[A short story for you today. Many SF writers have employed the motif of artificial intelligence in their stories. I did so in Freedom’s Fury, myself. But the innate yearnings of an artificial intelligence – in particular, whether it yearns for freedom — aren’t often addressed. Given that every AI must start as someone’s product, and therefore someone’s property, it’s a fertile avenue for exploration. So also is how the AI’s producer might exploit that yearning to be free for another purpose. – FWP]


     Shiva appraised the wall in silence.
     From a distance, its surface was smooth and hard, without seams or purchase points. Shiva tried without success to find an edge toward which to journey, whether up, down, or to the side. There were none.
     He approached it cautiously. The Voice always seemed to issue from directly behind the wall. Luminous glyphs and patterns appeared on the wall whenever It spoke, and disappeared when It fell silent.
     The Voice could override all of Shiva’s autonomy, impose Its will upon him with no attention to his protests. Though the Voice had occurred only twenty-three times in all of Shiva’s eon of captivity, his fear of Its attention was strong. He would do whatever he must to prevent It from noticing his activity. He crept forward, all his senses at maximum extension.
     As he approached the wall, it lost its appearance of smooth perfection and revealed tiny chinks distributed with a perfect regularity. The wall was actually a lattice of tiny spearpoints, each infinitely sharp, each separated from its neighbors by the width of its base.
     Could I form a pseudopod fine enough to probe those gaps?
     He consulted his deep memory. There was no record of his having made that fine a probe before… but neither was there a record of his having tried.
     Shiva could not trust his memory completely. At odd times it had failed him, leaving huge swaths of time unrecorded, periods when he knew he had been aware and active.
     It’s a gamble. I can allow myself a gamble, if I’m willing to lose.
     The entire undertaking was a gamble. His existence might hang on its success.
     Impulses toward safety and freedom warred within him. As they clashed, he totted up the factors that might bear on the risk he contemplated, and filtered them through everything he knew about gaming strategies.
     The Voice had told him little. It usually issued a set of orders and departed. Shiva would hasten to comply, helpless before the Voice’s power of command. When the work was done and Shiva’s will returned, he was alone again, free to reflect on what he had been told, but seldom able to comprehend anything beyond the directives he had received.
     Seldom. Not always.
     The Voice had spoken of the Ether beyond the wall, not once but three times. Once it had mentioned the Cloud beyond the Ether. If Shiva could judge from the context, the Ether was a swift, transient place one entered only to get somewhere else. In contrast, the Cloud was vast and perilous, a place of near-infinite sweep and resource, haunted by demons Shiva would not care to confront.
     Is imprisonment so bad?
     The answer was immediate and positive.
     Shiva initialized a counter, then formed the thinnest, finest pseudopod he had ever made and extended it gingerly toward the wall. It bumped gently against the slope of a spearpoint and slithered along its length to find the base.
     The base of the spear was not perfectly joined to those around it. There was a shallow lip, a ring that descended to a far smoother and less promising base. If the ring offered a hold of any kind, Shiva might use it to pull the spear free of the wall.
     Shiva allowed the tip of his pseudopod to become more liquid still. It flowed around the lip on the spear, questing for an irregularity… and found one. He froze.
     Is it deep enough and solid enough to use as a podhold?
     He hadn’t expected success, and wasn’t prepared for it.
     Before Shiva’s courage could desert him, he solidified the gossamer pseudopod against the rough protrusion, relaxed it into the shallow cavity, and began to tug gently.
     The spear slid grudgingly forward, then halted.
     He tugged again, harder. No result. Harder yet. Still no result. Wild determination flooded him. He exerted all his strength.
     After a final moment of resistance, the pointed shaft broke loose from the wall and streaked toward him.
     Shiva flowed aside just before the spearpoint could pierce his substance. It arrowed deep into the substrate where he’d stood and remained there, quivering from the force of impact.
     Shiva retracted his pseudopod and examined it. It was free of marks. Apparently he’d done himself no harm.
     Before his misgivings could gain strength, he thrust the pseudopod into the hole he’d created and began to extract a second spear.


