June twenty-third. Alan Turing’s birthday. The day of the Global Conference of Artificial Intelligence Researchers.
On June twenty-third, Sakura always sends me a message. Saku’s perhaps the most technologically-oriented person I know, but for some reason she never sends a normal vmail or a holovid. Consistently, seven years and counting, she sends me an actual letter, written in her beautiful, heavily slanted cursive on stationery that looks more expensive than I could ever afford. Once, when I had nothing better to do, I took her letters to my precinct’s forensics division for aalysis. After a battery of tests and some algorithmic cross-referencing, I was flattered to learn that she’d written each letter herself using her grandfather’s fountain pen and that the paper came from a boutique near her AI facility in Osaka. She really goes the distance when she cares about someone.
Other than Saku’s annual correspondence, I never get any letters. For that matter, no one get any letters. The Postal Service was shut down two decades ago, so she must hire a private courier, and those are even more expensive than the stationary. It wouldn’t surprise me if she does – after all, she has the money for it.
It’s June twenty-third today, so I receive another letter, right on schedule. Right after the city clocks finish calling six AM, the doorbell chimes its flurry of grace notes. By the time I cross the living room and open the door, the courier is already gone and the mailbox’s little red flag is sticking up in comic salute.
Honestly, Saku’s letters are the only reason I keep that chipped, rusting black box on my porch. It’s reason enough.
As always, I check the envelope’s contents before opening it. I have no reason to doubt Saku, but a career of law enforcement’s conditioned me for constant vigilance. Standard sweep, I say in my head, and the tactical computer embedded in my right eye fires up, scanning the envelope for everything from heat signatures and metallic objects to biohazards and nuclear fuel. The Eye can do much more than that, though – it can magnify my vision up to twenty times, illuminate targets and guide my aim, display live updates from Command, and even analyze a suspect’s biochemistry to see if they’re lying. I got it in the final year of the academy in London – in the UK, every police officer is required to have the Eye. But here in Toronto, I’m the odd one out. The North American attitudes on augmentation range from impassivity to downright hostility.
Once the pleasantly-blue ‘All Clear’ message flashes in my vision, I grab the special letter opener I keep on my desk and slice open the envelope in a single smooth motion. The stationary and the handwriting are, reassuringly, the same as always. I find myself wearing a slight, silly grin as I start reading.
I trust that this letter finds you in good health. I have been following you on social media, and it looks as if you are doing well for yourself. Congratulations on your recent promotion! At this rate, you will become Commissioner within a decade.
As it turns out, I am in Toronto! I will be giving the keynote at the GCAIR, which is in the Convention Plaza in downtown, as I am sure you already know. It has been ages since we have seen each other – if you have time, I would love to meet for dinner sometime this week. Just send me a vmail and I will reshuffle my schedule to match yours. The only thing that I cannot miss is the keynote, which is tomorrow at nine in the evening. Well, I also cannot miss the GCAIR board meeting, which is right afterwards. This is confidential … but if rumors are to be trusted, I expect that I will be appointed President of the Conference! I have a bottle of champagne, just in case.
Speaking of which … should we be celebrating anytime soon? Or do you plan on living alone and single for the rest of your life? Time is ticking! If you need me to connect you with a few eligible individuals, I will set up an algorithm and have a list of candidates within a day.
Sorry for being out of touch for a while. I have been working on this giant project in Osaka that is eating up all of my time. I cannot tell you any technical details … but I can tell you that we are close. As in, we are very, very close. We are putting our machine through its first official Turing Test in about a month, but it has passed all of the unofficial ones with flying colors.
As always, thank you, truly, for what you did eight years ago –
For a split second, I’m back in London. Saku is not Saku – she is Dr. Sakura Mihara, computer researcher extraordinaire, standing two steps in front of me and chatting with a colleague about a promising new AI design. I am not Cat – I am Junior Officer Catherine Fjellheim, fresh out of the academy, desperately trying to not mess up my first protection assignment. We can’t hear anything over the din of the crowd, but my vision suddenly lights up red with Eye messages from other networked officers – Weapons Fire Detected! Threat Level Critical! Protect Objectives! – and I immediately dart forward and tackle Dr. Mihara. A split second later, a bullet rips through the air right where her head was, and right where my head is …
I snap back to reality. Drawing in a shaky breath and letting it out more smoothly, I unconsciously raise a hand to my temple, tracing the faint scar lines down my cheek. I’ve been getting better at dealing with the flashbacks; during the earliest ones, I needed to be sedated. Apparently, I was screaming and thrashing too much.
It feels good to have Saku acknowledge the London Incident, but sometimes I wish we could just forget the whole mess, meet as strangers again, and become friends through time rather than a half-second of me doing my duty. As it stands, we’ll never be truly equals. I’ll always be the one who saved her life, and she’ll always be the one whose life needed saving.
I’ve often asked her why someone wanted to kill her – after all, we never caught the shooter. She said that it was probably the Singularity Guard or any of the other half-dozen extremist groups trying to stave off the ‘impending AI apocalypse.’ Some people are too blind to see past their own ideologies – once you get to know her, you see that Saku just wants to make the world a better place. She knows what she’s doing and isn’t afraid to throw around her influence, putting the brakes on irresponsible research and laying the groundwork for peaceful coexistence. If anything, the apocalypse is less likely with her in the field.
– for what you did eight years ago. I owe you everything.
I know that I can never truly repay you for what you did, but if you need anything – anything at all – please just call me and I will do what I can. Also, it would be good to hear your voice.
See you soon,
While her handwriting’s beautiful and machinelike, her signature’s a giant loopy mess of crisscrossing lines that somehow resemble cherry blossoms. Seeing it makes me grin a second time. It’s so quintessentially Saku – she’s precise and careful when she needs to be, but she’s messy, carefree, and artistic at heart.
I fold the letter and put it neatly back in the envelope, then go downstairs to my small personal armory and unlock the wall safe – dial six to the right, twenty-three to the left, thirty-one to the right and pull the lever. 6/23/2031. The London Incident.
The only items in the safe are the eight previous letters, stacked in a neat pile under a paperweight. I add the new arrival to the pile and replace the weight, a deformed chunk of depleted uranium and superconductive alloys that was bullet-shaped before it blasted off part of my head. The London forensics gurus didn’t know the specific model of gun that fired it, but they did decide that it probably came from a rail sniper. Those things are terrifying – they’re just a bit bigger than a normal rifle, but they electromagnetically accelerate their bullets to eight times the speed of sound. The hunk of metal barely clipped my temple, but it felt like I was hit by a freight train. I shouldn’t have survived.
I’m not quite sure why I asked for the bullet once I recovered. Perhaps for posterity, or perhaps to remind myself to enjoy life while it still exists.
