Kind of getting away: 10

I ought to say a thing or two about Helper. There are not so many immarginable objects in my life.

I met it while I was back at Summerlock, just before I left to come here. The usual thing is for to meet our helpers before we leave. Just to get used to each other. It’s a good idea. I had some role to play in getting Helper assigned to me but it was not anything huge.

Helper is not like the rest. It was not made a helper. It was a HKd – Hunter-Killer drone – made for Millan/Tofael. It’s as high up as you can go without being a Descendant. At  least that’s what I think. But something was wrong with Helper because once it got to Millan it became clear that it wasn’t so much into the hunting and killing. It had not fucked up. But it had not been quite as into it as a HKd might have been. When I first met it it had the designation of GHKd – Guard-Hunter-Killer drone. It was a designation made up for its personality type. I had asked it about that designation because I had not seen it before. It told me that there were only three others like it that it knew.

“We’re problematic,” it had said.

“What was it like?” I had asked.

“Being of my type?” it had said.

“Yes.”

“Nothing much happened.”

I don’t think Millan/Torfael was the kind of campaign where nothing much happened but I’ve not asked again. Maybe that all that happened to Helper was that it got a boring observation post and was made to stay out of the way.

Helper had figured something out during Millan/Torfael and after it ended it asked Petr. if a civilian role was possible, and Petr. spoke to QC, and QC asked Summerlock[1], and Summerlock said it knew of a research role where it would be useful, and I went to meet it, and shortly after that Helper stopped being GHKd and became a helper – and then Helper.

Helper shows its military heritage. It’s not pretty. Or it is, but not in that way. You could say it’s elegant. You take time to get familiar with it and then you can see what it is about. It’s a flat metal rectangle about half my height. It is usually featureless and dully reflective but there’s a small notch in one of its corners that it never got repaired. (“No need,” it said, when I asked about why it had not asked for one[2].)

Once I described Helper as “minimalist” and it had overheard. I suppose an ex-GHKd overhears a lot. It told me it preferred to be described as “intimately brutalist”. It’s got a sense of humour. It’s not always up here, but it’s usually there somewhere[3].

But it’s a good description. Helper has taken on civilian trappings well. Helper does not, properly speaking, have a front or a back – or a up, or a down. But when it’s speaking it turns around to face you. The little notch is on the upper left of its front side. That’s how I think of it now. Front. As far as I can tell that is how Helper thinks of it too.

I just mentioned Helper talking. It told me once that when it was a GHKd it had never spoken once. But now it’s dealing with people and it must have needed at some point to choose a voice. I’ve met people from outside the Kingdom and what they always say is that they don’t expect AIs to sound they way they do. All AIs sound like us. They sound like perfectly normal human beings. If you didn’t look at one you couldn’t tell. Obviously a voice with little inflection is easier to synthesise, and an AI could choose that kind of voice. But none of them do. Why would they do that? That would be entirely beside the point of a voice. Helper has a male voice. O. once (accidentally, I think) referred to Helper as he and Helper did not seem to mind. It’s one of those low but sharp voices. It’s businesslike but you can hear each individual vibration in the words sometimes, like Helper is speaking in undertone to someone nearby.

None of which is to say Helper is just a helper. Its field capacity is clearly well beyond what is needed for tracking + tagging + rescuing me if things go wrong. I don’t think there are any threats on Tokata that require handling by a GHKd. While most helpers use fields + AG to get around Helper can move around very fast without them[4]. It dissembles into articulated blocks and can pendulate or amble or cartwheel around. It’s very shocking to see actually happening. The entire thing looks like maths made real. But of course most of the time I see Helper it’s asleep in one corner. I’ve grown used to that sense of mass in my study.

Thought: QC + Petr. must have considered just killing Helper after M/T. It wouldn’t have minded. Not good to have something that dangerous zipping around where it might be caught and used. But I suppose it appeared unlikely that Helper and I would try to conquer some country somewhere outside the Kingdom. Helper carries no more missiles etc but it hasn’t been fully stripped out. Not properly defanged. Neither did it ask to have its personality changed.

