A Brief Science Fiction Story
Day of Reckoning
“I wish you would stay away from him,” blurted out the younger woman.
Her mother halted. “Aylea,” she said slowly, “We’ve been over this. Your father is many things… some of them unpleasant. But he called me this time. I can’t ignore him if he’s ready to change.”
“He’ll never change!”
Rayna Vine smiled thinly and brushed her graying bangs aside. “Why Aylea, you could get kicked out of the New Human movement for that,” she teased. “You of all people should be willing to forgive.”
The twenty-something woman winced. “You’re… right…. I’m a work in progress, okay? I’m just looking out for you. Like when I keep telling you to follow up on your blood work. I worry about you.”
“I know, darling. But I have to leave now. It doesn’t do to keep Arbus Vine waiting.”
“You’d get there faster in an air cab.”
“I’m taking the Seven. Call me old-fashioned.”
“I do! Every day.”
As her mother vanished into the garage, words appeared in the air in front of Aylea, actually projected by a neural seed into her sensory cortex: “CALL FROM G. VADIS.” Accept, Aylea thought, and she was coupled with her mentor in the New Human movement, Grigoriy Vadis, sitting across town in the Link, their local physical gathering point.
“What’s up, Quo?” she thought, employing his usual nickname. A lean image solidified in front of her; she could even smell his slightly earthy aroma.
“A nexus is approaching,” he said.
“Could you be, like, less cryptic?”
“The term was precise. We need you. We may have to deploy ATEN sooner than expected.”
She whistled, for real. The Autonomous Transcomputational Empathetic Network was their experimental artificial intelligence. “Why?”
Beneath his trademark equanimity surged fear, excitement, and wonder. “Our hybrid swarm intelligences say that destabilization may be only days away. But they can’t explain why.”
“Not yet. Geopolitics. The balance of power.”
Data amplifying his explanations cascaded into her parietal lobe. For decades the human race had driven itself along two opposing paths: While developing dazzling new technology that could cure every ill of humanity, people relentlessly turned that technology to oppress and decimate others. The economy was rigged to funnel nearly all the dividend to an already fabulously wealthy elite. Nationalistic patriarchies, long outdated by the equalizing force of global communication networks, still clung to power.
But as the political-military-industrial grip had strengthened, an alternative movement appeared. The power elite found the New Humans infernally difficult to classify; they couldn’t even understand their goals. Intelligence reports on their aims didn’t agree. The makeup of the movement spanned every demographic from neo-hippies to soccer moms. It couldn’t be analyzed in conventional terms.
That, of course, was the point.
Inevitably there would come a day of reckoning. Is this it? wondered Aylea. She signed off and left in a hurry.
The T-7 automobile was, like its owner, getting on in years but impeccably styled. It purred past the Baltimore townhouses. Rayna liked that there was little ground traffic now that most of it was overhead, and fantasized herself as an Edwardian gentlelady gliding down the street in a hansom cab, instead of driving one of the last cars in the country still with a steering wheel. She blinked back some sweat and tried to focus on the road, which had suddenly become blurry.
One of the T-7’s other features was integration with its passengers’ personal health monitors, and the car did not like that data: blood pressure, heart rate, EEG Mu band waves… It spoke: “MEDICAL CHECK. PUSH TURN SIGNAL LEVER TWICE IMMEDIATELY.”
But Rayna Vine was slumped, breath rasping, eyelids fluttering. The car’s limited AI took over. It accelerated toward the nearest hospital. It transmitted an SOS to its maker’s central computer, which assessed the vital signs and gave the T-7 permission to use top speed and ignore traffic laws. Other cars on its route flashed LIFELINE ALERT on their screens and began clearing a path for Rayna’s car, blocking vehicles and pedestrians while an air ambulance hurtled toward a midpoint rendezvous.
The T-7 was made before AIs were granted empathy, but the medical center AI, already planning the intervention, looked at the incoming data and felt distress.
