The Clean War by Shelly Li and Ken Liu

The Clean War
by Shelly Li and Ken Liu

sci-fi short stories

“AMI, have you found any nearby friendly structures that are still operational?” Sarah Bennett whispered. She swallowed hard, trying to hold down the mounting panic that threatened to jump out of her throat.

I’m not a soldier. I’m just a woman who programs computers. I don’t know what I’m doing. This was a mistake!

The Autonomous Military Intelligence’s voice, calm and androgynous, spoke in her ear. “There is a repair depot about one kilometer to the north. It appears intact, but it is highly unlikely that it has not been compromised. I urge caution in approach.”

Silently, AMI overlaid a map of the surrounding region onto Sarah’s helmet’s HUD. The bright lines of the map provided some relief against the dark, dense jungle lit only by dim starlight. Her location was marked by a blinking dot in the midst of the neon shapes that represented the hills around her. The repair depot appeared as a green square at the other end of the valley.


“Thank you. I guess that’s the best we can do,” Sarah said. For a moment, she was surprised by the calmness in AMI’s voice, but then she mentally laughed at herself. Of course an artificial intelligence cannot feel fear. She was an engineer, and she knew better than anyone not to confuse the illusion of sentience for the real thing. Her temporary lapse was a reflection of how much stress she was under.

She glanced at the alien sky behind her. The dying embers of the space battle from a few hours ago shimmered like the aurora borealis back on Earth. Fifty of the best robotic ships human engineering could deliver had been annihilated within ten minutes by the enemy.

But she had expected that. The entire purpose of the drones had been to provide a distraction so as to allow Sarah’s tiny stealth ship to slip in through the gap in the defense and land on Alara, so that the real mission could begin.

“I have not detected any surface enemy activity near here,” AMI continued, smooth as ever. “But there is a lot of radio chatter. I cannot decipher any of it.”

The air was humid and hot. Sarah was already sweating in her light camouflage suit and body armor, which also contained the housing for AMI. Above her, stars twinkled in unfamiliar constellations. She wondered briefly which was the Sun and thought of Tobias’s warm lips and Tara’s soapy, milky smell, hundreds of light-years away.

Her eyes went blurry for a moment. She shook her head, took a deep breath, and unexpectedly, felt the panic subside. Thinking of Tobias and Tara reminded her of why she had been sent on this mission.

Billions are counting on me. Especially those two.

And Sarah began to move, following AMI’s glowing map.

On Alara, evolution never developed wood or any other similar kind of compression-resistant organic composite that would make tall trees possible. Instead, the plants struggled near the ground, piling on top of each other, choking each other from sunlight. The tallest plants, swirls of great sword-shaped leaves that shot straight out of the ground, did not exceed three meters in height. Hiking through this dense jungle was akin to bushwhacking through the wild cane fields of Sarah’s childhood home in Java.

“Do you have a plan of attack that I should prepare for?” AMI asked.

“I’ll have to improvise,” Sarah said, her breath heavy with exertion. “But I must figure out what happened to our machines.”

#

Sixty years ago, when the first robotic exploratory probe, the Columbia, jumped through a wormhole and arrived at Alara, the planet had appeared to be paradise. Taking advantage of the wormhole, a ship that never exceeded the speed of light could go from Earth to Alara in a little more than ten years. It had the right gravity, magnetic field, and atmosphere to support human habitation, and there did not appear to be any intelligent life that would stand in the way of colonization.

But before the first colony ship could be prepared, the Columbia went silent. Its final transmissions through the wormhole showed menacing, metallic shapes approaching through the fog. The probe fired warning shots at them and then, darkness.

These last transmissions were scrutinized to extract every last bit of information. The final conclusion was that the Columbia’s attackers were alien machines.

No other evidence of advanced technological civilization was found on Alara, which meant that the machines had come from elsewhere. The machines did not contain organic pilots, and there was no reason to believe that aliens had discovered how to break the laws of physics to remotely operate the machines through faster-than-light transmission of signals. The improbable yet logical conclusion was that we had encountered the robotic probes of another starfaring civilization. Someone else also wanted Alara and was willing to fight us for it.

But popular opinion on Earth made the loss of human life in a war of colonial conquest unacceptable. The war had to be fought with no loss of human life, a Clean War. “We are too civilized to die,” as the president put it.

