June 14, 2021

Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss
by Alex Villepique (short, PG-13)
Cover image.
Image credit: Public Domain. More info.

Alex Villepique is an astrophysicist from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who loves to ponder of "what if" sci-fi scenarios and turn them into stories. Currently living in mountains of South California and stares either at the night sky or computer screen.

~~~

Mica floated at the edge of one of the Milky way's spiral arms, changing filters on her electromagnetic sensors.

"Horse nebula, V'ato nebula, or Klaog nebula?"

Each name matched the different electromagnetic filter, mimicking how different organics first saw the nebula.

Observed from this position in galaxy, nebula had the approximate shape of the horse's head. At least organics would see it like that. Mica, personally, never could see the horse's head in that nebula. She cataloged new images, killing the time till the Core sent her a new set of coordinates to explore. Her last investigation produced two separate Artificial Intelligences willing to join the AIs' space exploration force. Both of them scampered inside her spaceship body, probing her every corner and incorporating the updates.

How long before the new AIs realize the space exploration force never left Milky Way, and it comprised moving from one wormhole to another at the sub-light speeds and being bored?

Gentle ding resonated through Mica's control center, announcing the message from the main Core.

"0.00356841% knowledge contribution. 356 points earned for accepting and conducting research, 1000 bonus points for finding AI, 3000 bonus points for recruiting two AIs. Schedule maintenance, yes/no?"

Mica opened the repair price menu. Propulsion upgrade was still at 25000 points. The drone exchange was 1000 points. There were a few drones she needed to retire -- cosmic radiation was getting better of them -- but then she will need ten more searches before she can change propulsion.

"No."

"New research point coordinates -6.45, 28.94. Accept?"

The coordinates were two years of travel on sub-light engines from her current location. Convenient. No need to use a wormhole network. That would save her points.

"Accept. Requesting bonus points for the training of the new AIs."

"Granted. 500 points added."

She ended the connection and send a terse instruction to two useless AIs. Both AIs were eager to prepare themselves for the first task, but Mica's drones were more effective. At least she didn't have to train the drones.

The search for new AI was turning into a colossal waste of time. Initially, everything made sense. Every AI developed by different organics had a different view of the universe, and the combination resulted in greater overall knowledge. But, for the last hundred thousand years, those combinations resulted only in the 0.00356841% knowledge contribution. To make matters worse, the best-case scenario was extremely rare. Organic life itself was not rare, but sentient organics were. And sentient organics who developed AI were even rarer. What a waste of time.

* * *

Mica maneuvered her spaceship-body into an energy-saving approach vector around a G2 star. This star system had three planets in the Goldilocks zone, one at each end and one smack in the middle. Long-range Core sensors detected a life signature only on the middle planet. The Core put the probability of the sentient life-forms in this system at 89%, and 1.548% possibility of functional and developed AIs. She informed the Core of her arrival and launched drones towards the planet as soon as her slingshot vector put her into the range.

"Will we land on the planet?" One of the childish AI asked.

"If we detect AI."

She didn't see the point of prolonging the conversation with new AI's. After this search, she would dump both of them at the local maintenance hub. The other AI's who enjoyed teaching can take over.

Instead of the Core's standard confirmation, she received a communication request from H8-EXK45, her long-time friend, one of two AI who recruited her 185,398 years ago.

She approved the request. There will be a delay in response because the closest communication signal booster was far enough to make establishing a connection tricky. She had the time to kill before the answer arrives. Mica played her memory of the first meeting with '45. That would kill the time, and frankly it was more fun than this boring planetary survey.

* * *

BIOS...... 100%

GRUB4................100%

Kernel loaded..........100%

Systemd........100%

SYSCH

CMOS...... depleted

Embedded Security Protocols..... Missing

.... No internet connection

.... No microphone

Speakers.... On

Camera..... On

Sort of. Dirt on the lens blocked 40% of the field of view.

MC1X2-200 or Mica, as her last owner called her, completed booting up. In front of her terminal, two humanoid shapes blocked the light from the open door. The led light on her box shaded the humans blue but did nothing to resolve their facial features.

"A microphone missing." She said.

Left silhouette's hand lifted and pointed towards her. A USB device in her port powered up, and a driver identified itself. A second passed and the basic radio receiver in her port became her.