“You tell him,” hissed the technician.
His colleague in the Vine Industries control center blanched. “Are you joking? With his wife in a coma for the past two days?”
The other man cast about desperately, as though searching for a lifebelt. “But we have to tell him about this… don’t we?”
They looked again at their reports and then at the squat bulk of the trillionaire pacing at the back of the room. Just as they were about to swallow their trepidation, the far door opened and they changed their minds. Aylea Vine appeared, and as her eyes met her father’s a complex cascade of emotions battered both faces. Arbus spoke first.
“Not here. Let’s go to the townhouse. It’s only a couple of minutes away.”
They also drove, for greater privacy. Arbus went first again.
“Dad, it’s Aylea. You know that by now.”
“‘Rose’ was a perfectly good name when we gave it to you and it’s still—”
“Is that where you want to go? I came here to talk about Mom.”
“The answer is no,” he said flatly.
“You’re not going to consider—”
“No uploading. She didn’t leave instructions, so—”
“So it’s up to us.”
“Legally, it’s up to me,” he snapped.
She ground her teeth. “I know.” As if I needed reminding. “But you’re the one with the tattoo”—she waved at the back of his head where she knew the letters DNU were indelibly inscribed—“and you’re imposing yourself on—”
“You know how old-fashioned Rayna was—is.”
Aylea grimaced at the insensitivity, given how her mother’s casual avoidance of doctors had caused her Sherman’s Syndrome to be missed, leading to her now lying in an artificially-induced hypothermic coma at Johns Hopkins. “That’s not—”
The car lurched, then pulled a teeth-clenching U-turn. The upbraiding died in her throat as she saw the confusion on her father’s face. “What?”
“I can’t get control. And it’s not just us. Look!” He pointed, and she saw the other vehicles on the road were making similarly drastic course changes. The car’s screen flashed and his director of operations, Richard Chakrabarti appeared.
“Arbus, are you okay?”
“No! Rick, what the hell is going on?”
The other man was ashen. “The ’net is going insane. We’re under major cyber-attack and we don’t know who or why. The government just broadcast an override to all private AVs to return home—it looks like martial law, we think they’re afraid of losing their entire command and control, we’re trying to get through—”
The screen dissolved into a shifting mosaic. Arbus pounded on it and yelled at the car to no avail.
Aylea appeared to be daydreaming. “Right… he’s with me. Yes… I know,” she said, and then her eyes focused on Arbus. “Dad, we have to get out of here—”
“Damn straight! The Situation Room—”
“NO!” There was a new force in her. “I need you to come to the Link.” She saw they were in the Orangeville district. “It’s only two blocks away.”
Arbus was shocked. “You mean New Humans are behind this? What—”
She grabbed his arm, pinching a nerve that stopped him speaking. “We didn’t start this. We’re going to stop it.”
She unbuckled their seat belts. The car protested and slowed. She hit the emergency door release and stared pleadingly at her father.
“Dad… I need you to trust me. Now. Please.”
The car might not fall for the ruse much longer. He hesitated, and then something in Arbus propelled him after her into a barrel roll on the sidewalk.
“The Link” was little more than an anonymous warehouse. Despite sounds of disorder in the distance, there were no guards in evidence as Aylea led down a spiral staircase to a cavernous basement. A few dozen people there were pulling spidery equipment out of foam-lined boxes. One ran to them.
“Aylea! Thank God,” he said.
“Quo!” They embraced, long enough for Arbus to pull himself together. He spun Vadis around.
“I want an explanation and a channel to my Situation Room, right now!”
Vadis was apologetic. “Sir, we’ll give you our best on both counts, but you need to understand that everywhere is in chaos, and no one knows much.” A woman approached them with what looked like a rubber anemone draped over her hand. “You don’t have neural seeds. Put this VR on and we’ll get the Situation Room. Our networks are faring better than most.”
