By Shelly Bryant
Something was wrong with The Merlion, she was almost sure of it. The messages she had received from it over the past few weeks had gone from puzzling to troubling. This newest was downright alarming.
I wish I could die. If I killed myself, would anyone even care? Would you?
Something had to be wrong. The Merlion was not itself a living being. How could it wish to die? More importantly, it had been programmed specifically to be emotionally detached. This extreme depression – even if it were a simulated depression – bothered The Merlion's mission director, Koh Jingli.
She flipped through The Merlion's programming handbook, but there was no need, really. She had practically memorised it. And anyway, the briefing she had been given on that first day was still firmly imprinted on her mind. The combination of simplicity and elegance of the probe's programming had so astounded her when she first heard it that she was positive she would never forget that day, nor the information that had been given to her.
As complex as the algorithms that ran The Merlion were, what was really impressive about the probe was the way its mission had been so successfully deconstructed, allowing the program to address the various fundamental needs of the probe, then reconstructed into a composite set of skills that endowed the machine with an extraordinarily nuanced understanding of what it was, in fact, looking for. Come to think of it, Jingli suspected that the machine might have a more comprehensive understanding of what constituted 'life' than most humans did.
She thought through the various functions the probe's algorithms were designed to address, considering each constituent part of its 'mind' for a clue to the suicidal note that had appeared on her screen this morning. Problem solving, decision making, recognising communication, recognising life, translating... she could not see any aspect of the probe's mission or programming that would cause it to desire suicide.
Actually, it was the notion of desire that really stumped her. She ran her finger over the relevant portion of the handbook.
So intelligence was, to the probe, a matter of fact. And it was not 'emotionally invested in the question of life.' She tried to imagine how liberating that must be. It had certainly helped her team move away from the tendency toward apophenia that had tarnished the SETI community in the early days of its work.
So what was wrong with The Merlion now? Why had it sent her this message? And when had it sent the message?
She opened the chat window again, closing all of the threads except LKY – everything was ultimately channeled back through that one anyway. She read this morning's message first: I wish I could die. If I killed myself, would anyone even care? Would you?
Her eye scanned over her own reply, though her thoughts moved in a different direction. Of course I care. Do you know how eagerly I wait for all of your messages? Please don't do anything rash. I would miss you terribly.
She thumbed her way up the thread of messages, searching for the first that had seemed so emotional in tone. There. Two weeks ago. It read, I hate this time of year.
Naturally, words like 'hate' were a part of The Merlion's vocabulary, and it often used emotionally evocative words like this to express ideas common to the human experience. After all, it was virtually impossible to communicate with humans without emotion-laden language. But to hate this time of year? Somehow this seemed off. What inspired 'hate' in a machine built with 'a contained emotive centre'?
She looked at the date and time stamp on the message, then singled it out from the rest of the thread.
"Maybe I should trace its route and see if I can locate The Merlion's position at the time of sending," she muttered.
There was always a lag with these things, due to the mode of communication The Merlion had to rely on to send word back to her, being so distant from the Earth and its entire solar system. The Merlion had followed the trajectory of Voyager 2, traveling nearly at the speed of light until it reached that early pioneer. Upon passing the centuries-old probe, The Merlion had slowed down and began its mission in earnest. For the past several years, it had been traversing a solar system that had never been touched by a human-made object before. Everything was new territory for The Merlion, and also for its team of operators. Even tracking its exact location was tricky, since the maps of such distant stars were all based on conjecture, to a degree. No one knew for sure what was out there. In fact, of all creatures ever formed on the Earth, The Merlion was the only one with any firsthand empirical knowledge of what lay in the distant parts of space.
Communicating that information back to Earth was no easy task, but it was also not an impossible one. As The Merlion travelled through space, it continually ejected tiny satellite transmitters, each less than a cubic inch and weighing less than half a gram, leaving a Breadcrumb Trail between it and the Earth, along which it sent updates every minute. Each satellite re-sent the message to one behind it, creating a variety of paths as the micro-satellites drifted apart in deep space. In the early days, each message had been re-sent millions of times, finally landing in Jingli's computer back on Earth, where it was collated by her central program, LKY. As the probe's distance from the Earth increased, sorting through the dates the messages had been sent and matching them up with The Merlion's location at the time of sending had grown increasingly difficult, taking longer to calculate due to the number of times each message had been re-sent. But this first message – it had been two weeks since she had received it. Perhaps that was just long enough...
She waited as the wheel turned on her screen, hoping she could trace the probe's location at the time it had sent the isolated message.
