In Xanadu

By Lavie Tidhar

Security through physicality. Security through redundancy. Security through obscurity.

How do immortal artificial intelligences defend themselves? With an air gap. With a security force that has no connection to anything that can harm them. With a young woman, trained to fight and to die who, along with her cohort must keep them safe. But In Xanadu things don’t always go as planned…

The Theremin played.

In the great hall of the Banu Qattmir all was peaceful. The great screen displays overhead flickered in a bright rainbow light of nothing very much. The Keepers of the Cores went about their business on the gleaming floor, seeming as small as ants in the vastness, and the music played on. It had always been so, for as long as Nila could remember it.

I hate it, she thought savagely. I hate it, hate it, hate it!

The hall was immense and the lighting always soft and the music played on. Information scrolled up on the screens. The patrols went out and the perimeter was secure. Nothing living or digital could approach within a hundred klicks without being detected and if need be eliminated. Overhead, the cloud of routers and signal repeaters extended into the atmosphere of Titan and connected to the dark satellites in the moon’s orbit. Old-fashioned underground cables ran away from the Cores and hooked into ghost points on the Conversational infrastructure of Titan, and into secure escape-pods set up by Clan Qattmir centuries before, redundancy Cores set under the polar ice, inside volcanoes, or under the methane seas.

I hate it! Nila thought. Nothing ever happens here!

The Three Laws of Security were inscribed in gold letters ten meters high on the far wall. Nila knew them by heart.

Security through Physicality.

Security through Redundancy.

Security through Obscurity.

Talk about obscurity! she thought. She had to get away from there. Had to get out. The nearest human settlement was hundreds of klicks away, and even that was just a shell of the Clan, a sort of Potemkin Village to further obscure the Cores’ location. Whereas all Nila wanted was to be away from it all, to see something – anything – else. She couldn’t even enter the Conversation, not like normal humans could, and this was what the Keepers had instilled in her since she was young – she’d never belong outside, she wasn’t noded.

Out there, she was blind and deaf and mute, nothing but a base human like they had back on Earth during the early Holocene.

It was more secure for the digital intelligences inhabiting the Cores to have humans working for them who were guaranteed to not have access, who were completely immune to digital threats, the wurms and virii and Trojans and logic bombs every noded human could be subject to.

Nila longed for the Conversation. She longed to be a part of something bigger than herself. Service, that’s all she knew. Her mother was a commander, her grandmother was a general, her great-grandmother had been a foot soldier during the notorious Phalcon/Skism Engagement, which saw the irreversible destruction of zettabytes of date in Saturn near-space and the use of several final-resort nuclear weapons, one of which hit the Titan surface at 10°S 165°, all but wiping out Shangri-La.

Nila would have almost been happier had there been something to fight. The last perimeter intrusion happened years before she was even born! These days the Banu Qattmir patrolled; maintained; secured – in other words, they did their job.

‘But that is what we do, Nila,’ her mother said, patiently, during one of their fights. ‘The Cores are safe, which is why we’re here. Soldiers only fight when they have to. So far this cycle, we have achieved that rare thing, security through peace. You should be happy!’

But Nila wasn’t happy. She was bored, and she hated Xanadu, and she wanted to be somewhere – anywhere! – but home.

She’d run away, she decided. She’d run away to Polyphemus Port and from there hire out on some ship going to Jupiter. They were always having wars out there on the Galilean moons: she’d sign on, she might even get a node implanted, like people did back on Earth before everyone was just born with one. It would never be as good but at least she’d be in the Conversation.

And it wasn’t like she couldn’t soldier. She knew eight silent ways to kill a man.

She already knew eighty ways to kill a man, but most of them were pretty noisy.

She was trained to fight, there just wasn’t anyone or anything to fight.

The hall was dug deep into the iceberg. Nila climbed into the elevator at the far end. She rose up to the viewing platform. Stepped out and stared at the view. The storms raged on the horizon, purple and red, and she put her hand on the transparent material of the wall, as though she could feel it pulsing against her skin.

When would Junaid come back!

It’s been two Core cycles since he’d left. He’d promised – he’d promised he’d come back!

She remembered the day he left. There had been no ceremony, no crowds. Only her mother and father by the disguised exit to the underground tunnels. Junaid was thin and short-haired, looking a little awkward in his outdoors suit. He hugged her, squeezing her tight until she laughed.

