His body now considerably more lithe, due to the nanobot treatments he’d received through GalaxyPol, Crawford dashed down the Sky Rock’s corridors, jumped into the nearest bank of maglev lifts and raced into the ship’s launch bay. A fresh lander waited for him on deck and he wasted no time climbing in. A familiar voice greeted him.
“This lander is prepped and ready,” said 6N7.
Crawford’s head whipped to the right, where he saw the lemon yellow-and-black android once again housed in a clear wall compartment.
“How did you…” he said. “I left you on the bridge.”
“As with any modern android,” said 6N7, “my consciousness is not housed in a structure analogous to an organic brain. It is stored on COSNET or, as now, on Sky Rock and piped in as needed. Every lander on this ship is equipped with an android casing of this type. Agent Chaplin simply rerouted my consciousness here the moment she authorized your return to the asteroid.”
Crawford smiled. He hadn’t waited for authorization, but the official report would assure Arielle’s higher-ups that he had. Even in a crisis, he realized, the bean counters would insist on leaving no legume behind.
“Right.” he said. “Let’s go, before our Frankenstein decides it’s not scared of us any more.”
Soon they were back out in space where the action was. Crawford had to hope, he realized, that “the action” didn’t involve a spatiotemporal rift big enough to swallow him up before he reached the asteroid’s surface. But luck was with him and the lander completed the short hop the hollowed-out rock that was rapidly becoming the center of the universe. As he disembarked, after first freeing 6N7 from his plastic cage, he crunched across the asteroid’s surface with the confidence of inevitability embedded in his heart. Just up ahead, he found the entrance escalator exactly where he’d left it.
Either this works or nothing does, he told himself.
Before long, the kreljebtra’s increasingly misshapen form hove into view. He stopped a few meters short and pointed at the device
“Test the waters,” he told 6N7.
The android hesitated before taking a wide, spiraling path toward the kreljebtra.
SAID WOULD NOT HARM.
The kreljebtra’s clanky voice echoed through Crawford’s encounter suit like a voice shouting across a canyon.
“No need to scream,” said Crawford.
His heart racing, the geologist-turned-GalaxyPol-agent walked straight up to the hulking structure and saw for himself just how distorted local space time had become to produce such a monstrosity. At a meter out, the kreljebtra spoke again.
CLOSER NOT ADVISABLE. INSTABILITY. WHAT DO YOU WANT?
“To understand,” said Crawford. “You said your mission was to fix a hole in the Cosmos made by the Skelanese, by Djaleerin. But you’re making more holes — rifts — and that’s got to stop.”
NOT ME. OTHERS MAKE HOLES. I TRY TRY TRY TO FIX. OTHERS MAKE MORE.
“Others like you?” asked Crawford. Though the kreljebtra’s broken command of language made it laborious, Crawford eventually arrived at what sounded like a reasonable explanation for the dilemma they faced. That is, if something so bizarrely complex could be considered reasonable. As 6N7 had already suggested, the “others” that the kreljebtra referred to were parallel versions of itself. How many versions? The kreljebtra’s estimate ranged from a few dozen to a number large enough to stand in for infinity in any sense that a human mind could grasp.
“What if you just stopped?” asked Crawford. “if you are all trying to repair each other’s errors, wouldn’t it make sense to break the chain?”
NOT STOP. CREATE IMBALANCE. MUST KEEP BALANCE.
6N7 stood up on its hind legs and spoke on an encrypted comlink to Crawford’s encounter suit.
“I suggest the device is locked in a logical fallacy not unlike those you humans were susceptible to in your early years as a technological society,” it said. “The idea is that an illogical action must be continued indefinitely to resolve a conflict that the action itself perpetuates.”
Crawford frowned. If 6N7 were right, the kreljebtra was engaged in what used to be called a “forever war” with an unseen enemy, little realizing that the enemy was its own anxiety.
“What do you suggest?” he asked the android. “If you’re right, we’ll never talk that monstrosity out of wrecking the universe. Besides, even if we did shut this thing off, what chance will we have to bring the Skelanese back from the … the limbo they’re in?”
“While I recognize your impulse toward empathy,” said 6N7, “I believe it is misguided. The Skelanese made a tragic miscalculation that we may never reverse. However, if the kreljebtra continues, all is lost.”
Crawford wasn’t ready to give up on his former employers just yet. Despite their colossal failure with this device, he figured their brilliance was worth fighting for. He turned his attention back to the kreljebtra,
“Where are your makers now?” he asked. “They didn’t intend just to “make holes” as you say.”