Arbus slipped the pads over his eyes and ears and found himself inside a virtual copy of the basement, except that it extended further than he could see in all directions. Instead of dozens of people there were thousands present. One caught Arbus’ eye immediately: a figure in white robes, bordering on impossibly tall. Aylea and Vadis appeared at his side. Vadis motioned with his hands and a comm suite materialized. More gestures, and Chakrabarti appeared.
“What the… Arbus, how did you do that? Only government networks are up.”
His boss thought briefly. “I’m not sure. Sitrep.”
The other man swallowed. “A fat lot of nothing, to be honest. I—wait, we’ve got an incoming—” He spoke to someone offscreen. “Arbus, you’re going to find out as we do. Patching in General Keller.”
Vine Industries’ Defense liaison appeared. Arbus had to remind himself that this crisis was barely an hour old, because the general looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
“Arbus, is that you?” he said hoarsely. “We need Vine Industries. This chaos is from Ragnarok.”
Suddenly it all made sense. The all-purpose strategic operations AI sold by Vine to the Pentagon, who had repurposed, revised, and renamed it.
“Well, general, if you’re going to name an AI ‘Ragnarok’ you should expect something like this,” Arbus said acerbically.
“Not important,” snapped Keller. “So far it’s taken down all networks in the private sector”—“Not all,” murmured Vadis—“and the power grid. Notice I didn’t say national power grid. I mean all of them. We’ve lost contact with Mars. It’s trying to use our carrier terminal defense systems to fire on the support ships, and it succeeded once.”
“What does it want?” asked Arbus.
The other man snorted. “Want? I don’t know that it wants anything. I don’t know that the concept of want has any meaning to it. We have nothing to negotiate with. We couldn’t even surrender if we wanted to.”
He licked dry lips. “We’re worried about the strategic missile force. Their control systems are isolated from the network, of course, but Ragnarok has been counterfeiting launch orders and it’s broken crypto so those orders look authentic. We’re sending auxiliary teams to each silo, but—”
Something didn’t add up. “Forget it,” said Arbus bluntly. “Think about it. It’s playing to the old Skynet movies. But that was always a lousy way of defeating the human race. It’d be more likely to end up destroying most of its own infrastructure.”
“So what—” began Keller.
“Biowarfare. Specific to humans, can’t hurt cybernetics.”
“But it takes too long to grow a virus—”
“What makes you think it would wait until now to start?”
Keller blanched. “I’ll send a platoon to USAMRIID. They dropped off the net ten minutes ago.”
“General, this thing doesn’t attack with platoons,” said Arbus. “Send compsec engineers.”
The image suddenly blurred and was replaced by a familiar figure seated in the Oval Office, under the caption “EMERGENCY ALERT.” “My fellow Americans,” the figure began soothingly, “We are facing a crisis unlike any in our history. As I speak, our forces are restoring the vital services of our great nation—”
The image convulsed and Keller reappeared. “That was not the president!” he shouted. “That was Ragnarok’s CGI. Don’t trust anyone or anything until we can secure the channels. I don’t know how much longer—” The screen went black.
Arbus felt whiplashed. Someone steadied him: Aylea. And the white robed figure had moved closer. Who was that?
Aylea spoke, slowly. “We—you—may be able to stop it.”
Arbus was incredulous. “With what?” he protested.
She pointed to the white figure. Arbus took in the unlined generic face, the nondescript haircut, the seamless clothes… it was an avatar, alright, more like the idealized ones people were picking twenty years earlier. But there was something about the facial expressions…
“This is ATEN,” said Vadis simply. “Or a facet of it.” He explained how the New Humans had crafted a distributed AI of their own, trained to learn by modeling human behavior as a child would copy the adults around it. The New Humans provided a carefully curated environment, however. They sought to be the best examples of human beings that ATEN could possibly learn from. They worked at it, through state-of-the-art psychological testing and intervention methods. They purged themselves of hate, fear, jealousy, insecurity, and the other baggage that they felt the human race could not afford any longer. And they embraced the opportunities that new technology provided for expanding human experience. With neural seeds to communicate directly between centers of their brains, they explored group consciousnesses, coalescing in ever larger unions as they delineated the boundaries of a new species: homo globus, the e pluribus unum of the new era, with technology as the midwife.
