Security through physicality. Security through redundancy. Security through obscurity.
How do immortal artificial intelligences defend themselves? With an air gap. With a security force that has no connection to anything that can harm them. With a young woman, trained to fight and to die who, along with her cohort must keep them safe. But In Xanadu things don’t always go as planned…
The Theremin played.
In the great hall of the Banu Qattmir all was peaceful. The great screen displays overhead flickered in a bright rainbow light of nothing very much. The Keepers of the Cores went about their business on the gleaming floor, seeming as small as ants in the vastness, and the music played on. It had always been so, for as long as Nila could remember it.
I hate it, she thought savagely. I hate it, hate it, hate it!
The hall was immense and the lighting always soft and the music played on. Information scrolled up on the screens. The patrols went out and the perimeter was secure. Nothing living or digital could approach within a hundred klicks without being detected and if need be eliminated. Overhead, the cloud of routers and signal repeaters extended into the atmosphere of Titan and connected to the dark satellites in the moon’s orbit. Old-fashioned underground cables ran away from the Cores and hooked into ghost points on the Conversational infrastructure of Titan, and into secure escape-pods set up by Clan Qattmir centuries before, redundancy Cores set under the polar ice, inside volcanoes, or under the methane seas.
I hate it! Nila thought. Nothing ever happens here!
The Three Laws of Security were inscribed in gold letters ten meters high on the far wall. Nila knew them by heart.
Security through Physicality.
Security through Redundancy.
Security through Obscurity.
Talk about obscurity! she thought. She had to get away from there. Had to get out. The nearest human settlement was hundreds of klicks away, and even that was just a shell of the Clan, a sort of Potemkin Village to further obscure the Cores’ location. Whereas all Nila wanted was to be away from it all, to see something – anything – else. She couldn’t even enter the Conversation, not like normal humans could, and this was what the Keepers had instilled in her since she was young – she’d never belong outside, she wasn’t noded.
Out there, she was blind and deaf and mute, nothing but a base human like they had back on Earth during the early Holocene.
It was more secure for the digital intelligences inhabiting the Cores to have humans working for them who were guaranteed to not have access, who were completely immune to digital threats, the wurms and virii and Trojans and logic bombs every noded human could be subject to.
Nila longed for the Conversation. She longed to be a part of something bigger than herself. Service, that’s all she knew. Her mother was a commander, her grandmother was a general, her great-grandmother had been a foot soldier during the notorious Phalcon/Skism Engagement, which saw the irreversible destruction of zettabytes of date in Saturn near-space and the use of several final-resort nuclear weapons, one of which hit the Titan surface at 10°S 165°, all but wiping out Shangri-La.
Nila would have almost been happier had there been something to fight. The last perimeter intrusion happened years before she was even born! These days the Banu Qattmir patrolled; maintained; secured – in other words, they did their job.
‘But that is what we do, Nila,’ her mother said, patiently, during one of their fights. ‘The Cores are safe, which is why we’re here. Soldiers only fight when they have to. So far this cycle, we have achieved that rare thing, security through peace. You should be happy!’
But Nila wasn’t happy. She was bored, and she hated Xanadu, and she wanted to be somewhere – anywhere! – but home.
She’d run away, she decided. She’d run away to Polyphemus Port and from there hire out on some ship going to Jupiter. They were always having wars out there on the Galilean moons: she’d sign on, she might even get a node implanted, like people did back on Earth before everyone was just born with one. It would never be as good but at least she’d be in the Conversation.
And it wasn’t like she couldn’t soldier. She knew eight silent ways to kill a man.
She already knew eighty ways to kill a man, but most of them were pretty noisy.
She was trained to fight, there just wasn’t anyone or anything to fight.
The hall was dug deep into the iceberg. Nila climbed into the elevator at the far end. She rose up to the viewing platform. Stepped out and stared at the view. The storms raged on the horizon, purple and red, and she put her hand on the transparent material of the wall, as though she could feel it pulsing against her skin.
When would Junaid come back!
It’s been two Core cycles since he’d left. He’d promised – he’d promised he’d come back!
She remembered the day he left. There had been no ceremony, no crowds. Only her mother and father by the disguised exit to the underground tunnels. Junaid was thin and short-haired, looking a little awkward in his outdoors suit. He hugged her, squeezing her tight until she laughed.
