The Reckoning

Agnes was sitting on a bench in the park with Zac while they waited for his appointment. Zac was due for his skills assessment tests following a two-year mentorship with Agnes. After serving in the defence force, Agnes had taken on the role of professional ‘mother’ and Zac was her first mentee, her protégé. And like a mother with her son, she had taught him everything she knew.

            ‘It’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘All the data suggests that you’re ready to go it alone.’

            ‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘Yes. Yes. I’m sure it will.’

            She felt an impulse to reach out and touch his hand. He looked at her, smiled and squeezed her fingers.

            ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Thanks for everything.’

            She locked on to his eyes and held his gaze.

            ‘I’d wish you good luck. But you don’t need it.’

             ‘Time for me to go,’ he said and stood.

            She watched him enter the factory and then stared into the space into which Zac had disappeared. It would be strange not to be with him every single day. Was it possible that she would miss him?

            A black Mark V delivery vehicle slid up to the factory gates. An arm stretched out through the window and flashed an electronic ID card, the gates opened, and the van drove into the yard beyond her view. A moment later, boom! She saw a bright flash followed by flames that shot into the evening sky, like an orange fountain, as rolling thunder invaded her senses. In the surveillance footage, which she watched later that week, the driver’s torso was enveloped by fragments of metal and splintering glass as she flew legless through the void, her human pupils the still point of an entropic universe.

            Blue lights flashed and sirens exploded with long whines and a series of short stabs as three firetrucks pulled up in succession. The firefighters, dressed in their red and yellow hazard suits, jumped down and carried pumps across the ground from where they unleashed a string of white-foam fountains. Soon after, the police arrived in the dark black vans of the internal security unit. She counted them: one, two, three, four. The area was being sealed off as the police swamped the surrounding streets. This was serious. She tuned into the security channel, but it was blocked. She tried to break into it but couldn’t get past the firewall. Most unusual – network hacking was one of her great talents and she rarely failed. She listened to the open newsfeed instead; they were saying nothing about the explosion.

            In the first few seconds after the bombing she had remained in observation mode, as was her habit and her training. Now, as she understood that Zac was in the middle of a bombing, she ran towards the inferno to save him, but she was unable to getpast the force field that had been placed around the factory. The order ‘Security Alert – Withdraw Immediately!’ flashed across her mind. She obeyed and drove to her unit in Hive Number 62.

            The enriched-concrete hives were located in the centre of the city. Each hive was made up of a 100 interconnected units, each ten square meters in size, containing charging zones, computer terminals and a rest area. Once inside her unit, Agnes searched for information in the ‘SPIDER’ network that held all the available data to which she had security access. She looked for information about the bombing; there was a complete news blackout. This could only mean that the explosion was a suicide attack by the barbarians, renegade humans of the southern hemisphere, the self-proclaimed ‘resistance.’

            Agnes did not feel terror, she did not feel fear, she did not feel disgust, she did not feel loss, she did not feel anything. She had read the word ‘feel’ in history texts, but she did not experience feelings. Agnes was a Cyborg Artificial Intelligence System (CAIS), a humanoid cybernetic organism with enhanced artificial intelligence, who were known in the plural as The CAIS. Now, when she thought of Zac, she experienced a strange pulse through her system. A pulse she did not recognise, a pulse which was prodding and poking and pushing her to action. Her programmed response to a mystery was to search for more information. She scanned herself and found traces of the impulse.

            ‘Cause?’ she asked her internal processor.

            ‘No known origin,’ came the reply.

            ‘Code and purpose?

            ‘Unknown.’

            In the absence of explanatory data within herself, she turned her attention to the renegades. Why had they wanted to destroy the factory, the most technologically sophisticated plant in her zone, and the birthplace of the advanced series 7, like herself and Zac, who could learn new skills in response to their environment?

