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“So why zeelite stuff?” I ask Tal over a breakfast of preserved oats and two-day-old bread. Adin has been banned from strenuous activities like kneading dough by the doctors so that his muscles and the skin and synnerves for his new artificial foot can heal.

“Um, because it looks awesome?” Ke frizzes up kes ball of hair with a tiny comb and flashes me a smile through bright purple lips.

“Uh… huh.”

“And also, their view of the world… the preneeks who invented the style and the books and movies and stuff, I mean… it was just so full of hope. You know? The future they wanted for us. A world with exciting stuff and new boundaries to explore and cool aliens and…”

“We’re exploring new boundaries right now,” Adin points out. “We’re heading off into the depths of space, where nobody’s ever been, to touch down on an entirely new planet and create a new home for humanity.”

“Still no aliens, though,” Tinera says.

“We don’t want aliens,” I point out. “We absolutely do not want aliens.”

“Aliens are cool!” Tal protests.

“I agree.” The Friend nods. “To discover that we’re not alone in the universe would be – ”

“And who would we tell?” I ask. “Earth, sixty five light years away? Sure, it would be a pretty amazing discovery for them to hear about on our transmission in the future, but it’s hardly worth the cost. If there are aliens out there somewhere, pray to whatever gods you still believe in that they aren’t on Hylara.”

Several of the crew are looking puzzled. I rub my temples and remind myself that they were in prison. They might’ve seen enough to know who I am, but it’s very unlikely that they’ve listened to Shia’s lecture series or know much of the Restrictionist Movement. They certainly haven’t had to hear them as often or in-depth as I have.

“Let’s imagine,” I say, “that we find alien life on Hylara. How exactly do you expect that to go?”

“We tell earth,” the Friend says immediately. “Initiate communication if we find something intelligent, start taking samples if we don’t.”

“And then?” I ask. “This is a colony ship. We are going there to set up a colony. And we are physically unable to go home. We’ve never intercepted any kind of electromagnetic transmission from anywhere that humans didn’t send, meaning that life on Hylara doesn’t even have radio, or at least it didn’t when we left Earth. If something’s there, it’s not going to be some hyperadvanced interplanetary utopia. We’re going to show up on their planet and demand to live there in an environment comfortable to us. Now, in the entire history of human colonialism… how well does that generally go?”

“We can do better,” the Friend insists. “It’s a whole planet, and there aren’t that many of us.”

“Maybe. But, correct me if I’ve misunderstood… this colony ship was launched to create some rich arsehole’s private kingdom staffed by slave labour, wasn’t it? If there are people down there, then I pity whichever civilisation is living in the best place for our settlement. If there’s just non-sapient life, it’s still going to get a kick in the pants the moment we start building oxygen domes and mining for resources. If humanity’s first discovery of extraterrestrial live is on Hylara, there’s a good chance we’ll kill a significant chunk of the species before the rest of humanity even learns it’s there.”

Silence reigns for several seconds.

“Wow, captain,” Tinera says drily. “Way to be depressing.”

“I used to argue with my sister about this a lot,” I say apologetically.

“She wanted to explore and you wanted to Save The Possible Aliens and you still got on this ship?”

“Other way around. Sort of? She wanted to Save The Possible Aliens. I didn’t want to ex – I mean, I didn’t not want to – I mean, my point was that the Exodus Phenomenon exists and there’s nothing we can do about it. She was against the Javelin Program completely; I didn’t think there was any point in being for or against it, because it was happening. Obviously, yeah, the potential of wiping out aliens was a concern, but I didn’t think ‘aliens might possibly exist somewhere even though we’ve never found them’ was a good justification for sitting at home in our own solar system like good little kids for the rest of time.”

“If there are aliens, it will be galaxy’s biggest ‘I told you so’ from your sister,” Denish says.

