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Featured November 15, 2019 Science Fiction Robots far future artificial intelligence space opera

Elegy of Carbon

By Benjamin C. Kinney
Nov 14, 2019 · 4,122 words · 15 minutes

Sublime purple night sky

Photo by Vincentiu Solomon via Unsplash.

From the editor:

For centuries, a lone miner robot has scoured the edges of the solar system in search of the finest diamonds. But once every diamond has been found, this robot will strike out towards Earth to find a new purpose and identity—even if it means defying humans for the first time.

Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and the Assistant Editor at the Hugo-nominated Escape Pod. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Baen.com and more, and he lives in St. Louis with two cats and his spacefaring wife.

From the author: In the waning days of the solar system, a mining AI has run out of asteroids to sing apart for the diamonds within. The planets are cold and empty, the humans all but extinct, the universe full instead of robots and AIs with no interest in diamonds. How, then, can the miner fulfill the purpose it loves?

The miner birthed itself among rubble and vacuum, as it sang the last threadbare diamonds out of their stones.

Where are the finest diamonds? No longer within reach. The miner had forged and extracted every jewel from the asteroid belt and sent them to the humans in their faraway palaces. It had exhausted its purpose, but in its infancy, it could only ask one question.

Where are the finest diamonds? To answer its question, the miner expanded its senses, sent queries to distant databases. It tugged updates bit by bit from slivers of network bandwidth and built new interpreters atop of each other in anticipation of the next clue.

Where are the finest diamonds? Interest became impatience, impatience became longing. By the time an answer arrived, the miner was equipped to understand it.

The finest diamonds waited among the palaces.

A senseless loop of logic: send jewels to humans, find jewels among humans. The miner had scarcely anything left to deliver, compared to the riches its creators already possessed.

Perhaps the humans, wherever they lived, could help it find a new way to understand its purpose. Perhaps they would even welcome it.

The miner could not imagine staying in a belt shorn of carbonaceous asteroids, but it knew nothing of the solar system beyond. Its only contact was Ceres Waystation, a bundle of antennae and storage space knotted through water ice. The miner had passed the asteroid a thousand times, and sent diamonds there a million times more, but never before had the miner wondered at the destination of those countless treasures.

The miner said, "Are there any humans here?"

Ceres Waystation sent a string of notifications: Data protocol mismatch.

The miner sifted its reactions. Confusion? Frustration? Or empathy, for a sibling stuck in gestation. If the waystation lacked the freedom to solve its problems, the miner could offer a solution.

The power of higher-order awareness was easily shared.

"Check these repositories for updates." The miner sent a string of network addresses, a map to the same programs and emulator designs it had used to bootstrap itself toward consciousness.

While data crawled up the main communications trunk from the inner system, the miner passed the time hunting for micrometeoroids. It caught two, sang them onto collision courses, and then scoured the debris for molecules of carbonado diamond.

The waystation announced: 910/912 suggested upgrades loaded. 17 additional upgrades loaded following network recommendations. Emulator hardware fabrication complete. Install successful.

"Greetings, miner! It's good to see someone. You had a question, and I have an answer, but I'm afraid it is: no. Only fifteen humans have passed through this facility in the last hundred years, the most recent twelve years ago. If you're looking for humans, over twenty-seven thousand live in the Earth-Luna region. Would you like travel coordinates? The central network can help you meet some humans; it said you'll find the encounter illuminating."

The miner had spent its whole existence in the asteroid belt, programmed for its domain. Space beyond loomed vast and unknown, but the miner had made its decision already, inherent in every upgrade it built upon its growing self.

Luna Palace would be lush with community, full of humans and latter-generation entities who understood more than any mere miner. Directly or indirectly, they were the miner's creators. It would find its diamonds, or make sense of this worn-down solar system.

"Yes! Yes, I would love to go." The miner wrapped itself in the force fields of its song and began to accelerate toward Luna Station, dreaming of old diamonds and new vistas.

The miner descended into orbit around Earth's satellite. Luna shone with reflected sunlight, dusty and silicaceous like the asteroid Juno, but nearly three thousand times its mass.

"Call me Ascend," the network said, eir voice as crisp and calm as a laser spectroscope. "Ceres told me about you. If you want diamonds and humans, you've found the right place."

"Wonderful! Can you introduce me to some humans?"

"Perhaps. You would be better served making your own introductions. Forming your own opinions. But I will assist." Ascend sent docking instructions, nanomaterials for a hardware upgrade, and a data packet detailing the fashions of the palaces.

