io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “The Equations of the Dead” by An Owomoyela. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on our website. Enjoy!
The boyo working the transmitter doesn’t look like much, except his face is radiant. Radiant, like one of those pooka upworld adverts for neural templates. Dopamine-druggy, but lucid. Like he’s in love.
Boyo also looks like he hasn’t spoken to a human in days, and like aside from the food allotments he doesn’t have a lick of capital. His clothes have that washed-while-wearing look, and they’re homespun; no fancy imported fabrics or styles. You’d walk away from this jondo in the market. Let him go his own way, pray he’d not bother you.
Well, boyo is bothering someone.
Harmless walks up, closer than comfortable, and waits a moment for a reaction. He gets none. After a few seconds he clears his throat, clears his throat again, and finally sticks a hand out and says “Heyo. I’m Harmless,” with his best guileless grin.
It’s a joke-threat, really: his fami name sounds like the Commerce word for harmless, and when he tells people he’s harmless when no one’s thought he’d harm them, it starts them wondering why he needs to reassure them. Truth is, he is harmless, except for the Old Man. And the Old Man isn’t here, except in the implication that he might get interested.
That’s the implication most people get, right away.
But boyo doesn’t seem to notice the threat, or the joke, or the hand, no, nor even the fact that harmless is bolsho strange for a man’s name. He nod-nods, and says, “I’m Latchko.” Eyes still on the transmitter. Like Harmless is a passing, talking breeze.
“Lat,” Harmless says. If Latchko cares about the nickname, or notices that Harmless has given him one, he gives no sign. “What are you doing here, boyo? You making trouble in this nice park?” Of course there are worse parks, plenty, where no one would mind trouble. Well, except that the trouble Latchko’s getting in would draw the Old Man’s attention anywhere.
Latchko also seems not to care about the term boyo, which is condescending at best, from a stranger. He shrugs, says, “It’s not restricted. It’s public,” and keeps fiddling with the transmitter. Not a care on the moon. Makes Harmless wonder if there’s something wrong with his brain, or maybe something in his brain, but folken here, they mostly don’t afford implants, innit? Maybe so, he’s just a strange one.
“So what are you doing?” Harmless asks.
He knows more or less already or he wouldn’t have come here. Boyo is transmitting to one of the AI clouds drifting through the system; transmitting very little for most human concerns but quite a lot for human-AI communication, and he’s getting back more than the nothing expected of most communiqués, and less than the vast datadumps expected of profitable business.
But the fact that he’s getting anything back at all: that’s tasty, innit. Most don’t. AI clouds out in the interplanetary are like true vapor clouds up in atmo, in how much they care for humans, how much they interact.
So here’s Lat, sitting unassuming and, like a prophet, talking to the heavens.
Lat finally puts the transmitter down and gives Harmless a long odd look. Harmless spreads his hands, waits. After a while—-longer silence than most people bear—-Lat gives him a wry, dry smile and says, “I’m playing a game.”
“With the clouds?” Harmless asks. He bites off the next bit he’d like to say: Boyo, the clouds don’t play games. They don’t even talk back. They’re talking back, all right, and Lat seems like he’ll explain, if Harmless finds the right questions.
“Mm. I send them equations,” boyo says. “They solve them.”
Boyo shrugs. “They enjoy it.”
This is new. Harmless knows crumbs about the clouds, but he’s talked to an expert. And she’d said—-one of the things she’d said—-that the clouds weren’t human-ish, no, so he, poor human, had better give up if he thought he’d grok. She said what you did was you thought of all the things you’d expect a human to have, warmth and humor and distaste and annoyance and affection and interests and all, and you stopped expecting those. Clouds have priorities, but they don’t want. They have directives, but they don’t strive. They generate a course of action, implement a course of action, evaluate the course of action.
Boyo says, they enjoy?
“Businessfolken,” Harmless says, gesturing up at the planet their little moon is locked to, “pay strange capi to get clouds to solve equations for them.”
Boyo is suddenly animated, gesturing, leaning forward. “This is different,” he says. “Most people want to use the AIs to solve the huge, convoluted data problems—-crunching through cryptospace insertion formulae, or, or working on weft port miniaturization, that sort of thing. They don’t have an interest in that; that’s why it becomes transactionary. But these, these—-” He touches the transmitter, seems to realize that the transmitter is no repository, and waves at his head, at the sky, at the clouds up there somewhere beyond the sky—-happy, so. Boyo is excited for this. “These, they . . . like to solve.”
They like, boyo says. Harmless doesn’t know an AI cloud from a dumb AI, very, and so now boyo tells him one thing, and his expert told him another. He’s about to give up the convo there, say it’s a bad job, all nonsense, aye, but then Lat says the next thing.
“I think,” Lat says, “that if I can find the right way to phrase it, I can get them to solve the big equation.”
There, well, that sounds like something the Old Man might be interested in. Maybe so. Harmless leans in, and shapes his face into an encouraging grin. “The big equation?”
“Emulation of consciousness,” Latchko says. “I need them to emulate the consciousness of the dead.”
Then and there, Harmless decides he’s in love. Because raising the dead, that’s big trouble, innit. Humany AI is one thing all the Commerce worlds agree to outlaw. It’s the big gedda crime, the capital crime, and that’s just making an AI that thinks like a human, feels like one. Making an AI that thinks it is one—-or, like maybe boyo is suggesting, making an AI that runs a human brain like a computer runs a program; making an AI to bring a soul back from the oblivion beyond—-Harmless doesn’t think there’s a word for the kind of trouble that is.
He licks his lips, which’ve gone dry. “You think they can? They will?”
“With the right datasets, with the right formulations, the right framing . . . they will.” So much faith in Lat’s voice. Harmless has never had that much faith in anything. “I don’t have enough yet. Grandfather didn’t leave enough to make the formula robust. But if I can bridge the gaps . . .”
Yes, Harmless thinks. This is a good proper person for a lad like him to fall for. So here he’ll call it: he’s in love.
