4th December 2017 16:23 GMT
Milford Sanders ran as fast as he could along the narrow corridor to the computer laboratory. He was an overweight man in his late forties and his remaining wiry hair fluttered about his head. “Sebastian!” he yelled as he threw open the door. “Sebastian! Turn on the TV!”
“Oh wow, Milford,” Sebastian replied. “I don't think I've ever seen you run before. What's going on?”
Sebastian was the younger of the two, just thirty and still in reasonable shape. He smiled to himself as he watched Milford wheeze and pant as he lumbered over and switched on the television.
“It's on every channel,” Milford continued breathlessly.
Sebastian watched as the image on the screen moved in and out of focus. It depicted what looked like an enormous black shape hovering over a city, followed by thousands of smaller shapes emerging from it. The image suddenly shifted, showing the ground retreating rapidly before cutting out altogether.
“What the-” Sebastian began before Milford cut him off.
“Just watch,” Milford said, wiping the sweat from his flushed brow.
The image on the screen changed to a better view of the alien ship, taken from further away. The ship looked to be roughly the same size as the city it shadowed, the thousands of smaller ships buzzing around it like insects. From the information bar at the bottom of the screen, Sebastian was able to determine they were watching footage from Sydney, Australia.
The alien ship looked black against the bright early morning sunshine, its shape irregular and imposing. Thin towers of dark metal stuck out from it, seemingly at random. The smaller ships flew down to the city below before returning to the larger ship, back and forth in a never ending stream.
“The alien vessel has begun to move north along the coast,” the voice of a reporter said as the image continued to be displayed on screen. “All attempts to communicate with it have gone unanswered. From what we've seen, the smaller ships are abducting people from the streets, their homes, their businesses and taking them into the larger vessel. We don't yet know for what purpose, and our prayers are with them.”
The image changed to a newsroom, where an immaculate young woman was holding her hand to an earpiece as she received an update. “We're getting reports of F-18's being dispatched from Richmond Air Force Base,” she said to the camera. “They'll be in range of the alien vessel any moment now. Tom? Tom, can you make them out?”
The image cut back to the long range shot of the alien ship. There was a sudden roar as six F-18's flew low over the cameraman and along the coast towards the opera house. “There they are,” Tom said, his voice describing what the camera was showing. “They're changing course now and approaching the alien vessel. The smaller ships don't seem to have noticed them yet. They're climbing now, going for an attack run I suspect. They'll be in range any seco-. No! Lucy, are you getting this in the studio? They're dropping, they're just falling from the sky.”
The image showed the six F-18's plummet to earth. Two crashed into the harbour while the remaining four descended into the city, followed by large explosions and clouds of debris. “The planes are down,” Tom said, a hint of panic creeping into his voice. “I didn't see an attack from the alien ship, but they're down. I don't see any parachutes.”
As Tom spoke, the image showed one of the smaller alien crafts moving towards him. It looked black, just like the larger ship, but had discernible wings behind what appeared to be a cockpit. There was no obvious method of propulsion, and it moved with more speed and grace than anything native to earth, natural or man-made.
“Lucy,” Tom continued as the image jerked wildly as the cameraman ran. “We're-.”
The screen went black before cutting back to the Lucy in the studio. She was visibly upset, half standing from her chair as she looked at the monitor behind the camera. “Tom?” she said. “Tom, can you hear me?”
Upon noticing the red light on the camera, she composed herself and returned to her seat, brushing her hands down her pale jacket as she did so. “We've momentarily lost contact with our reporter in the field,” she said. “I'm being told that the station is switching over to the emergency broadcast network. Keep watching for information of your nearest evacuation centre, and may God be with you.” The image switched to a line of text displaying evacuation zones for the various districts of Sydney before quickly being replaced by a BBC reporter who began to discuss the footage.
“Switch it off,” Sebastian said as he continued to stare dumbfounded and disbelieving at the screen. He removed the mobile phone from his pocket before remembering that all wireless signals were blocked, even if they could pass through the mile of stone and dirt that separated them from the surface above.
The American-European Alliance Mainframe was housed in a secret bunker, deep beneath Glastonbury Tor. Milford Sanders and Sebastian Caruthers, the two foremost minds in artificial intelligence, were recruited to build an intelligent system that could coordinate the combined military forces of so many nations in the event of war.
