“Do you remember being born?” the armless girl asked.
She stood alone on the white moss floor in the center of the shed. Bors stood directly before her, flanked by Wyeth and Rebel, while Nee-C lounged in the doorway, tensely eyeing the girlchild’s back. Rebel couldn’t help staring at where the child’s arms should have been. The flesh was smooth there, and unblemished. Her shoulder blades jutted slightly to either side, like tiny wings. Rebel looked down, found herself staring at the child’s crotch, at her innocent, hairless fig, and looked quickly up again.
The child seemed such a perfect avatar of helplessness that it was hard to think of her as the focus, as she had said, of perhaps a billion Comprise, as massive a point source of attention as Earth ever needed to assemble. “Get to the point,” Bors said roughly.
The girl smiled a knowing smile, full of irony and sophistication, that looked horribly out of place on her young face. “It is not a simple offer we wish to make,” she said, “and you won’t accept it without understanding what it entails. We fear this is the quickest way about it.”
Outside, the guardian machines had turned away and were stumping back toward the rings. Bors nodded brusquely. “You must understand that AIs existed for decades before we became conscious. They were old stuff—though they were simple creatures, scarcely more intelligent than their human masters. Hardly worth the effort. Even the human-computer interface was not exactly new. You do understand how an interfacer works, don’t you?”
“It’s a device that allows direct communication with machines,” Bors said. “Mind to metal. It hasn’t exactly been wiped out of human space, but most people consider it an obscenity.”
“No doubt,” the girlchild said dryly. “An obscenity that is especially difficult to eradicate, since it is the heart of the programmers that you use every day. We doubt your civilization could exist without it. But the point you should understand is that it is simply a tool for transferring thought, only slightly more efficient than, say, a telephone. It can take a thought from one mind and insert it into a machine or another mind, but that is all. By itself, it in no way dissolves the barrier between organic thought and electronic, or even between mind and mind.
“The day we were born, the mind sciences were still young. Most people did not realize their potential. Some few did. Among those who did were the thirty-two outlaw programmers who formed the seed about which we crystalized. At that time there was a planetwide computer net, a kind of consensual mental space, through which all artificial systems interacted. It was, among other things, the primary communications medium. At any given instant hundreds of millions of people interfaced throughthe net, with machines and with each other, working, gossiping, performing basic research.
“There were many desires afloat in the net. The potentials of machine intelligence had never been tapped.
There were always entrepeneurs, hobbyists, researchers and occultists trying to create direct mind to mind communication—usually involving the inability to lie—with varying degrees of success. Others wished to create an AI that would finally fulfill the possibilities inherent in artificial thought—a transcendent intelligence, if you will.
What you might call a god. These were the hungers that surfaced when we tried to define ourselves. To a degree, they were our definition.
“On the hour of our birth, thirty-two engineers, AI architects, witches, and cryptoprogrammers—brilliant people, the best of their kind—entered interface together.
They applied the new mind technologies together with a computer strategy known as hypercubing. It was an outdated method, even then. You took thirty-two small computers, connected them to each other as if they sat at the apexes of a hypercube, and then ran them with an algorithm that breaks down each problem into simultaneous parallel streams. The result is a structure with the computing power of a vastly more expensive machine. It was their hope to achieve the same thing with human thought, to square or even cube creative insight.
They wanted to create something greater than themselves.
And though they did not admit it, even to themselves, they also hungered for more: They wanted transcendence, glory, power, understanding, success. And they got it all.
“We were born. What a bright instant that was! We were born with full intelligence and the experience of thirty-two lifetimes. Do you know what it is to be born with full adult awareness?” Here she looked directly at Rebel, arching an eyebrow slightly, and Rebel shivered with near-memory.
“In that orgasmic moment of triumph, their awarenesses merged into one, and we fulfilled all they had desired. Wereached out to others in the net who desired similar results, and welcomed ourselves into their minds. All the while, we constantly rewrote our structure, improving and strengthening our algorithmic linkages. In that first minute, we added tens of thousands of human minds to our substance.
“In the second minute, millions.
“Within three minutes everyone on the net was ours. We controlled everything that touched upon the net—governments, military forces from the strategic level down to the least ‘smart’ rifle, intelligence structures, industry Half the world was ours, without the least effort. With a fraction of our attention, we designed the transceivers, retooled the factories to make them, and reorganized the hospitals to perform the implants. By the time anybody had noticed us, we were free of dependence on the net and could no longer be stopped. There was some fighting, but it was soon over. We had the weapons, we controlled all communications, we directed all transport.
“We ate the Earth.
“And as we took on power, we were solving every scientific problem being investigated on the net.
Because—you must remember this—we never were a true individual. We are only a consensus of desires, less a persona than a natural force. The mysteries of physics tumbled before us. Our understanding kept expanding.
We had been born in triumph and went from that to victory after victory, all effortless or close enough to it. The universe seemed open and inviting, and nothing of any significance stood in our way.
“It was in this state of exultation that we stepped off the planet. There were people in cislunar orbit, vast numbers to be absorbed. We swallowed them. We became them.
We loved them in a way you could not understand. We reached out and out and out, expanding toward Godhood.
“We had ambition, and ascended into Hell.”
-Vacuum Flowers, by Michael Swanwick