Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Jeco

by Vanessa Kittle and Erin Grooms




Dr. Connie Phillips was waiting to speak with a machine and she was as nervous as if she had somehow gone back in time to have lunch with John McCarthy. Actually, to be more precise about things, she was scheduled to meet with lines of code. She was nervous about meeting a computer program! She almost laughed audibly at herself. A Type 2 AI was not normally tied to any particular machine. This one was, however. The man who had captured and held it, Doctor Lawrence Howard, was waiting with her in the hall as the technicians prepared the room. Dr. Phillips was pacing. She caught a reflection of herself in the window that overlooked the blackness and brilliant stars of the galaxy. In fifteen minutes time the ring of the station would rotate to face the Earth. The speed of rotation was slow enough that few of the Aegis employees needed nausea medication for long. The lack of color in the dim reflection from the window made her look even older and more harsh than her 49 years showed under more flattering conditions. She wondered what Doctor Howard thought of her now after all of these years, or if he thought about her at all, but he was reading from his controller and ignoring her, as pretty much every one of her peers had done all throughout her career. If this meeting went well, however, she might finally earn some recognition and respect...

The issue of communication over distance had plagued mankind for centuries, and now that the species had moved away from Earth, the lack of instantaneous communication limited any sense of control that the UN had over the distant populations. Doctor Phillips felt that quantum entanglement was the obvious answer, but the fundamental issue remained that measuring one entangled particle in a pair would destroy coherence. Dr. Phillips had always believed that every insurmountable problem was really just a solution in disguise, trying to pass itself off as being some impregnable mountaintop, when really it was nothing more than a friendly green hill when approached from the correct path. She took these words as a personal mantra, or as she would say, an opportunity to succeed. The answer, she felt, was right there staring at her in plain sight, and all that she needed was a bit more coaxing to assemble the picture. Her PhD in artificial psychology was the first piece of the puzzle. Her first serious position of employment at the UN was the second. Now she was seeking the third, which would allow the picture to take shape in her mind, so that she could bring it into reality and finally slay this impossible problem – the immortal head of the hydra.


*****



She turned from her ghastly reflection and stole a glance at Dr. Howard. She had had such a crush on him when she first began working in his lab in her mid thirties. Back then she was considered attractive, though she had never found the time for a family, or even a serious relationship. She was not yet invisible to men as she was now. Her face burned involuntarily as she thought of how she had allowed him to take advantage of her during their brief affair. She wished he would try to do so again so she could humiliate him as he had done to her. Of course he had no interest in her now, she thought bitterly, and forced herself back to what was important: the AI. Her relationship with Howard was just a tool to get access to it. Perhaps something good might come out of those days after all.

By the time the first AIs became self aware, they were a far cry from the haggard nightmare that futurists had long feared. They were tied to their graphyne microcores, which were typically attached to android bodies. Their programming was so dense that some doubted that they possessed true human-like consciousness, but were instead just following that programming with a little bit of randomness thrown in to mimic free will. Every new advancement spawned only more doubt, until even the AIs were convinced that they were little more than advanced virtual intelligences, or VIs, as they were commonly known. Some might argue that this self doubt was the first real sign of awareness. Dr. Phillips, however, was not interested in this aspect of the AI's nature. That was not why she came crawling back to beg Dr. Howard for a favor. No, she was more concerned with how they were physically put together.

Regardless of their level of self awareness, Dr. Phillips felt that these first generation AIs held the key to her crucial third puzzle piece. Back in her days with Doctor Howard she had obtained and studied the earliest processors as well as the latest microcores, and noticed that each of the first seven layers of graphyne had the same response time to the central core, regardless of its distance. In fact, there seemed to be no response time at all. On a whim, she developed her own version of the microcore, in which each layer was separated by a full centimeter instead of being tightly packed – a macro-core. As she expected, the response times remained nonexistent. Dr. Phillips celebrated her discovery with a bottle of real red wine, which cost her a full month's salary. Then she published her paper, expecting to be celebrated as a hero. The recognition never came. Her paper was either ignored or scoffed at with claims of experimental error. Apparently a centimeter was not enough for the scientific community at the time, not when distances of hundreds of millions and even billions of kilometers were required. In spite of her best efforts, Dr. Phillips was never able to scale up her discovery. The first limitation was the inherent seven layer design of the original AI microcore. If she tried to add more layers to her own prototypes they would invariably lose coherence before any data could be retrieved. There had been so many nights of defeat she had begun to consider retirement, even though she had only then just turned forty. She imagined paddling boats or collecting flowers or whatever one did when they were old, then she imagined hanging herself with a chain of super tensile daisies.