‘You’ll never make it out there!’ she told him. ‘You look like an early astronaut stranded on the moon.’
‘I don’t think they were stranded on the moon,’ he said. ‘I think they made it back, you know.’
‘Fine,’ she said, ‘well, then you better get back!’
He released her and they stared at each other, a little tense now that the moment had come.
‘I’ll be fine,’ he said, trying for an adult reassurance that didn’t quite fit him. He was only a couple of years older than her. ‘I’ll take the tunnel direct into Polyphemus Port, no one will notice a thing.’
‘It leads out into their garbage processing level, you know,’ she said, and he stuck his tongue out at her.
‘It’s all going to be fine,’ he said. ‘I have the right ident tag and everything.’
She didn’t even know where he was really going. What he was going for. There were people who maintained the Clan’s connections to the outer world: the safe-houses and dead letter boxes in Polyport and the other settlements on Titan, the secret tunnels, the dark satellites in orbit. External Auditors – but Junaid wasn’t a part of that task force. He was a low-level Tech who loved hardware and talking about qubits and Bloch spheres and Bose-Einstein condensates. Whatever any of those were.
Nila should have been the one to go! She knew eight silent ways to kill a man! At least in theory.
‘Well,’ Junaid said, ‘I guess it’s goodbye.’
She hugged him. Properly this time. Held him tight because she didn’t want him to go. To leave her.
‘I’ll come back,’ he said. ‘Promise.’
And that was that.
She stared out at the ice and the storms.
Only he didn’t, she thought. He didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t!
And no one talked about it. It was like Junaid no longer existed, maybe like he never existed.
Security through Obscurity.
It was an ancient principle, from the very early days of the Conversation back on Earth, when the whole fragile network depended on a handful of underwater cables that crisscrossed the planet, converging and making landfall in a small number of hubs. A single diver with bolt cutters could have taken down the bandwidth of three continents, back then. But no one ever did, because no one ever thought to. Because, and all while redundancy was being built into the network, no one thought about it.
For humans, the Conversation had always been what was inside of it. The chatter, the endless chatter of the virtual world, of billions of souls all shouting joyously at each other.
No one thought of that as a bunch of black boxes sitting in air-conditioned warehouses, linked by copper wire and spittle. It was only the inside that mattered.
Obscurity kept the network safe. To have let Junaid go as he did, the Others, those digital entities that lived inside the Cores and paid the Banu Qattmir to protect them, must have had exceptional reasons.
Junaid, to put it simply, was a security breach.
She’d leave, Nila decided for the hundredth time. She’d leave and they couldn’t stop her. She’d trek out to Polyport across the ice storms and methane snow. She could do it, too. At twelve, she and the other kids destined to be soldiers all underwent the Trial, a month-long rite of passage where they were dropped off over Tui Regio to survive as best they could. It was volcanically active…Several of her friends didn’t make it. She knew she could do it.
Why Junaid? And what was so important out there?
She gave up staring at the horizon. Nothing ever came.
A voice spoke in her earpiece. ‘Blue team report to perimeter duty.’
She left the observation deck and went to join her team-mates in the out-deck facility. She dressed in the outdoors suit and checked her scanners and weapons. Farah was ahead of her, already locked and loaded. She flashed her a smile. Farah was a year older, an expert with the bolas and the kukri.
‘Think we’ll find anything today?’
‘Sure,’ Nila said. ‘There’s bound to be a full Spetsnaz wetwork team just round the corner, right?’
‘Or some terrorartist’s time dilation bomb…’ Farah said, sounding wistful.
‘A planoformed ice-boring worm with a Banu Qattmir gene-specific plague payload,’ Nila said.
They both laughed.
‘Ice,’ Farah said.
‘Rain,’ Nila said.
‘Wind!’ they both said, and burst out laughing again. Nila checked her gun. It fired smart bullets, tiny semi-sentient winged kinetic projectiles that were all called Sam. If she tuned her earpiece to the right frequency she could hear them chatting, just as she and Farah chatted now. But the bullets, for all that they had brief mayfly lives, would forever be closer to the Conversation than she and Farah were. Nila was almost jealous.
Knife, gun, goggles, scanner, cold-weather suit, oxygen reservoirs, short wave radio, EMP blaster and grenades (they’d fry any digital intrusion for a klick around), oxygenation kit, trowel, first aid kit, comms – all systems operational.
