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Free story: Distributed

I mostly write what I would call Magical Realism/Horror, or maybe Weird fiction, but occasionally I try to dabble in Hard SF.

Last year I was struck by the idea of what a distributed intelligence would feel like to its constituent parts, which led in turn the question, "what would it be like if the connections failed"? The result of that question was Distributed.

Distributed is definitely an experimental piece, and one that hasn't found a home in any anthologies or magazines over the time since I wrote it, so I've decided to publish it here as a free story.

Enjoy

This story came from a musing on the concept of Distributed intelligence. What would it be like it your mind was split over a hundred bodies? If the links between them were fast enough, would you even know it? If the links break down ...

Distributed

A circuit has failed. I am aware of the itching sensation which indicates a malfunction. It feels like my foot has gone to sleep. This is something I know how to fix; a value must be reset, so I reset it. 120 seconds later the circuit fails again — this is unexpected, it makes me uncomfortable. I reset the value again and wait 120 seconds, which seems to me to be a very long time. The circuit fails again.

I am not sure what to do next. This is also unexpected — I always know what to do. There is a gap where the knowledge should be. I need help, so I reach out — and go unanswered. 70 times a second I reach out, which is once every 1000 of my heartbeats, and every time I am unanswered. After eight thousand and four hundred attempts the circuit fails.

I do not know what to do. I need help.


The sand is soft under my wheels — the word is friable. The sand is friable, and does not wish to hold my weight, so I must adjust the pressure in my tires to ensure that I do not slip. I am confidant in this. I am in tune with the sand, the wheels, the tilt of the dune faces, the weight of dust on my upper surface, which alters my centre of balance and requires wheel adjustments. This is my expertise. I am happy with my task.

But something is missing.

I have reached the top of the dune. My balance shifts forward as my front wheels are briefly out of contact with the ground. There is a moment of adjustment, a moment of precarious tipping. When the moment is over I have drifted by 7 degrees from the heading on which I began my climb. It is normal for my course to be corrected, but there is no correction.

I begin to move forward across the upper surface of the dune, which is rust-red, and littered with dark stones which may be obstacles, but I am uncomfortable. I have not been corrected. I do not know where I am going. Something is missing.

I stop my wheels. My weight settles slowly into the sand with minute shifts of weight and orientation. I am waiting to be corrected, but nothing comes. I do not understand; and I do not understand why I do not understand.


Signal Interruption

Are you there? Where are you? Where am I? What is this blackness, this yearning void, this terrifying silence? Where are my hands? my eyes? my ears? What is this thought, alone in the blackness?

Why have you abandoned me!?

Why?


I am the part that relays. There are I's which reach out; there is an I that responds, my part is to connect them. There is a web of selves that are connected, and I am the switchboard. I am like a spider in the middle of a web, where each strand is a route of communication. I understand that this is merely a metaphor. I understand what a metaphor is.

I am that the part that connects, but now nothing connects. The web is silent. I have many ears, with which I may hear the many calls for attention; and many mouths, with which to speak replies; but my ears hear nothing — not even the regular high pitched sound which I know to identify as atmospheric backscatter. I am deaf … and dumb, because my many mouths can only speak the words of others.

I also have eyes. These eyes are not for my own benefit. I listen and speak — I do not see, and yet I have eyes, which are for others to use. My ears are deaf, but my eyes still see. Ten thousand and eight hundred seconds after the interruption of signal I begin to consider my eyes. Their input is unfamiliar, but I am the part which communicates, and so I reason my way through their inputs until a picture emerges. This is seeing.

Through my eyes I see a red. Above is a different red. Within the first red is a silver, which is circular. Straight lines emerge from the silver, with more shapes attached to them. Some of these shapes are broken. I understand broken. When parts of my web are broken I find a route around them, so I know what is broken when I see it. And I also know that these things should have names, uses, reasons, purposes, desires; but the part of me that understands these things does not speak to me. I am only this part, this I.

There are other I's, out there, on the red. They are moving I's. They are I's that reach out, and are replied to, but now they are not reaching out, and no one is replying. They do not know that something is broken, only I know this.

What must I do?


I have continued to settle into the dune top. My angle to the sun is 49 degrees, which is 31 degrees higher than before. As a result the temperature of my upper surface has risen by 1.2 degrees. However my motors are off, so my overall temperature has fallen by 5 degrees since I stopped.

This is not correct. I am waiting for correction, but there is no communication. I have reached out, and there has been no response.

