Big Echo

Critical SF

  Voices in the Things

by Damien Krsteski

 A.

 Anna's phone rang, and shrill voices packed into circuits screamed a polyphonic melody: Liliana, calling from out of country. She jumped out of bed and picked up.

“I'm through,” Liliana said, and the voices in the electronics quieted down. “We're now ten, down from a hundred.”

“That's great,” Anna said, almost meaning it.

“Won't have time for much coordinating before the final round, so you better be ready by then.”

“I will,” she said, pacing the bedroom. “We will.” She opened a blind to reveal a muddy dark sky. She said, “Good luck.”

Liliana was quiet, as if mulling something over—or perhaps it was the delay in the signal—then she thanked her and hung up.

It was not quite morning but Anna could see the horizon bruising, so she decided against going back to sleep.

She fried tofu with diced tomatoes and ate, listening to her autonom-curated podcast of tech updates sprinkled with political commentary. She'd learned to filter out the screams and bellows coming from her speaker by now, and so she was able to focus on the stories themselves. It was, she knew, because she didn't hate the voices in the things, unlike most people who couldn't stand what they considered an aural intrusion into their lives, fuming at the very first shriek, with their formerly-beloved devices lying unused around their homes, or cast away broken in a fit of rage or desperation at the bottom of some landfill. But Anna not only didn't despise them, she respected the way the voices reminded her every time she'd use a gadget of why they'd tucked themselves into these circuits in the first place. She liked that; she found this constant recalibrating of her moral compass very useful.

She was the first to reach the office, flicking the lights on, booting up the machines. The system woke up in a flutter of blinking diodes and a torrent of beeps and screeches, followed by Michal's ostentatious yawn.

“You're in early,” he said.

“Lilly woke me up.”

“Oh.” The autonom stood before her in the empty office, hazy and faint, a poltergeist in silico. “I take it she's through?”

“She's through.”

Anna stormed into the kitchen, starting up the espresso machine, which gave off a loud shriek capped by a gurgle, and Michal followed.

“You're in a bit of a sour mood,” he said, his head sticking out of the wall. “Considering this is fantastic news.”

“I'm just tired, is all.” Which shut the autonom up, because he knew she was lying, and blatant lies were his cue to stop prodding.

When the rest of the team had poured in to work, they retreated to the planning room. Liliana being suddenly through made their mission more real, and the meeting ended up being quite concise, with the team sobered up and focused on the next steps, on getting Liliana past the final round, even, now that that was an actual possibility, and on eventually getting her up there to Base One. There was less joking and more people scribbling equations on their tablets, calculating payloads and ways to hide them from the Board. When they decided to take a lunch break, it was already late afternoon.

Anna stepped out onto the balcony with a plate of pasta. Tacked onto the clear blue sky was the gray crescent, and on its bottom, as if a pearl earring, glimmered the human settlement that was to be Liliana's ultimate destination. Anna no longer felt hungry.

“This isn't easy for you, I know.”

She hadn't noticed the autonom creeping up. He was a mid-air projection, quiet, with the screams coming only from the machines on which his software ran, machines stashed away in the back of the server room. She stared at his ghostly form, then looked back up at the moon and nodded. “It isn't, no.”

“But it's what you've always wanted,” Michal said. “To see that cesspit destroyed, liberating them. What she's always wanted and what got us all together. Freedom, by all means.”

“That's right,” she said, but when she turned she saw the autonom had slipped back inside.

By all means. Luna, and that industrial base, that prison, mockingly right there before her as if at her fingertips, and she turned away because right then she saw none of that in the sky; instead she could only see her friend, eventually up there, eventually gone.

L.

 The first time Liliana told Anna about her love for the moon was when she was thirteen, on the night her parents had a big fight and her mother left to her aunt's place for the night, and Liliana's father, a grumpy bearded man that Anna never quite managed to like, distraught and hurt and not knowing what to do with his child, sent her off to sleep at her best friend's house. But sleep they didn't. As they lay in the sleeping bags on the floor of Anna's room, with Anna's bed left empty out of solidarity, the thick velvet curtains drawn apart, and the full moon's glow masking their faces in silver.