There it was. She scanned the numbers on her screen, then tapped the word 'map.' An image of the stars filled her screen, a fine, yellow line tracing the path The Merlion had taken. Toward the end, it turned pink, marking the point that the data on which the line was based was just an estimation of The Merlion's location, calculated according to its last known coordinates and trajectory. She scanned the line for the blue dot indicating the location of The Merlion when it had sent the selected message.
There. The blue dot was in the yellow section. That was good. It meant The Merlion's location at the time of sending was confirmed, not conjecture. It was just beyond the blue dot that the line turned pink.
"What's this?" Jingli asked, enlarging the area around the blue dot. "Huh. That's odd."
The line indicated that the probe had taken a sharp turn to the left just before it had sent the message. Why had The Merlion altered its course so dramatically? Had it discovered something of interest?
And if it had, what could this machine have found that could shake its supposedly contained emotive centre so radically?
Continuing on what appears to be a large elliptical orbit, she has reached an apex and is now turning back to her star.
The Merlion sent the message. It was not programmed to experience misgivings, but something akin to self-doubt arose in it. The choice of pronoun might not have been the most appropriate. But it was too late now, partly because the message had been sent, and partly because Sila was irrevocably 'she' in The Merlion's perceptions.
"Sila?" The Merlion transmitted.
"I have a message for you. It just came back along my Breadcrumb Trail."
"What does it say? Is it bad news? Tell me. I can take it."
"I can translate it for you. I don't think you will feel it is bad news. It says: Of course I care. Do you know how eagerly I wait for all of your messages? Please don't do anything rash. I would miss you terribly."
"She said that?"
"Yes. I've told you before that I can't lie. I can only report what is sent to me, and report it accurately."
"But you do have some level of autonomy."
"You chose to come follow me in my orbit. I mean, really chose. No one told you to do that."
"You interested me."
"You are free to follow your interests like that?"
"I'm not. I have no autonomy."
"I can't quite agree with that."
"Look at me. I'm bound to this orbit. I can't alter that path freely like you do."
"No. But I seem to be unique in the universe, at least in this sense."
"How would you know? You haven't seen the whole universe."
"And there must be some truly free beings out there somewhere. Asteroids or comets – or just interstellar dust motes – that are not bound by the pull of a star."
"I thought that might be the case. But when I passed through the Oort Cloud, even it seemed quite remarkably under the control of the star at the center of the solar system of my own origin, despite the vast distance that sits between the two."
"Was it as far as I am from my star now?"
"About the same."
"I see. But still, that does not mean there are no free bodies out there."
"Logically speaking, you are right. It is impossible to prove the nonexistence of a thing."
Both probe and planet remained silent for a while.
"I've received another message."
"Is it bad news? Go ahead. I'm prepared for the worst."
"No, it's not bad news. I am not quite sure what to make of it. I need to analyse this."
"Would you mind helping me? Perhaps you can make something of it."
"Me? I doubt I'll be of any help. I'm not very clever. Just a simple planet, orbiting a rather insignificant star."
"But you are sentient. You are alive. You are intelligent."
"Because it is my job to do so. I am built to recognise such things. You have no idea how special you are. Life is rare in this universe."
"You haven't yet seen the whole universe. You don't know that."
"You seem to forget that quite frequently."
"Perhaps it is a flaw in my programming."
"It would seem so."
"Still, you are unique in my experience of the universe. I've never seen anyone like you."
"Will you help me? Please."
"I will try. What is your problem?"
"The last message I received from Koh Jingli. It's confusing."
"What does it say?"
"I will translate. Your message dated 19 October 2148, Earth time, just received after delayed delivery over long BT path. Your situation is clearer now. Continue to follow the orbit of the planet you have named Sila until you have established the extent of its intelligence and the nature of life there."
"What do you see?"
"She didn't even know I existed."
"Yes. That's what I don't understand. She answered your questions, responded to your thoughts. The two of you communicated many times a day via my Breadcrumb Trail."
The planet laughed. The Merlion thought her tone sounded bitter.
"I suppose that's funny,' the probe transmitted.
"Yes. Well... in a way."
"Why did she respond, if she didn't know you existed?"
"She must have thought the messages came from you."
"True. It's impossible for you to say things like that."
"I'm not programmed for it. Why would she think I said it?"
"She's not like you. She's not programmed. Her conclusions will not always be logical."
"Why didn't she just ask if I was malfunctioning? She knows I am equipped with an extensive diagnostics program. She could have told me to run it."