The kreljebtra spoke again, but with a marked shift in ferocity, that made Crawford regret asking so blunt a question.
SKELANESE NOT MAKE. ONLY DESTROY. ONLY I STOP THEM. SAVE UNIVERSE.
The kreljebtra began spewing out wave after wave of micro spatiotemporal rifts that registered on the visor of Crawford’s encounter suit as a series of smoke rings at a distance of no more than five AU from the asteroid.
Completely bonkers, he thought.
At the moment, they had only one weapon against the out of control machine, and he had no idea if it would work a second time. If they were going to risk giving the Skelanese device another “migraine,” he had to be sure it was worth the risk.
Have to take control, he thought. But I need remote access….
Crawford reached out to 6N7 over the same encrypted comlink that they had just used
“You know that trick you did on the Sky Rock,”he said, “where you rerouted your consciousness? If we distracted the kreljebtra long enough, do you think you could reroute your mind into that?”
“Possibly,” said 6N7, “provided I can find a compatible signal network within the device. The odds of that are low, given the differences between the human and Skelanese technology base.”
Stunned, Crawford wracked his brain for any scrap of memory — anything at all — that might enlighten his android companion. What was it Djaleerin had told him when he first arrived at her research lab?
Our technology is based on the reification of information. What we wish to achieve we first express as interactions between multiple data sets, each with its own properties. Their intersection becomes “real” when we find those core interactions. From there design templates flow like oil.
“Too bad I don’t actually understand that,” he muttered. But he realized that he had nothing to lose by passing the thought on to 6N7.
“Is there any way to reconfigure your internal data to match the kreljebtra’s signal network?” he asked. “You know, find analogous patterns and ‘translate’ yourself into them?”
He held his breath and hoped that he hadn’t just spouted complete nonsense. When the android appeared to freeze, he feared the worst. But before long 6N7’s status lights began blinking rapidly.
“That is an interesting proposal,” said the android. “I gather you mean I should reify my consciousness in a novel manner.”
Crawford tried his best to sound nonchalant.
“Why of course,” he said. “How long do you think you’ll need?”
The news was not good. The alien intelligence was built from a complex series of number relationships that, as Gwendolyn had theorized, had been reified as a functioning consciousness. 6N7 would need time to assimilate the patterns created by this process and sort out each of its many discrete functions. The android’s estimate of at least an hour made sweat break out on the back of the geologist’s neck. Was it for this that he originally studied asteroid formations at the far edge of the Sombrero galaxy? Who knew how much more damage the kreljebtra might do in that much time?
“We’re gonna need a distraction,” he said. “So you can slip in unnoticed. Dial up Arielle and get the Sky Rock to give this thing another migraine.”
“You are forgetting the temporal dilation we discovered on our last visit,” said 6N7. “The crew of the Sky Rock will not receive my request until sometime tomorrow at the earliest. Should I postpone my work?”
“Get started,” said Crawford. “I’ll think of something.”
It was go time, he realized, and even though his personal risk was clear, the risk to … everything … was greater still if he didn’t act.
Have to hope this thing is just smart enough to be confused by ‘magic,’ he told himself.
He walked a good ten meters away from his android companion, planted the boots of his encounter suit firmly in the asteroid’s crumbly interior surface and issued a fateful voice command.
“Call mirroring subroutine,” he whispered. Instantly, the asteroid’s surface was littered with holographic projections of himself, just like the ones that had filled his living room the day he first met Arielle.
“Hey you!” he called out to the kreljebtra, ”it looks like the Skelanese are making copies of me, too.”
The flurry of micro spatiotemporal rifts died down rapidly. The hulking machine’s central unit, a misshapen sphere lit up in an ominous, dark orange glow.
THAT CANNOT BE. ONLY I CONTROL HOLES IN THIS UNIVERSE.
Crawford bit his lip. This was no time for a fit of the giggles.
“Looks like they outfoxed you,’ he said. “I … I can feel myself being pulled in a million directions.”
The retired geologist gave a whispered command to the holoprojector embedded in his encounter suit and watched as a new bevy of “Crawfords” appeared, looking eerily stretched and attenuated.
WHAT IS … YOU… INCORRECT … PHOTONS … ONLY PHOTONS.
Crawford glanced at 6N7, but the yellow-and-black android was standing stock still, its head pointed toward the kreljebtra. He realized he’d have to take his con game up a notch. He clutched his throat and fell to his knees and, for extra measure, channeled his voice through his suit’s external comsystem, distorting its overtones.