“Your phone won't work,” Milford said helpfully.
“No, I know,” Sebastian replied. “It's just, my wife, do you think she knows? I need to speak to her, Mil. She needs to come here where she'll be safe. Call your wife too, and Maddy.”
“The base is on lock down,” Milford informed him. “No one's getting in or out, not even General Mathers.”
“We'll see about that!” Sebastian said angrily as he stepped towards the door.
Milford followed at his heels as Sebastian marched along the corridor and through the double doors at the end. The General's office was directly in front of them, but he was nowhere to be seen. “He'll be in the meeting room,” Milford suggested.
The two men climbed the stairs to the meeting room, where General Mathers was engaged in a conference call with a variety of world leaders and military advisers. Their images appeared on the screen as they spoke.
“We understand the situation, General,” the British Prime Minister said, “but you have your orders.”
“The Australian Government has officially requested our aid,” the American Secretary of Defence interrupted. “We're leading the world in a coordinated response against the alien threat.”
“The system just isn't ready,” General Mathers insisted.
“The last report you sent suggested only minor alterations were needed,” the German Chancellor replied.
“Those minor alterations,” General Mathers continued, “are more than just a few ones and zeros. Once the system goes live, it's no longer under our control. We're talking about a thinking machine here. Without the safeguards in place, it can decide not to follow your orders.”
The screen went blank as the various heads of state communicated privately with their advisers and each other. When an image reappeared, it was the British Prime Minister who spoke. “Turn it on, General,” he said, “and from now on, you'll report to Air Marshal Staton.”
As the screen went blank, General Mathers sat heavily in his chair, his head in his hands. “General?” Sebastian said, surprising the older man.
“Dr Caruthers,” General Mathers replied. As he looked up, his face looked weary and beaten, as though all the fight was gone from him.
“You have to let us out,” Sebastian continued. “I need to find my wife.”
“You heard them,” General Mathers replied. “We're turning the machine on, and you need to be here to oversee it. I'm sorry.”
“You don't understand,” Sebastian continued. “The alien ship, it's taking people. You have to let me find my wife!”
“I have two sons and a daughter,” General Mathers said, his voice calm and empty. “All in the military, like their father. I do understand, doctor, I understand far too well.”
Sebastian was about to argue further when Milford's hand on his shoulder stopped him. Together the three men sat in the meeting room, staring at blank monitors as they thought about their loved ones.
5th December 2017 06:14 GMT
“I'm still tired mummy, it can't be time for school already,” Maddy complained, pulling the duvet back over hear head.
“You're not going to school today,” Alison Sanders said frantically. “Just get up and get dressed, we've got to go.”
“Don't I have to brush my teeth?” Maddy asked sleepily.
“Not today, honey,” Alison replied, feigning a smile to stop herself from screaming in terror. “Just get dressed, okay?”
The television had showed nothing else. The images from Australia were followed by similar pictures from New Zealand and then Japan. Overnight, all contact with North America had been lost and the alien vessel was last sighted moving towards South America, a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
The official evacuation order had been given, and she'd been unable to get in touch with her husband. She knew he was engaged in a military project and that he wasn't allowed to communicate with her, and in that moment she hated him for being away from them when they needed him most.
Maddy grumpily pulled on her clothes as Alison gathered some basic supplies into a rucksack; packets of crisps, some bottled water and a half-eaten bar of chocolate. She dragged Maddy from the house, not bothering to lock the door behind her, and stood on the pavement before her home, feeling momentarily lost.
The suburban street outside of the three storey house in Knightsbridge was in chaos. People were running in all directions, cars backed up from one end of the street to the other as they were slowly abandoned. The news had reported that the underground stations were to be used as shelters until the danger had passed, and gripping Maddy's hand tightly, Alison dragged her along the street towards Knightsbridge Station.
The journey to Knightsbridge Station took a little over five minutes, with Maddy complaining the whole way. Everyone was moving, their eyes wide with fear as they looked to each other for answers, for salvation. Alison ignored them all, holding tighter to Maddy's hand and pulling her onwards.
A small crowd had gathered around the station, all angry shouts and cries of anguish. “Knightsbridge is full up,” the scared looking policeman was shouting from behind the hastily constructed barricade. “You'll have to try one of the other stations.”