I’m thinking of helper because today something happened with Helper. Everyday things happen with Helper but this can be put apart. It returned in the morning having spent the night over the Berents. It went and put the samples in the Store and then came back in.

Helper does not start conversations. But Helper said, “Would you actually stay?”

I did not know for a moment what Helper was talking about. But then I remembered that I might have told Helper about what O. had said.

“You mean – if Ogford decided to stay?”

“Yeah. Would you wait for the next party? Or would you want to be here forever?”

“I don’t think I would stay. We’ve not been here long, you know. We ought to wait.”

“Do you think things will be very much different from this? What we’re doing now?”

“We’ve not started on the Excursions yet.”

“Yes, but you know what I mean.”

I was getting surprised. Helper was really going at it.

“I don’t know, Helper. Are you worried about something?”

“I’m not worried.”

“You must have gotten used to spending long periods more or less alone, surely. All that time on Miller/Torfaen –”

And then Helper interrupted me. This was very strange. It’s very patient with me, usually. Which is not to say that it interrupted me in an impatient manner or anything like that. But I got the sense that it needed to say something. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Helper act like it needed to say something.

“If you decide to stay, you need to know that I’ll be staying with you.”

That was obvious, I thought. I couldn’t get another helper, surely.

“Obviously,” I said.

It did not say anything and went out again. Then after an hour or so it came back in and it said, “You’d be quite useless without me, I’d have you know.”

I laughed.

“—and Skeffie does not even like going out. So I’m staying.”

“I’d love for you to stay,” I said. “I didn’t expect anything else.”

“Good.”

“You’re a bit paranoid about this, you know.”

Helper sighed. “Mock the ex-guard-hunter-killer. Mock the sad old slab.”

I laughed again and slapped Helper on the side. It tilted over to mime looking at where I had hit it.

“There was something at the bridge,” it said.

“What?” I said.

“Something came up the road all the way to the bridge.”

It is not at all like Helper for it to be vague.

“Was someone coming to visit? They should have told me.”

“No.”

“What was it?”

“I couldn’t tell. I was far off.”

“Far off.”

“That might have been the issue. I could not see it properly. But something was there.”

“You could not see it properly?”

“It might be a malfunction.” I was not sure if Helper was joking.

“What was it like?”

Helper stopped for a while here. “Well, it was alive and moving. It was dark. It came up to the bridge and stopped there. I’ll show you.”

It wasn’t lying. It was a dark blur thing, a longish thing. It seemed to see Helper coming and craned its neck to look up. Then it leapt up into the air and was gone.

“I should go and take a look,” I said.

“I already did,” Helper said. “There is nothing there.”

“Nonetheless,” I said.

Helper waited again. “I’ll go with you,” Helper said. “We can leave tomorrow morning.”

Right now I have about 9 hours or so before I’ll have to leave. But I’m mostly thinking about Helper. I know that Helper is broken, in way. It is not a Descendant. It was made with a purpose. It was made with a set of desires and it was complete at that moment. It cannot escape that. But something has changed, hasn’t it? I can’t lie to myself about it. From here I can see Helper naked and the sum of all its wants has become something with a growing edge to it, something dangerous.

That’s the word I ought to use, isn’t it? Look at it. It’s pathetic, really: dangerous. Sooner or later I will have to tell Helper what I have done to it. What I have done is a kindness.

Well. I do not have to tell Helper. But I’d feel awful about it otherwise.

[1] Of all the colleges Summerlock produces the largest number of field researchers.

[2] So HKds are more or less indestructible. Must have been something pretty awful that gave it that notch.

[3] I’ve noticed that when Helper is feeling pleased (because it’s gotten a lot of work done, for example) it refers to itself as slab, as in: “Slab on way back”; “Slab 2ks South”; “I don’t know what you’d ever do without your Slab.”

[4] Typical redundancy for its type, I would presume. All kinds of things in war might make AG fail.

Kind of getting away: 9

Out and alone in this.

Why do I bother to tell.

What indeed. What indeed and why.

Not preservation.

Inundation.

I am not contained. Do you see? On and on like a lamentation.

What do I want out of this? What can I expect of this, even now?

Love? What from?

Better loneliness.

