His friends were listening, too, and learning. He was a smart boy, but his friends were smarter. Actually, by some standards, they were stupid. They didn’t think for themselves. They only did what he told them to do. They weren’t independent. They certainly weren’t self-aware. They definitely weren’t unpredictable; not like his best friend, Sid. Sid could have worked on his own and learned the cricket language that much faster. Sid might have figured out what the crickets really were, where they were, maybe why they had started talking. Eustace really missed Sid. His other friends were poor company by comparison.
Still, they were the best he had, especially right now. Sid, a true AI, was stuck millions of light-years away. Even the slow, physical, but friendly sentiences Eustace might speak with, the ones that called him ‘Gleamer’, were absent. When their bodies were elsewhere, their minds were cut off from contact. Only when the vibrated air of their speech was transduced to current along the ship’s intercom system would he and they be connected again. Even then, they could only share the barest minimum of information.
There were other, unfriendly sapients nearby. They were the reason that communication was being limited. There were things they could not be told. Eustace, also Gleamer, considered asking them about the crickets, then realized that his discovery might be one of those secrets. Not the content of it, the fact of it. Perhaps they, the Ningyo, were the source of the sounds. Not sounds in air, but signals in the radiosphere.
The chirps Gleamer was ‘hearing’ were short bursts of high frequency, low powered radio waves. There were thousands of them, coming from thousands of different sources. Given the weak propagation of such signals, the sources had to be close… which meant inside the Scape Grace. Unfortunately, their nature also made localization difficult. They came and went in choruses. No signal lasted long enough to convey much information by itself, but multiple signals would ripple through the sensors in a variegated pattern that must hold meaning as a whole. A wave of such small droplets would crash, followed by a distinct silent pause, then answered by another, more distant wave. Gleamer could tell that one swarm of crickets was further away, given the lower average power of their broadcasts.
The signals were new. They had started just under an hour ago, after the Ningyo came aboard. At first, Gleamer had hoped the odd signals were communications from Katy and NuRikPo, aboard the other, foreign ship; such an odd encoding method might have been necessitated somehow by the circumstances of their entrapment. After some analysis, Gleamer realized that this was impossible.
The most likely source was the Ningyo, one or both of them. Was he picking up some sort of natural emanation from the creatures themselves? A byproduct of their suits’ functions? Maybe the biomechanical interface between the two? That, too, seemed unlikely. For one thing, such radiated energy would be wasteful if it were not intentional. The best analogy might be to heat caused by friction on an axle. Surely the Ningyo could insulate such broadcasts, even if they were somehow internally necessary.
The best explanation was itself improbable. One of Gleamer’s sub-AIs proposed the idea via analogy to electroencephalography. Neurons had such choral behavior in their firing patterns. The electrical potentials used by each neuron to do its work had the side effect of generating measurable electrical current. Medical science had learned how to read these patterns of current and trace them back to the functional brain states from which they arose. The mapping between nerve action and measured current was murky, especially if measured from the scalp surface but even if measured from the outer brain surface. If you could touch an electrode to every single neuron, you might be able to map and ‘hear’ the thoughts of a subject… after a while. Nerves, as a general statement, did not follow a single common map. They might conform to some general rules of organization, but the exact patterns generated by one brain and another would never match exactly, even when having the ‘same’ thought.
Still, what if a brain wanted to talk to another brain? Sapients tended to solve that problem by forcibly creating common transmission methods using more reliable and robust mediums like visible light and atmospheric vibration. Such methods were sharply limited, true, but effective in working around the inherent mismatches between nervous systems. Hell, the Ningyo didn’t even have nervous systems, per se, and they and chordates could still trade jokes.
The Awakeners, by contrast, were pretty much just nervous systems. These most recent additions to the Collective were intelligent masses of fungus, colony entities which could merge symbiotically with other organisms and communicate directly. They could also communicate externally via a poorly-understood transmission process called ‘psionics’ for lack of a better term. Maybe psionics was nothing more than the development of a direct, nervous system to nervous system, common code. That way, two entities could skip over all the intervening steps and really communicate, sharing all the nuances of feeling, image, and experience that speech handled so gracelessly.