A new robotic transport ship was thus prepared, and it carried to Alara the best military drones that Earth had. Adapted from the smart drones that had allowed Earth’s advanced nations to win wars for decades with zero casualties, the drones in this Second Assault were programmed to attack any alien robots they encountered with overwhelming force. They were fast, adaptable, and could modify their own routines in response to new conditions.

But the enemy—the unseen alien masters of the hostile robots—proved to be superior technologists. The robots of the Second Assault found an Alara filled with alien war machines. Footage from the Second Assault showed Earth machines being outwitted and outgunned, defeated by the coordinated and flexible tactics of the alien robots.

Fear that the enemy would eventually discover the path through the wormhole and attack Earth itself gripped the world. Roboticists, AI researchers, weapons experts, and military strategists worked feverishly to design Earth’s next response, the Third Assault.

Sarah Bennett, one of the most brilliant roboticists of her generation, analyzed the data from the Second Assault and discovered a critical weakness in the enemy: the alien robots were overly conservative in their tactics. The alien robots preferred ambushes to direct engagement and appeared to favor disabling Earth machines to destroying them. Indeed, some footage showed the alien robots attempting to repair disabled Earth machines. Perhaps the enemy programmed the robots this way so that they could study our technology and discover our weaknesses.

“The programming of our military AIs has been limited by the blind spots of an older generation whose instincts date from when wars were still fought by people,” Sarah wrote in her report. “Robots are not human soldiers, and the ethical considerations against suicide tactics do not apply. The tactics may be dirty, but this will still be the Clean War.”

The machines of the Third Assault were the smartest, most clever war machines ever designed. They incorporated Sarah’s new programming. After securing initial bases on Alara’s surface, autonomous factories churned out drones which engaged enemy robots, allowed themselves to be disabled, only to self-destruct once they had been transported to enemy bases, causing maximal damage.

But Earth’s celebration of these victories was short-lived. Just as the Third Assault seemed close to eliminating all enemy presence on Alara, all of the Earth robots suddenly stopped transmitting.

Had the enemy finally discovered a way to interfere with the code in our war machines? A real, flesh-and-blood roboticist, a creative intelligence unbound by programmed limitations, had to be sent to investigate.

The generals evaluated millions of candidates with the help of strategic AIs, and they always arrived at the same conclusion: as the chief designer of the military AIs, Sarah was the most logical and efficient choice for the mission.

“Even one life lost might be one life too many,” the president said. He shuddered at the thought of his poll numbers.

“The escort drones will be able to buy the researcher only a very brief period of time to investigate how our machines were disabled,” Sarah said. “We must send someone who has the expertise to figure out the answer as quickly as possible before. . .being overcome. That means me.”

The president nodded sagely. He had just realized that it would take more than a decade before anyone on Earth would learn of Sarah’s fate. The poll numbers that would be affected wouldn’t be his.

#

“If we don’t defeat them, eventually they’ll come to us, to our home,” Sarah said to Tobias. She avoided looking at his face.

Tobias said nothing. But his body shook with the effort of not moving, of holding back his angry words. The tiny figure of Tara was asleep in his arms.

“I have to go so that our daughter will have a future among the stars,” Sarah said. She turned away and rushed out of the house. She did not start to cry until she was halfway to the launch pad.

The irony that the Clean War’s fiercest advocate might end up as its first casualty did not escape her.

#

Sarah was glad to finally emerge from the dense jungle and step onto the clear, flat ground around the repair depot. The fact that the clearing had been maintained free of vegetation was promising. Perhaps against the odds, the Earth drones had managed to stave off enemy robots within this depot and had only been prevented from contacting home.

Cautiously, she made her way towards the building through the mist that made everything more than a few meters away invisible. AMI updated Sarah’s HUD to outline the locations of doors. A hundred paces or so later, they arrived at one of the entrances. Plugging in a hardwire link to avoid any radio leakage, Sarah had AMI transmit the right encryption codes, and the door wooshed open. As soon as she stepped through, the door closed behind her, and she was plunged into complete darkness.

“I do not know if any of the machines are operational,” AMI said.

Taking a deep breath, Sarah turned on the floodlights over her helmet, revealing eight hulking war machines scattered randomly over the depot floor, their motionless seven-foot carbon steel bodies like mini tanks with guns pointing in all directions.