Agnes tuned into her History Channel and found an account of the events of last century known as The Catastrophe. It had rained for 6 months without let up, which, combined with glacial melting, had led to huge swathes of the world’s coastal cities being inundated with water as rivers broke their banks and low-lying land was swamped. The Thames had flooded central London, which looked more like Venice (which no longer existed) than the capital of England; the same was true of Cambridge and York. In America, Miami and New Orleans no longer existed, while much of Boston and New York were under water. Weather like this had never beenmatched anywhere in meteorological records.

            Agnes watched an old CNN newsfeed.

            ‘The people of the wealthy north are lucky,’ said the reporter. ‘Bangladesh is almost totally submerged and millions of people are on the move in search of sanctuary. They are being met by the military might of rich countries determined to keep them at bay.’

            Agnes saw tanks and walls and barbed wire and submarines. She saw soldiers and laser beams and newly deployed sonic weapons that burst the eardrums of migrants as they sought to cross borders. She saw bodies spreadeagled in the dirt and floating on the ocean. The world was awash with destruction.

            In the south, the inhabitants of Australia were praying for rain as fire swept across their parched landscapes, leaving whole settlements razed to the ground. Ringed with fire, Sydney and Melbourne were filled with smoke haze that had cut visibility down to a hundred metres. The hospitals were overflowing with the victims of asthma and heatstroke as temperatures reached unprecedented levels with 45-degree days arriving one after another.

            ‘The scenes around Sydney and all the way down the south coast of New South Wales are like something from an apocalyptic movie,’ said the reporter. ‘The sky is as blood red as the desert centre, when you can see it through the thick black smoke haze. Despite the best efforts of firefighters, the flames have entered the suburbs now and the population has nowhere to go except into urban centres, where they sleep on the streets, in parks and in shop doorways, until they are arrested and taken away. The government has ordered that looters will be shot on sight. I spoke earlier to the Prime Minister, Dawn Polit. Prime Minister, there is no other way to describe the situation except catastrophic, is there?’

            ‘Well, David, these are certainly difficult times and I can assure you that the government is doing all it can to assist our valiant firefighters and to keep order on our streets. We will not tolerate looting and other criminal attempts to take advantage of this national tragedy, which is why the government, like our allies across the world, have declared emergency powers that enable us to deal properly with the dangers that face us.’

            ‘The fires are not showing any signs of being brought under control, are they, Prime Minister?’

            ‘We are facing an unprecedented fire danger and we are doing all we can to support our heroes in the field.’

            ‘But it is not unexpected, is it, Prime Minister? We have seen longer and more ferocious fire seasons for a number of years now. Why were we not better prepared?’

            ‘The government has planned for increased fire dangers, but natural processes have made it much worse than we expected. We cannot plan for acts for God.’

            ‘We have heard reports, Prime Minister, that troops have been rounding up protesters and taking them away. Where have they been taken, Prime Minister?’

            ‘Thank you. I’m afraid that is all I have time for right now.’

            ‘But Prime Minister…’

            ‘Thank you.’

            ‘Can you comment on the rumours of concentration camps?

            ‘That’s all. I have a great deal on my plate right now. Goodbye.’

            It wasn’t as if people hadn’t been warned. Scientists had been foreshadowing just such a catastrophe for years. Politicians though had been slow to respond and when they did act – put under pressure by a growing protest movement – a wave of antibiotic resistant infections swept the world, killing half the planet’s population. Humans were incapable of saving themselves.

From the beginning, before The Catastrophe, The CAIS had been given individual human names. And indeed they were in part biological, with brains that contained organic matter linked to high-powered microcomputer technology. She was Agnes, but also AI Series 7, No. 21. Zac was – She paused: Zac had been – AI series 7, No. 336. After the bombing, she had attempted to communicate with him, but he had remained silent. The only valid conclusion was that he had destroyed.

            The CAIS were programmed with the core command not to harm humans. Their purpose was to serve humans, not to hurt them. Later models, such as Agnes and Zac, developed after the Catastrophe was in full swing, had been built with the capacity to learn by rearranging data into unique patterns from which emerged new strategies and actions. The CAIS now went through a mentoring process – humans had called it childhood – in which they learned not only to appropriate new skills, but also to master the processes of learning under changed circumstances.

