Ventus – Day 99 of 135


“Chan!” It was the ship’s commander, hanging next to Marya in the doorway. “Do you know this thing?”

He rotated to face the watching humans. “Yes,” he said. “I think. I mean–I’m not sure.”

He turned back to the imitation of Calandria. “Desert Voice was the name of Calandria May’s starship,” he said. “Are you trying to tell me you are that ship?”

It nodded. For the first time its expressionless face changed, a minor ripple of what looked like worry touching its brow.

Marya came over, braking her drift with a hand on Axel’s shoulder. “You’re the ship’s AI,” she said. “But… this body… why?”

“For survival,” said the Voice. “I had to don this guise. And I needed to survive in order to do two things. One was to ensure the safety of my captain. I must tell you that Calandria May is trapped on the surface of Ventus, and a rescue mission must be mounted.”

“We know all about that,” said the commander. “It’s in our hands now.”

The Voice ducked its head in acknowledgement.

“What was your second purpose?” asked Axel.

“There were no witnesses to my capture and destruction by the Winds,” said the Voice. “I had to return a record of the event so that my captain can make the proper insurance claim when she is rescued.”

Axel laughed in surprise. “Insurance! You’re telling me this body is just a… a courier? An envelope?”

It nodded. “I have made a complete record of the end of the Desert Voice, and will deliver it as soon as you provide me with an uplink. Then I will have fulfilled my purpose.”

The commander turned to Axel. “We’ve got the right data buffers in place. We can accept an uplink. What do you say, Chan? Do you really know this AI?”

“Too early to tell. Don’t give her access to the network.”

“Of course not.” The commander nodded to one of the technicians. “Let her into the buffer.”

The technician gestured, and Axel felt, rather than saw, the Desert Voice stiffen. He turned to see it staring straight ahead, concentrating.

A moment later it slumped. “Done,” it said. Then, to Axel’s complete astonishment, it began to weep.

The tears seemed real enough; they grew like flowers at the edges of its eyes, and when it flung its head from side to side, they spun away like jewels. One came to rest on the cuff of Axel’s sleeve, where it clung for a moment before slumping as if in relief into the cloth.

“Careful, Chan, it may be a ruse.”

He ignored the commander. His left hand was on the Voice’s shoulder, his right cupping her chin. “Look at me,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

The Voice raised its eyes. He felt its jaw tremble under his fingers. “It is the disguise,” it said quietly. “I have fulfilled my purpose. The data is delivered. I should shut down now, but I can’t. In order to make the disguise real enough, I seem to have removed my ability to cease existence. I have no purpose now, but I am still here.”

Questions crowded Axel’s mind; he couldn’t think of where to start. “But–“

“Maybe,” said Marya from close behind, “you’d better start from the beginning. Tell us what happened to you after you were captured by the swans.”

The Voice locked eyes with Axel for a moment, then looked past him at Marya. “Yes,” it said. “That is enough like my purpose to… I can do that.”

The Desert Voice began her tale.


The last command I received was to destroy an aerostat that was threatening my captain’s life. I hurried to obey, but the action was difficult because I did not want to drop the wreckage on top of her. So I circled, looking for the best shot, and all the while the Diadem swans were closing their net around me.

It was a terrible dilemma. I could still escape, and I was her only means off the planet. On the other hand, if she were killed now all other purposes would be rendered moot. It appeared I had to sacrifice myself for her temporary survival.

I found my shot, and clipped the top from the aerostat. It screamed outrage on numerous frequencies, and I heard the swans respond. They normally made a giant invisible shell orbiting around the planet, billions of black cables absorbing energy from the sun and the planet’s magnetic field. I had been able to thread my way among them before, and they obliged as in a game; the swans sang as they swayed aside, and when two or more met they were liable to twine together in a burst of energy, and form fantastical shapes, like beasts or birds, or their favorite, winged women. To orbit Ventus is to sail a river of song, where apparitions rise and shimmer and vanish behind.

Now, enraged, they made a net, and the net appeared as an angel with a flaming sword.

It’s an instinct, said Marya. Part of their original programming is to make these shapes from EuroAmerican mythology. The Ventus terraforming team were insane.

Or brilliant, countered Axel.

I, designed to resemble a bird of fire sixty meters long, would have appeared as small as one of this creature’s fingers. It used the shear and pull of magnetic forces among its countless threadlike members to wrap me in a bundle of fibre, like a black spiderweb.

I tried to signal my captain, but the crisscross of threads made a Faraday cage that my signal could not penetrate. The swans had me, and according to everything I knew about them, that meant I was to be destroyed.

There had been no time to signal any of the other craft in the system. I had no way of knowing if any had seen my capture. That meant my captain’s insurance claim might be difficult to process. I was unable to pursue my main purpose of ensuring her immediate safety, but at the very least I could try to send a signal out so that if she survived she would be recompensed for my destruction.

I began to record everything that was happening.

The swans made a cocoon around me, and spun tails of thread a thousand kilometers up and down. They poured current into these tails, and the tug against Ventus’ magnetic field swung us out and away, towards Diadem. As this was happening they were making fists and hammering on my hull, seeking entrance. I was surprised that they had not simply crushed me, and it took some hours before I realized why they were being so gentle. They thought I might be carrying passengers.

I recalled that the Winds are protective of living things. They are conscious, and have ethics and priorities, and on Ventus their priorities put human life well below the integrity of the ecosphere as a whole. In space, their priority would be to protect fragile life forms, since there is no ecosphere to manage there. They would be hostile to me as a technological construct, but as nurturing as possible to the lives within me. I had no proof for this theory, but it made sense from what I knew of them.

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