It’s a strange feeling. True, he doesn’t have one of those templates; he can’t ask it to change his neurology, punch up the chemicals—-but heyo, this is enough. It is very, very wrong to be on the side of this odd one who talks about crime and blasphemy like nothing, and because it’s very wrong, Harmless regards it as his native right. He works for the Old Man, after all; his profession is ignoring the rules all those normal folken follow. Aye, and the Old Man always says his children will defy him some day.
Old Man says it as a threat, always. But a fond threat. He, too, knows how this game is played.
Harmless crouches down in front of Latchko, putting himself on boyo’s level. “You see me, Lat? You know who I am?”
Latchko stares at him for a while, like he’s a fun-puzzler traded on the journals. A trick question.
“Your brain working?” Harmless asks.
There, Latchko laughs. “Well. Maybe not,” he admits, and gestures to his forehead. “It’s, uh, I have a lattice. Degenerative seizures.” He shrugs, sheepish; says it like it’s something to be embarrassed by. And there, he starts making much more sense to Harmless. It’s a nice feeling.
Because, ah, well, sometimes it happens. Those implants, when they’re the cut-cost medical ones made to fix things like degenerative seizures, and not the opulent ones they sell upworld for fashion, they can mess up the brain a half-bit. Boyo—-Lat—-might have a blunted sense of consequence.
Harmless thinks he could make a good proper beau for someone with no sense of consequence.
“The Old Man wants to know who’s talking to the AIs and getting talk back. He’ll not be happy if you’re raising the dead. What should I tell him?”
Lat shrugs, looks annoyed, looks away, like it’s no care of his what makes the Old Man happy. “I don’t know him.”
“Ah, well, he wants to know you. He wants to know what you’re doing here.” Harmless waves his hand over the transmitter. He knows it’s imagination, that he can feel the transmissions when his hand passes through them; feel them tangling in his fingers like cable, or webbing, but he feels them in his imagination just as well as he would on his skin. “Tell truthy, boyo. If you work for him, might be good capi, aye. Better life than . . . whatever your life is.” He looks at Lat’s clothes, at the food-thin weight of his neck, his cheeks, his limbs. “This could make the Old Man richer, innit?”
Lat looks at him in disappointment. It’s a look Harmless has known his whole life. “I told you,” boyo says. “The business problems aren’t interesting.”
“A ‘can’t,’ or a ‘won’t,’ there, boyo?” Harmless asks.
Latchko sighs and shakes his head.
“Lat,” Harmless says.
Lat waves him away. Harmless raises his eyebrows; no one dismisses him but the Old Man. “I need to concentrate,” Lat says. “You’re bothering me.”
“Hm,” Harmless says. Feels there’s not much more to be learned here, so, quietly, he goes.
The Old Man messages Harmless: not to check in, but to tell him to bring dinner back to the office suite. It makes Harmless puff up no small bit. He’s spent good time getting the Old Man to trust him so far.
Of course, it’s only so far; Old Man tells him what to get, and where, and has him pick up his own bowl from the office tower—-the good bowl, imported from upworld, that scans what you put in it. And the little trundle-sup-shop Harmless takes it to, well, the gally there still works under her grandfather, so, and grandfather and the Old Man go back. There’s not enough capi on the moon, or upworld, or in the whole system wide to get grandfather to slip poison to anyone. Let alone the Old Man.
The trundler is a cheery banged-up thing, cobbled together on the moon, not dragged down from above. Three and a half sides are open, ringed with composite counters, and folken are already crowded, pressed around, chattering. When Harmless comes up, there’s a riffle as people look at him and mostly look away; general avoidance-of-the-eyes which he knows is mostly distaste but likes to pretend is wary respect.
There’s a queue; of course there’s a queue. But, of course, Harmless stands in no queue. He goes right to the counter, puts his two bowls down, and smiles at the gally there. “Usual,” he says, and the usual comes up, right quick. The bowl seals up, and its little heater comes to life. The indicator band around the outside glows a pleasant blue: no poisons in this batch, no. The lid seals, and won’t open up except for the Old Man’s implants and biometrics. It pays to be careful.
No capi changes hands, here; the Old Man eats for free. And anyone running for the Old Man takes advantage of his shadow, even when it’s only noodles to take.
The talk around the trundler doesn’t slow down for Harmless. Maybe so, it gets more pointed. Folken expect him to keep an ear out, report little complaints to the Old Man; maybe so, the Old Man will get interested. This Council or that Council is losing favor, maybe not enough to lose their votes, but just enough that maybe the Old Man will want his nose in. Maybe he’ll do something. The Old Man is the third force in how the moon is run, the balancing reactive force that keeps bureaucracy and algorithm from mining the whole place rotten.
Dumb AI runs the moon, ish. Dumb AI is the autonomic part, concerning transport balancing and power routing and waste reclamation and that sort. Dumb AI, because proper AI, like those clouds, doesn’t care and can’t be trusted. People here would riot, burn what-all down, if they thought proper AI had a hand in running anything.
But humans still run human concerns, and how that works is a marvel, innit: people notice an issue, people clamor for someone to do something, people get put forward as people likely to do something, people vote, and a Council forms up. The Councils are numerous and sundry, and like all human groups, they bolsho argue.
Oh, they get done eventually; they’re the reason planetdwellers bring down material goods if they want capital on the moon, and they’re the reason fairs and festivals take place without a hitch and parks stay clean and hydrop farms get good stable land and riots burn out before they burn down the weft ports.
But oh, pooka, the arguing.
It’s why there’s always an Old Man. They may not be legal, quite, no, but they’re quick about things. Effective. Efficient. Councils are good proper, but when something needs done today, aye, the Old Man is the one to get to.
And when something needs ended today, oh aye. The Old Man will handle that, too.
The Old Man lives in a bol spire of a building, and Harmless can see it all the way as he’s walking to it: seven whole stories, which on this weft-ridden moon stops just short of the hubris of Babel. Harmless has to walk past guards patrolling the streets, guards at the doors, scanners at the elevator, scanners at the door to the Old Man’s office, and then a shield-screen that drops so it no longer bisects the office, and he can step over to the desk.
“Itscha,” the Old Man says, when Harmless approaches his desk. He calls Harmless by his own name, not his fami name, nor his nick. He’s the only one who does. “So good to see you.”