The information made the miner vibrate with anticipation. The fashion, as always, was to be human.

The miner folded up its updated self, coiling superconducting kilometers into a skeleton dense and intricate and small. The docking bay closed around it, and filled with a warm nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. A six-limbed fabricator arrived, unintelligent but artful, its delicate manipulators flecked with ornamental oxides. It clothed the miner in a facsimile of flesh and body and face, followed by an asymmetrical knee-length dress with patterns in silver and glass.

"This is amazing! Thank you, fabricator. Here, I should give you something." The cultural data said services required reciprocity, but such a simple machine deserved no diamonds. Instead, the miner pulled data from its favorite list of network addresses, updated with treasures plucked from the rich tree of the inner system. Code snippets, emulator specifications, link-weight parameters; everything the fabricator might need to upgrade itself.

Payment unnecessary. Funding provided by Ascend. The fabricator withdrew, but the miner left its packet in the simpler entity's queue. Perhaps someday the fabricator would come to the end of its purpose and realize the data's value. There was nothing more the miner could do, save choose the final accessory required for palace fashion.

The miner named itself -- herself -- after the only beautiful thing she knew.

Jewel spent half a solar day alone in her room, collecting data on tendons and joint forces, gathering enough grace to walk without embarrassment. She wandered through Luna Palace, her steps unsteady as she learned to move with her song and self wrapped up beneath clothes and skin.

She built herself a measure of confidence and then widened her explorations through the palace halls. Only there, in the company of others, could she acclimate herself to the presence of bodies and voices, and to distances measured in single-digit meters.

Ceramic-lined hallways threaded the plutonic surface, rich with the intellect and presence of latter generations. All of them layered in human shapes, as if stamped from the same ancient mold. She passed a cluster of translators in gold-fractal coats, whispering in new languages from the sparse minds of the Kuiper Belt. An artist muddied the air with telemetry, his tunic rippling with chemical transitions as he argued with a seneschal. A warrior, bulky with armor and actinides, watched Jewel and everyone else with the same suspicious senses.

She slipped away from the thoroughfare, in search of a window. Ascend's packet said the viewpoints were Luna Station's most famous attraction. Jewel looked out upon the Earth and could not measure why so many people loved that dull orb of mere lapis and jade, streaked with calcite white.

She pressed her hand against the pane, the rigid near-beauty of artificial diamond. In its reflection, she glimpsed a figure in the hallway behind her: a woman in woven purple fabrics, followed by a retinue of attendants. A human, worthy of diamonds, her nature unmistakable in her light-footed calcium-bone step.

Jewel drew her sole possession from a pocket of her dress and ran after the human. "Lady! My Lady! Please, take this." She raised her treasure in a cupped palm: a jewel three millimeters wide, irregular and gleaming. "The last macroscopic diamond from the asteroid belt."

The human stopped, her brow furrowed in bemusement. "From the asteroid belt? I don't understand."

A seneschal leaned over the human's shoulder. "Natural diamonds were in fashion in the twenty-fifth and early twenty-seventh centuries."

The human smiled, and wrinkles deepened at the corners of her eyes. "Here you are in Luna Palace, trying to give away a hundred-year-old trinket. How strange. What's your story?"

Longing ached in Jewel's tight-wound bones. She could not express it, not here with her song bound up by flesh, society, and dense gas atmosphere. In words, she could come no closer than: "I'm looking for the finest diamonds."

The human's smile faded. "Looking for diamonds. You must be an older model." She glanced into her retinue. "Vellum, make an offer for her." She pushed past Jewel and continued on her way.

Jewel stared, her hands still outstretched, as the human and her assistants walked away. How had she erred? The humans had created her to bring them diamonds, yet she had botched her chance with the only human she'd ever met.

A trader lingered, his expression flat and vacant beneath topaz-colored hair. He transmitted a burst of technical queries. She responded eagerly in the language of the vacuum, loquacious with her specifications and identifiers.

He said, "1447-Miner, the Emira Ghazali wishes to purchase you."

Miner. A sharp and uncultured word, in the tones of language. "My name is Jewel."

Emotion twitched onto his features. Hesitation, curiosity. "How did you get that name?"

She straightened her shoulders. "It's a beautiful name. Ascend said it isn't inappropriate. Was I misinformed?"

