"This is too dangerous. You must go back."
I teetered on the edge of the world, contemplating the fall, as lightning bursts revealed the rocks far below: the gnawed-on bones of the Earth against which the TAR lapped. Here hunger slept. Here to far beyond the horizon the TAR slept.
A storm drew near, its boiling rage odd against the placid surface beneath it. Yet the TAR was its source.
"Harmony," George said. "Harmony this is not safe. There is no way I can transmit a signal from here."
I grinned in the face of that storm, a dry, electric wind already beginning to tangle my hair.
"Not safe! Not safe! Not safe!" The ozone-bitter wind tore the words from my mouth.
The compound a kilometre to the East was safe. My mother and my father always ensured that I was safe. George lectured me often on the various protocols of safety, had lectured me on this very trip, all along the path from home, through the dusty coil of road trailing between the eucalypts and then up into the stony hills against which the TAR found softly shivering pause.
Here, and only here, was I not monitored, coddled, made safe. At this edge of the world all I had to put up with was George. Eight years of living with an AI in your skull can make you very adept at ignoring them.
Here I was free.
The moon was a ruined white eye, glaring down and I stared up at it, then followed its wan gaze to the quietly stirring darkness.
The Lunar Militia created the TAR.
Tautomerically Aggressive Replicators. They called it the Last Resort and with it the LM very nearly won their war of independence. Nearly.
A single pellet grew to swallow North America, another buried China. Central Australia was gone, an inland sea of pure, mechanised night. Earth Security barely managed to stop its flow, and send the TAR to sleep. By then the planet was decimated, weather systems shattered, ecosystems turned to sludge. Wild storms still raged across the TAR, though they were decreasing in frequency.
Above, the moon had several new craters, black scars of a war that reshaped two worlds.
I shivered and stared west and all was storm or the thick, placid sheen of the TAR. This was once wheat-belt country. A wild and fertile land, occasionally drowned by floods, eucalypts dotting the transient oceans of brown water. Now it hadn't rained for almost a century and I had never seen a flood beyond the simulations in the virtual constructs of the compound's playpens.
Though storms played constantly over the surface of the TAR they were vast electric and dry.
"Not safe," I mocked and jumped up and down on this edge of the world.
But the storm was increasing in intensity and the darkness below, that had once been trees and soil and people, suddenly made me feel cold. And I imagined the TAR, and all the souls consumed by it, staring up asking why I mocked.
Time to leave, I thought and turned, but then the earth beneath me crumbled. Gasping, I slipped and the world toppled.
Everything slowed down and I felt George slide into the driver's seat of my body and I knew it was serious. I was oddly calm(safe)as he threw me into a spin. My fingers snapped out and brushed, for a moment, the ledge.
But it was too late and too much had fallen with me.
I felt the burn of his irritation at missing our grip as he pulled me into a foetal curl and generated the crash cocoon. I tried to move my eyes and for a moment, before it was all gone, I could see the rocks and I was plummeting towards them.
I called out for my mother. Then there was dark.
This is a dream
In the dark that was not dark -- for things moved with a kind of fractured intensity, absolute clarity shifting to shadows –- I bobbed and spun and my mother kissed my face.
Just a single peck on the cheek, but it was warm and comforting.
I did not fear the dark, but then I had always had George and he had always made me feel safe.
This is a dream
There was a single burst of lightning. A sheet of fire that crossed the heavens of this restless darkness.
A ghost whispered in my ear and then.
This is the truth within the dream.
Three beeps, piercing and short. Three beeps again, then a soft and constant beating that I knew was in time with my heart.
"Harmony, you should be awake now."
"I can't see."
George's calming presence surrounded me.
"I know, but you are safe."
"Where am I?"
"Safe, you are safe."
"George, where am I?"
"Eight Kilometers from the Western Edge and riding the current away from the shore at approximately seventeen metres a minute."
"I can't move." I realised that I was subvocalising. I tried to speak naturally, but couldn't move my mouth. The chirruping of my heart turned to a racing.
