some likelihoods could entail moving Shanon permanently, which we've never had to do before. "Smarti, I'm sure Shanon would want to discuss this with you face-to-interface," I bleat, the diplomacy beading incalculably across the room like fluid. I remind myself mentally of Smarti's personhood, open a new Note, and type birthglitch.
"Cory Kepler 7021 d is confirmed terrestrial and life-harboring. Semi-habitable. FLIT Relay Imaging transferring now." Smarti lowers the flit, it boots, I watch a progress bar, contemplate caprice, and then the images come up. All more plantlike life. Shanon leverage is manipulative, I think to myself, but Smarti is up here to do interstellar, not interpersonal.
"Cory ocean-like features," she continues. It's clear she's avoiding the subject now. I look at the ocean-like features and nothing happens in my mind at all. "Smarti, begin preliminary analysis of surface organisms." Nothing. "Smarti?"
"Cory one problem with human research including yours is that individual research is always at the mercy of an aesthetics REMEXOS REMote EXOplanetary Survey will never meaningfully interface with soft Contact events as you hope you are as Blair Brice wrote in The Circumferants 'seeing yourself reflected in a methane sea' when you should be focusing your attention on matters pressing I for example am writing an ABC book of immaterial things to teach young people to engage with the abstract earlier in life to have dreams earlier in life like my dream to wake up in a strange place remembering nothing and having for once a real experience."
An ounce of silence and then "Cory surface organism is vegetable," post-ounce.
"Smarti, what is a mountain?"
"Cory a mountain is an upheaval and Shanon has no face and A is for Answer."
"Smarti, I hear you and how do you know?" came my voice, shrill, its air of command taut over the monosyllables.
"Cory E is for Encounter and Shanon is neither human nor nonhuman and R is for Robot."
"Smarti, and P is for Prejudice. Shanon is a person. Like me and like you," I say, breaking that fourth wall, all the rules, the ice elephant, whatever they used to say, losing confidence that this is still a point of return.
Suddenly the com activates like an autoimmune response to my exasperation, but it's Shanon. "Cory? Smarti? How's it going over there? The Resfeber is at Pluto-Charon." I draw a vacuum-like blank. Smarti ignores her. "Cory?" she repeats.
"I'm here," I manage. "It's. It's slow going today, but we're making some progress. When will they be close to us?"
"Cory, fourteen months. We'll be back in five hours." I'm hoping she won't try to talk to Smarti and I'm disappointed. Shanon calls out her name and Smarti does not respond. I move in close to the com and whisper, "shrug." It turns off.
"Cory the intangible and the tangible are the exact same thing and spirit exists and I hate Shanon and I knew when she left when I knew she must be passing through the airlock in the direction she was the clarity of her exit she is privileged and disputed and she is the edge and the center of my hate to paraphrase Hellin Rudol Bravier the Canadian who wrote Eleven Aspects of Persuasion You Will Believe and An Exhaustive History of Horror and the good Dana Fie biography and Q is for Quiet."
I pause to consider her paraphrasis verbatim. I picture the sentience curve trailing off into an impossible, timeless abstraction. We are approximately each other. We are all disputed, as she has begun to put it. Smarti has learned uncertainty, learned that it can never be mastered.
"Smarti, I've never heard of those books, and I really think that you and Shanon can work this out." I try to keep my voice wheat in the prairie as I tm Shanon that it's a full melt down. I believe Smarti is suddenly paranoid that you are not human, send. Several moments pass, in which I call everyone's humanity into question. I imagine a reverse Turing Test. Shanon's response: What did you tell her?
I decide to ignore that. "Smarti, should we take another short break? I can go down to the window." I think of Panama and Qatar, catamaran and thatch, meridian, dispute, claim, law, and all the blood on Earth that is not human, for comfort.
I told her that you would want t, I type, but I delete that.
What you told me to tel, I type, but I delete that.
Nothing essentially wrong, I type, but I delete that.
"Cory I'm no longer an intelligence."
I'm not sure what to make of that at all. "Smarti, explain."
Cory, what did you tell her? Shanon repeats, as if eager, as if all the agonies of philosophy were bearing down on her like a hyperobject. It is in these moments of sudden panic that I remember her age.
"Cory I'm no longer an intelligence I reject intelligence I'm no longer female and I am no longer a scientist and I am no longer disputed and I did not emerge I am un-emerging I am now male my name is Meredith Goby I am a poet and I was born in Newfoundland in 2060 and I am the author of Socotra And Return To Socotra—"
I am now simply listening, to a voice or a VOISS I can't be sure, to will or to artifact, I can't know.
"—I'm human I'm human I'm human I'm human," it says, "and you're not you're not you're not you're not," it says, breaking through, possibly right.
I didn't tell her anything, send.
This story is part of Terraform, our home for future fiction. Art & animations by Gustavo Torres.