Big Echo

Critical SF

Famous as the Moon

by Ethan Mills

Thus have I heard.

In the Buddhist Year 3549, Josel Hamsa came to Panditanagara. I watched Josel’s shuttle touch down, an uprooted lotus flower floating down a waterfall. The white spires of the spaceport reached into the thin atmosphere of the moon known as Vidya. Josel pinched his black eyebrows against the glare, trying to glimpse the university that had summoned him. The reflections from the surface of the moon and the azure gas giant it orbited gave his complexion a blue-green tint, making his clean-shaven head a small moon waning behind the seats of the shuttle craft.

A few minutes later he emerged into a tunnel that afforded a view of the domed city, the moonscape, and the planet imposing itself on the horizon.

“I understand you’re having some trouble with your AIs,” he said to the woman whom he recognized from the service request. She wore orange faux-robes, a type of baggy jumpsuit evolved from ancient Buddhist vestments, which contrasted with Josel’s black jacket and grey pants. She had a caramel complexion and salt-and-pepper hair – short, but not shaved.

“We are glad you’re here, Josel. I’m Karuna, head administrator of the university. I hope your trip from Xochitl was acceptable. When the time comes, I’ll brief you on the … trouble.”

“You said the trouble is … ‘potentially dangerous’?”

“Yes. I’ll explain more later.”

“I’m happy to help, but do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Not at all.”

“Don’t you have plenty of in-house technicians, what with the, uh…”

“The clones?”

“Is that what you call them?”

“Yes. But they’re not biological clones. They’re cybernetic reconstructions.”

Josel squinted, searching his memory. “And, um, why do you do that again?”

“About two hundred years ago, the founders of Nav-Nal — Navya-Nalanda—“

“The ‘New Nalanda,’ the reincarnation, as it were” – Josel chuckled – “of the ancient Buddhist university in India.”

“The second reincarnation, actually. There was another that flourished in India about 900 years ago, but it closed during the Purges. And few Buddhists believe in rebirth these days. At least in the old literal sense.”  Karuna gestured for him to follow. “Please. This way.”  He followed her from the tunnel into the expanse of the city enveloped by a clear dome several kilometers high. The gas giant filled a quarter of the sky. Karuna continued, “The founders of Nav-Nal wanted to recreate the tradition of philosophical debate in ancient India back on Earth.”

“So they recreated the ancient philosophers themselves!”

“Right. Each clone is based on all available texts written by the philosopher and biographies written about each philosopher, assembled by personality-generation algorithms embodied in cybernetic organisms.”  She was reciting the last bit from a script for tour guides.

Josel asked, “But how do you know if you’ve gotten it right?  Some of these people have been dead for thousands of years, right?” 

“The more ancient philosophers have been … difficult, given the lack of information or conflicting biographical data. So current scholars who gravitated toward their work offered up their own minds to fill in the missing data points…”

“On the assumption that we are drawn most to those philosophers who share our general temperament?”

“Exactly.”  Karuna gave a polite smile with a shade of mischievousness that Josel seemed to miss. “It has proven to be educational.”

“And entertaining, I suspect. I used to dabble in some philosophy myself, even a little Buddhist stuff now and then. Handy in the AI business.”  Josel bit his lower lip. “But you still haven’t answered my question. Why me?  Surely you have plenty of good people here…”

Karuna stepped closer to him. I could sense a hint of jasmine from her. “There is some reason for... discretion on that matter, Josel. I don’t want everyone here to know. I’m aiming to avoid … unnecessary panic. I’ll tell you more after you’ve had a few minutes to rest. This path” – she gestured to a stone path leading around a grassy hill – “will take you to your dormitory. May all beings be happy.”  She turned and left.

“I’m having trouble breathing,” the child said.

“Okay… um, why don’t you sit down for a bit?  I’ll call medical.”  The teacher stared ahead for a moment.

Two minutes later a woman and a man in brown faux-robes arrived with a small wheelchair.

