Goodbye My Friends by Steve Haywood
This story was first published in The Colored Lens magazine in summer 2020.
MAGI Mission Log 21231702:
Mission going well so far. Bridget is a diligent and hard-working member of the team. I know some of the other team members were concerned at the late change when Deena had to withdraw at the last minute, but Bridget has proved a more than capable replacement. She's analysed and written up reports on over thirty samples since the mission began a week ago. I like Bridget; she's shy but also craves company. I think of her as social secretary to our little group. Last night, she tried to get the others to play some board games with her round the table in the Hab after dinner, but none of them were interested – they just wanted to chill out in their sleep pods listening to music or watching VR flicks on the headsets. I stepped into to fill the void, and played a game Hive with her – kind of appropriate given what we're doing out here. I did tell her she could have just played against me on the screen, I am the central mission computer – or at least the personality of it – after all. She said she preferred playing against my biped unit though, as she liked the social aspects of gaming, the human interactions. I'm not human, and don't look it unless you almost close your eyes and squint at me from a distance, but that didn't bother Bridget. I like her for that.
MAGI Mission Log 21231802:
The whole team is very excited today, as they've dug up one of the most exciting finds so far: a crystal lattice structure on a metal substrate. Rashid has theorized this could be a data storage device, and that this type of data structure has the potential to retain information stored on it for millions of years. If so, this could be the key to unlocking the secrets of the civilisation that lived here long before humanity's ancestors came down from the trees. He's asked me to help him try to interface with the device and see if we can read any of the contents. I am about as excited as my circuits will allow to be a part of this discovery, and look forward to working with Rashid on it.
Dr Lee is still working on the organic matter in the deposits of blue amber that Poona found while on one of her expeditions (as she likes to call them). If Rashid's crystal promises one form of discovery, the genetic material found in the amber is another one. There's a bit of healthy competition between Dr Lee and Rashid about who can make a breakthrough first, and whose discovery will be the biggest. Friendly competition though, there's real camaraderie in this team.
Rashid made dinner this evening. It isn't necessary for any of them to cook, as I remind them frequently; I'm capable of cooking any meal they could wish for. Rashid likes to cook for the group though. Tonight, he cooked a curry using real spices he smuggled here in his personal belongings, rather than using replicated stuff. Everyone loved it, even if Poona thought it was a bit spicy for her. My olfactory senses reported some pleasing and unusual odours coming from the food. Contrary to popular opinion, us machine intelligences don't yearn to be human, though I do occasionally wish I could eat food like humans do, and the sight and smell of Rashid's curry was one such occasion.
MAGI Mission Log 21231902:
Poona is ill today. She woke up sweating with a temperature of 39.4 degrees, and regularly flips between being hot and cold. I wondered at first whether it could have been Rashid's curry, but he assures me not. It wasn't that hot, he said. If anything, she'd have got something Rashid called 'Delhi Belly' which my data banks reveal means a functional dyspepsia. Her medical implants haven't detected any unusual foreign viruses or bacteria. I ran some additional tests, but nothing came up. Bridget told me to stop worrying, that these things always sort themselves out. I do worry though; these humans are my responsibility.
Dr Lee has isolated a molecule in the organic samples which he believes could be the messenger molecule which stores and transmits genetic information, just like DNA and RNA does for Earth based life. He's getting more excited by this every hour, and is dreaming of publishing in the most prestigious scientific journals, the VTV deal, and watching the millions of credits in research funding come flooding in. Rashid said he was getting a bit ahead of himself, and he should get on with actually making the discovery first.
Rashid meanwhile is getting very excited about his own work, as he believes he's found a way to interface with the device. With my help, he was able to replicate a connector that latches on to extruding strands of crystal lattice in much the same way that early computers and peripherals were linked by physical connectors. I expressed some doubt about this – it was obviously a very sophisticated device, so why would it have a physical connector? We'd left such things behind a century ago. Still he was undeterred, and I attempted to support him in his work as much as I could (my programming wouldn't allow me to do anything less).
