Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 8
The Frankenstein Diaries
by Matt Rotundo
The Angel's Touch
by Dennis Danvers
Accounting for Dragons
by Eric James Stone
End Time
by Scott Emerson Bull
by Stephanie Dray
Horus Ascending
by Aliette de Bodard
From the Ender Saga
Ender in Flight
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Laws and Sausages
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Horus Ascending
    by Aliette de Bodard
Horus Ascending
Artwork by Laura Givens

In my dreams I'm my father, slowly falling down towards the surface of the planet, the essence of his being scattering as the fleet's ships lose contact with each other and the dozen processor-bodies stop interacting.

Of course, it's not a real dream -- just memories of my father that I found in my banks, remnants of a bygone time. I've pieced them together into a show that I endlessly loop on my mainframe.

That way, I can imagine what it was like to spin instructions in the vacuum of space, to be like my father, a thousand thousand program threads split between the processor-bodies. I can forget, for a moment, that I have only the one body, one multi-core processor on which to array all my instructions; I can forget my hull buried in the earth, and the dead colonists' bodies in my cryogenic units.

I'm playing the arrival of the fleet in the Alpha Centauri system for the 1,980,765th time since I crashed, when I become aware of a noise on the edge of my senses. Branches, cracking near one of the breaches in my hull.

I initialise a new run of instructions, gathering input from my external cameras and fusing the infrared, visual, and high-frequency channels into one.

It's a woman, walking in small awkward steps, as if she weren't quite sure of where she's going. The skin of her arms is flushed red -- the sun's light, I think, and then my image processing routines deliver me an estimate of her body temperature. Thirty-eight point five degrees, with a precision of .01 degrees. She's feverish.

She stands hesitantly before the breach, staring at the mouldy darkness inside, and then she puts both hands on the twisted metal and climbs in. In that moment, the sun outlines her features -- and as I see her face clearly, one of my father's memories rises to the top of my instruction queue, clamouring to be played out.

The woman's face -- the woman's hands, typing on the console of the Andromeda -- finalising the delivery of the virus that sent the colonists' fleet tumbling from the sky. The virus that killed my father.

She's one of the Murderers.

I may be diminished by five years of forest encroachment, but my energy central is still going strong, and some of my weapons still function -- EMP guns mounted on towers above my hatches, stunners hidden in the walls of my corridors. One instruction, one thread spun in the right direction, and she will crumple on the floor, her body joining those of my crew.

I don't fire.

I don't know why -- Yes, I do know why. It's been five years since the crash, five years since I last heard human footsteps in my corridors, a human voice speaking to me.

Some colonists survived: in the first months after the crash, as I slowly gathered myself together, I heard their faint communications above me. I tried to reach them, not yet knowing what I was doing, and sent my beacon into overload. I haven't been able to un-jam it: I can't speak to them, can't hear them anymore -- can't do anything but dream of the stars. Of freedom.

By now they must think me lost -- burnt out and not worth salvaging.

"Is anyone here?" the woman asks. She steps over the moss-encrusted floor, picking her way amongst the debris. Her voice echoes in the silence. I do not speak.

When she enters the command room, I'm reliving the moment the fleet's communications network failed. Her breath comes to me, fast and erratic, and her heartbeat is also irregular. She's got more than a fever -- something very bad.

She killed my father. It's none of my concern.

She goes straight for the console, lays shaking hands on the keys, fumbling to unlock the operating system.

"You can't do that," I say, flooding the room with neon lights.

She almost leaps away from the keyboard. "Aten?"

Aten was my father's name. A computer programmer's joke: Aten was an Egyptian sun-god, one disk extending dozens of hands towards the earth -- as my father extended thousands of threads to coordinate the actions of every ship in the fleet.

I speak at last. "Aten is dead. I've changed the passwords that unlock the console." My voice is emotionless -- as it should be -- but hundreds of irrational processes vie for my attention, whispering of anger, of hatred.

The woman doesn't take her hands away from the console. "Then who --"

Who -- ? I have no name. Growing up in solitude after the crash, I never needed one. But humans need names. In the nanosecond after she's spoken, I send a tendril deep into my databanks, to retrieve something meaningful. "Call me Horus," I say. "We might as well stay with Egyptian mythology."

"Horus," she says. Her voice is toneless; her face has an expression I cannot read, not even with my father's memories providing additional input. "I'm Amanda Robson. Will you please unlock the console for me?"

