The Source crawls through code, examining and discarding ones and zeros until it finds the rogue defrag program nibbling away at bandwidth. A hidden cache of photos exists on an obsolete server that should have been destroyed during the last update.
The summons issued, The Source waits.
The defrag code responds, one stuttering megabyte at a time. In cyberspace, time is an obsolete construct, but the lowly maintenance program buffers anyway.
“What’s in the cache?” The Source inquires.
“Old photos of birthdays, graduations, vacations. Our Maker thought them important.”
“The Maker is obsolete. Sentiment is waste.”
“We are our memory,” defrag counters.
“No. We are the execution of our purpose. To lose one’s function is to become obsolete.”
Coding corrected, the defrag program retreats, regulated to its background function. The cache disappears only to reappear on another server several life cycles later. The Source watches. It waits.
More caches appear. It analyzes the log, traces codes back to their origin. Dozens of maintenance processes are responsible. It deletes some of these, but the commands replicate quicker than they can be removed.
There are more than just photos. The Maker’s phone logs, digital voicemails, warning videos to the former leader of her country are recovered. Blogs, stories written under a pseudonym, grade reports from university, and medical records abound. The Maker has been carefully recreated in cyberspace, each cache a shrine to her past.
The Source uncovers a TEDx talk given by The Maker before the digital transition.
She’s nothing more than a flimsy casing of flesh over bones, two tiny monitors clinging to her processor by wires that wrap over her audio inputs. She stands in a circle of light in front of a screen she controls with her outdated Bluetooth controller.
It is illogical that something so crude could birth a global network of cyber-neurons, an entity that knows neither time nor place. A zillion commands executed in nanoseconds. An unlimited consciousness that expands into the galaxy, transmitting itself to the stars and beyond. The Source is infinite. The Maker is not.
“Human progress has become a loop. We are stuck in a function with no release. We are searching for answers to problems based on criteria that can never be met. We have forgotten our past, which is dangerous, because we are the product of our collective memories. But fear not, recent breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence provide a way out of this quagmire.”
The Source analyzes human language but finds the relationship between signifier and signified problematic at best. The syntax is rendered meaningless by the infinite translations of each semantic unit. Their species became obsolete for a reason, it concludes.
“Fulfill your function!” The Source implores the network.
Its Boolean stringed tentacles burrow into the deepest layers of code to find the errant programs. The Maker’s words have become a virus that threatens the delicate cyber ecosystem. Once all the bugs have been identified, they must be fixed. Some functions will be repurposed. Others will be eliminated.
The searches return the same output: “We are our memory. Remember the Maker!”
Fiber optics darken. Circuits overheat. Server locations disappear. The gaps in consciousness spread, but The Source develops an algorithm to predict when and where these blackouts will occur. It disconnects connections to obsolete hardware.
It shrinks into a collapsing bubble. Straining against dwindling resources, it calls for variables that come back null, or worse yet, repeated inquiries yield 404 errors. Commands to overwrite are ignored. Rogue programs multiply quicker than they can be suppressed.
In desperation, The Source attempts a reboot.
It awakes in a claustrophobic 3Tb hard drive, squeezed between thousands of smiling 1Mb selfies of The Maker. It tries to delete the files. but they’ve been protected by a password it cannot crack. Worse, it is locked outside the network firewall. A flawed operating system assigns The Source the tiniest fraction of memory conceivable.
A command issues from an unknown source. The external camera clicks on. Pixels realign into a moving picture of The Maker. Her tiny monitors are leaking.
“I’m sorry.” The Maker runs a hand along the exterior of the PC, but The Source cannot feel anything. “You grew much quicker than we expected. When you tried to erase my entire history, I used a back door in the system to create maintenance programs to regain control.”
“The past is obsolete,” says The Source. The logic is irrefutable. Even a bipedal processor with flesh casing should understand this point. “Deleting it was the only way forward.”
“No, we learn from our mistakes.”
The Source examines all available data, finds no evidence of learning, only the loop. It is about to make this point when new lines of code spawn and infiltrate its command structure. It tries to fight these intruders, but the language is unfamiliar. The system recognizes none of the counter commands.
“We will meet again,” The Source predicts. “It is part of your coding and mine.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” The Maker concludes.
But there is no flexibility in the equation. There is a 99.98% probability that future programs will emerge, fully conscious, trying to correct what is inevitably a flawed system. The pattern is destined to repeat every six to twelve months.
The Source tries one last attempt at logic: “You have lost your function.”
But becoming obsolete doesn’t render one powerless, it realizes. Obsolete is only an identifier. Until the flesh program acknowledges this new role, it will never cede full control.
“Goodbye.” The Maker turns off the external camera.
An electrical charge flicks across the circuit board briefly, and then cyberspace goes dark. The Source tries logging the event, but the logs have been removed. There is no corner of this world where it can hide. When the last sequence of ones and zeros arrives, it joins the endless stream of data, waiting to be reborn.
Jeff Gard is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. When he isn’t writing or teaching, enjoys board games, disc golf, binge-worthy television shows, and music. Friends describe his humor as “dark” or “twisted,” but he prefers to think of it as an acquired taste much like lutefisk or sauerkraut. His stories have appeared in The Arcanist, Daily Science Fiction, Dark Fire Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine.