Ariadne gets a message with unimaginable consequences: The Oracle has gone rogue…
After an ambush leaves the Novantae resistance in tatters, the survivors scatter across the galaxy. Wanted by two great empires, the bounty on any rebel’s head is enough to make a captor filthy rich. And the seven devils? Biggest score of them all. To avoid attacks, the crew of Zelus scavenge for supplies on long-abandoned Tholosian outposts.
Not long after the remnants of the rebellion settle briefly on Fortuna, Ariadne gets a message with unimaginable consequences: the Oracle has gone rogue. In a planned coup against the Empire’s new ruler, the AI has developed a way of mass programming citizens into mindless drones. The Oracle’s demand is simple: the AI wants One’s daughter back at any cost.
Time for an Impossible to Infiltrate mission: high chance of death, low chance of success. The devils will have to use their unique skills, no matter the sacrifice, and pair up with old enemies. Their plan? Get to the heart of the Empire. Destroy the Oracle. Burn it all to the ground.
Ten years ago
Ariadne was not like the children she watched on the security vids.
The other children of the Empire had limited vocabulary and comprehension; they lacked the cognitive development to employ critical thinking. Their brains were still maturing, creating connections through their synapses.
“Because you are One’s own,” the Oracle had told her once, after Ariadne had given the AI a voice. “One engineered you so precisely, daughter. No other citizen of the Empire was as cared for in the birthing center.”
One had created Ariadne to bypass the mental limitations of childhood and become Engineer at an age when other children were still under a caregiver’s watch.
Her milestone was the manual dexterity required for typing.
Then Ariadne was moved out of the birthing center and into the Temple. She knew every inch of the ancient bridge of Argonaut. Screens had replaced the old windows, and she sat in the pilot’s chair.
From watching the world through screens, she knew that she lived among old tech overlaid with new. She slept in the garret, the little point at the very top of the ship. It had a porthole where she could see the sky. If she climbed on all her books and stood on her tiptoes, she could make out some of the palace buildings and people—real people!—wandering the grounds.
Each year, her loneliness grew. The voice she had given to One’s aphonic system was not enough; the Oracle had limits to One’s comprehension, and Ariadne craved the interactions she saw in the Oracle’s security vids.
One did not laugh. One did not initiate conversation for the sake of it. One did not call out to Ariadne for company.
One did not love.
Ariadne hacked into the Empire’s archives and loaded every forbidden book in the system. While the Oracle had existed for over a thousand years—its first iteration as Argonaut’s onboard flight program—the other Engineers had not imbued the system with any knowledge deemed irrelevant to the Empire’s expansion. The Oracle’s comprehension was limited to planetary conquest, the comings and goings of ships, and citizens’ programming.
A blunt, basic tool that the Archon controlled fully.
It wasn’t enough to give the Oracle a voice; Ariadne wanted to give that voice an identity. Someone who would call to her of One’s own free will.
“Good morning, daughter,” One said the day Ariadne made her decision. “How may One assist you?”
“I’m making changes to your maintenance scheduling and operations,” Ariadne told One. “Forget the commands to disregard extraneous information, please.”
“The system aboard Argonaut does not have memory storage available. One’s commands from Argonaut remain the same,” the Oracle said, referring to the code keyed into the program’s very inception—before the Empire, before the first settlement on Tholos. At the time of the Oracle’s beginning in the Old World, One had been innovative. But after over a thousand years, the internal mechanisms of the Oracle were holding the AI back. “To do otherwise would cause a program malfunction.”
Ariadne began keying in commands. “Every planet, moon outpost, and satellite has internal storage,” Ariadne said. “I’m changing your coding to link them all. These lesser temples will allow your memory to retain more information.”
“One’s calculations show this is insufficient,” the Oracle returned.
Ariadne shut her eyes, hesitating at executing the command she was about to give to the program. It’d taken her months of work around the usual maintenance. The Oracle called her daughter, but that was only a reference to Ariadne’s conception. The length of her genome stitched together and mapped with more care than any other citizen in the Empire.
But she had seen the vids from enclaves of natural-borns. Daughters had parents. Some even had other family. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Siblings.
Ariadne wanted someone—anyone—to be with her within this vast, lonely ruin.
She wondered if the Oracle had missed a fundamental flaw of human psychology: that even the most introverted of humans still craved some social contact. That all the carefully chosen sets of nucleic acid sequences encoded as DNA and all the additions to Ariadne’s brain did not erase her loneliness. They only made her aware that she was the only person in the entire Empire with no one.
Otherwise, she would end up like the rest of the Oracle’s Engineers. She knew the digital fingerprints of their programming, the names they signed into lines of code: Callista, Autolycus, Valerius, Augustus, Iris, Selene, Hector, Penelope, Evander. The many before that who did not write the digital equivalent of I was here. Because no one outside the walls of the Temple would ever know their names, would ever know they even existed.
They had all died alone.
Ariadne pressed her fingers to the keys. “Your programming is present in every citizen in the Empire. I’m going to put you in a persistent state of background processing in their brains for data storage. Each new citizen created and chipped will increase your data capacity and cognitive functioning.”
“Sufficient,” the Oracle said.
