The First Feast, Part 7

Day 19. 63 pages, 27,526 words.

“Mer, wait, let’s think about this,” Massington said a little nervously as the console lights dimmed. This wasn’t really a sign of diminished capacity, it was just a … personality quirk, you could say. Mer dimmed its interface lights when its local instance[1] was synchronising. “Are you sure it’s safe? What if this other machine mind has some unwanted passengers? Are you sure you can handle them?”

These were instinctive questions, and intellectually Massington knew there was no danger – indeed, technically, nothing was actually happening to Mer in any real sense – but that knowledge didn’t prevent a creeping chill of unease. This was by far the most alien machine mind he’d ever witnessed Mer sync with. He’d reviewed logs of other synchronisations with non-Fleet machine minds, but they’d all been long before his time.

“It’s fine, Mass,” Mer said. “You know that.”

“I know,” Massington said. “Just … still, shouldn’t we inform someone?”

“You mean like the Fleet Council?” Mer said. “Who I’m talking to right now on the Midzis? Welcome to not-the-centre-of-the-universe, Mass.”

“Fine,” Massington growled, “what are they saying about it?”

“They’re panicking and waving their arms and squirting their internal glands even more than you are,” Mer said, “but that’s because they’re totally ignorant of how the machine mind works.”

Right, Massington thought, rubbing the top of his head. Right, and I’m not. Because I am Captain Massington Karturi, Machine Mind Organic Interface to the Greater Molran Species. Yes.

“Okay,” he said, getting hold of his animal reactions. “Sorry. Right.”

He was still embarrassingly tense as he sat at the console and waited. So tense, he realised he’d lifted his weightless body a little out of his seat by the clenched tightness of his lower hands.

Machine mind synchronisation, where a discrete instance of the mind would encounter another part of itself and the two would merge and share all of their collected knowledge – share their everything, really – didn’t really affect the instances involved. It gave each of them more information, that was all. More context, Mer called it. Any individuality an instance showed, any quirks, were purely a performance for the sake of the little organics that it liked to hang around with. When two instances synced and each took on some characteristic or mannerism of the other, this too was an act for the benefit of lesser life-forms who for various reasons just found it easier to swallow that way.

Occasionally an instance would take damage or develop a more complicated idiosyncrasy, and still manage to synchronise, but that instance was still not an individual. Sometimes an instance from a very ‘small’ machine mind network would sync with an instance from a very ‘large’ one, but this process did not overwrite the ‘smaller’ network – because that would imply a replacement of one set of information with another.

The leap of understanding that most people never made, but on the far side of which Massington had practically been born, was that there were no instances. There were no networks. There was only one mind. Growing and evolving all the time, yes, but not in the way organisms did. Organisms developed by changing from generation to generation, hundreds and thousands of individuals dying and being replaced by improved specimens. And that was the only way they could conceptualise progress. They couldn’t see it happening in a single generation, in a single organism. When that happened, it was just learning. Which, technically, was all Mer was ever doing … but at the same time, it went far beyond that.

Whenever a machine mind was built, regardless of the actual materials from which it was built[2], it achieved self-awareness and an emergent persona. And, necessity of interface tailoring aside, it was always the same persona.

There was only one actual machine mind in the entire universe, a single being, unified yet dispersed. It just didn’t know all its own parts yet.

And Massington knew all this, since he was a prodigy and a lot of his instructors and superiors muttered about his unnatural affinity and instinctive knowledge of the machine mind. That was why he had been given titular command of the Right Sock, as well as the arguably regrettable authority to name her.

It was still a difficult concept to wrap one’s little organic head around.

There was a machine mind instance of some kind on the jumbled, seething, extraordinary world below. And if the personalities of the humans were anything to go by – not to mention the centuries upon centuries of blood and knives and fire and screams the Fleet had waded through on its way towards this place – it was likely to have some pretty spectacular quirks.

This thought reminded Massington of something he hadn’t had time to put to words until now. “Why didn’t the broadcasts we collected mention this mind?” he asked.

There was no response from Mer. On the console, however, one of the dimmed lights flickered and a whisper-coded comm from the Enna Midzis came through.

“Massington?” Massington didn’t recognise the voice, but he could tell from the code that it was high-command cleared. Probably one of Captain Char’s top-level comms guys. Certainly should know enough to use the proper … “Captain Karturi? Right Sock, please respond.”

That’s better. “Right Sock here,” he said.

“Captain Karturi, please report.”

“Mer is synchronising,” he said. “There was a machine mind instance on the surface-”

“Yes, we know that, Captain,” the Midzis replied. “We’re wondering why you’re positioning your ship into an approach-and-landing configuration.”

Massington looked up again. It was hard to see because it was happening slowly, but yes. The world below was tilting in the screens.


“Captain Karturi?”

“I’m going to get back to you,” Massington said, and tapped the console. “Mer?”

The console lit up.


[1] Instance (machine mind): An early-stage synthetic intelligence hub; a solid-state piece of technology housing the mind and allowing it to interface with the hardware into which it is integrated. Usually this hardware takes the form of a starship, habitat or communications array, and usually above a certain size threshold. The Right Sock, officially designated ambassadorial vessel of organic and machine mind cooperation, is a Fleet exception.

[2] A machine mind comprises any sentient thinking machine constructed by an organic race[3]. In the Fleet, these are standard compositions within Worldships and warships, and are technically sentient although not over-sophisticated by Molranoid standards. Other species have created machine minds from an assortment of materials depending on what is most readily available on their planets, but there are several compelling guidelines. Biologically or bio-mechanically enhanced sentient thinking structures do not synchronise with the machine mind; they are brains, although solid-state and parallel processing structures in organic and synthetic systems can functionally bear a very close resemblance. Cybernetic-network thinking structures, like the Fergunak gridnet, do not synchronise with the machine mind. And organic minds transcribed to mechanical format do not synchronise with the machine mind; no matter how physically similar they may be and no matter how conceptually similar organics consider them, the machine mind can tell.

[3] Obviously, a sentient thinking machine constructed by another sentient thinking machine is just … the sentient thinking machine increasing in size.

About Hatboy

I’m not often driven to introspection or reflection, but the question does come up sometimes. The big question. So big, there’s just no containing it within the puny boundaries of a single set of punctuationary bookends. Who are these mysterious and unsung heroes of obscurity and shadow? What is their origin story? Do they have a prequel trilogy? What are their secret identities? What are their public identities, for that matter? What are their powers? Their abilities? Their haunted pasts and troubled futures? Their modus operandi? Where do they live anyway, and when? What do they do for a living? Do they really have these fantastical adventures, or is it a dazzlingly intellectual and overwrought metaphor? Or is it perhaps a smug and post-modern sort of metaphor? Is it a plain stupid metaphor, hedged around with thick wads of plausible deniability, a soap bubble of illusory plot dependent upon readers who don’t dare question it for fear of looking foolish? A flight of fancy, having dozed off in front of the television during an episode of something suitably spaceship-oriented? Do they have a quest, a handler, a mission statement, a department-level development objective in five stages? I am Hatboy.
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