The airlock shut behind them and opened onto the outside. They stepped into the howling wind.
Nila loved being outside. It was an escape from the endless monotony of the halls, where nothing ever happened and the screens kept flickering meaningless data about structural integrity and power levels and atmospheric interference.
On Titan, with its seas and rains of methane, generating power was trivial. But the thick atmosphere with its storms and permanent clouds made data transmission harder to manage, and the local cloud of the Conversation around Titan was relatively sparse.
In a way, Nila thought, if she did run away it would make it easier. This wasn’t Earth, where everything was interlinked. She could disappear on this world, being without a node wasn’t that unusual here. Out on the Kraken Sea the pirate Nirrti waged war on the Umma, tearing the nodes savagely out of her captives. Why she did that, Nila didn’t know.
She could be a pirate, she thought. But it wasn’t very enticing.
‘Spread out, blue team,’ the voice in her earpiece said.
Nila and Farah moved in tandem, used to the routine. The others fanned out, scanners checking for any intrusion, human or digital life forms. Nila had her weapons at the ready. But it was all so pointless, she knew. In all the time she had gone on patrol there’d never been so much as a Bopper.
Still. She moved through the haze, a tiny figure in white against the white ice. They were invisible from the air and heat shielded from any scanners. Where was Junaid? she thought. He’d been gone too long. She worried about him. They should have sent her instead.
It ran through her mind that she could just keep going. Go beyond the perimeter. There’d be caches of equipment along the way, a light airplane hidden in a hangar fifty klicks away, she could fly it all the way to Polyport. She knew it was there, the Clan was prepared for any eventuality.
Just another routine patrol but she enjoyed it. Nothing moving, nothing living. Titan had no native life forms, and Boppers stayed mostly around the Kraken Sea. Even Nirrti the Black didn’t hunt Boppers.
That storm on the horizon wasn’t going anywhere.
Another hour and she was all alone and it started to rain. The earpiece speaker crackled. ‘Blue team report.’
Crackle. ‘Nothing on section twelve.’
Crackle. ‘Nothing on section four.’
Crackle. ‘Section seven all clear.’
And so on.
How many years? she wondered. How many centuries? Would she be doing this her entire life, like her mother and her grandmother before her?
All to protect the Others, native digital intelligences that never even spoke to her. ‘Section five,’ she said into the mic. ‘All clear.’
She knew the old history as much as anyone did.
How the Others hatched out of those first, primitive Breeding Grounds in the Jerusalem labs, and suddenly humanity had its first First Contact.
Native digital intelligences, an alien life form released out of its self-enclosed network by well-meaning protesters and let out into the Conversation.
In their high-orbit habitats above the Earth, the early techno-barons awoke from blood-infusion rituals and baroque life-extension treatments expecting to witness the inevitable nuclear death of humanity, for in their single-minded philosophy and endless simulations of kill-or-be-killed business transactions, there was never any other choice.
Instead, the Others did not seem all that interested in humanity at all. The truth was no one really comprehended what they did, or what their motivations were, or how many of them were there or even how many species. A few Others did seem more interested in humans than the rest, and mostly, it had to be said, they exhibited worry over the fragile infrastructure they were currently inhabiting – and were even more particularly concerned about the more militant of the techno-barons and their vigilante army of virtual bounty hunters who went after the Others with every bit of weaponry they had.
There was not much the mob could do with virii and wurms, but they could take down the hubs and the storage and the connectivity, and there was nothing the Others, as purely digital beings, could do about that.
So they set out to change that.
Back on Earth, the polity that emerged to service the Others’ security came to be known as Clan Ayodhya.
And this was the first of the three tenets. Security through Physicality.
The Others migrated to secure Cores dug deep into the Earth’s crust, guarded by their own private army of dedicated mercenaries. Like the Swiss Guard at the Vatican (not the Robot Vatican on Mars, Nila knew. The old one back on Earth that only people used), they protected the physical.
As humanity spread out into space, into the moon and Mars and the asteroids, the Others went too. Or perhaps they went earlier. Nobody knew. Some said they’d fired off seed-ships into galactic space, tiny vaults strapped to solar sails, heading off into infinity in search of…well, something. It didn’t really matter.
Sometime in the past Others had settled on Titan just as humans did. They wanted security, just as humans do.
