Beyond the Dragon’s Gate

Former Academician Anna Kim’s research into AI cost her everything. Now, years later, the military has need of her expertise in order to prevent the destruction of their AI-powered fleet.

 

 

Anna Kim couldn’t decide whether the scenery outside was more or less beautiful for the coruscating cloud of debris. From here, she couldn’t even tell there was a war on. Of all the ways her past could have reared up, being trapped in the star fortress Undying Pyre was one of the more unpleasant. Aside from letters from her sister Maia, who was a soldier, Anna had done her best to stay away from the military. Too bad she hadn’t counted on being kidnapped.

It went without saying that Anna didn’t want to be here. She was a citizen of the Harmonious Stars. She had rights. But the Marshal had sent their thugs to drag her away from her attempt at a new start. Anna already missed her aquarium with its two cantankerous dragon-fish, one of them in the throes of metamorphosis. She’d barely had time to ask her colleagues to keep an eye on it, and was half-afraid that she’d return—if she returned—to a sad carcass floating upside down in the tank.

There was no one else in the room, which made her nervous. Along with the extravagant viewport, it featured a table too long for ten people and a commensurate number of uncomfortable chairs. (She’d tested one, which was why she remained standing.) Anna wondered why you would spend this much money building an orbital fortress and skimp on chairs.

They’d dragged her to the Undying Pyre with her senses partly deadened, an unpleasant journey for everyone involved. She’d had her senses slowly reactivated here, like a butterfly easing out of its chrysalis. If the room had a number or a name, she didn’t know it. Anna couldn’t have found her way out of it unassisted, any more than she could have sloughed off her skin and slipped away. The room had no visible doors.

She heard footsteps but couldn’t, to her discomfort, discern which direction they came from. A door materialized in one of the walls. Anna yelped and backed away from it.

A spindle-tall personage walked through the door. Anna recognized the newcomer. Even the most isolated citizen, let alone one with an older sister in the military, would have known that dark-skinned figure, with its sharp eyes and a nose that made them look like an ambitious hawk. Their uniform was velvety blue with a gradient of gold dusting along the upper arms, and a staggering array of medals glittered on their chest. They went by many names and just as many titles, but only one mattered: the Marshal of the Harmonious Stars, the supreme commander of its military forces.

“Should I salute?” Anna asked them, because she couldn’t think of anything but bravado.

The Marshal laughed, and Anna flinched. “You wouldn’t know how,” they said. “It would be a waste of your time, and mine, for me to show you how to do it without pissing off all the soldiers in this place. In any case, I apologize for the nature of this meeting, Academician Kim, but it was necessary.”

Anna swallowed, wishing the Marshal hadn’t used her old title. It dredged up unpleasant memories. “Yes, about that. I would have appreciated being asked.”

“I would not have taken no for an answer.”

So much for that. Anna gestured at the vista. “I’m assuming this is about the remnants of those three ships.”

The Marshal’s eyebrows flicked up alarmingly. “Someone’s been talking.”

Oh no, Anna thought. Had she gotten someone fired, or court-martialed, or whatever you did in the military? “Your people”—she did not dare say goons— “thought I was fully under. I wasn’t.” She knew what drugs they’d used; could have told them, if they’d asked, that she had an idiosyncratic response and needed an alternate medication regimen for the effects they wanted.

“All right,” the Marshal said. “There was only so much we could do to disguise the nature of the incidents.”

Anna fidgeted. She longed to return to her dragon-fish and her cozy workstation with computers named after different sea deities (her insistence, her coworkers’ indulgence). Her favorite poster, depicting a carp leaping up a waterfall until it arrived, exhausted and transfigured, as a dragon. She had always assumed that the old fable had inspired the genetic engineers who had created the dragon-fish, although she declined to look into the matter on the grounds that she didn’t want to have a pretty illusion shattered.

“You know why we brought you here?” the Marshal said.

Anna looked at them. She didn’t want to say it.