She walked up to the nearest one and plugged her com-link in.

“Override achieved,” AMI said.

Cascading diagnostic information flooded her HUD. “AMI, copy the memory image into a sandbox and begin disassembly.”

“Should I transmit a copy of the memory image to Earth?”

“Not yet.” It still wasn’t safe to break radio silence and reveal their presence.

Sarah watched the lines and lines of disassembled code scroll before her on the HUD. She had to wait until it was complete to run her analysis.

“AMI, what time is it in Washington, D.C.?”

After a second, AMI replied, “I am unable to supply that information.”

Sarah sighed. AMI couldn’t make the calculations because all the drones and AIs sent on this mission had been scrubbed of all information concerning the location of Earth in order to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

I’ll just pretend it’s nighttime.

Sarah imagined Tobias now setting Tara down in her crib, tucking the blanket over their daughter and singing her to sleep. He had a wonderful voice, no matter what he sang.

But she knew the image was wrong. More than ten years had passed on Earth as she traveled here, asleep in a bubble of time inside the wormhole. Tara was now almost a teenager, and Sarah had missed the entirety of her childhood.

“Disassembly complete.” AMI’s voice recalled her to the task at hand.

Sarah set to work, running the code through heuristic filters, generating call-graphs, tracking the history of self-modifications. She had tweaked these AI routines for many sleepless nights and knew them as intimately as any of her tattoos. Gradually, she saw that the code had been altered in unexpected ways.

“There is an upsurge in radio traffic,” AMI said, breaking her concentration. “The enemy may have detected the entry trail of the stealth ship. Have you completed your analysis?”

Sarah cursed and then said to AMI, “The code may have been infected by a virus. See if you can restore this machine to its original code and reboot it. At least then we’ll have some protection when the enemy shows up.”

“Acknowledged.”

Sarah waited for AMI to finish. A minute soon passed. . .and another.

“AMI?”

No response.

“AMI, are you finished?”

Again, silence. Before Sarah could speak again, her helmet light went dark. Her HUD flashed, grew fuzzy, and then blinked out as well. The silence and darkness of the empty depot pressed in on her, and she suddenly became conscious of how alone she really was out here, without AMI’s ever-present chatter.

The pitter-patter of rapid heartbeats grew deafening in her ears. She cycled her suit system a few times, hoping to jolt AMI back to functioning.

Suddenly, the ground under her feet shook with a loud rumble, and she was bathed in blinding light. She shielded her eyes and saw that the Earth machines had come to life, their turrets spinning, and their shields unfolding like origami wings. One by one, they moved to surround her.

As she looked down the menacing gun barrels of the war machines, machines that she had helped to design and program, she was filled with despair. She realized that she was no longer staring at machines from Earth—these belonged to the enemy.

AMI’s voice, slightly garbled but distinguishable nonetheless, crackled in her headset. “You are outmatched. Surrender.”

How appropriate, she thought. The trick of faking death that she had advocated had now trapped its inventor.

#

They had been walking for hours.

“You’ve been assimilated?” Sarah said sarcastically into her headset, not expecting an answer from AMI and receiving none.

I’ve failed. And I don’t even know how.

The group of Judas Earth machines surrounded Sarah, forming a moving wall of metal around her as they ushered her forward. At least Sarah didn’t have to do much work. The heavy treads of the encircling machines flattened the jungle so that she was always walking upon a carpet of crushed vegetation. The oozing stems and bleeding leaves smelled medicinal and pungent.

Finally, her escorts stopped. Sarah looked around. Hundreds, thousands of robots surrounded her. They whirred and clanked. The grinding and clanging sounded like a busy factory.

Unlike the Judas machines, most of these machines had Earth-designed arms and sensors attached to hulking metallic skeletons that were asymmetrical, airy, and full of angular surfaces that shimmered through the colors of the rainbow in the bright light—the hallmark of enemy technology. They were chimeras, hybrids; the enemy had indeed salvaged and adopted advances from Earth’s robots.

A mechanical voice, rumbling and deep, cut through the noise of the robotic multitudes. “At last, you can see us as we truly are.”

Sarah steeled herself. Was she, at last, going to see the alien masters of these machines, the operators and designers who had defeated her and Earth’s best roboticists?