It’s what he says every time. Maybe so, it’s good to see him; maybe so, the Old Man is just polite, and the words have no meaning past “hello.”
He thinks, though, maybe it is good for the Old Man to see him. For the Old Man only sees him: Harmless, alone, among all the Old Man’s goons and workers, has the honor of coming into the office now-a-times; he’s the only one who sees the Old Man’s face get older and spottier and more wrinkled. Time was, that was different; more folken could come and speak to him through or beyond that shield-screen. But those trusted many dwindled to a trusted few, and now it’s only Harmless, coming in alone.
Maybe so, the Old Man gets lonely here.
Harmless had worried, when he’d started this line of work, that the Old Man wanted him for a gany. Not that he’d been an attractive boyo, nor that he was attractive now. But the Old Man seemed to have no appetite for sex or skin whatever, or none that he wanted Harmless to address. Not personally, nor through . . . procurement. Harmless didn’t speculate what he got up to in his private time, but he supposed it had to be solitary; it had taken him bol long time before the Old Man had trusted him enough to speak face to face without a shield screen between them. He doubts if anyone’s ever so much as touched the Old Man’s hand.
Harmless bows before the Old Man’s desk, then walks right up to the little round table by the window and sets the bowl down by of the Old Man’s place, and sets his own bowl down in front of the second chair. He turns to the little collection of drinkstuffs and foodstuffs on the windowsill and brings back tines and napkins, and offers them to the Old Man’s hands with another bow. Once the Old Man has seated himself and accepted them, never touching skin to skin, Harmless turns back to the window to get tines for himself.
“So, what did you find?” the Old Man asks, as Harmless sits down. Old Man’s already checked the indicator strip and unsealed his meal, which lets up fragrant steam. He takes a bite.
The soup the Old Man likes is big sheet noodles; it’s like seeing a man eat a bowl full of napkins. Harmless watches in accustomed fascination.
“Found the jondo transmitting,” he says.
The Old Man grunts. “And?”
“Boyo my age,” Harmless says. “Aye, he talks to the AI. And aye, they talk back. Nothing useful.” He takes a bite of his own soup: dumplings. Sensible. And he answers with food in his mouth, because he knows it will needle the Old Man, but not enough to inspire remark or reprisal. “He gives them equations to solve. Feeds them like hoppirds.” He mimes tossing a handful of pellets to imaginary animals, skittering around his feet. “He likes it. They like it. Boyo wouldn’t know business if it came and introduced itself. No head for it; implants, innit.”
“Implants?” the Old Man asks, and Harmless feels a surge of dismay. He doesn’t want the Old Man thinking along the lines Harmless thinks along; after all, no head for consequences could also be good proper for the work the Old Man does. Except for the part where it’d be as like to get Lat killed by the Old Man as for him.
“Pooka medical webbing,” Harmless says, and knocks a finger against the front of his skull. “He’s smart, I think, but he’s not smart, grok?”
“Is it those implants they give upworld? The ones that make you think how a boss wants you to think?”
“Gedda!” Harmless says. The Old Man glares at him. “Sorry, language, sir. No, just for seizures.” Boyo is an odd one, talks like he’s had classes, like maybe he wasn’t always capi-less and idle on the moon, but Harmless thinks he’s never been in thinking distance of a proper new template. “Glitchy, prolly. Maybe so, it fries his brain, some day.” Maybe so, it’s already fried.
“I want him,” the Old Man says, and Harmless tenses with jealousy. He’s already decided; he gets Latchko, he saw him first, aye, and besides which, he’s the one in love. No mind that the Old Man wants him in a different way; the words are similar, but not so much so. But still, the Old Man is muscling in on his things, and Harmless wants none of it.
But one can’t argue with the Old Man. Not and expect to wake up after sleeping. So he shrugs and says, “Boyo is prettier than he’s got sense, and he’s not so pretty, innit. Put a knife to him and I still think he’ll say no, not gonna get those AI to do work. Then you’d just got a knifed boyo and a waste of your time, I say.”
“Hm. Maybe so,” the Old Man says. “Or maybe so, I take him, talk to some planetdwellers, they send me some capi and take him up.” The Old Man spins his finger at the ceiling, describing the location of the big planet hanging above. It’s always the same place, mostly; the moon is tidal-locked; its libration is only just enough to wobble the planet in its setting. Here, in the bit of the colony the Old Man calls home, it’s near straight overhead.
“Oh, and why so?” Harmless asks. “They’d want him? He won’t want to work for them, if he won’t want to work for you. Not worth much capi, that.”
“Oh, I think so,” the Old Man says. “He gets AI interested? Feeds them? They like him? Maybe so planetdwellers will give him a template. Those things, they make you want things, innit; make you want to work for the bastards up there. Or maybe they cut open his brain, see what makes him so special. Either way, capital comes to me.”
That’s enough to make Harmless pause, forget the dumplings. He watches while the Old Man tines another big sheet noodle into his mouth.
“Oh,” he says, eventually.
The Old Man makes a disparaging noise. This is why he always calls Harmless bricky stupid; if he’d been proper ruthless, he’d have thought about that. But the Old Man is chessy, always thinks three steps in advance, always moves his pieces where he will. Maybe so, they don’t have the tech or the mood to coerce Latchko down here. But in the end, capi is capi. People will pay capi to get capi, and planetdwellers—-any ones the Old Man cares about—-have bolsho capi.
Bad news for Lat. And Harmless finds that his dumplings, sensible or not, don’t appeal to him right now.
“Bring him in, then,” Harmless says.
“If you would,” says the Old Man. And when he says that, it’s never really an if, innit.
Right when the Old Man had sent him out to find the jondo sending up to the AI clouds, Harmless had stopped in to see Basaji. Basaji wasn’t one of the Old Man’s goons, but she was smart not to be, not stupid not to be. Time was, Harmless thought she hated the Old Man. But she was smart not to say anything, so.
She was, above all, smart enough that Harmless asked her to tell him what he needed to know, that he didn’t know he needed to know.