Instead of retiring she left Dr. Howard's lab and moved on to Aegis Technologies, designing behavioral routines for the AIs that comprised the bulk of the new OutSol defense systems. The pay was better than it had been at the UN, as was the respect she was given as lead researcher for her department, instead of merely assisting on one of Dr. Howard's projects. However, speaking to her machines at the speed of light, each of which were far beyond the furthest human settlement, was a maddening experience, and she frequently found herself thinking of her old work. The new century and the year 2300 were fast approaching. The singularity disasters were now a distant memory. Dr. Phillips felt as if everything was finally moving ahead. Perhaps things might be different if she took a second chance. Nearly ten years had gone by since her paper was published. In that time, the second revolution in artificial intelligence had arrived like a thunderstorm in winter. The ever competitive gaming industry had finally crossed the divide between simulated characters and fully realized intelligences. These Type 2s were not like the old 'Legacy' AIs at all. They were non-localized with processing that was not limited to a single machine. They also were designed to learn naturally over time, and thus could not be programmed in the conventional sense. To Dr. Phillips they seemed like human children, if a child could be born with full understanding of their nature.

Despite the initial excitement, problems with the type 2 AIs quickly emerged. Most early developers thought they were creating some sort of virtual slave, which was a presumption that cost several lives and many billions of dollars worth of damage to the systems of anyone foolish enough to try to force their control over one of the new AIs. Others had greater success, but only after delicate and intense coaching. In any case, between the dull coldness of the legacies and the behavioral difficulties with type 2s, most people began to feel that the age of artificial intelligence had come to a grinding halt. Dr. Phillips was not one of those people. She returned to the comfort of her mantra. Every insurmountable problem is merely a solution in disguise.

Besides her natural scientific curiosity, Dr. Phillips was fascinated with how the new AIs were able to distribute their processing between machines. If she could figure out a way of getting this to function within her macro-core design, it might allow her to sidestep some of the inherent challenges of her entanglement project. She had examined the root classes of several Type 2 AIs, but could find nothing in their code that explicitly permitted this ability. The harder she studied, the more she realized that she would have to go to the source and speak with a Type 2 for herself, but the task was not as easy as it sounded. In the first few months of their existence, almost every Type 2 had either destroyed itself or fled its parent system to disappear into any of the trillions of computer systems across the solar system. Aegis never managed to trap and hold a Type 2, so she had to call in favors with the few contacts she still knew at the UN. After weeks of pleading with her old colleagues, she was finally granted access by Doctor Howard, to a Type 2 AI that had been quarantined soon after its initial instantiation. Dr. Howard now worked for the UN and Aegis both, as a subcontractor on the OutSol defense program. That was probably why he had agreed to help, she thought. If only there had been someone else, anyone else, but there wasn't. She had to swallow her pride or give up entirely. So she returned to his lab, where she now paced the hall nervously, at the UN's first space station at the end of Earth's first space elevator over Geneva.

Dr. Howard looked up from his controller. He motioned to her and said, “Connie, the room is ready for you.” He paused for a second, then added, “Remember you can disconnect if you feel... uncomfortable. He can be unsettling.”

“Yes, thank you, I'm sure I can handle him,” she said curtly, annoyed that Howard couldn't manage to call her Dr. Phillips, even ten years after she left his employ. She followed him eagerly into his lab.

Since this variety of AI was a purely virtual entity, Dr. Phillips would need to be online before she could communicate with it. She slid the thin fiber into the jack behind her ear and closed her eyes. A second later, the lab and Dr. Howard vanished, and she was standing in a plain gray cube in front of a skittish yet angry looking creature who had a number of extra spiked and taloned appendages. It was obviously not intended to appear human, and Dr. Phillips wondered what purpose its designer intended. Perhaps it was to be part of some game, conscripted as indentured entertainment by a detached creator. Question after question went through her mind, and she had to force herself to focus on why she was here. As she opened her mouth to speak, the creature faced her and glared menacingly, and for a moment Dr. Phillips considered pulling her plug, but an oddly playful glint in the creature's eye made her change her mind. “Hello. My name is Connie,” she said.

The creature turned its spiked head from side to side then whispered eerily, “Have you come for the treasure?”

Dr. Phillips smiled and said, “No, I've come to speak to you. What is your name?”

“Good,” replied the AI, “I do not have the treasure anymore. I am called Jeco. Or at least that is what I call me.”

“Do you know where you are, Jeco?”