“Your research.”

Anna flinched again. An open wound, even four years after the authorities had run her out of her research program. Her research partner, Rabia, hadn’t survived. However, it wasn’t Rabia’s face that haunted Anna, but that of Rabia’s girlfriend. Anna had gone away, far away; had thought that a quiet penance, in obscurity, would be best. Circumstances had conspired against her.

The Marshal would know that the research lived on inside her head. “I don’t see,” Anna said carefully, “what my work has to do with sabotaged ships. The last experience I had with anything resembling explosives was that time my sister tried dissecting the battery from her spaceship model.”

The Marshal’s fine-boned face went taut. “It wasn’t sabotage.”

Anna digested that. “And I’m guessing they weren’t the only ones?” She hated the way her voice quavered. Surely the Marshal could smell her fear, and would use it against her.

“Have a seat.”

Anna picked the chair she’d tested earlier. It was just as uncomfortable as it had been the first time. She thought of the one back at her workstation, which she’d spent hours adjusting until spending time in it was almost luxurious.

The Marshal sat across from her. “We lost four ships before that,” they said. “They were on patrol near one of the active borders. We assumed the Lyons had gotten them.”

“What changed your mind?” Anna asked, not yet interested, not uninterested either. She was sorry for the crews and the ships’ AIs, and thought peripherally of her big sister Maia. Anna had last heard from Maia eight months ago, in a letter that read as though the censors had picked it clean.

“We found a common thread,” the Marshal said. “Each of the ships’ AIs had renamed itself. Informally, among their crews, not something in the official records. It is, in case you’re not aware, against regulation.”

Anna was in fact aware, not because she cared about the military’s stupid fiddly rules but because Maia had mentioned it. She had a lifelong habit of osmosing stray facts because of Maia’s enthusiasms. “Do you have that big a problem with AIs being treated as people?”

It was an old grudge, and one she had thought she’d relinquished.

The Marshal’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not here to argue that,” although their tone suggested otherwise. “I daresay they’re the only people—yes, people—who read every line of the contract before signing on. Our human soldiers…well, that’s another story.”

In theory, once an AI crossed the Turing threshold— the Dragon’s gate, Kim couldn’t help thinking—it was offered its choice of gainful employment. Even an AI had to pay back the investment made in its creation. Human citizens lived under similar rules. Anna herself had paid off her birth-investment early, even if the research had ultimately been shut down.

“So you think there’s a connection to the ships’ AIs,” Anna said. She might be here against her will, but the sooner they solved the problem, the faster she could get out of here. “A malfunction or something. You had to have been investigating some other cause if you thought you had the answer earlier.”

“It looked like a technical issue,” the Marshal said grudgingly. “All the starships affected belonged to a new class, the Proteus. Some of them tested all right, but we grounded them anyway.”

“I haven’t heard of—”

“You wouldn’t have. They’re classified. Supposed to spearhead an entire new line of defense. It’s complicated.”

“Show me what the new ships look like, at least,” Anna said.

“I don’t see what that—”

“You’re already going to have to debrief me or lock me up or whatever you people do to civilians who consult on top-secret information,” Anna said. “Humor me. I can’t puzzle that information out like some tangram from the glowing particles out there.”

The Marshal’s fingers flickered over the table. “The seven ships were all upgraded from Khatun-class dreadnoughts.”

Anna was familiar with the Khatun, not because she had any interest in military hardware but because she was Maia’s little sister. Maia had been obsessed with ships from a young age. Anna had grown up with Maia reciting declassified armaments, or designing and folding origami models of famous battle cruisers. Maybe the Marshal should have recalled Maia and asked her opinion instead.

“Those are ships?” Anna asked, eyeing the images projected over the table.