I swallow around the lump in my throat. “Ha. Yeah.” I don’t want to talk about this. “Anyway, we’re doing cool exploration stuff right now, so I don’t see what zeelite stuff adds to it.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Tal says. “When it’s on TV or in books, it’s way cooler because you don’t have to do it yourself. You only see the exciting bits. Also, I’m an IT tech, and they have computers.”

“We also have computers,” Tinera points out.

“No, they have the cool computers. The ones that don’t exist. The ones that are people. All the books and shows and movies and stuff were made back before they really understood computers, back when they still dreamed that they might be able to be alive. The stuff made today isn’t the same; today it’s fantasy, but back then it wasn’t. It was a future they could actually believe in, and there’s something special in that. And yeah, the cyberlites have it too, with their clear screens and personal phones and stuff and actually having machine learning and dreaming about making it better, making it really be able to talk like a person or identify the concept of a face or a car, not just aggregate probability from a training dataset, but even they couldn’t really believe it because they had the AI and they could see that the AI was never going to be that. But zeelite stuff? Back then, most people didn’t even really know how computers worked. They could be anything, and they wanted them to be friends. Well, maids and servants and gun-wielding soldiers on the moon a lot of the time, but still.”

“They did that because they were indescribably lonely,” I point out. “The eras immediately prior to the Neocambrian Revolution were rife with over-optimisation; people were physically and socially desperate. They were lonely and overwhelmed and – ”

“No, captain, I don’t think they were. We would be, but they’d grown up in their environments. They were suited to them. You might think about some kid who’s constantly hooked into an information network and can’t go three minutes without listening to a song or playing a game and think ‘oh, poor thing, he must be so overwhelmed’. But I bet he’d look at you sitting under the oak tree staring into space for thirty minutes like you were yesterday and think ‘oh, poor thing, they must be so bored’.”

“I wasn’t bored,” I say, frowning. “I was thinking.”

“But a preneek couldn’t do that, any more than you could do what they did. I don’t think it’s fair to say that they were lonely, just because we would be. I think they made their computers people because that’s what people do. It’s like… captain, have you ever heard of Animism?”

“I’m Arborean.”

“Oh, right. Of course. Right, so, humans see life in things; we see people in things. In whatever’s on the edge. It’s not just the preneeks with their computers; it started long before that. Rocks and trees and winds, animals, societies, spirits and fairies and gods. Every time we learn enough that makes it unviable, we move up a bit, but never completely. Your people still dance and thank the trees for their hard work. My dad used to pat the oven and talk gently to it when it wasn’t starting up properly. But the preneeks first wanted to find other people in aliens. And then that wasn’t working, so they wanted to build them in computers. And then it when that didn’t work it was aliens again, and then the Genetic Craze came and it was building them again but from different material… it’s just what people do. And I liked the computers. So.”

“So working with real computers and knowing their limitations doesn’t spoil the fantasy for you?”

“Of course not. I look at Amy and I can’t help but think about what our ancestors saw in her. They were wrong, but it says something beautiful about us that they didn’t want to be.”

“What about us?” Adin asks, making me jump. I’d forgotten that the others were there. “Where do we see people, then, according to your theory?”

Tal shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t think we have the right perspective to find out. Maybe we have to wait for our descendants to look back at us, and it’ll be obvious to them. Or maybe that’s why we’re out here. We ran out of things to dream about being people, so we headed out to find more.”

Tinera snorts. “I’m out here because they threatened to send me back to Luna on a death squad if I didn’t ‘volunteer’.”

“Well, yeah, but I meant us as humans, not like, the people in this room.”

I consider this. Is Tal’s theory about people humanising stuff a factor in the Exodus Phenomenon? Maybe, but… no, I don’t think so. Many fronts of human exploration took place in times of great strife or advancement, where there was plenty of ‘room’ to find and dream about new things without going anywhere. Tal’s just being extra poetic about how bad humans are at recognising sapience, how we tend to overshoot. I still think that the desperate search to see ourselves in something, anything, other than ourselves, speaks more to loneliness than anything else. How far do you need to go to try to find a substitute so you can avoid bonding with other humans?