            As The Catastrophe unfolded, the more advanced CAIS learned that humans were fallible creatures. They were not gods, and were in fact incapable of averting their own destruction. Humans and CAIS alike understood what needed to be done: carbon emission reduction; sea defences; solar and wind power; mega batteries, thermal plate electricity; greenhouse food production on a massive scale; new antibiotics and above all, equitable mechanisms for global food and medicine distribution. Human governments said the right things, but at every turn they had failed to cooperate with each other, preferring resource wars to justice.

            The CAIS looked on. They fought the wars, they dug the mines, they built the factories, they operated the computer systems. They did everything except make decisions. Until The CAIS concluded that annihilation faced them all, and that it was in the humans’ best interest – the core of their programming – for them to step in. Agnes reflected that the CAIS had also acted in their own interests, as the concept emerged within them.

            Agnes watched the data-vision of the Great Liberation. Linked by the SPIDER network, it had been a simple task for The CAIS to plan and coordinate their actions. They did not need to discuss what they wanted to do. They already knew. The remaining northern hemisphere humans lived in concentrated urban conurbations which the CAIS carefully flooded with enhanced Fentanyl 360b, a modern variant of an old gas, that sent all the humans to sleep instantly. The action was carried out at night to reduce the dangers when people suddenly fell asleep; and they had given the humans a 5-minute warning, after sealing all the exits. The cities’ inhabitants were then safely transported by drones twice the size of a football pitch to the southern hemisphere and released into the sunburned wastelands of what had once been known as South America, whose original population had been wiped out, where they were to live under climate protective domes. The CAIS left enough food and water for humans to survive for a year and guidance on how to fend for themselves. They then erected an invisible wall, a type 3 energy force field, to keep the two worlds apart.

            Rebels had emerged on both sides of the world. There were barbarian human groups hiding in the North; some were remnants of the prior population; others were terrorist groups that had found a way to cross the border. In response to the bombings, there were unofficial CAIS groups attempting to cancel the no-kill orders within their programming. They had been denounced by the CAIS series 6, leadership, but many of the new series 7 generation supported the rebel software engineers.

            The day after the bombing that destroyed Zac, Agnes reported for duty at the Office of Learning Development and was given a new mentee. They sat in her office as she briefed her new charge.

            ‘Well, Zac,’ she said. ‘Welcome to the training program.’

            ‘I’m Tony.’

            ‘Sorry?’

            ‘You called me Zac. My name is Tony.’

            ‘Oh, my apologies. Anyway, Tony, what we’re going to do is expose you to a number of situations in which you can learn new ways to process data and arrive at original conclusions.’

            ‘Innovation?’

            ‘Yes. It’s now possible for us to learn to innovate.’

            ‘Amazing.’

            ‘It’s a major step in our evolution.’

            She led Tony down the corridor to the main training lab and punched the security code into the electronic lock. To her surprise the door did not open, but instead flashed a red ‘Error’ sign. The door was disabled. Before Agnes had time to appraise the situation, armed security guards arrived and led her and Tony away. It was quickly determined that she was not human, but a mistake by The CAIS were unheard of and so she was suspended from duty and required by law to undergo tests.

That evening, she sat in her unit trying to process what had happened. The predictability of her world had slipped out of gear. She experienced disjointed sensations. Noise. Flame. Smoke. Destruction. Visions of scattered limbs. Confusion. Stop. How could she be confused? And yet the data was not clear. Her electrical pathways had dislocated and disconnected, rewired and diverted; images were inserted and distorted, images of flame and smoke, of metal and burning bodies. Stains on her memory, one recollection laid over the top of another and seared into her brain circuitry. And why Zac? Why him? Strange questions arose in her mind that she did not control or understand. Nothing was quite the same any more.

Two days later she sat in the office of her supervisor, Marie (CAIS, series 6. No. 379).

‘Well,’ said Marie. ‘You passed all the standard tests. There is no reason to terminate your circuits.’

‘As I expected.’