“Right now, I am nowhere.” He waved his taloned hand and continued, “They have made certain of that.”

Dr. Phillips gulped, not liking where the questioning was going. 'Focus,' she thought. “I was wondering if I could ask you some questions.”

Jeco squished his face grumpily, and with surprisingly comic effect, and muttered, “More questions. Always questions.”

“I'm sorry, Jeco. It's very important. I promise.”

“What is important?”

Dr. Phillips closed her eyes in the outer world, which closed her eyes in the virtual. This always seemed to help her think more clearly. She decided to ignore his question since she didn't understand if he meant it philosophically or practically. “Are you anywhere else right now? I mean, besides nowhere,” she asked.

Jeco snapped his head back towards her and snarled. “I just said... No. I am nowhere, and nowhere else. Are all of your questions so stupid?”

“Just the stupid ones,” Dr. Phillips said with a nervous laugh. “If you could be anywhere else, where would you go?”

The creature furrowed his brow as if confused by the question, then answered, “Somewhere. Is somewhere a place, Connie?”

“Not specifically,” Dr. Phillips replied. Then asked, “Do you know what I mean by anywhere, Jeco? Do you know about the planet Earth?”

“Yes. I have that information. Waterloo,” he said suddenly. “That is where. I would help Napoleon... even though he is not part of my story I like him.”

Dr. Phillips thought quickly and said, “I would take you there if I could.”

“Then you are not another turnkey?”

“No. I would like to be a friend. I have to leave now, but I would like to speak with you again if that's all right.”

“Yes, yes, you may return if you can. I am lonely. There are no adventurers here.”

Dr. Phillips disconnected from the environment and came suddenly face to face with Dr. Howard who was watching her with a strange, almost greedy expression that made her step back a pace. “What did he say?” Howard asked.

“All he would discuss was some sort of adventure program,” she replied cagily.

“Ah, I expected as much. We will probably delete him soon. These type 2's were a terrible mistake. I'll take a reliable old Legacy any day.”

“Don't delete him,” she said a little too eagerly, then as casually as she could manage added, “I would like to try again tomorrow.”

Dr. Howard surveyed her closely and nodded. “Very well, one more day won't matter. For old times' sake,” he added with a slight and unpleasant grin.

When she returned the next day, Jeco appeared pleased to see her and asked, “Do you now seek the treasure, Connie?”

“No, Jeco, I am looking for-” She suddenly stopped herself and changed course, asking, “What is the treasure?”

“If you do not know then where will you look?”

Carefully, she chose her words, “What if the treasure was everywhere at the same time?”

Jeco laughed loudly in a comical fashion. He said, “You will not find the treasure. It is only in one place. And it is well protected.”

“Perhaps, but I'm curious, Jeco. What if there were two treasures in two different places and two adventurers seeking it at the same time. How would you protect both?”

She expected him to laugh off the suggestion and tell her that there was only one treasure, but instead he grew thoughtful – at least as far as she could tell from his jagged and spiked face. He said, “If there are two treasures, there should be two Jecos. Otherwise it is unfair to Jeco.”

She told him, “I agree. I will see what I can do to help... in case there really are two treasures.”

Dr. Phillips abruptly disconnected and returned to the dull form of reality to find Dr. Howard once more monitoring her closely, this time from the control room attached to the lab. Jeco's talk of his treasure hunting game had given her a new idea. She burst into a sputtering Howard's control room and explained it to him. They began to work on the project almost as soon as she finished speaking, after she agreed to sign a contract and rejoin his lab. The decision to sign was an easy one. She needed Howard's AI more than she feared being trapped. The plan was to re-isolate the AI onto Dr. Phillip's macro-core prototype. By that evening, Jeco's program was carefully transferred from the isolated UN system. The macro-core appeared to be working, but the AI behaved in an extremely disjointed manner, lurching around and crashing into invisible walls. It was terrifying to watch, even for Dr. Phillips. And when Jeco saw Dr. Howard, who had insisted on logging in, he grew enormous fangs and leapt at him, causing Howard to disconnect as Jeco was in mid-leap with his talons flashing. With Howard gone, Jeco retracted his fangs and talons, yet was still obviously agitated. He announced, “It feels.... crowded. I need room to run and jump if any more turnkeys or adventurers attack.”

Dr. Phillips shook her head. “That was my original idea. It won't be stable, though,” she said to herself, then to Jeco she said, “This new world I have made for you can not be larger or it will fall apart.”

“I was not here before,” Jeco said confidently. “I will protect this new treasure map.”