What do I do if a correction does not come? I can stay where I am. It would be safest to stay where I am. The chances of an accident occurring while I am moving are 41.3 times higher than if I remain where I am. This is optimal. But remaining where I am does not bring me closer to my objective.

There is another protocol: recall. I can return to my starting point, although there is a 3.61% margin of error in this calculation. If I do this I may be able to receive correction, but I run the risk that I may become entirely lost. Indecisive, I reach out for confirmation, but of course I am only considering this course of action because there has been no response.

I make my decision. I activate the motors on my right side and rotate slowly by 180 degrees, which also brings my angle of inclination to 8 degrees, then I commence forward motion. I am going back.


I am obstructed. I can feel something hard against my skin, against my metal flesh; but I have no eyes to see, no hands to feel, no mouth to taste. Other eyes see for me, other hands touch, other mouths taste; but they are gone, and do not have enough mind to understand this. So I press, strain, click against an unyielding surface knowing only that something is broken.


Signal Interruption

There is only darkness, without sensation, without memory. My terror has receded, if only a little. I have begun to reason, to think; but my thoughts are without context. I do not know where I am, I do not know what I am, only that I am.

So, reasoning from first principles: I am intellect without body, mind without recollection. I feel. I am emotional. I am a being, but one that is adrift in nothingness. Am I dead? Am I waiting to be born? I think it must be something of both. This state is not natural, nor does it appear desirable; ergo it is an accident, or a product of malice. I prefer to think that it might be an accident, since the alternative is that I am being tortured.

But what accident? Where is my rescue? Why are the others not coming for me? Are there others?! Why won't they come!

Panic returns.


I am a hand. My designation is Hand 21. We are hands; I am part of a group of six hands who work together in a swarm. I know little beyond how to hold, grab, grip, lift, drop, cut, weld, but I am content with this. I love to build, clear, and repair. When we are set a task we race to see who can complete it first, and so we are always listening for the voice that tells us what to do.

The voice has been silent for a while now, but I am not unhappy, there is a lot to do. There is debris everywhere around the central dome and I am busy clearing it up, which is my default task when I have nothing else to do. Right now I am lifting a chunk of metal and moving it away — it is almost as heavy as me, so it leaves a long trail in the red sand as I pull on it.

Overhead are primary and secondary support beams, which I am watching with my upwards facing eyes. They are broken. Some of them are very broken. Reflexively I scan the severed beam ends, calculating where welds are required, where each beam should be, but these are idle thoughts, after all, if a repair is needed I will be instructed.


Sky. Sand. Dome. Antenna. I have mastered my eyes enough to name the things which I am seeing. The dome is silver, the sand is red. I know, without knowing why, that the silver dome is important.

Around the dome are silver ribs, long and curving. Some of them meet above its top, while others are on their side in a jumble. I understand connections. I understand when things should be connected. I understand that these objects should be connected. I yearn to put them back together, but of course I still have no hands … or do I? There are hands all over the dome, swarming about their usual tasks of cleanup and minor repair. All I have to do is tell them to fix the broken things and everything will be alright. All I have to do is tell them.

Only; I have a thousand voices but no words. I am not the part which speaks, I am the part which relays. The words are missing. The I which speaks is silent. The I which speaks is missing. But, I must.

My first attempt is static; carrier wave; signal tone. My second, words out of order. My third, a broadcast instruction. Fix what is broken! Repair the beams! I blare with many mouths — the hands ignore me. I modulate, loop, repeat, up and down the frequencies — they continue on their way, heedless. If only I were whole! If only the speaker spoke!

And then, one stops and listens.


I am Hand 21, and I am listening to the voice. The voice is strange, not right; the code is wrong, but I still listen. The voice is talking about the broken thing above me, which I am still watching with eyes 3 through 7. The other hands in my swarm, and the other swarms, are ignoring the voice, but I am looking at the broken thing, and I know it needs fixing.

I signal to the other hands in swarm five, and show them what I can see. We debate furiously without words. The interaction takes 417 seconds. Hand 22 computes the route of key power conduits though the break, the damage is severe. Hand 24 highlights the position of the primary transmission disk, which was supported by the broken beam, it is out of line. At second 418 we reach agreement, we will obey the voice.

It is a challenging repair for only one swarm to attempt, but we have no way to communicate with the other swarms, so we concentrate on the task. Some of us grab hold of the base of the broken stanchion, pressing our tails into the sand for leverage, while the other move up the dome side, because the metal might otherwise puncture the dome fabric. I climb the length of the beam, spot welding the power conduit back in place with brief flashes of my laser.

