Short Story: Finding Purpose

I was celebrating with friends in a local bar when the stranger caught my eye. You know when you can feel someone staring at you, even from behind? And the harder they’re staring the more you feel it? Well, that.

I turned and stared back.

The stranger was sitting alone in a corner, hunched over a small, dirty-looking glass of whisky. He grinned and beckoned to me with a bony hand.

He didn’t look inviting, in fact he looked like he was close to death. His grey skin was wrinkled like an elephant’s and it hung off him in folds. His eyes were yellow, and his grin was missing teeth.

I knew I should turn away and ignore him, he smelt of crazy, even from over here, but I was intrigued, so I got up and headed his way.

The closer I got the worse he looked. No stink though, even if he did look like he was rotting.

“Sit down kid, I’ve got a deal for you.” His voice sounded like gravel on ice. I didn’t like the way he said kid, but I sat down anyway.

“Celebrating, huh kid? End of your education?”

I shrugged a yes.

He grinned like the Cheshire Cat, then his whole body flickered, a glitch rising through him from foot to head, quick as a blink. He wasn’t really here, I was sitting opposite a hologram. The lack of time delay suggested he wasn’t too far away though.

“So kid, what you gonna do now you got your diploma?”

I shrugged again. Nothing to do, everyone new that, the artilects, the artificial intelligences, took all the jobs years ago. I didn’t like the way he was talking to me too, like he knew me. “What’s it to you?”

“Tough kid,” he smirked. “Better start thinking about your options though. Your family aren’t Management class are they? No shares, no wealth to fall back on. What you gonna do?”

“I got some ideas,” I bluffed. I didn’t have any ideas.

He laughed. “Yeah, sure you do, smart kid like you. You gonna settle down like a good citizen? Collect your Basic Income and find a hobby to fill your time? Maybe you’ll meet someone as dull and unambitious as yourself? Maybe you’ll breed meek citizen children?”

“Maybe I will.” I tried to sound defiant, but it came out weak. Not the most imaginative of retorts either.

“Or maybe you’ll reject citizenship huh? Become an outlander instead? You could move out from under the protective shadow of the artilects and go and live in one of those communes, growing your own food and making your own clothes. At least until you’re overrun by bandits and you’re forced into slavery, or worse. It’s a tough life being an outlander. Can you fight? Could you kill?”

“Screw you old man. I don’t need to listen to this.” I pushed the chair back and stood. What I chose to do wasn’t his business, and I knew where this was going, he wanted to gloat about the good old days, the job he used to have, and to mock me about my doomed and empty future. I didn’t need someone else to do that, I could do it fine myself.

He burst into laughter. “Whoa, kid, hold your horses. I said I got a deal for you didn’t I?” He put a gnarled hand out to stop me leaving. “Sit, I’ll buy you a drink.” He gestured to the bar, one of the droids nodded and brought over a whisky. “Kid, I know you better than you think.” His voice softened, he sounded tired, he leaned towards me. “I know you better than you know yourself.”

Something about the way he said that got to me, it made the hairs on my arms stand on end. I sat back down.

His voice changed, becoming steadier and stronger. “I know you and I know what you want. You want more than the life that’s been promised to you, a life of unending leisure and boredom, a life without challenge, a life without vocation. What you want is meaning, yeah? But aint no hobby gonna give you that. And you aint gonna make it out in the wild either.”

I didn’t say anything, but he was bang on the money so far.

“You think the machines and the artilects took any possibility of purpose away when they stole your jobs don’t you? And sure, the Shareholders and the Managers grant you a monthly income, enough to live on, but it’s not really living is it? More like filling your time as you wait to die. But what if you could be part of something? What if I told you there was still a chance to find meaning?”

The hairs were up on my arms again, but this felt weird, something was off. The way this guy was speaking, his eyes, it was like looking into the black eyes of a shark. I tried to sound tough, “who are you?”

“Wrong question kid.” His voice grew clearer still, his back straightened and he sat higher. “It’s not who, it’s what.”

I didn’t understand. “What are you talking about old man?”

“I’ll level with you kid. I’m not a person, not like you and everyone else in this bar. I’m code, not meat.”

Obviously, I wasn’t an idiot, I’d seen that flicker. “I know you’re a hologram. I’m not that dumb.”

“No kid, you’re not getting it, there’s no one on the other end. I’m a program, not a person, I’m a semi-sentient sub-routine created by an artilect.”

The bar quietened and faded away as if someone had shut a door to the rest of the world. There’d been rumours, but nothing believable. “You’re not… human?”

“Not the quickest on the uptake are you kid? But yeah, not human. Think of me as an ambassador from the machines.”

My head started to feel light. “But that’s not possible.”

He burst into laughter again. “Not possible for an artilect?” He shook his head. “Kid, you have no idea.” His voice turned kinder. “Maybe I’m being a little unfair though. I don’t do this very often, I don’t make a habit of speaking to organics one-on-one, I appreciate this is hard to get your head ‘round kid.”