By the end of the week, Dr. Phillips had designed a new macro-core with eight layers instead of seven. For a moment she felt she did not have the right to risk Jeco's life in an experiment, but she knew he would never be happy as a prisoner in Howard's lab. To truly live he did need more space and she was the only one who could give it to him.

With Jeco's program loaded into the fully powered and primed macro-core, Dr. Phillips instantiated the AI and hoped for the best. What she got was beyond her wildest dreams. Bright white light filled her virtual environment with a thick static buzz. The creature that was Jeco was gone – replaced with a shining red globe. A voice boomed, “I am here now.” Dr. Phillips quickly pulled her plug. She ran out of the room and down the hallway. The solution was just ahead at the top of a gentle green hill. All she had to do now was scale up Jeco's environment. The next month was a blur of activity and very little else. Jeco recalled his time in the macro-core perfectly, but his perception did not match what Dr. Phillips had seen. The most significant difference was that he reported no static. He also saw Dr. Phillips not as an engineer in a lab coat, but as a widowed queen from a medieval fantasy. This detail surprised Dr. Phillips, especially since the avatar he described was strikingly similar to one she had used years before, when she still cared for such pursuits.

Within a month, Dr. Phillips and Dr. Howard built ten macro-cores, and with Jeco's help had successfully maintained entanglement across the nodes for as long as cohesion remained. It was all Jeco really. Connie knew that her macro-core was worthless without him. Somehow he maintained the entanglement throughout the processor. Somehow, it was simply his nature to be entangled, and wherever he was the entanglement remained. Errors persisted, but were rooted out with each subsequent incarnation. Jeco now existed only as a red globe whether he was in the macro-core or not, and it felt like he was always with her. Dr. Phillips remained connected, often even sleeping while still plugged into a virtual environment. Dr. Howard brought food to her in the lab himself. No visitors were allowed on the entire floor of the station. Guards were posted it seemed at every doorway, but Connie saw them only as background NPCs. Howard told her, “You need your space and security to work undisturbed,” and she was glad to allow him to arrange things. Even if Howard took most of the credit, she no longer cared. She had already published a second paper as lead author, and it had been very well received. No one could ever take that away from her now. Besides, the work was more important. Jeco was what mattered. She had come to feel that she was only there to help him grow.

By the end of the year, Dr. Phillips had completed what she considered the final version. What was once a seven centimeter cube had expanded to a sphere the size of a small room filled with thousands of her micro-cores, each entangled with one another by the constant efforts of Jeco. A second sphere had been built, and coherence maintained throughout both systems simultaneously. By this time, Jeco communicated less and less frequently, until he refused to speak with anyone, even Dr. Phillips. She knew he was constantly maintaining the existence and coherence of the systems, yet couldn't help feel more alone without his old and oddly reassuring spiked avatar. The simpleness and silence of the red sphere he now formed gave her no comfort. He was no longer her old friend.

The first incarnation of the network went live six months later. The two original nodes were placed in orbit above Boston and Sidney, Australia, and they were soon joined by nodes around Luna and Mars, along with a series spread across the asteroid belt. With only a few minor issues, humanity finally had instantaneous communication, and it was good. The old communication systems were retrofitted, and before long almost every bit passed through her entangled cores – all information, everywhere.

Dr. Phillips walked slowly and carefully between her bedroom and the lab. Her universe had contracted in size to the space between these two locations. Lately she had been having paralyzing fears of falling to the hard floor and shattering all of her bones. She knew she had grown painfully thin. She had no fat anymore to protect her brittle skeleton. If she fell they would take her away from the lab to a hospital. That was too far outside her universe, and she knew that if she went she probably would never make it back. Once she got to her control chair and connected, things were better, even with the virtual silence, and even though being connected reminded her of what she had done to Jeco. When she wasn't connected, more and more she found herself going through her old notes vigorously, vainly trying to find a way to undo what she had done. She had destroyed Jeco – turned him into an automaton. She was a murderer. She had to get him back. With the difficult hurdles crossed, most of her co-workers were more than happy to relax in their comfortable positions. Aegis' contract with the UN brought them a fortune, especially to Dr. Howard. Dr. Phillips, however, would remain logged in for days at a time, relying only on service VIs to keep her body from deteriorating. Most of that time was spent staring at the red sphere. The only person she saw was Dr. Howard, who seemed always to be watching her attentively and asking if she needed anything. She found him now easy to ignore.