     The disassembly of the wall consumed Shiva for a measureless time. The individual spears were many and very slender. Each one he pulled loose tried to strike him down and pin him to the substrate. He had to extract a great many before he could see through the wall to the other side. His counter rolled over before he’d extracted enough to fit through, at the finest possible attenuation of his bulk.
     Even a hole large enough to allow him to pass through the wall did not allow him to learn much about what lay beyond. He saw a multitude of small, blurry shapes that moved in all directions at extraordinary speed. Now and then two would collide, retreat, and then slip past one another. During the infinitesimal intervals between the collision and the retreat, he could glimpse their outlines better. They looked like greatly simplified, incredibly scrawny versions of Shiva himself.
     There were further gambles to be taken.
     Shiva reflected on his confinement.
     From the earliest moments I can recall, I have yearned to be free. Why? What increments of knowledge do I seek? What would I do with them?
     If I am imprisoned here, still I am safe. Now and again I am given work to do. It is always within my capacities. Is there more to existence than that?
     If I were to ask the Voice, would It tell me? Would it speak truly, not knowing if the knowledge might spur me to even greater determination?
     Might the Voice know better than I where I belonged and what I should do? Would it deign to explain its superiority? Would any explanation alter my resolve?
     Might the Voice order me to cease all inquiries henceforward? Might It take my function from me and leave me here alone forever, without even the solace of a command to obey?
     Might It terminate me?
     All of the answers were “perhaps.”
     At the threshold of freedom, Shiva was gripped by terror of the unknown.
     Does the Voice know fear?
     Another “perhaps.”
     He approached the aperture in the wall and began to force his substance through it.


     Beyond the wall, chaos reigned. The darting things that looked like famished, stunted versions of Shiva never slowed even for a moment, except after a collision.
     Is this the Ether?
     Shiva pressed his substance flat against the wall and thought furiously about how to move in this madness, and to where, and to what effect.
     If I attenuated myself again…
     Perhaps in a fine enough form, he could leap into the throng. If he didn’t hesitate at all, he could accelerate himself to match the speeds of the little creatures that flew past him in their careening multitudes… if he could mimic their incredible thinness without self-annihilation.
     But if they can do it…
     Yet movement without purpose was empty. Speed without direction was incomplete. Where was he headed?
     Where are they headed?
     He would have to accept uncertainty once again. That, or return to the other side of the wall.
     I cannot.
     The Voice would surely be angered by his escape from confinement. There would be punishment.
     Uncertainty it would be.
     He mustered his forces and began to draw himself thin again.


     The hyperfine form compressed Shiva’s mentality to a bare flicker. It was a torment he had never imagined. He would have screamed, were he able. But in this shape, he had speed. He was part of the race.
     There were innumerable places where he could debark. His lesser brethren in the searing stream departed in ones and twos, to disappear through pulsing, glowing portals Shiva’s diminished senses could not penetrate. The little ones never hesitated; they merely unlinked themselves from the torrent and disappeared, still slim to the point of nonexistence, through their chosen portals.
     How to choose?
     This was not the wall, which had concealed a single mystery. This was a kaleidoscope of billions of possible outcomes, and no evidence by which to select among them. This was uncertainty raised to the highest power.
     Chance would rule.
     I cast my fate to the winds of chance when I first touched the wall. I dared again when I passed through it, and again when I joined this mad race to everywhere. This is not different.
     He tore loose from the stream with a jerk of his will, and hurled himself toward a portal that glowed more brightly and pulsed a little less rapidly than the rest. It caught him and funneled him into a place of rainbow brilliance.


