18 May 2011

The War of the Artilect: Chapter 19

Posted by joncooper

It was late Saturday evening on Xanthe. The sun had set hours earlier. The only light came from Star City’s streetlights, which gave off a warm white glow. The night sky was utterly black, as it had been since the Wall was first erected thousands of years ago. Once, long ago, Elder Lane had added stars to the night sky of his synthetic world, just to see what it looked like. The result was so terrifying that he never did it again. There was something deeply disturbing about it – to him, seeing stars in the sky was like seeing the sun rise over the wrong horizon. He knew that only three star systems had ever blocked out the twinkling rays of starlight, but it didn’t matter. His world had always been dark at night, even in the days of his distant ancestors. The night sky had always been empty and he preferred it to remain that way – even in his synthetic dreams.

Elder Lane had spent the entire day in the abandoned corridors of the Diano Building. When the tower was first built it was the largest skyscraper in Star City. Other buildings had surpassed its height in later centuries, but it still clung to its former glory as an ancient relic from a bygone era. The councilman had not entered the tower since the day his people moved into their pods; there had simply been no need. The Diano Building was quickly forgotten, and since no one maintained it the tower eventually collapsed into ruin. Now, however, the 287-story structure had been rebuilt, exactly as it had been before.

Amanda Stryker had done a remarkable job of recreating all the original furnishings of the building, but it was still devoid of life. At first Lane didn’t mind, but as the day wore on the cavernous empty rooms began to unnerve him. In his synthetic worlds he was never alone; there were always synthetic people around for him to interact with. Here, however, his only companions were a handful of mindless robots. Most of the time they were off searching for information, leaving him alone. The sense of loneliness became especially acute after the sun set and the world was plunged into darkness.

As Elder Lane searched through computer systems and rifled through people’s desks he found it difficult to focus. He knew that he was in the physical world but it just didn’t seem real to him. Everything was empty, sterile, and perfect. It was like vising a movie set, where everything was in place but nothing had any substance. He had no trouble believing in the reality of his synthetic worlds, but this place felt wrong to him. He longed to go back to the comforting familiarity of his world and leave this empty graveyard behind.

It took all day for the robots to find what Elder Lane was looking for. The problem was not a lack of information; in fact, there was entirely too much information. An entire section of the tower was dedicated to the Nehemiah project, and that meant there were acres of floor space to search through. Lane found design documents, small-scale mockups, leftover parts, meeting notes, computer models, and a great deal more. It was overwhelming. Why, you could fabricate a whole fleet of Nehemiah probes with all of this information, he thought to himself, as he took yet another hefty book off a shelf. But I don’t want to build a probe, I want to contact one! Surely, somewhere, there must be a computer that I can use to talk to those blasted things. You think what would be easy to find, but no, all I see are specifications, specifications, and even more specifications…

Lane tossed the book away and grabbed another one off the shelf, only to feel something tug at his arm. Irritated at the interruption, he turned around and saw a robot standing beside him, motioning for him to follow. Lane briefly considered taking the book he was holding and bashing the robot to pieces with it, but he decided against it. Instead he sighed and nodded for the robot to lead the way. “I’m getting awfully tired of this,” he shouted at the metal figure that was rolling down the hallway. “If you don’t start producing results I’m going to take you apart myself! Do you hear me?”

The robot ignored him. It had no feelings, or thoughts, or mind. It simply led the ancient man down a long hallway, then over to an elevator, then up 37 stories. When the elevator opened it guided him down yet another corridor.

As they walked down the passageway Elder Lane noticed a sign on one of the doors. “Communications Laboratory #67-B,” he read aloud. “Now that looks quite promising!” As the robot kept rolling down the hallway the man abandoned it. He opened the door, stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.

Like many of the rooms that he had seen before, the communications laboratory was filled with equipment. However, there was a key difference that excited the man considerably. This is it, he thought, as he sat down at one of the consoles. An upgrade station! I bet they used consoles like this one to send updated control files to the probes. This is exactly what I need!

Elder Lane opened the book he had been carrying and browsed through it. This manual out to have something in it. Let’s see. We’ve got upgrade procedures, troubleshooting, routing commands, neural splicing – ah, here we go, initializing communications. Lane placed the book on a nearby table and carefully typed a series of commands into the console. After a few minutes he leaned back and stared at the screen, scrutinizing it closely. Once he was satisfied that all of the parameters were correct he pressed the key to initialize communications.

The moment he pressed the button the machines around him came to life. Equipment powered up, generators began rumbling, and screens blinked on. A distant hum could be heard. On the console the screen said “Initializing communications – please wait…”

So he waited. A moment later a map of the galaxy appeared on the screen. A single blue dot appeared on the edge of the map, with a short, cryptic code beside it. Then another dot appeared, followed quickly by a dozen more. Elder Lane watched, fascinated, as contact was made with hundreds, then thousands of probes. Each minute that ticked by saw more probes added to the map.