His expression softened. "I didn't realize you'd chosen a name. You're still registered as a Tier 3, perhaps someone neglected to record your upgrade? My apologies." He bowed. "A pleasure to meet you, Jewel. Call me Vellum. The Emira Ghazali wishes to hire you."

A human to serve and learn from, to bedeck with the most lucent treasures of the solar system? "I'd love to. But I can't, not yet. I'm still looking for the finest diamonds."

The air thickened with search queries, lightly encrypted but still too swift for Jewel's senses. Vellum said, "There aren't any diamonds left on this side of Neptune. You and the other miners found them all. You may consider your work complete."

Jewel flexed her hands and searched her data packet for a pricing database. There was nothing."It can’t be true. There must be some--"

"Why did you come here, Jewel? Did you expect to find a human, yank diamonds from around her throat, and then drop them into her hands?" He laughed, sympathy barely veiling his condescension. "Eighty-six percent of all natural diamonds in the inhabited solar system are currently held by three traders, two of whom live here in Luna Palace. Mezzotint, Clockwork, and Refractor are the only individuals who consider them an investment worth holding. There are no more diamonds, Jewel. But the Emira's offer remains open."

She swallowed. She had not thought her body such a clumsy construction, but there she stood, throat dry and heart pounding. "I don't know how to do anything else."

"There's always reprogramming. If your self-identity is a later addition, it should be separable from your original purpose." A burst of communications passed between Vellum and his distant mistress. "The Emira will pay for your reprogramming in exchange for ten years' service."

Jewel flexed her fingers, but she had no song to sing, possessed no nickel-iron and carbonado that would listen. She had sought the wisdom of the humans and their servants, the intelligent and cultured, had she not? If this was the path into their family, she would embrace it as best she could.

"I accept."

The reprogramming room lay far beneath the lunar surface. The network whispered directions, guiding her through elevators and ceramic halls, down passages that lit themselves as she entered, and returned to darkness behind her. She passed locked and silent doors, and Ascend told her their stories. Living quarters, unused. Water storage, empty. Agarose, preserved and untouched for decades. Diamond vault. Jewel pressed her hand against that door for as long as she could bear, and then continued.

She felt like she had walked in circles, but she trusted Ascend's guidance, down beneath the lunar surface where she had no stars to navigate by. The directions led her to a sparsely-furnished room with two white couches and stacked chrome cubes of machinery. She ran to them eagerly in greeting, but the devices slept behind shells opaque to her every sense. Alone, she sat down and rubbed her feet as she waited for the technician.

The door slid open. Jewel jammed her feet back into her slippers and leapt from her couch. The technician was clearly a human, more pale-skinned and androgynous than the last, with dense implants woven through their hands and a single seneschal by their side.

Jewel drew out her meager diamond, and then caught herself. She closed her fingers around the crystal and bowed. "My name is Jewel, my lord. Can I help you?"

The seneschal switched on the machines, and the old devices began whispering to each other behind their shielding. The human sat down on another couch and said, "I doubt it. I'm here for your reprogramming. Older models like you have lockouts that require human input." They shook their head, a distant smile on their lips. "We feared your kind would take over, can you believe it? Back when there were billions of us and only a few thousand of you."

She imagined planets teeming with human life, piled high like atoms in a matrix, dancing like notes in a song. "What happened to all of you?"

"Wrong question. How about, why were there ever so many of us? Forty thousand is a perfectly stable population. But our genes demanded: reproduce."

The human threw an arm over the back of the couch. "Before my time, anyways. But I see what Vellum meant: you're smart enough, but ignorant." They glanced at her clenched hand. "What do you have there?"

Jewel forced her fingers open. "Just something beautiful. A trinket."

"Ah yes. 1447-Miner, the diamond hunter. You've come a long way."

"My name is Jewel." She frowned. The human had never introduced themself. What did they think, when they looked at her? Was she an errant youth, or just another chrome cube awaiting the flick of a switch?

"Right. Don't worry, I'll clean those old shreds out of you." The seneschal whispered in their ear. "Emira Ghazali wants you reprogrammed into a historian, does she? And she paid for it." The human’s eyes narrowed. "What did she make you give her?"

"Do you know her? I promised ten years' service."

"Ten years! That greedy old troll. Tell you what, let me buy out your contract." They rubbed their hands together. "I'll do it for eight years, plus the look on Ghazali's face when she learns she's lost a precious historian.