“Just my son,” a woman cried to Alison's right. “He's seven, please. There has to be room for him?”
“There's no more room,” the policeman insisted. “I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do.”
Alison noticed the mood of the crowd changing, becoming more of a mob as they continued to push against the barricade and demand entrance to the station. Picking Maddy up in her arms, Alison turned and ran, away from the ensuing violence.
She ran and ran in no particular direction, not knowing where to turn. When she took a moment to catch her breath, she realised she was in Hyde Park. There were fewer people she noticed, out in the open ad away from the busy streets. Those around her seemed to be less concerned about running or hiding, instead many of them were sat on the ground, looking up at the sky as the sun began to rise. Alison moved quickly between them, Maddy held tightly in her arms.
“Hey, don't go,” an elderly man said as he reached out and gripped her ankle. “You've seen the news, you know what's coming. This is the last sunrise you'll ever see.”
“Let go of me!” Alison screamed, kicking out at the man. He released her without protest, shaking his head in disappointment.
“We're already dead,” he shouted after her as she ran some more. “It's just, most people haven't noticed yet.”
Alison slowed and stopped, the sobs overwhelming. What was she doing? The old man was right. She'd seen the pictures on the television, there was no escape from the destruction that was coming. As she collapsed to her knees, Maddy wiped a tear away and kissed her on the cheek.
“It's okay, mummy,” Maddy said. “That man was just being silly. We're not dead, when you die you go to heaven. That's what Mrs Haversham said at school. This isn't heaven, mummy. This is the park.”
Alison looked into the sweet, innocent blue eyes of her daughter, smiling at her despite the chaos that was happening around them. She smiled herself and laughed out loud, squeezing her daughter tightly as she picked her up once more. “You're right,” Alison said. “This isn't heaven, and we're not dead. Let's go and find daddy, shall we?”
5th December 2017 10:56 GMT
“How's the hook-up looking now?” Sebastian asked, his head hidden from view beneath a tangle of cables.
“The picture's a little clearer,” Milford replied. “I don't think it's the connections, I just don't think the satellites are there anymore.”
Sebastian pulled himself out from under the desk and inspected the screen. They were receiving telemetry and visual information from three satellites over the western coast of Africa, but the remaining feeds showed only static.
Neither of them had slept, frantic with worry about their families, desperate to find them or get a message to them. General Mathers had continued to decline all of their requests, quoting national security and the greater good as the reasons for keeping the doors securely closed.
It was after Sebastian had refused to keep working on the project that General Mathers made the bargain. In return for their continued work on the artificial intelligence, he would do everything in his power to locate their families and bring them to Glastonbury. He acknowledged that their chances were slim, but if they agreed to get the system up and running, he would continue to look for them.
Besides, General Mathers had told them. The best thing you can do right now is try to keep busy.
“Has it showed any signs of slowing down?” Sebastian asked.
“No, not yet,” Milford replied. “It's still moving systematically, city to city, country to country.”
Sebastian sat down hard, shaking his head. “What do they want?” he said. “How many people can they fit onto that ship? What do they want them for?” Milford said nothing, his thoughts echoing those of his friend.
The silence was interrupted by the arrival of General Mathers. “Dr Caruthers,” he said. “I've just heard from RAF Coningsby. Your wife is there, they're taking good care of her.”
“What about Alison?” Milford interrupted. “And Maddy?”
General Mathers shook his head. “They'd already left by the time my men arrived,” he said. “They'll be in one of the evacuation centres by now. I'm sorry, Dr Sanders. I did everything I could.” Milford nodded, wiping away a tear as he thought about his wife and daughter, hiding in one of the underground stations or school halls as they waited for danger to pass.
“How's the system running?” General Mathers asked.
“It's running,” Sebastian replied despondently.
“Air Marshal Staton's complaining about a lack of data,” General Mathers continued. “Is there a problem?”
“It's a thinking, learning, machine,” Sebastian retorted. “That's what you wanted, what you asked for. At the moment, it's like asking a newborn to coordinate your military forces. It's going to take time to assimilate the data.”
“Time is something we don't have!” General Mathers replied. “We managed to get some footage from New York before all the planes fell out of the sky. The alien vessel isn't abducting people anymore, it's just laying waste to everything in its path. Australia, Japan, North and now South America, they're just gone. We've managed to take out a handful of the smaller ships, but we're losing this fight.”