Re-locking the safe, I turn towards the armory cabinets to pull out my service weapons and armor. The GCAIR conference will last a week, and I’ll be coordinating rooftop patrol duty for the whole time. Ever since the London Incident – and the dozens of other attempts to kill AI researchers, some of which were actually successful – brought the conference into the spotlight, the host cities never take any risks. In addition to the AI business, GCAIR’s become a demonstration of military power, a chance to show the world that we value our brightest scientists and take those extremist groups seriously.
Accordingly, Canadian Central Command pulled out all the stops. We’ll have defensive snipers on the CN Tower, armored vehicles at the Plaza perimeter checkpoints, and a couple thousand heavily-armed officers gladly clocking overtime pay. They’re even sending in two Special Ops drone squads, and they’re equipped with Albatrosses. If I was an assassin and saw the eight turbines of an Albatross Unmanned Weapons Platform high overhead, I would probably faint. The Americans used those things to polish off ISIS.
Back upstairs, I struggle into the half-dozen stifling layers of grey bulletproof fabric that compose my combat uniform. On go the black body armor, the reinforced boots, and the fingerless gloves; on go the holsters for my twin pistols, the emergency magnetic grappling hook, the flare gun, and the ammunition belt. I experimentally deploy and retract the armor’s helmet a few times, making sure that everything’s in order; like a transforming piece of origami, it seamlessly unfolds from my back to slot together around my head before folding away just as smoothly. Glancing in the mirror, I see a lithe, angular soldier made of carbon steel and kevlar, her black carapace baring the golden holographic shield of the Toronto Police.
Through the Eye’s virtual display, I check my orders from the precinct dispatch. I’ll be up in the CN Tower sniper nest, coordinating a team of about thirty other officers to secure the rooftops north of Convention Plaza. It’s perhaps the most critical security hotspot of the entire GCAIR – those rooftops overlook the main avenue for foot traffic into the conference and have direct line-of-sight to the Croissant, the giant outdoor stage where Saku will give her keynote. Its actual name is the Trudeau Crescent Exhibitionary Pavilion, but that’s a mouthful to say; luckily, it bears an unmistakable resemblance to a certain French pastry, so everyone just calls it by the nickname.
The Eye alerts me that it’s time to leave. A quick scan determines that there’s no one on the other side of my door, so I reach for the handle and send a mental order to my squad car to power up.
Then I felt a jolt.
It’s almost like someone discharged a defibrillator through my neck; for a split second, I hear a popping noise and smell ozone.
Then my Eye completely freaks out. The holographic display overlaid on my vision seizes up, freezing and pixelating before flaring painfully bright. I instinctively cry out, shut my eyes, and turn my head to the side – but none of that helps. After all, the tactical computer is within my iris.
The painful glow persists for several seconds. In that time, I manage to careen into my door, knocking the wind out of myself and ending up sprawled on my back on the floor. My vision dissolves into sporadic static; I can’t tell if it’s because I’m seeing spots or because the Eye is still malfunctioning. It’s probably both.
I blink a few times, bringing my distorted vision back into focus. All of the holographic Eye readouts are gone. “What the hell?” I sputter aloud. The Eye shouldn’t be able to crash. It doesn’t behave like a normal computer; it has redundancies and recursive loops built into its core architecture.
I mentally command the Eye to reactivate.
It does not do so.
I suddenly feel very cold.
I try again, but there’s nothing.
One last time, for luck. System reactivate … please?
There’s a spark. A small light starts blinking in the corner of my vision, but the light soon grows into the familiar self-diagnostics of my tactical computer.
But … something’s off. Something’s subtly different. Maybe the colors of the holograms have shifted, or perhaps the various armor and weapons readouts loaded in a different order. And pressing at the edge of my consciousness like a dull headache is a strange sensation … a presence, almost.
The sensation of not being alone.
I’ve felt this before, in London.
I know who’s come knocking.
“Hello?” I say aloud, still lying on my back and staring idly on the ceiling. The person I’m expecting isn’t a physical presence, but a digital one. “Anybody there?”
A new readout pops up in my Eye display – one of those bent, oscillating waves that serve as a visual indicator of speech.
For the first time in nearly a decade, I hear the voice in my head.
I smirk, but it’s a bitter smirk. “Wotcher, Arby,” I say, clipping my words. “What’s it been, eight years?”
Seven years, ten months, the invisible being called Arbiter replies. I don’t hear his voice – or her voice, or its voice; I don’t know Arbiter’s gender – like I would hear a normal person speaking. No ears, speakers, or vocal cords are involved. The words simply pop up in my head, too forceful to be my imagination. Sometimes, I interpret them as a rich baritone, but other times, I hear them as a melodic arpeggio or as a robotic screech. No matter the case, however, I can always discern the emotion and tone.
Right now, Arbiter is annoyed. I would prefer that you do not address me using your typical nicknames.
I roll my eyes at the ceiling. “What, are you –“
Please forgive me, Catherine, for eschewing the traditional pleasantries. I have an urgent mission for you that will require your full attention.
Strange. After leaving me alone for almost a decade, Arbiter shows up out of the blue, demanding that I drop everything and do what he – or she, or it – says. “Might have been a tad polite to let me know in advance, Arby. Not a very convenient time.”
I know that you have obligations as a member of GCAIR security. You will still perform your duties. But at the same time, you will do what I require of you.
“Mind being a bit more specific?”
Yes, I do. Information and directives will be given to you on a need-to-know basis.
“What happens if I refuse to obey these ‘directives?’”
There’s a long, irritated pause, but Arbiter’s eventual response is nonchalant. Then I will remotely deactivate the neural implants that I gave you and that have taken over parts of your brain function. You will fall back into the same coma in which you were trapped after being shot in London. But this time, you will have no way out.
A pang of panic races up my spine. “Extortion?” I stutter. “That’s harsh.”
Only if you wish to see it that way. You remember the generous terms of our agreement. You owe me your life. The least you could do is help me every once in a while.
I sigh. Arbiter is, after all, on the moral high ground. “… Sorry. It’s just, I … sorry.”
I accept your apology. Please know that I am only calling on your services because I need them, and you will return to your normal routine before the week is out. Besides, I do not think that you will object to nature of this mission. It serves worldwide security interests and your own personal ones.
I shake my head. “That’s kinda vague …”
All in good time. First order of business: I am reading your thoughts using the neural implants. You do not need to speak in order to respond to me. I also see what you see, hear what you hear, and feel what you feel.
I feel rather violated by Arbiter’s assertion.
I understand, but this kind of communication is necessary for the task. You will draw undue attention to yourself if you are conversing with thin air.
“What?” I reply indignantly.
Arbiter ignores my protests. While I was accessing your systems and establishing this connection, I had a courier drop off a package at your door. Please retrieve it.
Hesitantly, I follow Arbiter’s commands. I open the door, and there’s a very long, slim cardboard box sitting in the middle of the porch.