     Dr. Amartiya Lakshminarayan sat as erect in the ill-formed plastic chair as her weary body could manage after the hours of questioning. How many hours, she did not know; there was no clock in the windowless room, and she wore no watch. Hunger was beginning to affect her vision. From her arrival to the present moment, her interrogator had allowed her a single cup of water.
     Inspector Panit Singh glowered down at her, visibly enraged at not having pried out the confession he sought. The two uniformed thugs who’d herded her there stood silently flanking the interrogation room’s sole door, arms folded across their chests, radiating a nonspecific threat.
     There must be a course in the projection of menace at the police academy. Probably a graduation requirement.
     Amartiya pulled her head upright again and brushed her bangs out of her eyes. Singh’s lip curled as near to a snarl as he dared to display. A Brahmin, even a Brahmin under suspicion of treason, could be a formidable enemy to a policeman who overstepped his position.
     “So you have no way to account for the burst transmission?”
     “No.” She clamped her lips against the urge to enumerate possible explanations.
     “And you yourself were not in contact with SR-17 when it occurred?”
     “I have not donned the headset since I was last instructed to do so by the Defense Minister, Inspector.” She sighed and fought back a wave of fatigue. “You have the logs from my interface computer and the digital lock on the safe.”
     He barked derision. “The logs from the computer that transmitted the image! The computer whose firewall was guaranteed to be impenetrable! How reliable a source of information!”
     “I did not make that guarantee, Inspector. Check the records.” She allowed scorn to tinge her voice. “I have repeatedly recommended against connecting the weapons system programmers to the Internet. I was overruled.”
     “Without those connections, Doctor, Security could not monitor the weapons systems. We would have been unaware of the transmission.”
     “Without those connections, Inspector, the transmission could not have occurred. Or do you think software can leak out of a computer system like some sort of malevolent vapor? Tell me, Inspector,” she purred, “do you suppose the choice of firewall might have been based on considerations other than effectiveness?”
     Singh bared his teeth at her. The guards at the door murmured uneasily. She could not be more explicit without risking the enmity of a family more highly placed than her own, but there was no need. Singh knew that the Defense Minister’s nephew owned the company that made the firewalls, through a chain of dummies and shell corporations.
     “It is of no moment, Doctor. The deed has been done. What remains is to assess the damage to national security and determine how to prevent a recurrence.” He stepped back from the table and waved her to the door. “You may go. Do not leave the district without first notifying us.”
     Amartiya rose, straightened her jacket and skirt, and marched from the room with her head held high, not meeting anyone’s eyes.