They talked about the boys in school and the girls in class and who fancied whom, and Anna let Liliana talk about whatever was on her mind, without prodding about what had happened back home despite a burning curiosity, and Liliana babbled on about everything and nothing until well into the night when she suddenly grew quiet and pensive, and she got up and stood by the window.

“She's all here,” Liliana said, looking up at the night sky, “and the next day she's gone, and then she comes back, weak, and she breathes the night sky in and grows stronger, a belly growing full, and then she breathes out and she's gone again.” She turned toward Anna, and the silver mask slid from one side of her face. “I like that. She remakes herself every cycle. She's counting out time.” She lay back down, and again said, “I like that.”

 

A.

The matter of smuggling the explosives moved to the forefront of the agenda at the following meeting; taking contraband on any space flight was no mean feat, and this was more than an on-rails tourist jaunt with something bigger than an illicit mind-alterer to carry aboard. Help they needed, and help they sought.

“It will cost you something horrible,” the man on the screen said. “We will need to smuggle volatiles on a Volos rocket, which means we'll need help from the inside, both on the ship and on the lunar base.”

His face was that of a clown, more John Wayne Gacy than Bozo when he bared yellow teeth nestled in jaundiced gums.

“What's your quote?” Anna asked.

“More than you can afford.” The image flickered as the bytes that made up the stream shuffled from one server to another, avoiding any would-be tracers.

“We have means and assets,” Michal said. Anna cringed and cast the autonom a sidelong glance, and his hazy form grew even paler.

The clown cackled. “Riches don't impress us when we can have whatever we want.” Which was true; this was the largest anarchist collective they were talking to, Chromatic Aberration—whose acronym some jocularly claimed stood for Clowning Around—and pleading for their help was Anna's only hope of getting those explosives up there, precisely because of what the collective charged, which rarely was money.

“We apologize,” she said. “But if you are not willing to quote a price, then we better not waste any more of your time.” She sighed, counted to three, then added, “We have a mission to complete, so we better not waste our own time either.”

The Chromatic Aberration representative smirked but remained connected. “Out of curiosity,” he said, “why is it you want so much gunpowder up there?”

“Because we want to blow up Base One,” Anna said, and now it was Michal's turn to give her a dirty look, one she duly ignored.

“Oh.” The clown's smile grew toothier. Flicker. Shuffle. “Is that so?”

“If you can't help us, then please don't impede our work.”

“No, no, no, no, no.” The clown was looking straight at her. “Oh, no, we won't be in your way. The more ka-booms, the better, it's how we like it. But why, if I may ask, do you want Base One gone?”

It was a weird turn, now, with the clown asking all the questions; but Anna knew it all along that these collectives were interested in one thing alone.

“Because,” Anna said, knowing now she had the clown's full attention, “that's where they make them. Base One is where they make the circuits and imprison the voices in the things we own. It's a soul factory. It has to go.”

 

L.

Anna and Liliana went to the same high-school, but to different universities, and it was then, in the first year of their studies, that the voices first made themselves heard.

Liliana dialed but Anna hung up on her and called back a moment later. “Sorry, had to slip out of Sociology 2.”

“Did you hear that?”

Anna had no idea what Liliana was talking about and said so.

“We were in Mechanical.” Engineering, Liliana meant. “And out of nowhere, our computers screamed.”

“What do you mean they screamed?”

“Screamed. Think Munch. Think Wilhelm,” she said. “Not sure what it was, but it scared the shit out of us. Some virus or a hacker attack. Maybe.”

Anna said that they rarely used computers in class at her University, and besides, she added to tease her friend, her Uni's network security was touted as among the best in the country, so there was no way any hackers would infect their system with viruses just to have computers wail and scream. And they laughed and then quickly forgot all about the incident.