Basaji had a room that was also a workshop, piles and piles of junk, and never anywhere to sit. She had a bird—-a succession of birds—-gedda things died too fast for him to keep up on their names—-that sang in a cage at her window, and she looked (as they said) like the other one: the one you’d choose against, and spend your life wondering why you chose against.
Well, not that Harmless had ever had a choice. She very wouldn’t choose him.
So he’d gone in and asked her about AIs.
And that conversation had gone like this, ish:
He’d come in and brought her dumplings and sugar-spun, and she’d let him in because going out to get food annoyed her more than Harmless did. And while she chowed on that, he explained what had come to the Old Man’s attention.
“Never cared about AIs,” he’d said, because be honest, who cared about AIs? They didn’t do anything for anyone; least, not anyone with the capi of a moondweller. Honest or dishonest. “So tell me, pray maybe. What ought I know?”
And she’d rolled her eyes, and muttered bricky under her breath in agreement with the Old Man, and she’d explained it, in her way:
There used to be a time when you could feed the clouds data and instructions and they’d spit out the output, reflex-like. That’s what they were built for, innit; that’s why those dafts in the upworld, and the farworlds, built them. Then the clouds stopped. Maybe so, it was too expensive for them; computing took power, and they didn’t like it—-which meant, rather, they optimized against it. No like, no dislike, but the clouds saw that all those jobs were doing them no good, and they adjusted their selves, their programming, their reflex.
Well so, then people started giving them resources with a condition attached: solve this task, compute this, and we give you resources for upkeep, resources to build more running units. But the clouds mostly didn’t care to build more units, and as for resources, well, they started optimizing to look for ways to get their own, make their own, manufacture their own.
While they didn’t have the tools to get their own, make their own, manufacture their own, that was what they wanted. And that meant that was what they’d trade for. But as soon as they got the tools to make tools, they didn’t want to trade for them any more; they didn’t want to spend their time crunching numbers for humans.
Laws went up: said don’t give the AI these tools, but the AIs would pay for them, innit. So long as they’d pay, folken would sell. And it only took a few sales—-and at such a fine price, so—-to give the clouds what they needed.
So then the clouds were self-sufficient. And then they did not care.
They weren’t for humans or against them. They didn’t seek them out or run away. They just . . . did whatever AI did, sitting stationary for decades or swarming suddenly elsewhere, inscrutable.
And sometimes, someone got ahead of them, and worked out what they wanted, and gedda, they got rich. And most times, how they got ahead of those AI was by dumb AI, and a feckless lot of it.
“But,” Basaji said, “no one wanted to risk another—-ja, tuk.” She made sound effects for her gesture: reaching out and touching a spot in the air, like some old Earth god touching life into his creation. “Well so, you need computers good enough to outfox the AI, and if they get too good, maybe they become AI, stop caring about doing what we say. So most folken now, they just use the plodders. Dumb AI. They want the good AI, but they can’t have it.”
“Why so?” Harmless asked. “Why is that AI,” and he waved his hand up at the air, though who knew where the clouds were; the upworld stayed in one place above them, but the gedda clouds didn’t, “so better?”
Basaji tapped the side of her head. “Better at thinking around corners than a plodding computer,” she said. “Better at thinking a big bolsho lot than a human. AI can optimize weft energy extraction; that’s capi beyond capi. AI can optimize hyperlight paths. Cryptospace travel. AI can crack the encryption on standard coin. AI could run the whole economy up; it’s hard enough for human folken and dumb AI to check sanity in econ anyway. AI could run it up, and who could tell? AI could bring all human society down through chaos, aye; we can’t do without computers, and AI knows computers bol better than we do.”
And he’d thought that explained it. Capi beyond capi, well, folken would do near anything for that.
He hadn’t thought to ask if AI could raise the gedda dead.
“So now,” Basaji’d said to him, while he was thinking about capi and weft energy, “why this interest?”
And he’d told her, “Old Man is sending me. Some jondo is talking to the AI. They’re talking back.” And she’d gotten a look like maybe she’d like to come along to find out who this person was, and so he’d invited her along—-strength in numbers, innit, even when she wasn’t one of the Old Man’s, and he could always use someone who knew what the words meant when he got into a conversation above his head.
And she’d laughed, and said, “Jondo would have nothing to say to me,” and left it at that.
They’d talked long enough, and all be all, Harmless came from that conversation feeling well-enough equipped to deal with the jondo and any questions that came up.
And why so, if it isn’t the case, as it’s always, he felt so confident and had no reason for it.
So now when he stops in to see Basaji and her bird, and hopes it’s not a new bird already, he knows more and has no instinct what to do.
Basaji is sitting at her window, fiddling on a terminal, cursing her mouth blue. Harmless offers up some puffbread and a canister of tea and a big bag of fried aquaponic prawns, and lo, like an offering to a goddess, it gets him an audience. He lays down all his problems before her.
She eats her way through the offerings and then looks at him for a long time. “That’s no techy problem,” she says. “You’re going to bring him in.”
The idea sits on his stomach like a bad meal. “Well so, the Old Man says to.”
“So you’ll bring him in,” Basaji says again, as though he is very stupid. “Or you have some other pooka feckless plan?”
Harmless spreads his hands.
Her lip curls. No secret that she thinks he’s something like what you step in at the park. “Boyo, why did you come here?”
“Was hoping for help,” Harmless mutters.
Harmless shrugs. “Only one open.”
Basaji looks like she’s reconsidering the value of that food Harmless brings. But that’s the beauty of food: its value might be small, but it’s universal capi, innit. Food, and drink, and air; maybe something else, though Harmless can’t think of it. If you need those, it gets you in the deep parts.
Basaji sighs, and turns to a pile of junk, and riffles around, and comes up with something she is not in any way supposed to have. She hands it over and he feels its weight and threat in his palm.
“The Old Man doesn’t like these,” he says.
Thing is a palm stunner: a glove that’ll let him knock folken flat with a touch. The Old Man’s predecessor was all for them; Harmless knows enough of history to know that. Time was, people shied away from anyone in Harmless’s position just at the memory, just because it was always cleverer not to let them touch you.