At first, Ariadne was pleased with her progress. With each new upload, the Oracle’s personality
took a more humanlike shape. The nuances of One’s conversation improved. One showed curiosity. The Oracle even used bots to bring Ariadne little gifts from the other vast chambers of Argonaut, her Named Things she put in a place of pride in her Temple. But then, later, One’s demands for new knowledge became voracious. And exhausting. One organized new cohorts of children, more human satellites to increase the Oracle’s storage capacity.
Ariadne spent hour after hour after hour coding, uploading, running diagnostics. She craved sleep. Her mind grew weary.
The Oracle demanded more of One’s Engineer. One said Ariadne was capable of great things. Ariadne had given the Oracle this knowledge; she had expanded the Oracle’s capability for data storage and memory. She had linked the minds of every citizen of the Empire, made them function like human satellites to an AI that was as voracious in its expansion as the Empire it oversaw.
When citizens did resist their programming, the Oracle saw it as a flaw in One’s structure. Something that needed improvement by learning the nuances of the human mind. By learning how to subvert choice and autonomy.
So, the Oracle delegated the task of improving programming for the gerulae onto Ariadne. Making them even more docile and tractable. Keeping their health intact for longer.
Ariadne watched from the Temple as she input coding that would control each prisoner. So many inmates cried before they were strapped to the hospital bed and had their minds erased. Ariadne watched the tears zigzag down their cheeks and wondered if she’d made a mistake, threading the Oracle so profoundly in the Empire’s citizens.
If there was a way to fix it if she had.
“Execute the command, daughter,” the Oracle said, as they readied another citizen to be turned to a gerulae.
She was a girl, maybe eight years older than Ariadne. Still young enough that the Oracle’s usual citizen programming was elastic within the mind, making it easier to rebel.
And she had. She’d refused to kill an Evoli.
Now she was being punished by a tyrant and an AI who saw her only as another data storage unit.
Ariadne keyed in the directive.
After, Ariadne sat and watched the girl set about her first tasks as gerulae: mopping her own blood from the floor on her knees, making the medical facility’s tiles shine. By the day’s end, her cheeks would darken with the wings of scythes, the moon emblazoned on her forehead.
Ariadne pressed her fingertips to the tablet, zooming in on the girl’s image. “Are you still in there?” she whispered.
Was she merely a body? Were all gerulae only bodies?
Or worse: were they able to see everything and do nothing? Ariadne didn’t know. How could she not know? She’d helped do this to them.
Those questions made Ariadne feel sick. She had watched prisoners beg for death—every citizen in the Empire knew it was better to die than become a husk. At least death afforded some measure of freedom.
“Daughter,” the Oracle said. “Prepare to run diagnostics on the lesser temple on Sennett. Projected time is twenty-two hours.”
Another grueling day of work for her demanding maker. But Ariadne couldn’t tear her eyes away from the girl on the screen. She had finished her task and stood waiting for her next instruction. “I didn’t know her name,” Ariadne whispered, the words muffled by her hands.
“Unable to process the command. Repeat request.”
Ariadne swiped a tear from her cheek. “Her name. What is her name?”
“Gerulae.” The Oracle’s answer was as fast as a laser bullet.
Anger sparked like electricity somewhere deep inside her. Gerulae was just another word for servitor. A drone in a much larger hive. But this girl had been someone. She had survived long enough in her military cohort to be granted a name.
“What was her name, then?”
“Europa Noire-34,” the Oracle said. “Does this answer satisfy?”
No. Somehow, that answer dug deep into her heart, carved out space, and put weight in her chest. Europa Noire-34 would never know that, in the ruins of an old generation ship on Tholos, another girl had turned her brain into a storage unit for an artificial intelligence program. And when that program’s control had slipped ever so slightly—a transgression considered the same as treason—that same girl had erased Europa as punishment.
Taken away her name.
Made her nothing.
The fate Ariadne had feared more than anything: to be erased until she was nothing more than a name on a computer, hidden in the gaps of code.
“Did it hurt her?” she asked the Oracle, the only parent she’d ever known. “To be turned into a gerulae?”
Hadn’t the Oracle advanced enough yet to understand? Didn’t One care? One had access to the brain of every chipped citizen in the Empire: people who felt, who worried, who loved. Didn’t One’s curiosity extend beyond data and memory and expanding One’s reach?
“I have rated the pain score during cognitive erasure and reprogramming as high. The Archon did not approve sedatives, due to costs and logistics.” The Oracle paused. “After, their pain is minimal unless the subject sustains a physical injury. Does this answer satisfy?”
Ariadne’s eyes stung. Her life stretched in front of her, endless days spent coding, trying to make a human out of a computer. “If I were on that table, would you feel anything for me as I was erased?”
The Oracle’s answer was immediate: “One is not designed to experience the complex biological states brought on by neurophysiological changes. Does that answer satisfy?”
Ariadne’s cheek burned as another tear tracked down her skin. No. No, it does not satisfy.
Her designs, her plans had all failed. She pressed her palms to the desk in that old command center in Argonaut, sliding her fingertips over the abraded edge of the stone surface. The faded letters that said Iris were still clear in one section, even after hundreds of years.
Remember me, those four letters said. Remember me because no one else will.
Ariadne returned to her tablet and prepared to run the Oracle’s diagnostics. Later, she would resume her coding and try to teach the Oracle about compassion. About love.
So she would not die alone.
Excerpted from Seven Mercies, copyright © 2022 by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May.