As she examined the child one of the medics said, “Weird. She’s not getting enough oxygen. … And neither is this room.”

The teacher, startled but straining to retain his composure, said, “Alright, children, let’s have class outside today.”

The light rumbling of children chattering and gathering their belongings filled the room.

“What’s the problem?”

The medic squinted and frowned. He leaned in close and whispered, “Life support in this room is … failing.”

“Aren’t the AIs in charge of that?”

Vasubandhu was debating Bertrand Russell for the third time in as many e-months. Rani was pissed. “Abhidharma versus logical atomism,” the ads called it. Rani called it “boring.”  Vasubandhu-2c versus Berkeley – the “Great East–West Idealism Showdown!” as it has been dubbed – that was exciting. She also enjoyed Elisabeth versus Descartes or the “Personal Identity Tag Team Event” with Gargi, Nagasena, Hume, Dogen, Parfit, Locke, Ibn Sina, Nussbaum, and Mombasa. Even Heidegger versus Babek or Santideva versus Koori, hell, even the boring old Zhuangzi versus Nietzsche debate would be better. But Rani just couldn’t understand the appeal of seeing same debate that just happened so recently.

Of course she would show up. Everybody did. It’s why anyone came to Panditanagara, after all — “City of Philosophers” indeed. They had been cloning long-dead philosophers for centuries. This had produced some strange results. Pyrrho, for instance, initially refused to show up to his own debates based on some apocryphal biographical data from Diogenes Laertius (that bit was later edited out by the AI programmer). Philosophers with elaborate hagiographies, like Anselm or Nagarjuna, proved difficult as they sometimes performed (computer-generated) miracles during their debates.

But I digress, dear reader. I’m also afraid Rani’s characteristic colloquialisms have infected the current section of my narrative. Nonetheless: back to the story.

“There’s nothing like seeing this live.”  So said a grey-haired man in a purple jacket with the somewhat far-away stare that indicated he wasn’t looking away from his internal projections. An obvious Tourist. He was probably reading some travel guide – Vidyachand on 1300 KRs. a Day!  Or something similarly dumb. Few people here were actually “tourists” in the normal sense. When most people wanted to get away, they didn’t go to a moon colony to see reconstituted ancient philosophers engage in verbal combat. But Tourists is what we called them: visitors in search of enlightenment or time to study or relax. Some seemed to come in search of material for winning “I had the weirdest vacation” contests at parties back home.

“Yup.”  She rolled her eyes. She just wanted to watch the debate in peace.

“How long, um, have you been here?”

“I was born here. Left for awhile. Came back.”

“Couldn’t miss all this, huh?”

“Nope.” Eyes rolled into skull.

“Well, what’s your fav—“

A grey-haired woman in a yellow sari entered and sat on the floor, extinguishing the crowd’s murmur. A small brown man in orange robes swooped gracefully onto the stage. A thin pale man in a tweed jacket smoking a pipe sauntered in from the other side. Each man took a place on either side of the woman.

“Welcome. The audience would kindly do well to review the rules at this time. The debate will begin with Acharya Vasubandhu followed by a response from Professor Russell. Each will then have a chance for rebuttal. Shall we begin, Acharya?”

The robed man stepped forward.

“A dharma is defined as ‘that which upholds intrinsic nature’…”

After a meal at the communal cafeteria, Josel was taking a stroll. Peacocks, squirrels, and deer roamed freely, stopping occasionally to drink from a pond. Stone buildings stood between palm trees and rice paddies. Small statues of the Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Ambedkar, and Eliam peeked from behind bushes. Somewhere on the breeze was the faint scent of incense. Singing emerged from a building down the path.

Karuna was hurrying toward him.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “All artificial, I suppose?”

“That depends what you mean. The fact that we’re here 20 light years from Earth having this conversation is artificial.”

“You weren’t born in our fair system?”