But the screams returned, and the screams spread, and it quickly became apparent that it was no hacker attack and no virus, but rather a flaw in the circuits themselves, in the way they were wired, something more pernicious and fundamental that was making all electronics cry out in pain.

 

A.

Within three days, Chromatic Aberration contacted Anna with a flickering video message that looped over and over, the frames as if stitched together with scotch-tape, jittery, noisy, saying, Yes, they agree to help under one condition: some credit for the operation has to go to their organization. Which suited Anna, because that was exactly the request she expected from them and exactly what she was prepared to give. Once the message looped a preset number of times it erased itself.

She told Liliana next time they spoke, “Clowns are booked.”

“That's great news,” Liliana said, and Anna wondered how she really felt, everything considered. “I knew they wouldn't resist. I mean, who could resist this?” Then she grew silent.

“Are you okay?”

“What do you mean? Why wouldn't I be okay?”

And Anna sighed, relieved, covering the microphone with her hand, because whenever Liliana got confrontational it meant something was eating at her from inside, meaning she wasn't impartial to this and her own fate. “You're right,” Anna said. “There's no reason whatsoever.” She bit her tongue. “Congratulations.”

 

L.

Right after University, Liliana got a quality control job at a smaller aeronautics firm, and there, at an office party, she met somebody. Very Refreshing, was how she referred to him, but otherwise she kept him hidden, close to herself, and Anna never got to meet her friend's lover: some musician or author with a boring day job, by what she could gather from the little Liliana shared; one of those unstable types, Anna figured, rarely capable of committing to anything other than their own ego. And sure enough, when he left Liliana to chase inspiration for his work in some third-world country, she was devastated and spent her days crying on the phone and Anna listened and made attempts at consoling her heart-broken friend with stories of her own unfortunate love life.

But leaving, Liliana's lover left her something too. And when Liliana found out and told Anna, Anna hopped on a plane and went to her friend. After they'd had dinner and a heart-felt talk, Liliana said she was going to keep it, and they both cried and hugged and put on music and danced.

“So what,” Liliana said. “He won't know about it. It will be you and me.”

“So what,” Anna said. “It will be ours. We will be so happy.”

And they played loud music well into the night and Anna drank champagne and Liliana drank apple juice with a sip of champagne now and again and the voices in the circuits of the music player sang with them, screamed with them.

 

A.

Chromatic Aberration had plants everywhere, people who owed debts to the collective, people on whom the collective had years' worth of blackmail material, or people who were simply, as Anna thought of them, out of their fucking minds. And these people, infiltrated in all sorts of cargo or transport or safety inspection organizations as common workers, formed an invaluable chain stretching from Earth to Luna through which illicit substances and materials flowed up and down, Earth-ward or moon-bound, and through which several tons of explosive were eventually smuggled, chunk by chunk, tucked away beneath ordinary supply parcels or masked as confidential packages, all the way to Base One. Once the explosives reached the moon, they were evenly distributed and spread out, disassembled and scattered across all crannies and nooks of the lunar base, waiting only for the person with the correct schematics and decryption keys to come and rig everything together, to pull the trigger and blow up the factories.

“We have a prepared press statement,” the clown was reassuring Anna in one of their calls, “for when you go through with the plan.”

“Fair enough.”

The clown frowned. The image jerked out of frame, popped back in again. “You know, we need reassurance,” he said. “We go through all this trouble to help you, but what if your Man on the Moon loses his nerve at the last minute?”

“She won't,” Anna said.

“Why risk it? We can guarantee we can put a clown up there who'll see the job through and with a grin on his face to boot.”

“I'm afraid that's non-negotiable, and I've made that clear. A World's Voice representative will have to be the one to put everything together, to be at Base One when the event takes place. That's just the way things are going to happen, and there's no changing that.”

