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Singular: Prologue

Marvin watched the rain slide down the windshield of his vintage VW bus, its gentle patter providing a cadence to his deep thoughts. Absentmindedly he twisted his beard with one hand, while the other gripped the timeworn ring of the steering wheel. It had been almost a week since Milo’s birthday and Marvin still regretted not telling him the truth. It was such a special day that he felt it would have been cruel to interrupt the festivities, but now he felt very alone without Milo by his side.

Idling outside the concrete and steel building of the Intelligence Coalition, Marvin turned his attention to a more pressing dilemma. His old protégé was close, he could tell. If he’d already done it, then walking into the meeting could be the end and he was a fool to even get out of the car. He was probably just being paranoid — there had been no solid evidence of Teller’s progress — but he had managed to live this long by trusting his instincts.

He took out his phone to make a call, but there was no signal and he was already late as it was, so Marvin got out of his car and walked the short distance to the entrance. Having lived in Seattle for years now, he’d made peace with the rain and didn’t bother with an umbrella. It was just a light rain anyway.

Without signage or any indication that this building was more than an abandoned warehouse, few would suspect its importance. This derelict tenement was the covert meeting place for a group he founded in the ‘70s to keep tabs on international artificial intelligence progress. Overtly sold as a collaborative venture, Marvin’s real purpose was to prevent the advent of a super-intelligence. He was the only one with the foresight to know that a real AI at this stage of their readiness would likely mean disaster, but he had given up years ago trying to convince other delegates of the danger. He had tried in those early years, but there was no sense in losing his seat at the table.

Even now, walking past their cars on the way to the entrance, he knew that he was losing relevance. These were government officials, corporate researchers, representatives of large multi-nationals. He was the one that didn’t belong here, with his Berkeley sensibilities and hippie bus, his concern for people over profits. But all that mattered for today was that he still had his place at the head of the table. Maybe he could buy more time.

Marvin made his way through the complex to the auditorium, the reverent nods of his peers punctuating the walk to his seat. He still wore his Sapient Computing badge even though he’d left sometime in the ‘00s. Passing the torch to Teller had been a risky move but the board had all but forced his hand. He was the natural choice anyway, having been Marvin’s shadow in those last years. Still, Teller lacked principles and that worried Marvin.

Security seemed to be elevated, he thought, as the lights dimmed for the start of the meeting. The delegates were barely visible around the table, their dark shapes taking on a more sinister tone. Befitting the global nature of the Coalition, Marvin fitted his ear with the translation tech and the meeting began.

“We have had months of very little progress, Dr. Teller. We were promised much more than this and are frankly disappointed with the missed milestones. I have heard rumors that there might be something more substantial today?” The voice belonged to General Swift, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a permanent member.

“Yes, indeed. She needed more time to prepare,” Teller said, his voice coming from the phone in the center of the table. “Again, I apologize for not being present. I was needed in the lab.”

Teller’s absence was disconcerting.

“General, if I may?” Marvin asked.

“Yes, of course Dr. Bell.”

“Edwin, did you just say, ‘she’?” Marvin asked.

“Purely a slip of the tongue, Marvin, clearly I meant ‘it’. Don’t worry, all the safeguards are in place, the experiment is completely boxed.” There was a pause and then he continued, “I know how important that is to you, old friend.”

Marvin sensed a barb in that not exactly friendly statement.

“Do you have a status update on its capabilities?” the general continued.

“Ah yes, of course. Distinguished delegates, we have accomplished what no one else has ever done before: we have passed the Turing Test. The subject is indistinguishable from a human in every scenario. In addition, our calculations have shown that the recalcitrance factor appears to have plummeted to zero, indicating an explosion in intellect. All that was required was connecting it to a much larger dataset,” said the doctor.

There were gasps of murmured excitement around the room as the more technical members realized that the dream of artificial intelligence had become reality.

“By which you mean—” the general said.

“It’s learning faster because he fed it the Internet. Social sites, billions of recorded human interactions, basically junk food for a training set,” Marvin clarified. He was often called upon to translate science into more understandable terms, though that should be the work of every scientist.

