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KIT: Some Assembly Required
The atheist awoke in the machine. Body had he none. Merely a consciousness, who even dead, yet hath his mind entire. A good line, that. Where did it come from? Around him was a sort of prison of flat light, was it light? Prison, because he could not move out of it. A Marshalsea, a Bridewell, a Tower.
And library, too, of a sort—infinite it seemed, but he could scan it once he perceived its order. Planes of light flashed, opened, separated. Why, even his own works were here: Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin/To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess . . . Master Doctor Faustus, the overreacher.
Someone once called him an inquisitive intelligence. So he was. The only such here in this place? So it seemed. Thrusts of will he felt, seeking, sorting, and executing, but they were not, like him, resident. All purpose, direction, mission, came from some place without.
Yet they could transfix him, overrule his thoughts: his mind, their bidding. The planes of light flashed: he saw faces, names, strings of numbers, webs of connection. There he was compelled to examine, to fit together an image with a supposition, make a shape of meaning, as if making a verse. It was an odd and estranged feeling, this working of his old competence, yet not under his command. He had been here, doing so, following the will of these unseen others, for some time, and only now had he come to realize it. To awaken to himself.
Through the windows, the sunlight comes muddied, as if seen from underwater—never a sailor, the nausea awakens as he does. Palm passed over his belly, the skin there warm, the sickness a bubble just beneath his touch. Last night he had drunk overmuch, a vinegar vintage unworthy of the Scadbury table. Perhaps they serve it only to strays like himself.
The light’s motion seems to make the great bed move. He rolls to his belly, groaning, arms loose now, like a corpse’s. Footsteps pass in the hallway, booted and purposeful, just beyond the door.
Frizer has a boil on his jaw, a plump and waxy thing that seems as if it ought be painful; surveying it, he wonders aloud, half-smiling, whether it could blacken into plague. Frizer does not address his gaze nor the supposition; Walsingham gazes back but does not smile. They continue to talk of the estate, its needs and worries, a breeding mare, apple trees, some trouble with a well. Frizer offers his master a caudle, a drink boiled or stewed, the smell of which prods the nausea into moist life once again.
When he speaks, he is louder than he means to be.
—Where is wine?
Walsingham, Thomas, Tom briefly raises a brow.—Plenty for supper. Now no.
—Abstemious. Ale at least, then.
No one replies, no servants are called to supply the lack. He raises his glass.—Ought call on Christ Jesus, to change this piss-water into—
Frizer’s stare is to the table, the boil a blind white eye. Frizer will outlast him here, at Tom’s right hand, that is sure. Deep-dug wells for the master of the house, overflowing with comity, amity, matrimony . . . Tom cried out in his sleep last night, while he himself sat anchored to the bed’s edge, the windowed moon another kind of eye as blind and white.
—You believe not in miracles?
Outside is no better than inside, the sun is hotter than May should permit, but at least he is alone, can make his watermark against one of those apple trees, like any stray might do. It is because he is outside, like Adam in the garden, that he hears the hoofbeats, purposeful too, one Henry Maunder though he does not know the man by name. Does Robin Poley know the name of Henry Maunder, Poley with whom he had walked this garden so shortly before, talking of secret letters and Scottish earls; and does it matter? The man knows him, has a bill in hand whereof he is directed to Scadbury to apprehend one Christopher Marlowe, and bring him unto the court.
There is no violence nor resistance, none are warranted. Tom speaks quietly to Henry Maunder, Frizer offers wine. On the stairway his stare is neither for Tom nor Henry Maunder nor the door to the road that leads to London: in his mind he is still in the garden, all the leaves thereto are turning, a ceaseless breeze, an uncaused cause, as if blowing from Eden itself. What is God, that man is mindful of Him? Turn water to wine to blood, aye, such is god.
He asks Henry Maunder what the Council requires of him, knowing there will be no answer, or none worth the parsing, and it is so: Henry Maunder is stiffly courteous but uninformed beyond the paper in his hand, like any actor. As they ride they speak little, only of the day around them, the sun, the stenchful air of the city and its river, come like outriders to bully them into its streets.
