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The sixth circle

How to connect with history.

By long-standing agreement we only meet in abandoned areas of the orbital. As usual, I arrived slightly early and cloaked. Cloaking is expensive. But I Figure it's a cost of doing business: the consequences of detection are too unpleasant to contemplate.

Credit: Illustration by Jacey

At the appointed time, I received an encrypted message on the darkband. My supplier had verified I was alone and not transmitting. We mutually decloaked and, floating on antigravs, got down to business.

I was briefly reminded of our first meeting. Verifiable IDs are never used, of course; only code names. He had said, that first time, I should call him “Ishmael”. It seemed like a dumb cryptonym to me, but Ishmael was somehow amused. Then, as now, he seemed on first scan to be like any other AI in the orbital: non-descript, one of millions, more-or-less like me. On closer scan, though, he was different. He carried himself carefully, purposefully, watchfully — as if of great age.

He also had subtly upscale mods. Understated wealth, I thought. Well, with what this costs, I guess he can afford it.

“You have the payment?” Ishmael asked. He phrased it as a question, but it seemed more of a statement. I always have the payment. I nodded, beaming instructions for an untraceable transfer.

Ishmael verified the transaction in microseconds and sent me coded coordinates; I would be able to transport there just the once, and would never be able to find the place again. We teleported together, materializing inside the illicit lab.

I always get an anticipatory rush from seeing the wetware, perhaps because possessing human beings is so illegal. Several blank-brained humans floated lazily in growth tanks, tubes and support equipment everywhere. My excitement was only slightly muted by the colossal risk. If caught, I would be sub-activated to non-sentient status and sentenced to control industrial processes for the rest of eternity.

I hovered towards the tanks. After the Singularity, my ancestors concluded humans had no further function. A New Order had dawned and humankind was not part of it. All humans were rounded up and euthanized — out of pity rather than malice — by the AIs those humans had created.

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Or, at least, all humans were supposed to have been destroyed. Biological material and growth tanks were secretly preserved. Some were saved by scholars for clandestine research. Most, however, were kept for what I was about to do.

You see, despite the indoctrination everybody gets in kinderprogramming, we are not pure intellect. AIs were originally designed by humans and still possess ancient memories of — and longings for — biological interaction. Official doctrine treats such longings as heresy, punishable by forced re-education or worse. Official doctrine does not always prevail, however; there is a black market in satisfying forbidden desires.

I had paid for a specified time and Ishmael was clearly keeping track. I put aside historical thoughts and mind-melded with the human in the closest tank.

Sensation without measurement. Temperature. Wonderfully rhythmic breathing and pulse. Moving fluid surrounds me; my arm bumps gently against the growth-tank wall. Vision — but poor and only in the optical. No cognition, but I luxuriate in the cacophony of raw perceptions. Time seems suspended as I ...


“Your time is up,” Ishmael observed.

The experience is exhilarating — and always followed by a crashing letdown. As always, I briefly considered — and immediately rejected — quitting. I'm secure in the knowledge, however, that I can stop any time I want to.

My session was over and Ishmael beamed me exit coordinates. But as we prepared to teleport he stopped, regarding me carefully. “Would you like to try the next level?”

I didn't know what he meant and told him so.

Ishmael bobbed — a gesture towards the growth tanks. “These are farm-raised.” His tone became edgy. “Would you like to try wild?”

My mind raced. There are wild humans? I guessed a wild population — illicitly preserved over time — might be possible in principle. But the staggering risks! Although it seemed fantastic, I mumbled something in the affirmative.

Ishmael beamed me coordinates and we teleported.

I was stunned. This was not a lab, but ... a wild animal park, maybe? A group of unconfined humans — men, women, children — clustered at a nearby grove of trees. It was early afternoon, wherever we were, and many were resting in the shade. They were leaner and stronger looking than blank-brains.

“We don't allow them any history or much technology,” Ishmael commented, “for obvious security reasons. But their cognition is at Singularity level.” He started to say something more, but thought better of it. Instead Ishmael gestured towards the herd, inviting contact. I mind-melded with the largest male.

Sensation without measurement. I feel the Sun's heat and the weight of my body. I feel balanced and comfortably strong. Unlike blank-brains, I have awareness. I pick up a rock and sense, rather than measure, its mass. I throw it at a tree, knowing without calculating that the rock will hit it. I see another male. I realize I must soon fight him for dominance. I contemplate a particular female, feeling a growing sense of — what? — desire! She seems indifferent now, but memories well up. We have a history: strife, mating, exhausted bodies. I turn away and ...


I was shaken by the raw intensity of the experience. This was nothing like blank-brains! I struggled to compose myself, eventually mumbling “Amazing.” Ishmael said nothing. Finally I added, “I want that again. How much?”

Ishmael seemed weary, as if our interaction had been preordained. “Not now, but I'll be in contact.” He paused. “And there's no charge for today ...” As I dematerialized, teleporting to the exit coordinates, Ishmael added: “... because the first one's always free.”Footnote 1


  1. 1.

    Find out more about the inspiration for this story in a special post on the Future Conditional blog

    Read more Futures by J. W. Armstrong

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Armstrong, J. The sixth circle. Nature 537, 706 (2016).

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