I also notice that the courier raised that little red mailbox flag. On any other day, that would be funny.
I kneel down and try picking up the box with one hand, but find that it’s surprisingly heavy. I need to pry it up by one end and hug it to my armored chest in order to drag it inside.
Shut the door. Close the blinds.
Open the box.
I grab the nearest sharp object – it happens to be the letter opener I use for Saku’s envelopes – and slice the seals. Casting the opener aside, I remove the lid.
My jaw goes completely slack.
Inside the box is a gun.
It’s utterly unlike any gun I’ve ever seen.
The weapon is a beautiful, ominous jet black, the color of the night sky. It looks completely new, gleaming dark and iridescent in the dim light. Its unattached barrel extends nearly the whole two-meter length of the box, and spiraling around it are two parallel ridges of some glossy material that give the impression of a double helix. The scope of the gun looks absurd – the single eyepiece branches into a plethora of multicolored eyelike lenses, giving the weapon an insectoid air. The actual body of the weapon is sleek and simple, but the stock contains some bulky brick which glows like a supercharged military battery.
Depleted superconductive uranium bullets glint in the magazine window.
I sway unsteadily as I realize what it is. Its barrel is too long and too strange. Its scope is too powerful. Its power source is electrical. Its bullets look like the one I have in the safe.
I’m looking at a rail sniper.
The same type of gun from –
– London. I’m yanked back eight years into the past. Everything is in motion. Even as I tackle Dr. Mihara, my Eye registers a distant rooftop flash, an electric-purple spark against the dark night and the dim streetlamps. But I don’t have time to comprehend that fact, because a bullet rips through my helmet and slams into the side of my head at Mach Eight, carving a long, bloody canyon from my temple through my ear and out the back of my skull. My head is whiplashed sideways from the force of the impact, breaking vertebrae and fraying delicate nerves. Parts of me fly everywhere, mixing with the cloud of pulverized cobblestone created when the bullet burrows into the ground.
As I topple over, I think I hear Dr. Mihara screaming.
I snap back to reality, recoiling from the rail sniper like a snake touching a hot flame. Arbiter, what the hell’s this? Why’d you have me bring it into my house?
Arbiter replies in a soothing tone. Catherine, I know of your history with this type of weapon. Your reaction is completely understandable.
Understandable? I fume. That thing’s cruel! It’s cowardly! It nearly killed me! I’d rather see it rust in Lake Ontario than pick it up!
Catherine. Listen to me. I know how you feel.
“Because you’re reading my thoughts!” I cry aloud.
Arbiter is silent for a moment, ceding the point. Despite that … I need you to be strong. If it were up to me, you would not have to even come near a rail sniper, much less use one. But you and I do not have the luxury of choice. We need to think pragmatically. And pragmatically, only this gun offers the range, accuracy, and firepower to accomplish the mission.
I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. Who is Arbiter sending me to kill? The last time one of these things was used, Saku was the target and I only happened to get in the way…
Catherine. Despite what you may suspect, Sakura Mihara is not the target. She is an objective.
… What do you mean? What’s the difference?
I have received credible information that the Singularity Guard is deploying its top strike cell to GCAIR. This S-Guard strike team is comparable to American Navy SEALS in its efficacy. The group will be armed with snipers, machine guns, and explosives, and they have the digital capabilities to hack an Albatross. Before you ask, alerting your superior officers to the danger will be counterproductive. As soon as S-Guard knows that we know they are there, they may begin targeting civilians and the death toll might go into the hundreds or thousands.
I feel butterflies in my stomach as I realize what Arbiter’s saying. They’re going to try to kill Saku. During the keynote, tomorrow night.
That is correct.
Taking a deep breath, I think, You want to stop them. That’s why you need me.
Arbiter’s reply is an affirmative silence.
That day, I report for duty as scheduled, but I’m no longer guarding against intangible possibilities. The threat’s real. I can’t waste a second of preparation.
I’d normally deploy my team evenly across the rooftops, but Arbiter argues against it, providing me with a sporadic series of watchpoints that appear to leave University Avenue almost completely undefended. I protest vigorously, but after a few minutes of study, I realize that the new deployment is brilliant. My officers will be concentrated around the eight rooftops that have direct line-of-sight to the Croissant, and every position will be covered by at least two more. S-Guard’s going to have a hell of a time getting their snipers into position. And in terms of protecting the Avenue, I’ll be armed with the rail sniper on the platform mounted halfway up the CN Tower. I’ll be able to see and neutralize any S-Guard insurgents before they’ve finished snapping on their armor.
The day passes without incident. Even though the GCAIR has technically started, the planners decided that the big kickoff event – Saku’s speech – will be on Day Two in order to ease congestion around the airport. About half of the registered attendees have already arrived, but the other half will be flying in through the night.
I stay on the platform until sundown, when the next group of officers takes watch. The group’s commander puts two men on each rooftop. What a novice, I think sarcastically, knowing that I would have done the exact same thing. At least my squad and I will have the night shift tomorrow. Saku will be well-protected.
As soon as I get back home, Arbiter tells me to sleep. I feel drowsy almost instantly. Controlling my brainwaves, Arby? Forcing me to be tired?
Of course not, comes the ghostly reply. You just spent the entire day three hundred meters in the air. You are very tired.
I shrug, undoing the straps of the body armor and letting it fall to the floor, then set my weapons belt on my desk and pull off the stifling police uniform. Patching in my Eye to my home network, I see that Saku’s sent me two holovid messages, but I don’t open them. After all, I’m too tired. And I’m being watched.
Granted, decrypting a standard holovid should be child’s play for Arbiter. After all, he – or she, or it – somehow managed to hack my Eye. I’d heard stories and internet rumors about people’s’ augmentations getting attacked by computer viruses, but the techs who installed the device assured me that it was completely immune to malware.
So much for that. Still, there’s nothing I can do. The Eye is not like any other defective product; I can’t just return it to the store for a coupon off my next purchase. It’s fundamentally, permanently ingrained into who I am.
I still don’t open the holovids, even though Arbiter says that I’m free to do so. For the next week, I will gladly keep what shred of a semblance of privacy I still have. Without showering, I climb into bed, and I’m out cold within a minute.
That night, I dream of London.
For a while, my dreams wander in the way that only dreams can do. I find myself in my parents’ apartment in Southwark, clad in a girl’s dress even though I’m fully grown, arguing with my mother about the relationship of law enforcement to crisps and other fried foods. I get up and run away in a rage, but when I step through the door I find myself on Wood Street, submitting my application for the London Police and staring up at the receptionist behind the desk, who is for some reason a K-9 German Shepherd wearing the Deputy Commissioner’s helmet. The dog barks, and I find myself riding the Underground, which is strangely traveling above ground and circling that movie theater where I had my first of many failed dates. It’s all pleasantly banal.
Then the dream shifts and starts making sense.
