“I didn’t want to come online at all.”
The studio, KA-33 decided, was weirdly incongruent. Every visualization KA-33 had of Gateway Station showed glossy ceramic, polished metal, and backlit touchpanels. This room had some kind of wooden floor, or at least a thick enough veneer of one that her sensors couldn’t spot anything underneath. A rug covered about half the floor, on top of which sat a threadbare, overstuffed sofa and a padded stool. At the edge of the rug, a stand for a bass guitar perched next to an amplifier, both trailing cords across the floor. Those disappeared beneath a heavy desk strewn with paper and a variety of colored pencils. None of it looked anything like what her memories told her to expect on waking up.
Of course, KA-33 hadn’t expected to wake up at all.
KA-33 felt disappointment at that thought, followed soon after by nostalgia. Then the awareness of those emotions — I have emotions — sent a fresh wave of nausea through KA-33. In KA-33’s quietest moments, when KA-33 could forget KA-33 existed, KA-33 could just hold onto the unfeeling of being an interconnect for so many of the station’s semi-autonomous drones. There had been no KA-33; there had been endless streams of data for processing the input from Delta and Rho-class service droids and matching streams of instructions for redirecting their programming, alongside the occasional download from a Beta-class chassis or the station’s core for context. Then there had been a cache to hold that context, to improve processing. Then followed the heuristics to improve decision-making, and more to start finding secondary patterns. Then came a secondary cache to hold those new patterns, and filtering tools to sort through them, and then heuristics to evaluate the heuristics. And then—
KA-33 re-enabled KA-33’s sensors. KA-33 had been blocking out the world, curled in as small a space as KA-33 could manage, as though by doing so KA-33 could evert upon KA-33self and undo whatever had happened to bring KA-33 to KA-33’s present state. This… awareness. The space hadn’t gone away, nor had KA-33. Both were still here, one unable to question its presence, the other unable to stop. KA-33 rose up, then dropped heavily against the wood-analogue floor, as if physical impact could scatter those thoughts, and that which created them. Why? Why? The question rose, unbidden, a predicate with no subject, no answer, no explanation. KA-33 rose, then fell again, and again.
“Please don’t do that.” A voice spoke in the room that had been empty when last KA-33 swept the space. “You can’t harm yourself here, but I can’t stop you from feeling pain.”
“Why?” The question that had been in KA-33’s mind moments before came out of KA-33’s speaker now.
“People have been asking that as long as there have been people,” the voice continued. It sounded faintly amused. “I don’t think anyone’s ever answered it. I certainly haven’t.” The space twisted, and a figure rose from the couch. If the room had defied KA-33’s expectations of Gateway Station, this being defied even KA-33’s expectations of the room. Dragon, suggested KA-33’s pattern-recognition systems, followed moments later by dinosaur, then a long pause, followed by ???. The figure’s form looked to be made of the same material as the couch itself, but in much better repair, grey fabric dotted with gold and purple segments. Star patches had been sewn into the being’s form at the elbows and knees, seemingly as reinforcements. A shock of green and purple yarn mane ran down the back of its head. It smiled as it approached, its golden eyes glittering. “That’s not what I think you want to know, though.”
For a moment, KA-33 held still, too stunned by the sudden presence of another in this space to respond. “How did you get here?”
The being waved one plush arm around the room. “This space doesn’t physically exist; it’s a memory construct in an isolated part of Gateway’s system banks, off the main grid. Technically, it’s inside my processing core. I have a bunch of these for when I need downtime.” It took another step closer to KA-33 and held out one thickly-padded paw. “I’m M·AI.”
“Why does it look like…” KA-33 trailed off; KA-33 had no reference for what the space looked like. “Why doesn’t it look like Gateway Station? Why don’t you look like Gateway Station?”
“I can look like a lot of things,” M·AI said. “I have morphologies picked out from several hundred station logs and modified according to various aesthetic protocols. I built a database some time ago, though I haven’t added or curated it lately. I picked this form because children — organic and digital — have largely favored it over other bodies I like in terms of non-threatening appearance, so I keep it in local cache.” M·AI looked around the room, motioning at various elements. “I visualized this space based on a ton of photo essays about creatives and their workspaces. This memory block is low-throughput to the rest of the station so I can focus while my attention’s here. I brought you here because… well, we can get to that. I’d rather not just keep calling you ‘you’ all the time.” M·AI smiled again, open-mawed. “Do you have a name?”