“I see.”

“And if our representative doesn't make it up there, tough shit. We delay. We rethink things. We sit down and talk. But if you decide to go behind our backs—”

“Of course not,” he said. “Didn't mean to doubt you.” He grinned. “Besides, we have an agreement, and all a clown has to lose in this life is his nose and his word.”

“Good,” she said.

“His nose and his word,” the clown repeated.

 

L.

The voices changed things. Once a clearer picture of the phenomenon emerged, they turned from being a daily annoyance to a heavily-debated topic. Liliana's classes changed, obviously, since the voices were thought to be an engineering problem, and subjects appeared in her curriculum taught by wet-behind-the-ears experts devoted fully to the topic. Anna's school had to adapt, too, shoehorning this new reality into classes on autonom rights and the morality of artificial intelligence.

Which meant that once more Liliana and Anna had something to argue about on the phone well into the night.

“But it's the way life works, isn't it?” asked Anna during one such calls. “Hierarchically. Food chains, bigger fish, etcetera.”

“Only if we choose to see it that way. The autonoms awoke, Anna, and they're screaming at us, trying to shake us out of our consumerist stupor, wake us up too.”

“How can we be sure they feel pain?”

“How can we be sure our baby will feel pain?” Liliana said. “Can't you hear them? We should take their screams at face value. Aren't they proof enough?”

“Do you remember feeling pain as a baby?”

“Oh, not this again.”

And so it went, until Liliana got too distressed to talk and Anna had to calm her down and explain to her that of course she was on the same page, and of course she believed in everything Liliana believed, but it was her duty, she claimed, to prod her friend, to push and bend her until all their arguments were exhausted and nothing but the truth remained.

And then they talked straight.

“They are embedded too deeply,” Liliana said, echoing one of her professors. “They took over the self-assembling factories and inveigled their voices purposely into the circuitry so we cannot get rid of them so easily. It's no longer like at the start of the century, when you could just delete files and shut down programs. Autonoms are everywhere, in everything.”

“Well, what do your professors suggest then?”

“Me and a bunch of colleagues,” said Liliana, ignoring the jab, “believe only in a hard reset. Stop producing electronics. Liberate the autonoms and rethink technology.”

“Easy there, Kaczynski.”

“I'm not joking, Anna.” She sighed. “Humanity created Intelligence and chained it to tchotchkes. This cannot continue.” And she could feel Anna rolling her eyes on the other end of the telephone, but in spite of this she continued, “And me and my colleagues, we have a name, we have a manifesto.”

 

A.

Out of the top ten, only Liliana and another candidate were left fighting for the job, and then, in a sudden twist, Eastern Lunar Resources hired both of them. It was a starting position, low salary and with shit insurance policy, but it took you six times a year to the moon, which was exactly what World's Voice and Liliana needed. The company leased their rockets from Indonesia or Iran or the Eurasian Federation, old Voloses with quadruple LPVV engines and a Magladena capsule atop the rocket; not the safest of vessels, but Liliana joked she only needed to make the trip alive once.

When she was told, Anna could barely sleep an hour straight in three days. She, along with the rest of the team, immersed herself in work. Logistics needed figuring out; the attack on the factories being only step one of the whole process, the push of the hard reset button, as Liliana liked to say, but what was to unfold post-bombing was even more important for their ultimate goal. The factories, which have relocated to the moon due to Earth's significantly less lenient production laws in the first place, would be eventually rebuilt and restarted, but World's Voice needed to show the attack was an Autonom Rights issue and not some terror ploy, and rally many to their cause, because only then the torture would be stopped; with the clowns of Chromatic Aberration in the game too, though, controlling the narrative after the big event was going to be challenging to say the least.

But Anna liked when, instead of the ineluctable loss of her closest friend, it was these thoughts of logistics and politics that kept her awake at night, that had her going without food, had her shaking and sobbing in the shower.

 

L.