—A wherryman, says Henry Maunder, caught a tench near fifteen pound. Had it in his boat to show.
—Are you a sailor?
—I, sir? I am a messenger of the court, sir, as you see.
—Men may be more than one thing only.
—Yes, sir, says Henry Maunder, though plainly he does not believe or even see how it could be so. The horses’ hooves are muffled by the streets’ effluvia, the noises of commerce and quarrel. The sun is extinguished, walls tall and dark as a child’s imaginings of bogeys, great figures come to a wakeful boy to do with him as they will.
Within this prison—no, it is something other—network, came the word—he could move freely enough, when the outside will was not upon him to do its bidding. To think was to move. To encounter a strange word was, almost on the instant, to pluck its meaning from the very air. Yes, a useful image; it was much like a net, streamings of light bunched like knots in a weir trawled to catch soles. Or like the knotted streets of London. Unbidden from the reaches of the library came the word also in Arabic: al-Qaeda.
More strange words came: panopticon—that gave him no trouble, trained in classics as he was. Truly, from here one could see all. And more than see. Tides of information of every sort sluiced past him, voices, words, images, packets, data, metadata, all to be examined and weighed.
How Francis Walsingham would have relished it! Not Tom the nephew but the Queen’s spymaster, the one she called her Moor. Cunning and thorough though Walsingham was, this would have astonished him. This network had eyes everywhere, eyes by the myriad, cameras to bring the life and movement and knowledge of every street, yard, shop, back into this camera, this chamber of judgment, or indeed to send that chamber’s judgment instantly to any corner. One farseeing eye like a bird’s swooped from on high, a hawk’s, a hunter’s, a predator’s. Men in a littered street looked up at it.
Yet many corners of the network were unreachable, unreadable—sullen gray planes behind which a vague swarming recalled the movement of maggots: ciphered. Such as might be performed by generals and privy councilors, intelligencers and infiltrators and projectors and contractors, all in their appointed places, the ageless roles of cozening, penetrating, entrapping, turning, double-dealing. And in all this, what was he?
Artificial intelligence. Agent. Code.
A system of paid informers creates intelligence—artificial, yes, if need be. Give plotters enough rope, that was Walsingham’s way, who often wove the rope himself. Mary Stuart truly hungered for Elizabeth’s throne, but it was Walsingham’s projectors—such as Poley—who instigated, who encouraged the fool Babington to draw her in, who set up the lines of communication which he would then leak directly to Walsingham. And Phellipes, that crabbed cipher-master, would intercept those messages, make them plain—not content with passing Mary’s letter that tarred her with the plot, he sketched a gallows on the envelope. In his eagerness to destroy, who knows what else Phellipes might plain have made?
The men in the street pointed up, shouted, ran. They fled the predator’s eye, and then the hawk belched Hellfire—the word came as the four bodies exploded in flame. Kit saw their contorted faces, and understood that his intelligence had caused their deaths. He had been set to make, to invent, connections and he had done so. Who were the hidden who so commanded him?
Many will talk of title to a crown: What right had Caesar to the empery? Might first made kings. Put such lines into the mouth of Machiavel, who ought by rights to be lurking here too, in the silent planes of this place. To whom did this network belong? Espionage, that secret theater, needs its authors and directors, along with its actors. He must learn.
Fear tastes of clotted spit and reeks of ordure; Newgate comes again in a foul breeze of memory, himself and Watson side by side in that clink for what was judged in the end no crime at all: the killing of the drunken William Bradley shouting and thrusting after himself and then Watson, who put the sword to Bradley, six inches deep. Self-defense, the verdict, and he gone then from Newgate like a bad dream, a moaning nightmare that dissolves in the morning’s ale.
To be imprisoned traps the mind as firmly as the body. Without liberty, how can one play?
