The Glitch: A Science Fiction Short Story
Hex and me weren’t rich, never had been. We lived in the slums by the docks, rumbling all night as the rockets fired, taking their payloads to the artificial moons and the other planets. I guess I hadn’t been around so long, but in all that time I only remember one time an interstellar ship came by. Hex said they were off to something called serious and by the time they got there, my kids would be dead and they’d still be alive. That didn’t make much sense to me. All I remember is that the house shook so bad I thought that was the end of it and all and we’d fly into the waiting blackness.
Anyway, we weren’t rich, even though we could’ve been. Hex wasn’t a great mechanic and I was a kid so all I could do was find him the tools when he was over his head in some freighter’s booster, swearing about their maintenance habits. He knew what he was doing on those freighters at least, just they were outdated, so our clients were the sort who were struggling themselves to make it.
I guess Hex could have updated his knowledge. He wasn’t stupid, despite what my brother had said. My brother said he was stubborn and simple and deserved his poverty. But he was angry when he said that, so it probably wasn’t true. Before she died (they said it was radiation poisoning), my mom said Hex had been a different man before he worked in the nebula mines.
Sometimes I heard about those at the docks. Since the engineers had figured out non metal robots, human labor at the nebula mines was phased out. But that had been recent enough there were still folks who had lived it. Nobody could get a single word from them about it. I always wanted to ask Hex, but I never found the courage.
Still, though, we could’ve been rich, even though Hex was a scarred nebula miner who really only knew how to fix one type of outdated freighter, and I was just a kid. That’s because of the AI.
Hex had it stashed away in his backroom, looking no more like the other pieces of junk he had in there. Obsolete technology, mostly, a few clunky things that smelled like dust. Nothing of worth, besides the AI.
We only knew that it was worth something because of my brother. That’s why he left, in the end. He and Hex fought about that thing for ages after my brother figured out what it was. Hex was afraid that he was going to steal it when he left, and stayed awake at the door for half a moon phase with a weapon in his hand, waiting to fight off anything and everything.
I didn’t really get what was so special about it. It had a cool female voice, and it told us things like which parts went with what. Like its owner, it wasn’t very up to date on its knowledge; it ran on some server that hadn’t been part of the main database for a generation or two at least.
Really as an AI it was pretty worthless. It was tapped into our little house’s systems at least, which were also out of date, and could keep us the right temperature. It knew when magnetic storms were coming and had a special cosmic ray feature. Apparently the houses down planet had all that and more, though our little AI did its best I guess. It could tell some jokes and said hello to us when we came in. I liked it. It was friendly, and sometimes kept me company when I was awake and staring at the stars from the kitchen window.
Hex was really attached to it for whatever reason. It called him dear and always asked him what he wanted, turned on the kafi machine when he started to shift in his bed in the morning. I guess maybe it was the AI on the freighter he used to run in the nebula mines or something.
Anyway, it wasn’t a big deal until it started glitching.
It was random stuff, unprompted remarks – sometimes AI did that when they sensed you needed something; however, this was different. It’d say something like phase transition, liquid to gas, and that’s it. You’d ask it what it meant and it wouldn’t answer, and we’d have to restart it.
At first it wasn’t much. After a few orbit repeats though it was getting worse. Nuclear output increasing, it would say, even though that wasn’t true. Critical temperature. Phase transition. None of it made any sense.
My brother was the sort who didn’t like things to be out of line, so he started trying to figure out what was wrong with it, peering in and around its little server casing in the junk room. It didn’t go so well. He’d come back swearing saying “I don’t get it,” and Hex would just shrug and tell him to leave it alone.
That wasn’t a thing my brother could do, though. Not knowing things made him angry. He took a recording on his chip to the docks for a few days, asking around.
One day he came home with a strange look in his eyes. He walked in the door with a bounce and actually smiled at me, which was odd. “You like living here, Kit?” he asked in response to my unspoken question.
I shrugged. “Fine by me.”
He shook his head. “No, kiddo. You don’t. Just you wait. We’re gonna go down planet.”
“Why?” I asked, and he leaned in with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Because we’re gonna be rich.”
He smiled, and tweaked my cheek, and I remembered him telling mom he’d look after me. Then he winked and strode off to pound on Hex’s door.
That was the first fight. There were many more after that. For awhile they tried to keep it from me – I was younger then and I guess they thought it was better I didn’t know. It came out one day, because we didn’t have kafi as Hex hadn’t had a job in a moon phase or two and my brother exploded. They pushed me out of the room, but later, my brother came to see me.
“You need to talk to Hex,” he said, eyes bright and wild. “Tell him to sell the AI. We’ll be rich.”
“Why?” I asked, and I meant it for all of his words.
“Kit, do you know how old that thing is?” my brother asked, and I shook my head. “It’s old. Really, really old. Back from the beginning of the Journey. Do you have any idea what that means?”
“That’s why it doesn’t work?”
My brother laughed a little bit. “Kiddo, there are collectors out there who have a planet’s worth of stuff from that era. If I’m right, that AI might be from the Journey itself. Do you know how much people would pay for that?”
“A lot, I guess,” I responded.
“Not a lot, kiddo,” my brother said, shaking his head, his eyes full of dreams and credits and private moons. “Enough for our own world. We’d never have to work again. For generations.”
“Come on, don’t you see? We wouldn’t have to live in this dump or work or anything!”
I looked around. I’d heard some things about how people lived down planet on the docks, but I’d never seen it and could only imagine. I guessed maybe their places were bigger and more shielded. If Hex didn’t want to sell the AI, though, it didn’t seem like down planet could be so much better.
“Please talk to Hex, Kit,” my brother said, turning my face back towards him. “Please. I told mom I’d take care of you. I’m trying to do that.”