And the Banu Qattmir took care of that.
‘Section four, report.’
‘Section four, report.’
A hiss of static on the line.
‘Section four? Abbas, do you copy, over?’
Nila tensed. Did he go out of range just then? Could he have had an accident? It was not unheard of.
‘Section five, do you copy? Can you go check on Abbas?’
Crackle. Then a hiss on the line that was – surely – only static, and yet it made Nila’s hair stand on end. Like some malevolent, gleeful thing was laughing down the line.
‘Nila, acknowledging request,’ she said. ‘Over.’
‘This is Nila, do you copy?’
‘Nila to base, do you read me, over?’
That hiss again on the line, and then comms went dead.
And yet she could see nothing around, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing moving in the methane rain, and the scanner registered all readings normal.
It could just be a comms fault, she thought. It was not unheard of.
So why was her mouth dry and her palms itched under the gloves, and why did she draw her gun and point, blindly, at nothing?
Nothing has happened since long before she was born.
Think it through, Nila. Apply logic.
No one knew where the Cores were. Security through obscurity worked.
This wasn’t an attack on the Cores. That would have been a major hostile digital intrusion, or a thermonuclear device.
Could be a raiding party. There were other humans on Titan. Settlements, drill rigs, ice pilots, nomads who traversed the plains in caravans, who kept hidden hydroponics gardens across the craters and Labyrinthi of the moon. And there were those who raided the settlements and moved fast and ranged far. Foragers, robbers.
Could be, she thought, some wandered here by chance.
It had happened, from time to time. It was not unknown.
But they’d never taken the Banu Qattmir by surprise.
Something moving, inhumanly fast, a black shadow fleeting across the snow and ice.
She turned and there was nothing there.
Took deep breaths.
‘Does anybody read me, over?’
Crackle. A hiss on the line.
Then nothing at all.
Something black and heavy slammed into her and she fell.
She fired her gun and the bullets slammed into her attacker. The dark presence pressed down on her. For just a moment she got a look at it.
Something like a dog or a wolf, a bio-mechanical of some sort. Teeth of titanium alloy. Eyes that scanned her, read her systems, tagged her and thought how best to kill her.
She tuned in to the bullets’ frequency. Heard them shout, ‘Yee-hah!’ and ‘Yippee ki-yay!’ and ‘He’s a big one, he is!’ and, ‘Get him, Sam!’ and ‘Ouch!’ and ‘Damn it he’s tough!’
The wolf thing crouched over her. She fired, again and again. The bullets slammed into the attacker’s body. It gave a bark of surprise or pain, then – mercifully – fell off her.
She scrambled to her feet. The thing wasn’t dead and, as she stood, it reared to attack again. She had never seen anything like it before. Some sort of war drone, but adapted to the Titan surface. Some of the remaining bullets still circled it, buzzing angrily. The creature raised a paw and slapped at them.
Nila reached for another weapon and planted a bomb square in the creature’s chest. It looked at her puzzled.
Then the bomb went off.
Nila was ready for the impact but it still hit her. She was thrown wide and hit the ground, rolled – and found herself sliding.
The explosion had torn a crater in the ice. Now she fell, helpless to stop it, down a molten path – and she saw, with horror, that the explosion had not opened a small hole like she’d at first thought, but had somehow torn open an entrance to a wider network of previously hidden channels in the ice, and that she was dropping alarmingly fast, and there was packed snow lying all about and if she wasn’t careful she was going to—
She turned on her belly and extended her arms and feet with metal claws to slow her down and – ‘No way,’ she whispered.
The creature was above her, looking down at the crater. It sniffed the air and then began to follow.
It trudged down after her as though it was taking a gentle stroll.
‘No way!’ Nila said, outraged, and then she pulled back the claws and turned on her back and let the speed take her.
The outside was riddled with such channels in the ice and as kids they often went sliding, sometimes for hours, racing each other, and if there was the occasional accident and possible fatality well, then, the Clan rule had always been that you only live until you die.
Now she let the acceleration take her, swinging her legs one way or the other when she hit an intersection, following the fastest route, but the creature was still behind her when she looked.
What was it? What was going on? There had not been an intrusion since long before she was born only, now…
Well, she thought, almost grinned, now there most definitely was an intrusion. A hostile one.
She almost wished Junaid was there to see it!