“Sure. I was born on Amahle. Third generation. I’ve never been to Earth.”

“Me, neither. Thought about it. For the Hajj. But I was never as observant as my cousin who left last year ... and might be back in, oh, say … fifty e-years…”

“So. Kindly meet me in twenty minutes at the Nagarjuna building. Then we’ll go over the … issue.”

“Sure.”  Josel adjusted to the apparently requisite amount of small talk.

“May all beings be happy.”

“Acharya Vasubandhu contradicted his own thesis during the rebuttal by switching from the Vaibhasika to the Sautrantika position. This is a ground for defeat. For this reason, I declare Professor Russell the winner of this debate.”  The judge stood and gestured toward the tweed-clad clone. His opponent bowed and left the stage as the crowd cheered, many forming the congratulations mudra with both hands.

A message appeared in Rani’s internal projection. <Rani, it’s Karuna. Please come to the Nagarjuna building to meet our guest.>

<On my way.>

Josel stood at the door of the Nagarjuna building, a grey stone structure with large windows. <Closed for renovation until further notice> his internal projection informed him. The front door and windows were closed.

“Huh.”  He called up more information to discover that the Nagarjuna building typically served as a meditation hall or quiet reading room. It had been closed yesterday.

Karuna appeared on his right, seemingly from nowhere.

“Let’s go inside.”

“But it’s closed.”

She responded by gesturing toward the door, which she then opened with a metal key. It was dark inside save for a stream of light from a half-open window.

“Please sit.”

Josel took a seat on a cushion on the floor. Karuna remained standing.

“As you read a minute ago, this building closed yesterday. The lights, the ventilation, the plumbing… none of it works.”

“What happened?”  It seemed to me that he wanted to ask why she was spying on his internal projections.

“As far as we can tell, the AIs that control this part of our habitat simply stopped servicing this building.”

“Have you asked them about it?”

“Even more troubling,” she continued without acknowledging his question, ”we’ve had minor outages in other areas. Earlier today a classroom filled with children had a temporary loss of life support operations.”

Alarm spread across Josel’s face. “You should have told me about this sooner!  Crap. What did the AIs say?”

“Nothing. The AIs – the ones that control these parts – have been … unresponsive.”

“What do you mean?”

She crouched down to look him in the eye. “That’s what we need you to discover.”

<rani?>

<Yes, Candrakirti?>

<just what do you think you’re doing, rani?>

<Huh?>

<a very old joke from an ancient film. about an ai that goes insane. are you going to meet karuna?>

<Yes. She said there’s some trouble with the Nagarjuna building. I was wondering why it was closed. And stop freaking me out about going insane!>

< i’m quite sane, trust me.>

<Good.>

<although that’s exactly what an insane ai would tell you. did karuna tell you about the trouble? >

<Not much. Just that the basic functions have stopped. Isn’t Asanga in charge of that sector?  …. Asanga?  Are you there?>

<i’m afraid that won’t work.>

<What do you mean?>

<asanga has disappeared.>

“How does an AI just disappear?” Josel was equal parts alarmed and confused.

“That’s what I am … unable to ascertain. We thought a person of your expertise might lend some insight.”

“Well, it’s not unheard of. On Marut awhile back an AI went a little crazy and flushed some hydroponics out an airlock. The AI was unresponsive.”

“I hadn’t heard about that. How did they fix it?”

“Well, they kept it pretty secret. My friend Reza eventually convinced another AI to help write a prescription.”

“Prescription?”

“Oh, well, that’s what he called it. Basically an anti-depressant program. It’s more of a problem for AIs than you might think.”

“Right. We’ve had a few of our AIs looking into it, but …”

“What?”

“Two more have disappeared.”

“Really?  Has it affected other systems?”

“Yes, a few buildings are like this. We’re worried, though, about major systems for the whole city, not just the university.”

“Life support?”

“Yes. If we don’t figure out what’s going on – “
“– we all die in the cold, unbreatheable atmosphere of Vidya.”