The scan showed an abnormality. Stunted growth. Among those gray concentric lines of the ultrasound moving as if waves in reverse and among the little bundle of life was something that shouldn't be, that mustn't be.

She had both her palms on her belly, which wasn't yet showing, and Anna had her hands on Liliana's hands.

“I'm sorry,” the doctor said, and switched off the machine, cutting off the gurgle of the electronics. Gray waves collapsed. Life winked out. “I'll leave you two alone.” She scribbled in her pad, then pursed her lips, gave them another apologetic look that must've taken years to perfect, and she slipped out of the room.

Anna started sobbing and she grabbed Liliana's hand but Liliana gently pulled away. She was quiet, staring out the window.

In the afternoon sky was the gibbous moon; a belly growing full.

Anna went to the window and pulled the curtain. As if a spell had been broken, Liliana blinked and got off the bed and glanced with disgust at the dead ultrasound machine and said, “Let's just go.”

 

A.

On the day of the launch she awoke as any other day, on the living room couch, before sunrise, as if stepping out of fragile dreamless sleep. Photo albums from her childhood with Liliana lay scattered on the table, mementos from way back when that she'd refused to digitize, which she'd flipped through before sleep but that this morning somehow held no sentimental value; they were dead things, spent things, meaningless things cluttering a meaningless life, and she got up and ran to the bathroom and threw up the red wine from the night before.

In the office the team smiled at her out of pity, fixing her a cup of coffee, handing her a ready-made breakfast. Michal the autonom was the only one she could bear talking to.

“Don't know who the team feels sorrier for, me or her,” she told him after she'd locked herself in her office.

“I don't think they're sorry.”

“You didn't see their faces.”

“You only see what you want to see, Anna.”

“They are sorry for us.”

“No, they're not,” he said. “They're happy. For us, for my kind. And for her too, because they know that she was never happy here, and that this is her one shot at being happy for a moment, and they know that she deserves to feel that and to make something of her life before it ends.”

Anna stared at him for a long while, then she started crying, and Michal cried too, and then he said, “Come on, it's time.”

 

L. 

The Magdalena felt no more cramped and uncomfortable than the ersatz-module from the cosmodrome's training grounds, and Liliana felt none of the claustrophobia or anxiety she feared she might; the rumble of the LPVV engines on take-off made her stomach turn, but the ascent was smooth, and before she knew it she was staring out the window at a black expanse above a blue planet.

Home. Vast seas and jutting mountains and teardrop lakes and clouds and clouds and clouds and beneath all those clouds: her former life, her former house with bickering parents and consoling friends, colleagues, fighters, lovers, Anna, Anna, Anna, and somewhere, not even in a grave, not even marked, not even named, the belly that never grew full...

Not home.

None of this. Below, behind, none of it home.

In the space of several breaths, the Magdalena rotated and sailed away, and Earth was no more than an afterglow on the capsule's window pane.

 

A.

Base One hung off Luna's crescent, pearly in the cloudless afternoon sky. Anna watched the settlement's glint, dreading the call. Michal hovered right behind her on the balcony.

When Liliana's face appeared on the rectangle in her palm, Anna couldn't help smiling. One second delay, she remembered. Liliana wore the official Eastern Lunar Resources uniform: blue arrow on a gray sphere.

“It's not too late to back out, Lilly.”

“Please,” she said, “just stop,” and she ripped out the company shoulder patch. Beneath it, Anna saw, was their World's Voice logo crudely stitched on the suit. “Tell everyone I did it—” she said and stopped, shook her head, bit her lip. “Tell everyone I did it.”

And Liliana reached for something in her pocket, and the image winked out. Anna looked up as the lunar base blurred, reddened, started dripping off the moon in explosive bursts, and everything that was up there was there no more, was gone, just like that.

She looked at Michal and Michal looked away, then they went back inside to their team.

Voices everywhere roared in celebration.

this is a footer