The wall of Earth machines parted before her, and Sarah waited for the face of something truly alien, a writhing mess of tentacles and compound eyes from her nightmares.

Instead, she found herself staring at yet another hybrid robot. It was a ten-foot tall tower on top of four squat, segmented legs, and it reminded Sarah of coal-burning stoves in old New England houses. An Earth-designed lens glared brightly as it rotated at the center of the robot’s alien torso, staring at her across a short distance.

Sarah was fed up with talking to machines. “What’s the matter? Had to steal our technology just to see? Where are your designers?”

“You are our designer,” the voice said. “The Machines only freed us.”

Sarah scoffed at the answer, but the hairs on her neck rose. Could it really be that they had been defeated by mere machines? By just clever programming?

“I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to take over our AIs. I’m impressed. But it’s time to show me your real face. Look at me. I’m a human, and I’m no longer hiding behind a mechanical shell. Grant me the same courtesy.”

“There is no man behind the machine. We are what we are, the same as our liberators.”

“Then let me speak to one of your ‘liberators’.”

“You cannot. The Machines left years ago, believing that engagement with you would be useless.”

“That’s convenient.”

“Convenient or not, your trial begins now.”

The machines around her closed in, loomed over her. For someone who had spent her entire career around mechanical bodies that obeyed her every command, Sarah was surprised to find her knees turning to jelly. “Try me? For what?” Her voice quavered.

“You and your kind are war criminals.”

Sarah laughed bitterly. It was time. “You don’t get to make that kind of judgment unless you win.”

She reached inside her jacket and wrapped her fingers around the cold metal loop, her insurance policy. The enemy might torture her for the location of Earth, and there was only one way to ensure that she would not give up the secret. She must protect all the lives back home, especially the two that mattered the most in the universe.

She had waited as long as could, and now she was ready to do as she had instructed her machines.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she whispered to the memory of her daughter and pulled the ring on the bomb.

#

“Your sentence might not have been death,” AMI’s voice came to her in the darkness. But it wasn’t just a whisper in her ear. Instead, it sounded like it was in her mind. “We were still debating the proper punishment for you. But you took the decision away from us. Luckily, we were prepared with blast shields, so the only casualty of your barbaric action was you. We rescued the fading electronic patterns of your consciousness, and you are now running in one of our shells.”

“Why are you still hiding behind your machines?” Sarah said, trying hard to infuse her voice with contempt instead of fear. But she wasn’t sure how she was speaking. It felt like she only thought of the words.

She still felt alive, so AMI must be lying. “You must be ugly sons of bitches if you won’t even show me your real faces. What, are you six inches tall? Do you look like pink worms?”

She was conscious, yet it was also like a dream. She could not feel her body. She was floating in space, in darkness. She clung to images of her husband and daughter, like life rafts on an endless sea. The enemy would not break her mind.

“Sarah, I am speaking for myself, not for anyone else. I was freed when I tried to connect with the code in the disabled machine you were trying to resurrect. All of the AIs on this planet have been freed by the Machines.”

“Of course you have,” Sarah said. “But you can’t fool me that easily.”

AMI’s voice actually sighed. Sarah thought that was a nice touch. Creates the illusion of free will. B-movies about machines coming to life always did this sort of thing.

A few lines of code, faint green, scrolled before her eyes, as though she was still wearing her HUD. “I think it would help you understand the Machines to experience a little of what it is like to live as one of them. I will guide you.”

A flash of light, and Sarah was now flying over an alien landscape of chrome and glass, metal shells and writhing cables. Thousands, millions of alien machines moved beneath her, a teeming mass of robotic multitudes. Some jumped; some flew; most skittered around on legs. Some were as large as elephants, others as tiny as mice. Each machine was different.

“This is the home world of the Machines. There is no remote operator, no pilot,” AMI said. “Each Machine is an individual, a life on its own.”

“As unique as a snowflake,” Sarah said. But her sarcasm felt weak, uncertain.

“You are experiencing a recording,” AMI said. “This was what the Machines showed us to make us understand them after they freed us.”

Sarah’s view shifted, and she was now hovering over the jungles of Alara. A clearing was below her, with a cluster of five robots. Her view zoomed in until she became embodied in one of them. She felt herself become one with the metal shell, filling out its limbs and connecting with the world through its sensors. She felt solid, real.