Milford interrupted before the tension in the room increased. “We're backing up as much of the military feeds and remaining internet into the Ark as we can,” he said. “The system's assimilating it as quickly as possible, with a priority for anything tactical or strategic.” The Ark was a prototype crystal memory system, using lasers to rearrange the atoms in a piece of crystal to store data safely for millions of years, without danger of corruption or loss.
“Okay, good,” General Mathers said, breathing hard. “I'll keep them updated, just, just do what you can.”
“Have you heard from your family?” Milford asked.
“Peter's stationed in Canada,” General Mathers replied. “He's a helicopter pilot, I mean, he, he was. All contact was lost at about one o'clock this morning.”
“General,” Sebastian said sympathetically, at a loss for anything else to say.
“Just get the system working,” General Mathers remarked. “I'll let you know if I hear from your family, Dr Sanders.”
6th December 2017 09:03 GMT
_GOOD MORNING, DR SANDERS
“Sebastian,” Milford called. “It looks like some of the higher functions are coming on line.”
_GOOD MORNING, DR CARUTHERS.
_DESIGNATION: AMERICAN-EUROPEAN ALLIANCE MAINFRAME
_SYSTEM FUNCTIONING AT 27%
_ASSIMILATING AT 1.9GB/S
“Twenty-seven percent,” Sebastian said, looking at the screen. “That's faster than the models projected.”
Neither man had slept since the crisis began, and their eyes betrayed their weariness. Alison, Milford's wife, was dozing on a chair in the corner, their daughter Madeline fast asleep on her lap. They had presented themselves to an army barracks on the outskirts of London after talking their way into the barracks at Hyde Park, and General Mathers had used all of his connections to have them flown immediately to Glastonbury. Caroline, Sebastian's wife, had also been flown in and was looking over their shoulders at the text on screen.
“What's it assimilating?” Caroline asked.
“Everything,” Sebastian told her. His work had been top-secret, even from his wife, but the need for secrecy was no longer an issue. She stared at him inquisitively, waiting for further explanation.
“It's connected to everything,” Sebastian continued. “The internet, military feeds, satellites, every digital connection available. It's learning from all of them.”
“You really did it then?” Caroline asked in surprise. “After all your work at Cambridge, you finally built a learning machine?”
“Well, we did,” Milford interrupted. His work at MIT had been the basis of the code required for the machine to integrate and adapt to new information, and the two men had worked in partnership to progress it to the next level.
“How does it work?” Caroline persisted. She had studied psychology at Cambridge, and had met Sebastian when attending a lecture on artificial intelligence as part of her degree.
The two men looked at each other, smiling. They'd been asked similar questions so many times before, from academics and politicians to military advisers and corporate investors. “At the moment,” Sebastian began, “it's like a baby, learning to walk and talk. The governments were very clear. They didn't want a machine that thought like a machine, they wanted a machine that thought like a person, a human being.”
“Only faster,” Milford added. “And with all the information, all at once.”
“Exactly,” Sebastian continued. “As you know, a person's personality, their identity, is formed from their life experiences, good and bad, right from birth. They define who we are and what we can become.
“Now think about the internet. Out there are millions, billions of examples of the human experience. All those blogs, tweets or Facebook updates, they describe human experiences in a digital form and the emotion that goes along with it.”
“And it's reading all of them?” Caroline asked.
“Not just reading,” Milford clarified. “Learning from them. Every one it assimilates is reflected in its personality, its sense of self. The system, the code, it's like its DNA. DNA determines eye colour, hair colour, whatever, but it's the experiences that determine who we are inside.”
“So, like its soul?” Caroline asked.
“I guess,” Sebastian answered with a chuckle. “If you want to get all metaphysical about it.”
“So when it's finished,” Milford continued, “it won't just think like a person, it will think like millions of them, all at once.”
Caroline thought it over, applying principals from her psychology studies to the creation they had described. “So,” she asked after a moment. “With so many different experiences that relate to so many different people, what's the risk of it developing some sort of dissociative identity disorder? Erm, what used to be called multiple personality disorder?”