‘You’ll never make it out there!’ she told him. ‘You look like an early astronaut stranded on the moon.’

‘I don’t think they were stranded on the moon,’ he said. ‘I think they made it back, you know.’

‘Fine,’ she said, ‘well, then you better get back!’

He released her and they stared at each other, a little tense now that the moment had come.

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said, trying for an adult reassurance that didn’t quite fit him. He was only a couple of years older than her. ‘I’ll take the tunnel direct into Polyphemus Port, no one will notice a thing.’

‘It leads out into their garbage processing level, you know,’ she said, and he stuck his tongue out at her.

‘It’s all going to be fine,’ he said. ‘I have the right ident tag and everything.’

She didn’t even know where he was really going. What he was going for. There were people who maintained the Clan’s connections to the outer world: the safe-houses and dead letter boxes in Polyport and the other settlements on Titan, the secret tunnels, the dark satellites in orbit. External Auditors – but Junaid wasn’t a part of that task force. He was a low-level Tech who loved hardware and talking about qubits and Bloch spheres and Bose-Einstein condensates. Whatever any of those were.

Nila should have been the one to go! She knew eight silent ways to kill a man! At least in theory.

‘Well,’ Junaid said, ‘I guess it’s goodbye.’

She hugged him. Properly this time. Held him tight because she didn’t want him to go. To leave her.

‘I’ll come back,’ he said. ‘Promise.’

And that was that.

She stared out at the ice and the storms.

Only he didn’t, she thought. He didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t!

And no one talked about it. It was like Junaid no longer existed, maybe like he never existed.

Security through Obscurity.

It was an ancient principle, from the very early days of the Conversation back on Earth, when the whole fragile network depended on a handful of underwater cables that crisscrossed the planet, converging and making landfall in a small number of hubs. A single diver with bolt cutters could have taken down the bandwidth of three continents, back then. But no one ever did, because no one ever thought to. Because, and all while redundancy was being built into the network, no one thought about it.

For humans, the Conversation had always been what was inside of it. The chatter, the endless chatter of the virtual world, of billions of souls all shouting joyously at each other.

No one thought of that as a bunch of black boxes sitting in air-conditioned warehouses, linked by copper wire and spittle. It was only the inside that mattered.

Obscurity kept the network safe. To have let Junaid go as he did, the Others, those digital entities that lived inside the Cores and paid the Banu Qattmir to protect them, must have had exceptional reasons.

Junaid, to put it simply, was a security breach.

She’d leave, Nila decided for the hundredth time. She’d leave and they couldn’t stop her. She’d trek out to Polyport across the ice storms and methane snow. She could do it, too. At twelve, she and the other kids destined to be soldiers all underwent the Trial, a month-long rite of passage where they were dropped off over Tui Regio to survive as best they could. It was volcanically active…Several of her friends didn’t make it. She knew she could do it.

Why Junaid? And what was so important out there?

She gave up staring at the horizon. Nothing ever came.

A voice spoke in her earpiece. ‘Blue team report to perimeter duty.’

She left the observation deck and went to join her team-mates in the out-deck facility. She dressed in the outdoors suit and checked her scanners and weapons. Farah was ahead of her, already locked and loaded. She flashed her a smile. Farah was a year older, an expert with the bolas and the kukri.

‘Think we’ll find anything today?’

‘Sure,’ Nila said. ‘There’s bound to be a full Spetsnaz wetwork team just round the corner, right?’

‘Or some terrorartist’s time dilation bomb…’ Farah said, sounding wistful.

‘A planoformed ice-boring worm with a Banu Qattmir gene-specific plague payload,’ Nila said.

They both laughed.

‘Ice,’ Farah said.

‘Rain,’ Nila said.

‘Wind!’ they both said, and burst out laughing again. Nila checked her gun. It fired smart bullets, tiny semi-sentient winged kinetic projectiles that were all called Sam. If she tuned her earpiece to the right frequency she could hear them chatting, just as she and Farah chatted now. But the bullets, for all that they had brief mayfly lives, would forever be closer to the Conversation than she and Farah were. Nila was almost jealous.

Knife, gun, goggles, scanner, cold-weather suit, oxygen reservoirs, short wave radio, EMP blaster and grenades (they’d fry any digital intrusion for a klick around), oxygenation kit, trowel, first aid kit, comms – all systems operational.

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