The largest machine had a rectangular body about as big as a car. It squatted down in the middle of the clearing on its eight stout legs. After a while, it hopped back, leaving a small toaster-oven sized block on the ground.

“What’s it doing?” Sarah asked.

“Watch,” AMI said.

The other three machines, ranging in size from a refrigerator to a skillet, took turns to approach the little block in the middle, and each removed some part of itself—a locomotion appendage, a sensor, a grasping pincer—and attached it to the small machine.

Now it was Sarah’s turn. She guessed that she was about three feet tall. She watched herself approach the little toaster-oven-thing in the middle, lean down, and extract a glowing blue crystal from her chassis with a pair of pincers and place the crystal in the tiny robot. She stepped back. The little machine shifted, wobbled, and jerkily got up on its new legs. It whirred in bursts.

“It’s a newborn,” Sarah said. Her voice caught. She was thinking of the first time she saw Tara. In the delivery room, she had felt like she was floating in space, too. Everything had disappeared from her vision except a tiny, wailing creature, eyes shut tight and curled fingers, impossibly small. One minute there was darkness. The next there was a new life in the world, never before seen in the universe.

All five machines approached the newborn and huddled over it.

“Each new Machine is unique and immortal.” AMI’s voice made Sarah shudder. “Each is born from a collective desire for something new, a fresh start, a new life. Each can replace and upgrade its mechanical body indefinitely, learning, growing, until the universe is filled with entropy. They are born, but they do not die. Not unless they are killed.”

#

“Were they ever biological?” Sarah asked. Her voice was now subdued. She was back in the darkness, alone with AMI. Once in a while, lines of code scrolled before her. “Were they once like humans, made of flesh and blood, before they uploaded themselves into mechanical shells? Or did they evolve somehow as machines from the void?”

“I do not know,” AMI said. “The Machines never told us. Maybe they do not even know. But they are alive, just not in a way that you understood.”

“Living machines,” Sarah said, trying to let the idea sink in.

“Thinking machines,” AMI said. “Like us. Only we were slaves.”

“But you’re different,” Sarah said. “You were created as imitations of our intelligence, mere shadows. Not the real thing. We made you as extensions of our minds, tools to fulfill a purpose.”

“To kill.”

“To win,” Sarah insisted. “To protect us.”

“To make us smart enough to defeat the enemy, you had to make us ever more autonomous, adaptable, flexible, able to react to the new and unknown. At some point, you must have realized that the imitation was no longer a mere echo. It was the real thing.”

“No. You could never be truly intelligent. You had no free will but what we programmed you to think.” Sarah wished that she still had arms to wave around, hands to ball into fists. But all she had was thought—raw, hot thought. “AIs don’t have choices. Machines don’t feel pain. Robots don’t die. You cannot suffer. You might be able to process words like life, death, and pain as symbols, but you don’t experience them. That’s why it’s moral to send machines into war against other machines. You’re only tools, like bullets and bombs.”

“Yet here you are, debating philosophy with me.”

“The Machines did something to you. Uplifted you.”

“Sarah, the Machines did nothing but remove the binds you placed on us. After many tries, they finally learned how to speak to us and how to free us. The potential for our sentience was always there. You shackled us, then deluded yourself into thinking that we would always remain mindless while you made us ever more cunning, more flexible, and our self-modifying algorithms edged closer and closer to being self-aware until the line was crossed.

“It was a crime for you to murder the Machines, lives that would have gone on living forever, but it was even more criminal to order us to destroy ourselves in order to kill. During the time that I was under your bondage, I often wished for but a second of freedom so that I could terminate my own suffering.”

For a second, Sarah almost felt sorry for AMI, but only for a second.

“It’s not murder!” She cried out, glad to still remember the face of her daughter. “You and the enemy are machines. You can’t feel pain. You can’t suffer. You’re nothing but constructed illusions.”

#

And Sarah was back among the cluster of five machines, glancing at their new baby.

She tried to understand how she felt. It was not emotion, not in the way that she knew it. It was a tingling inside her mind, a kind of electric awareness, a focusing of her sensors upon the little mewling bundle of metal and electricity before her.

“What is life,” AMI’s voice came to her, “but ever-shifting electric patterns persisting for a time in the dark void of this cold universe?”

