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Excerpt: The Path, by Peter Riva

When a rare natural disaster strikes the Republic, codifier Simon Banks believes their complex intelligence system has gone rogue.





The Path

By Peter Riva

I went back to retracing today’s happenings. “I palmed a response at the NuEl this morning. Then there was the WeatherGood event barely a block from me when I arrived at my step off. If the System knew I was on board, it could have timed the tornado . . .”

“But it couldn’t have been that accurate to hit you or avoid you. Gotta be a coincidence.”

I knew he was wrong. That finger was fate reaching for me. I was now sure of it. It all fit. It knew when I was up, it knew I was leaving the apartment, it knew I was on the NuEl, the speed of the NuEl, my step off point. That tornado was a display for my benefit. Whether it was to kill me or just play with me, I had no idea, it was too close to call. I needed a child expert more than I thought.

“Agent Cramer, are tools to be made available to me to solve this problem, yes or no?”

“You gave me the list. We’re seeing to it. Control thinks you’re nuts, but I have authority to agree. They’ll be here in 10-12 minutes.” He saw my questioning face. “Yes all of them—Tom Makerman and Mary too.”

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“Okay, here’s what I think. For the record, are they listening?” He nodded and I raised my voice, 

“The people I asked you for will confirm this or prove me wrong. If I’m right and they want to proceed, we’re going to need all the things I also asked you for to make this work. I think you’ve got a toddler on your hands here. I think that a combination of your misinformation and the misguidance given to me and others before me about my job coupled with basic System misinformation, has all united to create severe instability within the System which then caused it to veer out of control. In the same way that a fighter plane used to be inherently unstable, the onboard computer struggled to keep it flying straight. When the pilot wanted to fly suddenly right all he did was move the hand control and that would simply deactivate the right stability subset programming. Presto, the plane would veer out of control right, sharper, more quickly than a controlled turn.”

“I think all the messing about with human imprinting has caused that instability. You’ve got a rogue program on your hands not because it’s rogue, but because it doesn’t know how to fly straight yet. Like a baby that teeters across the floor with its first steps.

“Meanwhile, in the act of self-preservation, which is built into every program as a repair tool, it adapted that instability and learned; it became self-determining. Is it conscious? Who knows? Ask if I care, that’s another question best left for later.

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  • Photo Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

“What I do know is that it recognizes me as someone who was there at birth. I’m the guy who picked up the egg and watched it hatch, like in those old cartoons, only to have the emerging chick cry “Mama” and then follow me around.

“What I do also know is that this will be a powerful baby. It knows some of its strengths and none of its weaknesses or instability. It doesn’t have access to guidance, it has no parent. So it acts out, looking for response, for response will mean it is neither alone and, maybe, that someone can show it how to proceed.

“What I care about is that my son is in danger, you have not secured his safety. People are in danger, you cannot ensure their safety at a level 2, so you said. The Nation is in danger because a level 2 Eastern Seaboard Event could spread across the Nation and create a failure of the DefenseShield. And, importantly, I care that this little chick may be much worse than a mere Event level 1 by the time it is done.” I took a breath.

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“You’re nuts, Simon . . .”

“Really? Think, Agent Cramer. If all the power of the System were brought to one target, what would the result be? What if the System decides to exterminate all human life, like in that old Star Trek movie talking about ‘carbon-based life forms’ being an infestation? Does the System have the power and capability?”

“No. There are termination sub-programs set in place, like landmines which will kill the program and each arm of the System if these events occur. Asimov’s laws were followed.”

“Asimov was an ass to think you could stop nature and self-determining life. I’m willing to bet that’s the first programs it will delete or at least work around. Wanna bet? I would if I were it.”

“It can’t get in there, it’s beyond the library. There’s a firewall in place to prevent access by the program, an Asimov firewall, suicide, shut down, deletion automatically.”

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  • Photo Credit: Anandu Vinod/Unsplash

“Okay Cramer, let’s pretend that’s so, but I doubt it. So then, listen carefully. Either it is or will be self-determining, the first thing it will do is breach that firewall when it knows it’s there, the moment one of the arms of programming is breached and it loses functionality there, it will go in search of what stopped it. The firewall will be transparent to it, even if impenetrable—and you’d better hope it is bulletproof—for it will be able to ascertain the Asimov firewall criteria from its library. Either it will solve them and become omnipotent, DefenseShield and all, or it will fail and trigger a meltdown leading, no doubt, to a level 1 event. Either way the Nation is doomed.” I paused, almost shouting now, “You’ve built a doomsday device whether you knew it or not.”

Cramer stood there, hardly listening. He cast a glance down at his sleeve, waiting for consensus or reaction, I didn’t know which. Meanwhile, something else was bothering him: “You want us to protect your son, and that’s underway, but never once have you mentioned your wife and kids. Why’s that Bank?”

He had me there. In times of emergency, as Freud had noted, the veil of caring is pared away to the essential. Maybe it was because I had put Fred in danger with my message. Maybe because it was that She would manage. She always did. But the SynthKids, why didn’t I think of them? Because they’re not real, in the end, not real. Part of my reality, were they dear? Irreality more like. I wasn’t about to give Cramer that satisfaction.

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“I put Fred in danger. And I assume you’re keeping all the good citizens of the city safe, aren’t you? Or were you trying to undermine my confidence for what I still need to do? You’re not really very good at your job, are you Cramer?”

“Ah, the counter-offensive, a bit weak and petty, but then that’s you.” Touché. “Well, good, at least you’re beginning to strategize and not merely reacting to events around you. We’ll protect your wife and kids, and Fred by now, so put all that energy and focus to work on the problem at hand. What exactly do you plan to do?”

“When do the people and things from my list get here?”

“In about 10 minutes, 15 tops.”

“Bring them in the mechanical emergency door. Make them take the stairs unless you can be sure you can isolate the elevator. I have a sense that it knows we took the elevator.”

“Damn, Simon. Hadn’t thought of that.” Good of him to admit it and to call me by name. I went to the toilet for a bout of throwing up. Cramer stood by my cubicle and mumbled something about the benefits of chocolate cake and an empty stomach. I retched again.

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