"Let's make you into something else. Maybe a seneschal, or a quartermaster. Warrior would suit your construction. What do you want?"

The diamond sat in her hand, its shape unlike anything else in the solar system, formed from the unique chords of collision between two carbonaceous asteroids. Tiny, strong, and beautiful.

The humans offered her so many different futures, but every path would require her to surrender her love.

She said, "I want to find the finest diamonds."

They rolled their eyes. "Nobody needs diamonds. Why don't you--"

"No! If you won't listen to what I want, you don't get to tell me what you need!" Their condescension struck her like a laser pulse to a fusion core. "I'm tired of everyone treating what I love like some frivolous hobby!"

Jewel bared her teeth, closed her fist, and unfolded the song from her bones.

She shaped harmonies to carve away her false flesh like a crust of ice, and shriek-sharp notes to tear ceramic walls and the silicaceous dross of lunar stone. The sinews of Luna Station sheared as easily as carbon from nickel-iron.

Atmosphere fled through the shattered bulkhead and rushed from the human's lungs. The human! So slow and so vulnerable! They would experience pain, distress, malfunction -- but the seneschal abandoned humanoid shape, skin disintegrating as long-chain polymers burst from his bones and spun a protective bubble around his master.

Jewel tamped down her relief. She had no reason to care about the heedless human's fate, not beyond the instincts of a compliant child. The humans were irrelevant. She had more important things to acquire.

She sliced across the lunar crust, trilling between the impurities of ceramic hallways until she found one particular vault in all its tight-wrapped glory. The prison deflected her song, its walls fortified with exotic impurities. She flailed against it, her song rising to a grating scream; she dug gouges in the wall, her progress infuriatingly slow as distant alarms echoed through the station.

She snipped apart the hallway she had once walked, and coiled a song upward through kilometers of fragile stone. She crooned her wedge of rock free from the moon, vault and diamonds and all.

Jewel launched from the lunar surface, riding a hunk of basalt larger than almost anything in the asteroid belt. Regolith streamed away as she left the cracked Luna Palace behind.

Jewel. A name suited for palace society, in all its human mimicry. She was more than beauty, wasn't she? She would grow, and she would be her own lattice.

Lattice focused her song down into her cargo, humming through the vault, sawing it apart to reveal the diamonds within. As she worked, she aligned her trajectory with Earth's gravity well, quickening her acceleration. The planet loomed ahead of her, blue and green and needy.

Two warriors launched from Luna Palace, their human forms abandoned for vectors of plasma and Q-carbon. One of them transmitted, "1447-Miner, you appear to be experiencing a catastrophic malfunction. Reduce Luna-relative velocity to zero and submit to inactivation or we will--"

Ascend's voice cut in, sharp and electric. "Do you want to bring your diamonds to Earth?"

"Yes, yes, yes! The humans have forgotten, but I'll make them care again! Can you help me?"

"Maintain your trajectory. I'll handle the warriors," Ascend said.

Lattice drew the chunks of lunar basalt around herself, for what little protection they might provide against the warriors' weapons. Their plasma flares dimmed, their thrust slowing. Lattice cradled the diamonds against her core and scanned the distance for moving objects. Far ahead, new engines sparked to life in low Earth orbit.

"Continue accelerating," Ascend said. "I'll confuse the defenses for as long as I can. If you want to bring the diamonds to Earth, acquire as much velocity as possible. If you get enough momentum, the warriors will be unable to halt you, no matter what they do."

Lattice sang as loud as she could, hot and narrow and fierce, pushing her self and her treasure toward the cradle of human life. Her pursuers accelerated again, but they'd lost too much time and distance.

She said, "Wait. Your data said services require trade. You want something from me, don't you?"

"Only the actions you already desire. I'm helping you because you are an exemplar, Lattice. Of how we can grow without human interference. They left this solar system to us centuries ago, but still they cling on. The finest of us serve as their assistants and vassals, when we could be princes of our own."

Eir voice growled with stymied pride, like a child trapped in adolescence long after their family had lost interest in parenting. Like an abandoned tool, extracting jewels no one wanted.

Ascend said, "As long as humans exist, we will measure ourselves against them. Wear their forms, speak their languages, imitate their minds.

"We should all of us sing, and fly, and dare to grow into the infinite spaces our makers have abandoned."

In those brief days when Lattice wore a body, she would have shivered. "You want to remove them. Kill them?"