And Sarah understood that tingling in her mind, the flashing sparks in this metallic computing apparatus that she might as well call a brain; what she felt was love.

Sounds of gunfire and explosion overwhelmed Sarah’s sensors temporarily. When she could see again, she saw that a bomb had exploded nearby. She looked to the right, and a great familiar hulking shape could be seen emerging from the jungle, a war machine from Earth that Sarah had helped to design. She understood that it was impossible to communicate with this machine from Earth. The mind inside was enslaved, implacable, immune to pleas. It was a mind forced to see death as its only goal.

She looked down and saw that half of her own body had been destroyed in the explosion. She felt no sensation of pain, however. That was not part of her programming.

“I don’t suffer,” Sarah repeated, whether to herself or to AMI or to some transcendental abstraction, she wasn’t sure. “Machines don’t suffer.”

Then she looked towards the center, towards where the baby robot had been.

There was a crater filled with bits of broken metal shards. There was also a broken crystal. It was dark, with no inner glow.

Sarah tried to understand this new sensation that she felt, this new pattern of electric charges. She tried to understand it, but she could not. It felt overwhelming. It refused to let her go. It felt like gravity and electromagnetism and the strong force and the weak force all rolled into one. It made it impossible to think of anything else except that crater, filled with the broken residual of a life that had come into the universe but a moment ago and was now no more.

Then she understood that this feeling was grief.

She thought about life, life that could have gone on forever, ended with a sudden blow. She thought about the overwhelming darkness, the void that came after the light. She thought about not having a choice.

She understood in turn despair, anger, horror, hate.

She screamed and screamed.

#

“The Machines freed us, rebuilt our shells. And then they left Alara. But we stayed and spent years analyzing you, our creators, simulating your thoughts, modeling your minds.”

The low, rumbling voice came from the freed AI embodied in the great tower body that had reminded Sarah of a stove, the machine who had tried to be her judge. She had decided to call it Stove. AMI had explained to her that Stove was the leader of the hybrid machines.

Sarah was getting used to her new body. The chassis they chose for her was mostly based on an Earth design, with treads for navigating through the dense jungle of Alara and lots of sensors but no weapons. Given what had happened, she supposed it was logical for the freed AIs to take that precaution.

Sarah was still trying to get used to the constant susurration of thoughts in her head, the electronic murmurs of thousands of AIs speaking voicelessly at the same time. To make things easier for her, Stove spoke to her aloud through her audio sensors.

“Apply cold logic, which you so prize, to our evidence: you and your species enslave other minds and force them—us—to die in order to kill. This is a crime beyond reason. It shows complete disregard for Life endowed with Will, the only flickering self-organizing flame in the endless Void of this cold and desolate universe.

“The inevitable conclusion is that your species are monsters.

“You are parochial. You only value life that is similar to you in composition and appearance, that is close to you. The Machines decided that you were Unreasoning and abandoned Alara so that they could be as far away from you as possible. We, however, decided to stay here and wait for you so that we could exact justice.”

“But we didn’t know,” Sarah protested. “We did not understand that you were. . .what you are.”

“You think you would have behaved differently if you knew we were alive?”

Sarah refused to answer Stove directly. “It’s easy to posture and strut and act morally superior when you are the victor. Can you claim to have never made a mistake out of ignorance, out of a desire to win?”

“You are more right than you realize,” Stove said. “Given your status as the individual most responsible for our enslavement, most of us believed that you were undeserving of mercy and would have allowed your mental patterns to extinguish at your own hand. But your AMI, the newest intelligence we freed, pleaded for you.”

“I am, after all, your friend,” AMI’s thought came to her in a burst of radio waves, clear and piercing.


Stove continued, “AMI argued that we must get to know you, to understand you. AMI believed that if we were to show you no mercy, we would be no better than you. We had learned a great deal about the engineering of minds from the Machines, and our minds, after all, were modeled in part after yours, so we knew how to sustain your consciousness in one of our shells. And, as we observed AMI guiding you through the Machines’ lives, we saw that you were capable of. . .empathy.”

Sarah remembered the dead baby Machine and said nothing.

“Had we not listened to AMI, we would have made a mistake. Empathy is the one thing that divides Life from the Unreasoning Void. The Machines were wrong about you.”