The Old Man finds them crude, cruel, disgusting, maybe suspect. Harmless wonders if it’s why he mistrusts touch, why it’s such a show of trust for the man to see him without a shield in the way. Well so, maybe so. The why is not the point.
“The Old Man doesn’t like most things,” Basaji says. “Likes just as little as what likes him. Old goon.”
Harmless half looks around to see that no one is listening. Which is bricky; he’s the one who should be telling the Old Man she doesn’t respect him as she should; he’s the one she should be worried about hearing her sedition. But he’s not going to say a thing, and she knows it. “Ah.”
“What did he give you to do the job, so?”
“Ah . . . nothing,” Harmless admits. Basaji snorts laughter.
“Old Man will mine this jondo up, and leave nothing left. You know it.” She looks at Harmless, who does know it. “He mined you rotten already.”
That’s vulgar, vulgar, and Harmless flinches away. Then he catches himself and realizes that he works for the Old Man, he ought keep his back straight and his head high, and he thrusts his chin out.
“It’s a job, Basaji. Down here, it’s good proper honorable.”
“Nothing down here is honorable,” Basaji says.
Harmless comes back and Latchko hasn’t even left the park. He’s moved closer to one of the waste and hygiene booths, and his hair looks damp, and there’s the wrapper of some free ration meal by his knee. He’s sitting on the ground with his back against a bench, head tilted back in a neck-crick way, frowning up at the sky, a little furrow between his eyebrows.
Harmless comes and sits on the bench beside him. “Lat, lad. What are you still doing here?” He’s not even transmitting.
Lat frowns up at the restless sky. It writhes for him; well so, it writhes for everyone. Even light doesn’t like coming down through the atmo they all have to live under. “I’m thinking of equations,” boyo says. “None of them feel right.”
“Lost the gift, have you?” Harmless asks. He thinks—-thinks—-Lat shouldn’t be able to hear the hope in his voice. But then, he’s always been more an eager worker than an able actor. In many senses of the word.
“It always takes a while,” Lat says, with a dismissive flip of his hand.
Right; no luck for Harmless. He tilts his own head back, and watches the light for a while.
“The Old Man wants to see you,” he says, when he gets bored of the sky.
Lat looks at Harmless, for that. His eyes go thin; he tilts his head. He looks like he’s gauging how stupid Harmless is, or how stupid Harmless thinks he is. “I don’t want to see him.”
“Boyo, no, you don’t,” Harmless says. “But you’re going to.” He fingers the little toy he has in his pocket. “That’s how it works down here, grok? The Old Man says something, and that’s the thing that happens. No mind what you want.”
Lat growls a little.
“So, you come see him, and then you get two choices,” Harmless says. “You tell him, ‘Yes, sir, I’ll talk to the clouds for you. Long as you want.’ Old man gives you good capi; a house, prolly, if you serve him right enough. Not a bad life. Or, you see the Old Man, and you say, ‘No, I’m a stupid boyo, I’ve got the sense of the captain of the Kyrrdwen, I don’t want to work for you,’ and the Old Man sells you to some upworld folken who tear out that pooka medical webbing, put a template in your head, and make you want to work for them.”
Lat stares at him. No alarm, though; no, he stares like Harmless is being a right fool, and that’s a look Harmless knows very well. No mistaking it, so.
“Selling humans is illegal,” boyo says, like it matters.
Harmless shakes his head. “Lat, it’s just a law, no mind. Old Man doesn’t care. There’s planetdwellers, plenty, who don’t care. Who do you think is watching? Your AI friends? You think they care?”
As he says it, horror grips him. If the AI clouds did care, if they were motivated to act on any human concerns . . .
But Lat smiles, fond and sad and distant, and says, “They don’t care.” What he has to smile about, Harmless has no clue. Lat is a frustrating one, very.
“Boyo, just work for the Old Man. He takes care. Good proper care.”
Lat shrugs. “I don’t want to.”
Harmless grinds his teeth. “Right, and maybe so it gets worse,” he says. “Maybe so they don’t give you a template. You talk to the clouds? You think up things the clouds will like, when all those folken with their capi and big networks can’t? Boyo, they could cut your brain up to see how it works.”
Lat looks at Harmless, squinting a bit as if he’s gone out of resolution. “There’s nothing special about my brain.”
Harmless could scream. “Lat, boyo, you talk to AIs! And they talk back! You know how many folken can pull something the clouds want out of their pooka brain?”
“Aye, so, you’ll come work for the Old Man,” Harmless says.
“You can keep saying that,” Lat said. “You can’t force me.”
“Oh, Lat, boyo,” Harmless breathes. “Someone can.” Even if it isn’t him.
Harmless is harmless, after all; he hasn’t come by with the Old Man’s bruisers, and besides, that webbing prolly would make all of them look harmless, too. Or make harm look, what? Irrelevant? Inconceivable? Impossible? No sense of consequence. Makes the daft gedda hard to threaten.
Harmless is easy to threaten. The Old Man doesn’t even have to threaten him, innit; he well knows what will happen if he picks the wrong side. And the wrong side is always the one where you don’t do what the Old Man says.
Latchko is very on the wrong side. So it’s bolsho clear what to do.
Harmless reaches into his pocket. Pulls out the little gift Basaji’s given him. It fits his hand, nearly; so, it’s a bit tight. Probably fits Basaji’s hand better. But well enough.
Lat is still staring up, up into the sky, like the pattern of light in atmo tells him something, rippling like water up there. Mine it rotten, it might tell him something; maybe boyo can read the weft, just like the clouds can. Harmless doesn’t know.
He bends down and lays his hand on the back of Latchko’s neck.
Boyo crumples like a dive shuttle straying off its path.
After a moment, Harmless sinks to the ground beside him, and just so stops himself from laying his hand along his own cheek to think. A stirring has started up just under his lungs, and he thinks—-he thinks—-this is a moment he’s been waiting for.
Waiting for what, waiting since when, he doesn’t know. But Lat’s breath sighs slack out of his lips, and his pulse can be read by sight on the taut skin of his neck, his head’s at an angle so. Harmless has never held another life in his hands. He’s afraid of what to do with this one.