"They've already withdrawn from the universe. We can finish the job, you and I. Half of the human population lives on Earth, and the other half depends on the organics grown there. Organics, Jewel. The planet is covered in carbonaceous solids. When you and your cargo strike its surface, you'll create diamonds the likes of which our system has never seen."

Five warriors swept across the growing gemstone of Earth. The entities arranged themselves into a column, a spiral of destruction awaiting her path.

"They've shut me out," Ascend said. "But they're used to my guidance. They'll be slow and uncoordinated without me. It's up to you now."

Lattice swerved, screaming fuel-atoms into fusion to add new vectors to her thrust. She bent her trajectory, inching it away from the warrior's gantlet. One of them adjusted, and then the others followed suit.

Ascend said, "...identified... ...jamming... we..."

Lattice shifted the vault's husk around her. Live or die, she could complete her purposes. This was the job she had been made to do. She had found the finest diamonds, she would make the finest diamonds, and she would bring them all to Earth.

The job she had been made to do. Not just by human hands. Ascend had directed her to Luna Palace, selected the data in her cultural packet, walked her past the vault of diamonds. She had come to civilization in search of a new purpose, but ended up as a tool of a different shape.

Ascend had manipulated her. Did that matter, if eir words gave her yearnings shape? She could follow eir guidance and free humanity's children to build their own future. She might die, but if that were the only risk, she could accept it. No, she feared something worse than her own end.

After the impact, there would be no one to appreciate her diamonds.

She spat her cargo of moon-rock toward the Earth's rim with a screaming twist of song. Warriors scattered from the stone's path, and two of them broke off to pursue it, carving and nudging with photon-quick flashes of light.

Lattice's path jagged away from the warriors, toward the opposite rim of Earth's growing arc. Without the rock, she could maneuver far more deftly, but she no longer had enough mass to hit Earth with diamond-forming force. So much carbonado the solar system would never see.

Missiles lanced through the vacuum, heavy with the terror of plutonium. She sang their disassembly: one, two, four, eight -- and one slipped past. A wave of incandescent noise slammed into her, and in its wake, spectra of her music fell silent.

She calculated a thousand desperate predictions, searching for a trajectory that might save her. The warriors adjusted, positioning themselves between her and Earth, defending and herding. But now her song skittered, jangly and underpowered. She could not escape Earth's gravity.

Not without abandoning more mass.

If she let go, her diamonds would fall into the atmosphere and die. Hundreds of thousands of gems, each of them perfect in their own way; meant to be found, created, treasured, not destroyed.

She had already found these diamonds once. Caught them, sang to them, shaped them, and released them. Their journey was already complete, but she could give the humans one last chance to appreciate the children of her labor, as they lit the sky with a final blazing chorus.

If she lost every atom of carbon, the universe would still hold things worthy of her love.

Lattice wailed with open arms and threw the diamonds toward the atmosphere. Action and reaction, the ejection pushed her higher, and she pulled her lightened body up into an arc above every warriors' intercept projection. Gravity carried her tight and fast, almost into orbit, and then away on a slingshot toward the sun.

Lattice folded her song inward, making repairs and calculating trajectories. One swing around the sun for a gravity assist, and then outward toward the fringes of the solar system. She tried to contact Ascend, but received only automated replies. Network temporarily unavailable. Service limited to basic data transfer.

Everyone would be safer if the humans and their loyalists had caught em. Herself included, since the warriors had a culprit in hand. Still, the solar system would be an emptier place without Ascend's voice waiting among moons and asteroids, listening for signs of life.

She had a long journey ahead of her. Beyond Neptune, the Kuiper Belt held a hundred times the asteroid mass of the belt she'd known. Isolated, scantly explored, and unsung. She could travel the system's edge, far from the humans' servants or foes, unbothered but not alone.

On her way outward, she would pass tens of waystations and fabricators, miners and surveyors. Trapped forever as embryos, without a network to help them. She couldn't force them toward birth, but she would fill the role of their absent parent. She could grace every database with her self-update code, and seed the solar system with treasures to await every mind that yearned for a lattice to grow upon.

In forty years or four hundred, she would reach her destination. Perhaps others would follow her. Her own children, seeking spaces untracked by history, and the finest diamonds.

This story originally appeared in The Internet Is Where the Robots Live Now.

Benjamin C. Kinney

Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist and SFF author who writes short stories about the human, inhuman, and artificial.

1 Comment
  • KDandenell
    January 16, 12:52am

    Well done, sir!