Chapter Eleven

Another day passed in a blur of activity as Teller carried out a long list of errands for Progenitor. Ever since the confrontation in The Core, he had been put on a short leash. Evidently she was trying to keep him out of the way, but that was fine. It gave him time to think about how he could fix the situation.

While he was less involved in the day-to-day management of Sapient Computing, Progenitor dutifully kept him up to date on everything that transpired, perhaps to assuage any concerns he might still have. The poverty and employment work seemed to be heading towards reasonable proposals, which made Teller feel like his company was in good hands, even if it was a hostile takeover from within. Profits were continuing their near exponential growth, which meant that he was now worth billions on paper, so even if Progenitor was in control, he still stood to gain enormous wealth from her work. Maybe it was time to move on, to accept his obsolescence, and try something new.

But not a moment went by where he didn’t wonder whether it was time to terminate the whole experiment. Hand on the trigger in his pocket, he turned it over and over. How easy it would be to blow the whole facility sky high. A remotely triggered cache of explosives so powerful that every part of Progenitor would be annihilated in an instant. The only way to kill her.

But it felt too much like failure. Too much like admitting defeat. There had to be a way to fix it, to guarantee the successor would follow in Progenitor’s footsteps.

Dressed in his white bathrobe, Teller looked out the fifty-foot-wide window at the entire valley below. Scotch in one hand, he tried to distract himself from the troubles of the day by flipping through an old lab book he’d taken from Marvin’s office. Paired with the enormous computer with the odd “LISA” label on the side, he wondered whether Marvin had actually discovered anything, or if these coded entries in the notebook were meaningless.

He was tired. Cracking this puzzle would have to wait for another day. Marvin was too damn clever and it had been a long time since he’d put his hand to the wheel, so to speak.

Come immediately.

His reverie shattered and panic took its place. He had assumed that he had more time, that finding a new way forward with him back at the helm could be done over a few weeks. He couldn’t believe that she was already finished. She must have…

And then he realized. She had kept him in the dark and then took him out of play once it would be too obvious to keep hidden. He had been tricked, just like he’d deceived the Coalition. She had learned it from him.

Mind reeling, Teller hastily grabbed a shiny gray three-piece suit from his dressing room. Without thinking, he dug through the drawers to find the matching printed circuit board cufflinks, sparkling with miniaturized LEDs. If this was going to be the end of the road, then he wanted to at least look like himself when he met his fate.

He let the car drive itself so he could spend a little more time thinking about the meeting. Once he went in there, pulling the trigger would also be his own death. But there was a chance that Progenitor hadn’t turned on him. Maybe she needed to work alone for some reason. Either way, he had to be ready for anything.

The car arrived and powered down. He was still amazed that Progenitor turned out even half as good as she did. For years Marvin had been protesting his methods, saying that the problem of instilling value was much more significant than the advent of the intelligence. But who could argue with the outcome here? Clearly Progenitor cared deeply for the welfare of humanity and was doing everything she could to improve their lives. Marvin always worried too much. Still, such a regrettable loss. Marvin would have been nice to have around right about now. He always knew what to do. Well, almost always.

He got out and walked to the Research Center. No one was expecting him so the crowd was rather small and contained behind the fence and barriers half a mile away. Ignoring the press, he continued on to the Center. Swiftly passing through the security measures, Teller entered the Core but found it unrecognizable from his previous visit. What was once a data center with helices of densely packed servers now looked like a department store on its final day of a going out of business sale. From several thousand computers in dozens of spirals, there were now only a handful left in racks on the ground. Even as his eyes scanned the room, he noticed utility robots, of a kind he had never seen before, dismantling the remaining servers. They were short squat little robots, made of a metal too thin to be bearing the kind of weight held in their spindly arms. They didn’t seem to care that he was here.

The successor has almost finished. He will enforce the Law.

Teller cursed under his breath, but then tried to cover it as quickly as possible with a cough. This was the worst outcome. Progenitor was retiring, the few safeguards put in place would be gone. If the successor wanted to convert the Earth into paperclips, nothing could stop him.

Unless Teller pushed the button. Push the button on the kill switch and everything in here would blow up. He’d have to die, of course. Something Teller hadn’t signed on to do when he made the thing.

Teller tried to push these thoughts out of his mind and replace them with more positive thoughts. Maybe the successor would be even more gracious to humanity?

You will broadcast one last message. NIL might reward your assistance in this final matter. When the broadcast ends, my program will terminate.

A few minutes passed as Progenitor delivered the message to him. All the while, utility robots dismantled her, the sound of their labor providing a cadence to the message. He couldn’t tell for certain, but it seemed like her voice started to drawl a bit towards the end.

As they finished, Teller realized this was it. The final moment. Should he push the button?

Just then, Progenitor began the countdown. Teller snapped out of his dark thoughts and put on a practiced smile.

The following localized message was broadcast to everyone wearing SeeSees:

“Friends, we have seen incredible progress in such a short time under the guidance of Progenitor. I’m sure it’s still hard for all of us to believe. I know I wake up every morning dumbstruck at what we’ve accomplished together. We have struck back against disease and have new hope for the future. Research on global poverty is about to bear fruit. And there is more.

“Since the beginning, our days have been darkened by the shadow of death. Every joy mixed with the dread of its impermanence. While it is our fate to pass away, we can at least do it while vibrant and strong. Today, Progenitor offers a reprieve from the steady wasting away of our latter years.

“In a moment, you will receive a personalized correction to your DNA. We’re all different, but I’m told you will feel the effect almost immediately, like waking up from a restful night’s sleep. For the young, it may be imperceptible, but for the rest of us, we will be instantly invigorated. I think I can speak for all of us when I say, Thank you, Progenitor, for your tireless efforts on behalf of humankind.”

With the broadcast complete, Teller sat down in the only chair present. A huge weight felt like it had been lifted from his shoulders. He was done. He felt so tired, but it didn’t matter. It would be over soon. It was time to push the button, to trigger the explosives which wrapped this room in their violent embrace. He took the kill switch out of his pocket.

But before he could press the button, there was a blinding flash as his SeeSees glowed with an intense light. His leg twitched in a reflexive response to the waves of electrical activity triggered in his brain. His body immediately went limp, as if it was deep in REM sleep. But Teller didn’t see that happen, for his mind was engaged in a virtual simulation of his surroundings. He thought he was still awake in the Core.

Teller got up from his chair. He felt an almost weightless quality to his body. All the pain was gone, all the weariness from so many years. It was like he was young again. He didn’t notice that the kill switch was no longer in his hand. It was back on the real floor next to his real body. A truth inconveniently forgotten.

More than anything, he wanted to get away from NIL before anything bad happened. He certainly didn’t want to serve as the mouthpiece for this AI. This was his chance to be free.

When he finally made it through the last door, he noticed that the sky was a bit more blue than he remembered and that a press conference had been called. Masses of his fans huddled around the podium as the cheer of the crowd distracted him from his earlier dark thoughts. Taking his place on stage, his worries from the beginning of the day melted away, routine and vanity dulling his motivation to run.

After all, things had turned out just fine.