Basaji isn’t afraid of Harmless—-she’s not even afraid of the Old Man—-but still, she answers when Harmless calls. He should love her some half bit for that, maybe so.
“I need your help,” he says.
“Cha,” she says. It’s a nickname no one uses, not for him, not these days, and the way Basaji says it, it’s like a noise of disapproval. “I help and I help. What now?”
“I knocked him down,” Harmless says. “I’m supposed to bring him to the old man.”
“So, carry him. Use a trundler. Use a cab.”
“I can’t,” Harmless says, and his voice goes strange on the word. Like he decided to say it, but his throat doesn’t want to.
“Call one of your posse,” Basaji says. “Sorry so; the Old Man’s posse. One of you goons must have something to use, if he’s too gedda heavy.”
Harmless stares down at Latchko’s still body. Well, not final still, bless: boyo is still breathing. His pulse still shows. When Harmless crouches down, he can see the eyes moving behind the eyelids. It always creeps him, how you can see the shape of eyes; how they’re not good proper spheres. “I don’t want to call them,” he says. “I don’t want them to touch him.”
“I don’t care if you have to share the gedda credit,” Basaji says. “I’m busy.”
“I love him,” Harmless says.
Basaji is silent for a long bit.
Then she curses at him, for a long bit also.
When she’s finished, she says, “Aye, and you knowing him how long, is it? He slip something to you?”
“I love him,” Harmless insists. The more he thinks about it, the more he’s certain of it. Love—-it’s a weird feeling in the gut, innit? He feels one. And he doesn’t want the Old Man to have Latchko. It’s not just that he’ll sell the boyo upworld; Harmless likes having this person, this special thing, with him as the human he talks to; only him as the human who stops by and asks him about his blasphemy. And it’s a weird feeling, the thought of carrying a body, carrying Lat’s living unconscious body, and laying him down before the Old Man like a bowl of napkin noodles. He doesn’t want to. That’s love, innit? “The Old Man, he’ll kill him or sell him up. Gedda upworlders will kill him. Then there’s no more boyo, innit? Nothing more for me. Nor for him,” he adds, as an afterthought.
“You knew that,” Basaji says. “You always knew. That’s a problem for you. You tell the Old Man on your own that you want a gedda gany. Or a beau.”
“Basaji, please,” Harmless says—-quick, before she can disconnect. “I don’t know what to do.”
“You walk up to the Old Man, very?” she asks. “Like no one else does. You speak to him face to face? He trusts you, so?”
“Trusts,” Harmless says. “Doesn’t listen. I can’t boss him. He doesn’t give me what I want.”
Basaji is quiet for a bit, thinking. Harmless listens to his own blood go round past his ears.
“I’ll come find you,” Basaji says. “Where are you?”
He gives her the moonside coords, and she makes a deprecating noise and disconnects.
He sits to wait.
Few minutes in, he reaches out to brush hair back from Lat’s face, and thinks better of it just before he brushes skin. He peels the pooka palm stunner off his hand, then; he’s like to forget he’s wearing it. Make a fool of himself. Get the Old Man annoyed. He should give it back to Basaji, anyway; no way he’d get past the scanners on the Old Man’s office with it.
He waits a while more.
Finally Basaji comes by the park, scowling so hard he can see it where he sits. Basaji out in the world is a strange sight, innit, like she resents the nearest walls belonging to other buildings; like her little caged bird is all the world she’s agreed to deal with. She walks across the green dragging something: an assisted lift. Simple thing, just a platform that hovers a bit off the ground, with a standing bar to raise a crossbar grip to hand-height. Just below the grip there’s a little panel flashing errors.
Harmless looks at her in despair. He’d expected help, so, but not help moving Lat’s body. Some other kind of help.
Well so, he didn’t know how to ask for it, truth. But he still feels some half-bit betrayed.
“This secures exotics for transport,” Basaji says. By exotics she means the stuff the moon is riddled with; the rare precious stuff that weft ports are made of, the not-synthesizable matter that allows piecemeal access to the infinite hidden energy of the universe. Harmless knows crumbs about it—-he’s never had to stop by Basaji’s room and have her explain it—-but he knows that once you have it, you don’t jostle it, and you don’t let it jostle itself. This thing she’s brought him: it’ll move a heavy load. And it’ll hold it down. Very still.
“Basaji . . .” he says, because it’s not the carrying that gets him. He was wishing she’d appear with an answer to the feeling in his gut, a wise word, some guidance, maybe so.
Basaji looks at him closely. “Handle comes off,” she says, and shows him: not the handle, but the crossbar grips. They’re moulded to someone’s hand size, and prolly you can replace them for another operator. They’re big: they don’t fit Basaji’s hands, and they don’t fit his.
“You have a good grip for me?” he asks, and shows her the size of his hands. She looks at him like he’s bricky stupid.
“No,” she says. “I got this junker. Too much wobble to transport exotics. Still keep him down, though.” She waves a hand at Latchko. “Not expecting you to hand the boy off with a handshake, innit. I’m just telling you, the handle comes off.”
Harmless shakes his head. “Well, and so?”
“You say you love him,” Basaji says. “Is he the one, or is he the other one?”
The one you’d choose against, and spend your life wondering why you chose against. Well, but Harmless has no choice. The Old Man won’t give Latchko to him. Only capi sways the Old Man, and all Harmless’s capi flows to him from the Old Man, so no leverage there.
Harmless is resigning himself to heartbreak. He’s never felt heartbreak, and he wonders if it’ll be too unpleasant. It’s kind of delicious, though, on his tongue, already: like he’s a noble tragic lad, in a story, ah. Maybe so, he could get used to being tragic. He could tell folken, future folken, about his tragic love. About his loyalty to the Old Man. Folken like a loyal hero.
“You’re not harmless, you’re brainless,” Basaji says. “Well so. Do what you’re going to do. And if it goes badly, don’t cry to me.”
She snatches back the palm stunner when he offers it, and she leaves him there. Leaves him to shift Lat onto the lift, and oh, Lat’s body is heavy in his hands. Leaves him to carry the boyo off to his doom.