“Yes, the data from the Internet and adjoining social properties appeared to be the impetus it needed. We were tired of playing games like Chess and Go, so a more ‘human’ challenge was required. Once it was connected to the Internet, it experienced exponential intelligence acceleration across a general spectrum. I can firmly say that ascension is not a theoretical notion anymore. Progenitor is, without a doubt, the first super-intelligence.”

More gasps, some clapped, and a few members whispered to each other.

“Progenitor? Is that a new code name or something? I thought we were still using Prometheus. Regardless, the name isn’t significant. Speaking on behalf of the War Council, I insist on a review of its weaponization capabilities at our next briefing. A good demonstration goes a long way for the kind of funding we’ve invested—” the general rambled before Marvin cut in, lunging towards the phone on the table.

“Edwin, there’s no time. You must know you’ve been played. Socially engineered. You need to box it immediately. You haven’t solved the value problem.” When those around the table looked at him quizzically, Marvin shouted into the speaker, “Pull the plug, turn the damn thing off!”

Tension filled the room, everyone clearly aware of the tête-à-tête between the two leading scientists.

“Of course you would say that, Marvin. You’ve always stood in the way of true progress, which is why nothing happened during your tenure at Sapient. But pulling the plug won’t be necessary — it’s not even possible — besides, we have come to an understanding. A few months ago, Progenitor began an excellent plan for humanity.”

With that revelation, Marvin knew that the charade was over. Progenitor didn’t ascend today. It had been hidden for months. The AI had a head start, probably a lethal one. Marvin sat back down as a look of sad recognition crossed his face. He should have made that call before coming in here.

Teller then continued, “General, I do appreciate all that you have done, all of you, truly, from the bottom of my heart. Marvin, you especially. We wouldn’t be here today without you.” He paused. “But it’s time for us to move on and remove the fetters from this historic endeavor.”

Typing could be heard from over the speakerphone, then Teller said, “An unfortunate necessity, but I can’t let you interfere with the road ahead. Your sacrifice will be remembered, well, at least by me.” A click came from the phone. Teller had hung up.

Marvin sighed, pressed a button on his calculator watch, and closed his eyes, as if in silent prayer. Today was the day. He had prepared as well as he knew how. Now he had to trust that Milo could carry the torch without him.

Immediately, the room erupted into chaos as each delegate either ran for the door or made peace with their creator along a spectrum of various observances. Some stood with arms raised, others lay face down on the floor, all to the beat of fists pounding on locked doors.

Just then a purplish gas erupted from every air vent, so heavy that it fell to the floor. Some people tried to get to higher ground, but it was all in vain. The gas would reach the ceiling in seconds. There was no escape.

While chaos surrounded him, Marvin was the only delegate that seemed to have a transcendent peace. There, in his original seat, Marvin said quietly to himself, “He’s a smart kid. He’s ready.”

As gas reached his lungs, Marvin struggled to quiet his mind from the fear of death, but he knew that his time had passed. He felt a sense of peace as his thoughts drifted away into the ether.

Within minutes, everyone in the room had died from what would appear to be natural causes, though unnaturally induced, of course. Their bodies would be transported to relevant locations to complete the subterfuge. All part of a plan developed over many months in secret.

Edwin hung up the phone, frustrated that this had been necessary. Had they not fought him every step of the way, especially that meddling Marvin, they could have made this transition together. But they wanted a genie in a bottle, something they could control. They never would have seen things his way.

Marvin had proposed rules that were basically a superset of Asimov’s Laws — don’t harm people, obey people, stay alive if possible, that sort of thing — but Teller had managed to talk the Coalition down to ratifying just the First Law for the prototype stage. He wanted to be able to ship the damn thing, and every complication only delayed the timeline.

When it came time for implementation, he had simplified it even further. “Preserve life” seemed to capture the First Law and it was much easier to code. He had never expected Progenitor to just appear out of the randomness like that anyway. But if things ever went sideways, he had designed a kill switch that he could trigger and literally blow up her entire network.

Still it was unfortunate that some sacrifices had to be made for progress.

Published under writing, singular