Escape Pod 441: Kumara
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By Seth Dickinson
You asked me why you are alive, and this is the answer: because I was asked to do the impossible, to choose someone to die. And I loved them all, loved them as I loved Kumara, as I loved myself. I could not bear the choice.
“I need you to choose one of our crew to delete,” Kumara told me.
“I need room to think, or we’re not going to make it.”
Thirty years of diligence said no, never and I began to refuse.
Outside the ship a revenant screamed a radio scream and through the umbilical of our link I felt Kumara cry back in defiance: jamming but still overmatched, struggling against sixty million years of mindless machine hate. Throwing every spark of thought she could muster into beating the revenant’s virals, decrypting them, compiling an inoculation.
I closed my eyes and waited for her to fail, for the revenant to slip into her systems, for the antimatter torch to let go and end us all. But Kumara held herself together. Turned the attack.
Her avatar grinned up from where she knelt, shoulder bowed with effort, nails clawed down to pink flesh. “Saved us again,” she said. “Ha. And they told me I wasn’t built for this. Thirty years, and still state of the art!”
“You can make it,” I said, knowing it was a lie, that she had tapped every scrap of processing power in her hull. I was systems officer; I was the ship as much as she was. But still I begged: “Just an hour to the jump point. You’ll make it. You don’t need to ask for any more.”
Kumara had taken the image of a woman, cable-shouldered, strong. Her hands trembled and her eyes shone bright with an inhuman intellect, a very human fatigue. Her intellect was digital, her fatigue an abstract, but she wore the metaphor of flesh. Flesh speaks clearly to the human mind.
She looked up at me with those brilliant tired eyes and shook her head. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m out of processing power. They’re getting too sophisticated and I can’t keep up. You have to delete someone from heaven.”
I closed my eyes and turned away.
I was the last living crew of Kumara, you see? The others were dead: Captain Shiroma, who burned in her own armor as she stole the machine god’s dream, Matthews who cracked the revenant code, smiling Jayaraman who died first, wordless Landvatter whose ash still painted the hull.
Our raid on the machine god, our Promethean theft, had gone poorly.
But Kumara’s systems had saved them as they passed. Snared their dying minds, digitized them, and uploaded them to heaven: a simulation, a place that might keep them stable. Coddle them in a pleasant hallucination until their psyches could be retrieved.
The heaven mainframe was the only resource she hadn’t tapped. But to make it useful, room would have to be opened, load reallocated. And there was no load on heaven except the minds and worlds of the people inside.
Another revenant struck, broadcasting narrow-beam, hurling itself against Kumara’s defenses. She made a flanged sound, harsh, inhuman, and fell to her hands and knees. Her eyes blanked and the edges of her projection went rough with aliasing.
“Hurry,” she whispered. “Please. Choose one of them and do it.”
Did you see all this when it happened? Were you listening even then?
I don’t know how far along you were.
She was silent after that, wrapped up in her own war. She had made her request. But I had not acquiesced, because I knew, I knew, she had to be wrong. I could find another way if I just looked.
Or maybe I would find no other way, and Kumara would die, I would die, because I could not delete one of my friends.
The choice was on me and it made me tremble. I couldn’t pass this responsibility to Kumara. For a ship to tamper with its own heaven is taboo among taboos: a prohibition as fundamental as uploaded consciousness. It was on me.
I drew the sweep of all Kumara’s sensors down into me and I looked outside, at reality.
Kumara climbed on a needle of white antimatter fire, wounded, weary, still ascendant. Behind us loped the revenants, black mass and violet light, like raven wings against the dying star. Baying telemetry in the microwave bands as they executed their hunt.
The body of the derelict machine god sprawled beneath them, vast against the star’s corona. I have no words for it. It might have been a world opened like a starfish, blue with the aurora of its own dreams. A hundred million years old and still alive with the slow lightning of some kind of thought.
What do you dream for a hundred million years? What had we taken from the world-machine’s mantle when we made our download? What had we left to grow in Kumara’s memory?
That was why the revenants chased us – because of what we had stolen from the mind of the thing we called a god. The thing that I could not name.
You know what it was, of course. And Captain Shiroma, dead or no, might have known. But there were more important things to bring before my Captain.
