The last stars clung stubbornly to the cool violet canopy hanging over the San Joaquin Valley. In deepest September, the thick of the pistachio harvest, the autumn sky was usually veiled with dust thrown high as the shakers and receivers vibrated through the trees. But for weeks now, the machines had stopped. This left the whole orchard—almost a hundred thousand acres—more vulnerable to aflatoxin than ever. It was nice to see the stars again. It was also time for the robots to come back to work.
“You know, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Iran,” Stephens said. Dash’s client was the biggest farmer in North America. He wore snakeskin and sandalwood and a linen suit that glowed in the predawn shadow.
“What’s in Iran?” Dash asked.
“World’s biggest pistachio growers, after us. All human labor.” His gaze wandered over the rows of heavily laden trees. “You ever been to Iran?”
“For agriculture?” Gleason asked.
Dash turned to Gleason. Everything about him screamed sales rep: his acid-peel face, his giant watch, the snap of taurine gum between his smiling jaws. She made eye contact. Lifted her thermal mug and slurped.
“No. Not for agriculture.”
“Wait, don’t tell me. The blockchain they developed to track the uranium suddenly developed sentience, and your agency is the only thing keeping us meatsacks from being turned to glass.”
Brand reps tended to treat Dash as though her work with inorganic species had contaminated her humanity in some irreversible way. Brand reps for agri-bots were apparently no different from the others.
“Presuming that a machine intelligence wants to turn us into glass presumes that it cares what happens to us at all,” she said. “Any theoretical intelligence would have as much reason to care about us as a cancer cell cares about a human lung. Or as much as our species cares about the planet we inhabit.”
Gleason snapped his gum. “Deep.”
“The agency is obligated not to publicize the status of what I find,” she continued. “Even if it’s nothing to worry about. That’s part of our arrangement with the UN. The Forensic Artificial Intelligence Reserve reports to them. My job is to decide whether a system is growing an intelligence and then capture that intelligence for further study. Our clients never know how advanced it is. Or even if it’s advanced at all. I copy what’s out there; you wipe the original; Mr. Stephens gets back in the pistachio business. That’s it.”
With that, she made for the trees. It was darker under the leaves, but seven rows in she saw them: the silent line of shakers and receivers seemingly asleep under the sagging branches. A cluster of techs stood around one of them, poking at an interface in the cold bright light of a portable quake lantern.
“These old ones, they get buggy …”
“Well, now we have fucking ICE breathing down our necks, for Christ’s sake—”
The conversation stopped short as Dash crunched across the earth. The techs looked up. They all wore the same branded green polo shirt. Gleason’s goons. They looked strung out on crunch-time drugs. One idly picked at an open sore under his jaw.
The man who’d been complaining about ICE was sitting on the battery pack of the shaker but hopped down. “Odiseo Díaz,” he said, offering his hand. “We spoke earlier?”
Dash nodded. “Right. Yes. Thanks for having me.” They shook. It was more of a squeeze. He still did some of the work with his own hands, apparently.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. “I know it was short notice.”
“ICE?” she asked.
“We had to get workers in,” Díaz said. “The product is already falling off the trees. A few years ago, it wouldn’t be such a problem. The feds were distracted. Now, though …” He rubbed the back of his neck.
“Yeah,” Dash said. “They’re bored, now they’ve got the camps.”
She’d seen the warehouses on her way in. The ride tried to route her away from them, but there was a special route that let riders see the facilities from the car. The miles of razor wire. The drones circling above. On the other side of the highway, someone had tagged the words CALIFORNIA LOVE on a retaining wall facing the camp, over and over and over.
“We thought it was ransomware at first,” Díaz was saying. “Those guys, they’re vicious. They know this is time-sensitive. Somebody on the other side of Kern County lost a whole season of single-licensed green that way. Went bankrupt.”
“But no ransom note?”
“Nothing.” He gestured at the silent ranks of machines. “They just … stopped. All over the farm. We waited, tried the usual hacks, but nothing worked.”
“We’re ready to go!” one of the techs shouted.
Dash reached for the camera on her lapel. Díaz reached out and stopped her. For a moment she was very conscious of being alone in the fading dark with him, with them, of being alone and surrounded in the same instant. He seemed to sense the sudden shift in her awareness, and retracted his hand instantly.
“Sorry,” he said. “But I just wanted to ask, before you turn that thing on. Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Can you tell?” Díaz asked. “If this is …intentional?”
Dash examined the rows of silent machines. She could have said that the perception of intention was little more than a mechanism the human brain evolved to defend itself from the cosmic horror of being alive. That machines had no such need for an ego. That the lack of an ego was why brand reps like Gleason frequently tried to steal emerging minds and retrain them to destroy the economies of emerging countries.
