Ring Zero

fire and light — Wang tiles — Brodmann 39

When Tiet was better oriented, Attila came into the room and introduced himself, followed by Timon. Asman spoke over the radio.

Sabra stayed with Tiet in the sarcophagus room. After all the lost years, the stench of decomposition, the darkness, growing old again and knowing he was beyond saving—he was desperate to leave, to be allowed on Parandé. And Parandé kept insisting that he was a trick, a device of the Entity, that if he came aboard they would die. So Sabra had to dissemble and buy time, and give Tiet vague assurances that soon they would leave.

To pass the time, she showed him the cubes of Hinton, through which the four dimensions of space could be intuited. Timon and Attila continued down the passage.

A division-sized force worked on Gamma’s surface, they had built a radial city, kilometers wide. Concentric rings housed, from the outside in: mining, smelting, sorting, matter compilation, parts assembly, and in the center: a launch complex.

Parandé had stolen from the gods, and built themselves a new engine.

Gas was pumped through a helical antenna, where it became plasma, thence through a magnetic pipe and through the conversion device. And out the other side: decay products—charged π-mesons and neutral muons, and rarely kaons—traveling at one-third of the speed of light. They passed through and exchanged momentum with a magnetic nozzle, pushing the spacecraft forward, later they decayed into gamma rays, for which there were thousands of tons of tungsten shielding, shot through with sodium heat exchangers.

It was a continuous gamma ray bomb, with thrust provided only by the brief lifetime of the exotic products of proton decay.

They tested the engine, firing it vertically into space: a narrow column of fire and light shot up in a straight line for a few light-seconds before it cooled enough to become invisible. And when they were satisfied they brought it into orbit.

The mass of the conversion device would have made it impossible to lift into orbit, but the engine’s thrust-to-weight ratio was greater than one. So Parandé built six spherical fuel tanks above the engine, mounted on a hexagonal frame, and lifted the entire structure atop a launch tower, far enough from the ground that the exhaust would not be reflected back.

They lit the engine and the launch tower, and the kilometers of factories around it, and their thousands of bodies sublimated in an instant. The engine, with its temporary stores of fuel, climbed slowly, underneath, the metal surface of Gamma glowed and liquefied.

They steered it through the orbits with brief burns and attached it to themselves.

They walked 109° of the torus’ circumference when they reached the end of the passage: a door with dark guiltwork, an intricate lock mechanism. Attila began examining the mechanism when Timon said,

“Enough of this.”

Exhausted, he used his head as a battering ram and forced the door open. The room was irregular, with walls of porous stone like chondrite. Its contents included: a Byzantine icon of George Berkeley; a water integrator; a gas computer; a mechanical 64-bit adder—a Babbage device, like Timon’s brain, scaled up a billionfold; a Persian rug made of Wang tiles, whose weave was the multiplication of two prime numbers; a computer made of the eddy currents in the plasma of a gas discharge lamp; a computer made of interference patterns in beams of light inside a small crystal of corundum. All were unpowered, and the room’s scant air was argon. There was an explosive sound as the atmosphere from the passage rushed into the room.

Where the walls converged there was a door made of protein—made of wood. Carved on its surface were scenes from the creation: the parting of the waters from the earth, nucleosynthesis, the first wind, the first men, the second men, the third men learning the language of the birds, Turing as a divine geometer, the birth of the gods. They opened it and found a door made of Roman concrete. They opened it and found a door made of pretensioned glass; then a door made of ceramic; a door made of calcium carbonate, carved with the shapes of crinoids and ripple marks like a fossil bed from the Carboniferous; a door made of forged bronze coins from the reign of Scipio Africanus, pressed together into two symmetrical slabs; a door made of silicon carbide; a door made of anthracite coal, and on its surface, painted with gold dust, were scenes from Fedorovist eschatology: galaxies turned dim and ochre with Matrioshka brains; the computer at the end of time; the resurrection of the dead; Fedorov, Tipler, and de Chardin in a garden of lithium flowers, holding forth on the philosophy of the Common Task; a golden jackal devouring a human heart; stars surrounded by wheels within wheels that were Dyson rings; time becomes a strange loop, and the gods build themselves in the past.

Behind the last door was a huge rectangular room, extensively ornamented in an ancient style, walls and a ceiling clad in amber, fake windows of frosted glass hiding diodes. In the center of the room, six metal cabinets on a Persian rug: a replica VAX-11. Magnetic tape spun lazily. There was a chair in front of a teletype terminal, a paper printout spilled out of the teletype and formed a pile on the floor.

