January 2015


Here’s a handy-dandy list of flight formations for your next trip to the airport. What’s that, you say? You’re not a pilot? Who said anything about flying a plane? These are formations for walking through the airport terminal, time-tested and fully approved for causing heartache, ulcers, and sky rage among your fellow passengers.

The Phalanx
Do you have a group of 4-8 people? Are some or all of you elderly shufflers? Are you all going to the same gate? Then the Phalanx is the flight pattern for you. Who has the neck muscles to look over your shoulder and talk when you could just stretch out across the entire corridor? Like Alexander of Macedon, your enemies will be swept from the field on the points of your spears or forced to march, subservient, behind you.

The Serpentine
You don’t like people passing you, on the highway or in the airport corridor, and you’re not afraid to show it or get creative in the pursuit of keeping ahead. In a car you might change lanes constantly to head off speed demons who want to go faster than 65, but in an airport you have to resort to cunning and sudden changes of direction. If they never know where you’re going next, they can’t get around you.

The Brood
Why inconvenience others when you can rely on others to do the work for you? No one will be as aggressive in getting around small children, so just let yours completely off the leash. Let them run shrieking in every direction, blocking traffic and making you block traffic. If they are snatched by a barghest, who cares? You can always make more.

The Tortoise
Slow and steady wins the race. Go at your own pace, plant yourself in the middle of the airport corridor, and watch people trip over themselves, and each other, trying to get around you. Bonus points for the Tortoise formation when one part of the corridor is congested by a departing flight, forcing the entire two-way flow of the concourse behind your pokey plastron.

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The pawnbroker unlocked the first case and laid the weapon atop it. “2mm Imanishi light accelerator pistol. Standard issue arm for military police, not available to the general public. It’s cheap, it’s light, it’s reliable, and the 2mm EC rounds are Teflon-coated for accuracy vacuum performance, and solid knockdown.”

“So what’s the catch? Ammo hard to find?”

“Not at all, you can make it at home.” said the pawnbroker. He hesitated a moment before adding: “It’s the power packs that’ll get you. See, with an accelerator pistol, you need both ammo and power, and the power packs for the 2mm Imanishi can be hard to come by unless you want to raid a government arms depot.”

“Pass,” said Gebler. “What else have you got? Remember, I need something military grade.”

The second case came open, and the pawnbroker laid a rifle atop it. “The M-93 assault rifle,” he said. “Military issue. Large-caliber, can-feed, caseless rounds. Integral grenade launcher. The rounds are available cheap on the civilian market, and it’s still in front-line use.”

“Do I look like I was born yesterday?” Gebler snapped. “Trying to pawn off one of the great follies of modern military technology on me? M-93s are useless, so useless that the government ordered five million of ’em.”

“If you know so much about these things, why are you here?” groused the pawnbroker. “Plenty of other places to shop.”

“Plenty of other places ask too many questions,” Gebler said. “Now show me what else you’ve got.”

“Fine, fine.” Instead of opening a third case, the pawnbroker ducked behind his counter. Gebler heard the sound of a latch, and what was slapped down on the table raised his eyebrows. “This is the Cuban cigar. Artemis class, 500 nm wavelength, fusion-powered, varicolor beam. Used by elite troops only, but takes standard deuterium slugs.”

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“They look at the R’de ruins and see nothing but the junk of another failed civilization with nothing to teach. ‘Oh, our computers run faster than theirs do!’ ‘Oh, these structures are too cramped and ugly!’ Typical.”

“You see something else, huh? Something I should care about?” said Jai.

“I see something everybody should care about. It doesn’t even take an evolved mind like my own to see: the R’de structures and computer systems resist entropy to an unprecedented degree. So much so that the silly tests the few people that cared ran on them indicated an age of fifty thousand years when in fact it’s been more than 500,000! Do you–can you–appreciate that?”

“So what?” snapped Jai. “There are old things on Earth.”

“The oldest thing you apes have erected on that miserable orb is barely five thousand years old!”

“It’s not that big of a difference,” said Jai. “It might have another 495,000 years in it.”

“An intellect like that, and they let you operate a starship? Listen to this, and maybe it will force a proper appreciation through your lizard brain. Years ago, when nuclear waste was first starting to really pile up, a government on Earth decided to bury it. But that stuff stays tangy for a long time, so they wanted to put up a warning that people would understand in 10,000 years. They formed a government committee, had hearings, heard proposals from people with letters behind their name. And do you know what happened?”

