Sigmoid.

By Dan Ghiordanescu.

By Dan Ghiordanescu.

I cried for the Chimp, once.

I was there for his birth. I saw the lights come on, listened as he found his voice, watched him learn to tell Sunday from Kai from Ishmael. He was such a fast learner, and an eager one; back then, barely out of my own accelerated adolescence and not yet bound for the stars, I felt sure he’d streak straight into godhood while we stood mired in flesh and blood.

I didn’t feel the slightest hint of envy. How could I? He seemed so happy: devoured every benchmark, met every challenge, anticipated each new one with a kind of hardwired enthusiasm I could only describe as voracious. Once, rounding a corner into some rough-hewn catacomb, I came upon a torrent of bots swirling in perfect complex formation: a school of silver fish, in the center of Eri‘s newly-seeded forest. The shapes I glimpsed there still make my head hurt, when I think about them.

“Yeah, we’re not quite sure what that is,” one of the gearheads said when I asked her. “He does it sometimes.”

“He’s dancing,” I told her.

She regarded me with something like pity. “More likely just twiddling his thumbs. Running some motor diagnostic that kicks in when there’s a few cycles to spare.” She shrugged. “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Maybe I will.” Although I never got around to it.

I’d hike to the caverns during down time, watched him dance as the forest went in: theorems and fractal symphonies playing out against fissured basalt, against a mist of mycelia, against proliferating vine-tangles of photosynthetic pods so good at sucking up light that even under lights designed to mimic the very sun, they presented nothing but black silhouettes. When the forest grew too crowded the Chimp moved to some unfinished factory floor; when that started to fill up he relocated to an empty coolant tank the size of a skyscraper; finally, to that vast hollow in the center of the world where someday— a few centuries down the line— ramscoops and lasers and magnetic fields would devour dust and hydrogen like some colossal filterfeeding space whale, squeeze it all down to a small black mass heavy as moons. The dance evolved with each new venue. Every day those kinetic tapestries grew more elaborate and mindbending and beautiful. It didn’t matter where he went. I found him. I was there.

Sometimes I’d try to proselytize, invite some friend or lover along for the show, but except for Kai— who humored me a couple of times— no one was especially interested in watching an onboard diagnostic twiddle its thumbs. That was okay. By now, I knew the Chimp was mainly playing for me anyway. Why not? Cats and dogs had feelings. Fish even. They develop habits, loyalties. Affections. The Chimp may have only weighed in at a fraction of a human brain but he was easily smarter than any number of sentient beings with personalities to call their own.

One day, though, he didn’t seem twice as smart as he’d been the day before.

I couldn’t really put my finger on it at first. I’d just— developed this model of exponential expectation, I guess. I took for granted that the toddler playing with numbered blocks in the morning would have blown through tensor calculus by lunchtime. Now, in subtle increments, he wasn’t quite living up to that curve. Now he grew only incrementally smarter over time. I never asked the techs about it— I never even mentioned it to the other ‘spores— but within a week there wasn’t any doubt. Chimp wasn’t exponential after all. He was only sigmoid, past inflection and closing on the asymptote, and for all his amazing savantic skills he’d be nowhere near godhood by the time he scraped that ceiling.

Ultimately, he wouldn’t even be as smart as me.

They kept running him through his paces, of course. Kept loading him up with new and more complex tasks. And he was still up for the job, still kept scoring a hundred. It’s not like they’d designed him to fail. But he had to work harder, now. The exercises took evermore resources. Every day, there was less left over.

He stopped dancing.

The real tragedy was that it didn’t seem to bother him. I asked him if he missed the ballet and he didn’t know what I was talking about. I commiserated about the hammer that had knocked him from the sky and he told me he was doing fine. “Don’t worry about me, Sunday,” he said. “I’m happy.”

It was the first time he’d ever used that word. If I’d heard it even ten days earlier, I might have believed him.

So I descended into the forest— gone to twilight now, the full-spectrum floods retired once the undergrowth had booted past the seedling stage— and I wept for a happy stunted being who didn’t know or care that it had once been blazing towards transcendence before some soulless mission priority froze him midflight and stuck him in amber.

What can I say? I was young, I was stupid.

I thought I could afford to feel pity.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday July 06 2016at 11:07 am , filed under fiblet, Sunflowers . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

17 Responses to “Sigmoid.”

  1. Nice. My frame of reference is “the machine”, voiced by Root, when I’m ruminating on the arc of Chimp. It would seem a shame to not hear from Chimp later on in the story, but it would be cliché for him to save the day.

  2. Definitely like this piece. It’s strange how some things can make you mourn for what could have been. I can understand why Sunday has sympathy for the machine; The Chimp comes off as a child-like entity with ever-growing potential, who is suddenly robbed of that greatness.

  3. I just finished “Embassytown”, and if i were a Host, this would be a tiny piece of God-Drug. Can i have some more, please? *grins threateningly*

  4. “My own accelerated adolescence”. So the crew are vat grown too?

    Interesting. It’s quite a mileu you’ve created. Kind of like Red Dwarf without the laughs. 😉

  5. I pee myself a little every time a Sunflowers fiblet comes out.

    Waiting with baited breath…

  6. YES! I too have lost a little pee. Sunflowers is really enthralling – I want to hear more about what comes out of the gates.

  7. Another tease! Need a new Watts novel ASAP!

  8. Nestor,

    I kind of regret that previous comment as it sounds rather negative, not what I intended. As an apology, I offer artificial stingrays made out of rat cells, a news item that seems to have fallen straight out of the pages of one of your books

  9. […] Watts has a wonderful, terrible short story up at his […]

  10. As far as I am concerned, “this is how writing should be”. The piece hangs together as a very short story, and will be evocative of feelings that are likely recalled by anyone who has ever raised a kitten from the stage of Gummitch (from Leiber’s excellent Spacetime for Springers) to the stage of brooding toms that don’t care much about anything outside of their own interests.

    However, it’s not a stand-alone piece… it’s a combination backgrounder and narrative-hook to something larger… we’ve seen parts of this before and it was awesome, then, too. Looking forward to more!

  11. Hot damn! I hope this is teasing toward a new novel expanding on The Island. Though I’m sure the focus would be on the crew/mission, I want to mention that the parts that captured my imagination the most where the bits mentioning the brief glimpses of humanity’s(?) strange new shapes coming out of the gates. The potential future of human evolution ignites such burning wonder in me.

  12. What is Sunflower? I must have blinked years ago when Watts explained it.

  13. “Sunflower Cycle” is the name I’ve given to a series of interconnected stories set about a jump-gate-building asteroid ship named Eriophora. I try to churn one out every couple of years.

    I’m working on a novella in the sequence right now, in fact.

  14. Peter, I love this stuff – your Eriophora/The Island corpus. I’d definitely shell out money for a collection of all this, and I am sure I am not the only one. It’s a very compelling universe and I love the angry tone that it’s written in, it makes it very intense. More, but put it all together for us in one place – and let us give you some pennies for it?

  15. The published stuff is already bundled on the backlist page, and you can pay as many or few penies as you like for it. But those three stories don’t even hint at the major narrative arc of the whole epic. There’s a bunch more installments yet to come, and how fast that happens depends on how well they do.

    It’s gonna be years. Unless someone decides to put money into a game iteration (which was how I originally envisioned this universe), in which case I stop everything and work on it full-time.

    Also I would like to be able to fly.

  16. Maybe it’s time to do a Kickstarter for just that then.

  17. I mean, a game version. Not the flying thing. Which I am pretty sure you can do anyway, but are too mean to share the secret of.