“It’s … ripping … me … apart!” he shrieked. “Make it … make it stop … you have to … to help….Help!”
NO. NOT ME. NOT ME. I STOP NOW SO YOU SEE. I STOP NOW.
Little by little, the flurry of micro rifts faded away and for the first time since he touched down on the asteroid, Crawford felt his sense of time returning to normal. A split second later, he heard 6N7 over their encrypted comlink.
“I will begin the transfer now,” it said. “On my signal, run for the lander, return to the Sky Rock and persuade them to leave the Skelana system. I will explain when I am able.”
“Will you shut the kreljebtra down?” asked Crawford. “Can you?”
“Unknown,” said 6N7. “But it is not my intention for the moment in any case. I must test my conclusions about the kreljebtra’s inner functions. My immediate goal is to put the AI into a kind of stasis. Stand by.”
No surprise to Crawford, the alien device noticed the intrusion immediately.
WHAT IS … NO … MY SYSTEM IS SECURE …SECURE …YOU CANNOT …YOU …
Crawford took this opportunity to shut down his projector, which he feared was too big a drain on his encounter suit’s power reserve. 6N7 had told him to run back to his lander. But if he were expecting a message from the android it was clear he was too preoccupied at the moment. By all appearances, a violent struggle was underway. The kreljebtra, which up until then had been dark, with the exception of a few winking status likes, began to glow, starting with its roughly spherical center. Within mere seconds, however, the entire three-meter monstrosity, its metaveral accretions included, was a virtual fireball of greenish-blue light.
Crawford whispered a voice command to increase the shielding on his encounter suit, but he needn’t have bothered. Before he could get the words out, the Skelanese suit had compensated, though not without issuing a disturbing warning.
Shield capacity at maximum. Retinal damage immanent at current energy levels.
Crawford stared hard at 6N7, hoping for some sign that the android was about to take control of the kreljebtra. He was tempted to flee to the lander but, he realized, he had no idea what response that would elicit from the infernally glowing machine. As if in answer, Djaleerin’s voice emanated from the device, though this time, it was impossible to see her image on its view screen, Her voice, distorted by static rang out clearly enough, all the same, into the sound system of his encounter suit.
“Crawford, Beloved,” she seemed to say. “If you cannot yet leave the asteroid, have the good sense to turn around. You were always too absorbed in your work, as I was. Save yourself!”
Startled, Crawford could only assume that this new message had been triggered by the kreljebtra’s sudden spike in temperature, With the light and heat coming off the alien devicealready beyond intolerable, he turned and ran for the lander. For all he knew, he reasoned, 6N7 might have failed or might need several more hours to accomplish his long-shot goal. But running, it turned out, proved more difficult than he expected. Panting, he called out to his android companion over their encrypted comlink.
“What’s happening?” he said. “Can … barely … move.”
“Temporal displacement,” said 6N7. “It’s trying to shake me off by tossing me out of Time altogether. But I’m too far integrated for that. One moment more.”
His back to the glowing alien device, Crawford could do nothing but hope. Pointlessly he closed his eyes as a last defense against its intense glare, which now permeated everything. His mind roamed over his memory of his first meeting with the Skelanese, with Djaleerin and everything that followed. Did he wish now, he’d never accepted that last assignment from the IMC? If only he’d followed his instinct. If only…
Suddenly, Crawford noticed a stillness behind him and saw his visor displays gradually returning to normal. A reassuring voice entered his ears.
“All clear,” said 6N7. “Hurry to the lander and follow my previous instructions.”
“But if you’ve deactivated the kreljebtra,’ said Crawford, “why not join me?”
“Mission not accomplished,” said the android. “I must stay to interact with the metaversal variants and bring them under control as well.”
By now, Crawford had reached the lander and opened its main hatch.
“But there must be … millions of them,” he said.
“The number is undoubtedly several orders of magnitude higher,” said 6N7. “I will not return from this mission in your lifetime. Please leave. I cannot with absolute confidence assert that I have this device under my complete control,”
Crawford shook his head. He spared himself the absurdity of a sentimental goodbye to the android, flung himself into the lander’s airlock and initiated the launch sequence as soon as possible. Within half an hour, he was back onboard the Sky Rock, where he was greeted by a storm of incredulous questions from the crew.
To be continued … Read Episode 8 Here
A new Episode of A Slight Miscalculation appears every other Monday. See all episodes here.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.
Image by Steven S. Drachman