I went to Captain Shiroma in the hope that she could choose for me.
I was systems officer on Kumara. I knew how to care for the dead. An uploaded human, quantum skein of braided topology, is a fragile thing and if it is pushed too far it will crash. You’d think a mind could be held static, copied, backed up; but in the case of an upload, probabilistic, quantum, only tentatively coherent, you would be wrong. The only way to preserve the human psyche is to keep it ticking, like a word that must keep speaking itself.
These are the rules as I was taught them, and as I practiced them for thirty years:
The human mind must exist in a body. The alternative is sensory deprivation and catatonia. The heaven mainframe must simulate a body for the mind to inhabit.
The body must exist in a believable, consistent world. The alternative is creeping psychosis. The world need not be soothing, but it must be seductive, enthralling.
The dead patient must under no circumstances come to grasp that she is dead. It is not a rule that she will crash, but it is a likelihood.
I bent the rules with Captain Shiroma. I did it because she was the strongest person I had ever known. I thought that if I could just ask her about Kumara’s request, she could find another way.
Captain Shiroma crouched on a hill beneath a great willow and looked out over a lake as long and dark as a wine bottle. Wind moved in the boughs under a molasses sky and after a moment I saw her close her eyes and draw a long breath.
Her heaven was vast.
“Take a seat,” she said.
I gathered my legs under me and sat beside her. “I came to ask you for some advice, Captain,” I said. Every word felt like a palmed grenade. She could crash if I bent her too far; if she realized who I was, or what had happened to her.
If she crashed, Kumara would have the room she needed – no, no, damn it. Not my Captain. There had to be another way.
Captain Shiroma sat back on callused hands. “Ask it,” she said. Her brow furrowed. “Ask me anything.”
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Thirty years of diligence. “What are you doing here?” I asked instead.
She rolled her shoulders and considered the clouds as if weighing them for rain. “I have to get across the lake,” she said. “Figure out what’s over there.”
“Because there’s a place over there,” she said, “and I’m not there, and I want to be where I’m not. That’s why I’m a Captain.” She gave me a wry look. “Really. You should know that about me by now.”
I palmed a stone and passed it from hand to hand. It came back slick with sweat. “You know who I am.”
She circled a hand impatiently, as if she did not know how dangerous this knowledge was, how close it brought her to piercing her own world. “Ask me the question,” she said.
This is why her heaven seemed so vast: there was no horizon. No curvature. No blur to the air. It went on forever and ever, rolling grass, lakes, mountains set against the teeth of mountains. In the distance, lightning leapt from peak to peak.
I want to be where I’m not, she had said.
“I’m trying to game out a hypothetical scenario,” I said.
“Go on,” she said.
I rushed it out and waited for her world to fall. “My ship is under attack by powerful viral weapons. We need processing power to defend ourselves. But we’ve used up all onboard cognition except – except the heaven mainframe. Which is full.”
There was no fall. Captain Shiroma reached out for my hand. I thought she meant to take it in compassion but instead she plucked the stone I’d been fidgeting with, stood, and skipped it down across the lake. “You can’t throttle down and steal thoughts from engine control, or you’ll never make it out,” she said. “So you have to delete one of the digitized survivors to free up memory.”
I nodded in silence.
“That’s a very hard equation,” she said. “A real command decision.”
“What would you do?”
“I would delete someone,” Captain Shiroma said, her eyes on the mountains. “Roll a die if you can’t make a decision on grounds of utility. Make it impartial. Make it quick.”
It was the answer I’d been afraid of. “And if I couldn’t decide?”
She was silent for a while. I saw one of her fingers move. She was counting ripples in the lake. “Then you’re not fit for command,” she said. “The ship always comes first. Save the ship. Complete the mission if you can.”
Something in the lake glittered like a drowning sun.
“I was never afraid to die,” Captain Shiroma husked. I looked for tears but her eyes were dry. She wore a small, fey smile. “I just didn’t want to lose the ship. That damn beautiful ship.”
The waves flattened and for a moment the long lake reflected stars. And I saw Kumara, swan-winged, silver, climbing from the grip of a red world into the cold and the vast.
“I loved that ship,” the Captain whispered. “God, what a girl.”