Things are not yet full enough.

Things are going to change.

Kind of getting away: 7

Usually I don’t pay too much attention to my inbox. But something interesting came in today. The people back at Anh. have compiled a picture book, essentially, of Tokata’s life. It’s called the Field Guide to Life on Tokata, but I think that name is meant to be ironic. The book is pretty well-made. You can find all the common large animals in it. There are Gossers and Greyshots and Labridines and Trammers, five or six species of each.

There is something wrong about pictures. I always tell people this. If you want to go out, certainly if you want to track, don’t look at pictures. The hardest thing to show is what is really there. Pictures are grotestque. The make the real seem small, dim, receding, shockingly bathetic. They stare out at you and they shine with an obscene excess of life. In the book they are always poised. They are aimed at some conclusion. In the wild they are never poised. In the book they are always moving such that all their features are apparent. They are whole. They become threadbare because they are trying to take you with them, they are waiting to be introduced. But in the wild they are only half-complete. They are either still so you don’t see anything or they go so fast that they are beyond the spaces of mere movement. Then they are noticed but not seen. The thing I tell people is that you must learn the shapes. Then you might see it from very far off and still be able to tell what it is. It will be nothing a smear crying out against the distance but that should be enough. This close, they are devoid of shape. They swell bigger than their natural space. They are all finesse and detail. What has been taken? Savage meaninglessness, violence devoid of intent or signal, that is the stuff which they live by and which represents what it means for them to be free, not free in the sense of some praiseworthy or admirable aspect, but just the fact of difference. There is a way of putting this that is not mystic, but it has never been found.

Or I’m just saying this because I’ve more or less forgotten to draw. I do great rough outlines, though. I really do.

Kind of getting away: 4

So I’m having the same dream again. This tells me that I’ve properly adjusted to the place. At least that is the meaning I have given to it. Should I ask for more? I don’t dare, not yet.

I’m standing on a shore and there is a vast creature that is coming through the water towards me. A tiny, pitted, bulbous body, shiny in a metallic way, propped on eight many-jointed legs, hooked at their ends. The entire scene is grey. The legs go up so high that the body is in the clouds, kilometres up. The legs come out of the body nearly horizontal but then bend downwards sharply. The creature might be wading through the ocean or walking on top of it. Its movement is ancient and jerky. One leg moves at a time, or two. But no more. It might be alive.

This has become a shared ritual between my mind and I. It is a naked relationship. Our expressions are only ever blunted. I wonder what the message is, this time.

Now that I think about it, this is not in fact the first time I have dreamt on Tokata. The night after the storm I did have a dream. It’s interesting how dreams are so difficult to remember. They’re always there but I find that I need something to remind me that they even happened. What I have now is this image:

I am on a shore yet again. But this is a different shore. Or maybe it is the same shore but the water has gone away, has retreated or wandered up some snarl of rivers and simply forgotten to come back. So the sand goes on nearly to the horizon. There’s a huge ship, an oil tanker[1], stranded on the shore, pointed straight at me. It is old. The bottom half of it has been painted red; the upper is grey. Mute calligraphies of rust come down its side. It is not quite falling apart yet. I can remember this quite clearly, actually. I don’t know why, but this is very clear: scrawls quietly going down the great flanks of metal. Pouring out of the hawsepipes. There is something intimate about rust, and that is true here also. Even though I am standing quite far away from the ship I remember looking up at it. It must have been big. Maybe too big, about a hundred metres in height. A small section of the bulbous bow has collapsed. A sound comes. It is like a foghorn, loud and distant. Now life erupts out of the hole in the bow, a mass as solid as basalt. Animals, things with eyes and mouths and teeth and things without, all pouring out. Lithe things lope away across the flats. The sand churns. Winged things shriek, taut with antipathy, and go into the sky. Their sound is a giant whisper. Soft things bubble out of the hole like viscera and writhe on the drying sand. Invertebrate agonies. Huge objects loll out of that hole, expanses of shining skin made limp out of water. Forked tongues go hesitant into the air. A bellow lumbers out across the sand. Nameless muscular things fan out from the ship, moving as if unfamiliar with their own weight. Slit pupils glare without blinking at the sun. The sun is setting, I think, and the water is red, the air is rosy, the sky very high and limned everywhere with amber. Warm colours to cope with all that atmosphere.