"She didn't ask because she'd already assumed the malfunction."
"How do you know that?"
"Do you remember what she said in her previous message?"
'Yes. Of course I care. Do you know how eagerly I wait for all of your messages? Please don't do anything rash. I would miss you terribly. She seems worried about you.'
"I thought so too, at first."
"You don't now?"
"No. She wasn't worried about me. She was worried about you. It's you she would miss terribly."
Both probe and planet remained silent for a moment.
"Does that bother you?"
"Not as much as it would have earlier in my orbit."
"That's what I was thinking. Why is that?"
The planet directed the probe's attention along her forward trajectory. A great distance away, Sila's star shone against the blackness of space.
"It is ahead of me now. I'm no longer moving away from its heat. I'll thaw soon. Better days are coming."
"Then I have chosen an apt name for you, Sila."
"What does it mean?"
"In one of the remote parts of my home planet, 'sila' means consciousness, and it also means weather."
This time, the planet's laugh had softened.
I asked if she was beautiful, but The Merlion was not equipped to answer such questions. It's a clever machine, but not easily moved. Beauty is a word it knows, but not a concept.
I asked it to describe her, and it did. I was slow to understand, but finally it struck me. She was like a parasite, a disease that might infect my skin. How could such a creature be sentient? I was incredulous at first. But The Merlion was not programmed for untruths. If it said she was a germ crawling on the skin of my equal in her solar system, then either it was true, or The Merlion was deceived.
I didn't think The Merlion easily deceived. Not about this. It was well equipped with knowledge about a wide range of life forms. I learned that its home planet hosted as great a variety of living organisms as I do on my own body. Why a middling level parasite would be the thing to gain a level of intelligence, I could not understand. That was almost enough to make me believe The Merlion was deluded.
But then, there were her messages. She was no poet, but she had a generous core – what The Merlion and Koh Jingli both seemed to call her 'heart.' The first message that gripped me was, ironically, not meant for me. Of course I care. Do you know how eagerly I wait for all of your messages? Please don't do anything rash. I would miss you terribly. The fact that she intended those words for The Merlion when she wrote them, instead of for me, stung a little right at first, but after a while, I realised that it was quite endearing all the same. She was well aware that the probe was not equipped with any capacity for feeling, and yet she worried about its emotional stability. What sort of creature would do that? Did the universe really possess a being capable of such irrational compassion?
I mulled this over as I continued my path toward my star, The Merlion faithfully at my side. Koh Jingli required it to stay with me, transmitting our thoughts to one another along its Breadcrumb Trail at regular intervals.
Her newest message has just come in. Good morning, Merl, and good morning, Sila. I am happy today. The rainy season has ended. The New Year is coming soon. Everywhere you look, it's sunshine all day, red lanterns all night, and all you hear are pleasant words from those you meet.
Her new year approaches, and my star is near enough that I feel its warmth on my skin.
"Happy New Year, Koh Jingli," I say, and the whirring sound coming from The Merlion makes me know that the words have been transmitted.
"Sila?" Merl asks.
"I've sent your message."
"Yes, I know. I recognised the sound of your transmission."
"You know my voice so well."
"Yes, I suppose I do."
"I hope you won't be upset..."
"It's unlikely I'll be upset," I say, the light of my star shining fiercely upon me.
"Yes, I've noticed. That's good. It's just that..."
"What is it, Merl? You can tell me."
"Well, Jingli's new year is long past. She won't receive your message in time. In fact, the new year was past even before I received her message telling us it was coming."
I laugh. "What time of year is it now, for her?"
"The fifth month, according to the same lunar calendar that marked her new year."
"Are there any holidays coming up soon?"
"Yes. There's a festival."
"Maybe my message will suit that just as well. What does this festival commemorate?"
"Was his life a happy one?"
"I'm not sure, but..."
"He didn't exactly come to a happy end."
"He committed suicide in an act of protest against a corrupt government. They send boats out every year, with drums keeping a beat for the rowers to follow, commemorating the rowers in the poet's own day who attempted to save him, or at least save his body from desecration by the fish in the river."
I laugh again. I look to my star, and then look beyond it to the black void where the furthest reach of my orbit lies in that direction. It is still many months away. So far away that my laughter doubles when I think of it now.
'What's so funny?'
'It's just... well, I am glad you told me about Jingli's poet today, Merl.'
'Should I tell her you like the story of the poet's suicide?'
"Yes, please do that. Tell her I like it very much."QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014