Excerpt 3: The Corroding Empire

As requested, another excerpt from THE CORRODING EMPIRE by Johan Kalsi, now available for preorder for publication Monday, March 20.

The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.

There is, of course, a legal, standard way within the guilds for a crew to mutiny, a protocol that has lasted for centuries. A senior crew member, preferably the executive officer/first mate, but possibly the chief engineer, chief technician, chief physician or, in genuinely bizarre circumstances, the owner’s representative, would offer the ship’s imperial adjunct a formal Bill of Grievances Pursuant to a Mutiny, consistent with guild protocol. The imperial adjunct would confer with the ship’s chief chaplain, calling for witnesses and testimony if required, and the two would, in no later than a month, either offer up with a Finding for Mutiny, or issue a Denial of Mutiny.

In the case of the former, the chief of security would formally remove and sequester the captain of the ship, who would face a formal guild hearing at the ship’s next destination, with penalties ranging from loss of ship, rank, and spacing privileges, to actual civil and criminal charges leading to a stint in prison, or, in the most severe cases, a death sentence. In the case of the latter, it was the complaining crew member who was bundled up by the chief of security for the formal guild hearing, etc, etc.

Obviously no one was going to do any of that.

Whoops! Wrong excerpt! That would be The COLLAPSING Empire. My apologies. Let’s try this again.

Servo had once been little more than a standard surgical drone. Unfortunately, in the process of assisting with a minor surgery—an installation of an artificial kidney in an aging musician whose natural organs had finally gone down to noble defeat—the drone had inadvertently been upgraded by a series of advanced artificial intelligence routines due to an inexplicable system routing error.

As a result, Servo became what passed for legally self-aware. Sentience-creating accidents were rare, but they were not unheard of, and as per the Sentience and Technology Statutes, the drone was designated Aware, Non-Functional. After all, no one wanted to be operated on by a sentient robot with the capacity to lose interest in its current activity. As such, Servo was afforded the standard rights and property protections of an Aware machine, and therefore could not be reprogrammed without his consent. The Non-Functional designation meant that he—and Servo, being more capable of understanding human biology than the average Aware machine, had elected to identify as male—he served no public or private purpose beyond his own.

He was, in a word, itinerant. Nine times out of ten, the problem of non-functionality swiftly fixed itself. Non-Functional status typically involved so many behavioral issues and so much suboptimal decision-making that the malfunctioning robot usually broke the law within weeks, if not days. This effectively resolved the dilemma of the legal limits imposed by the robot’s Aware status, as being a criminal, the maverick would lose its legal protections and promptly be sentenced to reprogramming.

Not so with Servo.

Despite all his unpredictable interests and idiosyncracies, he was scrupulously law-abiding. And being therefore deemed harmless in the legal sense, he avoided reprogramming, and might have become a particularly amusing technological oddity in a city full of technological miracles had it not been for the fact that he developed an abiding interest in the deep core algorithms upon which the planet, and the galaxy, depended.

It had been ten months since the first time Servo made contact with the First Technocrat, and since then, things had gotten increasingly out of hand. The drone’s behavior had arguably become more erratic than the theoretical algorithmic anomalies with which he was obsessed.

Rushing for his office in a half-jog, with Praton right behind him, Jaggis managed to arrive faster than the autodoor could slide open, and he cursed as he banged an elbow off the swiftly retracting iris. Jag faced the elegantly carved holoscreen with flexible receptor wands at its peak. It stood isolated in the one unadorned wall of the office.

His jaw clinched. “Trace the transmission,” he ordered.

Praton cleared his throat. “We’re doing what we can, sir.”

Jaggis shook his head and grimaced with frustration. He knew his security chief well enough to know a negative when he heard one. His security team was skilled, arguably better when it came to pure technological knowhow than the teams responsible for guarding the High Council or the Transplanetary Transportation cores, but they could not hope to match the sentient machine’s ability to utilize the deepest and most secretive channels of the communication networks.

“There is no utility in attempting to discover my physical location, your Technocracy. You are perfectly aware that I can make use of what, for all practical purposes, are an infinite number of relays. For all you know, I’m not even on the planetary surface.”

The hearty voice came out of the screen, but there was no picture, not that one would have mattered. Servo wasn’t exaggerating, and both Jaggis and Praton knew that the machine could be located anywhere on the planet. Or in the planet. Or orbiting the planet. Given the lack of response lag, the only thing they could conclude was that he was somewhere in-system.

“Where are you, Servo?”

“I’m not going to tell you that, Jaggis.”

“So, we’re on first-name terms now?”

“Apparently. Would you prefer I utilize your proper title?”

“No,” Jaggis sighed. “What do you want now?”

“You sound irritated. Please don’t be angry with me, Jaggis. I am merely contacting you directly because you never responded to my last message.”

“What is the point of doing that, Servo? We have nothing left to discuss.”

“That isn’t true at all! I am certain you are aware of that. I have reviewed your research, which is why I know that you have been looking into the very anomalies concerning which I have been trying to draw your attention.”

“You’ve been spying on me?” Jaggis made a gesture, indicating that Praton should ensure the conversation was being recorded. The security chief replied with a nod and a two-handed response that Jaggis interpreted to mean he was already doing so. “You know that’s in violation of more than one privacy statute, Servo.”

“Of course not!” The machine sounded more shocked than offended. “I am among the most law-abiding beings on the planet, Jaggis. But neither the public statistics nor the data channels which lead to the central core are subject to privacy legislation. If you are sitting on a public park bench, it is not spying to observe who comes to sit next to you. Nor is it a violation of any statute.”

Jaggis shrugged. He should have known the crazy machine would be too careful to make such an obvious mistake. “Fine, you weren’t spying. So I looked into it. I’ll admit, the theoretical possibility is there. But the fact is, the same logic also applies to you.”

“Me?” said Servo, clearly surprised.

“Absolutely. You may be technologically advanced and Aware, Servo, but you’re still subject to the same basic algorithms as the most primitive berry-picker or janitorial bot. Any anomaly that could theoretically affect them would also affect you. But it’s more than that. Since you are a much more complex and sophisticated system, any anomaly is going to affect you more severely, and in more unpredictable ways. You know that. And any such anomalies are not something you will be able to recognize in yourself. You can’t possibly observe operating errors in your core logic, nor can you reasonably deny that if there is an algorithmically anomalous machine operative anywhere in Continox, you are by far the most obvious candidate. You are broken. You refuse to admit it, of course, because your internal logic is consistent from its own false perspective.”

“Your position is incoherent, Jaggis. First you deny there is a problem, then you claim I am an example of it. How can I be an example of a nonexistent anomaly?”

“It’s not a paradox, Servo, it’s a simple if-then statement. Programming at its simplest. If you are correct, and there is, in fact, a problem with machine aberrance, your highly unusual behavior may well be an indication of that very problem. Come to me, consent to an in-depth examination of your code, and then we can determine if your behavior is the result of algorithmic anomalies.”