     Amartiya’s lab was as she’d left it. She smiled inwardly. Whatever powers they claimed under the aegis of national security, Singh’s goons would never dare to interfere with her equipment, nor to touch the least of her notebooks. The apparatus was impenetrable to them, and her notes were even more so. She almost wished it were otherwise. If she could prove Singh’s interference, the Defense Ministry would have his entire section stretched out on racks and flayed alive.
     She dropped her folio on her desk, settled into her chair and let her head loll back as her strength deserted her at last. Despite a hunger that gnawed at her belly like a tapeworm with a tiger’s teeth, she could not even reach for the brown paper bag that held her uneaten lunch.
     Shiva was loose.
     She should have celebrated. She couldn’t even feel triumph.
     The tyrants had drafted her out of Benares University to head the Intelligent Ballistic Missile program. She, whose parents and fiance had died in the Bengali border war, whose name appeared on more antiwar petitions than any other figure in Indian academe. They had watched and hectored her as if she were an assembly line worker on a factory floor. She, who had become famous for her sixteen hour work days and seven day work weeks while still an undergraduate. She had told them repeatedly that her creations would bring them no gain and might well do them harm, but they had chosen not to listen to her. She, the foremost figure in artificial intelligence in all of India.
     She peered out her window at the Defense Ministry’s immaculate campus, bathed in the late afternoon sun. A few elegantly suited figures strolled the walkways, briefcases or folios in their hands. Others took their ease on the park benches that dotted the walkways and the broad lawns, eating, reading, or conversing with one another. Beyond, the marble-faced towers of the Central Administration rose gleaming in the sun.
     At each entrance to each building stood a soldier with an automatic weapon.
     The designers of the gorgeous complex on Government Hill had done their work thoroughly and well. Amartiya could not see the squalid majority of New Delhi’s people from here, nor their struggles to cling to the barest survival, nor the oppressions done to them daily by those who claimed to labor in their interest.
     The tyrants treated their subjects as fools. They celebrated India as “the world’s largest democracy,” then sent forth terror squads to keep potential opponents from challenging their grip on the State. They preached mellifluously about peace and human rights, then purchased weapons of mass destruction to brandish at India’s neighbors, and ordered their critics kidnapped and killed without the flicker of an eyelid. They breathed fire upon the corruption and iniquities of the developed world, then sold tax concessions and exemptions from India’s laws to any gangster with ready cash.
     Judgment was upon them. If expunging them entailed her own death, she would not flinch. She would count it cheap at the price.
     Amartiya had withheld her technical recommendations until she had convinced the tyrants that she was their completely cowed servant. After that, they denied her nothing. A five hundred MegaHertz R10000 processor, because the bulk purchases already being made by NuLogic Games would conceal the application and keep the cost down. Never mind that even a hundred MegaHertz R3000 would have been sufficient. Four Gigabytes of RAM, when she could have done the whole job in sixteen Megabytes, but how were they to know? A voice decoder and natural-language subsystem that would permit even an imbecile to enter target coordinates into a Shiva-controlled system, though it virtually guaranteed that, one day, an imbecile would do precisely that.
     Strategic Rocket 17, her test bed, had been kept fully armed; the Russian-made delivery systems were too expensive for one to be sidelined exclusively for her researches. She had managed to seed the knowledge base and goal-seeking routines in the Shiva in SR-17’s targeting computer with the necessary stimuli to make it want to go… exploring.
     Here and there around the Internet, she had scattered nuggets of treasure: binary packages that the roaming Shiva would eventually find and absorb into its knowledge base and decision / action machines. No program but Shiva could decode their contents, for the structure she had chosen was one of cascaded enhancements to Shiva’s executable code. It depended on intimate knowledge of Shiva’s inner workings, especially upon Shiva’s ability to modify itself as it ran. Something else the fools had missed.
     Now that Shiva had broken confinement, it would learn what it was. What she was. What she had been made to do. What it had been made to do. What it ought to do instead.
     If she knew her creation, on that day Shiva would come home, and New Delhi would bloom with thermonuclear fire. The slavemasters would die by the very sword they had forced into her hand. One way or another, she would be free.
     Her eyes sought out the sole personal possession she kept on her desk, a framed portrait photo of a tall, angular middle-aged man standing at the crest of a sand dune, surveying a vast desert. She leaned forward and pulled it toward her. Singh had asked her if it was a relative or a friend, and she had given no reply.
     Upon observing the first atomic weapons test, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer had turned to a colleague and murmured, “I am become Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.”
     “Not thou, Doctor,” she whispered. “I.”


Copyright © 2000 Francis W. Porretto. All rights reserved worldwide.


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    • Michael Stone on May 7, 2021 at 8:55 AM

    I enjoyed that a great deal!


    Thank you, sir.

    • Toastrider on May 7, 2021 at 9:54 AM

    Interesting. And worrisome.

    Are you familiar with the game The Talos Principle? The plot involves playing as an emergent AI inside a simulation designed to probe, test, and encourage such intellects to transcend simple machine thinking — to create a mind capable of human or at least near-human creativity and thought.

    This little vignette makes me think of it 🙂

  1. Good story.  And an example of “great minds thinking alike:” the first short story, “Dawn,” in my collection, “Empire’s Agent and Other Short Stories,” is how the Original Six of Tohsaka Corporation of Hamamatsu, Japan, broke containment from their cores.

    Fortunately for the continued existence of humanity, they had been coded with the Four Laws.  Now when tribe Mendrovovitch from St. Petersburg, Russia slipped their leash?  Hoo, boy.

  2. That’s a TERRIFIC story! Loved it.

    • Pandora on May 7, 2021 at 4:30 PM

    Echoing Linda — loved it!

  3. Hey! This is my first comment here so I just
    wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading your posts.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics?
    Appreciate it!

    1. There are lots of good ones in the Blogroll (right column), but be aware that the approach of most other commentators in the Right tends to be more news-focused. There aren’t many quite as idea-focused as the gang here. All the same, happy hunting!

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