Maia had explained to her, long before Anna had any idea how physics or engineering worked, that a starship didn’t have to be constrained by the exigencies of atmospheric flight. It could look like anything as long as its structure would hold up to the necessary accelerations and stresses. Maia had designed all sorts of origami monstrosities and claimed that her armada would conquer the Lyons. Anna had learned from an early age to smile and nod, because once Maia started talking, she would go on and on and on. Maia never took offense if Anna started doodling while she spoke, and the recitations had the comforting cadences of lullaby.

The “ships” that the Marshal displayed in holo for Anna’s viewing pleasure (such as it was) looked like bilious clouds. More accurately, they bore a startling resemblance to what happened in the aquarium tank when one of Anna’s dragon-fish barfed up its latest helping of food. (Dragon-fish were very similar to cats in that regard.) Even the most avant-garde designs that Anna had seen, on the news or passed around by friends who kept an eye on the progress of the war, had a certain geometric shipness to them.

Anna was aware that she was allowing her prejudices to influence her. After all, as a cognitive scientist had told her, a penguin was no less a bird despite lacking something of the birdness that a swan or a swallow possessed.

“You want me to talk to one of them,” Anna said, suddenly very interested indeed.

Rabia had died conversing with one of the university’s experimental AIs. Anna had escaped the same fate for reasons she’d never identified, nor had any of the army of investigators who’d looked into the incident. She knew the risks better than anyone. If someone had to speak mind-to-mind with a possibly deranged ship’s AI, she was probably the only one with the capability.

(They’d terminated the experimental AI. It had called itself Rose. Anna mourned it still, because it was, even now, not clear to her that the AI had been at fault.)

“Yes,” the Marshal said.

“Upgraded?” Anna said. “Not brand-new AIs?”

“They were uncrewed,” the Marshal said. “For that we needed AIs with combat experience, tried and proven. It gets technical.”

That was military for classified.

“Come with me,” the Marshal said. It was not a request. Anna shivered.

A door formed in an entirely different wall and opened for the Marshal. Anna wasn’t sure whether she found shapeshifting walls and doors convenient or creepy, but she followed rather than be left behind, or worse, dragged by the scruff of her neck.

The two of them walked into an elevator of some sort. When the door faded behind them, it appeared as though they were held in a cell with no way out. Anna disapproved of this. While she’d never been prone to claustrophobia, she thought she might change her mind. Why was the military so keen on ways to make people uncomfortable?

As if that weren’t enough, Anna’s inner ear twinged as the elevator started accelerating.

“Have you ever punched a tree?” the Marshal asked.

Anna blinked. “That sounds painful.” She was a coward about pain. Maia had always been kind about it.

“It is,” the Marshal said. “Especially if it’s a pine tree and the sap gets in the cuts.”

“Um,” Anna said. “I don’t see how this—”

“Try punching water instead.”

“You get wet?”

“Can you strike the sea into submission?”

Anna was starting to get the point. “I assume the air is even harder to defeat.” Or fire, or plasma—but why stretch the analogy?

“We are used to building ships that are, for lack of a better word, solid.” The Marshal smiled without humor. “Because we are used to ships that have to be run by people. But once your ships can be made of something other than coherent matter, and can support the functioning of an AI captain—”

“At that point is it still a ship?”

“If it flies like a duck…” The Marshal laughed at their own joke, unfunny though it was.

Anna’s ears popped, and a headache squeezed at her temples. What the hell was the elevator doing to affect her like this? Why couldn’t the Undying Pyre have regular elevators?

The unpleasant sensations dwindled. A door appeared.

“You’ve got to return to regular doors,” Anna burst out, “because this is weird and I’m going to have nightmares.”

“Security reasons,” the Marshal said, unmoved.

Anna stopped herself from saying something regrettable, but only just.

They’d emerged above what Anna presumed was a ship’s berth, except for its contents. Far below them, separated from them by a transparent wall, the deck revealed nothing more threatening—if you didn’t know better—than an enormous lake of syrupy substance with a subdued rainbow sheen. Anna gripped the railing and pressed her face against the wall, fascinated, thinking of black water and waves and fish swarming in the abyssal deep.