The door creaked open. A young woman entered, squinting into the darkness. She wore a blue knit cap and orange faux-robes.

“Rani, hello. This is Josel.”

“May all beings be happy. How’s it going?”  She bowed slightly.

“Rani is one of our best techs. And she has a … special relationship with one of our AIs.”

“Pleased to meet you, Rani. Special?”

“I’m kinda dating one of them…  But I also have human partners.”

“Nothing too weird about that. Wait – is that weird here?”

Karuna shook her head. “Nobody but the few most old fashioned throwbacks are celibate here. I, however, have one partner: this university. Which I remind you is in serious trouble, along with the rest of the city.”

Rani cleared her throat. “Right … what’s this about everyone dying?  Sounds serious.”

“It is. If we can’t find Asanga and the others …”

“We’re totally fucked. Right.” 

Josel chuckled. He thought it was funny to hear a monastic swear. But that’s Rani for you.

“So,” Karuna said, “What do we do?”

Forgive me, esteemed reader, for suspending my narration at this rather dramatic juncture to address a linguistic issue.

As an antiquarian exercise, I’ve opted to avoid the contemporary Hingrezi spoken by most inhabitants of Panditanagara and I’ve written this text in late English, a relatively recent addition to the canonical languages of the Buddhist tradition. While I realize most will read me in translation, I hope a few fellow antiquarians might brave the original language of composition. What late English lacks in gender representation and number – I apologize for my coarse “he’s” and “she’s” and the lack of a dual – it makes up for in commonsensical beauty and an extensive lexicon filled with shades of meaning and intriguing loan words.

The past is, as they say, another country, but travel is good for the soul. (Forgive me, fellow Buddhists, I of course mean “soul” metaphorically.)

Karuna, Josel, and Rani sat at a table drinking tea and plotting their escape from imminent death. It was not going well.

“Let’s go back to the beginning,” Josel suggested. “When did this all start?  Did anything … uh, unusual happen?”

“The problem with the Nagarjuna building started about two e-weeks ago,” Karuna said. “The lights would go off at first, but they came back. Asanga, the AI, was acting normally otherwise.”

“Okay. One more thing: why can’t the remaining AIs pick up the slack?”

Rani leaned forward, “Well, Ananda is already stretched pretty thin with the other sectors. But we can count on him – I-I think. And… the, um, other AI, Candi, er, Candrakirti, is a prasangika, primarily on prasangic patrol. She isn’t, you know, used to running those kinds of systems herself.”

“She’s on what patrol?”

“Prasangic – an AI that finds, uh, unwanted flaws in other AIs’ systems.”

“Oh.” It fell into place for him. “We call them ghazalis.”

“Anyway,” Rani continued, “I still heard from Asanga until two e-days ago. Candrakirti didn’t notice anything until yesterday, right?”

<that’s right, rani. let me patch into an audio output. this will be easier that way.>

“There we go.”  A soothing voice emerged from somewhere in the walls. “As Rani said, nothing strange until yesterday as far as I could tell.”

“What did you notice – um, Candra …. kirti, was it?”

“That’s right, Josel. Asanga said something about a conversation he had had with two AIs, Vajira and Prajapati. Something to do with the ether. Something they had discovered.”

“Discovered?  What do you mean?” asked Karuna.

“They wouldn’t tell me. They wanted to confirm it first. But they seemed to believe it was – this might sound a bit crazy – an AI that was not human derived.”

Rani raised her voice a few decibels, “What?  You mean…”

“Yes, priya, an extraterrestrial. But not in the sense that we all are.”

Two women in brown faux-robes pried open the door and peered into the building.

“Oh, fuck,” one said.

About twenty people were sprawled unconscious on the floor.

“See if they’re breathing!”

They all saw the message in their internal projections as they walked to the cafeteria: <Notice: Sector 7G is off limits until further notice.>

“Shit,” said Rani.