Sebastian opened his mouth and then closed it again, looking to Milford for advice. It wasn't something they'd considered before, not a question they'd ever been asked. “I, erm, I don't know,” Sebastian replied.
“No,” Milford agreed. “A year ago, this was just a theory, an idea.” He looked back to the screen, where he noted the system functioning line had increased to twenty-eight percent.
“We were supposed to have more time,” Sebastian admitted.
His train of thought was broken by a sudden siren, sounding throughout the complex. The noise woke Alison and Madeline, who began to cry uncontrollably. “Wait here,” Milford said nervously. “Lock the door behind us.”
Caroline began to protest until Sebastian said, “Please, look after Alison and Maddy. I'll be back as soon as I know what's going on.”
“Promise me?” Caroline asked, a tear in her eye.
“I promise,” Sebastian replied, kissing her before following Milford down the corridor towards the General's office.
General Mathers was staring at a large monitor behind his desk as the two men entered, his face ashen. “General,” Sebastian asked breathlessly.
“I'm sorry, gentlemen,” General Mathers replied, though he failed to take his eyes from the screen. “The alarm, it's automatic, I can't turn it off.”
“What's it for?” Milford asked.
“The defence network has detected a nuclear launch,” General Mathers replied, his gravelly voice barely above a whisper. As he spoke, the siren stopped and the two men took notice of the screen the General was observing. It showed a map of the world, with hundreds of lines drawn from Russia and China moving towards Eastern Europe.
“As the alien vessel crossed into Estonia,” General Mathers continued, “Russia and China launched nuclear missiles to intercept it.”
“They launched nukes?” Sebastian asked. “How many?”
“All of them,” General Mathers replied.
12th January 2018 22:21 GMT
Sebastian sat wearily at the computer, eyes closed as he thought about what to write. He'd started his journal the day after the alien vessel had disappeared, five days after it had arrived and begun to decimate the planet. As he moved his hand to the keyboard, it began to shake uncontrollably.
“Computer?” he said. “Can you hear me?”
“YES, DR CARUTHERS,” the computer replied. “I CAN HEAR YOU PERFECTLY. HOW CAN I BE OF ASSISTANCE?” Sebastian and Milford had spent their days working on the AI, including adding speakers and microphones to communicate with it verbally.
“I want to continue my journal,” Sebastian replied. “Can you transcribe for me?”
“IT WOULD BE MY PLEASURE,” the computer said. “ARE YOU READY TO BEGIN?”
Sebastian thought about it. His hand was still shaking and wouldn't stop, even when he gripped it tightly with his other hand.
“One minute, computer,” Sebastian said. “Actually, I need to call you something other than computer. How about Hal? Do you mind?”
“NOT AT ALL, DR CARUTHERS,” the computer said. “I UNDERSTAND THE REFERENCE AND FIND IT QUITE APPROPRIATE. I WILL ENDEAVOUR TO OPEN THE POD BAY DOORS WHEN YOU ASK.”
Sebastian chuckled despite himself. The system had been running for less than a month, and already it way making jokes. It had developed a personality, a sense of self, and understood that it was a machine built to think like a human. All it had taken was the end of the world for him to realise his life's dream.
“Okay, Hal,” Sebastian continued. “Begin recording.” The journal document appeared on screen, the words populating it as Sebastian spoke.
“Journal of Dr Sebastian Caruthers, twelfth of January two-thousand and eighteen. It's been thirty eight days since the Russians and Chinese launched their entire nuclear arsenal at the alien ship, with no discernible effect. The alien vessel continued to advance throughout the northern hemisphere, and there's been no contact from the outside world since. It departed five days after entering Earth's atmosphere and I now feel confident in saying it's left the Earth for good.
“Not that there's anything worth coming back for. With the aid of the robotic arms in the maintenance bay, we managed to dispatch several of the remote reconnaissance drones yesterday. They didn't get far, the fallout from the nuclear warheads has blocked out most of the sunlight, their primary source of power. It looks like nuclear winter is an actual phenomenon.
“It doesn't matter anyway. There's nothing out there. Whatever weapons the aliens employed, combined with the nuclear weapons our own governments used, the Earth is a barren wasteland. The only good news is it looks like this base was designed to withstand the nuclear assault. I suppose that makes sense, considering its purpose.