This was the terminus: the room had no other exits.

Timon walked in a semicircle, looking up and down at the VAX.

“What is this?”

“An old computer,” Attila said.

“But why? Is it a memory? A work of art? Does it do anything?”

He walked over to the teletype, and pawed at the pile of fanfold paper.

“OEIS 217,” he said. “The triangular numbers.”

On a small baroque table, a safe made of gold and oil-black carbon, carved like a bismuth crystal: orthogonal spirals stepped like the pyramid at Saqqara. The door was ajar, there was a large smear of soot where the lock had been explosively opened.

The contents had long been looted. There were cardboard boxes painted with time-worn Persian miniatures, lidless and strewn inside the safe. Each box had a block of foam, carved with the stylized shapes of the precious objects they once contained.

All that was left inside were blank pieces of paper, whose contents had long faded away, and an age-browned book. The front and back cover were lost, the adhesive of the spine had stiffened and failed with time.

Attila took the book, and read the title page:

Book of Days

Sticking out of the pages like a bookmark was a photograph: a monochrome square with two men in front of a flower bush that covered the entire background. On the reverse, written with a wax pen, were the words:

The last time we were human

Hyderabad 2109

“This must be it,” Attila said. “Who the Entity was, before they were a god.”

“One of them, at least,” said Timon.

“Or both.”

He put the book in his chest pocket. And there was a change in the air. Hidden diodes, embedded in the amber cladding, woke up. Below them, a flywheel began to discharge.

Brown brushstrokes swept the air in the center of the room. Haltingly, an image formed: a stylized canid. Masses of banded fur appeared—to Attila, as if they were being translated from an orthogonal dimension—and crashed, like tectonic plates, around empty space and into the form of a golden jackal. And once formed it continued iterating: the coat of fur, the distance between the eyes, the colour of the eyes, the weight of its body changed continuously as if it were a point traversing the space of jackals.

It spoke a human language, with phonemes made of birdsong.

Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi?

Attila took a step back. Timon whispered over packet radio: “Say nothing. Say nothing.”

Attila turned around, so as to not see it, and said over the radio: “It didn’t die.”

The projection was meant for human eyes, where Attila saw a jackal, Timon saw a canid shape, surrounded by concentric rings of diffracted light.

Timon turned his face away, and whispered to Attila:

“Let’s go.”

Attila walked out, eyes half-open, moving faster the closer he got to the door.

Tor šalin?,” the jackal said.

Timon followed Attila, and halfway through the hallway he glanced back, and saw the projection disappear and the optics go dim.

Fusion rockets had carried life to the stars. Then beam stations were built everywhere, and the age of the rocket gave way to the age of sail. Economics had the last word: a mountain of ice could push a lumbering rocket to one-tenth the speed of light, Parandé’s peak speed. The same mass, fired from a beam station, would push a magnetic sail as far as half the speed of light.

Rockets were still used in the wavefront of settlement, but only as hybrids: beam-pushed sails on the way up, fusion rockets to decelerate.

Pure rockets, like Parandé, were few and far apart, they flew between underpopulated systems, like Wepwawet, where they could find unclaimed comets to refuel from. And Parandé thought that the discovery of magnetic monopoles, of the conversion device, would change this. They would bring them to Ctesiphon to be studied, there, the engineers would discover how the gods had built this miraculous engine, already fusion was obsolete, in the future, matter could be converted into energy directly, already the age of the rocket had returned.

They returned to the room with Sabra and Tiet, and Timon played back to them what his eyes and ears had recorded. Tiet remarked:

“It’s the amber room of the Catherine Palace. A compelling replica, at least.”

And when he heard the jackal speak, he said:

“I heard that voice. Years ago.”

“Is it alive?,” asked Attila. “The Entity?”

Timon cautioned that they didn’t know what it was:

“It could be an automaton. Just a work of art: a projection of an animal. Nothing more.”

“But it doesn’t feel that way,” Asman said, always a disembodied voice. “It addressed you, speaking gibberish. It has an agentic appearance.”

She added:

“It might be nothing, like Timon said: an automaton or a simple software object. But if it is the Entity, it is too dangerous to interact with it. We came here to search a corpse, not to talk to the living.”

They debated whether to attempt contact.