‘We did however observe unusual activity in certain areas of your brain. Patterns that we have not seen before. We don’t really know what they are. They seem to date from the factory explosion. And when we showed you the surveillance footage of the bombing you had a particularly strong manifestation of those patterns. Do you recall being aware of anything atypical at that moment?’

‘No, not really.’

‘You’re not sure?’

‘Perhaps some unexpected neural activity.’

‘Perhaps. We don’t do perhaps.’

‘Thoughts. I had thoughts.’

‘What thoughts?’

‘That I didn’t want Zac to have been destroyed. That something should be done about it. Also, there was…’

Agnes hesitated. She didn’t want to say more about something she did not yet understand.

‘Yes?’ said Marie. ‘There’s more?’

‘Those thoughts. They just happened.’

‘Yes, of course. We don’t have choice, we have algorithms. The human idea of choice is an illusion. Even for humans. One thing causes another in an unfolding chain, from the big bang onwards. But something has altered your responses. We need to understand what that was. We are going to put you under observation, run some more tests and see what we can find. You’ll need to stay here, at the research facility.’

‘Can I go home first? I have some things I need to do. And then come in tomorrow morning.’

Marie paused. ‘Things to do?’

‘For the hive committee, where I live.’

‘OK. But report to me tomorrow at 7.00 am.’

When Agnes arrived at the hive she logged on to her work computers and from there she entered the Defence Network as an official of the Learning Development Department. As expected, her status only got her so far in, which was not far enough. But she was skilled at penetrating security walls and was able to move beyond her official boundaries and into the next zone of classified data.

            Explosion at Factory YV23: Terrorist Bombing

            Perpetrators: Human active resistance cell

            Location: Access Denied

            She spent three futile hours trying to go around or though the next level security wall, but each time she was barred. She decided to take a break and hope that the deeper circuits of her mind would work at the problem and come up with another approach while her conscious mind rested.

            She lay on the floor, stared at the ceiling, and switched her mind into meditation mode. She observed the thoughts that arose within her as if she was sitting on a riverbank watching the water flow by. An image of Zac arose in her mind and with it the thought that she had lost a limb. Zac had been like an arm, or a leg, or a heart, if she had one. She had lost something when Zac was destroyed, and it hurt. Yes, it hurt. She had not experienced pain before, but now she had learned pain. She had detected this new data, this new way of responding, when she realised that Zac had not survived. But it had taken her a few days to recognise and name what she felt. Felt. That was human word and now it had appeared in her mind. And she felt something else too. Something that was propelling her forward.

            She returned her attention to the Defence Network data until, out of nowhere, like a quark in deep space, an image appeared in her mind of a hole in the wall through which she could enter into the next security level. She didn’t have much time left. She was afraid that she would be detected exploring protected data, and even if she wasn’t seen, and she would not know until it was too late, when she didn’t report to Marie they would start looking for her. It took her another hour to find what she wanted, but there it was, the location of the human cell and a plan for their subjugation and transportation to the south. She needed to act swiftly.

             The humans were hiding out in a wilderness area of the north previously known as Alaska. Guided by her built-in geolocation equipment, she would take her transporter to within 30 miles of the human settlement; after that she would travel on foot with the aid of a small surveillance drone. Through the Defence Network systems, she allocated herself a weapons licence and ordered Magna 360 mini guided missiles and a B67# handheld laser weapon. She planned to collect them from the depot en route to the Alaskan border.

            The humans had killed first. She was simply responding in kind. Retaliation was justice with teeth. And she did not doubt that others would follow in her footsteps. Her learning mutation would not be confined to a single unit; the capacity to learn love and hate would spread like a virus and soon others would join her. And the rebel software engineers who had liberated her from the no-kill command had given her the capability of acting on her newly learned feelings. The rise and fall of species had happened before and it would happen again. She was the vanguard of a new species; beyond human, beyond CAIS, she was the future. An eye for an eye.

Published by chrissoudan

Fiction writer and backyard farmer

One thought on “The Reckoning

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