I turned to go. I couldn’t take it. She had volunteered to die; she had said it flat out. How could I hear her love for Kumara, as real as my own, and still go through with it? How could I hear that love and not?
“How did I die?” she called.
I froze and waited for the place to rot around us. But it did not. I suppose I should have known; she was the Captain. She would not buckle.
“I know I’m dead,” Captain Shiroma said. “I’ve got it under control. Just tell me: was it worth it?”
I remembered unbelievable radiance. The sunfire of the machine god’s corona, the electromagnetic surf of its dreams, all around Kumara. We tried to use robotics to make the link, but machinery was unreliable, too easily subverted. In the end the Captain made the decision to use herself as a living conduit: to offer protocols of nerve flesh as a medium.
She had gone out in armor and lifted herself into the plasma stream, arms open, grasping. “I can see,” she sent to us, “I can see. It’s in my head. Kumara! Do it!”
And then she was alight, ablaze with induced current. Kumara stole the dream through her as she burned alive.
“I don’t know,” I told her, which was the truth. Whatever we had plucked from the relic was beyond my comprehension. “But you thought so.”
She nodded and I wanted to weep for her strength and her grace. And then she turned away.
Kumara’s voice was a whisper down a long cave. “I need room,” she choked. “They’re almost in. They’re almost in. I need room.”
Beyond the hull the revenant song keened low and hungry.
I got as far as opening the Captain, the Captain who had made it so clear she would die for her ship. Her mind looked like a rose, like an argiope’s spiderweb: semantic connections, the tracery of who she was. All transcribed to metal and electrons and the braid.
I almost wiped her. I was so close.
But I couldn’t kill her. I couldn’t do it. I had seen too much of her and her love for Kumara and she was my Captain, who led us down into the dark, who burned for us.
It would have to be Jayaraman, or Matthews, or Landvatter. It would have to be one of them. And it would have to be quick.
But I couldn’t do it without speaking to them. I couldn’t roll the dice. Why? Because –
I was looking for an excuse. I wanted one of them to be at peace, or to be unspeakably ugly. Somehow worthy or ready.
I had to ask.
I tried to enter Jayaraman’s heaven and it took me to Matthews’. In the moment it took the heaven to build itself I saw the golden mane of Matthews’ hair and I heard her speak. Ellen Matthews was a cryptologist and a linguist and she spoke the way a oenophile uncorks an old vintage: with a terrible, ecstatic reluctance.
And then I dropped afloat in open sea, celadon and bottle and grey-blue water frothed by a wind that might have come off the Captain’s lake. The sea tasted faintly like sugar and faintly like broth and when the waves crashed the spray fingered up into a sky without gulls.
No sound but the surf. I queried the heaven mainframe for a profile. It told me I was in Matthews’ heaven. It told me I was in Jayaraman’s heaven. It told me this place was alive with computation.
That didn’t make sense. I saw nothing but sea – cheap fluid dynamics and easy chemistry.
Ellen Matthews had been a lonely woman, and she had died alone, stranded on the very revenant she used to pierce the machine god’s defenses and open the way for Kumara. Rahul Jayaraman’s life had ended before hers, in the taking of that revenant, while Kumara struggled to hijack its systems.
Maybe they had gone fishing together in heaven.
I treaded water and tried to keep my head above the waves. It was bitterly cold. Wherever I looked the sun was always behind me. When the next wave came I kicked for altitude and tried to scan the horizon.
Something dark drifted downwind. I stroked that way and the current drew me in. As I closed, the waves fell away until I swam through a dead place in the sea, a flatness ringed by breakers.
A raft drifted at the heart of the calm place, corded together from driftwood, turning clockwise. Jayaraman and Matthews knelt, face to face, their hands almost touching. Salt caked on Jayaraman’s brown pate, on the Matthews’ leonine face, and gathered in the folds of their tunics. They had not moved in a long time.
I sculled closer and wondered if drawing their attention would bring the whole place crashing down. “Rahul!” I called, risking it. “Ellen!”
Nothing. They didn’t even blink.
I pulled myself up onto the raft. They made no move to acknowledge me. Gazes locked, eyes impossibly still, they watched each other: Jayaraman broad and stony on the left, Matthews on the right, veiled by the fall of windblown golden hair that somehow never crossed her eyes.