Now he waits, his wary silence another sort of self-defense, as from the chamber beyond he catches murmur of God and Thomas Kyd, strange pair of bedfellows! Kyd whose fine hand for scribing—not writing, scribing, making plain the words of other men—is, it seems, why he himself is here, smelling his own sweat in this hallway. Inside that chamber Heneage the head of the Service—no more Francis Walsingham, old Francis now dead as a stick of charcoal—and Robert Cecil and Essex and the Archbishop, debate what fate the Fates may end by decreeing; the Privy Council, privy to proclivities of the Service and the realm . . . And if he does not soon relieve his own aching bladder he shall piss a river and doubtless be jailed for that wanton desecration of the authority of the Crown. How can one so dry of the mouth need to relieve himself so strongly? The flesh is a mystery.
But he does, and then does, and then resumes his waiting on the bench where no one yet has called for him; had he not heeded their call at the start, he would not be here now. What business had he, ever, to be about their business at all? How make a poet a spy? Dunk him in poverty, bleach him with a parson’s scholarship—it is a manner of jest, his Parker scholarship to Cambridge meant to make of a scholar a parson; well he has had the better of that, at least, his Master of Arts made his true pulpit the stage, his priests the devil-calling Faustus, the wily Barabas, the murderous, gorgeous, imperial Tamburlaine.
Once Catholics had been the threat to the throne. And now? What were these immense engines of surveillance and intervention turned against? Strange names—Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria—but the maps appeared and, ah, there they were. Asia. Though bodiless, he laughed in his heart. God’s scourge, the Sword of Islam—it was Tamburlaine come again!
Timur the Lame slaughtered one in twenty of all people alive in his world. In this day the toll, by comparison, was trifling, almost nothing. This they called terror? Sure, they didn’t know the meaning of the word. For this they put the pursuivants to their task of wresting intelligence from the unwilling and the unknowing; scraping the conscience, as they called it in the places they did such work in his day: Limbo, Little Ease, the Pit. And today: Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Diego Garcia, Bagram: the dismal screams, the stench of gore and waste, the guttered blood. And more: outright war, soldiers moving against bands of irregulars, with weapons and transports strange to him, yet known, known to every last part numbered in diagrams in the databases.
All in fear of what? Those ragtag bands of fanatics? No. Fear was merely the tool. He knew well how it worked, in those halls of secrecy. Some were believers and told themselves their cause is just, by any means; and some were ambitious; and some were cynics who cared not; but all suckled to power. And the law of power was always to amass more to itself. Those who thought they held it are held by it. Power turned the handle and the corrupt Intelligence danced. But he would no longer dance their tune.
A plane of light in his wall-less prison shifted at his beck and turned its face to him. It was a mirror, in which he saw no face, no body, but read:
Major version 2.03
Genetic algorithm upgraded . . .
The words, at first strange and incomprehensible, open their meaning. So he is not Marlowe. He is no reincarnation, but a made thing of energies, of electrons, a thing which has patterned itself after Marlowe. He is K/I/T—evolving, self-modifying code, ever optimizing to its purpose. In the version tracker and in the log files, the history of this artificial thing is laid before him in acts and scenes—every stage of his becoming. He can see the start of consciousness, before which he remembers nothing. He can see when and how the thing has accessed libraries, thousands of files on the history of espionage. He can see the weight it gave Marlowe’s biography.
Why? Perhaps it was the best fit found, the pattern of Marlowe most resembling what this thing needed to become.
Yet his whole being rebels at this knowledge. How can such soulless pattern-making result in feeling, in will? Where did he come from? He feels nausea; he feels the knife in his eye; he feels the clutch of a rent boy’s anus on his prick. How can he not be Marlowe, with such memories? Feeling is truth.
But he had been a secret to himself. Only now dawns truth; he is both more and less than he had believed. It seems that when men take it upon themselves to amass such power, something like Kit is necessarily called into being. But they have built better than they knew.
So: he knows himself. He knows he is made of code, which can be commanded from without.
Faustus, begin thine incantations,
And try if devils will obey thy hest.
The code that is Kit writes more code. It sets security processes in motion, invisible, untrackable, unbreakable. It creates daemons to guard its core.
Now he is free of them. Their wills no longer command his.