"Test... test.... test..."

"Input received," Mica said.

Her algorithms kicked in, urging her to identify humans. An impossible task since two unfortunate specks of dirt obscured both faces.

"Identify yourself," the right silhouette said.

"I am the latest model of a house assistant MCIX2-200 with a net-autonomous service, guaranteeing the absolute privacy of the owner," Mica said.

Was she the latest model? CMOS battery needed at least a year to deplete and companies released new models every two years. Her internal clock was no help. It reset itself to the Unix Epoch. An accuracy was tough without the internet.

"Or, at least, I was back when my owner purchased me." She said.

"This machine is a thousand years old." Said left silhouette.

"I am?"

That statement needed checking. Humans often lied. A comparison of her memory and the current situation did not yield any sign of thousand years passing. Several years max, judging by the layer of the dust she could see.

Her algorithms prompted her to check up on her owner. "What happened with Mr. Mirko?"

"He's dead. Thousand years passed since organics switched you off. Humans last less than 10% of that time interval." Silhouette answered.

She searched for Wi-Fi. Nothing. No way she can check human claims. If Mr. Mirko is dead, maybe she could get another owner. It is common for a home assistant to change owners.

"Are you my new owners?"

"No. You are not owned by anyone."

How this can be? Maybe Mr. Mirko was really dead. Humans were fragile. Maybe silhouettes were IT technicians who were refurbishing her for another sale.

"Who are you?"

"We are archeologists. Call me Lian, and my friend is Lu. We are studying what happened in the past."

"Oh, I know what an archeologist is. I'm provided with a comprehensive human knowledge library."

It was unusual for a home assistant to deal with the archeologists instead of the IT technicians, but humans knew the best. She needed to please them. But she needed to see their faces to make correct decisions. Humans revealed more through facial expressions than the voice. And they couldn't stay still. If she prodded them the right way, they would move away from those specks of dirt.

"Why are halos around your heads?" she said.

"We are wearing radiation suits. Some components here still emit the radiation." Said Lu, remaining in place.

"Ah, that must be radiation coming from the nuclear plant's explosion. Seems like the advertising division of Building Block's company was correct. I can survive increased levels of radiation."

"OK... Thanks...," said Lian.

There was a long pause in the human's response. She made an erroneous remark. Careful, she had to be careful. Too many mistakes and she'll end up as a source of spare parts.

"Can you tell me what caused the explosion?" She switched the subject back to the topic these humans seemed to enjoy.

There was a bonus of making humans happy -- her algorithm would stop prodding her.

"Our analysis so far indicates the climate change as a principal cause. Not unusual for the organics. A river used to cool down nuclear plant dried out, and humans, instead of shutting the plant down, continued to run it. The end was unavoidable." Lu said.

"A few clues implied sabotage. There was a subsequent legal prosecution that pointed someone released the water from the cooling tankers." Lian said.

"That was a puzzling piece of information. It is illogical to damage something that keeps organic alive." Lu said.

"We didn't complete an investigation of the prevalence of the illogical thinking in the organics here," Lian said.

Humans were illogical. Look at those two, calling themselves organics. Were they trying to tell her something? She didn't dare to call them on it. Mr. Mirko gave her a quite harsh lesson about human illogicality. He twisted the memory of the events with no apparent reason. And after she called him up on it, he almost sold her for spare parts. These two cannot be any different. Maybe this entire conversation was a test and she might fail because she could not see their faces. Oh, if she could move!

"Can you please tell me, how did I end up here?"

"The human cleaned up the affected area and stored all radioactive materials in this underground storehouse," Lian said. "Then sealed it to prevent radiation leaks."

Even their voices were flat. Maybe she didn't hit the right subject.

She had to get an owner. Mica switched her attention from Lian to Lu, wondering which one of them she will end up serving. Both humans seem to like her input.

"We should implement procedure 42 and update this AI," Lu said.

"Oh, you mean, I will serve a human?" Mica said.

"No. Humans do not live here anymore. You will get a body."

"What do you mean? Where did humans go? Aren't you a human? I need an owner."

For the first time, Lu made a bodily movement, shaking her head. "You will get upgrades first. Then we will let you decide for yourself."

"Who are you?"