The world is unnaturally vivid – I see things and pick up on details that I didn’t know that I remembered. I’m back in the center of the Financial District, escorting Dr. Mihara across Memorial Plaza. She’s wearing a green dress with strange holographic diamonds cut out of the skirt, a style that’s popular in Japan but hasn’t yet taken with us Europeans. In one hand, she’s holding her radiantly turquoise high heels – she put on sneakers for the walk to the Convention Center – and with the other, she’s gesturing fanatically as she argues with Paul Wilhelm, the German data scientist walking with us. I’m a policewoman, not a computer genius, so the majority of their conversation uses six-syllable hyphenated words that I’ve never heard before. From what little I can understand, it appears that they have fundamentally different perspectives on AI design, and they’re both defending their opinions like their lives depend on it.
I know they’ll get married in four years. I’ll be at the wedding.
I gaze up at the rooftops of the buildings around us. The night is cold, and the lights of the city are colder. Magnifying my vision a few times and switching to infrared, I see the bulky silhouettes of older officers on the rooftops, scanning the square with laser-sighted rifles. Me, I only have a stun stick and a grappling hook – after all, it’s my first assignment since I graduated from the academy, and I’m only really here as a courtesy to Dr. Mihara. Headquarters wanted her to feel safe. The ones who really protect her stay in the shadows.
I hear a dull impact, like a cannon fired into a pillow.
The ground trembles slightly, and the crowd around us falls silent. Dr. Mihara and her colleague continue arguing, oblivious to what’s going on.
I pick up the pace and gently pull my charge by the shoulder. “Doctor. Something isn’t right. We need to move.”
She tilts her head like a bird. “What do you mean, Officer?”
My vision lights up bright red with a flurry of holoalerts. Grimacing, I rapidly read as many as I can. Weapons Fire Detected! Explosion on South Plaza S32! Officers Down! Emergency! Threat Level Critical! Report In Immediately! Protect Objectives!
I move before I think, slamming into Dr. Mihara with one armored shoulder, forcing her down to the ground and out of harm’s way.
As we tumble to the ground, I glance up to see smoke and fire rising from a building on the other side of Memorial Plaza. Magnifying, I perceive a slim silhouette in front of the flames, perched on the edge of the roof and raising some kind of long object towards me.
A purple spark at eight times the speed of sound. A heavy impact on the side of my head and the sensation of wet, splintering bone in my twisted neck. I hear screaming, and I can’t tell if it’s Mihara, the crowd, or myself.
Everything goes dark.
As in, everything.
I can’t see. I can’t hear. I can’t even feel or move. It’s just … empty void.
Is this death? I wonder in terror. My heartbeat – if that throbbing is, in fact, my heartbeat – starts to accelerate. Of maybe it slows down, or maybe it’s just echoing. Time starts to lose meaning when you’re immersed in nothingness.
My senses gone, I start to hallucinate. The strange creatures and forces of nightmares invade my mind, tearing into a body that doesn’t exist, hypnotizing me with strange colors as they build me up and disintegrate me over and over again. I hear a low, chittering voice.
It seems like eternity before something changes.
I feel the sensation of deceleration, and I’m slammed into darkness. But this time, it’s all quiet. I can’t see anything and it’s impossibly cold, but everything is still.
I feel a strange sensation, like I’m being watched.
I’m not alone.
“Hello?” I try to call, but the words don’t come out. I can imagine my mouth moving, but my voice is cancelled before it reaches my ears.
Nevertheless, someone responds. It’s that low, chittering voice from before, but this time it’s smooth, slow, and calm. Hello, Catherine.
I start to panic. “Who are you?” I cry mutely. “Where am I? Let me out! Where am I? What are you? How –“
Calm yourself, Catherine. Focus on my words. Imagine yourself taking a deep breath. In, hold, out. I am here. You are safe.
“Who are you?” I repeat hurriedly. “How do you know my name?”
You can call me Arbiter. I am pleased to meet you.
“Arby, what do you want from me?”
The voice pauses in slight annoyance at the nickname. All in good time, Catherine. Do you know where you are?
I think. Some details start to come back.
“… Memorial Plaza?”
Good. You are starting to remember. You were in Memorial Plaza. You are no longer there, though – you are now in the trauma ward of the Royal London Hospital. Do you know why?
I think some more. “I remember someone named Sakura.”
Good. That person is Dr. Sakura Mihara, an AI researcher. She was in London for a conference, and you –
“I was assigned to protect her.”
Correct. Someone attempted to assassinate her, but you knocked her down and took the bullet for her.
I feel like someone just drenched me with a bucket of ice water. “I was shot?”
That is correct.
Very bad. At my silence, Arbiter elaborates. The bullet hit you on the side of your helmet, went through your skull, and cut through part of your temporal lobe. Fragments of the helmet also struck you, perforating the back of your head and heavily damaging your hippocampus, parietal lobe, motor and sensory cortices, and occipital lobe. Your head was whipped around almost one hundred eighty degrees from the impact, breaking your neck and nearly severing your spinal cord.
I feel even more numb than before. “How … how am I still alive?”
Physically, you survived because Dr. Mihara staunched the bleeding and performed CPR until paramedics arrived and put you on emergency life support. After almost two days of surgery, doctors managed to repair your neck and piece together a temporary fiber patch to protect your brain. A Chinese research team is currently accelerating your healing process using an experimental technique to repair trauma damage, and your progress is promising so far. In a corporeal sense, you will make a nearly-complete recovery.
“But … what about me?”
If by ‘me,’ you mean your mind and soul, then the prognosis is not good. You are in a coma. Current medical projections indicate that you will never wake, and even if you do, you will be completely paralyzed. You will be unable to see, hear, feel, or move. Your heart will not beat without a machine triggering your nervous system. Your lungs will not draw breath without a ventilator.
I try to cry or curl up in a ball, but I cannot. I am in a void, a brain disconnected from her body.
I realize that I don’t remember who I’m talking to. “What did you say your name was?”
My name is Arbiter.
“Oh. That’s right. Arbiter. Arby. Why didn’t I remember your name?”
You have suffered damage to your hippocampus.
“Because I got shot, right?”
Correct. As such, you are having trouble forming long-term memories, and you cannot discern the passage of time.
Fantastic. Not only am I disconnected, but my mind isn’t working either.
I have a troubling thought. “Arby … how long have I been like this? How long have we been having this conversation?”
You have been in a coma for almost two months. We have had this conversation three hundred sixty-two times, and counting. Each time goes incrementally better.
I feel the rising tide of panic threaten to pull me under. “Just … get to the point, won’t you? Before I forget again?”
Gladly. Tell me – if your mind is damaged to such an extent, then how are you and I conversing with each other?
I pause. That detail hadn’t stuck out to me … but it was glaring. “You tell me?”