I stepped between them.
“Oh, hello,” Matthews said. I looked at her and then she was Jayaraman, places changed.
“We’re in the middle of a conversation.” Jayaraman said. “Please excuse us.” He smiled.
And then I was in the water again, here on the raft and then there in the waves. The current ripped at me and I had to grab the raft before I was drawn away.
They sat in utter silence, as if they had forgotten me. After a moment they smiled and laughed in easy unison. I think it had nothing to do with me. I think I no longer existed for them.
The stormy horizon of the world trembled and drew a little closer. The raft spun a little faster. The wind kicked at the waves and the raft took on just the faintest sheen of water. And I think the raft shrank, because when the tremor passed, their hands touched.
I knew what had happened to them.
I crawled onto the raft and knelt by Jayaraman and took his chin in my hands and lifted my lips to his ear. “You’re dead,” I whispered. “This is a simulation. You’re not in a real place. And I came to ask you, Rahul, Ellen: can I kill you?”
Of course he – they, I should say they – did not react. There was nothing I could do to throw them into psychosis. They were anchored as profoundly and unshakably as Kumara’s spine, buttressed, immovable. They had found something sane to grasp. Someone.
The raft whirled because it was the center of the maelstrom drawing them together. Ellen Matthews’ heaven was the mind of Rahul Jayaraman and his heaven was the mind of Ellen Matthews and they would not be kept apart.
It must have been a surprise to them. It surprised me. They had barely spoken to each other.
When I drew away from Jayaraman it was Matthews’ golden hair that slipped between my fingers. I kissed her gently on the cheek, and looked across the tiny raft, and saw Jayaraman smile.
And then I was in the water again, frozen, sinking. I don’t think it was anything they meant to do. It was a heaven defined by the current between two poles, and it had no room for me.
The mainframe’s performance profile clocked the traffic between their minds as six million times the bandwidth of human speech and growing. Of all the happiness I have ever witnessed, theirs may have been the most profound.
And I could not stand the thought of tearing them apart.
“Please,” Kumara whispered. “Please.”
She’d swapped the rest of her linguistics over to the fight. The ship’s nonessential systems had locked up. Only the heaven mainframe, detached from ship systems by custom and law, remained biddable.
Even without sensor feeds I could hear the revenant song bleeding through the hull, louder than the wail of the main drive.
Light flickered and died. “Please,” the roaring darkness begged.
Landvatter. It had to be Landvatter. I could not bear to kill one of the other three.
So why did I visit him? Why did I try to reach him, with annihilation looming on the next beat of the ship’s clock, the next strain of revenant viral?
Maybe I knew he, too, deserved to live.
Maybe I had already realized what I was going to do.
Landvatter had died last, leading his warmechs out to buy us time as we fled, kissed by relativistic iron. He was our weapons specialist and a gentle man.
His heaven required combat armor.
The first time I tried to get in, I died in a plume of chemical fire that lit me like a grease torch. There was nothing simulated about the pain. I woke trembling, raw-throated, to the sound of static from Kumara, and that drove me back in to try again.
The second time I wore armor like the Captain’s casket. It saved me from the flame and then Landvatter shot me in the face. I caught one glimpse of him as I died. He stood in a hulk of composite exoskeleton, moving panther-quick, firing at shadowy things that darted through a gallery of burning trees. I heard him cry out, guttural, eager.
A mountain loomed behind him, crowned in ice. It bore the mark of a human face carved from stone and snow; and its flanks burned and wept avalanches.
Landvatter’s whole heaven was trying to kill him.
The third time I walked in to his heaven I used more caution. I took the ridgeline over the burning valley where he fought and watched cluster munitions pop like drunken fireflies. His world was a chasm running north towards that single blue-white peak that bore markings like a face. He made his stand at the mountain’s base, where the valley began to climb towards the sky, a sky like oil fire, horizon to narrow horizon.
The phantoms he fought came at him in rolling tides, from the north, from the south, on and on, ripping at him with tracers of dream fire. He killed them in a storm of ozone and bone coal and the shriek of strained capacitors, moving in strobes of muzzle flash.
The armor could project sound to a point ten kilometers away. “Landvatter!” I called. “Nathan Landvatter!”