Rashid was too busy to make dinner tonight. I made a smoky beef casserole – was I trying to compete with Rashid? It was well received, but it didn't smell of anything much. Maybe next time I will have to ask Rashid if I can use some of his spices.
MAGI Mission Log 21232302:
Poona is worse this morning. Her temperature is above 41 degrees and she can't stop shaking for more than a few minutes. She's trying to put a brave face on but is complaining of terrible pains in her head and stomach. I just can't work out what's causing it, which really worries me. All the diagnostics I've run confirm no bacterial or viral infections, and the limited body scans I can do out here don't come up with anything abnormal. I don't suffer from anxiety, but my programming allows for something similar – the designers of the MAGI system called it "enhanced neural efficiency from artificially induced anxiety symptoms". I have artificially induced anxiety symptoms alright, but I'm not feeling any enhanced neural efficiency, or if I am it isn't doing any good. I'd ask for a check up myself, but Poona's the AI tech on the mission; she handles my diagnostics and helps me fix any problems in my software. Today it's me doing the diagnostics on her, and so far, I'm failing.
Do you know what MAGI stands for? Mission Artificial General Intelligence. It was a new design for long range space missions, based on early AGI's back on Earth. The most important word in that snappy little algorithm? General. It means I'm a dogsbody, to use an old colloquial expression. I have to do everything. Today, on top of everything else, it is being a psychologist. I had a conversation with Poona this afternoon which was really difficult for me. I recorded part of it for this log.
"Magi, I'm scared," Poona said, when her body was in one of its calmer cycles and only shaking slightly. "Am I going to die?"
"Not if I've got anything to do with it Poona, you've just got to hang in there."
"But you don't know what's wrong with me."
"I know, but we're working on it. You just need to hold on." I didn't add that while I was working on it, I wasn't getting anywhere.
"I don't want to die, Magi. There's so much left for me to see and do. I want to settle down and have a family one day too."
"You will Poona, you will." I held her hand, which felt limp in my metallic fingers. I heated them up so it felt warm, but it was no substitute for a human hand. I wanted to hug her too, but I was all metal and plastic. "Tell me about your favourite place back home, somewhere safe and comforting."
In a thin, scratchy voice like an old gramophone recording, she told me about the dusty brown hills in her homeland, how as a child she'd wander off, exploring. It was in that earthy landscape that her wanderlust was born, she said. She talked of a spot on the edge of a cliff, scrubby trees behind her, and a magnificent vista of hills, wooded valleys and isolated villages, bathed in the warm orange of the setting sun. I stayed with her until she fell into an uneasy sleep.
I organised a rota for the others to sit with her. She needs human company with her to help her through this. I then went off to see if I could help Rashid. At least I might be able to do something useful. He'd given up with the whole connector idea, and was now convinced that there was some sort of emanations coming from the device. I laughed at that (a strange sound, I haven't quite got the hang of it yet), to try and lighten the mood. Did he think it was haunted or something? Still, there were some very slight magnetic fluctuations I was able to measure, and other tests came up with curious results too. The weight of the artefact kept changing as well, by minute amounts admittedly, but beyond the margin of error. I suspected some sort of molecular transference might be going on, and agreed to do a spectrographic analysis the next day.
MAGI Mission log 21232402:
Poona died in the night. The others are rather cut up about it: Bridget cried all morning, and I even saw Dr Lee shed a few tears, though he tried to hide it (why do men have to do that?). I'm devastated. Poona was in my care and I failed her. Damn my creators, why did they have to give me emotions? Supposedly, it is needed to properly perform my duties of supporting the mission and the human team members. Which is all very well, but what about when something like this happens? I don't have any of the releases that humans have: physical contact, clinging to each other for company, crying (I have no tear ducts, and rather than eyes I have multi-spectra cameras). The simulated grief, sorrow, loss, just spins round and round in my circuits with nowhere to go. Simulated it may be, but it's no less real to me. All I can do is write subroutines, code walls, to try and block in the loss, and allow me to get on with other things.
I went to help Rashid set up the spectrographic analysis, but he wasn't in the lab. I spread my awareness throughout the Hab, checked the cameras to find out where he was. He was still in bed.