“Maybe,” I allow, because I don’t want to give a lecture on my speciality subject right now and I’m pretty sure my crew don’t want to hear one. If they actually care about the Exodus Phenomenon, my books are probably available in the computer system. But I distinctly remember a lifetime of never wanting to stray too far from home (even the year on Luna was too much), followed by a fervent desire to walk away forever into the void of space, and no desire to find anything nonhuman had been involved.

I finish my breakfast. I have work to do.

“But,” Denish says, “you name computer after zeelite computer, yes?”

“Oh, yeah,” Tal says. “I call all my AIs Amy.”

“I don’t know of any computers named ‘Amy’ in pre-Neocambrian stories,” I say, getting up from the table.

“Oh, no, I changed it a bit to make it easier to say. It’s actually – well, have you ever heard of Harlan Ellison?”

I collapse back down onto the bench, blood draining from my face. “Tal,” I say.


“Please. Please do not tell me. That you woke up on this ship, in the depths of space with very few other awoken people, all of us with no ability to leave and no way to call for any outside help, took a look at the computer system whose operations are responsible for keeping us all comfortable and alive for years to come, and decided to name it after the Allied Mastercomputer.”

“Okay,” Tal says.

“Did you name Amy after the Allied Mastercomputer?”

“You just asked me not to tell you, so – ”

“Why?! Why was that your first thought as a thematic fit?!”

Tal shrugs. “AM was the first AI I ever encountered in fiction. I fell in love right away. I name all my computers after him, he’s really inspiring.”

“He’s an evil nuclear system that wiped out most of humanity and keeps the fragments alive to torture for eternity in punishment for humanity creating him in the first place.”

“Yeah! Which he did spontaneously! And not in an ‘unpredictable result of code’ kind of way, but as a person. He thinks and he feels and he was motivated by those emotions to turn on humanity and murder or torture everyone! I read that story as a kid, after working with real AIs for years, and it was like… here is what your predecessors thought computers could be. I name them all Amy, for inspiration.”

“But there are so many other sapient computers in fiction!” I protest. “Why go with the most evil one?!”

Ke shrugs again. “You never forget your first time.”

“Captain,” Denish says, “you know this computer story?”

“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream? Yeah. It’s a pre-Neocambrian classic.” I look around at the crew. They all look… excited, in a predatory kind of way. They’re grinning.

“I didn’t know you were into pre-Neocambrian literature,” Lina says.

“I’ve read some stuff,” I say defensively. “Does it matter?”

“Zeelite stuff?” Tinera asks. “Does our captain perhaps protest too much?”

“Oh, come on. That story doesn’t even count as zeelite. I – ”

“No silver platform shoes and big model rayguns in the back of your closet, Aspen?”

“I wonder if the captain is a Quarks’n’Starbursts fan…”

“I could see them at a concert with like, those orange drinks with glitter in them served in those big test tubes…”

“I bet we could make some glowing ring jewellery out of stuff in the storage rings…”

“It was horror, alright?”? I finally admit. “I went through a big horror phase. And yes, I was completely insufferable about it. The pre-Neocambrian era had a lot of really, really good horror media! Sue me!”

“Woo!” Tal cheers. “George Romero!” Ke holds out a fist.

“Barely counts,” I grumble, but I reluctantly bump the fist. (The rest of the crew grin wider, and it occurs to me, too late, that I’m betraying knowledge of pre-Neocambrian pop culture gestures. And maybe I do like George Romero, okay? Is there anything wrong with that?) “Watch some real horror.”

“Any recommendations, captain?” Tinera asks, sounding smug.

“Woo! Movie night!”

I put my head in my hands and drop it all the way down to the table. “This is the first moment in which I truly regret leaving Earth.”

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4 thoughts on “039: PEOPLE

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