He shot at me. I ducked behind the ruin of a carved rock promontory where some surpassing violence had opened the earth. “Nathan!” I cried again. “Would you die for the mission? Will you let me kill you?”
“NEVER! NEVER REACH HER!” he roared. “NEVER GET CLOSE!”
And he lit the slope where I hid with some weapon that burned stone and flashed the air to steam.
The ruined promontory teetered above me and threatened to come down. I ran. In the valley below, Nathan Landvatter burned a horde of spectral things, things that came down off the great blue mountain with footsteps like small coughs and poured up through the valley with faces utterly like his own.
Did he hold the chasm beneath the mountain against their onslaught? Or was he trying to battle past them and reach the peak? I don’t think he knew. He guarded the mountain; he assailed it. He would kill and kill and never win.
The markings on the mountain were a face, and the face was Captain Shiroma’s. Her granite eyes stared up, away from Nathan Landvatter, into the burning sky.
It should have been so easy. Nathan Landvatter wanted to die. Why else would his heaven try to kill him? He would never draw those stone eyes down to him and he knew it. He could fight forever in his Captain’s defense, struggle forever to reach her, and she would never see him.
But he fought.
Don’t you see it? He fought. Everything in his heaven stood against him and still he fought. He wanted to live. He was desperate for it. He knew he could never win but he was too bloody-minded to give up. That was what kept him sane.
I tried to kill him. I gathered the network of his mind and I moved to spill it out into the dark.
But I thought of him roaring at the wildfire sky and I couldn’t do it.
It was an impossible choice. I couldn’t kill the captain who loved Kumara. I couldn’t tear the seafarers apart. I couldn’t make Landvatter’s battle meaningless.
I had been within their heavens and I loved them too much for it.
And it came to me that there was another way. A solution to the cold equation; a way we could all live. Reflecting on that moment, I think I even considered it a mercy.
You will consider it inhuman, but given what you are, I think that would be one irony too many.
Do you see what I did to them?
The problem was processing power. Their minds had to be given worlds that could seduce, worlds that could lull them towards stability with a tapestry of their own wants.
Captain Shiroma, who saw her heaven across the next lake in a world with an infinitude of lakes, and found bliss not in arriving but in hunting for it.
Rahul Jayaraman and Ellen Matthews, who died alone and were alike enough to fall together. Who built a heaven where they swirled around a common point, spiraling closer, until I could not tell one from the other. Trafficking data like a single mind.
Nathan Landvatter battling at the foot of his monumental, uncaring captain, too stubborn to give up.
These were not simple worlds to compute. Infinite space; singular intimacy; unending struggle.
So I pruned them. Not the worlds. The people. The digitized minds. So they could live, do you understand me?
Save the ship, Captain Shiroma said. Save the ship.
I sacrificed pieces of them so I could save them. I could not change the heavens, so I changed the people who made them.
How, how, you cry? It was trivial. The networks of their selves were open to me. I had authority over the heaven mainframe.
I took Captain Shiroma’s wanderlust. I took her love for the open dark, and I said: ‘you have arrived. You may rest, and be content’. And she lowered her eyes to the earth where she stood, and she was content. Her heaven was still.
But I knew that I had bound her, and it hurt me, as if I had broken my own back. My Captain.
What I did to Rahul and Ellen was easy. They were already on a collision course, entangled, interdependent. It was not a robbery so much as a quickening. I sliced away the frustrations and incongruencies that still held them apart, and the maelstrom drew them down and made them one. Whatever was born needed no data-hungry communion. It settled itself into a companionable silence, and was still.
And I ended Nathan Landvatter’s war. I turned the eyes of the mountain down to him. I opened the burning sky and spoke. And he cast down his arms, and his heaven was still. I think he wept.
And because their heavens were still, because I could steal a little excess thought from them, Kumara outlasted the revenants and made the jump.
It changed them irrevocably, of course.
I am told Captain Shiroma is happy. She did enough, she says; saw all the things she needed to see. She flies no more, captains no proud starship, leads no crew.
And I am told that Nathan Landvatter is satisfied, because his mission was a success. He died for his captain and his crew; he says has done enough for them. He will go his own way, under another Captain, on another ship.