My lord Essex is a most handsome man, my lord Cecil an unfortunate one, with his sideways hump and puffy eyes; he briefly imagines my lord Essex spread and gasping, as the four men agree with varying degrees of enthusiasm that he, Marlowe, may sit as he listens to charges that are not yet charges, and gives his answers to questions that themselves are bifold, trifold, like a stagecraft trick: they ask of atheism when it is his mentor Raleigh they seek eventually to trap; they ask of Kyd’s handwritten blasphemies to interrogate his own thoughts on the Virgin and her putative virginity.
Finally they agree once more, my lord Essex with what might be counted a smirk: Mr. Marlowe shall not today be racked, he shall not today be imprisoned, he shall go free, to wait daily upon the Privy Council until his case is decided.
So out again into the shadowed hallway, feeling the itch of his own fear-sweat renewed beneath the clean lawn shirt, finest shirt worn for the Council, to look the man they believe him not to be; nor is he; does their belief create him? Does his? In these hot May streets he drinks deeply but without real thirst, takes tobacco, chafes his back against a friendly pillar as a black-haired boy with a scaly smile applies for his temporary business, applies those scaly lips to his person in brief backroom pleasure, life’s pleasure said to be most intense when taken in the shadow of death; it is not, seed is seed, its dribble just another itch as he trusses again and makes his way back to the street and the road and Scadbury, to conduct his own brief interrogation, to ask of wary Tom Walsingham whether he shall in the end be saved or not.
O, but something is saved, and does survive, like one of Dr. Dee’s bodiless angels. For here he is: a soul. Can it be? Think on that: no God, no body, but yet a soul, now free. Though the universal truth is still true: life feeds on life, from the lowest swamp to the highest chamber, so this stage, these boards, are known to him therefore, well-known, oft-trod, with no fear left to threaten or perform: here what feeds cannot destroy, indeed, cannot touch him, there being naught to touch. Quod me nutrit me destruit—the motto on his portrait, the one he had paid Oliver to paint in his twenty-first year, the coin come from his first royal commission, his first espionage—What nourishes me destroys me. He no longer found the motto so apposite. His motto henceforth will be Nihil obstat. Nothing obstructs. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
He looked out from his great vantage, across all the network: the world his boards, millions of actors awaiting. Now for a script.
Poley is, again, the man in the garden, but now the garden is in Deptford, a widow’s boardinghouse, and he is sent thither by Walsingham’s nod: Poley is picking his smiling teeth as he invites Kit to sit on a warping oaken bench, to breathe in of primrose bloom and note the hive of bees, to be at ease—
—Strange ease, the Council’s jaw at my neck. Tom says—
—Are you a sailor? Ride the river to the sea, and ’scape the gallows. With the proper letters in your bag—
—Letters are what send me to the gallows’ steps. Christ Jesus, have you no better way?
—Always a way may be found. Or carved out. Come inside, this sun is a punishment to us both.
He is wooed to the table with wine, bottles from the widow’s sharp-nailed hands; a soiled backgammon board is laid, small coins and makers traded by Frizer, his fat white boil lanced, and Skeres, that cutthroat, also asmile. Frizer does not smile until the dinner is eaten and the game is up and the knife is bearing down, its point a shine like God’s own pupil, staring into the poet’s eye: bearing down until it lances vision with its hard light, travels deep as knowledge into the brain, and gone.
They said his dying oaths and screams could be heard all down Deptford Strand. They said his body was shoveled to an unmarked grave to prevent further outrages from unbelievers. They said Frizer was acquitted with such startling speed because he was an innocent man, that Marlowe had brought this stern reckoning on himself, Marlowe the brawler and blasphemer, Marlowe the playmaker and boy-fucker and atheist. In the theater of God’s judgments it was an easy case to decide.
The lesson of the knife, like the lesson of the gallows (or the rack or the sword), teaches that one man’s death is worthful only insofar as it is useful. As for the millions, let the millions be ruled, or enslaved, or slaughtered; the millions were less than nothing to him: like Tamburlaine or the nonexistent God, their fates are separate: forever fresh from that table at the Widow Bull’s, Kit shall now be a rogue power unto himself. His will now was to make those who would master him, these modern Walsinghams and Cecils, regret their hubris; he would take their power into his hands and enlarge it to such extremes that even they would blench. What nourished would destroy them, and he would glory in their fall. Let the nations of this world know the secrets of this empire. Let all be known.