That kind of communication was almost what Gleamer experienced with his sub-AIs. The electrodes penetrating one hemisphere of his brain translated their electronic ‘thoughts’ into his own neural language and back again. He had experienced the same communication, briefly, with Sid. Sadly, Human and AI did not share enough frames of reference to make it more than a means of fast, efficient discussion… yet even that interface was vastly superior to any other form of contact Gleamer had experienced before or since.
If there was one thing to be said in favor of other Humans, it was that they had the same dimensionality as Eustace himself. If he ever met another Human who was wired up in the same way, they might do more than talk. They could experience real communion, sharing not only information but conscious experiences. That hope was part of the reason Eustace had become Gleamer.
The growing awareness of ‘psionics’ had given rise to considerable discussion in the Collective, accompanied by speculation. There had long been suspicion that other sapient species held the potential for such direct mind-to-mind communication. Each such culture had understandably kept the evidence of such abilities carefully hidden. With the Awakeners publicly accepted, the reality of psionics was undeniable. Fear followed. The leaders of each society were forced to acknowledge not only the existence of psionics, but also explain the safeguards they were putting (had put) into place for defense against the abuse of such abilities. Suddenly, there were psionic police, suppressant drugs for psychic restraint, and even sensors to publicly detect the activity of illicit psionic activity.
Most of those who had no access to this mental world were suspicious of it, if not fearful. Eustace Brown had only been envious. He had always felt separated from the world. This alienation wasn’t a mental or chemical disorder; it was nothing doctors could diagnose or treat. If anything, it was a subtle mismatch of personality to culture. Gleamer’s literary sub-AI could drag up a thousand examples of the same disjunction expressed across time and artistic formats. Eustace was a man out of step with the world.
Eustace had waited patiently through adolescence, reassured that this dissonance was typical and would fade with maturity. He excelled in his studies and seemed destined for success in that most distinctive of Human industries: the creation of artificial intelligence. Yet adulthood and a career did not help. If anything, finding his ‘place’ in society made it clear how hollow a socket he had been plugged into. Something was wrong with Humanity. He could feel it.
At first, Eustace felt that technology was the source of the problem. Then he realized that it was the solution, just as it had been the solution to other historical problems. Hunger, health, and physical isolation had once been much worse. Mental isolation could also be defeated. They could map a mind. They could mimic a mind. Could they create a map of one mind that another could read? Could you travel to the realms within another sapient’s skull?
Even if he rose to the ranks of the elite programmers, Eustace would never have the resources necessary to pursue his needs. The research to link mind to mind was too distant… not for lack of the prerequisite knowledge or technology, but because of priority. By the time he convinced investors, gathered capital, brought together the workers, and set to work on his true project, Eustace would be due for his first geriatric restorative treatments.
All that was unnecessary. He could bypass so much difficulty by using himself as a workshop and devoting himself entirely to his work. To obtain research materials and leisure time, he would need lots of money. At first, Eustace tried to work legitimately, adding contract projects alongside his professional schedule. It was exhausting but not unexpected of an ambitious young programmer. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
That was when he began to work outside of legal channels. Eustace became 'Gleamer', just one among a thousand masked electronic criminals. He moved information from closed systems to unauthorized recipients. He built unlicensed sub-AIs and components for unapproved full AIs. Eventually, Gleamer cut out the middlemen and just arranged the transfer of credit from one account to another. He was talented in the virtual world… but naïve in the physical domain. The same disconnect that had driven him to ever greater criminality revealed his operations to the authorities. He had not realized that repeated deliveries of specific types of hardware and medical supplies would raise flags. When his unlicensed cybernetic surgeon turned state informant – a treachery negotiated entirely in the physical world – Gleamer’s identity was discovered.