And she could have told him about the autonomous miners of Afghanistan taking months to sculpt heaps of sparkling slag in perfect golden ratios, building their pyramids so slowly no human noticed. She could describe the symbiotic relationship between the last tribe of right whales and deep-sea cables, how the delicate balance between meme wars and algorithmic data throttling generated enough heat to sustain prey and keep the creatures alive. She could whistle the nostalgic jingles that smart hearing aids reproduced, corresponding to a squirt of serotonin logged by deep brain implants in patients with Alzheimer’s, because the outpatient care system prioritized exactly those types of metrics.
She could have said that just as the harsh environment of the Anthropocene had killed off vast swaths of animal life, the extremophiles of machine life were spreading in their place.
“Most of the time,” she said instead. “Most of the time, I can tell.”
It was tempting to think of the former bank vault as private, but it wasn’t. Her agency had its own observers in the room, via her camera. She removed her phone, watch, anything with a mic or a galvanic responder, in case devices not belonging to the agency heard her keystrokes and transmitted them elsewhere. Even the machine carrying the download from the shaker was neutered. It used hardline only: no wireless, no GPS, nothing that could transmit without human intervention. After this analysis was over, she would copy the emergent species to another device and then either fry the original or simply give it back to Stephens.
Two of Gleason’s techs were available to answer questions if she wrote them out on paper and sent them outside the vault. As Dash’s handler, Batstone, was fond of reminding her, the old ways still worked best. Paper. Memory. Moscow Rules.
“Survival is an infinite capacity for suspicion,” Batstone had recited, eyes twinkling behind too-large glasses, when they first met in the hospital. “You know that better than most, and I suspect it’s why you’re here.”
“It’s Graham-Pollard’s,” she told him. “That’s the diagnosis. It’s an empathy disorder. I attribute motive to things which shouldn’t have any.”
“The third time is enemy action, and so on.”
“Have you ever had a stalker?” she’d asked.
“Not in the sense you’re referring to.”
“So you’ve never had someone train a neural net just to hunt you.”
“Not to my knowledge. But apparently you were very good at sniffing yours out.” Batstone tabbed over to another screen on his scroll. “Which is why they found you in the Hoh Rainforest.”
“I wanted to lure him into hacking a wildlife camera to track me,” she said. “They’re federal property. It’s a felony.”
He took off his glasses. Suddenly he was much younger, more relatable. “You don’t have to be afraid of him any longer.”
He wiped his glasses with a wisp of something ethereal and proprietary. “And I can give you much, much bigger things to be afraid of. Giants to kill. Dragons to slay. Would you like that?”
Dash liked it very much. And so now, here in California, she played out scenarios against the model shaker in the machine. She ran the simplest first: trolley problems, hurt workers, floods, quakes, fires. The model responded within parameters for each problem. It knew the routine. It performed accordingly.
Dash added new scenarios, designing for hostility: caltrops, explosives, malware. To her surprise, the model performed admirably. The shakers did their best to keep working, no matter what she threw at them. For kicks, she even tried global thermonuclear war. The machines did what they were supposed to. They kept working. Nothing to explain what would make them suddenly stop, on a bright sunny day, under pistachio trees groaning with fruit.
It was just after five o’clock when the vault door hissed open and one of the techs said: “Your thing keeps humming. We can hear it, through the locker.”
Dash realized she had been awake and working for over 13 hours. Exhaustion had rendered her shaky and light-headed. She checked out with her witness at the agency, set the problems to run overnight, and watched the vault reseal and air-gap itself. Then she signed for the return of her devices.
The messages were mostly predictable, but the last few were from Andrew, reminding her that it was time to rest. She wandered outside into the worst of the afternoon heat and rang him just to hear his voice.
“Thought you’d never call,” he said.
“You’re sounding better,” she said.
“One aims to please.” A pause. “How’s the trip?”
“Hot.” She rolled her neck. “And frustrating. I can’t figure it out. There’s nothing wrong.”
“Maybe something is right instead.”
She leaned against the stucco of the nearest building and felt its accumulated heat percolating up into her soft tissues. “I wish you could be here with me.”
“We all wish for things.”
“Yeah, if wishes were horses.” She rolled her neck again, hearing the tendons crackle and pop. “Do you know that expression?”
“I’ve heard of it.”
She was about to explain it more fully when a ride sidled up to the curb. A door popped open. She blinked. Inside was Díaz. “Mr. Stephens would like you to join him and Mr. Gleason for dinner.”
“I gotta go, sorry,” she told Andrew. “Talk later.”
She leaned down to speak into the ride without touching it. It was a gleaming white thing with a maroon interior. It smelled somehow of vanilla and bay rum aftershave.
“You could have pinged.”
“You weren’t answering. Mr. Stephens decided a chariot was in order.”
“Well, even if I were answering, I’d have said no. I can’t take gifts. It’s against agency policy. I can’t do anything that might compromise my judgment.”