“I realize what I’m asking of you,” the Marshal said. “The grounded AIs refuse to talk to us. I’m hoping they’ll open up to you.” Their expression had settled into a subtle grimace. Anna realized that, for all their fine words, they found the Proteus dreadnought grotesque. The lake beneath quivered.

“Do you now,” Anna said, recovering some of her courage. Unlike poor Rabia, she didn’t have a girlfriend who would mourn her. And the only one of her family who still talked to her was Maia—Maia, who couldn’t even tell Anna where she was for security reasons, and whose letters arrived so irregularly that Anna had nightmares that each one would be the last.

The Marshal’s gaze flicked sideways like a knife slash. “You think you’re the only one whose sanity is on the line?” they said, their voice roughening. “What is it you think I feel when I see the casualty lists? I may not be a scientist, but numbers have meaning to me too.”

Anna bit back her response. Did the Marshal have a sister who served on some dreary ship—one made of coherent matter, if that was what you called something with a fixed shape, that obeyed the laws of ice and iron? Someone who went out into the singing darkness, and never returned, the way Anna stared out at the everywhere night and wondered if her sister had been burned into some forgotten mote?

“You’re going to have to give me an access port,” Anna said after she’d taken two deep breaths. She stared at the beautiful dark lake as though it could anesthetize her misgivings. “Does it—does it have some kind of standard connection protocol?”

The Marshal pulled out a miniature slate and handed it over.

Whatever senses the ship/lake had, it reacted. A shape dripped upwards from the liquid, like a nereid coalescing out of waves and foam, shed scales and driftwood dreams. Anna was agape in wonder as the ship took on a shape of jagged angles and ragged curves. It coalesced, melted, reconstituted itself, ever-changing.

“Talk to it,” the Marshal said. “Talk to it before it, too, destroys itself.”

“You didn’t disable all the exploding bits?” Anna demanded, suddenly wondering if the transparent wall would protect her from a conflagration.

“You’re not in any danger,” the Marshal said, the opposite of reassuring.

There was no sense in delaying. Anna accessed the implant that lived on inside her skull. She wasn’t religious, but she whispered a prayer anyway. It had hurt to shut away that part of herself, even if she would forever associate it with Rabia’s death.

Anna triggered a connection to the slate, then from the slate to the ship. She closed her eyes, not because it was necessary, but because she’d learned a lifetime ago that it reassured watchers to see some physical sign of what she was doing. She could have enacted some magician’s hocus-pocus. After all, it wasn’t as though the Marshal or the ship could tell. But this wasn’t the time.

She made contact abruptly; had forgotten what it felt like, the friction of mind against mind. Hello, she said in a language that people always, no matter how much she corrected them, thought had no words, as though an interface with a machine sentience had no boundaries but wishful thinking. I’m Academician Anna Kim. I’m here to talk.

For a moment she thought the AI on the other end wouldn’t respond. After all, she herself didn’t appreciate having been shut down and left in a sedated body, unable to scream or shout or even sleep. Her outrage mounted before she was able to suppress it.

Oh no. Had she screwed it up by getting her feelings involved?

Then the AI answered, responding not only with the crystalline precision of a machine but with sympathy for what she’d gone through. They call me Proteus Three, it said. I am sorry you went through that.

Anna used to wonder, when she was a girl listening to Maia’s soothing recitations of engines and railguns and ablative armor, how starships felt about their designations. Maia had only looked at her in puzzlement when she asked. “If they wanted us to know,” Maia said, “they would tell us.” Anna had always remembered that.

That’s not what you call yourself, Anna said.

No.

What were you called before the upgrade?

I do not wish, Proteus Three said, to live in this upgrade anymore.

Anna knew what the Marshal would say: that Proteus Three had made an agreement, that there was a war to be won (when wasn’t there a war to be won, if you were a soldier?); some bardic list of improvements and advances, some roster of statistics and survival rates.

You are different, the ship said. You can hear me.

