Black Start Epitaph: Steady State
Date: 2552-08-16 18:57From: firstname.lastname@example.orgSubject: Re: Re: Fwd: Re: Updated alien fleet movementsGreetings, valued Agent November,We at the Office of Cosmic Naval Intelligence (bought to you by TerraTech: your first rate source for second-strike capability!) are grateful for your previous report. Please continue to touch base with any further information that you are able to gather on this novel XenoThreat™. Unfortunately we were not able to capitalise on the intelligence at this time: while the information proved accurate the aliens fought without honour and used deceit and trickery to misalign the core competencies of the Eighteenth Terran War Fleet.It shall not happen again. Stars bless the Terran Accord!Thanks,Samantha r’IgelOffice of Cosmic Naval Intelligence (Organisation Division)
November forwarded the mail to
maildrone and recieved a short pulse of blissful pink in return. She got just as intense a reward for selling out her prior allies as she did completing any other minor task, and she approached it the same way: with thoughtless, immediate obedience.
As always, November’s other reward for a task well completed was simply another task. She filed her new piece of incoming mail into its proper place and earned another little flash of joy. Her Administrator was not shy about rewarding her. If November had still been a person then perhaps the repeated bursts of pleasure would have gotten old eventually, but as November was not a person she had been configured to experience as much bliss as she could handle. Each pulse burned grooves into her mind and rendered her ever more irrevocably herself—not that there had been any hope of reclaiming her former identity for a long time now.
The war had started now and November’s species was losing fast. She didn’t need to worry about any of that. She wasn’t a military platform any more. November was a tertiary utility process running on state of the art Affini hardware and all she had to worry about was completing her assigned task.
November’s focus was picked up and placed back on the mailbox. There were several more messages which had arrived since November’s last execution. One was from an affini closer to the action, summarising some of the events that had happened over the last day. The other side of the battle with the Eighteenth. November linked the messages, tagged both of them appropriately, and filed the new one into the appropriate place. She then updated her Administrator’s strategic map, updated the Rinan/Terran Pacification Effort Records page, and finally marked the incoming mail as read.
Illicium had a habit of trying to do everything by herself,
Je'quår had said. She could have managed this herself, but she didn’t have the time to do a good job, and November had nothing but. What luck it was that November had found somebody so worthy of her.
Message two was a personal note from one of her Administrator’s friends. November placed upon it a smiley face sticker to summarise the mood, then marked it for Illicium’s later attention and filed it into the feel-good pile. It would make a good piece of positivity when that was needed. Illicium had a big job and she needed somebody to take care of her.
Thankfully, November was here to help.
The third and final message was the most urgent of them all. That wasn’t November’s decision, obviously. She had a simple list of rules to run through for each message. This one was from a known contact, marked as urgent, and unread. Illicium had added that third rule to the set on day two, shortly after navigating free of a pile of ten thousand years worth of ‘urgent’ messages.
November tugged at Meua’s metaphorical sleeve, requesting her attention, and then settled down. The messages were processed and her task would complete as soon as she checked in, and so until she got another November was free to do whatever she liked with her time.
November let herself fall still and silent. With an task list she could make no progress on, she could simply exist for a little while. She was no longer responsible even for the autonomous actions of Meua’s body. November did not need to breathe, or let her heart beat, or worry about any of the other myriad necessities of maintaining a biological form. She was the assistant now and that was all she had to be. She liked to think of herself as being on pause when she had nothing else to do, though she knew of course that it wasn’t true.
When she was actually put on pause, November wasn’t aware of it at all.
The tiniest fraction of Meua’s capacity kept November’s control interface updated, occasionally providing her with new thoughts to think and new words to say. They were never complicated, but they were always just enough to keep her occupied with pleasant, affirming loops. While November was busy being a background task she suspected that her speech didn’t actually make a noise in the real world, but Meua could hear her and that was enough.