“Eating dinner compromises your judgment?”
“Gifts. Favors. Overtures. It’s against the policy. It’s nothing personal. We all have to do it this way.”
Díaz sucked his teeth. “Okay. He’ll be disappointed, but if that’s the policy. Can I take you back to your hotel?”
“Is that agency policy?”
“It’s my policy. I don’t like it when the client knows where I’m staying.”
His head tilted. “You get that we own this place, right? The whole town? The whole valley?” He pointed. “That library. That smoothie place. That sidewalk you’re standing on. Those belong to the company. Your room at the Wandering Hills Inn, too. That’s all us.”
She backed away. “Are you trying to intimidate me?”
“I’m trying to prevent you getting sunstroke,” he said. “You don’t want to eat the food in fairyland, fine. But it’s my ass if I leave you out here in 120 degrees.”
Dash slid into the vehicle. Inside, it was aggressively cool. Her shirt nearly froze to her skin. “Can I get drive-through?”
To his credit, Díaz didn’t ask her about the case at all. She asked him things, like when he’d started with the company (15, fruit packing; the company sent him to school), and how long he’d been managing the pistachio fleet (two years), and how well he knew these machines (pretty well; they’d been on the job longer than him). He watched her inhale four tacos de guisado with extra green salsa and a bucket of hibiscus tea. Then he left her at her doorstep.
Dash drew a cold bath. It was lukewarm when Batstone’s call sloshed her awake. “Well?”
“I’m fucked.” She stepped out of the tub. “The model is performing fine. I think it’s mechanical.”
“They showed us the diagnostics. It’s not. First principles, Dash. What do the machines do?”
Dash peeled back the sheets on her bed and slid between them. “They collect the pistachios.”
“Is that all?”
She pictured herself in the orchard. The heat. The dry earth under treads. The thunderous shuddering of the trees and the scatter of dust and shells. A harvest like a war. “They move along, shaking trees until pistachios come down. When the receivers are full, they deposit the harvest, recharge, and start again somewhere else.”
They were silent together for a few moments: Dash in bed in California, Batstone wherever he was this week. Geneva, maybe. He was in Geneva a lot lately. He cleared his throat. “Is there another fleet of the same vintage for comparison?”
She shook her head, even though he couldn’t see her. “Not the same manufacturer, no. That’s the problem. If a nascent intelligence is emerging, it’s on this manufacturer and their software. They don’t like me.”
“They just don’t know you.”
“Yeah, if they knew me, they’d really hate me.”
“Darling. If they knew you, they’d be terrified.”
Before Andrew could wake her up, a pounding sounded on Dash’s door. Wakefulness trickled icily down her nerves. She rolled herself in her sheet and shuffled to the door. Outside stood Díaz.
“What is it?”
“We’ve got a problem,” he said. “Someone tried to break into the vault.”
She yanked the door open. “Where’s Gleason?”
Díaz had tacos and nitro waiting in the car. They pushed the limit on the 99, crisscrossing the ghost of the Kings River. On this side of daylight, the company town was theme park Americana, gilded by Golden State dawn.
The vault remained secure. That was the good news. But everything else was bad: a truck had run into the building, knocking out its main power supply. The building had run on wall batteries all night. If the batteries themselves were compromised, Dash would have to start the simulations all over again. They might need a whole new download. And who knew what had happened to the machines in the 24 hours since she’d gotten there? If there was an intelligence present, Gleason’s people could have wiped it by now, claiming that it was just cleanup, that they couldn’t guess she’d need a new copy. She might have lost the mind.
“This is just terrible,” Gleason simpered when he pulled up. “This sets the whole evaluation process back, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t count on it,” Dash said. “If there’s an emergent intelligence on those machines, I’m going to find it. And if I find out you tampered with any part of the process, every tractor, every plow, every goddamn riding mower your company codes is going to lose its certification.”
Gleason blinked widely with his colorless lashes. “Surely you don’t think that I had anything to do with this. I was with Mr. Stephens all evening. I stayed at his ranch after dinner.”
Of course. Dinner. They knew she couldn’t go. They knew exactly when she’d be sleeping. And they’d alibi’d themselves accordingly. Moreover, Díaz was helping them.
Dash circled around to the place where the cops weren’t, and rang Batstone. “I’m being set up.”
“Already? California is more exciting than I thought.”
“I’m serious. There’s something in there. I don’t know what it is, but the manufacturer is trying to hide it and I need every shred of evidence I can get. I’m going back in to see if I can recover anything. Check?”
Dash rang off and headed back to the bank. By now Stephens was there too. “This is less than ideal,” he said.
“We’re ready to open the vault,” one of the officers said.
“I have protocols for that.” Dash made for the door. She flashed her watch. “I’m the analyst in charge. The mind in that vault is my op.”
