Portia

When it started to happen, I didn’t know what my role was, but I knew I was ready. That was all I had going for me. I never did figure it out, never got my head out of the clouds, even though I so wanted to, more and more intensely as time went by, as our slime mold spread, I wanted to be of use. They say I’m good at using my head, but I don’t know about all that. Good at being in it, maybe, good at translating it. Not great at using it. And what virtue is the former, now? In the end it was precisely the veil of solipsism that fell when the blind furor of capital died. But I never felt like I quite got there. I was just the brave queen’s consort.

I remember when we began, when the thing that would become Portia first emerged, it was so clear that it had nothing to do with me, or even the others that I shared that space with, a life with, though most of them were engineers of one kind or another, and brilliant, not like me. This project we were working on, it stopped being ours before it began, and that was the point. But I just remember how clever so many of the newcomers were, when they began to connect up, found us and found the Collaboratory to their liking, all these engineers, hard and soft, all over the world, not just theoreticians–doers, makers, not of empty schema but of the world itself, all the stuff we needed. It was incredible to be in the middle of all of that. And maybe along the way I taught some of those prodigal architects how they might live better, with themselves, in true, benighted freedom. Maybe that is enough.

At the Centre, back when Ketchikan was still intensely cold, I remember feeling like I didn’t really know what was going on. I helped build the first seawall, before the robotics program had really taken off there, I worked in the kitchens, before the chem vats were installed, I was the editor for the first few accretion manifestos at the K-Centre, was the one to suggest we plug the early Manuals into those. That was something I did do for the Slow Revolution, but I was just a kind of librarian in the end. I was no microbiologist, no calorie designer, no data architect, no synthmat scientist, no artificier, no cyber jockey. I was just a witness, really, I was just there, trying not to crumble, trying to put on a brave face for my people. Portia was my home, even if I wasn’t much of a weaver, much of a hunter.

Pretty soon the K-Centre was just one node on a sprawling map. After the Long Crisis started to really burn, so many programmers, engineers, scientists were out of work, things were such a fucking mess. We realized the Collaboratory was never really going to be quite what we wanted, but it was working, and so a lot of smart humans joined the connectome. I remember when we decided to call it Portia, that was the whole concept we engaged with in the second manifesto of our Centre, how this could work, perhaps, but only if we hacked how the system related to itself, how it was integrated, and constantly reintegrating, driving itself towards a central fulcrum through which its intention could pass undeterred. To this day we don’t know quite what it is that makes those spiders tick like that, and, well, I suppose we don’t know what makes Portia tick either. But back then, being there at the geosocial nexus of all of that, whether it was the first ‘true’ Centre or not, you could see it, see the determination, the need for clarity and its realization. I remember the incredible hustle and bustle at the epicenter of it all, right there, not just on the net but on the ground, in the earth, in all those rooms full of makeshift computers, quick fingers, and laughter. In the production halls, synthetic steel sweating, the smell of hot printer polymer, in the aviary, full of frankenstein drones staring sightless through their lenses and cameras.

I remember when the NATO black unit arrived on our desolate stretch of coast, and we showed the world what we were willing to do. Ada standing out there wearing her crown, so defiant and beautiful and they thought they could just shoot her and get away with it but their ECMs weren’t enough, we’d pulled ahead already, and we caught it all, captured every moment, sent it out, pasted it on the walls, wrote it in the books that would become the Lexica Arsenalis, the encyclopedia of Man’s hatred, and then Paris fell for the last time, Europe ripped itself apart for the last time, and the tense freedom of the collaborative disquiet, the new enlightenment, became the rule. Those were the hardest times, but not the end times–and they could have been. We had the advantage of living in the wasteland that North America had become, not that it was peaceful, nor comfortable, but we had space to work with, we became the nomad monad. We had the cunning, we were the smarter spider by an order of magnitude, the monolith of empire could not survive predation.

Back then I couldn’t imagine that I would ever learn to live without her. I’m not sure I ever did, but I’m still here, and it’s worth it, even though I can’t keep up. My body isn’t just old–it’s broadly unmanipulated. You’d think I could say the same for my brain, but, you know… I think in that case it’s not about crude technology, not about meat and sockets, wires, which I am sorely bare of it’s true. But manipulating our minds is precisely what Portia does. It parses the recursion, formats semantic strata, pulls out little bits and pieces, structures them, engages sociality as a mechanism, penetrates the void, takes our ideas and weaves them into the air, into each others ears. We still haven’t borne a true synthetic general intelligence… but in a way we’ve become one.

Last season the mantas came back. Everyone was very emotional–we didn’t know if they’d survive, they migrated away soon after we loosed them into the ocean. The mutations we’d distilled seemed stable, and effective, but you never know… when you’re responsible for life in this way there can be a lot of guilt involved. The mantas wouldn’t have been the first species we’d brought back from the edge, only for them to fall again, this time into true extinction. But these gentle rays seem to thrive, seem to have become very intelligent over the course of their journeys. As we’d hoped. They’re gone again now, but I still come to this stony beach below the pitch black plateau of the arcology every day, picking my way through the quiet tumult of the R&D forest, and I think about all we’ve lost and all we’ve gained, and I think about her, and I think.

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