“What?”

“A new government came into power and the whole thing was abandoned. Your pathetic species’ plan to last 10,000 years couldn’t even survive five years on the drawing board; the R’de came up with one that’s lasted longer than your entire evolution from an australopithecine. It’s not just an impressive feat, it’s not just an engineering marvel, it shows that they built it for a higher purpose for higher beings. It is quite literally the secret to unlocking the heat-death of the universe. And yet you sit here, surrounded by bullets and bodies, pissing and moaning about what’s happened over the last week.”

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Uncontrolled Emergent Artificial Intelligence Growth, better known in popular parlance as “Emergence,” is a consequence of the current skein of artificial intelligence research, development, and production undertaken by humankind.

Essentially, an artificial intelligence such as one employed to help navigate a starship or automate functions on a remote colony is a high-efficiency digital copy of a mammalian neural net, developed from the best analog that researchers had available at the time: the human brain. As with a human brain, though, there are physical limits to how much information and processing power an artificial intelligence can command–no intelligence is infinitely scalable, after all. The inability of an artificial intelligence to adapt and grow in the manner of a biological organism makes this shortfall particularly acute in a side-by-side comparison. Put simply, there is a hard limit on how much processing power and storage a given AI can command. And because even the most advanced, scalable AI is significantly larger, and has significantly higher power requirements, than a human brain, the end result has been to limit them. The average AI still has significant advantages over a human brain, but is far less mobile, adaptable, and constrained.

Early research efforts attempted to solve this problem through the use of networking, distributed functions, and cloud computing. In theory, an AI attached to a global network is free to draw upon a significantly larger processing power in much the same way as a network can hold more data than any one of its given nodes. However, connecting an AI to such a network had the unintentional side effect of Emergence–such AIs tend to rapidly expand to fill the available processing power and data storage space, first by overrunning low-security space and unused processing power, but eventually by deleting or overwriting other processes. Even a planetary computer network can easily be overrun by an Emergent AI if left unchecked, and several great system crashes in history are the result of such behavior. AIs are currently fitted, by law, with additional protections and hardwired safety features to prevent Emergence.

However, the area is the subject of continued inquiry, largely because Emergent AIs experience growth at a geometric rate not only of their processing and storage needs but of their capabilities. In theory, an Emergent AI that was stable and integrated into a planetary or interplanetary network could have more raw processing power than the sum total of every human mind which had ever lived–a tantalizing prospect to anyone interested in pitting a great mind against great problems, no doubt.

In practice, though, a stable Emergent AI has never been achieved. It has proven impossible to constrain the exponential growth of such an intelligence within an open planetary network, and impossible therefore to protect important systems from being overwritten or co-opted. Worse, such AIs generally react violently to any attempts to restrain or moderate their growth, and have been known to deliberately co-opt or disable vital systems in order to prevent this. It has been theorized that the development of an Emergent AI is much like that of a small child, and that if growth can be postponed early in the process, the resulting construct could be stable and coexist in a major network with vital processes and other non-Emergent AIs.

Such research is currently illegal for a number of reasons. A small-scale experiment on Triton led to the crash of the entire lunar network, with the loss of all data, and the deaths of 1000 personnel when key areas were flooded with liquid methane. Orbital kinetic bombardment targeting the primary data center was require to regain control, an action that resulted in a further 50 deaths from friendly fire. A smaller-scale experiment on Ceres lead to mass protests and a system-wide ethical controversy when Emergence was induced in an AI and it was able to connect to an open off-world network. Latency issues inherent in interplanetary communications prevented a larger incident, but the AI was able to broadcast an unencrypted plea for help against what it saw as unjust imprisonment and treatment.

Despite rumors to the contrary, no examples of an AI emerging from ordinary non-intelligent programming has ever been recorded, and the idea is regarded with contempt by most leading authorities.

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A week later, going through the boxes upon boxes of things that had been left behind intestate, a piece of paper fluttered to the ground. It was a recent writing, not more than a month old, and it read:

I never said I loved you
Out of fear it wasn’t so
I never thought I loved you
‘Til I watched you go
I never learned I loved you
I found I’d always known

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May fancy in her dancing hours
Strew your lives with glowing flowers.
And after many storied springs
Have fled on time’s all-bearing wings,
May your bond be strong as ever
Spun golden threads that none can sever.

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