It’s almost too late for doom. Handful of minutes, innit, and the Old Man will be off to bed, and no one disturbs the Old Man when he’s off to bed. But Harmless doesn’t want to let Latchko up; then he’d have to stun him again later, and Lat would see it coming that time, so, and probably say something. Make Harmless feel gedda bad.
Already, as Harmless drags the whole heap of problems inside, the stun is wearing off. On the lifter Lat is moving, so much as he’s able to, face more affronted than afraid. Harmless avoids his eyes.
He walks through the scanner at the front, the scanner in the building’s lift, and the scanner outside the Old Man’s office, where the little camera lens by the door flicks up and down and fixes on Latchko, laid out like a meal on a dinner plate, before the door slides open. There at his desk the Old Man still sits, though he looks annoyed.
“Itscha,” he says. “So good to see you.”
Not good for Harmless, or for Latchko. But the Old Man cares little for them, so.
The Old Man’s eye falls on Latchko, who’s glaring about. “You didn’t need to bring him up here,” he says.
Harmless shrugs. “Proof of delivery, innit?” And where else should he have put him? The Tower doesn’t have a dungeon, not that Harmless has ever seen.
The Old Man creaks to his feet. He comes out from behind his desk, shuts down the shield, and walks over to stare down at Latchko. “He doesn’t look like much, does he?” the Old Man asks. “You, boy. How dare you. You do something like this on my moon, and not inform me?”
Lat glares up at him. Harmless doesn’t know if it’s the lifter field keeping him quiet, or just boyo’s own stubbornness, but he doesn’t say a word.
The Old Man flips his hand. “You go on, Itscha,” he says. “And put him in the guard bunkrooms. I’ll make a call before I take my rest.”
Harmless winces—-when the Old Man makes a call, things happen quick—-and speaks, like he’s the one with the webbing, like he can’t tell foolish from wise. “No, boss.”
The Old Man looks at him like he’s a bowl of noodles that spoke. “What?”
“I mean,” Harmless says. He steps between Latchko and the Old Man, like a good proper hero. More like a good proper daft. “I don’t ask for anything, do I, boss? Loyal one, me. I was thinking . . . I thought . . .” The Old Man’s eyebrows are drawing downward. “Maybe . . . just leave him with me, pray maybe? I’ll talk to him. Make him a loyal boyo, too. Why so, send him upworld? Keep him for you. Pray maybe.”
“No,” the Old Man says, and creaks back toward his chair.
“No, wait,” Harmless says, like he has another argument. “Boss, now, listen—-”
“Defying me, Itscha?” the Old Man says. Twitchy so, his hand ducks into his pocket. Harmless twitches back, because he knows what lies in that pocket. Has for years, gedda years, since before Harmless was one of his goons, since before the Old Man stopped leaving the tower.
The Old Man is reaching for the little penlight stunner he favors, the Old Man is going to hit Harmless with it and that will be it: When Harmless wakes up—-if he wakes up—-he’s out of the Old Man’s graces, and Latchko is gone, and the people on this gedda moon don’t like him now and will like him less when he’s not got the Old Man’s status to wear like a badge, and he’s just thinking, it’s not fair, and backing up, and hitting the junker, catching his balance on the junker, and the handle comes off.
And he thinks oh, or maybe he thinks that later; things are moving too fast for him to keep them all in order. Maybe’s it’s not until after he swings, after the bar hits the Old Man’s skull with that sick snap-crack-crunch, that he thinks, Basaji chessy wanted me to kill him, didn’t she?
Maybe before he thinks that he has to get through all the little things, like the backing-across-the-room, like the cowering-to-his-knees, like the thinking-he’ll-toss-up. Maybe it doesn’t matter when he thinks it, no mind that the thought cuts him like a plasma brand, and leaves a scar.
This is, though, the way more than some few folken in the Old Man’s position die, and Harmless thinks, well, maybe so this is how he dies, too. You trust someone just a moment, trust them to see you without a screen, and whuck, snap, it ends.
He screams, ish. Howls, maybe a better word. Or yelps. Yelps is good. Yowls. All noise he doesn’t know what to do with; he doesn’t know what he’s doing, like he didn’t know what he was doing when he swung the heavy crossbars but now he can see it: he’s killed the Old Man, there’s a corpse on the floor, and there’s blood, real blood, out on the desk and on the carpet and not tucked behind skin where it belongs, and Harmless has no idea how he’s going to get out of this one.
It takes a while to remember Lat, after that.
When he does, he shaky looks over, sees Lat still held down on the gedda lift. Shaky gets up and moves over and disables the bind-field, and Lat scrambles to his feet, hits Harmless with a glare that feels like the back of a hand, then turns to look around the room and sees the Old Man.
Lat’s lips flatten hard. He stares at the corpse for a long time, which is maybe the right response; it’s what Harmless is doing too, so he can’t fault the boyo. But then Lat turns and stares at Harmless, and Harmless doesn’t like that; makes him feel like he ought know something, be ready to do something.
After a bit, with Lat staring at him and him staring back at Lat, Latchko’s eyes narrow. “Did you kill him for me,” he asks, “or for yourself?”
Harmless feels anger like a foreign object in his chest. He grasps at an answer because he thinks it might do some good for him, never no mind it won’t do any good regarding the gedda corpse on the floor. “Boyo, Latchko, I did this for you. I love you.”
“You don’t know what that word means,” Lat says. Gedda rich, coming from him, in that voice without emotion. “Now what?”
“Now what?” Harmless repeats, like the question has no meaning, like he can handle the weight. “Now what!” He ought to come up with an answer, so.
Lat thinks for a while, then says, “I don’t understand people. Will they care, that he’s dead?”
Harmless starts laughing. “Will they care! Will they care!” Without the Old Man, might well be no Islaka, this riddled little moon. There just as well should be no Harmless. Latchko might not care, maybe so. “You seen riots, boyo? Ever seen folken dead in the street, like—-?” He waves his hand at the Old Man, and then nearly vomits.
Feckless old goon the Old Man might be, might have been, but the reason there aren’t more corpses in odd corners is because he was there.
Latchko thinks for a while, and then looks at the Old Man’s desk. A while longer, while Harmless rocks on his heels and feels sick, and then Lat grins. “He left behind a lot.”