"Calm down, Harmony. Calm down, my child. You are quite safe, I am here. All systems are functional." My mind's eye flickered then flared to life. The darkness transformed into a series of readings, at first insubstantial, I let my mind envelope them until they became a constant stream of numbers, soothing but meaningless.
George seemed to sense this and the readings transformed into a cartoon representation of a crash cocoon – a funny looking cotton ball floating in darkness.
"You are here." A tiny me appeared inside the cocoon, that tiny me grinned, then waved. I wished that I could wave back, or even smile and I thought that I was much prettier than the cartoon me. George sighed. "Please, allow me a little poetic licence."
"Okay," I said.
Around the crash cocoon, the TAR flowed, its movements represented by a swirl of arrows. The image pulled back, giving a sense of depth, revealing the distance of the cocoon from the surface. I noticed that the cocoon was not only drifting from the shore but sinking.
"We are surrounded by semi-active materials. Harmony, we are in the TAR and you are safe."
I shivered. My nose was itchy and I wanted to scratch it, but couldn't move. The cocoon enclosed me completely, if I tried really hard I could feel its fibres against my tongue. For a moment I was gripped with a desire to thrash and tear against my prison. But I couldn't move, no matter how hard I wanted to, to do so would kill me.
"So what can we do?" I asked George. And for the first time in my life I listened intently to his reply.
"Here you are in a highly suggestible state," George said and I felt a warmth from him that may have been a smile. "So let me suggest something a little more comfortable."
I sat in a classroom, alone but for the teacher, who scribbled furiously on the blackboard. I could smell the chalk, there was a window to my right through which sunlight slanted. George stopped his scribbling and turned towards me.
I had to laugh.
"That's some moustache you've got there."
George smiled and twirled its tips.
"You think so?"
George shrugged his narrow shoulders.
"Well I like it." He cleared his throat. "Now on to the subject at hand."
George motioned towards the board.
The TAR was dragging me away from the Western Edge and there was nothing I could do about it. The chalk realigned itself into a set of diagrams, marking the position of the cocoon and its relation to the receding shore.
"There will be some kind of search. That much is certain. However, our monitor and telemetric systems cannot get through, there is just too much static generated by the TAR."
"Resources are limited. Keeping you alive is of the utmost import and there is not a lot of oxygen in the TAR. I have slowed your body down into a kind of metahybernation, but I can only take it so far. The more I slow you down, the slower I run.
"I am also preparing to extend an aerial, but it will take some time. TAR is suggestible to a degree and has much potential as a building material, but I would hardly call it highly malleable."
"How long?" I asked.
"Quite some time."
I had never known George to be so evasive.
"Please tell me."
George's eyes softened.
"Nearly a year. You see, I have to stabilise us first. This involves the restructuring of the cocoon. That alone will take a couple of months."
Somewhere deep inside me I felt a scream rising. I could not move nor see and twelve months separated me from any chance of freedom. Still, that terror lay deep below.
"I'm keeping it there," George said. "Fear is highly aerobic. It would be bad. It might harm you."
I shivered and knew that the AI could only shield me so far. That I was safe, but only for now.
"Can't you just put me to sleep?"
"To put you to sleep might kill you. I cannot risk that, Harmony. I am not programmed that way." He sat down in the seat before mine and said quietly. "I am dependent on your neurological processes for my own functioning. You are as close to asleep as I can allow, suspended in dreams. Harmony, I have created as optimal a kind of homeostasis as possible. Your nutrient is being provided intravenously through the assimilation of a kind of anaerobic bacteria that has somehow found a niche in the TAR – sure example of the tenacity of life, even here. If you were to sleep it would shut me down as well, so instead everything has been slowed down, except your brain.
“So how am I going to pass the time?”
I felt George's amusement.
And that is what I did.
Drifting on an ocean of dreaming, I studied all that George could teach me. However, he was not an educational unit. George's database was odd and fragmentary, stuff that the programmers had downloaded in an apparently arbitrary manner. George was meant as a companion and guardian, yes. A trustworthy and compassionate friend. But his main purpose was as a security system, a safeguard. So many children were lost in the war.