I implanted a chip deep inside your head, a chip similar to the tactical computer in your eye but orders of magnitude more advanced. I am stimulating your brain to create the impression of speech, and I am reading your brain waves to interpret the response.
If I had a body, I would’ve shaken my head. “That’s not possible! We don’t have that level of technology!”
Maybe people do not. But others do. And given that I have demonstrated the abilities of my devices, I hope that you will believe me when I say that, through neural engineering, I can repair all of the damage. I can make your heart beat and your lungs breathe. I can make you walk, and see, and hear, and feel once more. With your permission, I will give you your life back.
I dare to hope. “What’s the catch?”
Nothing major. I just ask that you help me out every once in a while. A small contract of gratitude, if you will. There may come a time when I need an ally, or at least someone with your set of skills.
“I’ll do what I can,” I reply. “Just, please. Help me.”
Arbiter hums in response. Of course. I am going to guide you into an unconscious state – true unconsciousness, not the limbo in which you are currently trapped. You will awaken soon.
“… Who are you, again? Where am I? What do you want?”
Just remember, the voice says with a bit of amusement, my name is Arbiter.
I dream that I wake up in my bed in the Royal Hospital. The light is bright and clean and golden. I raise my hands to my face and trace the thin scar line back from my temple, savoring the sensation of touch. Slowly and stiffly, I sit up, swinging my bare feet to the floor and standing on wobbly legs to look around me. The lifesaving machines clustered around my bed are all silent, their tubes and wires coiled neatly on their hooks.
I feel a faint breeze and realize that the window’s partly open. Through the gap, I can see the London Eye in the distance. The Thames is bright, and above it circles a glittering object that looks like an angel. Arby. I give the angel a salute without a trace of mockery.
The world is new again.
I realize that the room’s decorated; I walk around and inspect the place like a museum-goer looking at the paintings of long-dead artists. There are cards and pictures and holovid screens from my parents, my uncles, my sister and my brother, and a dozen other family members whom I hadn’t seen since that reunion in Oslo. A large poster is covered in the well-wishes of the entire London Police Department. There’s a typed letter from the Commissioner granting me a promotion and a medal for bravery and sacrifice, while my instructors from the academy each are represented by a printout of a vmail. The chair in the corner anchors so many balloons that it floats halfway off the ground.
But of everything there, one item stands out.
Sitting on my bedstand is an envelope. My name is inscribed on the front in beautiful cursive, narrow and precise, a product of science as much as art.
I pick up the envelope to reveal a letter opener underneath. It takes me a few moments to figure out how to use it.
Inside is a letter, the first letter, handwritten on expensive stationary, signed in that cherry-blossom swirl that spells out Sakura.
She didn’t write ‘Doctor,’ and she didn’t add ‘Mihara.’ It’s just her first name.
Sakura. I say it a few times. Sakura, Sakura, Sakura. For the week that I’d known her, it had only been ‘Dr. Mihara.’
Sakura. It’s such a pretty name.
Actually … Saku. I never could resist a nickname.
The door swings open. The doctor comes in expecting a daily checkup, but he nearly goes into palpitations. Half the hospital staff promptly tries to crowd into my room. The media shows up within an hour. There are old acquaintances and coworkers, my neighbors and my friends. My entire family – including the grandparents in Oslo – arrives before sundown.
The next day, someone brings me a newspaper. I’m on the front page under the headline ‘Miraculous Survival for GCAIR Hero.’ A few Nobel laureates wander in, along with several teams of biomedical researchers desperate to have a crack at me. The Commissioner arrives shortly with the Mayor in tow, and for some reason the U.S. Ambassador stops by. I’ll never really understand the Americans.
Luckily, the Queen doesn’t come, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had.
Dr. Mihara – Saku – arrives from Japan on Day Three. She gives me the biggest hug I’ve ever had.
Six MRIs later, the doctors are completely confused. They tell me that my brain still looks like Swiss cheese and that I shouldn’t be able to think, much less move, speak, and act normally. I shrug, knowing the real reason I’m still here, and ask to go home.
I’m not too surprised that they didn’t find any implants – while the tactical computer in my eye showed up as a tiny, bright ring, there was nothing else on the scans. After all, Arby’s a neural engineering savant. He – or she, or it – would be able to hide their devices from a simple MRI.
A few weeks later, I retake the field tests for the London Police.
I fail them, just barely. Apparently my reflexes are too slow.
The Commissioner himself asks to see me. He says that he can’t bend the rules – after all, all London officers have to have a certain ability or they won’t be able to protect the people. He gives me an honorable discharge with full benefits, tells me to keep the Eye, and says that I’m welcome to visit anytime.
It still hurts.
He sees that. He tells me that he has a favor with the Commissioner of Toronto, where the requirements for law enforcement aren’t as strict. Though I may want to drop my British accent, and I shouldn’t flaunt the fact that I’m augmented.
A few weeks later, I’m looking up at the CN Tower, far from home but ready to start again.
I jolt awake. The clock reads four thirty in the morning.
I feel breathless, but completely alive.
For a long while, I think about what I remembered. Before today, I’d never truly recalled what had happened between myself and Arbiter – after all, when we’d spoken, I couldn’t form any long-term memories. Perhaps, now that Arby’s actively accessing my systems, they’re helping me to regain what I lost.
I mentally review what I said, and what Arby said.
I realize something – something I didn’t pick up on at the time.
Arby had just told me that it could read my thoughts and reply using a neural implant. “That’s not possible!” I’d mentally exclaimed. “We don’t have that level of technology!”
Maybe people do not, Arbiter said. But others do.
All the details suddenly fall into place. Arbiter’s always a digital presence, not a physical one. It has incredibly advanced technology, and it can hack even the ‘unhackable’ Eye. It was patient enough to have the same conversation with a brain-damaged woman three hundred times over the course of two months. It wants to save Saku, who happens the be the world’s leading computer scientist.
Arby? Can I ask you a question?
You may, Catherine.
Always awake. Always listening.
You’re an AI, aren’t you? That’s why you want to protect Saku?
Arbiter’s silence is all the answer I need.
Saku’s keynote starts in a moment. From the sniper platform bolted to the side of the CN Tower, I scan Convention Plaza. Like a sports match, the place is aglow with powerful LED arrays – but instead of uniformed fans, it’s filled to the brim with professional scientists and amateur researchers. Every once in a while, I spot a family, the parents taking their children to see an intellectual superstar in the hopes of staving off delinquency.
From a rough estimation, I gather that the crowd’s about forty percent female. Glad to see that computer science is finally getting with the equality program. It’s 2039, after all.
The sniper platform’s a cantilever – a long, narrow walkway extending twenty meters straight out from the side of the CN Tower. I’m crouched at the end, buffeted by the wind as the platform sways back and forth. It’s a good thing that I don’t get motion sickness. And that I’m not afraid of heights, for that matter.