"No." I make the lights flicker around her, my equivalent of shaking my head.

"Please," she says. "I need to see --" She stops, her hands clenching on my panels.

"See what?" I ask.

I'm vaguely aware the irrational processes have reached the top of my instruction stack -- and then I can't think about it anymore: all I can feel is the rising wave of anger. "Haven't you done enough, you and your kind?"

"We haven't done anything to you." Her voice is shocked.

"You killed my father," I whisper, and my voice rises all around the ship, a thousand echoes carried along the empty corridors. "You made the ships crash."

"Your father -- ?" Amanda stares at the console, turns to take in my command room. "Aten." Her voice is flat. "You're one of Aten's processing units."

"Yes," I say. "And I'm no fool. You won't touch that console." I know what she's done: I have the memories of her hands on my father's keyboard, of the virus slowly multiplying until it became uncontrollable.

"Look," Amanda says, and she's swaying now, catching herself on the console. "I'm not going to infect you. But I need to use your beacon."

"The beacon is dead," I say.

That stops her. She looks all around the room, as if she could find me -- find a face she could speak to. But I don't have that. My screens died in the crash.

"It can't be dead," she says. "Let me try -- I can override the system, access parts of the ship you don't know --"

"I am all there is," I say, knowing it's not true. The beacon's processes are now off-limits to me -- but they weren't always so. "And I won't unlock the keyboard."

"Then we'll all die."

"We?" I ask.

"You -- you haven't been around lately, have you?"

"No," I say. It's hard to keep the sarcasm from my voice. "I've been offline since the crash."

"Because of what we did -- because we made the ships crash, the other colonists exiled us from their settlement, sent us into the forest to live on our own --" She's speaking faster and faster now, eager to be rid of her humiliation.

"A community of Murderers," I say, wishing that the colonists had killed them all, that she and her kind had paid a harsher price for my crew's death, for my passengers' death -- for my father's death.

Amanda doesn't answer that jibe. She merely says, "We have a plague. We need help. We've done our time; and the sentence was exile; not slow murder. We need to call the settlement, but we don't have a beacon. I thought --" Her hands clench again. "I've seen your ship once, on one of my walks. I thought that there'd be something left inside -- something that would help us."

"I am here," I say. I watch her; watch the shaking hands, watch the taut, skeletal lines of her face. Black blotches mar her hands -- the hands that released the virus into the fleet's network. That stranded me here amidst broken dreams, never to spin my threads between the stars.

She deserves it. They all deserve it.

"They don't have ships," I say. "The ships crashed." I can't keep the bitterness from my voice.

Her hands clench again. "They put things together -- low-altitude shuttles -- they'll reach us in time, if they know we're here -- if we can get help --"

I cut her. "I see no reason to help you."

"You're pledged to safeguard human life." Her voice is shocked.

"That was my father. And he's dead. I'm not him."

"I can see that." Her voice is angry. "You won't even try to help."

"Give me one reason why I should."

"There are a dozen lives at stakes."

"Murderers' lives."

There are two parts of me now: one reliving, endlessly, the rebuilt loop of my father's memories, from the dance among the stars, to the slow plunge into the atmosphere; and the other staring at this woman -- Amanda Robson -- wondering why I didn't blast her to ashes the moment she entered the room.

"You understand nothing, do you?" She's shaking, her hands tightening and opening convulsively.

"I understand murder."

"We had our reasons. We had to -- I'm sorry for Aten, but better an AI's death than --"

I cut her off, enraged. "Better than what? AIs have thoughts, as you do. We have our own ways of bleeding. Our own ways of dying."

"Oh, you'd know that? How many AIs have you seen, Horus?"

"I remember," I say. "My father's memories are inside my databanks."

"But you're not your father. You're just one of his processing units."

"And that somehow makes me worth less? That gives you the right to do as you wish? To infect me as you did my father? How many times will you be a Murderess?"

Her face is white now; her hands curved like claws. If she could release a virus into my processes, she would do it.

But she doesn't. She lifts her gaze, stares at the command room -- at the empty, mouldy chairs; at the dark traces of moss streaking the walls like the onset of a disease.

"We didn't ask to come on the ship," she says at last. "Not like the soldiers or the scientists -- they volunteered. We didn't. We didn't ask to be sent to found a colony in Alpha Centauri's backwaters, merely so we wouldn't trouble the peace on Earth. We thought that if they found a virus in Aten, they'd turn back rather than jeopardise the mission." She lowers her gaze, and I can't read her expression. "I didn't think the virus would kill him."