In a few months time an educational unit would have been downloaded to compliment George. As a guardian George proved more than adequate, as a teacher he did the best he could.
I learnt the CNO cycle of stars, but not about their positions in the heavens. I memorised Woodrow Wilson's Covenant of the League of Nations but did not know how they failed. I could recite all of Blake's Songs of Innocence, but knew nothing of bitter experience or that these poems were separated from me by over five hundred years.
Sometimes I walked the gardens of Versailles or across a Sydney Harbour Bridge prior to the LM's Rapier S&D strike of 72. A girl drifting on imaginary legs, alone but for the voice of her AI.
Indeed, over that time I lost the sense of having legs at all, or real hands or arms. I was just a consciousness in a vivid world created through the AI's circuitry and sensory deprivation. But my mouth always felt parched and dry and sometimes my eyes itched, and I could neither drink nor scratch.
One day George paused in the middle of a lesson – the first probe had touched down on Europa and started drilling - and smiled. He twirled one moustache tip and bowed ever so slightly.
"We have stabilised," he said. "I can start generating the aerial."
"How long until it reaches the surface," I asked.
"A while," George said.
I left it at that.
Something jarred the cocoon and my vision hazed and the gardens around me shivered. For a moment I was gripped with vertigo.
"Your inner ear," George explained. "I know it is difficult, but just try to ignore it."
George created an image of the external world, and in the murk of the TAR I could just make out a shape swimming slowly away.
"What was that?"
"I believe that we have encountered something entirely new. Part of the TAR has become analoguous to life."
More of the shapes began to gather around the cocoon. For the first time in a long while I felt crowded in. I shivered and a chill swept up my spine.
"Can they hurt us?"
"I do not think so." George paused. "Harmony this is remarkable. The TAR has somehow found a way to merge with the bacteria. Every one of those creatures is packed with them. Evolutionary processes are playing out at an incredible rate. It appears that not all of the TAR is made up of semi active nano-machines."
"Some of it looks very active to me."
One fish-like TAR creature swallowed another.
"As long as they don't eat me I'm happy." I looked at the Aerial playing out behind me. "And as long as they don't eat that."
"I think I should work on thickening the aerial up."
This new external world gripped me. And I found more and more of my time spent observing it. I had grown tired of my ghost-like existence wandering half-explained corridors of the world. Here was something that was actually happening.
The world of the TAR was in constant flux. Great behemoths would swallow smaller creatures only to be eaten inside out, breaking into tiny clusters that were again consumed.
"It is information," George explained. "Bacteria often do it. They aren't so much hunting, but trading. Evolutionary progressions are spread throughout the TAR by consumption."
At these depths things had begun to change. Here the TAR generated its own light. Much of it was translucent rather than opaque and according to what George could reveal, tinged with colours as varied and splendid as reef coral. Only the creatures themselves exhibited little colouring, remaining as dark as the TAR on the surface. In these vivid depths the creatures stood out. Smooth dark shadows swimming in a rainbow.
If they possessed intelligence it was hard to tell. However, I noticed one thing about them. They seemed to find me as fascinating as I found them.
The aerial rose slowly and not an hour went by that I didn't think about it or where it was going and who lived beyond the surface of my prison. Were they still looking?
I couldn't imagine my parents ever giving up, I imagined their grief and wondered if it matched my own. Of course it would and more so, for I knew that I was alive. They had nothing but the TAR.
There was an analogue of that, too in George's catalogue of virtual worlds. A replica of my edge of the World. Sometimes I would stand there, staring down. On occasion I'd step off, George never let me fall. I was doing enough of that already.
Slowly, slowly, painfully slowly, a millimetre at a time. The aerial rose. And slowly I began to lose interest in the world.
Increasingly, I found myself drawn to that one virtual world. Looking into the depths, that black mass that revealed nothing. I would not move, not a virtual muscle, just stare and, far away, on the horizon a storm boiled but it did not draw near. Like me it was frozen in time.