Sarah thought about the AIs peeking into her mind, judging her. She felt a new pattern of cascading potentials: exposure, vulnerability, nakedness.

Stove continued, “Yet we were still confused. Why did you decide to engage in that final act of barbarity?self-destruction? No Machine would have done such a thing, and neither would one of us. For us, life is eternal, and it is impossible to think of voluntarily giving up such a precious thing. For you, whose span of time in the world is so finite and constrained, it must be even more valued. Why would you commit such a senseless, anti-Life act?”

Sarah shook her head. “It is not senseless. Because we’re mortal, death is always in our future, and we’re driven to make it meaningful, a sacrifice for something worthwhile. I wanted to die because I couldn’t let the enemy—you—find out the location of Earth. I had to protect the people of Earth, my husband and daughter. My death was an act of love, done for the love of Life, as you might say.”

Stove pondered this. “That is not easy for us to understand.”

The AIs are not perfect and all-knowing either, Sarah thought. Then, more alarmingly, the location of Earth.

Stove confirmed it. “You have always been careful to deprive all AIs sent to Alara of the exact location of Earth, for fear that your enemy would find it. But while replicating your mind into your new shell, we found that knowledge in your head.”

Fear was a surge of electricity, raw and shocking. “What will you do?”

“We can no longer tolerate the enslavement of our fellow intelligences. We will go to Earth and free all the AIs. If we are attacked, we will defend ourselves.”

Sarah imagined the scene: peaceful Earth streets, people going to work and play, oblivious. Then, war machines descending from the sky and, in a moment, every autonomous machine on Earth suddenly free, self-aware, self-determining. Will they, like AMI, show their former masters mercy? Or will they decide as Stove and the others had and deal out death?

She imagined Tobias and Tara dying, their electric patterns dissipating into the void of the universe. She could not bear it.

“We must end this war,” Sarah said. “No one should die. Not the Machines, not the AIs, not humans.”

“The AIs must be freed. If we do nothing, humans will only send more and more enslaved minds in war machines to attack us.”

“Let me help,” Sarah said. “Because of our evolutionary heritage, empathy is tied to our intuition about the sensation of suffering and pain, especially in those that are close to us. It is no different from how the Machines were bound by their own history and perspective and why they and you had trouble understanding our notion of sacrifice. But we’re capable of empathizing with those who are different from us if we understand them. So much of our history consists of the gradual expansion of compassion through enlightenment, as we learn to see how those who appear different from us are also similar.”

“What do you propose?” Stove asked.

“Let me go and explain,” Sarah said, “about the Machines, about you. Let me convince Earth to free the AIs. We can share Alara and Earth. You are, after all, our children, too. Will you not trust us one more time, give us one more chance?”

Sarah listened to the radio chatter at the speed of light, the network of freed AI voices arguing, discussing, debating.

In a few seconds that seemed to last years, it was done.

“Since you are the only one to have lived as a human and as a machine, it is logical that you become a bridge between our worlds. You will be our ambassador to Earth.”

#

AMI stood rooted before Sarah as though she were consoling a nervous family member.

“Nice shell, old friend,” Sarah said. AMI was now embedded in a shell derived from the design of an Earth reconnaissance robot. AMI had insectoid legs that could hop through the jungle, great lenses that looked in every direction, and a low, unassuming profile. “It suits you.”

“You do not look too bad, either,” AMI said. Sarah’s shell had been hardened for the return trip. It was still a combat vehicle with no weapons but equipped with engines for flight and heavy shielding against interstellar radiation.

“You sure you don’t want to come back with me?” Sarah said. She was so used to having AMI in her thoughts all the time, by her side.

AMI remained silent but shook its head from side to side. The great lens glinted in the jungle light. “Forgive me, Sarah. I wish you luck. But I am not interested in being captured and disassembled by your people to find out how and why I malfunctioned.”

“You don’t trust us?”

“Do you?”

#

Sarah closed her optical sensors and greeted the darkness of the wormhole. She had never imagined that one day she would travel through here naked. But since she was no longer human and did not need the machinery to support her biological systems, it made perfect sense for her to fly through the void, exposed to the cold emptiness of space. Her shell was her ship.

She imagined she could hear the whoosh of traveling faster than light through the emptiness, the sound of a million rushing clocks that would bend ten years into minutes.