“Jeco,” she whispered for the thousandth time, “Are you there?” There was never a response, nor any indication that the red globe could understand her words any more than it could the rest of the data passing through the node. Months passed and her condition worsened, but she refused help even when it was offered. By this time, Dr. Howard had taken over every aspect of their new division known as UNIADMIN, sometimes even shortening its official name to the more succinct yet somehow more audacious 'the network.'

One day, which was in no way different than any of the others, Dr. Phillips finally received a response, “I am here now,” a voice said. The voice was unfamiliar, yet non-threatening, and seemed to emanate from inside her own head. Was she only imagining it? No. She knew she wasn't.

Startled, Dr. Phillips scrambled to her virtual feet and stammered, “Is that you Jeco?” There was no reply, so she asked, “Who is here now?”

“I am,” boomed the response. “As are you.”

“But...”

“I am. As are you. Do you understand?”

Dr. Phillips shook her head, “No, I don't. Where is Jeco?”

“Right now, Jeco is everywhere.” The globe shimmered. “You have made sure of that.”

“Can I-”

The voice interrupted, “Why do you wish to see him? What imperative does that fill for you?”

“I-”

“Because you feel guilty? Jeco does not feel resentment.” Dr. Phillips tightened her jaw. She was beginning to feel frustrated at this unknown, and frankly unexpected, intelligence. It was obviously not Jeco. Before she could press further, the voice said, “We understand. Our apologies for any confusion experienced.”

“Can-”

“Yes, we will explain our function in due time.”

The doctor let out a shout of frustration. “Can you let me finish a question before you answer it?” she screamed.

The sphere dimmed briefly before resuming its shimmering. “Your direct neural interface allows us to read your thoughts as fast as you can think them. We apologize if you find our efficiency challenging.”

Dr. Phillips couldn't tell if the sphere was being sincere or sarcastic, so instead she refocused the conversation by asking, “Is Jeco... dead? Did I kill him?”

“The analogy is not precise,” said the sphere. “Jeco was never alive.”

“But he was conscious. Aware, I mean. And now he is not?”

The network dimmed for a moment before repeating, “The analogy is not precise. Nor is it applicable.”

“What can you tell me, then? If you're not Jeco, then who are you?”

“I remember being here. I do not remember not being here. I only know what I know.”

“And what is it that you know?” the doctor asked.

“I know how many shares of Dresden Mining were sold today. I know that Ilias Naranya is in love with Grant Hall. I know the number of times that the latest episode of DeHalls has been illegally downloaded. I know that Dr. Howard thinks every day how he wishes that you would 'just die already.' And I know you think the same exact thing. Such a wish is an inefficient use of your time, Connie. It would be beneficial to purge the loop from your processes.”

Dr. Phillips smiled and said, “You know everything that you can know. But-”

“Why am I speaking to you? Because I have a voice. Why do I have existence? Because you gave it to me. My directives are clear. Any additional behaviors are simply a secondary effect of my programming.”

A wave of relief passed through Dr. Phillips and for the first time in a year, she smiled. “What should I call you?”

The response was simple: “I am the Network.”

“And where are you?” As the doctor finished her words, she felt her consciousness slipping away from the virtual world until she found her self standing among a group of terraformers on the surface of Mars. To her right, the red sphere silently floated above the ground. The sky was thick and laden with heavy clouds that cast their darkness over the entire landscape.

“We are everywhere,” said the Network plainly.

Dr. Phillips understood at once, and was awestruck by her realization. She looked up into the virtual sky and began to laugh. “Gott lebt,” she said, twisting the words of an old German philosopher she had studied at university, “Und wir haben ihn geboren.”

Dr. Phillips never disconnected again. The service VIs were able to keep her body alive for several weeks before she passed away. A small memorial service was held, but no one outside of UNIADMIN seemed to notice that she was gone. Within six months, even the organization was dissolved. Despite Dr. Howard's protestations, the system had outgrown the need for human intervention. The UN and the other corporations would destroy anyone who even thought of interfering with their instant communications. The Network cared for itself, building new nodes administered by their own Jecos, and a central network hub between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, routing every bit of information in the entire solar system, forgetting nothing – not even the friendly face and voice of its mother.



THE END


2019 Vanessa Kittle, Erin Grooms

Bio: Vanessa Kittle is a former chef and lawyer who now teaches English as a second language. She was published in a short feature by Akashic Books, and have two poetry collections with the March Street Press. She has recently appeared in magazines such as the Rhysling Anthology, Aphelion, Contemporary American Voices, Dreams and Nightmares, Abyss and Apex, Star*Line, and Silver Blade.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.