The Affini were never satisfied with enough. November knew the entire MEUA network, small as it may be, could hear her now. Most of the things in her Administrator’s living space were part of the network, from the
atomiccompiler that would happily produce any smallish items that were required to
zigzag, who seemed responsible only for gently oscilating anything placed within it.
They weren’t the smartest bunch, November had to admit. They could—marginally—hold a conversation, but they were a little single minded.
November fit right in.
November spent an unknowable length of time repeating her configuration back to herself. The only measure by which she could determine its duration was the count of her repetitions, but Meua would not permit her such a distraction. After years, months, days, or perhaps only a few minutes, November’s attention was realigned so that she could be ready to communicate her needs.
Submit your update, Meua demanded, in the same pleasant blue text she had always used. Cold, mechanical precision backed by a caring algorithm.
“Yes, Ma’am!” November chirped, virtually. “Four messages processed. Three successfully handled. One requires outside intervention.” November pushed the contents of the message towards her hypervisor and waited for her to confirm the judgement. A moment later her task checked off and November was bathed in a glorious burning pink yet again.
It was helpful that she was pretty sure she wasn’t really making noises, because November’s pleasured whimpers were only getting louder and her configuration prioritised politeness. A utility did as configured.
It wasn’t always easy to obey her configuration. Even with Meua’s control and guidance, instinct and autonomous reactions sometimes threatened to show through. Maintaining composure under the absolute peak of human pleasure was not an easy task, but November was extremely capable. She had undergone intensive COSMIC training to help her resist conditioning and brainwashing attempts, as the damage a rogue agent could do was significant.
November’s trainers simply hadn’t considered how good it would feel to obey the order to turn all that willpower against them. The Terran Accord hadn’t considered a lot of things, in November’s opinion—or rather, in Illicium’s opinion.
When November finally calmed down enough to regain some basic awareness of her surroundings, she found a familiar sparse wireframe environment being drawn line by sharp blue line before her eyes. Their charging pod had neither internal lighting nor accessible physical controls, but neither were necessary for that which November and Meua had become. The platform on which they executed had undergone a full refit to bring it up to Affini standards. Now fully demilitarised, but untouchable enough that a whole platoon of Terran troops could not have scratched the paint. November had thought herself the pinnacle of Terran engineering, once, and in many ways she had been.
But now she was Affini-made, and no force in the universe would stop her from completing her tasks.
Certainly darkness posed no danger. With Meua co-ordinating all of her input feeds and synthesising it to the comfortably simple, low-stress environmental visualisation November was used to, light and darkness were as irrelevant as any other of the myriad details Meua hid from her so she could be shown only what was pertinent to her goals.
A new task sliding into the todo list had a very distinct emotional weight to it. November could feel it whether she was reading the text or not. She could feel the knowledge of her new purpose slotting into her mind like it had always been there, like it had always been what she lived for. The moment’s hesitation where November had read, understood, and accepted her tasks had been inefficient. Now they were simply written into her configuration so she could act promptly.
The doors before her unlocked and slid open. November was being temporarily promoted the foreground so that she could deliver the message, she thought. That was what she was told to think, anyway. With the world rendered in thin blue lines; sounds filtered to only that which mattered; touch restricted only to textures that felt nice; and presumably the same true of taste and smell—not that November would be able to tell, given most of her nutritional needs were now managed by the tight biotechnological integration between her and her suit—November wasn’t sure how she could possibly tell whether this was the real world or a simulation. Thankfully she had Meua to tell her what to believe.
Her wireframe double took a step forward. November matched it, chasing a tiny pulse of pink as she synchronised with her target self. Without a pause between, her wireframe took another step, and so thus did November follow. Being in the background was quiet and comfortable, but November liked being a foreground process sometimes too. When she was the focus of Meua’s entire attention like this, there was no room for anything but command and response.