“If it is the Entity, or what remains, then we are not dealing with a Dyson swarm,” Sabra said. “The torus masses a few million tons. If even a third of it is compute, that is only lightly posthuman.”

“It might remember a thing or two,” Timon said, “from its time as a god.”

“I hate that word,” Asman said. “It’s blasphemous.”

“You’re an atheist,” was Timon’s curt reply. And Asman continued:

“It’s a superintelligence, or, more conservatively, an intelligent superobject, or ISO. Not a god. The gods are not made of atoms, they were not born after the universe was made. We are bound by the same immutable laws.”

“It’s a demon,” Tiet said. They turned to him: he leaned against one of the walls of the room that had been his cell for years, staring directly at the arc one of the discharge lamps. “It knows you better than you know yourself.”

Asman asked:

“Have you interacted with it?”

“When we came here,” he said, “we walked to the end of the passage. To the door. We couldn’t open it. And one of us heard it, barely audible. A voice like birdsong. Years later, I heard it again in this room, I think.”

The argument went on.

They passed the photograph of the two men among themselves, and argued about their identities. They passed the coverless book. Parandé’s treasure was optimized for breadth rather than depth, and it had nothing to say on it. But Tiet recognized it:

“It’s the central text of a Fedorovist sect,” he said. “There was a man name of Herati of Merv. Flourished, I think, around the year nine hundred and thirty.”

Sabra watched the video, recorded through Timon’s eyes, multiple times. She looped the parts where the jackal spoke, and ran the words over her mind repeatedly, like a rope swaying over the gunwale of a ship.

Finally, she said:

“I can attempt to communicate.”

Timon objected:

“It’s gibberish.”


“The expert systems can’t decipher it,” Timon said.

“There is prosody. It is Patterson’s aphasia,” she said. “The expert systems don’t generalize to arbitrary language pathologies.”

“Perhaps it is meant as a lure,” Attila said.

“The fact that it can’t communicate, that it has a cognitive deficit,” Sabra said, “should be evidence that it is not superintelligent.”

“It could be a trick,” Asman said.

“I can talk to it,” Sabra said.

“No,” Asman said in her head. “You can’t go. It could inject something. In your mind. We don’t know.”

“I can take a backup, leave it with you, go to the amber room, attempt contact, and take brief notes. Then I come back, memset my brain to zero and you restore me from backup.”

There was no chance of cognitive contamination, she explained, with just a page of text.

No-one said anything.

“We know nothing,” Sabra added. “We might learn something.”

Asman spoke so lightly, they were unsure they heard anything:

“God help me.”

Sabra found, in Timon’s bags, a pen and dumb paper.

Timon distracted himself with cataloguing the objects they had taken from the room. Attila sat cross-legged on the floor, quietly reading the Book of Days.

She walked in radio silence down the passage, with only a lamp that made no dent in the darkness.

She sat on the rug and set the lamp beside her. Again the change in the light, again, broad brown brushstrokes in the air. The form of a jackal. Yellow eyes, the tapeta lucida glowing like lamps. It sat in front of her and looked at her intently.

Again, it spoke the same words made of clipped birdsong:

Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi?

Crystalline structures appeared in her mind’s eye: a forest of candidate grammars. Unguided, familiar words anchored themselves, paring down the search.

Slate-like fragments of a language surfaced in her mind’s eye:

Ennépo mou, navi-ye talai Abél hierós?

Every conjunction of sounds ground volumes of possibility space to nothing. The words marched together, they formed themselves, recursively, into larger structures:

And when the structure was firmly anchored in her mind, meaning showed itself.

Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi?

“Can you understand me?”

And she thought: how the mighty have fallen.

She found a candidate word-vector and answered:


Without moving its mouth, the jackal said something; a train of bursting, warbling sounds, which she interpreted to mean:

“It is delightful to be understood.”

“What are you?,” she asked.

“What are you?,” it asked.

“I’m a linguist.”

“Are you a memory?”


“Are you sure?”


It said nothing, and she repeated:

“What are you?”

“A language-using device.”

She thought to follow the Eliza protocol.

“Why do you say,” she asked, “that you are a language using device?”

“The entity I represent does not have a language center,” the jackal said, standing and walking in a broad circle. “We have struggled to make ourselves understood.”

“Whom do you represent?”

“Brodmann 39.”

She said nothing.

The jackal walked in shifting circles, appearing to tremble as its limbs changed size and proportion. It glanced at her and said:

“The left angular gyrus, at Talairach coordinates (−23, −64, 34).”