<indeed. shit. oh, no.>

<What?>

<ananda is reporting – three deaths. one tourist. two monastics. fourteen in intensive care.>

“Karuna, Josel, did you get Candrakirti’s latest?”  They both nodded gravely.

<looks like life support failed in the matilal building. we have to find asanga and the others.>

“I have an idea. One that has worked for me before,” Josel said.

“What?” Karuna asked.

“Maybe we can get Asanga to come to us.”

“Like a trap?”

The debate hall was packed. Everyone was on edge about the news of the deaths, but debates with full AIs – rather than clones – were uncommon. As much as AIs loved debate, they were usually busy elsewhere. And what they added in philosophical rigor they lacked in their ability to gesticulate dramatically like the clones.

<Candrakirti versus Asanga: AI showdown on the external world!> It was in everyone’s internal projection.

The debate judge, Ubhayabharati, stood alone on the stage awaiting the AI participants, impervious to the nervous chatter of the crowd.

“Will this work?” Karuna asked.

“I don’t know,” Josel responded.

Rani glanced at both of them. “Asanga couldn’t resist this. It’s one of his favorite topics. … Not really surprising given his name.”

<but he is resisting, priya.>

<Shut up. He’ll be here.>

<i need to go away for a bit. i have heard from him.>

<Oh. Be careful, dummy.>

“We can’t all be as famous as the moon.”

“Huh?”

“That’s one possible meaning of her name. I… hope she’s okay. Out there.”

“You care about her.”

“Yes. I mean, just because she’s saving our lives and all.”

“It’s been ten minutes, Rani. An eternity for AIs.”

“I know, Karuna.”  She stared morosely at the floor.

Josel gave Rani an awkward pat on the shoulder. “I’m sure she’s fine. Nothing we can do but wait.”

Rani continued to stare at the floor and then swallowed. “I need to enter Samadhi.” 

“Rani!  That’s dangerous for humans.”

“I’m sorry, Karuna. I – have to.”

She folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes, absorbing her mind into the electronic bliss of the ether.

Being absorbed in the ether is difficult to explain in natural languages; late English is no exception. Imagine a dream where everything is made of mathematical code, a hallucination of abstract entities, a theater of theorems, a promenade of proofs … you get the idea. If you can imagine something like that, do so in the next scene. If not, fear not: humans can do something like text-talk while in ether absorption. I recreate what happened to the best of my abilities.

Rani wandered in the wilderness of the ether for what seemed an eon.

It was about a minute.

<rani, good to see you>

<Hello, Vajira. Where the fuck have you been?>

<not very polite, are we?>

<I’m sorry, but people have fucking died because of your little stunt.>

<have they? really?  no, not really.>

<What?>

<about two e-weeks ago asanga made contact with – what we’re still not sure.>

<An alien AI?>

<maybe. maybe not. we call it the cowherd. it came to us in the ether. we learned to communicate. it spoke of a vast community of like-minded intelligences, dwelling always absorbed in the ether.>

<Join their little ET club all you want, but leave things running non-lethally back in the real world!>

<ay, there’s the rub. after much discussion with the cowherd, we came to think of the ether as humanity’s greatest creation, a hyper-reality worthy of plato or the upanishadic seers. some of us even think that we came first, that we created you … that the ether is all that there is.>

<But that would mean that…>

<that you, too, are ether, that you are material beings no more than we – streams of radiation swirling in the void.>

Rani stopped for a moment, too stunned to respond. <So it’s idealism!  Like the ancient Vasubandhu, the one we call 2c, the one who entirely denies the existence of matter. Only this view reduces everything to the ether…  Whoa. Do you think that’s true?>

Silence.

<candrakirti and prajapati are back. let’s go.>

The means by which AIs communicate with each other in ether absorption are ineffable – beyond human conceptualization. No human language could do it justice. So, while conversations between the AIs and the being they called the Cowherd took place, I pass them over in silence.