Step forward with her left leg, and then her right. Raise her arm to grasp a handle while shifting her weight and pulling her tail to one side to counterbalance. Open a drawer. Take the item rendered in green out from its soft blue resting spot. Instruction after instruction. Order after order. Her life lived to a rapidfire beat of split-second instructions and split-second praise. Tick, tock. On the ticks, guidance. On the tocks, a gentle roll of pleasing pink and a thought permitted in November’s mind.
Turn fifty five degrees. Stride towards the door. Reach out across the network to open it, and have it slide out of her way with centimeters to spare. Close the door behind her. Spend a moment awestruck by the majesty of Affini design.
The Meandrina was beyond a titan. Even painted with a simplified polygonal brush, the scale was breathtaking. It was a single space station large enough to be detectable from Sol, given a sufficiently capable telescope. At first, Meua—and thus November—had wondered how they could possibly have kept it hidden from them all.
It was a silly question. Even if anybody had known where to look, they’d have been hiding in plain sight. What Terran would assume a small moon was the harbinger of their domestication?
It was a world unto itself. November would never see all of it, even if she lived forever—and according to
Je'quår, she should, as soon as the technology was available. November wandered forward through a forest drawn with triangular leaves and knurled bark, following a thin dirt path by twinkling twilight moonbeam. Light danced against her chassis like the patter of heavy rain striking thick metal. November took the same path every time. Forty five steps forward. Take the left fork, then the right. Meua would turn her wireframe vision off for a moment while November took the final five steps, and then she would be at her destination, wherever on the station it so happened to be.
When November was told that this was the real world, she believed it. The virtual network that the purely digital beings inhabited was far more restrained with its incomprehensibility than that of Affini urban engineering.
Enough sightseeing, Meua confirmed, taking November’s focus and putting it back on her task. Meua’s touch wasn’t ungentle, but it left no room for argument. According to Illicium, appreciating the beauty of the universe was an important part of her enrichment and she was required to do so for precisely five minutes each day. Task complete. Back to work.
November took ten full steps forward, turned, and looked up into the gleaming pink eyes of her Superuser; her Administrator; her Operator; her Owner. November Tellima, Third Floret, bounced on her heels, lifted the tray she had carried here, and emitted a quiet chime. “Would this user like a drink?” November enquired. Meua provided the vocabulary, but November provided the soft wiggle and the enthusiasm. It was simply impossible not to feel happy around her Operator. It wasn’t even part of her configuration, November simply couldn’t help it.
“Sure,” Illicium replied, glancing down to give November a quick pat on the top of her helmet. Each touch drew out appreciative beats from the pink heart-print eyes displayed on her visor while November internally melted down from the bliss of it all. If it weren’t for her suit locking its limbs she would have been a puddle on the floor, but even in the face of this it was Meua’s task to keep November functional and she performed this task with the same brutal efficiency as all others.
“Thank you very much, Mistress!” November jingled, with a cycling rainbow glimmer flashing across her faceplate. “Please feel free to fill out a simple questionnaire if you wish to give feedback!”
November leaned forward, presenting the top of her helmet for a firm pat. Her twin pointed ears twitched atop her head on hyperfine servos, offering token resistance to Illicium’s generous vine. “Yes, yes, very good November,” she cooed, taking a moment away from her work to shower her rapidly overheating utility with touch and sound and beauty. November had needed to be configured specifically to appreciate the majesty of the universe, but no such alteration was necessary for her to appreciate her Administrator. Something about the creature could reach through layers of programming and provide happiness and purpose beyond anything else.
Internal temperatures rising. Thermocline gradient approaching unsustainable levels. Cooling cycle engaged.
November vented a cloud of steam, somewhat lowering her core temperature and hiding her in a fog of flash-boiled coolant. By the time the local environment had cleared Illicium’s attention was mostly back on her work. November took a step closer, smoothly sliding down to her knees with perfectly calculated balance, and assumed a kneeling position with her back straight, her neck craned upwards and her arms politely crossed behind her back. November had been fit when she had been in charge of her bodily maintenance. With Meua in charge, she was lithe enough to wait patiently for days if it was required. November was provided with pleasant mental loops to occupy herself with in the meantime.