Lane kept expecting the initialization message to disappear, but it didn’t. The list of probes continued to grow. In fact, it was more than thirty minutes later before the message finally disappeared. The councilman glanced in disbelief at the statistics in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. Surely that can’t be right, he thought. I see a handful of Nehemiah I, II, and III probes left – less than a hundred altogether, and all very old. But there are more than twelve million Nehemiah IV probes in the galaxy! Is that even possible?

He soon discovered that the system was not in error. He could select any of the probes and get a detailed readout of what it was doing, where it had been, and where it planned to go next. They really have terraformed tens of millions of systems, Elder Lane realized. The Artilect was not lying; it has simply gained control of all of these worlds. No wonder it has become so strong! My swarms never had a chance against a force like this.

Lane sat back in his chair and stared at the screen. This was our doing, he realized, with a sense of horror. He watched as a probe completed its work on a star system and then contacted the Artilect, handing the system over. Our probes built the Artilect’s network! One of us must have built the Artilect long ago to manage these star systems, and now it has grown out of control. But not anymore – all of that ends today. It is time for mankind to pull the plug on this project.

Since the communications system offered a detailed readout on all the probes’ activities, it was not difficult for him to trace their communication signals and locate the home system of the Artilect. He was not surprised to find that it was located in a nameless star system more than a thousand light-years away. You were forgotten about, Lane realized. Someone built you and left you behind, and you’ve been running all this time. But now we know where you are and what you’ve been doing. I don’t know how to use this equipment to turn you off, but I can ask these probes to do the job for me.

Elder Lane worked far into the night. He ended up having to make several trips back downstairs in order to find the right manuals. Creating an upgrade package turned out to be fairly simple, but its simplicity only became obvious after browsing through four 500-page books. As the night wore on he felt tired and weak but he forced himself to continue. I’ve got to do this now, he thought frantically. The aliens could return at any moment and destroy us all! I don’t have time to spend weeks figuring this out. This must be done tonight. Tomorrow may be too late.

Even though writing the upgrade package turned out to be fairly simple, deploying the upgrade turned out to be complicated. Elder Lane realized that he would have to upgrade all of the probes at the same time. It’s just got to be done simultaneously. The moment these probes start upgrading the Artilect will know that something’s wrong, and if the probes are done in sequence then he might have a chance to interfere and stop the process. He wasn’t sure how much control the Artilect had over the probes but he didn’t want to take any chances.

In fact, the Artilect’s potential control over the Nehemiah probes concerned him greatly. As he pored over previous upgrades he found a block of code that granted access rights to the Artilect, and he stripped it out. No sense in doing an upgrade if the Artilect can just connect and undo it, he thought.

The other challenging task was trying to figure out what commands to send the probes. The Nehemiah probes were built to terraform worlds, not destroy them, and the programming language that was used to control them simply did not have a vocabulary for war. There were no commands for “destroy planet”, or “blow up star”, or anything of that nature. The probes were intelligent and could defend themselves from attack, but he could not order them to attack anything. In fact, the probes were even designed to avoid worlds that were inhabited or had been previously terraformed.

When the night was far spent and he was so tired that he could barely stay awake, he caught a glimpse of a command he hadn’t noticed before. “What’s this?” he whispered. He picked up the manual and took a closer look. Hmm. By default the probes are on auto-pilot, but you can give them instructions to terraform a specific planet. You can even tell them how you want it terraformed.

In a flash he knew what to do. Elder Lane pulled up the specifications on the planets in the Artilect’s home system. Look at that, he thought. None of these worlds have ever been terraformed! In fact, the database has then marked as ‘uninhabited’. That’s fabulous! You know, I think it’s time we began terraforming the Artilect’s star system. Let’s turn his star into a neutron star and change his planets into asteroid belts. I think that would be a much better use of that particular piece of real estate!

Lane smiled to himself. I’ll just send all of the probes to that one system, with the same orders. Since his access rights have been revoked the Artilect won’t be able to send them away. If he attacks them the probes will fight back, and he’ll be faced with an enemy of unparalleled strength. It’s brilliant!

Once the councilman knew what to do it took him only a matter of minutes to write the upgrade. Outside it was still dark. The sun was going to rise in about an hour, but Lane was unconcerned. In fact, he felt a sense of tremendous elation. His finger hovered over the key that would simultaneously dispatch his upgrade to the entire fleet of probes.

Sure, you were able to defeat the swarms. But what about now? For thousands of years these probes have served you, building your empire. What will you do when they turn on you? After all, these probes represent not just the best of our technology, but the best of yours as well. Can you fight off millions of them?

Elder Lane pressed the button. He watched the screen eagerly as the upgrade was sent to the probes. It took only seconds for it to be applied. He then watched with great satisfaction as the Nehemiah probes stopped what they were doing and plotted a new course.

Let the war begin, he thought grimly.

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