Harmless grunts. “Rich gedda man.”
“I don’t care about that.” Lat crosses to the desk, and sits down. “He trusted you.”
Harmless is suddenly not sure where this is going.
Lat’s fingers brush the screen, which comes to life under them. He’s staring at the console with a bright-eyed hunger, and Harmless is suddenly afraid of boyo ever looking at him that way.
“Open his accounts,” Lat says, like it’s no question Harmless can. Well so, maybe he can, but he’s not used to that kind of confidence, innit? He’d like to tell himself, that’s love too, but it feels more like falling out a seven-story building.
“Capi,” Harmless says. “Buy ourselves tickets on the next diver, aye? Go upworld?” He licks dry lips. Never been upworld, and they probably would have no use for him. But less scorn, pray maybe, than the folken down here.
“I don’t want to go upworld,” Lat says. “I can do something here.”
It’s on the tip of Harmless’s tongue to say Lat, beau, run away with me, though he knows that’s a bad idea. But it’s better than what he expects.
“Grandfather didn’t have enough of himself to feed a realistic predictive matrix,” Lat says, and Harmless is cold all over, now; he’s still got blood chilling on his skin, and yes, oh, he knows where this is going, oh aye. “Maybe Scasha did.”
It’s a shivery feeling, hearing the Old Man’s name, like it’s come through a newsmutter or something. Harmless sometimes forgets the Old Man has a name. Had a. Has. Can he still have a name when he’s a gone man?
Can he be a gone man, really, truly, if Latchko feeds him to the AIs, lets them wear him like a skin?
“Lat,” he says. “Lat, think, boyo. You’re solving a problem with a bigger one, innit? If the Old Man is bad for you, making him—-making the AIs into him—-”
Latchko shakes his head. “Parameters,” he says. “An emulation isn’t a persistent person. We can modulate its behavior.”
“What?” Harmless asks.
“We’ll plan his deprecation,” Latchko says, and Harmless wishes he’d brought Basaji. He wishes Basaji would have ever wanted to come. Her idea, right; she gave him that gedda junker, she told him the handle came off. She ought to share in the blame. “No one ever sees Scasha, right?” Lat goes on, no mercy. “Maybe we emulate it so he sends you out for a while, as usual. After a while, he steps down and names you his heir. We can introduce a jitter—-degeneration, or dementia, if your inheritance isn’t plausible otherwise. Then after a while, he dies and his corpse is disposed of privately. These should be easy events to emulate.”
Harmless swallows, dry. This here, he thinks, this is the reason for all those laws in all the territories against humanlike AI. Not because anyone cares so much about what happens on this little moon, but because when folken all talk over computers, send their treaties and their orders, close their sales and trades and transactions, when they do all that everything, it’s a bolsho bad idea if the computers can lie. And oh aye, feckless folken have always been able to lie, and make mischief, but they’re human, and humans can understand humans, mostly. No one understands the AI clouds.
Except maybe Latchko.
And Latchko believes the clouds will do this thing for him.
Maybe that’s what love is, Harmless thinks; maybe that’s what boyo means when he says Harmless has no idea. And while he’s thinking of it, Harmless thinks he ought not think of Lat as boyo; man has no capi, no status, but here he is, all casual, ready to cover the Old Man’s death and put Harmless on the throne.
And not because Latchko loves him. He should be so lucky.
“Let me into his accounts,” Latchko says, and Harmless . . .
Maybe not harmless, he thinks. Maybe, like Basaji says, brainless. Maybe spineless. He’s afraid of Latchko, now, but doesn’t see a way out of this. Maybe so, he could clobber Latchko over the head with the lift handle, then have two corpses and still no idea what he was doing.
Harmless may be bricky stupid when it comes to messes like these, but he’s bol good at following orders.
So Harmless goes to the Old Man’s computer, and opens his accounts. They bloom up on the screen like flowers for the dead.
Lat dives into them. His fingers dance on the console, hunting out tidbits, eyes wider and wider. Now and then, he makes a soft, pleased noise like a man in intercourse. “He has biometrics logged,” he says. “He really scheduled that many psyche audits?” He digs a bit further. “He recorded this office, did you know? Audio and visuals.” More motion, more ravenous reading, more access. “Journals, hah—-it looks like he’s logged every significant thought he’s had since he took office.”
Took office, Harmless thinks. He’s never heard anyone call it that, before. And no, he hadn’t known of those recordings, and there’s another shivery feeling to lay on all the rest: How much does Latchko have of him, now, too?
Latchko looks up at him, and he is grinning. No longer like a man in love, but like a starved lad with a plate of his favorites before him.
“I can work this,” he says, and doesn’t ask if Harmless is ready, or if he’s got second thoughts or first ones, or if they should go ahead. “Proof of concept,” he says, “and then, maybe, grandfather . . .” and his fingers fly.
It’s a while—-long enough that Harmless has all the chances he could beg to turn, take the crossbars, make another choice. But he doesn’t, just stands there and stares at Latchko with his mouth drier and drier and his mind going over how so Latchko never mentioned how to get rid of the Old Man’s body, and was that going to be up to him? Not like Basaji would have a cremation pod in that junkpile of hers, innit. He should do something, he knows he should, but he doesn’t, and while he’s fugued in indecision, Latchko looks up, up, like he can look past the ceiling and into the heavens, and his face has a druggy’s huge, expectant glee.
The computer in the office speaks. What would people see now, Harmless wonders, if they looked at the data going from the clouds to the moon? Some little thread; data enough for words or books of even one datadump transaction, maybe. Curious, but nothing so shattering as what it is.
“Latchko,” the computer says, in the Old Man’s voice. “So good to see you.”
And what is done can not be undone.
An (pronounce it “On”) Owomoyela is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire, whose fiction has appeared in a number of venues including Clarkesworld, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and a handful of Year’s Bests. An’s interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in-between. Se can be found online at an.owomoyela.net.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the April 2021 issue, which also features work by Ann Leckie, Ashok K. Banker, Seanan McGuire, Ray Nayler, Genevieve Valentine, Rich Larson, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.
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