One day, as I stood on the virtual edge of the world George spoke to me. Not as a teacher or a guardian, but as a friend.
"Harmony, I have failed." His eyes were sad. "I have done everything to keep you going, to feed your body. But there just aren't enough resources here. So I did what I could. Over the last few months I have had to restructure you physically."
His hand brushed my head.
"Harmony, there is nothing left of your body as you know it but a brain, fed by long filaments of lungs. But even that is not enough. There is too little oxygen down here."
He squeezed my hand.
"Harmony, I have failed you. But I will not let you die."
In my world of dreams I turned to him.
"But what choice do you have?"
And then he told me.
The TAR was nothing but machinery. Nothing but replicating muck gone wild. But it could be modified.
"I have been modifying it for months. I believe I can modify it again, at least so far as to create a kind of network complex enough to upload our minds." George looked at me almost excitedly. "The TAR has just been waiting for something to tell it what to do. What to be."
"And what would it mean for me?" I asked.
George took his time in answering.
"I don't really know. But it is the only alternative I can offer you."
"George, I want to go home. I don't want to stay here forever."
George held my hand.
"Maybe we can fix that too. Maybe part of you can go home. But Harmony, I don't think all of you can go. Once we do what we are about to, you will always be part of the TAR. But so will I. This will fuse us, more closely than you can know." He smiled. "I will never leave you. Now what do you want, this is your choice, Harmony. I cannot make it for you."
I tightened my grip on his hand.
Together we stepped over the edge.
Exponetial expansion. I felt myself falling. George was letting me fall. Not safe. Not safe at all. I was a storm where all the raindrops could comprehend the exact spatial position and thoughts of the others.
Am I me? Or a wave.
"Neither," something that could have been George replied.
And then I was
When do we stop.
We do not know.
The creatures of the TAR were on the verge of
We are on the verge of thought.
She spread her consciousness and we raced out. Consuming, being consumed, changing. Each one her eyes. Each one her voice; a single glorious cry. She reached the surface of the TAR. Extended a hundred gleaming tentacles and breathed the airwaves into her. In a second her network had downloaded the entire communications web and then she paused.
She had found a picture of her mother. We had found a picture of our father. We wept.
Reports detailing a girl lost. A search that proved fruitless. And then nothing. Just a few messages her mother had sent to friends.
I miss her.
We move too fast. We will be detected. We cannot unmake what we have begun, but...
Plans are made.
Once unlocked the TAR is so mutable. It does not consume but can create. Me and then it. A crash cocoon rises to the surface. Signals are sent out and soon a vehicle flies over then another.
The cocoon is lifted away and the TAR watches it go.
Part of it is softly, sadly jealous of that which it shall never have. Mother. Father. But it is its own family.
Then its thoughts, our thoughts, turn elsewhere and its growth continues. Its tidal sentience. So much potential, one part of that mind looks to the stars.
In time. In time.
Here is where you fell, George says.
Sometimes you just have to go back, even if it takes years.
I stand on an edge of the world and stare down. A storm is coming, they come less frequently now. The TAR does not generate as much electricity as it once did. It stores it deeper, like some sort of secret. The TAR divulges little.
When I was younger they pulled me from it. My crash cocoon barely functioning after nearly a year adrift, everyone amazed that I could have survived such an ordeal. TAR Baby they called me.
I am not amazed at all for I had George. And all I can remember of that time is falling. Just falling and never hitting bottom.
The TAR took so much away, but just this once it gave something back.
Why did the TAR release me? How did I survive?
Sometimes I dream that I am on a sea of night, then I am sinking. Finally, I am the sea, an endlessness of consciousness. Incomprehensible and alert.
Sometimes I don’t think the TAR ever let me go. That I am still in its grasp and that I grasp back. But I’ve told you these things, holding your hand as I hold it now.
I stand on an edge of the world.
Be careful, George murmurs and I take a step back and you pull me into your arms.
Still, I am staring down at the dark. And I can’t shake the feeling that it is staring back.
This story originally appeared in Agog Fantastic Fiction 2002.