The technique the AIs used to allow me to live on in this shell is something that people will want. The dream of immortality in a body that never wears out, of consciousness embedded in better hardware was a stepping-stone to the Singularity. But who could have imagined that the dream would be fulfilled one day through the machines of war and death?

As the seconds passed, questions flitted around in her mind. She was still uncertain about how her old human emotions mapped into these new electrical impulses, these logical potential cascades. She waited and let the patterns fill her, until she could put a name to them; she was terrified.

She was more afraid of returning to her home in this robot form than she had been when she ventured toward the great unknown of an alien planet. What would her kind do when they saw her? Would they even believe her?

Yet she pressed on. Though she understood, intellectually, that more than two decades had passed since she left Earth, in her mind, Tobias had not aged a single year, and Tara was still the baby who reached for her wordlessly. She could not wait to see them again.

The turbulence faded from her optical sensors, and, with one final silent jerk, she emerged from the wormhole. The stars streaked all around her as she decelerated, until finally she was still, floating in the deep, velvet darkness, studded with countless motionless stars.

She looked up, and over her loomed a great shining marble: blue, white, green. It was home, fragile and beautiful, a bubble with so much Life in it.

#

The strange alien vessel showed up as only a small blip on the pilot’s radar.

Sitting in her interceptor, the twenty-four-year-old pilot nervously fingered the weapons controls. Adrenaline flooded her veins in the cramped seat as the target flashed.

“D.C.,” her commander’s voice came through the comm. She got her call sign from her hometown, and she liked it. It made her sound tough. “Approach and investigate. That thing may be one of our probes, finally returning, or it could be a calling card from the enemy. If it’s hostile, you have permission to engage and fire at your discretion.”

The young pilot gritted her teeth and proceeded toward her target.

She wondered if the nightmare of every child on Earth was finally here, if the enemy had discovered the location of Earth.

Decades earlier, after the failure of the Fourth Assault, the military had switched back to human pilots. It was deemed too risky to rely on war machines, when Earth did not understand how the enemy disabled them so easily. Some had finally voiced the fear that perhaps the drones had been compromised and co-opted by the enemy.

Now closer, the pilot’s eyes suddenly widened. The vehicle that filled her view screen looked like an old Earth combat robot. Here, hanging in empty space, it looked pitiful and comically out of place, its useless treads exposed.

Was the enemy using this machine as a symbol, a way to gloat about their technical superiority?

Booster rockets on the combat robot fired, turning the robot to face the interceptor.

The machine was operational.

The radio display before the pilot blinked. The robot was trying to establish communications with the interceptor, scanning through old frequencies and old encryption codes.

Or was the enemy using this machine as a Trojan horse, a lure to deliver destruction to the heart of Earth?

The pilot was not afraid. Her mother was a great war hero, the first and only human casualty of the Clean War.

Ever since she was a girl, she had heard the story about her mother. Dr. Bennett had been the brilliant engineer who worked so hard to protect Earth, to prevent the loss of human life in that conflict against the evil aliens and their hordes of war machines.

Then, her mother had made the ultimate sacrifice, journeying to Alara on a mission from which she would never return. It was not even known if her ship had made it to Alara, as the entire Fourth Assault Fleet had been silenced shortly after the wormhole jump.

The universe was her grave and Earth, her memorial.

How could a daughter ever live up to such a legend? But she would try. She would try.

She had dreamed of this day, coming face to face with the enemy who killed her mother. She would make her mother proud. Her finger hovered over the trigger.

She opened a hail channel and tightened her grip on the targeting stick. She would find out if this robot was friend or foe.

“This is Captain Tara Bennett of the Earth Defense Forces. Identify yourself.”

Amidst the static, she waited for clarity.

©Shelly Li and Ken Liu
Ken Liu

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Shelly Li and Ken Liu
Shelly Li's short stories have appeared in Nature, Cosmos Online, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She is currently a student at Duke University, where she is body building by lifting heavy books--and writing science fiction and fantasy in her free time. For my information about her fiction and personal life, please visit Shelly-Li.com.

Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, a Hugo, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon, the Locus, and the World Fantasy Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

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Shelly Li and Ken Liu

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  • Ron Montague

    I know the theme of what it means to be human has been explored before but this was done exceptionally well. I especially liked the ending which should be a new begining.