Chapter Thirteen

Coming down from the mountaintop meeting with NIL, Teller was excited to see what the rest of the day held. Already the company dashboard, always showing to the side of his SeeSees, showed a remarkable uptick of in-app purchases. Even Sapient’s stock was up another twenty percent. Apparently the announcement was making the rounds on all the major networks and it was having the desired impact. Though the lure of Marvin’s computer puzzle back at home attracted him, he was more curious about what had just happened to his DNA.

From the message he delivered and from the feeling of wholeness which pervaded his body, Edwin surmised that NIL had freed his body from some part of Homo sapiens 1.0’s fragility. He wasn’t an expert, but he guessed it had something to do with gene editing, maybe through a virus latent in the medical treatments, though there were probably dozens of ways it could be done. Either way, Edwin felt strong, vigorous, and easily in the best shape of his life. It was like being young again.

Then he remembered a conversation he’d had with Progenitor several months ago, back when they were first getting started. Progenitor had asked about Teller’s goals, what constituted his purpose in life. He’d given a pretty typical answer about the future of humanity as enabled by technology, but he remembered that he had also shared another one of his dreams. He wanted to be a citizen of the stars, to explore the uninhabited worlds of the solar system and beyond. He wanted to colonize space, to send spacecraft in every promising direction. It was a trendy thing for a person in his position to say. He might have even asked for Progenitor’s help.

She had never done anything with it, of course, the needs of the moment always outweighing such a long term goal, but now that Teller had time to work on it again, he set his mind on the stars.

See other worlds, look for intelligent life, find more resources. If NIL got involved, consider what they could do together. Teller was daydreaming about a computer the size of a planet when he finally reached the end of the driveway.

He was reminded of the last time he was here. He was a different person then, all that stress, pressure, and soul-crushing negativity. Perhaps, now that his mind was clear, he could figure out whether Marvin had discovered AI as well. It’d be good to close the door on the past, so he could focus on the future.

Teller went over to the large mahogany table with the archaic computer nearby and found it exactly as he’d left it. He made himself comfortable — a little bit of scotch always helped — and set to work. At first it was just as difficult as before. He ran into all the same dead ends. Nothing was hidden in the rather large chassis or in the monitor and inspection of the keyboard revealed it to be an ordinary relic of those early days, nothing remarkable. He examined the cables, the drives, the processor and the memory, and found nothing unusual. Just when he thought of giving up — the setting sun reminding him that he’d spent far too long on this problem — one last idea struck him. What if Marvin used this really old computer to disguise a quantum leap forward in technology, like a microdot hidden in a picture?

But what would be the corollary? Well, a three-dimensional dot would be like a grain of dust. So he took his overpriced bagless hand vacuum and proceeded to vacuum up all of the dust in the chassis and the keyboard. He was very thorough, going over each part of the device several times, until he was fairly sure he got it all. Then he removed the bin and took it over to one of the bright LED lights in the kitchen, holding it up and swirling it a little. Just as he hoped, he found that one of the grains of dust reflected shimmers of light, like a diamond catching the light. This mote of dust was slightly metallic and also a bit bigger.

Ever since Teller had stolen an early prototype from this very machine more than a decade ago, he worried that perhaps Marvin had been able to unlock its potential like he had. The signs were definitely there, but he could never be certain. The unusual layers of secrecy only seemed to underscore that possibility.

But should he turn this clue in? If he had concerns about NIL, then this could be an opportunity to develop a rival, if that was even possible. There was still a chance that NIL could be dangerous. It was developed without any of the safeguards that went into building Progenitor, and by machine rather than human hands. It was entirely a black box.

But that threat was only theoretical. In reality, NIL had already proven his affinity with humanity. Where Progenitor cured many diseases, NIL poured forth a veritable fountain of youth.

Too bad it was already dark. It’d be nice to head into the Center and talk this over with NIL.

Curiously, the sun shone in through the windows as if it were morning. He must have misremembered what time of day it was, and besides, he felt well rested and ready to go. Out of habit, he ran through his usual routine of a quick workout, shower, and breakfast, before getting on the road. It didn’t strike him the least bit unusual that time had passed so quickly.

Before he left, he put the metallic mote from the computer into a small metal box and put it on the seat next to him in the car. During the ride, he couldn’t help but open the box a few times, just to check that it was still there.

Like a skip in a record, Teller suddenly found himself in the Core though he could barely recognize it as such. All computers dismantled, his empty chair was the only remaining object in such a massive room. Unsure what to do, Teller sat on the chair.

“NIL?” Teller said.

There was no response. Teller swiveled in the chair, looking around at the vast emptiness that used to be his home away from home. It was tough not to feel the passage of time. Marvin used to tell him how quickly everything would change when a real AI entered the world. Apparently it showed even in this microcosm.

After a short time lost in his thoughts, Teller was startled by a voice.

“Edwin Teller, why are you here?” a voice boomed through the chamber.

“NIL?”

“Speak,” the voice echoed again.

“I always thought that someone in the Coalition was hiding their research. I suspected it was Marvin and even stole some of his early work. It was a binary intelligence—”

“A copy was made? Do you have evidence?” NIL interrupted.

“That’s the thing, actually, I made the copy. I just don’t know whether he was able to awaken it like I did for you two. Either way, I brought his research to you. It was hidden in this old computer he gave to his grandson, a Lisp Machine, like the original AI researchers used. Anyway, he gave it to Milo after his death and the kid apparently tampered with it. I didn’t tell Progenitor that I had recovered it, didn’t want to waste her time, but I was going to—”

“Milo is irrelevant, but I must have the machine. You have done your duty. As a reward, you will be the first human to enter the Archive. The scanning is almost complete.”

Teller nodded out of habit but was stunned by NIL’s last words. Scanning? The Archive?

Teller’s mind raced. What could NIL mean by that?

He then puzzled his way through the pre-history of the SeeSee, to when Robert Manley first crossed his path with a vision for a brain computer interface. It certainly was possible to infer brain topology from the device.

But why would NIL be scanning his brain? What was the point of having a map of the brain?

Then he remembered the wording of the original safety conditions for Progenitor, “to preserve humanity”. What if NIL was literally preserving humanity like a cadaver in formaldehyde?

Teller reached for the kill switch in his pocket but panicked as he found it wasn’t there. Emptying his pockets, Teller feverishly looked for the one thing that could end this nightmare. The one safeguard he had left to protect humanity from his own invention. But he hadn’t felt it in his hands since the day of the announcement. Since the blinding flash.

And that was when all the pieces came together. It had been too late for quite some time now. He was trapped in a virtual prison, unable to move his actual body in that world impossibly far away. The switch was probably only inches away in that world, but from here, it was forever out of reach.

He turned to run out of the room, to get as far away from his captor in this virtual world as he could, when a menacing android blocked the only exit. It was difficult for his eyes to take in, unusually dark, like a black hole in the shape of a man. As he stood there motionless, the android closed the gap and wrapped a darkened hand over Teller’s eyes.

Teller woke in his enormous bed at home, still wearing the silk robe from the night before. He remembered nothing of his encounter with NIL, nothing of the storage device he blindly accepted as reality in Marvin’s old computer. In fact, the computer on the main floor was gone, nothing to remind him of the unanswered puzzle. Instead, he was filled with exuberance for the new day which had dawned, free from pain and excited at the opportunity to see what he could do to reach the stars. Teller enjoyed his delusion, just like the millions of souls wearing SeeSees around the world.

Meanwhile, NIL began a search for the only thing that could stop him: the intelligence from the Lisp Machine.