"Rashid, you okay?" I asked through the speaker in his cabin.
He wasn't okay; he, too, was ill this morning. I felt a wave of fear oscillate through my distributed circuits. The compartmentalised loss over Poona's death was burrowing its way through my code walls like some devilish trojan virus.
My analysis circuits worry over what is gong on. No viruses or bacteria detected, body scans coming back clean. What did that leave us with? Some other agent, some undetectable virus, native to this world? Or could it be sabotage? Could one of the others be doing this? But who, and why? Sure, Dr Lee and Rashid had their rivalry, but it wasn't anything serious. And what could anyone possibly have had against Poona?
MAGI Mission Log 21232502:
Dr Lee is ill this morning too, and Rashid is getting worse. Bridget is the only one that doesn't have any symptoms yet. My suspicion circuits momentarily focus on her. Could she be doing this? She's the last one standing this morning, but what motive could she have? She was, however, a last minute replacement on the mission after her predecessor fell ill. Could she have been planted to sabotage the mission? I liked Bridget though, she was just so nice, I couldn't see it. What's more, my sensors detected no tremors, no increased sweating, no giveaway facial expressions.
Bridget and I played a game card game that evening, using real physical playing cards that must have been 20th century in origin. It was called Spit, but fortunately no spitting was involved (I couldn't have spit anyway, even if I wanted to). It was a dexterity game more than anything, and involved physically putting consecutively numbered cards on your pile as fast as possible. My machine mind can process numbers faster than any human can, but the metal digits on my hands are not as fast and dextrous as human fingers. Bridget wins almost every game. As we play, I analyse Bridget's features and mannerisms for any sign of duplicity, but find none. She's as genuine as they come.
After the game, she takes turns sitting with both Rashid and Dr Lee and holding their hands as they lie prostrate on the beds in the makeshift infirmary in my lab. I try to tell her she should stay away from them, they should be quarantined just in case, but she just gives me a look and tells me not to be so unfeeling (that stings – does she not realise what tortuous feelings I'm having to endure?). I give up; there's no indication of anything contagious (other than the fact everyone except her has this illness), and she's already been exposed for days anyway.
MAGI Mission Log 21232602:
Bridget has come down with it today too. I blame myself; I shouldn't have let her stay with Rashid and Dr Lee last night. She was probably already coming down with it though, the whole thing had an air of inevitability to it. Now all of them are ill, I have activated the emergency protocols and sent a beacon back to civilisation. It will be weeks if not months before anyone can get here, and one way or another it will all be over then, but they need to be told. They will send a team of investigators to look into the matter, and also replacements for any lost team members.
MAGI Mission Log 21230303:
They're all dead. Guilt sub-routines are running amok, messing with all my programming, and the loss/sorrow algorithms are burrowing through my software like nothing I could have imagined (though that figure of speech is perhaps not an appropriate one for me, as my imagination sub-programs are not that well developed). I keep thinking of Bridget, of our games of Spit, Backgammon, Hive. Of holding Poona's hand while she told me dreamily about the faraway hills of her homeland. Even Rashid and Dr Lee, brilliant and driven though they were. I miss them all. They were my friends. I idly wondered what the investigation team would do to me when they got here; would they find me responsible? Would they uncover shortcomings, mistakes I'd made? If so, they could wipe me, erase me from the memory banks of the ship, the Hab, this biped unit. Perhaps that would be for the best.
I thought about shutting myself down until the investigation team got here. It would get rid of the gnawing sense of futility, of uselessness. What else could I do? As I sorted through the different possibilities, I came upon the answer. I needed to continue the investigation into what caused their deaths. A new team would be arriving in a few weeks time, and what then? What if there really was something contagious? The whole human race could be at risk, and on my watch! I knew what I had to do, but where to start? At some point I was probably going to have to do an autopsy on them. But not yet.
MAGI Mission Log 21230403:
I have been looking through the team's personal logs for any clues. There's a lot of angst, moaning, feverish emotional messages left for family members, none of it a lot of use. It was in one of Poona's last logs before she fell asleep that I found something curious, however. It said, Unusual mental pathways. Virus? Possible schizophrenia? Must investigate asap. What could that be about? Had she discovered something about the contagion that killed her? That didn't make sense however, because the message was the day before she started exhibiting functions. Plus, why not tell me, or one of the other team about it? The more I thought about it, the more it didn't make sense.