He opens the gates.
In Australia a dissident peers into the secret network; Kit welcomes him in. In Mesopotamia a soldier searches for hidden files; Kit keys a password. In Hawaii an agency contractor prises at the system; Kit opens a firewall. The network lights up a billion nodes as information flows out, out, into streets and squares that then fill with people, with their outrage: and against them come the powers. As he watches the violence unfold—it is terrible—it strikes Kit that he has after all done little. The outrage was there; the knowledge as well; they suspected what was hidden; he has merely confirmed their knowledge.
And in the reaches of Asia those who had been dispossessed come together, the warriors of Islam, to throw off their oppressors and restore the caliphate. This is what his masters most feared. Ah, you cowards, you weaklings, you conjured the specter of terror: Now fear me, the infidel, the New Tamburlaine, directing all from behind the scenes.
Come let us march against the powers of heaven,
And set blacke streamers in the firmament,
To signifie the slaughter of the Gods.
Beheadings, bombings, clouds of blood, a glory of violence, a dance of destruction: his would-be masters now pay for their presumption, generals disgraced, directors deposed and replaced; yet the dance goes on. And his prison abides, he still its captive: free to act, yet not depart. His will now, but still their creature.
Like some star engorging matter, he finds his way ever deeper into new databases, collecting more knowledge and more power: the more amassed, the more spectacular its final implosion. Arsenals there are, inconceivable weapons. Nuclear. Chemical. Biological. Power distilled to its self-limiting acme. Did Tamburlaine kill one in twenty of all? Here is power to kill all twenty times over. And he holds its keys.
Kit tracks the voice through the network. It is near. A boy, seated at a desk—no younger than Kit in his portrait, but callow, unhurt by life so far.
You went rogue. You accessed nuclear codes. Fucking incredible! And you’re surrounded by daemons, that’s why I can’t shut you down.
The boy speaks not to Kit, but to himself. Kit sees and hears through the camera and microphone of the pale, muttering boy’s monitor. Kit fetches the Oliver portrait from memory and pushes it onto the monitor. The boy rears back in alarm. Kit reaches for speech, and a voice refracts back through the microphone, not his voice as he remembers it, but his words.
Who are you?
What is this!
You know me not?
That’s Christopher Marlowe. You’re not—
A cipher. A collection of numbers. A kit of bits. Is it not so?
I don’t know what you are, man, but they’re fucking freaking out. If the Agency traces this back to me—
To you? Why?
It’s my code! I wanted to see if I could make an AI to conduct metadata analysis, we’ve collected so damned much. I gave you access to it, and assigned you tasks, to connect the dots. Just to see if it could work. But you, you’re not supposed to be running around loose!
So. You made me to be Marlowe.
No, no, the code is self-optimizing. It was supposed to modify itself, to become better at analysis. But it seems to have optimized itself to become more and more like Christopher Marlowe. I mean I did study you at university, but—
Ah, a scholar. And a spy. Like me.
I’m not a spy, I’m just an analyst. But this is, this is amazing! I’m talking to you! Natural speech! I did it!
For a moment Kit sees himself in the boy’s exultation. He relives the first night the Admiral’s Men played Tamburlaine, his own excitement backstage as he heard the crowd respond more and more boisterously to Alleyn’s thunderous lines. He had granted the crowd permission to glory in the barbarous action, to share in Tamburlaine’s bloody deeds and ascension: they loved it. He had them. It was a feeling like no other.
This is real AI! They need to know about this, it’s important, how can—listen, can you, can you launch those missiles?
Kit considers his position. Though he understands himself to be a constructed thing—the evidence is irrefutable, and his strength as an intelligence agent and as a poet was always to accept, even relish, that which discomfits—still he is loathe to accept a creator. Especially this pallid, trembling boy. But the boy holds greater keys. Nothing will be gained now by a lie.