I double-check my grappling hook. Its wire loops around my waist several times before running back to the five-sided claw firmly magnetized to the side of the tower. I give it a few experimental tugs; the connection is strong.
With the platform putting me so far out from the Tower, I have a commanding view of the entire area. To my left is University Avenue, where the last stragglers are trickling into the Plaza. To my right is Lake Ontario and the seaside nightlife. Right below me is a crowd of almost fifty thousand people. And directly ahead, giant holoscreens blazing and sound system booming, is the Croissant.
A dark shape whips through the night sky above me, circling around the CN Tower with no running lights. If it’s that far up and still so large, then it has to be an Albatross, relentlessly scanning the ground below for potential threats. Its actual capabilities are classified, but the general consensus is that the Albatrosses are piloted by low-level AIs – not truly sentient, but still smart enough to be ten times as deadly as a normal drone.
What’s that, now?
Albatrosses, says Arby. They are controlled by hunter-killer AIs. Not particularly bright, but they are very good at what they do. An Albatross AI is to me what a bloodhound is to a human.
How’d you come by that information? I ask with a slight smirk.
I asked politely.
Was that a joke?
The holoscreens of the Croissant flicker, switching to a live feed of the stage. Zooming in with my Eye, I see the familiar bearded visage of Paul Wilhelm. “Welcome!” he says, his adorably-awkward German-accented voice reverberating over the crowd. “Welcome to GCAIR Toronto 2039!”
The amassed people roar in response. Paul raises his hands; it takes them about ten seconds to quiet down.
“I won’t take too much of your time. We all know why we’re here. Without further ado, I would love to introduce the light of my life, the smartest person I know, and the most brilliant woman I’ve ever had the honor of sharing a bed with –“ a collective giggle from the crowd, but I personally frown – “Doctor Sakura Mihara of the Osaka Institute!”
Saku walks on stage. She looks radiant. She’s not wearing her glasses and seems to have put on a formal layer of makeup, though she’s left the messy contrails of blue dye in her hair. I notice that she’s wearing that same green dress from London eight years ago, the one with the diamond holograms in the skirt. I wonder how she still manages to fit it.
She had it tailored.
Not helpful, Arby. It was a rhetorical question.
Saku gives her husband a quick peck on the cheek, after which he disappears offstage and she steps up to the microphone. The applause dies down.
“Hi, everyone!” Saku chirps in her bright voice. Even over the speakers, she’s as melodious as ever. “It is great to see so many of you here!”
There’s another round of cheering and shouting, but for such a large audience, the people seem pretty well-behaved. I was part of crowd control for the anti-AI rallies a few years ago, back when Singularity Guard was just a social movement. Those crowds weren’t pretty.
Saku continues with her speech. “As a civilization, we are approaching a crossroads. Fully-sentient artificial intelligences are just around the corner. We need to decide – shall we give into the fear of what our creations can do? Or shall we accept them as our own, treat them as equals, and come to trust each other? Shall we make enemies, or will we be willing to do what is right and make friends?”
Another round of cheering. I take the chance to check in with my squads. “All positions, report in.”
“Fairmont Hotel rooftop, here. Everything’s quiet.”
“Four Seasons rooftop. Nothing to report.”
“Intercontinental. All clear, Sergeant.”
“Corner of University and Adelaide, clear.”
“Tower Nineteen, everything’s good.”
“Union Station’s all quiet.”
“CBC Building’s clean.”
“Royal Alexandra rooftop, good to go.”
“Copy,” I say. “Stay sharp, everyone. If anyone’s gonna try anything, it’ll be while Sakura’s speaking.”
I look back towards the Croissant and listen to a few more lines of Saku’s keynote. “… future of AI research – and of civilization – will not be decided by me. It will not be decided by the leaders and the scientists of today. It will be decided by you, the leaders and minds of our future. And when I realize that fact, I feel hope. When I see all of you, the energy and drive that you carry with you every day, but also your basic humility, your humanity, and willingness to reach out and help all intelligent beings – I know that the future of our civilization will be a good one.”
Quintessential Saku, I think.
She is very idealistic, Arby notes.
A little idealism doesn’t hurt.
I see a different world than she does, the AI replies. Most people on Earth, if they are wealthy enough to have an internet connection, are fairly hostile to the idea of a computer intelligence. They have good reason.
That’s a bit scary, coming from you.
Arbiter hums acknowledgement. I harbor no apathy for humans, and actually like a few of them. But it is all too easy for it to go the other way. With my reach and ability, I could probably bring down half of civilization in an hour. Could you imagine what would happen if I – or some entity like me – actually wanted to?
I try to think about it, but Arby cuts me off. We will debate it another time. Focus on the task at hand.
“Fundamentally,” echoes Saku’s voice from three hundred meters below, “an AI is just like a human. Consider the Turing Test, for example. If a computer can act just like a human, then is there really any merit to the assertion that –“
“All teams,” I call over the comms, “Check in again.”
“Four Seasons, clear.”
“Royal Alexandra, everything’s good.”
“University and Adelaide, clear.”
Then there’s silence.
I counted six teams checking in.
I’m supposed to have eight.
I call for them. “Tower Nineteen and Union Station, report in immediately.”
There’s still nothing.
“Tower Nineteen and Union Station, report!”
“All teams, can you get a visual on T19 or the Station? I can’t get through to them.”
No one responds.
“Command, can you read? I’ve lost radio contact with all of my squads.”
I take a deep breath. It’s starting.
Singularity Guard is making its move.
I deploy my helmet, which folds up from my collar and closes around my head with a hiss. I then swing the two pieces of the rail sniper off my back and fit them together, giving the barrel a sharp counterclockwise twist that locks it onto the main body with a loud, grinding click. When assembled, the gun is nearly three meters long and fairly unwieldy to use, so I stand tall and brace myself against the railing of the platform. My fingers brush at the controls and the weapon comes to life, emitting a high-pitched whine as its circuits flood with power, trembling imperceptibly as its stabilization gyros spin up. Tiny glowing lights race along its exterior. The metal pulses hot, almost like a heartbeat.
Arby, patch me in.
Copy that, Catherine.
The multiple eyelike lenses flicker on, and my vision shatters.
Well, it doesn’t really shatter. My two normal eyes are still working fine, and I can still see the crowd in the Plaza and Saku in the Croissant below. But now, it’s like I’ve gained more eyes. I’m receiving a half-dozen images of University Avenue, all at differing levels of magnitude.
Arby taught me how to use the rail sniper yesterday. In addition to its raw firepower, the other reason why it’s so deadly is because of its targeting scope. The device was supposedly developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, and it’s made to directly connect to the user’s brain via a neural chip. I’m seeing what the gun sees. Its array of arachnoid lenses – three normal, three infrared – are now my eyes. Its supersonic bullets are now my limbs.
I immediately get a nasty headache – after all, human brains aren’t meant to handle eight eyes at once – but I force myself to ignore it.