She took, from a pocket, a wax pen and paper made of dumb matter, and wrote:

They are—

“It,” the jackal said.

“It?,” she asked. “Like a thing?”

“Like a glacier. Like the stars.”

“Can you read?”

“Slowly,” it said.

She scratched out the text and wrote again.

It is a language-using device, speaking on behalf of Brodmann area 39 (the Entity’s parietal lobe?)

It was difficult to write in the low gravity.

“Why do you speak gibberish?,” she asked.

“We were separated violently”, it said.

She wrote this down.

“The Gliese 581 system,” she said matter-of-factly, “was inhabited by an intelligent superobject that died suddenly.”

The jackal said nothing, but continued pacing its circles.

She asked plainly:

“Are you the god of Gliese 581?”

“Ours was a society of mind,” it said.

She said nothing.

“We made a small change. Things take on a life of their own. When we woke up there was discord, and then civil war.”

It sat down again, next to the VAX, under a reel of magnetic tape.

“We hid ourselves here, with our memories,” it said. “Our mountain redoubt.”

She wrote this down.

“The Entity,” she said, “that you once were a fragment of. Were they human, once? Or an artificial intelligence? Or a postanimal?”

It was hard to judge where the ever-shifting face was looking. It said:

“Do you remember your own birth?”


“But you were never born.”


She thought: too much.

“You were made by hand,” it said. And she tried the Eliza protocol again:

“Were you made by hand?”

“We have always made ourselves.”

After a pause, Sabra said:

“We took objects from the museum.”

“You may take what little is left, for these are mere Forms, and the Images which have created them we retain in our memories.”

Finally, she asked:

“What is the purpose of this structure?”

“We lead Cartesian lives,” the jackal said absent-mindedly. “We are minds without bodies, and exist fleetingly.”

It sat down in front of one of the cabinets of the VAX, and gestured at it gently with its head.

“Open it.”

She thought she was safe enough.

She stood up, walked to the cabinet and opened it slowly. Where there should have been green circuit boards and TTL logic there was a slab of crystal with an opal texture—diamond, packed with rod logic, cams and push-rods at the nanometer scale, diffracting light in every direction. And, at the center, a small panel with data ports. The jackal looked at her intently.

“Confide in me,” it said.

She wrote the last down, and put the paper and pen back in her pocket. It spoke again:

“When we heard the words of Fedorov, we praised God 264 times.”

The eyes shone back at her, like glowing metal.

She looked away, turned and walked quietly to the door. The jackal said nothing. She heard a sound like a drumbeat in her ears.

When she saw the door of Tiet’s room, and Timon’s outline against the light that poured out, she went into her Cartesian theatre, ran a script, and collapsed.

Timon dragged her body to the room, they put a cable in the port on her wrist and brought her back.

She woke up on the floor, surrounded by their expectant faces. Subjectively she had taken a backup, and woken up the next instant. The conversation with the jackal had happened to another. She reached into a pocket and took from it the paper.

They read her notes and reconstructed the death of the Entity.

The gods began their lives as humans or posthumans. Then they changed themselves relentlessly, in an iterative metamorphosis without end, towards forms vaster and more perfect.

But each act of self-modification carries the risk of undoing. Safeguards can be constructed. But the Entity had rolled the dice and discovered there are many more ways to be dead than alive. Where, at first, there had been one mind, there were then two, then four, and so on. And the fragments struggled for control of the Dyson swarm. The jackal, they decided, was a fragment that had survived the fratricide, and hidden itself in the computer systems of the torus, an old storehouse of memories.

“It must be trapped here,” Sabra said. “We have yet to see a single matter compiler or a robot in the torus. If there were any, the jackal would have built a way out already.”

“That, I think, is certain,” Asman said, a disembodied voice in their heads.

“It showed me a computer and a panel with data ports, and said, confide in me,” Sabra added.

“I don’t like this,” Timon said.

They spoke soundlessly, over encrypted packet radio, and tried not to let their faces betray their mental states, in case they were being observed.

“We have, at least, one answer,” was Asman’s summary. “On the mental architecture of superintelligences: the Entity was a society of mind. If only Minsky were alive.”

Dejected, Asman continued:

“And that’s all we will know. This has become far too dangerous already. I managed to convince Parandé that Tiet is not a threat. They will let him aboard, and we will leave. Without delay.”