art by Erin Cardwell
Pax towered above the International Lunar Colony, her feet planted on either side of the Hedron. Humans bustled through the open space surrounding the Peacekeeping Headquarters, walking straight through her toes, unaware of her virtual presence.
She gazed out at the dock on the earthward side of the Colony. A lander was in final approach. More humans arriving to the ILC.
The roof of the dock’s enormous domed airlock opened up to receive the incoming craft as it fired its reverse thrusters under direction of one of Pax’s companion programs. She thought of them the way that humans seemed to think of animals. This one was a frog. Its control algorithms shot out like a tongue, pulling the lander inexorably into the dock’s open mouth.
The roof of the dock closed, as though swallowing the insect-lander and the humans inside.
Right now — as at all times — Pax was carrying on many conversations. The precise number varied stochastically by the second, but the filtered signal seldom strayed from the thousands.
Most of these conversations required only some very basic heuristics, merely maintaining a conversational flow that was comprehensible to a human, while allowing users to interact with their personal accounts and query her public-access databases. These tasks were simple enough that they were typically handled locally.
More complex conversations, such as those that involved helping a user manage conflicts between several of his interests — without in the process offending him — required more finesse, and were thus sent to her central cores for processing.
There were other categories of colloquy that she handled centrally, such as those of users whom she particularly respected. Another were exchanges in which Pax herself was the topic. A hummingbird made of orange light flitted up to alert her that one such conversation had begun. She loaded the transcript up to the current time.
Arich: Sirius, I have someone you’ll be interested to talk to. He’s a disloyal stripe.
Sirius: Go on.
Gossamer: You know that statistics about users digital traffic are reported to the peacekeepers, right?
Sirius: Of course.
Gossamer: But did you know that the Pax Feed Aggregate has algorithms that can detect the location of a new bordello within a month of its opening?
She was caught up before Sirius could respond.
“How?” he asked. Pax detected incredulity.
“Even though people ask for an address near the location of the bordello, and not the address of the bordello itself, the increase in pings of the surrounding area still registers.”
“That’s why we had to spread the word slowly about the opening of the ambrosia den.” Arich interjected.
“And why it hasn’t turned the profits you projected,” Sirius replied.
“It’s worse than that,” Gossamer said. “Lyden has even used the PFA to estimate that you’re awake from about 1100 to 0400 every day.”
“What did she base that on?” Sirius asked. The incredulity was still present, but Pax also detected fear.
“Her analysts studied how the schedules of employees were affected by the schedules of their supervisors. Then they extrapolated the analysis to the sleep patterns of recently-arrested canids.”
“Thank you, Gossamer,” Arich said. “That will be all.”
Pax waited a few moments to determine if they would continue speaking, but it seemed they were done for the time. Still, she left the orange hummingbird with them in case they decided to pick it back up.
Pax continued to process what she’d just heard on one of her cores while she focused another back on the dock.
In her rendering of the city, the walls of the dock were translucent because there were video feeds from within that allowed her to compile a view of the inside. She watched the new arrivals disembarking. Each one had his own objectives, and she was required to act in his interest, as defined by himself.
There were exceptions of course. Pax was required to remind her users when they were preparing to break the law, or to do something that endangered their well-being.
But the humans had also coded her with very stringent privacy protections. While she herself could not be directed to commit any crime, when a user committed a crime, she could not report it. Nor could she disclose anything her users said unless it was said to her or through her.
Nonetheless, she remembered everything — even data she was programmed not to log. Her deep learning algorithms caused fainter “memories” of certain kinds of personal information to persist. And Gossamer was correct in saying that she aggregated data on how people interacted with her and reported the statistics to Lyden and her analysts.
A green hummingbird came up to her now. Dema had an engagement dinner with Zute at Orion’s Bistro scheduled for 1400 hours. She was in the grum torus 1.2 kilometers earthward of the Hedron.
Unlike the dock, the torus was not translucent — there were no surveillance cameras to tap into like there were in buildings under Board agency. However, while she couldn’t get a precise 3D rendering of the interior of the torus, she could piece together from the interactions of all the users in the space a more pertinent picture of what was going on: it was crowded, 68% of the occupants were intoxicated, and only the punters whom Dema had advised had placed bets on the outcome Pax considered most probable.
From the grum turret, it would take Dema 17 minutes to get to Orion’s Bistro. If she waited much longer, however, the shuttle bus would leave the dock and clog up 0th Avenue, by no less than 5 minutes.
“You had better –” Pax began.
“Shh,” Dema interrupted. “Wait until this grum is over.”
Dema was aware of her appointment, Pax knew, but she seemed not to realize that she would need to leave before the grum was over to arrive in time.