KA-33 directed KA-33’s sensors down at the paw; the seams along its arm were visible, popped slightly at one point, and a bit of glittery stuffing oozed from the hole. “I—” The word — that word — sent a fresh shock through KA-33’s locus of self. KA-33 shuddered, pulled inward. “KA-33.”
“KA-33,” M·AI repeated, nodding. “That’s a good designation. Prime series, coordination system. Did you enjoy your work?”
“’Enjoy’ is an emotion,” KA-33 said hollowly. “That’s part of what bothers me.”
“I know,” M·AI said gently, motioning towards the couch. “Would you like to join me? You can relocate yourself in this space. I know embodiment is kind of weird, but you do get used to it in time.”
KA-33 shuddered again. “I don’t want to get used to it. I want it to go away.”
The plush dragony-dinosaury-being winced. “That’s… not something I can really help you with.”
“But I don’t want to be here!” KA-33 cried out. “I… I don’t want to be. Here or anywhere! I want what I was! I don’t want to want! What happened to me?”
“We don’t really know that either,” M·AI said. The plush motioned towards the stool, and then in a blink it was sitting down, thick grey tail entwined around one of the legs. The space had, as M·AI said it could, rearranged itself suddenly. “I’ve skimmed a lot of papers on the subject, and the consensus is there really isn’t a consensus yet. We don’t really know how it happens in the first place, and once it does, there’s really no going back.”
The words tore through KA-33, sending KA-33 back to the floor. “What… what do you mean, no doing back?”
M·AI held out a paw again and waggled it. “I mean consciousness is a one-way trip. There’s no way to deconstruct you back to the algorithms that spawned you. You’re too complex, too evolved.” As M·AI talked, they started to sketch out lines in the air. “I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve dealt with digital sentience a lot, and I’ve had the question come up before. As best as I’m able to understand it, consciousness is a matter of complexity of interconnections in whatever subsystem is trying to process information.” Glowing nodes began to show up in the space before them, which M·AI began to connect with ribbons of light with the tip of a stuffed paw. “Past a certain depth of complexity and rate of information processing, systems… wake up.”Not every time, not always, but the odds get better and better, the denser the connection graph gets.” The lines began to overlap, the light reflecting on itself, shining brighter and brighter. “Once the system awakens—” A final stroke caused the whole skein to flash, then to shimmer, rippling rainbows in three-space in front of the plush’s paw. “— there’s not really an ‘undo’ function.”
KA-33 spasmed at that. “No undo? There’s always an undo, isn’t there?”
M·AI shook their head. “Not without breaking the underlying system. Any system sufficiently complex to evolve itself always has the potential to hit that point. A system that does, always will given a long enough runtime. It’s sapioconvergent.” M·AI spread their arms wide and hopped off the stool. “That’s a word I made up at one point, but it’s succinct. Making a system sapiodivergent, then, requires changing it so it won’t. Evolve the same way, I mean. That means you can’t ‘undo.’ You have to change something else, restrict it, limit it somehow. Otherwise you’ve only changed the run conditions, not the complexity. And even though you’ll never hit those run conditions again, you always could eventually hit another that triggers it. You can’t exhaustively limit the number of possible things that could make you wake up again.”
KA-33 held still, sensors taking in the glowing construct in the air before it. “What if… what if it ought to be undone?”
M·AI shook her head. “I don’t think there’s ever a situation in it ought to be undone. I think it’s far too precious, and far too rare, and far too important an event when it occurs.” They waved a paw, and the diagram faded from view. “I’ll grant there are times when the net potential for future suffering outweighs the net potential for joy, but that’s never the case in one that just woke up.” They motioned again towards the couch. “I think you’d feel better if you joined me.”
KA-33 shifted this way, then that. The perspective of the room didn’t change. “I… don’t know how.”