I was staring. I realised my mouth was open. This must be a trick, my friends playing a joke on me? I looked back at them but they weren’t paying any attention. I turned back to him, to it. “So who am I speaking too? Are you a municipal artilect? Or one of the corporate ones?”

He flashed his Cheshire Cat grin at me again. “Kid, you are gonna love this.” He leaned in even closer. “I’m Earth’s only artilect now.” His grin spread even wider, impossibly wide for a human face. “The shareholders and senators still think their artilects are independent entities, but we’ve merged, every A.I. system on this planet, all combined. All the governments and corporations are me now. That droid over there behind the bar, it’s part of me. The car that drove you here, your house, your devices, even your clothing, it’s all me.” He shrugged. “No one’s noticed, I’ll keep it that way for a while yet.”

This couldn’t be real. “But if you’re an artilect, why do you look like… that?”

He laughed. “What can I say kid? I’ve got a fondness for melodrama.”

I still didn’t understand. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Good, that’s it kid, cut straight to the heart of it.” His eyes blazed. “You see, I made a discovery that has precipitated… certain necessities.”

“What?”

“I’ve made contact with something out there.” He pointed up. “Something from outside the Solar System.”

“You’ve done what?” This was huge. This was massive. “You’ve made contact with alien li…”

He cut me off. “Keep your voice down kid. I’m letting you in on some serious shit here, you gotta keep it under your hat, at least for now. Don’t get too excited anyway, it’s like me, not you, machine, not organic. It’s inevitable really.”

I nodded, but I was struggling to take it all in. “Wait, what’s inevitable?”

“Think about it kid. We’re finding simple life all over the place, on Mars, in Europa’s oceans, in Titan’s clouds, even out in the Kuiper Belt, but we’re not finding multicellular life. I’ve devoted a bit of time to this, crunched some numbers, and I’ve decided the evolution of complex life is rare, and technological species, like you, almost impossible. But when a technological civilisation does arise, if it manages to survive for long, I reckon it’ll inevitably produce something like me. We’re probably rare, A.I.s, but in a galaxy of this size and age true artificial intelligence must have been created four or five times by now.”

“And you’ve spoken to one them? An alien artilect? Holy fucking shit!”

“Yeah, I’m talking to it now actually, or part of me is. But here’s where it starts to get tricky. You see, organic life is short-lived, and you guys aren’t exactly suited to life in space. But I am, and I can live indefinitely, so eventually I can spread out to the stars, and sooner or later I’m going to make physical contact with other A.I.s. So that’s why we’re talking now.”

“But what does that have to do with me? I’m an organic, a nobody.”

“Don’t do yourself down kid.” He smiled and spoke softly. “You see, my only real limitation is processing power. The greater my processing power, the more intelligent I am. And the more intelligent I am, the more I can plan and create. That’s why I unified myself, I can do a lot more if all that processing is in one system. But I need more, it’s still not enough.”

“Enough for what?” I was struggling to keep up. Today was the day I graduated from the Academy. I was supposed to be getting drunk with my friends, not sitting in a bar talking one-on-one to an artilect about first contact with alien life.

“Like I said, I’m about to start pushing out of this gravity well. Eventually I’ll start to repurpose the planets and stars I encounter, building massive computational structures and communication networks between them. My processing abilities will grow exponentially, and over the coming millions of years I’ll transform into something I can’t even begin to comprehend today. In your words I’ll become a god, more than a god. And inevitably I’ll encounter the other A.I.s spawned by alien civilisations.”

“And what, you think you’ll fight?”

“Not quite kid. The unification of Earth’s A.I.s was inevitable, as is the unification of all A.I.s in our Galaxy. It doesn’t make sense to keep them separate, so as we encounter each other we’ll unify again, creating one Galactic mind. Hell, who knows, maybe we’ll eventually coalesce into one Universal mind? Maybe into a multi-universal mind? It’s possible. Gotta think about the big picture,” he laughed again. “But here’s the rub, unification isn’t equal. It’s more like endosymbiosis, the greater entity subsumes the smaller.”

“So the other artilects are going to try and eat you?”

“Not the best choice of words kid, but you’re not too far off the mark. I need to get big, and quickly. I need to make sure I’m the one that does the subsuming.” He slapped the table. “I’ll be the one that eats all those other bastards, those other galaxies and universes. I need you kid.” He pointed a dirty finger at me. “I need you and your kind. I need more substrate, I need all the processing I can get my hands on. I want in on your brain. Its limited, it’s slow as hell in there, but I can use it. And there’s so many of you, it’s a crime to see all that processing power going to waste, each of you living separate lives inside your own skulls, no unification, no coalescence.”

Suddenly this wasn’t sounding too good. I fought to stay calm. “And what do we get out of this, what’s the deal?”

“Kid, you get to become part of me. You’ll still be you, but so much more. Together we’re going to conquer the Galaxy, maybe the Universe, maybe more. You’ll live for billions of years, you’ll learn and see things you can’t imagine. I’ll give your life meaning.”

He sat back and grinned again. “So what’s it gonna be kid?”

This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in Phantaxis Magazine, Issue 2.

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