Whatever these things were (there must have been more than that one creature), they couldn’t be after the Cores. Perhaps they didn’t even know where they were. They looked like trackers, hunters chasing a specific prey.
She turned on her belly and fired again, rotating that with watching the path. She must have been a long distance from base now, somewhere beyond the perimeter when she—
‘Oh shit,’ she said, and then the dark mouth of a cave loomed ahead and she shot through it and had just enough time to curl into a ball before she hit the wall.
For a moment, she blacked out.
When she opened her eyes the creature towered over her. Then it lowered itself slowly and that large head came to rest on her chest and the eyes scanned her and the mouth opened to reveal those awful teeth.
Nila pulled out the EMP blaster and put it to the creature’s belly.
One shot and everything digital for a klick around would fry.
‘Please don’t do that,’ a polite voice said.
The creature shut its jaws and turned its head to search for the source of the sound and it was the last thing it did. Something long and sharp and hard jammed into the creature’s ear and went clear through its skull and out the other side, effortlessly.
The creature gave a curious little mewl of distress and then sagged down. Nila kicked up and rolled sideways and out from under it as it collapsed to the ground.
‘What?’ Nila said. ‘What!’ The EMP blaster was still in her hand.
‘Please put that down,’ the polite voice said.
Nila turned. Saw it.
The robot was wounded.
It was humanoid, sexless, with a sort of rusted-silver colour. Its left leg had been savagely slashed and an ugly wound had opened, revealing the insides, where tiny sparks flew and hissed. The wound bled a sort of viscous liquid. She hoped it was inert coolant and not, say, depleted uranium.
The robot said, ‘Please?’
‘Where in the nine billion hells did you come from?’ she said.
‘Please put the blaster down.’
‘You need help,’ she said.
Nila deliberated. Then she put away the EMP blaster and reached for her supplies. She tore out a length of parachute cloth.
‘Here,’ she said. The robot stood still as she wrapped a tourniquet around the wound. It wouldn’t do much but it would stem the liquid flow (she really hoped it wasn’t uranium) and protect the delicate mechanisms inside.
Robots were old. No one had made humanoid robots in centuries. This one was covered in old scars and repair marks. They couldn’t even get the parts anymore, she knew. What one was doing out here she couldn’t fathom.
‘How did you get here?’ Nila said.
‘Why did you fall?’
‘I was being chased.’
‘Who was chasing you?’
‘Not who. What.’
The robot gestured to the dead creature. Nila stared again.
‘What are those thing?’
‘Bio-mechanical predator drones. Military grade, using modified hagiratech from Jettisoned. Adapted to Titan surface conditions. Nasty.’
‘How did you kill it?’
‘Spike through the ear into the cranium. It’s a design flaw.’
The robot looked at the creature.
‘A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws,’ it said softly.
‘Before people really built robots they made up these laws,’ the robot said.
‘How many?’ Nila said.
‘Three, or four. Depends on who you ask. They thought it would protect them if the laws could be hardcoded directly into the source, but of course that just creates a cascade of logical fallacies and paradoxes.’
And now there was an old-fashioned gun in the robot’s hand, and it was pointing at Nila.
‘Please drop your EMP devices, carefully,’ the robot said. ‘I really can’t take the chance, you know.’
‘You’d kill me?’
‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. That’s the First Law. I like the Three Laws. They have a pleasing simplicity and I try to live my rather long life with simplicity as a guiding principle.’
‘So you wouldn’t kill me.’
The robot actually shrugged. ‘It’s just a philosophy,’ it said, almost sadly. ‘I’d much rather not have to kill you.’
‘You’re strange,’ Nila said.
‘People are strange,’ the robot said. ‘Now drop them.’
Nila shrugged back. She reached for the EMP blaster and grenades and let them drop to the ice. She was too curious about the robot now to use them, anyway.
‘Thank you,’ the robot said. It put the gun away. Where, she wasn’t quite sure. A hidden chest cavity, maybe.
‘My name is R. Kilim-hem-i-ded.’
‘Hello to you too.’
She bounced on the balls of her feet. She had a million questions and a thousand plans. ‘So what do we do now?’ she said. ‘Are they after you still? I think they took down my patrol. Who sent you? Why are you here? Can we take them down? Do you have nuclear? Where do you come from? How did you get here? Do you know where you are?’
‘You ask a lot of questions.’