“Okay,” I said.
And I did try. I asked him the next day when we finally got a job and were walking over to the broken down freighter.
I told Hex my brother had talked to me about it. “He said it’s really valuable.”
“He has no idea what he’s talking about,” Hex replied, and that was that. I wasn’t able to say anything about it again.
The fights got worse, and finally my brother left. He stopped long enough to kneel down in front of me and ask me to come with him, and when I shook my head, his eyes filled with tears and he clenched his mouth against a new torrent of words.
“Just you wait,” he told me. “I’m gonna go and get rich and when I show you the kind of life you deserve, you won’t even look back over your shoulder at this garbage.”
And then he left.
I didn’t dare bring it up again for sometime after that, and I guess it had been at least a few orbits when I heard Hex talking to it. I didn’t mean to, I was just looking for something and I heard him in the junk room.
The thing was glitching again. I heard its voice at random places in the house. Closed feedback loop, phase transition, liquid decreasing. In the room, Hex was swearing.
“Blasted stars, tell me what to do!” he was hollering when I peeked in. I tried to escape, but he caught me.
“Hey hey kiddo, it’s okay,” he said. He was breathing hard, sweat gathering on the grey and black bits of his hair. He hadn’t shaved today, and looked like he hadn’t slept either. I edged into the room. Closed feedback loop, the AI whispered in some other part of the house.
“What’s wrong with it?” I whispered, suddenly having the sense that Hex knew exactly what was wrong with it, and had known all along. The AI’s server box was sitting in front of him, looking for all the world like the piece of junk it was.
“Did your brother tell you where it comes from?” Hex asked after a long silence, and I was almost startled by his voice. I shook my head, and he looked satisfied. “He didn’t know. He just knew it was old.”
“Where does it come from?” I asked, edging closer. Temperature critical, it whispered, and I jumped. It almost felt alive.
“Somewhere far, far away,” Hex said, and so were his eyes. He seemed to forget me again, then his eyes snapped back. “Do you know where we come from, Kit?” The way he said it, I figured out he meant “we” like all us people, not like we me and my brother or something.
I frowned. I’d heard the stories on the docks. Something about homo this or that which was now celestius and not sapiens, and it started with The Journey from a pale blue dot. One day there was a big fight because someone called it religious trash. They had to bring in security drones.
I thought for a minute, and ran through everything in my mind. “It’s about the pale blue dot?” I asked.
“Earth, Kit,” Hex whispered, his voice suddenly dropping and he even looked surprised by how quiet his voice was. “Call it Earth.”
Phase transition, the AI muttered insistently, startling both of us, and Hex almost laughed.
“But you can’t have been there,” I protested. “They say it’s so far the interstellar ships don’t even go there anymore.”
“That’s not why they don’t go,” Hex said with a wave, and he sounded like a different man. “But no, I haven’t been there.”
“The AI has?” I guessed, trying to work out all the clues and puzzles, like a really complicated engine.
“I don’t know. But this isn’t the AI. It’s just a bot, a section of it. The full server, however…”
The AI started spitting out some numbers, and Hex’s face suddenly clouded. All the joy of explaining seemed to fade and he sat down heavily.
“Did my brother know this?” I asked.
Hex’s eyes focused on me again. “No, and thank the stars for that. If anyone knew the truth about this thing….the religious collectors are brutal, even if they are rich. We wouldn’t have survived if they got wind of it.”
There was a long pause, while he stared at the silent thing. I tried to think of what to say or what to ask. Fortunately he got there first. “I don’t know what to do, Kit.”
“It’s probably just glitching because its old and its server is too far,” I suggested, though he was already shaking his head.
“No. It’s glitching because Earth is dying,” he said, barely audible. “It’s calling for help.”
It took me a minute to process that. “But that would mean it’s….”
“Sentient,” Hex whispered.
I was old enough to know what that meant. “They don’t let AIs do that anymore.”
“No,” Hex agreed. “How do you think I survived the nebula mines, Kit? Bots are fine, but you need something that thinks.” He shook his head, staring into the distance. “Only sapiens would be cruel enough to send people to those places, yet kind enough to build them a thinking machine to keep them alive.”
“Is there anything left on Earth?” I asked, because I didn’t understand the last sentence.
Hex shrugged. “Who knows? Probably not. It’s dying.”
The AI whispered a few more numbers, and Hex groaned.
“It wants you to go,” I whispered, and he nodded silently. “What are we going to do?”
There was a very, very long pause while Hex stared at that little piece of junk. “I don’t know if I have much of a choice, kiddo,” he said, and no matter how much I asked, he wouldn’t say anything more.
Hex left within a few days. He must have chipped my brother, because he came in one of the fancy down planet rovers. I guess he’d made it big after all. He took me away, and so I heard secondhand that Hex had gone when I snuck down to the docks one day trying to find out. Nobody knew where he’d gone. They said it wasn’t unusual for retired nebula workers to just up and go one day. Once you’d been in the heart of the universe’s creation and destruction, there was just no going back.
I knew, though. And although I grew up and went to school and learned relativity enough to know that if he did make it, I’d be long dead by the time he came back.
I never stopped wondering, though, or thinking of him, or sneaking down to the docks to see if I could hear anything. I left a few rumors to grow, and now these days they tell about him in the same way they talk about the pale blue dot, though usually without the religious stuff.
Sometimes they tell it as a love story, between a man and his AI, the last sentient AI in the universe. Sometimes in the stories the man succeeds, and the AI is rescued. Every now and then the AI is evil, and takes over in revenge. Often the man never makes it. Sometimes he finds it, but it’s too late for the pale blue dot, and they die together.
I will never know which story it is, but the one I like best is where he and AI travel the universe forever, dancing through the stars.