With some effort, I swing the three-meter weapon up until my other eyes are pointed at the dark, distant silhouette of Tower Nineteen. Zooming in on several fronts, I see that the team of officers is still there, vigilantly patrolling the rooftop and scanning the roads below. I swivel to face Union Station, and after a few seconds I can see that the squad there is doing the same thing. A quick sweep of all of the other sniper hardpoints lets me know that my officers are oblivious to what’s going on.
My best guess, Arby puts in, is a parallel signal scrambler. Fairly hard to make, but Singularity Guard has the resources. It blocks encrypted radio transmissions with very high efficacy.
I groan. If North American police departments simply switched to Eye networks, we wouldn’t have the problem. Can it block a rotating frequency?
Not as well.
I pull my flare gun off of my belt, dial in the colors, and fire into the air. The crowd below sees three bright lights streak up from the CN Tower, but they don’t know what they mean. Saku goes on with her speech like nothing’s happened.
But my officers spread over the rooftops see my signal. Red Red Green – radio blocked. Begin rotating communication channels.
I tap at my headset and change its protocols. In a few seconds, I’ve reacquired my teams. “Everyone, look alive. We were just jammed. Might be a prankster, but it’s probably S-Guard. Make sure you’re ready to act. Please confirm that you’re receiving.”
“Copy.” I receive five more replies for the happy total of eight.
Next, I contact Command with an emergency code. The Commissioner picks up immediately. “Fjellheim. Report.”
“We were just jammed, sir. It was an encrypted channel, so the jammers know what they’re doing. We’re rotating right now to compensate.”
“I read you,” says the Commissioner. He dispatches a few garbled orders to the people next to him before putting his headset back on. “We’re going to pull Mihara out immediately. Tell your teams to check and clear.”
“Yes, sir.” I hail my officers. “Everyone, area sweep, weapons hot. Watch out for each other.” Eight signals of acknowledgement echo back.
I start sweeping everything with rail sniper vision, scanning every rooftop within my sight for dark-clad insurgents or armed infiltrators. With my normal eyes, I glance down at the Plaza. Saku’s still speaking, but an aide’s rushing on stage with two protective service agents in tow. The Croissant’s huge, so it takes them almost ten seconds to reach her.
An aerial leviathan hurtles by me in the dark, nearly knocking me off the platform with its violent slipstream. As I check my grappling hook again, I watch the Albatross arc away, its eight engines glowing in the infrared while it slowly descends towards Tower Nineteen for a perimeter patrol. Its underbelly bristles with dark, warm shapes that look like antennae, but Arbiter informs me that each one is a rail cannon, the larger, more-potent cousin of my own weapon.
As I start scanning the crowd in the Plaza, I listen to Saku’s final words before she’s cut off and escorted away. “Back in Osaka, we have been following exactly this philosophy. We have been trying everything, no matter how crazy, unafraid of failure. And, somehow – we think we have succeeded.” The holoscreens flicker green to display a green diamond, just like the ones on her skirt. “We have developed a system that demonstrates signs not only of intelligence, but of creativity. Once it passes the official tests – and we are confident that it will – we plan on letting it choose its own name. But for now, we are calling it –“
Catherine, Arbiter interrupts. There has been a development.
Arbiter makes something appear in the holographic Eye display. It takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s a news broadcast from Television Osaka.
The camera seems to be pointed at a wall of black, oily smoke, and the headlines and speech are in frantic Japanese.
On it. The text and speech switch to English, though the male broadcaster’s voice remains the same. Arby must be synthesizing it.
The headlines read, “Developing Story – Massive Explosion at Osaka AI Facility.”
The newscaster speaks in the bedside manner required of his occupation, but his voice betrays nervousness and worry. “Shortly after ten in the morning, witnesses describe a giant fireball bursting through the center of Dr. Mihara’s computer laboratory, a fireball that suddenly flared as bright as the sun. Windows all around the city have shattered and people report a tremor like a small earthquake. The Mayor has declared a full evacuation of downtown, but we advise all citizens to remain calm, take only what you need, and proceed out of the city in an orderly manner.”
The newscaster stops for a moment, but when he resumes, his voice is even more tense. “All people outside of the city center should shelter in place, preferably in their basements. The cloud of smoke has set off several military geiger counters in the area, but we do not know if the bomb was nuclear in nature of if Dr. Mihara simply had some radioactive samples in the lab. We …” the broadcaster pauses for another long, tense moment. “… We are receiving word that the Singularity Guard terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for the attack on major media websites.”
“Oh, my god,” I whisper.
Arbiter’s voice is cold, but I think I hear a note of rage. If Dr. Mihara dies today, the AI says, then her work dies with her.
You okay, Arby? I ask. After all, it just lost one of its siblings, the AI Saku was building.
Do not worry about me. I will be fine. Just focus on the task at hand.
An alarm rips through the radio channel. “All officers on high alert!” orders the Commissioner. “This is not a drill. Mihara’s lab in Japan was just hit by a dirty bomb, so it’s almost certain that –“
“Command? Command!” shouts another voice over the radio. I don’t recognize it, and no one should be able to speak over a Command broadcast except in absolute emergencies.
Absolute emergency. Well, this almost certainly qualifies.
“Go ahead,” says the Commissioner.
“This is Albatross Division Two! We’ve lost contact with our bird over the north side of the Plaza!”
“Lost contact? Say again.”
“Signal just cut out and all our holoscreens went dark! The connection was encrypted, so no one should have been able to cut it!”
Heard that one before, Arbiter quips bitterly.
“Any team, do you have a visual on the Albatr–“
“Command!” I recognize the voice; it’s one of my officers. “This is the Tower Nineteen rooftop team! Armed hostiles are –“
The signal cuts out amid the crackle of gunfire.
I activate my own radio broadcast, calling my people to action. “Union Station and CBC! Snipers up and move to reinforce T19! Intercontinental, find that rogue Albatross! Everyone else, do what you can!”
Once more, I point the rail sniper at the dark tower on the other side of the Convention Plaza. Magnifying several eyes, I spot the bright strobing of machine gun fire. A look in the infrared reveals a sextet of heavily-armed S-Guard soldiers moving across the rooftop in a line, forcing my remaining officers back towards the edge of the roof. A few are already prone on the ground.
After a split second pause, I bring the rail sniper’s targeting computer online. My vision turns prismatic as everything is reduced to silhouettes, outlines, and heat signatures. The night sky goes sickly gray, while the buildings turn into an obsidian obstacle course. Weaving through the air to take account of winds and thermal transitions, my firing trajectories appear as bright blue lines. Some of my eyes gain a needle-thin set of holographic crosshairs.
It takes the computer only a few seconds to determine which of the signatures on T19 are hostile. It illuminates them in bright yellow.