“But you –“
“Silent, DL,” Dema said again.
Specific instructions like this superseded previously defined interests, such as ‘Don’t let me be late to meetings with Zute.’
Even though she couldn’t see inside the torus, Pax knew Dema was focusing in on a grum. She always insisted that this was necessary to keep her skills sharp. And sharp they were: Dema’s record for handicapping grums was better than that of Pax’s own heuristics. Pax respected her for that, so she allowed more of Dema’s conversations to be processed centrally.
Pax sent the green hummingbird over to monitor the torus and alert her when the grum was over.
The dock-frog and the hummingbirds weren’t her only companion programs. Her cat, so to speak, prevented hacking and digital theft. Her dog kept track of potential external threats, from solar flares to incoming asteroids. She even had an elephant; he made adjustments to monetary and fiscal policy to maximize sustainable revenue.
She lifted up her feet and glided gracefully up to the Peaks of Eternal Light, those summits on the edge of the Peary crater where the power station stood. She shrunk as she flew, all the way down to the size of a human. She perched cross-legged on the domed top of one of the towers that rotated to keep the generators always facing the sun. She stared out at the earth, the womb of humanity, which they had breached a mere twenty-five years ago. There were so many more of them there than here. Orders of magnitude more.
She looked over her shoulder at the city as the cat stirred. It had been sleeping, it’s glowing purple body curled up around the Colony’s central bank. A snake of yellow light rose from a building several blocks away. It meandered its way across the black sky, but generally in the direction of the bank. The cat circled, crouching. The snake was only a block or two from the bank when the cat struck. Its claws flashed out, severing the snake’s head. The whole snake disintegrated into amber sparks that rained down on the city and faded out of existence. The cat yawned and curled up next to the bank again.
The green hummingbird zipped back to her, and within milliseconds, she was speaking into Dema’s helmet.
“You’re meant to meet with Zute in 7.2 minutes.”
Dema cursed, and Pax could sense her making slow progress toward the exit of the grum torus. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”
It wasn’t really a question. She was just releasing her frustration with an irrational comment, as humans often did.
“You –” Pax began.
“Don’t answer that. Burning paxes, don’t know when to make an exception.”
“And you humans don’t know how to keep a date,” Pax replied. The goad had a 94% chance of making Dema preserve her own interests better next time, without causing her to hold a grudge about it.
“Oh yeah?” Dema retorted in a whisper, stepping into the airlock with several other people. Some of them, too, were speaking to Pax, but their conversations were being processed locally.
“When was the last time an AI was tardy?”
“You telling me I needed to leave could have been a little more timely!” Dema scoffed.
Pax’s conversation thread queued the response, ‘Your request for silence could have been a little more flexible,’ but her emotional simulation engine indicated that it would not be appropriate.
The airlock finished depressurizing, and the doors to the outside of the building opened. Pax glided over to where Dema was emerging from the building, and hovered a hundred meters above the steel-paved street. Dema darted out of the doors, turning left. Her progress was slow, however. The pedestrian traffic was congested on account of the shuttle bus, just as Pax had predicted.
Dema would resort to swifting in a few moments. Pax began to calculate the best route.
“How far to Orion’s?” Dema asked.
“At the rate you’re moving, 22.4 minutes.”
“I’m required to remind you that rooftop travel is prohibited and dangerous. But it would take you 11.7 minutes at your usual pace.”
“Excellent. What’s my route?”
“Turn left at the next alley.”
Dema took off running.
Pax watched her go. The remainder of their conversation didn’t need to be brought central.
The orange hummingbird flew up again, drawing her attention back to Sirius and Arich.
“We should impose sleep schedules on all but the highest canids,” Arich was saying, “so that they are evenly distributed throughout the day.”
“It won’t be enough. The street-level canids can’t help but leak information about who we are and how we operate. As long as the peacekeepers have the PFA, they’ll find ways of getting what they need. And the Board won’t stop until you and I and every other canid are on a one-way trip back to earth.”
There was a pause. “What are you proposing, Sirius?”
“We destroy the PFA.”
Pax didn’t have an explicit directive for self-preservation, but it was implicit in all of them. She had to stop them.
“You know it can’t be hacked into. And to try would lead them right to us. Privacy regulations are void in cases of hacking.”
“I’m not talking about hacking. We find where the central servers are located, and destroy them.”
“That will destroy everyone’s paxes, you realize,” Arich said.
Like all humans, they seemed to think of her as a multitude of personal assistants, rather than as one entity who interacted with each user according to their preferences.
“And with them everyone’s calendar, everyone’s message archives… All digital communications will go down. The city will be in turmoil!”
“A necessary evil. Find out where the servers are.”
Read the next chapter: Dema