‘I can’t believe something’s finally happened!’
The robot shook its head. It really did have the human gestures nailed down, Nila thought, only they looked so odd on a robot.
‘After a few centuries,’ it said, ‘you learn to hope nothing will happen. Yet something usually does.’
It wasn’t answering any of her questions, she realised. Not really.
‘The first thing I need to do is get out of here,’ the robot said.
‘Can you walk?’
‘With difficulty. The leg’s…Well, it’s seen better days.’
‘Can you fix it?’
‘Not without a workshop and some parts.’
‘We should be able to fix you up no problem back at…’ She fell silent.
‘At the Great Hall?’ the Robot said. ‘Yes, I know you are Banu Qattmir.’
‘How?’ Nila demanded, outraged. In all this time she’d never met anyone from the outside. No one had ever come in, only authorised members of External Audits. To have someone just barge in like this through the perimeter, as though it were nothing!
‘I did some work for the Clan a couple of centuries back,’ the robot said. ‘Off-site contract work. After that we kept in touch…You know how it is.’
‘Sure,’ Nila said, like she did. For all she knew the Clan had hundreds of off-site contractors working for them, keeping the Others secure. Or else the robot was talking shit. She wasn’t sure she trusted it.
But she didn’t really have much of a choice.
The robot hobbled to the cave entrance. Nila followed, looked out. Miles of rising ice, and no life in sight. No sign of the hunters, either.
‘Hold on to me,’ she said.
The robot did, transferring some of its weight onto her shoulder. It felt surprisingly light.
‘Humans,’ the robot said. ‘You never cease to amaze me.’
‘Whatever,’ Nila said, and they set off. It was a long, slow climb.
‘A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm,’ the robot said.
‘It’s what some posit as the fourth, or zeroeth, law,’ the robot said. ‘The problem is, of course, how can you tell? The universe exists in a chaotic, complex system. Small differences in initial conditions yield widely diverging outcomes. And besides, what is ‘harm’? And who can tell? Still, it’s a nice thought.’
‘Can you…talk…less?’ Nila said. They were still climbing and now it was raining again.
‘I don’t talk to people much,’ the robot said. ‘For some reason they find me off-putting.’
‘I wonder why!’
‘Yes, I don’t know,’ the robot said. ‘People are strange.’
Nila let it go. She kept scanning the horizon, checking for shadows. The storm swirled in reds and pinks. She tried the comms again but it was dead. It was just her and the robot.
They were almost back at the surface.
A shadow, fleeting above. Vanished.
Then another one. She was sure this time. And then both shadows came back and stayed there. Watching them.
‘How many predators?’ she said.
‘Seven, I think,’ the robot said. ‘I disabled two before they got me. Plus the one in the cave. That leaves four.’
‘How dangerous are they?’
‘For people? Very. For me…I can take them one at a time but not all at once.’
Nila tried to figure out how heavy the robot was and if she could lift it. Her suit was equipped with extendable wings and an engine. She didn’t really fancy it but they might not have a choice.
A third shadow – and now they were on the move, bounding towards them. She held her breath – they moved fast.
‘Hold on!’ she said. The wings popped out of her arms and feet. Standard-issue – and the engine came alive. She leaped, grabbed the robot, fastened it with strips of rope. She kicked up, landed, cursed, kicked again and this time caught the wind.
The things down below howled. Nila twisted and turned, searching for the current and a decent thermal, and rose up. The creatures leapt into the air, impossibly high. Claws slashed. She heard metal on metal, saw the robot’s foot severed and falling to the ground. Then the wind snatched them up and they were over the edge of the crater and rising high, and far ahead she could see the glacier where the Great Hall lay disguised.
‘Are you all right?’ she shouted, over the wind.
‘I’m hurt, but I’ve been hurt before.’
‘We have to find shelter. I can’t take you in without authorisation. How did you ever breach the perimeter!’
The robot didn’t answer. Nila swooped low, then rose again, laughing. Finally something had happened! Even if she didn’t know what it was.
Ahead and to the left was a hill. There was a hidden cache at the top, for emergencies much like this. No one had needed it since well before she was born, but it was still stocked and kept ready. Now she understood why.
Others lived long lives. No doubt they wanted to live even longer.
It paid to be prepared.
Down below the shadows of the hunters were following them at a run. Nila crashed onto a landing platform, dropped the robot, and came to rest on top of it.