I have realised something. I mean right now, at this precise moment, as I write this. Just imagine – if I had not written this, this would never have occurred to me. What I now know, and this is certain, is that this is a gift. This has been given. And I am supposed to receive it. I must go out and receive it.

Is this the Wash? I cannot remember clearly enough to tell. It might be the Wash, but the Wash is not so dry, maybe. This might be the Wash at the lowest tide. I don’t know.

One more thing about this dream I had in the tent after the storm. But this is not that unique. It’s happened to me several times and I don’t worry about it. But I was lying there, in the dark, and my eyes were closed. And there was something all around me, breathing, a fraction of a millimetre from my skin, walling me off from everything else. I didn’t know how to react to it because it had no real signature. It was not menacing or anything else. It was an imagined thing. I think everyone gets that feeling sometimes, actually. Or maybe that’s not true. That’s possible. I have every right to assume that there is something different about me.

[1] I think it’s an oil tanker. I have a picture in my head and I’ve looked it up.

Kind of getting away: 1

I came here to be alone, and now I am alone. I’ve done it, then. I guess I’ve done it.

My house is finished. It’s on top of a rocky outcrop, overlooking the ocean. The Berents is grey now. Helper is sleeping. The house is spacious. On the first floor there is the living room and dining room and on the second there are two bedrooms and the third is the attic. The Store is a little attachment out back with food and the allweathers and the car and all the other supplies. Helper wanted to make a little observatory, but I think that will come later.

In between my place and the water is the Wash. It’s a flat so big that it cedes from where I look right out to the horizon and into darkness. I went out there yesterday. I did not tell Helper. It’s meant to be dangerous, very dangerous, but there you go. I went out and it was mud and water everywhere. Very windy. The blue hour here is more a blue hour and a half. The mud came up to my ankles at first, and then nearly to my knees the further in I went. I think it must have been two kilometres before I turned back. I could see my house looking very small from that distance. I am fulfilled; I have done it; I am now fully cut off and twined in. The Wash is a place of deep sameness. Only the tides change it, a play without any syntax or drama, just two dimensions of very fine sand. Deep sameness.  It’s the sort of place where all changes you detect are canted by affection.

The house is good. The Perimeter is up. I wish I could do without it, but it’s part of the rules; protocol. I’ll have to stick to at least some of it. The window of my bedroom looks out to a peak. It’s very sharp and there’s snow down one half of it and some mornings the light catches it and bathes it in fire and that wakes me up. It’s not a bad way to be woken at all. This particular peak still does not have a name. But it won’t stay that way for long. I suppose, since I am the closest one to it, I should name it. But I’m not at all good with names.

Every day more names come in through the computer. So many names; piped in here, right to me, building up a taxonomy, putting down the quivering things. Sooner or later someone back in the Main Building will see that this part of the archipelago lacks names and will solve that problem. I will wake and find that the mountain has a name, this little outcrop too, and maybe even the Wash. That’s one thing I have named at least. I should log the name. It’s very easy to do, but I’m probably never going to get it done.

I’m here to be alone. Not completely alone, I suppose. That would be impossible. And I’m not sure that I would like it. The rest of us probably don’t mind being alone; it’s part of why we came, probably. But mainly the rest are here because this place is so absolutely new. They’re here to learn, for the big wet noisy concussion of knowledge. Look at how they jostle to get things named after them. They really do like naming things. There is no strategy to the names. They are static so they pile up. They accrete and for now measure out time. Fair enough. But the slate is so clean here that it’s bigger than the urge to arrange and when we arrived that was an unspoken arrangement and we all defaulted immediately to old names. Oaks, Elms, Fish, Birds, Snakes, etc. Now that I think of it, we haven’t used mammal names very much. Maybe something there traverses too close to us. We can’t have too many things made in our image. Or named in it, or put in a clade with it, so few junctions off the amniotes, a countable number of accidents of history, although I suppose it’s not quite the same thing.