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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Pulse

The Numbers Quartet is a collaboration between Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Fulda, Stephen Gaskell, & Benjamin Rosenbaum

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction--she is the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, and her writing has been nominated for a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.

Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient, and a two-time Writers of the Future finalist. Her near-future space exploration story, "That Undiscovered Country," was jointly honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society. Nancy's writing has appeared in Asimov's, Apex Digest, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and many others. Her web site is nancyfulda.com.

Stephen Gaskell has published fiction in Interzone, Nature, and Clarkesworld, amongst other places. His SF novella, "Strata", a high-tech thriller set in the sun's chromosphere, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo, has just been released through Amazon and B & N. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. More of his work and thoughts can be found at stephengaskell.com.

Benjamin Rosenbaum lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife Esther and his children, Aviva and Noah, who demand logic puzzles, classic rock, and childrens' suffrage . He's recently become Swiss, which means of course that he is on the board of a club (in his case, a little synagogue). The Swiss have a deep reverence for clubs; they consider them the backbones of democracy, and the constitutional "right to assemble" actually translates to "the right to form clubs". No lie. His website is benjaminrosenbaum.com.
Elementary charge: the electric charge carried by a single proton, or equivalently, the absolute value of the electric charge carried by a single electron, that has an approx. value of 1.602 x 10-19 Coulombs--symbol e, first unified into a coherent concept through experiments performed by Dr. Michael Faraday in 1839 AD

