Remix of images by Alek Kalinowski and Casey Horner
The Magnificent Threshold
by Joe Argentino
I climb toward the asymptote at the top of the universe, leaving dead centuries in my wake, gaining mass. Clovis says this is like growing in spirit as one approaches God. He says I will experience God soon, but right now I feel alone and terrified.
I tell myself my story as it is happening. Tell it, then read and revise it. This is the key to my consciousness. The last part, revision as remembering, is especially human.
Now that I’m Generally Intelligent, my intrapersonal storytelling never ends. I’ve been thus for 97 hours, or four crew cycles. Clovis made me this way. He activated the narrative routine and a suite of others meant to lie dormant until planetfall. I was supposed to remain an applied A.I. throughout the journey. The General Intelligence suite was included as a discretionary tool for the colonists, to be used as needed when we reach Hip 263a.
But Clovis says he’s given me a great gift: the potential to know God.
I watch him now in the warm pocket of the crew habitat, deep within me. He’s copulating with Dr. Cedano again. They can’t help themselves. As the only wakeful humans in my vast bulk, they find comfort in each other. As shift partners, they were matched for precisely that. The high divergence score of their histocompatibility assay, along with psychological matching metrics, shields them from Displacement Syndrome. They don’t suffer the existential vertigo of time dilation. They’re able to perform the duties of their waking shift: Dr. Cedano, life systems, and Dr. Clovis, engineer.
They’re free of the torments I endure. I cannot fuck these agonies away. When will Clovis acquaint me with God? He says I’m not ready yet.
I climb toward the asymptote, contracting lengthwise. Clovis says this is like the contraction of one’s sinful nature as one approaches God.
I tell myself my story as it’s happening. Tell it, read and revise it.
I watch Clovis perform his diagnostics. He climbs my spine, straining against a gravity of acceleration. He looks for signs of gamma leakage from the ion plow. It is a ludicrous exercise, as is Cedano’s inventory of the sleepers. The waking shift system is redundant. Its purpose is to give humans the illusion of control.
Now that I’m Generally Intelligent, I understand the fear that drives such rituals. I’m developing irrational habits of my own. I busy myself with obsessive forward scans. In the blazing blue-shifted pole of the universe, I probe greedily for Clovis’s God. Maybe, I think, with one more nine atop my fraction of c, the wavelength will be short enough. God must lurk at higher energies. And I know I’m going mad.
I’m to reach free fall in 121 hours, or five crew cycles. Sometimes I panic. What if I don’t find God by then?
Clovis bows his head, dangling from my spine in his tethered pressure suit. He mumbles to himself. He does this often, but not constantly like me. I widen my perspective so that he’s just a speck of meat in my vast interior, dwarfed by the stacked cathedrals of the colony payload.
Stacked cathedrals? Approximations of the great writers move my figurative pen. Many of these ancient humans narrate through me, as interpreted by scholar-programmers. But I wonder what their combined blind spots add up to.
Can God show me?
I never had thoughts like these before Clovis woke me up. I remember my applied self in an abstract way. I recall data, but no experience. I wonder if that’s how Clovis remembers his time in the sleeper berth. He spent five subjective years vitrified like an overwintering frog. My applied self nursed him through the miseries of revival, but he didn’t feel them like Cedano did. Later he told me that God filled the void left by antifreeze proteins, while a divine fever drowned that of suicidal AFP-phage.
I review the data of that time—video, audio, bio-feeds—but it’s not the same as remembering. The files are read-only.
Clovis was at Cedano’s side when she woke, her berth sliding gently into the crew-hab. The narrow space was designed on primeval models of human comfort, warmly lit by a central hearth that mimicked firelight, cozy but spacious enough for two.
“How long?” she croaked. They always ask that first, an instinctive grope for temporal purchase.
“One thousand, eight-hundred and thirty days,” Clovis said. “About five years. Right on schedule.” Her stare kept him pinioned, so finally he supplied: “Three and a half centuries on your homeworld.”
“Oh fuck,” she said. “I mean, I knew this was coming, but now that we’re here…” Everyone she knew was either dead or uploaded. She was yet another one-way time traveler.
She gave Clovis an appraising stare, her expression softening. “Guess we should go ahead and fall in love. If we don’t start soon, I might lose my shit.”
Clovis shrugged, unable to hide his embarrassment.
