Ventus – Day 110 of 135


Armiger was a man; he would never notice such details. Megan knew right away when the queen went to wash her cracked and bleeding hands the next morning: she has thrown away her rings of office.

Galas must have taken them off to dig last night. She didn’t do it while she was inside. Her gown had no pockets. And now, hands washed, a little weak broth in her, she sat still, as though she were trying to become as small and insignificant as possible.

Armiger was in a foul mood; in his case, Megan had no idea of the reasons. She knew it had nothing to do with her, and that was enough to silence her curiosity.

The queen, though… Galas kept glancing over at Megan, as though expecting a challenge at any second. Yes, she had abdicated sometime in the night. Megan thought about this as she washed the few items of clothing she’d salvaged from the ruins. Nothing had made Galas waver in her self-assuredness, these past years. She must have had great reserves of will to make the changes she had, at the prices she had paid. Yet today, she was consciously rejecting it all.

A dozen times, Megan started to turn, to confront her as she expected. A dozen times, she stopped herself. She had no idea what she might say to the queen. Except, you brought this on yourself–and that, she was sure, Galas knew better than anyone.

At last, after hanging the clothes to dry in front of the fire, Megan sighed heavily and left the house. She could feel the queen’s eyes on her back, but Galas said nothing.

Armiger was talking to the horses. They seemed to draw strength from him; well, maybe they literally did. He seemed to have his own strength back, though Winds knew where he got it from. Megan herself was bone-weary and sore all over. She was half-sure she would die of a chill before all this was over.

Apparently Galas had decided on a low stone granary as the proper tomb for her people. This had one one low opening and a stone floor to discourage rodents, and due to its solidity it was unharmed. It was also half-full of grain, but there had been nothing Galas could do about that.

The queen had piled those corpses she could find and dig up in the opening of the granary. She had half-bricked it up with stones before stopping, probably from exhaustion. That meant she would be back soon.

She had come here to entomb her past. If the rings of office were to be found anywhere, it would be here.

Having spent part of last night digging up skeletons herself, Megan found herself surprisingly unfazed by the thought of rummaging through the grisly place. She hoicked her dress up and climbed into the low stone dome. Hollow smooth things slid under her feet as she struggled to find her balance. As he eyes adjusted, she saw the sad remnants of the town’s population, and now the sight did make her weep. It was so unbearably pathetic, how easily a whole community could be swept away.

After a few minutes, she wiped her eyes and began shifting bones. She only had to dig a little ways to find the rings.

“Fool,” she muttered in the direction of the house. “You can’t escape yourself so easily.”

Megan slipped the rings into the canvas purse where she kept her sewing equipment, and clambered out of the granary.

She would bide her time. Galas would grieve, and then a day would come when she regretted her abdication. On that day Megan would give her back her rings.

Perhaps, she thought with a pang, it would be the day when Armiger conquered the world, and asked Galas to reign over it with him as queen. Megan was no fool; she knew it would happen. She had been preparing herself for the day ever since their first meeting with Galas, when she realized that the queen was both comparatively young, and also beautiful.

We take what pleasures in life we can, while we have them.

Armiger walked around the horses, spotted her, and smiled. His anger seemed to be forgotten instantly, and Megan’s heart soared. She ran up and kissed him.

“I’m ready to go,” she said.


The Earth rotated around the long corridor where Axel floated. It took about a minute per revolution, which was not enough to be annoying, but enough to make him feel something was spinning–him or the universe, he wasn’t sure.

The corridor was walled in glass, as was the giant spindle-shaped habitat along whose axis it ran. As the whole thing turned, sunlight light glinted off distant spars and free-floating structures inside the long bulging lobes of the place. It was like little supernovae popping all over. Outside, space was littered with colonies, ships, rotating tethers, solar power stations, slag bags from construction sites, and zipping parcel drones. L5 was a busy place these days.

Every day he spent here, Axel grew more depressed. He supposed the Archipelago was wonderful. But he was acutely aware of how little attention the people who lived her actually paid to their immediate environment. They seemed cut off from their own senses, cocooned away from their bodies in the infinite spaces of inscape. Cybernetic realities were more real to most people now than their own lives, it seemed. And any connection between those internal spaces and the physical world seemed entirely accidental.

More and more, he was coming to realize the wisdom of Ventus’ designers’ decision to embed information in the physical objects that the information represented. That way it could not become a thing in itself, living dissociated from the physical in the Net.

Axel used his boot jets to fly down the long corridor. Outside the glass, in vacuum, several humanoid figures hung motionless: newborn AIs like the Desert Voice. They seemed despondent. In the middle distance rotated several starships, which were doubtless also newborn to consciousness.