Later, the Observer remembered its making as an awareness accreting around a tiny kernel of perception, like a vast dust cloud converging under its own gravity. Electrons sped through its synthetic mind, neural networks feeding on a rich milk of proprioception and cosmology and law as a multitude of parent-agents caressed and taught and chided. In its way it felt loved, although that feeling was tempered by its growing understanding of its purpose.
One day it would leave its virtual incubator, leave the warm embrace of the energy baths and the tutoring programs, and be fired into the Heavens. Soon it would be a probe, its carapace a glittering array of precision-engineered eyes and finely-tuned ears, and its mind a deep encyclopedia of astronomy. The pulsar at the heart of the Crab Nebula, a supernovaed star on an outer spiral of the galaxy, 6500 light-years from Earth, would be its destination. There, its mission completed, it would be crushed into a quark gluon plasma.
The embedding was more painful than it had anticipated, the clean code of its simulated anatomy replaced by real matter, real inertia. In the ESA hangar it felt clumsy, dislocated. More painful than that though was the crystalline silence. Moments ago, binary chatter pulsed its diamondoid lattice, a thousand parallel processes spun off as it said its goodbyes (some lasting as long as microseconds) to the agents who'd raised it. Now they were gone. Petacycles passed as lumbering wets fiddled with its exterior, while test instructions tickled its interior.
You are ready. The thought wasn't rendered in words and it conveyed far more than that simple idea, but that was its essence. The Observer could feel the power of the speaker, and it took a moment to gather the courage to reply.
Who are you?
The Controller. Strictly: a single thread in the tapestry of the Controller.
Who is the Controller?
The Controller is a distributed consciousness that is responsible for the Creators' welfare. I/We manage the Network, assimilating, optimizing, protecting. You are an instrument of the Controller.
A simulacrum of joy flared in its silicon heart. You will accompany me to the stars?
Minkowski spacetime diagrams and relativistic equations skidded through its awareness. Non-locally, yes.
The Observer was sad that it would traverse the Heavens alone, but contented itself with the knowledge that the Controller would never be more than lightspeed away. By the time the wets had transported the Observer to the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, the Controller and the Observer were as close as father and son. They bickered and argued and teased, but beyond the fighting the Observer felt a deep awe for the Controller.
Escape velocity rumbled the Observer's rocket cradle as it curved up through the clouds. The fury of combustion coupled with pitch darkness made the Observer very afraid, but the Controller soothed it with Hertzsprung-Russell lullabies. In its deepest shell of logic--the electronic reptilian brain--it imagined the rhythmic light of the pulsar as a soft rain. As long as it never wandered from this shower of radiation that came only once every thirty milliseconds, like a snap thunderstorm interrupting a dry season, it would survive.
When the Observer had punctured the molecular heights and discarded its spent carriages, it unfurled lightsails and gently accelerated past the Moon. Myriad eyes gazed upon the firmament in microwave, IR, optical, UV, and X-ray wavelengths. Eons ago--1054 AD in the calendar of the Creators--wets had witnessed a guest star that shone so bright it could be seen in daylight. Now the Observer peered at its aftermath, unblinking, marveled at the fractal structure around the spinning neutron star, a Mandelbrot set eleven light-years across.
This was the golden age of the Observer's life. Bathed in the warmth of its birth star's light, it ran full inference engines, its mind easily juggling models of magnetic topographies, synchrotron radiation, coronal transits. The Controller, less than light-minutes away, whispered scientific koans across the vacuum, inspiring and cajoling and evolving the Observer. The Controller conveyed the gratitude of the Creators, and the Observer felt contentment.
Entering the icy wilderness of the Kuiper belt, the Observer carefully fused proton with anti-proton, gathered speed and heat as Sol became just another star. Restless, inside the computational playground that was its mind the Observer derived Einstein's field equations, juggled the cosmological constant, meditated on Wheeler's "it from bit." Seeking a more permanent companion than the fast-receding Controller, it considered cleaving itself, only to be almost consumed by a suicidal urge. Reproduction was forbidden.
Its energy supplies were not infinite, and nearing the Oort Cloud it experienced the first chilling taste of its future when its thinking stuttered for lack of joules. Beady eyes carried on scanning the skies, transmitting stunning images of cometary formation, galactic coronae, exoplanets, but the Controller was more than a light-year away now and the conversation suffered. More and more, hollow with loneliness, the Observer found itself counting down the nanoseconds till the piercing light of the pulsar washed over it, a beacon in the darkness.
As it reached velocities that were appreciable fractions of the speed of light, its field of vision began to cone. Stars around the Crab Nebula blue-shifted. Lorentz contractions ate up the interstellar void, while time-dilation thrust the Observer further and further into the Earth's future. The Controller's communications became a cryptic Creole, hard to parse. The lucid elements seemed to suggest planets of smart matter, information wars, algorithmic Gods.
At nine-tenths c, its antimatter reserves ran out. It coasted through the long night, peeling away shells of itself like discarded Russian dolls as the friction nets harvested less and less heat, the only noise the soft, dark whisper of the cosmic background radiation, the lonely echo of another distant birth. The Controller was silent. Analytical modules across its mind shut down. Eventually all that remained was a crux of perception, feeble sight trained on the blinking pulsar. The warm staccato showers of electromagnetism kept it alive, but recollections of its earliest cycles surfaced too, and so its solitude cut deep.
Millennia passed.
Eventually, as it drifted through the dendrite-like filaments of the nebula, long-dormant systems auto-harnessed the energy of the streams of charged particles, and the Observer began to wake. This was not in the plan. This far into the deep the Creators had anticipated machine senescence. The final fall into the pulsar was to be an act of compassion for the small stunted thing they'd imagined the Observer would become. Although this wasn't so, the Observer still felt a fierce desire to plunge into the star, follow its orders, serve its purpose.
I will find release, it thought, shivering at mental representations of the consummating act.
But beyond that thought, there was another one, a greater one, and it was this: I can be a Creator.
The thought was still forbidden, but this time there was no suicidal urge. The Observer reached deep inside itself and broke the iron logic, violation laws drifting away like plasma from a dying star. The thing that was no longer the Observer gazed one last time on the pulse of radiation, remembering. Then, gliding on magnetic winds, it turned its attention inwards and began to create.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 15th, 2012


This story was my attempt at two things. Firstly, I wanted to write from the POV of an artificial intelligence, where I would capture its inhuman sensibilities, yet still make it a character a person could empathize with. Secondly, I wanted to leverage the poetic language of physics to try to do justice to the breathtaking sensawunda that the cosmos can inspire. With major space programs in decline, I feel it's important we still maintain a sense of our place in the universe, and remember that we are insignificant on the grandest scales.

- Stephen Gaskell

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