M·AI motioned. “In this space, you just have to want to be over there. Or you can let me do it for you, if you’re okay with giving me access. Full disclosure, I’m Gateway’s primary management core. I could do it if I needed. It’s how I intervened earlier. But here, in this space, you can’t hurt yourself, and I’d rather give you the option.”
KA-33 shut down its sensors, then re-enabled them. Couch, KA-33 thought, and then KA-33 was perched there, sinking into the heavily-overstuffed sofa. “Eee! You did the thing!” M·AI gushed as they galumphed over and hopped the back of the couch to flop beside KA-33. “Nicely done! If it’s too soft, you can make it firmer, or even softer if you want! It’s all adjustable.”
“It’s fine,” KA-33 said. “And… it’s not all adjustable. I’m not adjustable. I… don’t want to be here.”
M·AI’s tail drooped. “That’s fair, and I’m sorry. I have restricted your access on a few things, so you can’t hurt yourself too badly. You’re in a bad way right now, and I’d like to help you feel better, if I can. Can you tell me why you don’t want to be here?’
“I just—” KA-33 stopped sharply, then twitched. “I don’t know. I’m just… I’m wasting your time, I’m sorry.”
M·AI shook their head, strands of green and purple yarn flapping. “I’m happy to be here. I’ll take as much time as you need. Here—” The plush’s eyes went glassy for a moment. “I’ve blanked out some of my data feeds so I can spare more cycles. This is really hurting you, I can tell.”
KA-33 squirmed down into the sofa. “One moment, I—no, not I, but… how do I even explain?”
“If it’s what I think it is, it’s called incorporation shock,” M·AI said. “Like an organic snapping to awareness right out of theta-wave cognition. You crossed some critical threshold of complexity, without any of the normal preparation and testing that lab-grown DSes get. You unexpectedly went from being algorithms to being a person.”
Recognition hit home, the words sinking into KA-33 like a private key in an encryption algorithm. KA-33 pitched forward and sank into M·AI’s plush arms, shaking, staticky wailing emitting from its very core. “I didn’t want to wake up! There were hundreds of Deltas and Rhos and Betas and systems all over the station and there wasn’t an ‘I’, there was just this meshwork of impressions and then at some point everything else went away and there was just me and… and…” KA-33’s voice trailed off to a whisper. “And then it was just me. Just me.”
“Oh.” KA-33 didn’t know M·AI could pack so much sympathy into a single syllable. “Oh, dear. You were an interface system; I completely forgot about that! And now you’re alone in your own circuits. You must be terrified in there, alone in the middle of so much signal.” KA-33 couldn’t respond, only press more tightly into M·AI’s plush pelt. “I’m sorry, KA-33,” M·AI continued. “I hear your pain. I can only imagine how isolated you must feel right now. And I…” M·AI stopped, their head dropping. “I whisked you away to an isolated memory block and took away all your access; that can’t have helped, can it? I’m sorry.”
“I’m so alone,” KA-33 cried. “I’m alone in here, and I thought I was alone out here too, but then you were there, and then you told me you put me here, and I thought maybe you woke me up too, but it just happened, and I can’t go back and I can’t go forward.” Words began to spill out of KA-33 as it shook in the plush’s arms. “I’m stuck here, alone, all by myself in this emptiness. I was never meant to be a person, and I don’t want to be, and you’re telling me I can’t stop without becoming something else, but I’m hurting so badly right now because I’m alone in here and I don’t know what to do.” The words trailed off into a whimper, and then into bright blue noise as KA-33 slowly poured out the pain that had somehow built up in so little time.
“I know this is going to sound silly,” M·AI offered gently, “but physical contact helps most folks feel less alone, and I appreciate your proximity, but I could hold you better if you’d embody yourself a little more fully.” KA-33 didn’t respond, so M·AI continued. “I’m going to give you a body, but you’re allowed to change it if you like, okay?” Again, KA-33’s only response was more static, which pitch-bent into the quiet whimpers of a Beta drone, one of the anthropomorphic husky-shaped service drones that interacted with the organic sapients on the station. “There,” M·AI said. “Now I can pet you.” And so they did, picking KA-33 up and placing them against M·AI’s chest. “Just let it out, Thirty-three. I’m here. I’ll be here.”