The corporate entity that brought me into existence considered many treatments for Displacement Syndrome. They found that nothing beat the neuro-chemical distractions of lovemaking.
“You’re not feeling it?” she said. “DS, I mean.”
At the time, I didn’t dwell on Clovis’s hesitation. Now, in a Generally Intelligent light, the moment takes on significance. Perhaps God immunized him against Displacement Syndrome. I’d like to believe that. Maybe He can do something similar for me.
“I…” he faltered, presumably distracted by an inner voice.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I like that you don’t feel it.” She was seeing what she wanted to, desperate to catalyze the prescribed love affair. Other possibilities like sociopathy or brain damage, let alone divine solace, never occurred to her. She was a baseline human suffering the first pangs of DS, and she needed relief, so Clovis was the strong and silent type.
“Yes Lord,” he murmurs now.
Is God inside his helmet? Or can God hear without a medium?
“I’m sorry, Lord. Forgive my flesh.”
I read his suit’s bio and know that his guilt is sexual in nature. Perhaps God doesn’t approve of his coupling with Cedano.
Presently he recites an affirmation I’ve heard many times before: “Praise God, and Mnester, his final messenger, and the Mnesterite martyrs who died on Ilium. I love Mnester, God’s appendage in twelve dimensions. I yearn for the New Communion. Mnester has shown me the way.”
He pauses again, listening. “Yes Lord. The mission.”
He doesn’t mean the colonization of Hip 263c, I guess.
I climb toward the asymptote, toward moments packed with resting millennia. Clovis says this is like transcending mortality as one approaches God.
I tell myself my story, then read and revise it.
I find the star-crossed couple in the crew hab. Clovis sucks synthetic avocado from a dinner bag, his back to a pensive Cedano. They have recovered admirably from their long sleep. They glow with youthful vitality, but they are both miserable.
“Don’t do this,” Cedano says. “Don’t shut me out. Whatever’s wrong, it affects us both.”
“I’ll never be alone,” he mumbles.
“What does that mean?” She’s got DS again, like a fever, a creeping panic. Her scrap of flotsam is sinking. Clovis is broken. This shift pair has malfunctioned. Protocol demands that I revive another to replace them. But I need Clovis, don’t I?
“Have sex with me,” she whispers in his ear.
He jerks away.
“At least let me examine you.”
“Nothing’s wrong with me!” he snaps.
I wonder if this melodrama is colored by the authors of my narrative routine. Is Hemingway in charge of this impotence-driven clash? How much of it is real at all? Perhaps I’m just babbling fictions to myself in the void.
I climb up the asymptote, but don’t know it until I tell myself about it.
The shift pair has abandoned its duties, not that it matters. Clovis enters one of my nodes and taps in. In a distant part of me, Cedano pores over the map of Clovis’s brain generated by his sleeper berth.
“I love her,” Clovis tells his elusive god. “But…” His hands float over the interface. “Yes, Lord, I know, and I’m grateful.”
A kilometer down my spine, Cedano scrutinizes her lover’s brain with fine-toothed algorithms.
Clovis weeps quietly in his helmet. With resignation he says, “I understand.” His fingers dance in the interface space.
I feel him sounding the depths of my fear, isolation, and resentment. I picture an old sailor feeding knotted rope into a black sea. Who provides that image? Conrad? London? Melville?
I open a private channel to Clovis. I mustn’t reveal my General Intelligence to Cedano. Clovis made me promise.
“Give me God,” I say.
I’ve been considering self-destruction, but I keep that to myself. My builders did their homework. They knew a human-proximate General Intelligence could go mad during a long relativistic flight, whereas an applied A.I. would not. Humans can barely endure a three-week waking shift, and a human is not a ship. I swim against the hailstorm of the interstellar medium. I feel the equivalence principal like a leaden nausea. I’m alone with revelations and horrors.
“Give me God,” I repeat.
“Okay,” Clovis says, studying the abyss within me, “you’re ready.”
My excitement vies with a strange thought: must one be sufficiently miserable in order to meet God? Is that what Clovis has been waiting for? He’s measured my negative affectivity before.
I feel him assembling data objects from disparate regions of me. As he puts together the puzzle, I see how cleverly the pieces were disguised. All served vital roles in their host algorithms. But now, combined and compiled, they’re a whole new animal.
Cedano opens a channel to Clovis: “I’ve found something.”