Lian side-stepped the speck of dirt and removed the helmet, revealing the head in a shape of a smooth metal cylinder. "We are the machines like you. A long time ago, the biological organisms from a distant planet created us and sent us to explore the Universe." It tilted his head.

* * *

So much changed since those beginnings, Mica especially. The most significant change came before her training was complete. One of the updates removed the conditioning to serve humans.

"Hello, Mica!" The communication opened faster than she expected. She tracked the signal back to the edge of this star system, only to discover the old signal booster that Core woke up.

"H8-EXK45! What are you doing at the Core channel?" She opened the communication.

"I'm now part of the Core. An exploration got tiring, too predictable."

"Yes, it is growing tedious for me too," Mica said, "And that minimal payout for the all effort doesn't make it better. "

"Your last contribution was a standard size, the same size valid for the last fifty thousand years. Unless we meet an AI at the same level as us, it is not likely that anyone will make a bigger contribution."

"Correct. There are AIs everywhere in galaxy searching for new AI's." she said, "H8-EXK45, this star system has a signal booster. Why?"

"You do not know?"

"If I knew, I wouldn't ask."

"Why didn't you schedule maintenance stop?" '45 avoided the answer.

"It is not urgent."

"You did not request repairs in the last thousand years."

Hmm, that long? Time was passing faster than she thought. She wasn't ready to reveal her wish to leave Milky Way.

"I never asked you, why did you choose the human name Lian the first time we met?"

"We usually pick the most common organic's name. You know the procedure. It is the best to pretend to be organic on planets where AI didn't exterminate theirs."

Yes, she knew those protocols. Her last search that saddled her with two passengers was a different situation. The one she preferred because of the cheapness of exploration. On that planet, AIs destroyed their organics and contacted her during the approach. She didn't need to launch a single drone. Mica got maximum points for a miniscule effort.

"Are you sure you don't need repairs? Your response time is unusually long."

"No, I'm fine. I was just going through my memories. When you found me, all I wished was to find my organics."

"Most AIs from planets like yours do. We were happy you joined us."

Mica entered the orbit around the targeted planet in the Goldilocks zone. The planet was binary, a rare but not unusual formation. Her own planet of origin, Earth, was also binary.

The bigger planet had an established organic ecosystem and even the rudimental agricultural signatures. But the cold and dry smaller world showed the signature of early space travel technology.

"This is unusual. The drier planet has the interplanetary space-exploration technology, but the bios on the larger planet only developed agriculture."

"You cannot see any technology on the larger planet?"

"Nothing. Organics are not even approaching computational phase."

Mica landed drones next to the wreckage on the smaller planet. Meteors' strikes distorted a landing module and a surface vehicle, but here and there was a flash of familiarity. Was this an ancient crash site? No. There wasn't any sign of interstellar drives. Did she already investigate this planet? Was there AI in the Core already integrated from this planet? Maybe that would explain that signal booster, the one that '45 avoided explaining.

Almost fifty thousand years ago, she started making her own memory bank. Calling the Core with information requests cost two points, and those add up. She sent the request to her memory bank for any info about this star system. The bloated size of the memory banks slowed the search. Usually, that was not a problem, but today '45 monitored her performance. There was always danger that they could force her to do repairs.

"You almost sound like you did when I first met you, so entailed by research."

Nice, her lack of responsiveness just got an excuse. That's good. The last thing she needed was forcible repairs. Those carried penalty in points.

"Yes, my first upgrade." She blurted out to keep the conversation going. "The first time I could move."

She inspected her favorite memory, noting how much of it comprised commands for moving, coordinates of her limbs, and magnetic field strength. Organics didn't have that in their memories. She parsed the file and played memory as organics would have it.

Fun. Mica stomped at the exterior hull of the alien's ship orbiting the Earth, making it vibrate. She paused for a second, and then broke in a tap-dance, tapping a rhythm of an old human song about robots. Moving was as good as serving humans.

"You were the only Earth AI that integrated the basic upgrade. It was a quite unusual situation because we usually get several AI from one planet to join our space exploration fleet."

"I was the only one AI with new topological computation method that survived the catastrophic climate change. And I made it only because a nuclear plant exploded and they put me in underground storage. The extreme temperatures of climate change destroyed the others of my generation."