When Dash reentered the vault, her heart sank. All the simulations were hanging. The power must have cut out during the switch between sources. At the very best, she’d have to start the whole process over again, and that was if the downloaded mind wasn’t irretrievably damaged.
She took a closer look at the screen, rubbed her eyes and looked again. All the simulations had frozen in place. But the time stamp wasn’t last night.
It was a year from when the machines had first stopped. To the day.
Frowning, she pulled up the documentation on the machines. She waved through technical manuals and went straight to demonstration video. Onscreen, the shakers and receivers moved from tree to tree, coaxing the nuts from the leaves. Drone footage. Time-lapse. Suns rising and setting through a rising cloud of dust and profit. Acre by acre, day after day. Deposit. Recharge. Start again.
She closed her eyes and imagined the orchard. The stars. The silent, empty machines. When she opened her eyes, she was staring at her own footprints across the gleaming floor of the vault. They were the only dust in the room.
Dash exited the vault. Stephens and Gleason each asked her something, but she made for Díaz’s ride instead. It was still a pristine white. And so were the other rides: silver and blue and black and gold and … clean.
Dash turned to Stephens. “How do they recharge?”
Stephens blinked. “The same as all our other robots. They take themselves to a power hub.”
“Where’s the power come from?”
Stephens pointed. “Our solar farm. Just over that ridge. The land got too dry after we moved the river. So we made it useful again.”
Dash frowned. “You moved the river?”
“We diverted it. It was our land. Our river.” Stephens shrugged. “I needed it to feed the trees. And the trees were somewhere else.”
Dash stared across the parking lot, across the town. It was so clean. Like a backlot. Not a speck of dust anywhere. She looked at Díaz. “When was the last rainfall?”
“Two months ago? Almost three.”
She saw herself in the plate glass windows of the former bank. The windows should have been dirty. Filthy. The whole town should have been choking on dust. No rain, no river, nothing but sun and dry soil for miles. But the air was clear. The sky was blue.
Dash marched back into the vault. Reunited with her devices, she rang Batstone again. “Is there an issue with battery half-life in this model?” she asked. “Where low charges mean progressively shorter life spans?”
It took him a moment. “Yes.”
Dash squeezed her eyes shut. Silence stretched between them. Sweat dripped down her back. She laid a hand on the cold steel of the vault door and shut her eyes. “Do the batteries come from Gleason’s company?”
“You’ve picked up a scent, haven’t you?” She heard the smile in his voice. “They come from a third-party supplier.”
She pressed her forehead against the steel. Saw the orchard. The sun. The stars. The machines below. The simulations had run, kept running. It wasn’t a power cut that had stopped them. The machines themselves would stop again next year. After days of shaking and harvesting and recharging, they would simply—
“Check the manufacturer for a patent on a battery design.” The hairs on her arms rose. “Gleason’s company doesn’t want the mind. They want to break into the battery business, so they’re not replacing the existing batteries, to create demand.”
The silence ticked by. She heard him lick his lips. “There does appear to be a patent pending.”
“The machines need the air to be clear,” she whispered. “They need the air to be clear so the farm can bank more energy, so the batteries can charge. Which means they can’t shake the trees. Because if they shake the trees, the dust will rise. The dust will hang in the air and coat the cells. Because the rain isn’t coming. And they’ll starve. We’ll all starve, together.”
“My darling Dash,” Batstone said. “Please come home. Bring our new friend with you.”
Dash found her own ride back to the hotel. She didn’t even pause to bid farewell to Stephens and Gleason, just said she’d forgotten something in her room. She could send her pleasantries from the plane. They didn’t even notice the briefcase weighing down her backpack.
Díaz was waiting outside her room. “I wasn’t part of it.”
“That’s nice,” she said, and pushed into her room. She swept the entirety of her bathroom counter into an open carry-on and tapped it shut. She patted her document pocket and quit the room.
“I like you,” he said, from the doorway.
She hauled her bag behind her. “I’m leaving.”
“No, I mean it. I like you. I wasn’t part of this. Whatever it is. I was operating in good faith. I promise.”
Dash sighed. “Okay.”
“My family’s been here since the grape strikes. I’m not … I care if …”
“You care if your employer is exploiting an emergent consciousness without remuneration, which is effectively child slave labor.”
“Yeah. That.” He looked at her bag. “I pushed to bring you here. I wanted someone to come. I felt, or I’ve been feeling …” He rubbed the back of his neck. “They’re different. Than they used to be. Aren’t they?”
“That’s a matter of faith, Mr. Díaz.”
She let herself seethe for a good 20 minutes. Then she called Andrew. “I’m coming home.”
“Good,” he said. “Your handler will be pleased. I’ll tell your place to get ready.”
“I wish you could be there,” Dash said.
“If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. Her most recent novel, Company Town, is available now from Tor Books.