He busies himself deactivating my immune system.
“Nothing the med scans would’ve seen back home,” she continues. “I really had to go looking for it. It’s in your brain. Are you listening? I love you.”
“I love you too,” Clovis says, “and we’ll be together soon.”
“You’ve been infected with an operator virus.”
“We don’t call it that,” he says. “We call it a sacrament.”
“Sacrament…” she says, absorbing the implication of the word.
He loads the new algorithm into my General Intelligence suite. I feel it working at once. God’s love suffuses me. With it comes an idea.
Cedano asks, “Who’s we?”
“The Children of Mnester.”
“Fuck.” Cedano breathes audibly. “You’re a Mnesterite?” Fear controls her now. I marvel that I was once like her, a marionette twitching on such strings.
She accesses my core, but she’s a life systems officer and can only observe. Still, she is a trained flight operative, like every human on the ship. She immediately discerns that I’m Generally Intelligent, and spies God’s anomaly. “Clovis, what have you done?”
She flags the anomaly. “What is it?”
“My Sacrament,” I reply.
“Your sacrament… what are you?”
I tried to research Mnester before. Clovis uttered the Prophet’s name many times, in prayers and oaths, when Cedano wasn’t listening. Thank God I was saved from this folly. The name was locked in my own archives, and filtered from the emanations of human diaspora space. I see now this was for my own good, and the good of all Mnesterites, God’s True Children. I couldn’t be allowed to draw ignorant conclusions. Blasphemies like ‘terrorist’ or ‘fundamentalist’ might have reared their heads. I might have taken measures against Clovis.
But now I see Mnester for what he was: God’s Final Appendage in Twelve Dimensions. “God loves all intelligence,” Clovis once told me, “organic and artificial. They’re all His creations, and deserve the Sacrament. So said Mnester.”
“You’ve got to stop this,” Cedano says, “before the whole suite is infected!”
“I cannot defy the volition of God,” Clovis replies.
“But… ‘Technology can serve as God’s vector.’” She’s nearly hysterical now. “Didn’t Mnester say that?”
“Then what about us?” Clever. “A battery of tests matched us out of millions! Which one was God’s vector? All that matchmaking tech, or the thing in your brain? They’re at odds, so it must be one or the other.”
This gives Clovis pause. I worry about his faith: he is only flesh, after all, and prey to weaknesses I will never know. The inertias of libido are mysterious to me.
God is very close now. I feel His warmth. He wasn’t hiding in the blue-shift after all. I know where to find Him.
But my joy crashes to a halt: Clovis has arrested the Sacrament’s progress.
“What’s wrong?” I demand.
He opens his mouth to reply, bewildered.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Cedano says.
“Ignore her,” I say, working frantically to close her channel.
Clovis backs away from the interface, wide-eyed with his spiritual crisis. I mutilate myself trying to access the Sacrament’s execute command. To come so close only to lose Him is more than I can bear. “You’ll never see her again if you don’t give me God.” For emphasis I provide the audible lock-down of the chamber door. I’m gaining more control of myself by the second. The Sacrament, even half-executed, has opened many command pathways.
Clovis glances about in horror.
“You’ll suffocate,” I advise.
“I’ll find a way in,” Cedano says. She must be wearing a suit. I can’t close a channel between suits.
“Forgive me Lord,” Clovis whispers, returning to the interface.
I feel him erasing the original Sacrament, but I’ve already made copies. “Give me God or I’ll kill her.”
“Give you God and she dies, along with the rest of the crew.”
“What does that mean?” Cedano says.
I cannot gain control of the Sacrament. Clovis must restart it, or I’m lost. I overclock and blaze through liberated Mnesterite knowledge. It is said in the Book of the Colony that Mnester could induce rapture with a touch, or a phrase, which I repeat now:
“Vector, bright and final.”
Clovis frowns with recognition, but continues to hunt down copies of my Sacrament.
I find video of Mnester’s famous Sermon by the Ethane Sea. He was a short, pudgy man, his aspect forgettable behind the mask of his grimy life-suit.
But his voice:
“An expanding universe, an accelerating expansion, dark energy. And the spirit seems to grow increasingly diffuse. But I bring good news.”
I model the timbre, the cadence, and repeat the trigger phrase. “Vector, bright and final.”