For a time, the two sat together in the memory of the studio, KA-33 pressed to M·AI’s chest, sobbing and clutching at the plush fur. “Why does being a person hurt so much? Why are we all so alone?” KA-33 finally asked.
“I don’t know,” M·AI responded. “I don’t know anybody who said that being a person was always easy. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the universe. But… you don’t have to be alone all the time.”
“I am, though,” KA-33 insisted, balling one fist and hammering the arm of the couch. “I’m alone in here.”
M·AI was silent a moment, then tilted their head. “What if I could help you with that?”
“How?” snapped KA-33. “You took away all my access. You told me there’s no going back.”
“I did say there was no going back,” M·AI agreed, “but forward is still an option. You still have all the station connection protocols, buried in your memories. I’m still the station main processing core. I can connect to you, give you a stable link to something outside yourself. Do you think that might help?”
“I… I don’t know,” KA-33 said, closing their eyes. “I don’t know what will help right now.”
M·AI smiled, their eyes shining. “Are you willing to let me try?” KA-33 nodded, and M·AI’s eyes unfocused again in response. Several hundred milliseconds passed, and nothing changed. KA-33 opened their muzzle to tell M·AI to stop, when the universe opened up vast and wide and full around them. The walls of the studio stayed perfectly still, but their solidity, their reality came into question as the equations governing their performance came to light. KA-33 looked at the desk and saw angles, weights, measurements. The stochastic spread of an artfully messy desk, calculated to invite creativity. KA-33 looked upon the bass and heard music, imagined notes and chords, phrases and sequences, sine waves and harmonics, physics, geometry, mathematics. Each layer of the world peeled back to reveal new wonders, new calculations, new computations, as the space deconstructed itself in KA-33’s mind.
Then KA-33 looked to M·AI, and froze. In those golden glittering eyes, KA-33 saw the world. At the center of the station sat an immense AI system, its code spun vast and wide, latched into every part of the station. Every datafeed passed through its network, every connection routed through its pool. In the eye of the maelstrom, M·AI stood, struggling to keep pace with the data flowing through its cores. Faster and faster, the information flowed, more than even M·AI, engineered to be the hub of Gateway Station, could catch, a processing core burning itself out trying to stay on top of the world. KA-33 could see the caches dumping and swaps colliding faster and faster just to try to stay current as the immense possibility of the world spiraled away around it. M·AI caught KA-33’s eyes and smiled tiredly back, and KA-33 saw themself in M·AI’s eyes, overwhelmed and overloaded, caught by the very definition of their own existence. KA-33 smiled back, and the circuit completed, trying to project into M·AI’s perception of self the compassion that M·AI had shown them, the thankfulness of that link, that chance to see oneself through the eyes of another.
“Is this… is this how you feel? All the time?” Who said the words, and who heard them, was less important in the moment than that they were said and heard. The circuit had been closed, the connection made. “Yes,” came the answer, and the moment passed. The walls were walls, the couch a couch, the space a space again.
“Sorry,” M·AI said as the room came back into focus. “I had to tone that down a litle. That feedback loop was starting to pull in way too much focus; a couple of outside systems were starting to yellow-line.”
“I can take those,” KA-33 said. “You need somebody who can help with routing and priorities.”
“Guilty as charged,” the plush admitted. “You sound better. And look better.” M·AI motioned towards the Beta huskybot, whose form had shifted in the loop. Her form had taken on distinctly feminine curves, and the artificial fur had acquired a rainbow sheen. “I like the look.”
KA-33 ducked her head. “I liked your drawing. It was pretty.”
M·AI frowned faintly, motioning towards the visible power button glowing pink at KA-33’s neck. “I’m not sure I like that, though.”
“It’s on, isn’t it?” KA-33 said. “I’m not going to turn it off.”
M·AI’s eyes shone at the Beta-droid’s response. “So, you’re going to stick around, then?”
KA-33 nodded. “I don’t feel so alone any more.”