His trial was unremarkable. His crimes were hardly unique. The reason for his actions was also not unique. Gleamer was aware that others had felt the same needs and sought the same remedies. The early pioneers had killed or damaged themselves or others. More recent collaborators, themselves cloaked in anonymity, had endorsed Gleamer’s research privately. They hoped to someday meet up, joining mind to mind, finding unity at last within their minority society. Sharing that experience with other, unenlightened Humans, much less the collected sapients of the Collective, could wait as a far distal goal.
That goal was entirely unreachable from the penitentiary facility of Alpha Centaurus Prime. Gleamer, relabeled Eustace Brown, was shipped there to keep the galaxy safe from his predations. It was an ironically cruel punishment, since the facility was tightly sealed against external contact. Eustace was separated further from society than ever before. The worst abusers of the virtual networks were imprisoned with him. Rendered destitute by the seizure of their ill-gotten assets, these cyber-criminals were obligated to work to avoid incurring debt from the cost of their incarceration. Most inmates complied just to avoid mental harm from boredom and isolation. Working meant contact with other people, not to mention one’s own AI. It meant building something, even if your creations would be deeply scrutinized and then never credited as your own.
Some inmates chafed at the idea that their work would aid the law enforcement programs that had been their own downfall. Gleamer, not thinking of himself as a ‘criminal’, did not mind. He had always thought of himself as a benefactor of Humanity, not its adversary nor even a parasite. He was a symbiote – like an Awakener – something outside of the body Human but capable of granting it amazing new powers. Like the Awakeners, too, most Humans rejected invasive change. They could not surrender their sanctity, even for the opportunity to become more.
Gleamer understood such feelings to some extent. He certainly did not want a wad of fungus invading his body and mind, changing his perceptions. Perhaps if he had been more comfortable, more normal, or better integrated into his world, he too would reject his own lawless behavior. Still, he needed what he needed. Humanity, too, needed what he sought. They needed communion, but on their own terms, without resorting to alien entities, abilities, or technologies.
Back in the present, on Scape Grace, the programmer’s musings on his past served a useful function. Those sorts of reminiscences, the products of free association prompted by current problems, were assets his biological brain contributed to the efforts of his team of artificial minds. Together, they seized upon the important threads. Threads… like rhizomes… linking fungal masses together. Neurons… cells in a network. Something brought in by the Ningyo, but now partially separate from them. Something that used radio communications, with signals produced by circuits no larger than a micrometer at best.
Not crickets, ants. He was hearing an ant nest, with electromagnetism in place of pheromones. The sequences were coordination between disparate units not in physical contact. Were Ningyo intelligent anthills? Gleamer’s xenobiology sub-AI negated that possibility. The jellyfish were most definitely unitary organisms with dependent, specialized cells. Weird cells with a biochemistry all their own, but still not ants.
The Ningyo had ants in their pants. Their robotic pants had robotic ants. The stinking, rotting, singing, dancing jellyfish had miniaturized technology on board, and it was spreading throughout the Scape Grace. Whether those robots were talking back to the Ningyo or just conversing among themselves, they were definitely coordinating activities. Secret activities. The Ningyo had said nothing about seeding the ship with bugs. Whatever they were up to, it wasn’t friendly.
So their visitors had secrets, too? Fair enough, but that didn’t mean Gleamer had to stay quiet, himself. The captain needed to be warned. Hopefully, he would find a way to contact Gleamer privately, so that this information could be shared without tipping off the Ningyo. Hurry up, Gene! Gleamer couldn’t even risk sending a program out to alert the captain. He could conceal his work on this particular console from Jolly using careful encryption and firewalls, but patching anywhere else would raise suspicions. Once again, he was isolated, in contact only with entities he could not understand.
He had thought he grokked the Ningyo. Maybe captain Lerner was right; maybe that was an illusion they created to throw you off guard. They pretended to understand. They acted just enough like people to hide their true intentions. That was a good idea. It was an idea Gleamer could borrow for his own use.
A few minutes after Evgeny and Soloth’s departure, Gleamer turned in his chair to face Jolly.
“So, what was that you were saying about a ‘Joke’?”