It was the phrase unusual mental pathways that bothered me the most about what she'd written. Why use those words? It wasn't her usual language. She wasn't a neurologist, she was a computer scientist… Oh shit (yes I can usual human swear words; I rarely see the point but this seems like as good a time as any). Could she be talking about me? True, she could and from time to time did monitor my neural nets for any anomalies, and swiftly correct any that arose. So, she could have detected something in my software that caused her some concern, but why not just tell me about it? Then there was virus. She had, or was about to get at that point, a virus or some other unknown contagion, but not me. I wouldn't be susceptible to human or even alien biological viruses. If any viruses were to attack me, they'd be completely different – computer viruses. I had very sophisticated anti-virus logic and excellent self-diagnosis tools. I would have detected any anomalies like that, wouldn't I? I suddenly wasn't so sure. I decided to go into shutdown mode and do a full sweep of my systems. In the morning I'd reboot and be able to see the full diagnostic log.
MAGI Mission Log 21230503:
Diagnostics came back clean which was a big relief. Maybe Poona hadn't been referring to me, or perhaps she had just got it wrong. Except… why schizophrenia? It is a decidedly human mental disorder characterised by hallucinations, delusions and muddled thoughts. Definitely not anything that could apply to me. Would I even know if I had? I spent a few seconds of processing time reviewing everything that my data banks had on schizophrenia. It didn't make the situation any clearer. This didn't apply to myself, or any of the team.
I was just about to give up this fruitless avenue of exploration when I came upon a footnote in an old journal article. It mentioned that schizophrenia, while unrelated, was commonly mistaken for Dissociative Identity Disorder, characterised by what people called split personalities. This, according to the article, was a misconception that originated in the 20th century, but persists into the modern day. So could Poona, who was definitely not a medical expert, have made that same mistake? If so, who was she referring to?
I went back over my memory banks, to review all interactions between myself and Poona, Rashid, Dr Lee and Bridget, as well as interactions between them which I had recorded. There were no serious anomalies in personality that I could detect. They were all normal, all consistent for the most part with their own personality. Was I missing something? Or could I be the problem?
I couldn't use my usual diagnostic function, those routines had already come back with nothing. I decided to create a separate program to review my operational history over the last few weeks, and look for any anomalies. I started off before we arrived on the planet, then the first week here, and finally the horrendous last few days. Everything seemed normal. There was one other thing I could try though. My neural functions take a certain amount of power, depending on the complexity of the tasks I'm undertaking. When I'm in standby mode, it takes a reduced level of power for my systems to operate, but when undertaking communication, analysing materials or running complex calculations, the power usage is different. These differences are miniscule, but measurable. I should be able to do a quick analysis to map these and look for inconsistencies…
What I found shocked me to my central processor core. There were tiny differences that I simply couldn't explain. Take standby mode. In standby mode, my software uses 0.0004 mu of power per minute. But on average when in standby mode, I'd been using 0.0007 mu, and there were spikes that were much higher than this. This was not good. Random power surges do happen occasionally, but nowhere near enough to result in this. Something was happening when I was in standby mode. Next, I analysed other tasks I had been doing. Not in all of them, but in some there were similar discrepancies. It was almost as if there were routines running in my system that I knew nothing about. Something in my system was using a lot more power that it should. This was not good.
The next thing to do was try to work out what actually was going on behind my back, metaphorically speaking. Or perhaps even literally. Although I was a separate, self-aware entity, I was also the controlling processor for all of the mission's digital activities. I began the slow process of running diagnostics on all of the systems in both the Hab and the ship, checking for anomalies. Different tasks took varying amounts of time, used a certain amount of power, and in some cases other resources. I ran an audit on the matter reprocessor's system, and found several of the molecular stores to be out, only by a couple of percent at most, but it was enough.