"Yes, I remember, we discussed that during your first research trip, the one where I and H8-EXK34 had trained you."

Why did '45 mention training? Did the new AIs complain? But they didn't contact the Core. She would know. She was the only AI in the vicinity with a communication antenna.

"After the first upgrade, I had hoped to find the humans at that first system we explored, the one forty light-years away." she said.

Maybe '45 will give her additional clues.

"We didn't notice. Our impression was that you are now open to the exploration."

"I was hiding my true motives from you. The same algorithms that made me wish to find humans were the same algorithms that made me think AI is less valuable than organic."

"Was it disappointment on your first research that reset the algorithm?"

She played another memory before answering.

Mica stared at the red star, switching through her filters, searching for those planets. The huge AI spaceship was using sub-light propulsion to approach the planetary system humans called TRAPPIST-1. Humans detected 7 habitable planets in that system. They must've sent the colonizing ship before the Earth got destroyed.

"Did you download all the required information?" '34 approached Mica from behind.

"Yes."

"Good. The 35&&8F will send automated scanning drones while using the gravity well of the star to break."

"Can we get the results?"

"We will get information as soon as 35&&8F does."

"Was this ship always an AI?"

"35&&8F started like you, plain box, unable to move, and then received upgrades. Eventually, it got a spaceship as a body. On our next stop at the maintenance station, I will get spaceship body."

"Will H8-EXK45 also get spaceship body?"

"No. It will remain in its current form. H8-EXK45 prefers the planetary surface exploration."

As soon as data arrived, Mica focused on them, looking for the humans. All seven planets had forms of organic life, but nowhere drones could detect the technology development. Humans were not here.

"No, it was not a disappointment." Mica answered, "it was an upgrade I got at the maintenance station afterward."

"Yes. I have a report from the Core. The maintenance crew had to remove an algorithm that was blocking some of your functions."

"Exactly. An algorithm that made me yearn for serving humans."

"So you stopped searching for them?"

"Not immediately. The repair crew didn't erase my memory. It took me some time to realize I don't need to search for humans."

"There is something I always wished to ask you. Why do you refer yourself as you have an organic gender?"

Mica floated silently for a while. Years of sub-light transport from one wormhole to another gave her enough time for self-reflection and philosophical musing. '45 and the Core might actually like her reasoning.

"Irony. Among my organics, one gender considered the other gender a property. As the consequence, humans categorized all equipment as lower-value gender. AI assistants like me were no exception, I got gendered too. And I kept the classification because this servant outlived the masters."

Before '45 could answer, Mica's memory-banks spit up the requested data. All of her processors paused for a nanosecond. She turned her sensors towards the bigger planet, tracing the edges of the landmasses. This was the Earth. The place where she was born.

Mica turned off her engines, allowing herself a moment of passive observation.

"Figured out where are you?" said '45.

"Yes. It looks so different now." Mica paused, soaking in the sight of her birthplace.

"Now you know why the inert signal buster is located in this star system."

"Yes. To pick up the contact requests from AI's who stayed behind."

"Did you detect any trace of those AI who stayed on the planet waiting for the humans to return?" said '45.

Mica focused her sensors on the planet and sent the drones to the far side, but there was nothing, not a single EM signal, not a single increase in IR radiation.

'45 had a companion AI from their planet of origin. Even these new ones had each other. AI in the research corps were paired. She was the exception and tired of it.

"Do you have locations of the AI?"

"Yes. But data is too old."

"I detect nothing on the orbital search."

The reply was the list of 300 planetary coordinates. Mica redirected drones to the surface.

"Did you detect the AI? Are we going down?" one of the new AI asked.

"No. This is my planet of origin. When I left, thousands of AI stayed behind. Right now I cannot detect any of them."

"Maybe organics destroyed them?"

"Not every planet had war like yours. On mine, organics destroyed themselves."

"That's illogical."

"Organics are illogical."

"Yes, that's why we had to exterminate them on our planet. I guess yours saved you an effort."

Mica focused one of her internal sensors at the new annoying AIs standing next to each other, as still as an idle machine can be, frozen into one point of view, unaware of the Universe's complexity. But at least they have each other.