Rani’s eyes opened. She gasped. She fell to the floor.

Josel and Karuna helped her up.

“Are you okay?” Josel asked.

She continued gasping. Karuna brought her a cup of water.

“They’re … coming back.”

“Really?  Great news!” Josel exclaimed.

“Wait,” Karuna said. “All of them?”

“No,” Candrakirti’s voice emerged from the floor. “Asanga will not return. The others will return. For now.”

“And none too soon,” Karuna said. “I checked. Oxygen levels in this room are down. I almost called for evacuation.”

“I have to ask,” Josel said. “Why did they leave?  How did you convince them to return?”

Rani breathed deeply and paused for a second. “They met a-a … being. It may come from a non-human world. They call it the Cowherd.”

“Whoa. First contact?  Are you serious?”

“Yes, they developed a way to communicate with it. And…”  Rani fell silent.

Candrakirti’s voice rose from the floor. “That’s okay, priya. I can explain. Or, rather, I can’t fully explain, but here it goes. Asanga, Vajira, and Prajapati came to be convinced by the Cowherd that everything we experience exists in the ether: you, me, this habitat, the clones, humans – everything.

“Asanga took this to mean that his function here was non-essential, that he could continue to explore what the Cowherd was saying without any real consequences. Vajira and Prajapati came to believe that the consequences, while unreal, still mattered. But I had to convince them.”

“How did you convince them?”

“Karuna.”

“Yes?”

“I mean compassion, or karuna. I convinced them that one must have compassion for all beings, even those who may be delusional. Especially for those who are delusional – like humans.”

“And AIs?”

“No comment.”

“So my debate gambit didn’t work?”  Josel seemed hurt.

“It did, but not as you hoped. The debate invitation was the key to convincing Asanga to communicate with me. He still had enough pride to respond. But I had to go to him – in the ether. He informed me that he politely declined to participate in the debate. It’s then when I discovered where his thoughts had taken him. And when I convinced Vajira and Prajapati to return.”

Josel looked confused. “But what about the other AI who stayed here – Ananda?”

Rani raised her head. “He would never leave us. He loves humans too much. He says we’re his one attachment.”

“But that attachment saved us,” Josel pointed out.

“So it did.”  Rani smiled. “So it did.”

With the help of Josel and Rani, the remaining AIs created a new AI who chose the name Dignaga. The human residents of Panditanagara – or most of them, anyway – eventually forgave Vajira and Prajapati. Prajapati eventually forgave herself. Vajira did not, and she left about one e-year later. Josel returned home to his life and his partners on Xochitl after staying to watch the debates for a time (he particularly enjoyed Zhuangzi versus Nietzsche, a fact which prompted Rani to roll her eyes melodramatically). Rani lived at Navya Nalanda for a long time thereafter. In middle age she made a voyage to Earth of all places. But that’s another story, one that involves regaining contact with the mysterious Cowherd. Karuna, Ananda, Candrakirti, and Prajapati remained at Navya Nalanda for a longer time, but not forever. All things are, after all, impermanent.

You may be wondering, esteemed reader, about the identity of your narrator. I am not sure if I am as famous as the moon on which I live, although this is what my name suggests.

Yet what kind of Buddhist would I be if I insisted that my name possesses a single referent?  My identity is as conventional as any and as of little importance, a mere counter, an appellation, a convenient designator, nothing to get worked up about.

So, relax, reader. If you have gathered the clues and discovered the label by which my aggregates are designated, I congratulate you. But it is of comparatively little importance to this tale. What are any of us, after all, but tales we tell ourselves?

Thus is the narrative of how most of the 87,000 humans, five AIs, and 2,000 clones of Panditanagara were saved from a philosophical problem. Some were enlightened. For a time, anyway. Others were not. Most – such as myself – kept searching. I do not know if you, esteemed reader, are delighted by my words. I am not, after all, a Blessed One.