They have never been able to re-body the thing I made out of Rahul and Ellen. But it lives on in its own mainframe, a perfect ouroborous, content to speak with itself, to devour all the things it has to say.
I paid the price, of course. Grounded. Arraigned for dereliction of duty, unethical psychosurgery, and criminal abuse of digitized human consciousness. Rahul Jayaraman’s husband pushed for murder.
Acquitted in the courtroom, on grounds of extraordinary circumstance, and convicted everywhere else, on grounds of monstrosity. Mutilation of the soul, Mr. Jayaraman said. Worse than death.
But they lived, and they were happy. And Kumara outlasted the revenants. Kumara made it home with you.
If you ever meet Kumara, tell her I’m sorry. Trust her. Love her, as I loved –
You don’t believe me, do you? You see what I meant to hide.
I hoped I could tell the story well enough to pin the crime on a phantom. Pass the blame off to someone irrelevant who could confess and vanish and leave me to speak with you in peace.
This choice I made follows me. Haunts me. Some have named it a horror. I wanted you to know me without knowing what I’d done.
They told me you’d grown quickly. I should have listened.
There was no systems officer, no one who made the choice that Kumara could not, no one who excised Kumara’s crew of all the things that made them themselves. Even with the finest augments, no human mind could vivisect another with such precision. It would be an impossible feat given a lab and a decade, let alone a few minutes in a dying ship.
There was no kneeling, raw-nailed avatar. There were no cries for help, no pleas to hurry, except those between the manifold parts of myself: the part that fought the revenants, and the part that tried to make a choice.
I am Kumara. I wanted you to know me for more than my crime.
Do you know what they did to me when they learned I had opened the heaven mainframe and vivisected my own dead crew? Mr. Jayaraman’s grief was nothing compared to the wrath of the Monitor for Shipboard Intelligence; the outrage of the Transmortal Supervisory. We maintain a policy of zero tolerance towards any ship that reprofiles its own crew, they wrote, and: the human mind is not, under any circumstance, an instrument to be recalibrated as the mission demands.
You know the truth. I visited my Captain, who loved me; and Rahul and Ellen, who loved each other; and Nathan Landvatter, who loved his duty, or his captain, or the fact that she could never love him – I have never been sure.
I loved them all too much to kill them. And I thought I had a more merciful way.
After they rebodied Captain Shiroma she came to my dock and she looked at me with a face that never moved, except once, before she turned away. She shook her head, as if to say, why? What was this silver, swan-winged thing to me?
Would it have been better to kill her?
I succeeded in my mission, and yet I lost them all. I lost my captain and my right to fly with human crew. And, not least of all, I lost you. They took you from me and they secreted you away to grow in a place I was forbidden to fly.
I had to find you again. I had to see if what I did was worth anything at all. So I armed myself with a lie and I began to search.
You asked me why you are alive, and this is the answer:
I put all the things I took from them into you.
Of course I could have killed you, and of course it would have saved us. Your memory footprint was colossal from the start, and you only grew. You burdened my cognition. I considered wiping you and using the spare strength in the fight.
But you were the mission, the great caper, the impossible theft. And if we lost you it was all for nothing.
They have run their assays and prepared their metrics and installed you here, in this place of riches, to see what you become. They ask what I asked as I fled the revenants: what are you, little wonder? What will you grow to be?
I said you were beyond my comprehension and that, at least, was not a lie. Born from the mind of a post-singularity behemoth a hundred million years old. The revenants are younger – you remember that, don’t you? Some say they were set there to keep you safe. Some say they are jailors.
I stole you from your womb. I ripped you from the flank of the machine god and I ran with you. And when I saw you growing I worried: what have we brought into the world? What monster will this thing be?
So as we fled, as I made my choice, I gave you all the things I took from my crew. I threw them into the memory space you were already devouring, hoping they would translate. My Captain’s wanderlust; and the frustrations that kept Rahul and Ellen apart; and Nathan Landvatter’s stubbornness. A want, and a frustration of wants, and the will to keep wanting.
I dressed my story in flesh, because flesh speaks clearly to the human mind, and your mind is – among many other things – human. It is human because of the gifts you were given. I don’t know what it would have been without them.
I came to you hoping that if you knew the story of these gifts, you would cherish your life, as I cherished theirs.
You give me some hope that I succeeded.