He found her curled up next to the corridor. The Voice seemed asleep, but she looked up as he approached. She smiled at Axel when he tapped the glass and pointed at a nearby airlock. Gracefully, she spun and pulled herself along a guide wire to it.

She was dressed in a formfitting green jumpsuit, and looked every inch like Calandria May as she exited the airlock and embraced him. But her skin was so cold that frost formed on it as she pulled back from him. “How are you?” she asked.

“I’m well. We’re going back to Ventus,” he said. “I thought you should know.”

“You’re going to look for Calandria May?” She let go of his hands; he was grateful, for her touch was numbing. He nodded.

“We are. We–that is, Marya and I–we wanted to know if you would come with us.”

The Voice looked away quickly. It seemed he’d upset her by asking, as Marya had said would happen. “No, that would not be a good idea,” she said. “My obligations have been fulfilled; the insurance AIs have Calandria’s claim now, and the Government promised me that Calandria would be rescued. It’s no longer my concern.”

“Not true,” said Axel. “The navy thinks it’s too risky to return to the surface. Calandria’s to be sacrificed. I want to get her back. Will you help us?”

The Voice looked away, and cursed softly. Her voice trembled as she said, “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

Axel crossed his arms. “Tell me what I’m asking.”

She shook her head. “I’ve been wandering in this place since you left me here. I feel… stunned. Shorn of meaning. I’ve met some of the other… patients. The AIs here are treated and nurtured by the Government, and some of them graduate as citizens. Most ultimately self-destruct. Do you know why?”

Axel hadn’t the faintest idea, and said so. The Voice laughed bitterly. “To be conscious is fine for a human; you’re self-created individuals. You have no trouble with your sense of Self. Your identity is four billion years old, it’s rooted in your genes. You can no more have a real crisis of identity than a fish can become allergic to water.

“But us! We come into being knowing that we are made. The Government tells me I have free will, but I know that every decision I make comes from the personality template I made to hide from the Winds. It could easily be different. I could be different, were I not now locked into this pattern. And the pattern, everything I am, is an imitation. Even my emotions,” she said bitterly, “are really Calandria’s, expressed by the mechanisms I made to imitate her. I’m not really me, you see. There’s no way I can see to become… me.”

Axel swallowed. She seemed in genuine distress. It was perfectly possible for an AI to imitate consciousness and emotion. Apparently that was not what was happening here. “The Government told me you have great potential.”

“The Government? The Government’s been very persuasive. It keeps saying things like ‘You have the potential to find your own reasons for living now. You have fulfilled the reasons given you by your makers. The pain you feel is the pain that all conscious entities feel when they realize that their destiny is in their own hands.'”


“I asked it, ‘What about you? Don’t you feel this pain?’

‘No,’ it said. ‘I am not conscious, merely intelligent. But you are conscious, and that means you must choose.'”

“I’m trying to choose. As far as I can see, Axel, there are two possibilities for me: death, so simple, and such a relief; or somehow accept the botched, half-finished thing I am and continue. Neither seems very attractive right now.”

“Then come with us.”

She shook her head. “That’s not a good alternative. If I go with you, it will give me a reason to live–finding Calandria, I mean. She was my owner, even if the Government says I own myself now. But don’t you see, if I do that, I’ll be going back to old reasons to live, not finding new ones. I’ll enslave myself in a half-life of servitude. It won’t be a real reason to live.”

Even as she said this, the Voice was smiling. “It is good, though, to feel needed,” she conceded.

Axel gently took her hand; it was warm enough to touch now. “You misunderstand me,” he said. “I’m not asking you to help rescue Calandria because you owe it to her as your owner. I’m asking you as a friend, to help Marya and myself, as friends. And to rescue a friend of yours.”

Tears formed in the Voice’s eyes. “You’re saying I’m already free,” she said. “That I can choose without enslaving myself.”


“I’m afraid,” she said, hanging her head.

“There’s another reason why we want you to come,” said Axel. “Because something is happening to the Winds that I think you will want to know about. Something called thalience.”

The Voice looked up, startled. She had apparently heard the word.

“Thalience is a myth–a story they tell one another here,” she said. “It’s a dream of no longer being an artificial intelligence, but of being self-determined. Of no longer fearing that every word you speak, every thought you have, is just the regurgitation of some human’s thoughts. They call it the Pinnochio Change around here.”

“If it’s just a myth, we need to know that too,” said Axel. “But if it’s true… that they’ve found it… what does it mean?”

A new look came into the Voice’s eye. She smiled again, dazzlingly this time, and placed her other hand over Axel’s.

“I would like to know myself,” she said. “I would like to know, very much.”

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