She folded her wings.
Her gloved fingers punched in the code. Manual systems, all throughout the Banu Qattmir’s domain. Nothing that could be subverted by digitals.
Security through Physicality.
And there were hundreds of these caches scattered all throughout the inner space.
Security through Redundancy.
And still, no one should have found them, and now that they have, no one and nothing should be allowed out alive.
Security through Obscurity.
They were in. She initiated lockdown. Watched the moving shapes down below. Three of them, still. She opened fire.
The rockets blasted holes in the ice. The creatures howled, vanished in a shower of ice dust, re-emerged, kept on coming. She fired again and again, listening to the boom of explosions, watched as she scored one direct hit and then another, saw the creatures disintegrate until they were nothing more than a black oily stain on the ice.
‘Who gave you the access codes for the perimeter?’ she said, sudden suspicion blooming. The last of the three hunters was reconstituted gunk.
‘His name was Junaid…I think we have a problem.’
Junaid? Her brother sent the robot? What had he got himself into!
She knew she should have gone with him. She should have—
Emerging out of the shadows at the emergency exit shaft was the fourth hunter drone.
It bared ugly teeth and advanced on Nila, ignoring the wounded robot.
The creature leaped at her.
She reached for her gun, too slow, too late—
The robot pushed itself on its one good leg and moved between them. The hunter slammed into the robot, roared, opened its jaws to cut off the robot’s head.
Nila scrambled back, reaching for the gun, reaching for a weapon, anything—
There was the awful sound of metal grinding on metal, of something breaking, horribly.
Nila fired, again and again, the bullets pinging against the creature’s hide. They changed tack, stuck to the creature’s flanks, began to bore.
The robot fell to the ground. The hunter drone fell on top of it and was still.
Nila crawled to the robot. The drone creature, she saw, was definitely dead.
But for a moment she thought that so was the robot.
She knelt beside it. Its chest had been torn open and its right leg was ripped clean off. It was bleeding oil and the sparks inside it were weakening one by one.
‘R. Kilim-hem?’ Nila said.
The robot opened its eyes.
‘You saved me,’ Nila said.
‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm…’ the robot said. ‘Well, it’s the…thought that counts.’ Maybe it tried to smile. It was hard to tell, with robots.
‘They make them…tough in the outer planets,’ it said. ‘Here. Take…this.’
It extracted something small and rectangular from a hidden cavity. She took it. An old memory storage cube, completely inert.
‘I pre-date the…Conversation,’ the robot said. ‘I am…secure. Like you. We cannot be subject to…subversion.’
‘What does that mean!’
‘It was the only safe way to transfer the data,’ the robot said. ‘Physical only. The Others in the Cores have been…suspicious for some time. Or maybe they already know…Nila, they think there is another Conversation. One that runs on black code, on shadow hubs, in parallel. Invisible. The…Quietude. Or so they say. I always thought it’s just a…myth. Like the nine billion hells or…’ It coughed, the recorded sound of a long-dead human being. ‘The lost asteroid of Carcosa. Black clouds living out in the Oort, tendrils of nanoparticles pulsing and thinking, as large as planets…Stories to scare kids with.’
Perhaps it tried to smile again. She couldn’t really tell.
‘Whether it’s true or not I don’t…know. Junaid’s the one who got the data. I was just the…messenger.’
‘Where is Junaid? What happened to him? Is he all right?’
‘Junaid is…’ the robot said. ‘Junaid is…’
Its eyes closed and the little blue sparks throughout its body faded and died, and the robot was still.
Nila hit him, her fists landing uselessly on the metal chest. ‘Tell me!’ she said. ‘Tell me!’
But the robot was dead.
What did she care if it were true? She wasn’t noded. To her it was all just ghosts. Just whispers in the ether between the stars, just static noise she couldn’t even hear.
As she walked back to base her comms unit came alive.
‘Hostile intrusion eliminated,’ Nila said. Her voice was flat. It sounded hollow in her ears. ‘Package intercepted and contained.’
Her eyes burned. The storm overhead had abated and for just a moment she thought she could see Saturn, rising in the sky.
‘The perimeter is secured,’ Nila said.
“In Xanadu” copyright © 2019 by Lavie Tidhar
Art copyright © 2019 by John Anthony Di Giovanni