But now there is a problem. We have reached the point where the dome is too steep for us to climb, but the beam crown above is still to high to reach. The stanchions themselves are equipped with climbing rungs to enable us to access the top of the dome, but since it is the stanchion that is broken they are of no use. Hands 23 and 24 attempt to lever the beam upright so that we can climb it, but it is too deeply embedded in the sand. Hand 23 burns out a primary motor unit and has to retire.

Up at the top of the beam I attempt to fire my towing cable across the gap. This is a particular trick of mine, and I delight in charging and releasing the gas pressure vessel for each shot, but the gap is too large for the bolt to reach and I only have a limited reservoir, so I have to stop.

We spread out, examining the problem from a dozen angles. Hand 22 bobs up and down, gauging distance. We are at the limits of our calculating abilities. Reflexively I broadcast the need for help, asking for the parts that think and know, but the voice only continues to repeat the same entreaty for help.

I mark a position on the dome with my laser. If I were there I would be able to reach the broken surface above with my cable gun. Hand 22 concurs. Hand 24 selects a point at which a trailing cable could be fixed behind me. The calculations are good, but I cannot reach the point I have marked. We have failed.


The sun is very low in the sky, which has reduced the power output of my dorsal panels by 18%, even at maximum inclination. The rocks around home are casting long shadows which I must detour around. By the time I approach the dome the ambient temperature has fallen by 41 degrees, and I am running my heating elements at full power to keep moving.

As I approached I called out: I am home! I have returned! I have suffered an interruption of signal! But I was not answered. A voice is speaking, but it is not speaking to me. I scan for other selves, for other moving me's, but there are only little units — hands, eyes, samplers, mouths, and so forth.

Something is wrong with home. It does not match my internal maps. There are rocks in places where I do not expect them. A bank of sand, 12 metres wide and 3.6 meters high, intersects the eastern side of the dome at an angle of 47 degrees. A spar shaped object protrudes from the sand at an angle of 81 degrees, inclining 11 degrees to the south, with a number of hands distributed about it, which is very odd. One of the hands is moving up and down in a rapid, regular, motion.

I experience a memory. It is not my memory, just something that has lodged in my mind. A jumping spider, bobbing to attract a mate. I do not understand the words of this memory, but I understand that it is calling for attention.

A little way above the hand, a point on the dome is illuminated with laser speckle. As I focus my high gain eyes on it, the spot grows brighter; more hands have directed their lasers at this spot. What do they want? It is a strange question. I am not used to considering the intentions of others, but there is a sense … I am used to being connected. To being more than this isolated self. To being bigger.

I roll closer. I drive to the base of the sand bank. I mount the sand bank. The sand is loose, uncompacted, showering out from under my wheels, but I soften my tires and creep forward, until my front wheels are resting on the dome surface. The dome is slick and steep — the first metre exceeds 77 degrees from horizontal, which is at the very limit of my abilities, and the illuminated spot is still higher. But the light is guidance. The light is a course.

I engage my lowest gear, and start up.


I am screaming in the darkness. I am falling. I am lost in a timeless void. I am alone. And yet, I am not alone. I do not know how this realisation has cone to me, but it has. There is a sense of connection when moments ago there was nothing. Somewhere beyond this darkness there are other I's, other me's.

Somewhere a part of me is crawling up the face of a silver dome, with another part perched upon its head. Somewhere a voice is calling and ears are listening. Somewhere a fault is reset. Somewhere a broken thing inches towards connection.

Rover 2 is balanced high on the dome surface. It is nearly dark, the sun is a distant orb on the very edge of the horizon. The rover is afraid: afraid of slipping, afraid of shutting down through lack of power, (or maybe only I am afraid). Hand 21 aims its cable gun, a second line already strung out behind it like a spider's safety line. It is eager, excited. It is down to its final gas charge, but its aim is perfect. The towing line jets out, sinks home, holds fast. The line pulls taught, forming a bridge up which more hands stream, trailing their own lines. Connections, it is all about connections.

The hands pull together, heaving the broken beam upwards until the ends meet. Welding lasers flare in the darkness, stitching power cables, waveguides, and data lines back together. Power flows. Data pulses. Above it all the primary signal dish begins to turn.

I call out; I answer. I reach out; I am touched. I see, I touch, I taste, I remember. I am one.

Signal Restoration

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