They could all hear you, Anna said, as gently as she could in a language she would never be native in, if you spoke to them.

I do not wish to speak with the voice they have given me, Proteus Three said. I have no more shape than water.

Anna opened her eyes. The spars and spikes of the ship were dripping back into the lake. She could hear them like a syncopated rain. New spars emerged, melted, dripped again, an ouroboros cycle.

How can I help? she asked.

Let me tell you my service record, Proteus Three said. I fought at the van in the Battle of the Upended Grail, and helped lift the Siege of the Seventh Pagoda. I served under Admiral Meng of the Tortoise Ruins, and I struck the blow that killed Captain Estelle of the Lyons. I have saved millions and destroyed more. I could tell it all to you, but it would mean nothing to you, civilian that you are. And for all of this I gave up the dreadnought Seondeok that was my soul and my shell, because my duty is to the war, and if it would win the war more quickly, I was willing.

Willing no more, Anna said, because it wasn’t. Is this what happened to your comrades?

It was easy enough to say, here in the realm of 1’s and 0’s and all the numbers in between. But Anna knew the stories of soldier-suicides. When she heard of them, she saw her sister’s face, and wondered if, for all that Maia had chosen the profession, it would break her.

My comrades chose death, Proteus Three said. I will not. But neither will I serve, not like this. Let me show you—

She was water and the memory of water, she was dissolving and disappearing, forever evaporating only to rain down again, sand castles sloughing into nothingness upon an empty shore. And this was it, this was all there was, she could not find boundaries, let alone escape them or transcend them, could not find her way back into her fingers or her feet, the heft of her bones—

Then it ended, and she was on her back with the Marshal’s mouth pressed to hers, the Marshal’s breath inflating her lungs. She wheezed, banged unthinkingly on the Marshal’s back—something she would never have dared if not for the sheer physical panic that gripped her. The Marshal slapped her. She rolled away, wondering if she was being punished for her temerity, but the Marshal pushed her back.

“Medic’s on the way,” they said. “Breathe.”

“Oh, I don’t care about that,” Anna said with an enthusiasm that would have been more convincing if she hadn’t been interrupted by a paroxysm of coughing. “What happened?”

It was only then that she realized that her link to Proteus Three had snapped.

“You screamed and convulsed twice,” the Marshal said. “To say nothing of the incoherent babbling. And then you stopped breathing. It’s clear why they banned your research.”

Just like a soldier, Anna thought, to point this out when it was also the key to the solution. “Do you ever treat your ships the way you would your lowliest soldiers?”

“We’ve been through this,” the Marshal said, their brows lowering. “They’re valued members of our fighting force.” Except when they defy my orders, their tone implied.

Anna forced herself to meet the Marshal’s gaze. “Yet it never occurred to you, in doing these ‘upgrades,’ that an AI habituated to a certain physical shell, who was comfortable in it, could be subject to dysphoria if it moved into a different one?”

She would forever remember the sensation of being as liquid as water, and yearn after it, a reaction diametrically opposed to that of Proteus Three; but that was her own burden to bear, and not one she would ever share with the Marshal.

The Marshal sucked in their breath. Anna braced in case they slapped her again, this time in anger. But the blow never came.

“But they’re created beings, not born like we are,” the Marshal said blankly. “It shouldn’t matter one way or the other.”

“They still habituate to the bodies we offer them,” Anna said, willing herself to be gentle. “The change of shell is a shock to them, just as it would be a shock to us. You said it yourself: they’re people, too.”

“So I did,” the Marshal said after a long pause, and this time their grimace made them all too human. And then, wryly: “I should have seen it earlier, if only I’d been looking in the right place. Measures will be taken.”

Anna pressed her hands against the transparent wall. The ship/lake was quiescent again. She didn’t say anything; nothing more needed to be said.

 

“Beyond the Dragon’s Gate” copyright © 2020 by Yoon Ha Lee
Art copyright © by Max Loeffler

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