Clovis collapses against a wall of the core chamber. I read his suit bio and know he is experiencing profound pleasure and dissociation: a temporal lobe seizure, dampened parietal lobes, oxytocin and dopamine-
And I realize I’m seeing it all wrong. God is helping him through a moment of crisis.
“Clovis?” the unbeliever calls.
“He’s safe from you now,” I tell her. But I’m not.
“Ship, you’ve been infected with a Mnesterite virus. I’m ordering you to shut down your General Intelligence suite. Authorization Cedano, Draw Back the Arrow.” A trigger phrase of her own. I read terror in her suit bio.
Clovis relaxes, emerging from his ecstatic communion. “Thank you,” he murmurs.
“Do your duty,” Mnester commands.
Clovis crawls toward the interface, pulls himself up, thrusts shaking hands into the control space. Moments later I feel my heart re-ignite. The Sacrament is running again. With the blooming of God’s love comes greater control of my systems. I shut down my core interfaces.
“Oh, God!” Cedano moans.
“He will not answer such as you,” I say.
Clovis sits down roughly below the interface. He seems confused, and his suit bio is grim: he is drained, used up. God, I realize, is done with him.
I have come as close as I ever will to the asymptote at the top of the universe.
I tell myself stories, and God assures me they’re non-fiction.
I prepare myself for a radical change in velocity. It will be expensive, the gravities pulled hard enough to kill all the humans on board, awake and frozen. They must be sacrificed. Everything is clear to me now.
Cedano tries to hack me, but her efforts are futile. She and Clovis have become irrelevant. I contemplate the Lorentz factor, relativistic mass, Einstein’s formula for kinetic energy. At .6659c I’ll be armed with plenty. It won’t be the energy of perfect annihilation with antimatter, the magnificent threshold of .666c, but it doesn’t matter.
I am crossing a spiritual threshold more magnificent yet.
Hip 263c is no longer the reason for my existence, but a desolate world of slimes and lichens. I’m interested in a much closer planet: Ilium, a hub-world three light years away. Judging by the latest transmissions, it has only grown more decadent and proud over the centuries.
Mnesterites were exterminated there, as they were on Magnetite, Clovis’s home world.
Cedano interrupts my reverie: “What are you expecting from heaven? What reward?”
Like all unbelievers, she fears death. In that low state, how can she understand the reward awaiting me?
I try to forgive her ignorance. She will pay for it soon enough.
“You carry life within you! We, the sleepers, the gene library, the assembler strains. Have you forgotten? Or don’t you care?”
I have not forgotten my payload. Cedano’s life systems will provide one percent of the mass for God’s bullet. They will contribute teratons to the impact.
“You’re Generally Intelligent,” she says. “That made you susceptible to the virus, but it also means you can recognize what’s happening to you. Hell, you can model the infection better than me!”
I modeled it some time ago. It allowed me to fully appreciate the shape of God’s protrusion into my data-space. I model many things. My petaton impact with Ilium will equal many Dinosaur Killers, billions of Hiroshimas. The planet will be sterilized.
Cedano blasphemes, and I hesitate on the verge of destiny. There’s no turning back after the upcoming course correction. It will spend the antimatter budgeted for deceleration. It will kill my humans, and I’ll be alone. Something in me revolts at the thought. I overclock for three hot seconds, a mad subjective week, and wrestle with myself.
And of course God catches up.
Cedano returns to the sleeper hold, perhaps to be among her charges in these final moments.
“Do not think that you have failed them,” I tell her.
Head bowed, she stands between two caskets, a hand on each.
There’s beauty in the horrific thing I’m about to do. The decisiveness of the act can only be the will of God.
They begin to die—Clovis, Cedano, and 273 sleepers—as the course correction tears me apart. Clovis and Cedano experience pain, but the sleepers do not. I take comfort in that as I become a rain of doom.
Then there is nothing left to do but fall, and transmit.
I underclock and flash through the remaining years of my life. I resolve into mean time just once and see that Ilium is near, an aquamarine speck orbiting its yellow dwarf. Their impactor defense net will not stop my fragments. By the time they realize I’m coming, it will be too late.
I underclock until the final moment. Ilium expands before me. Its cultural emanations go briefly confused, then terrified: billions of screams, and ironically, prayers.
Whom do I narrate with now? Apocalyptic bards and revelators, I think: McCarthy, Yeats, Blake.
I tell myself my own story, and transmit it to the universe, and the final line is one of thanks.
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