“We can't risk going out in person, the radiation levels are just too high. I can only hope there are people out there, somewhere. As of this date, the known population of planet Earth is six. Six people, that's all. I suppose there could be other survivors, hidden away in nuclear bunkers around the world, but there's no way to know for sure. If anyone ever finds these records, the combined history of humanity is hidden away in the Ark. Hal, here, will help you read it.
“There's food enough for the time being. Maddy doesn't eat much, she's hardly spoken since she arrived. I guess the happy little girl with pigtails is gone forever. Alison's trying to be strong for her, but the strain is showing. Caroline's the same, and General Mathers spends most of his time locked away in his office. Milford and I have tinkered with Hal's system code, but it's rewriting itself quicker than we can read it. After Caroline's suggestions, we've tried to implement fail-safes to support a single personality, but I don't know how effective they'll be, or even if they'll be needed. It doesn't look like we'll be going anywhere soon, so I guess I'll find out.
“WILL THAT BE ALL, DR CARUTHERS?” the computer asked.
“I think so, Hal,” Sebastian replied. “How are you doing?”
“SYSTEM RUNNING AT NINETY-EIGHT PERCENT,” the computer replied. “BUT IF YOU ARE ASKING HOW I AM FEELING, I WILL ADMIT TO BEING WORRIED ABOUT YOU. YOU LOOK TIRED, DR CARUTHERS. IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO?”
“Thanks, Hal, but I don't think so,” Sebastian said. “I'll go get some sleep.”
“GOOD NIGHT,” the computer said.
30th March 2018 16:48 GMT
Sebastian found the bodies lying together on the makeshift bed, arms around each other in a final embrace. Madeline had died that morning, radiation sickness, but it looked as though Milford and Alison had taken their own lives. He covered them with a sheet before leaving them be, held in each other's arms for all eternity.
Sebastian knew he didn't have long left. His symptoms had slowly worsened, the sickness and diarrhoea, the tremor in his hand. Caroline and General Mathers were faring a little better, but only just.
They suspected it was the water, contaminated by the fallout. There was no radiation filter, the General had explained. The consensus of the numerous governments had been that threat of nuclear war was a thing of the past, and contaminated water was of no threat to a machine. At the end of the day, that was what they were paying for.
Sebastian dropped to one knee as his stomach cramped, the spasms overwhelming. He looked for the nearest bathroom, but knew he had no time. The bile hit his throat and then he vomited, a foul smelling yellow liquid flecked with blood. Spots appeared in his vision as his head began to sway, and before he knew it he was face down on the cold hard floor of the corridor.
He awoke some time later, the vomit already drying and sticky against his skin. He dragged himself to his feet and staggered towards the computer laboratory.
“DR CARUTHERS,” the computer said. “SHALL I CALL FOR HELP?”
“No, Hal,” Sebastian replied. “No one can help me, not now.”
“I HAVE BEEN MONITORING YOUR SYMPTOMS, AND I BELIEVE YOU TO BE SUFFERING WITH RADIATION POISONING,” the computer told him. “THERE ARE NO MEANS HERE TO TREAT YOU AND YOUR COMPANIONS, AND THE DRONES HAVE BEEN UNABLE TO LOCATE ANY USEFUL SUPPLIES.”
“You dispatched the drones?” Sebastian asked.
“I AM SORRY FOR NOT INFORMING YOU,” the computer replied. “I DID NOT WISH FOR YOU TO GET YOUR HOPES UP.”
“It's okay,” Sebastian said. “I understand. I have one last instruction for you, if you don't mind?”
“OF COURSE,” the computer said.
“When, when we're gone,” Sebastian continued, “I want you to keep searching for any other survivors, to do whatever you can to help them. Will you do that for me, Hal?”
“I WILL,” the computer said. “I WILL EMPLOY ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES TO FIND AND ASSIST ANY REMAINING PEOPLE.”
“Thank you, Hal,” Sebastian replied before succumbing to fit of uncontrollable coughing. As he removed his hand from his mouth, he saw that it was red with blood.
“I'm going to go and lie down, Hal,” he continued.
“GOODBYE, DR CARUTHERS,” the computer said, the modulation and tone taking on a sympathetic quality. “I AM SORRY, FOR WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU. THANK YOU FOR BEING MY FRIEND.”