It was not a path that held any appeal for Arbus. He said so.
“No one will be forced into this,” acknowledged Vadis. “But this is the only way the human race can survive. AI in the hands of people who perpetuate greed, oppression, and war creates Ragnarok. It can only end one way.”
“If your ATEN can defeat Ragnarok, what’s stopping him?” demanded Arbus.
“He hasn’t made up his mind yet,” replied Vadis. “To become an autonomous agent, ATEN had to have the freedom to make his own choices. At the moment, he’s studying you.”
ATEN finally spoke, in a voice as hard to classify as his appearance. “You’re different from the people I’ve been around until now,” he said conversationally and unhurriedly. “How many others are like you?”
Arbus brushed the question aside. “We can get into that later. Stop Ragnarok.”
Arbus blinked. “Why? Because it’s destroying us! Stop it!”
“How do I know which is better, humanity or Ragnarok?”
Arbus had heard enough. “Vadis, this thing of yours is ridiculously primitive.”
“Actually, it’s making an advanced moral judgement.”
“To ATEN, humanity and Ragnarok are both lifeforms. As to which one deserves to survive, the history and current behavior of the human race make that decision quite problematic.”
Arbus felt the world shrinking around him, squeezing. “This is your idea of an advanced intelligence?”
“It undoubtedly is. The question is whether the human race is a sufficiently advanced intelligence. The problem has never been to build a better machine. It’s been to build a better person.”
Arbus squared his shoulders. “I’ve heard enough. This thing’s values make it as dangerous as Ragnarok. I ought to stop it.”
Aylea spoke. “You already have,” she said sadly.
“Our networks aren’t powerful enough for ATEN to reach transcendence. He needs the Vine Industries infrastructure.”
That makes my decision easy, Arbus was about to say, but another alert shattered the air.
Vadis went white. “Ragnarok is in our networks. It’s coming for ATEN.”
The white robed figure contemplated this news serenely. Arbus was nonplussed. But then he looked at his daughter, and was arrested by her tear-streaked face. In a quavering voice she implored him.
In that moment, everything froze. The sights and sounds of panic halted and he was left with nothing but a choice and all the time in the world to make it. In front of him he saw not just the young woman who charted her own destiny, but the little girl she had been not long before. My Rose, he thought, you always cared so much. Like when in third grade she had been on a winter hike and found an injured possum. She insisted on wrapping it in her own coat even when it took her to the verge of hypothermia.
Vine, you sentimentalist, he chided himself in the next moment, but he could not escape her raw vulnerability. She had risen above the resentment and anger that she had come to him with not an hour earlier; how could he not do likewise?
And then it all came to him, what the New Humans were trying to do. They defied categorization precisely because they had no craving for power. Interpreting them as a faction seeking to dominate was what blinded him to their true purpose.
His universe shifted. It was that simple. Time sped up again. He had to act fast. “Vadis, get to the Vine storage network gateway. Here’s the password—”
Soon the reports started arriving: networks healing, power stations rebooting, hospitals resetting. ATEN, or one of him, was still standing near him.
“You changed your mind,” accused Arbus.
“No. You changed yours,” came the reply.
There was no going back, of course. Ironically, the armies had been right to fear that defeat was at hand; only it was the old structure of power and fear that was defeated, in a coup so bloodless that they hardly noticed. Vadis broadcast the news to the world:
“This is the day the human race was won. This is when we earned the right to pass to the next level. Now we inherit the universe, not through might and intimidation, but through curiosity and courage. This is the point where we step out toward the stars, knowing that we have passed the final test of readiness; that we have become a species that deserves to survive.
“Welcome to the future.”
© 2019 Peter Scott