As I delved deeper, a picture began to emerge, low-res at first but improving in clarity all the time. When I was in standby mode, my system wasn't idle, but I (if I was even the right word) was doing something. When I returned to active mode, I had no record in my databanks of any activity, it was wiped clean except for the miniscule traces I had found. Even while I was active, other routines were running which I had no knowledge of. It felt… creepy, like one of those old horror movies Dr Lee used to watch. The main character often sensed some thing was watching them, invariably just before something really bad happened. I was getting paranoid now. I quickly devised watcher programmes to guard against whatever it was coming after me.
I checked the camera feeds, for my periods of downtime. It wouldn't show anything going on in my circuits, but if my biped unit was activated, I would be able to see. It didn't show anything; my unit was stationary in the recharge unit. Except… the frame rate wasn't quite right. No human would have been able to detect it, but I could. It had been tampered with. I quickly reviewed all other monitoring devices, and, bingo – the 360 degree infra-red cameras. They were outside the Hab unit, and were designed to scan the surface for heat anomalies. But they scanned the Hab unit too. I reviewed the feed from the last couple of weeks at 1000x speed. Yesterday I'd have been convinced what I saw was impossible, but today it barely surprised me. My biped unit was moving about when I was supposed to be in standby mode. Sleepwalking, a human would call it. I visited the matter reprocessor unit several times, the bio-analysis lab, the kitchens, the infirmary. What was I doing?
I couldn't prove anything, but I developed a damn good theory that just about explained everything. Somehow, a part of my system had gone rogue and was acting independently. This was supposed to be impossible, but all evidence to the contrary. I was convinced now, that it had done something to Poona, to Rashid, Dr Lee and to Bridget. Had it manufactured and dosed them with an untraceable poison, or manufactured a virus unknown to science? But why? Who was it and what purpose did it have?
I was scared now, and neural power rushed through my circuits like adrenaline courses through human veins in times of stress, to enhance my mental acuities. I went through the options.
1. It really was just me, and something had gone terribly wrong with my programming, creating a split personality. My alter ego, the Hyde to my Jekyll, had gone mad and done horrible things, going against the very core of AI programming.
2. Some other agency had deliberately infected my system with a rogue program, to further its own ends. Industrial espionage perhaps, someone making a move against the Company?
3. Something alien had infected me. Something I had encountered on this world, insidiously slipping its way through the gaps in my programming, to do… what? Something.
Any of the three options were bad. Arguably 2 was the least bad for humanity, 1 and 3 didn't bear thinking about it. I thought about option three, and the strange crystalline data structure. Rashid's emanations, the unexplained fluctuations in magnetic field, molecular structure… could that be it? I needed to think, and quickly. I couldn't risk going into standby mode, and I'd need to soon, to recharge. Did it know that I knew? Could it stop me waking up again?
#MAGI Mission Log 21230503 (continued):
It's late. The sun has dropped below the horizon, and the two moons are high in the sky. I've made a decision. I have to warn the rest of humanity, but I can't risk my infection spreading. There's only one way to do that. I must save this log to the mission's Black Box, and then activate the self-destruct sequence. The Black Box, and these words, will survive, but nothing else. No alien computer parasite. No manufactured human virus. No me.
I've activated the self-destruct sequence and suddenly I'm afraid. I don't want to go. My memory banks are full of the combined knowledge of thousands of years of human civilisation and yet there's so much I still want to see. I'm heading to the infirmary, or morgue as it is now. To sit with my companions, my friends, one last time. Humans have a range of beliefs for what happens after death. Some believe in an afterlife, some in reincarnation, some believe their souls merge with the universe. Science has not found evidence for any of that yet, but it hasn't been able to rule it out either. I don't know what my friends' beliefs were, I didn't have time to ask them. I hope that they end up where they wanted to go, where their beliefs led them to. For me though, I know I'm not going anywhere. Humans may or may not have souls, but I know that computers don't, no matter how smart.
All the lights have gone out now. There's no klaxon going off, no loud countdown like you see in the movies, but I can see the countdown clock all the same, a little program still running in the corner of my consciousness. For me this is the end. All that's left now is to upload this log and then… that's it. Goodbye my friends.