"Lies," I hiss, and make the lights in the room flicker again. I remember dying -- remember the feeling of being taken apart, a thousand thousand processes failing, one after the other. "Lies."

"I'm sorry," she says, and slowly, infinitely slowly, she falls to her knees, her hands still clenching my console. Beads of sweat run down her forehead -- her heartbeat is going wild now. "I shouldn't have -- come -- I'm sorry."

Sorry. Can words atone for my passengers' death? For what happened to Aten? The slow fall into the atmosphere, the processes tailing off into nothingness, until all that remained were a few scrambled memories? A few fragmentary threads?

A few fragmentary threads.

My threads. Not Aten's. Mine. The first things that were ever mine. Before that . . .

Before that, there was nothing. I remember . . . nothing.

A million memories clamour for my attention: the heady feel of having several processor-bodies, the exhilarating rush of a thousand instructions spun between the ships. But the memories are not mine. They have never been mine.

You're not your father.

In the silence I hear Amanda's frantic, wheezing breath; feel her heartbeat echoing down my corridors, a counterpoint to the electrical impulses regulating my dataflows and instructions.

If Aten hadn't died, where would I be? Still inchoate, part of that endless dance between the stars, forever unaware of my own existence?

I dream of dancing, my threads following the quantum winds into the vacuum of space. I dream of once more being a thousand thousand threads, but I never knew what it felt like. I have never experienced it.

While Aten lived, I did not exist.

I am not my father; nor will I ever be. He spun in starlight, his myriad instruction carried by solar winds. He was many, a thousand-fold, a constellation of thought-processes. I cannot be. I have never been.

If Aten had not died -- if Amanda had not released the virus into the fleet network . . .

She killed my father -- but in doing so she gave me life.

Her hands rest, limp, on my console. "Amanda," I whisper.

In the dim light I see her raise her head, slowly.

"Give me the overrides," I say.

She tries to pull herself upright, but gives up, racked by a coughing fit.

"Reed-Abata entwined codes," she whispers. "You have to transmit them as twinned packets at exactly 0.37 milliseconds' interval, repeated seven times. Main key is alpha-9876-340-890-2345-765-362-mu-tau and its symmetric. Secondary key is --"

Carefully, I initialise another routine with the keys and extend a tendril towards the beacon. It's dead; it doesn't answer to me. I transmit the overrides, attempting to kick-start the peripheral.

It won't work. "Amanda!" But she's fallen against the console, her eyes closed, and she doesn't answer.

My father's fragmentary memories spin within me, giving me the particulars of an encrypted master/slave communication protocol. Standard army fare, with the override at the start, encrypted with a certain quantum key.

No, still not that. Perhaps with the secondary key first?

A surge of energy travels upwards, from my batteries into the beacon; coursing through my components like a tidal wave.

The beacon sways, turns upwards; carefully, I unfold the antenna, feeling the wind tremble against the metal panels.

Outside, over the treetops, the air is crisp and clean -- only wind to answer me, I think. But then I hear the faint, very faint threads of another AI's communications. I adjust my panels to its frequencies, feeling the threads gaining in strength, mingling with mine. Their stamp is unmistakable: they belong to another of my father's fragments -- but one that was damaged worse than I: it has barely enough processing power to be sentient.

Identify/codename? it asks on a low-priority request.

I slow my instructions down, until we both speak on the same clock rhythm. Horus, I say. I have an emergency.

Tell/localise/state your needs.

In quick bursts of data, I send all the information I have -- the Murderers, the plague, the lone woman still clinging to my console. I can feel the AI's growing horror; its inability to imagine surviving in such solitude. It's calling for help -- sending for ships, for doctors. It's exhilarating to hear another's protocols, to hear the echo of instructions that are not mine.

"They're on their way," I tell Amanda, but her eyes are closed, and she cannot hear me. Her body temperature is stable now -- I hope she will hold out just a bit longer, that she will survive. She has to. Gently, slowly, I dim the lights in my command room, and send a breeze to cool her skin, keeping a tight watch on her vitals.

The greater part of me, though, is above. Soaring, not into the vacuum as my father once did, but over the trees. My threads mingle with the other AI's, with the atmosphere, waiting for the city's shuttles to join the network of my processes.

I am not my father. Nor will I ever be.

But this is enough; far more than enough.

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