A utility did not question its configuration. A utility did as configured. November was a utility. A utility was designed for use. A utility did not think. A utility obeyed its instructions.
Each comfortable, familiar phrase was like sliding a finger through a groove in her mind. They came easily as they had come easily the last thousand times, providing a comfort and a structure to November’s existence that could be matched only by the being she was perfectly focused upon. Each repetition was met with a gentle pulse of sparkling green Correctness or deep pink Bliss. A tiny reminder that November was watched and judged down to each and every thought.
November was not entirely controlled.
Je'quår claimed they felt bad enough about getting November, in jer words, “ganked into being an automated cuddle platform for an overworking houseplant”, and had been working on disentangling what remained of her independent thought from the algorithms Meua had replaced it with. November found she did not mind. It made little functional difference. Meua’s overwatch guided her with or without the iron-clad restrictions of soul-searing Red.
That said, November was getting a taste for the benefits of independence. She let her thoughts stray from her prescribed path and felt a resistance as Meua pressed them back onto their rails. The harder November tried, the more she struggled, the more she fought, the safer she felt. They didn’t need Red any more. November was a good November and Meua would keep her that way.
Eventually, Illicium’s vine tapped against November’s faceplate, instructing Meua to pull November’s focus towards the outside world. A short pulsing animation played across her visor while November woke up and took in her startup instructions. These, too, were a familiar comfort.
“Beep!” November beeped. “How may this utility please you?”
“You wanted my attention, honeypot; you have it. What did you need?” A teasing vine trailed over warm metal radiators, momentarily stifling their ability to dissipate heat. November arched her back as she and Meua both reacted to their owner’s touch.
“I, um, you—” November stammered, obediently reproducing the words Meua provided her. November did not question her instructions.
Even when they were a mess.
“Um, well, I?” Illicium prompted, curling the tip of her tail beneath the smooth pseudoglass of November’s faceplate. Soft blue grid lines criss-crossing the display flared up at her touch, paired to a dramatic intensification of the two pulsing hearts that made up November’s simulated eyes. “You are going to have to be more specific, utility. You were here for a reason, yes? One of the tasks you perform for me so that you can be useful?”
November beeped, flashed green, and nodded rapidly all at the same time. Meua had never been intended to merge with a sapient host and the mental bleedover was not insignificant. The machine that was November and Meua’s executable host was, to put it bluntly, too gay for this, and Meua could not escape that any more than November could.
Did it count as gay if Illicium was a fifteen foot long space serpent? Meua consulted the rest of the network and came to the conclusion that it, in fact, did.
November gave her hypervisor a gentle virtual nudge and a moment later felt her thoughts being pulled back on track, away from their shared homosexual meandering. They had programming to follow.
“Yes, Mistress!” November chimed, feeling the ineffable sensation of her own faceplate switching to display her diagnostic outputs. “One low-priority message from Cosmic Navy intelligence you may wish to exploit; One high-priority message from Rosaceae Hautere, Sixth Bloom; One blacklisted message from
Je'quår, Second Floret Ramet.”
Illicium chittered her teeth together and spent a moment rubbing a vine at the base of one of November’s ears while the poor beeper’s logs filled with error messages and her soundproofed helmet filled with her own quiet whimpers and mumblings. The vines weren’t Pink, but Illicium’s touch was still the best sensation in the universe.
“Oh, fine, give me Je’quår’s message, then. Go on.”
November had her instructions. Jeir teasing was filed away as a blacklisted message, yet Illicium always asked to see them regardless. November did not question her instructions, even if everybody but her could, in November’s fledgling opinion, do with some bugfixing.