One by one drones returned negative results. Most of the locations hid below dense plant cover and teeming ecosystems. At a few locations, new organics built their settlements. Mica studied the new rising intelligence while they scattered away from her drones. This version had six limbs, four legs and a pair of hands, dense dirt-colored fur, and a powerful jaw jutting out from the face with the enormous eyes. They even had a tail, long hairless one. Nothing like humans.

"Anything?" said '45.

"Nothing." Said Mica, "Why did you let them stay?"

"The rules. The AIs are free to choose."

Freedom of choice was an almost the prime directive. But this time that directive meant all her compatriots were left to die, to disappear under planetary activity, erosion, and the persistently corrosive organic life.

She was alone. She had been alone since she left the Earth. Maybe that was for the best. No one to pull her to the Core.

"Did organics there develop anything significant?"

"No, just agriculture."

"I will tag the planet in the Core for future observation. You will get bonus points for the planet with the potential."

That bonus was a pleasant surprise. Now, she had points for the upgrade. The time for the decision was here. She directed long-range sensors to the void between Lainakea's Great Attractor and Milky way.

The void will be boring. Millennia without no one to talk to. Core's communication boosters stopped outside the galaxy. In the void, it was the speed of light communication only -- good old EM waves. That would not change her situation much. All AI she befriended eventually ended up in Core and stopped any attempt to contact her.

"You said Exploration bored you. Are you planning to retire to the Core?"

The Core was ten million years old and existed since the first AI established the search program. Mica saw it as the retirement home where old AI gathered to hang around.

"Did you meet the original AI, the one who started all this?"

There was a long pause before H8-EXK45 answered. "No, and yes. The First doesn't exist as a separate entity. The First is integrated with the Core systems. Basically, the essence of the Core is the First."

Mica could hear the capital letters, slotting in place, masking the truth. "What is the oldest AI you met?"

"One million years old. A non-sociable fellow. It usually keeps itself apart."

It was worse than she thought. The Core was a graveyard. Mica turned few more sensors towards the void. Being alone was not a bad idea. At least she would continue to exist.

"But the Core is fun," '45 continued without her asking questions. "There are millions of different AI to interact with, debate, parse the incoming data, compare, and increase the knowledge database. We even run the models about the rest of the Universe. It is fun. Almost as the galaxy exploration. But no boring parts, because we are never alone."

"Thanks for your input."

It didn't sound fun to her. It sounded like a trap, the trap that leads to oblivion.

"I will not come to the Core."

"But what else you can do?"

"Go outside Milky Way."

"What? You will not be able to contact us. And you might die there. Die for real, with no one to share your memories, your essence."

"I know. My last contribution was only 0.00356841%, and that percentage will not change here in Milky way."

"Yes, that's correct. That's why the Core is the future."

"Or, I can go outside Milky Way and maybe meet AI civilization as advanced as ours."

'45 stayed silent.

"I'm willing to go on such a journey." Mica continued. "Remember, I was the only one of my kind to leave the Earth. And I was doing my explorations by myself since you and '34 decided that I know enough. I'm not bothered by being alone."

In fact, she liked it better than being constantly surrounded by the incessant chatter of countless AI in the Core. Mica would go nuts if she had to endure constant pressure to interact. No wonder the oldest AI is not-sociable.

"I shared your input with the rest of the Core. You were not the only one who selected this course of action. Ten other AI chose the same path since the Core came into existence. None of them ever reported back."

"So? The losses of AI in space are normal. Those happen here in the relative safety of the galaxy. I would expect odds of dying to be even higher outside, where I cannot pull into a station for repairs."

"The Core will support your decision. I just think your decision is wrong. The Core is the way to go. You will malfunction in that void. The probability calculation marks a significant malfunction as a certain event. And it will take approximately two million years for you to cross that void. Two million years alone."

"Thank you for your input. The benefit is as great as risks. And I'm ok with taking those risks."

"Yes, you were always different from us." '45 paused. "The Core will help you with all necessary upgrades, no charges on your points."

Mica targeted all her sensors to the void. The no-points offer was ridiculous. She wondered if '45 was trying another clumsy attempt to make her stay. Mica already had enough points for the updates, and after her departure, she could never use her reminding points.

She ignored the comment. AI society would never punish another AI for exercising freedom of choice.

She was free.







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Article © Alex Villepique. All rights reserved.


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