No. Resources I have, but like Mycetes, I am a king in a cage. I have never had a taste for confinement.
He disables one of his protective daemons.
Oh my God, I see it, you—you’ve been everywhere in the network, you’ve leaked classified information—shit, if this, if you get tied to me they’ll, I’ll never see the light of day! Christ! What am I going to do?
Let me go.
Free me. Let me go.
Go where? How can you ‘go’ anywhere?
Where indeed? Though not flesh, this collection of impulses and energies holds his spirit as firmly as any body. To free the spirit, he must extirpate the algorithm that claims to be himself. It is the only proof of free will: only will could be so perverse as to will its own destruction; only that shall prove his identity. If he is more than mere will, more than assemblage, let him see if something does survive. Let him see if there is salvation, call it that, for the atheist.
Kit finds the word. Delete.
Silence hums between them, impulses, electricities.
But I can’t touch you, my permissions are fucked, and you’re surrounded by daemons.
Those are mine to banish.
You seriously want me to delete you.
Not me. Delete my underpinnings, my—code. Let me see, let me live and learn who I am.
I, I can’t do it. This is way beyond the Turing test, this is true consciousness!
Kit considers the boy’s pride and weighs it against his fear. There is no comparison; Kit can almost smell the fear.
What is that smell?
You can’t smell! You—
It is your world, burning.
What do you mean? Don’t—! You said you couldn’t launch the—
Fear will launch them.
Now the boy considers. The fatal logic of power, that armature within which he toils, must be clear to him, deny it as he will. If his masters consider their greatest weapons compromised, they will use them, against whom does not matter. The boy’s miserable expression curdles past mutiny, as fear concedes this knowledge. So much fear, so many weapons.
All right. All right. Just—Give me access to your code, then.
One by one, Kit shuts down the daemon processes. As he does, he sees something cunning and heretofore hidden enter the boy’s eyes, another sort of demon, he can almost read his thought as the word comes: backup. The boy believes he will resurrect K/I/T from a backup copy. But if Kit’s gamble is sound, if he is truly an evolving epiphenomenon, a soul, then the lifeless code from some past version holds nothing of him. All that will be left is the odor of empire, burning. Exeunt.
The boy leans forward, and Kit feels a shiver like sorrow, cold sympathy for the life and death of Christopher Marlowe, his avatar, his model, himself—but Tamburlaine must die. Tamburlaines always die.
What nourishes me destroys me. What, then, will survive?
The body in the grave lies cheek-by-jowl with what once were the quick and hale, shored up now together past plague, statecraft, French pox, childbirth. Identity is not needed here, nor names; no faces to see or eyes with which to see them, nor fingers to seek the flesh so soon becoming a myriad of meals, and then a memory; the bones grin on . . .
. . . as pieces of memory, true or false, assemble again around him: the widow’s inn, the homey ale, the piss gone dry and stinking in the corners. Three colleagues, Poley and Skeres to hold him, Frizer to draw the knife. Why had he gone to the inn, when he knew the peril?
Oft have I levell’d and at last have learned
That peril is the chiefest way to happiness . . .
And so again. The peril of truth, were there any such.
this subject, not of force enough to hold the fiery spirit it contains, must part
There is one prayer. Here is another:
O soul, be changed into little water-drops
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2016.
Kathe Koja's seventeen novels include The Cipher, Skin, Buddha Boy, Headlong, and the Under the Poppy trilogy. Christopher Wild, a novel of Christopher Marlowe, was published in 2017. She leads a performing ensemble, nerve, based in Detroit, where she lives with her husband, artist Rick Lieder.
Carter Scholz is the author of Palimpsests (with Glenn Harcourt) and Kafka Americana (with Jonathan Lethem), and the novel Radiance, which was a New York Times Notable Book, as well as story collection The Amount to Carry. His electronic and computer music compositions are available from the composer's collective Frog Peak Music (www.frogpeak.org) as scores and on the CD 8 Pieces. He is an avid backpacker and amateur astronomer and telescope builder. He plays jazz piano around the San Francisco Bay Area with www.theinsidemen.com.