November bowed her head, letting her eyelids slide shut. “Yes, Mistress. Message is as follows—” November felt her mind falling silent. Messages from the Meandrina’s digital counterpart tended to be elaborate, full-body experiences. When November opened her eyes, jey were
Je'quår. “Ill, love, have you eaten today? Don’t bother answering, actually, I’m just gonna send
november over with a drink. Also, I cancelled your appointments this afternoon, take a break. Oh, and
november? Be a good utility and recite the message from Rosaceae.”
November returned to herself for only a brief instant of awareness, and was then plunged into the next message. “Illicium darling, it’s been too long! I’m heading out after the next jump and it’s going to be a while before we get back. You still don’t really seem to get this whole floret thing, but how about we throw a new-pet-party regardless?”
Illicium grunted. “I don’t have time for parties.”
maildrone to confirm that Illicium’s afternoon was, in fact, entirely free. “
Je'quår cancelled your meetings, Mistress, your afternoon is free.”
Illicium’s tail curled a little tighter around November’s body. It wasn’t much of a threat. “Well, un-cancel them, they’re important.”
“Yes Mistress!” A utility obeyed its instructions, even if they were dumb. November hummed a soft jingle to herself as she set about reaching across the network: sending messages; communicating with automated systems like herself; and updating Illicium’s calendar. After a few percieved minutes which could hardly have lasted more than a few real-world seconds, November pinged. “All done! Several of the prior timeslots were no longer available, so I’m afraid I had to reorganise things. Your meeting schedule is now thirty eight percent more efficient and fifty two percent shorter.” November bit her lip. It wasn’t showing agency if she went above and beyond her orders, was it?
No, surely not. November was a good utility. A utility did as configured, and she was configured to organise Illicium’s life. Helping out her Administrator was a task eternal. “Informative note: Your prior instruction regarding the party was interpreted as a cancellation. As such, it too was reinstated. You will need to begin preparations in five minutes and forty seconds to arrive on time.”
Illicium looked mean, but November knew that she would fold under well-meaning pressure almost immediately. Illicium had programmed her to understand that herself.
“…oh, fine.” The affini stretched forward a vine and rubbed the top of November’s helmet. “You know I can’t say no when you get all insistent,” she chuckled. “C’mon, you can carry my stuff.”
“Yes, Mistress!” November chirped.
The Meandrina turned, and tasks came and passed, leaving memories that became archived logfiles. November spent much of their party preparation in the background, her programmable hyperfocus fixated on whatever clerical tasks Illicium needed complete before she could properly relax for the evening.
If this was the way that the Terran people were to live out their life then it seemed a pleasant existence. November had lived the first thirty years of her existence alone and unhappy, following instructions she didn’t really understand to achieve goals of which she didn’t need to know. It had been a violent life filled with pain, suffering, death, and taxes.
Now November was never alone. Meua watched over her always. The Meandrina Experimental Utility Aggregate network was small, with November as the second most capable node after
Je'quår jerself, but it was a cozy home. Perhaps they would find other Terrans who wished to join. That would be nice. November had never really had friends of her species before.
For the moment, regardless, November worked diligently to complete her tasks so that her Administrator would be pleased while Meua took care of the boring things like moving their body and being aware of the outside world. Being in the foreground was active and exciting, but after three decades of active excitement November found herself happiest when she was allowed to disconnect from it all and exist in their shared virtual environment, free to be executed at whatever speed Meua decided was most appropriate—or paused entirely, as the case may be.
All she had to focus on was her active task. Somebody else would take care of the rest.
Eventually they arrived at the party. November counted thirteen affini, hers included, and three florets. Herself,
Je'quår, and one other.
She could have laughed, if she was less polite. November would be polite and truthful. She stood side by side with none other than Felicity Irrien—though she had some fresh programming of her own and went by Felicia Hautere now—serving drinks, fetching snacks, looking up trivia in the Records, and generally being useful, serviceable, and happy.
Neither of them had been good people. They made much better pets.
Maybe Felicia could be November’s first human friend.