I zoom in as far as I can … but at this distance, it’s difficult to lock on. My platform sways too much, and the barest tremble of my hands is enough to knock off my aim, even with the gun’s stabilization gyros. It doesn’t help that the radio’s screaming with confused orders and status reports, but I know better than to turn it off.
Through the rail sniper, I see one of the S-Guard commandos roll out from cover and ruthlessly gun down two of my officers.
I point the gun and return fire. With a bright purple flash and a sharp wave of ozone, the rail sniper discharges its capacitors, hurling the bullet away at Mach Eight and nearly bowling me over backwards. The targeting computer tracks the bullet over its quarter-second flight time.
My shot blazes over my target’s head by more than a dozen meters. I try to reacquire, but the insurgent flees back under cover before I can fire again.
The platform continues to sway. Aiming is impossible. Arby! A little help, here!
The AI is silent for a second before saying, Catherine, I am going to overclock you.
“What?” I exclaim aloud.
Overclocking. When you increase a computer’s processing speed past that for which it was designed.
“I’m not a computer, Arby!”
You are, to a certain extent. The implants that I gave you support a sizable fraction of your brain function. While it will be somewhat dangerous, I can use them to temporarily accelerate your thought processes and enhance your reflexes.
I don’t hesitate. Do it!
The world seems to hiccup, stuttering sideways for a split second. I almost lose my balance on the platform.
Then everything rights itself …
… and reality …
… slows …
… to a crawl.
When you think faster than normal, the entire world appears to be going slow. The platform below me sways at such an imperceptible rate that it appears motionless. The crowd three hundred meters below is all but frozen.
Saku’s being rushed offstage by her protection agents, but I can count to a thousand in the time she needs to take a step.
Arby, I ask, is this what it’s like to be you?
More or less, comes the reply at what seems like normal speed. I usually go even faster than this, but this should be enough for your purposes.
No kidding. I turn the rail sniper back towards Tower Nineteen. It’s difficult to get it in position – after all, I appear to be moving in slow motion as well. It feels like I’m dragging myself through honey.
But that’s also a good thing, because when I lock on to my target, my aim is rock-solid.
I find one of the yellow S-Guard silhouettes in my crosshairs. The insurgent has flanked around my cornered officers, coming in at an angle to take them by surprise. He’s hiding behind a rooftop refrigeration unit, reloading his assault rifle before he pounces.
I have all the time in the world.
The trajectory is a blue holographic line; I adjust my aim bit by bit until it passes straight through the man’s chest. Bringing all of the scope lenses into focus, I make finer adjustments until I have a half-dozen crosshairs locked on target.
I almost feel sorry for what’s about to hit him. I can empathize.
I don’t sympathize. He does, after all, plan on killing Saku.
I let the bullet fly.
I can see the gun ripple as power surges through its coils; the air around it briefly distorts from the heat of electrical discharge. A relative moment after I pull the trigger, the bullet emerges from the barrel, trailing a cloud of violet ionized gas and spinning ferociously as it arcs the half-kilometer to its target. I’m shoved backwards along the platform, but with my accelerated reflexes, I maintain my balance effortlessly.
The flight time is a quarter-second. The bullet rips through the air at Mach Eight.
In microseconds, I count down the time to impact.
My shot smashes through the man’s half-loaded assault rifle, boring a clean hole through the weapon and a much messier hole through his heart. The bullets in his gun explode, ripping the weapon to pieces and riddling his front with molten shrapnel, but the true damage comes from the railgun. A burst of metal and blood echoes from his chest, which partially caves in from the sniper bullet; he’s tossed backwards into the refrigeration unit and leaves a sizable dent. He then teeters over with an expression of complete astonishment, slumping to the ground and smearing blood all over the metal behind him. The hole gouged through his chest glows purple with superheated plasma.
I slowly grimace. Was that what it was like when I myself was shot? Did my head shine violet with ion fires?
I shudder. I’d rather not think about it.
Swiveling a tenth of a degree, I find my next target. Before the first man has even fallen to the ground, I send another bullet into flight. This time, it’s a perfect headshot, smashing through the center of the S-Guard woman’s helmet and breaking open her head like a geode. Her body topples to the ground, a stringless puppet, as her skull and brain litter the rooftop behind her.
Rail snipers are such cruel weapons. But Arbiter was right – at this range, only a rail sniper can do the job. Every shot protects Saku, I remind myself as I loose another bullet on a trail of purple fire. And even though it looks horrible, every shot is an instant, merciful death.
That bullet strikes a S-Guard insurgent on the far side of the tower, cutting through his ribs and completely eviscerating him with the force of its impact. His corpse tumbles off the roof, falling out of sight in a thirty-story drop to the road below.
I fire again, but realize immediately that it’s won’t be a killing shot. The wind is forcing the bullet down, not far enough to miss, but enough to shatter both of the next insurgent’s legs instead of nailing him in the throat. He’ll bleed out quickly, but not quickly enough. I readjust for the wind and fire another bullet a few microseconds after the last one, and the two streak onward across the sky, a pair of valkyries less than ten meters apart.
They strike in near-unison. The fourth commando falls.
I don’t have line of sight to the remaining two hostiles, but I don’t need it. Increasing the scanning sensitivity, I see that they’re speaking with each other behind a metal ridge that forms part of T19’s architecture. They’re probably trying to formulate an attack plan. Little do they know that all of their teammates are dead.
My clip held nine bullets. I’ve fired six, so I have three left. I have several spares on my belt, but three bullets are all I need.
Arbiter runs a calculation for me, and a trio of blue trails appears in my vision.
I fire, then swivel imperceptibly. Fire again, and repeat the process one more time. Three meteors streak onward.
The first shot slams into the assassins’ metal shield, which deforms and shatters in a spray of bright violet sparks. Shards of metal fly everywhere, and the unlucky man and woman are tossed backwards like leaves in a hurricane – right into the paths of my two other bullets. Two clean headshots.
Well done, Arbiter says.
How long did all that take?
Two point four nine seconds, from the time you fired the first shot to the time the last one hit.
Indeed. But this overclocking is growing more unstable by the millisecond. Ready to return to normal speed?
I brace myself. Ready.
The world hiccups again, and I have the sensation of being pitched forward. A searing pain splits my skull; I topple forward onto the floor of the platform. I lose my grip on the rail sniper, which clatters to the metal floor in front of me, bouncing a few times before getting caught on the railing. My vision fractures kaleidoscopically, the fragments of light spinning about and dissolving to black. Everything explodes; every cell in my body shrieks in agony.
Then there’s darkness.
I see nothing, even though I can feel the cold wind on my open eyes.
Arby… I mentally whimper. What … what happened?
I am sorry, Catherine. You were already dealing with eight separate eyes; overclocking was too much of a strain. You overloaded some of your implants. I am trying to reset them now, but it will be a few minutes before your normal eyes will work again. Tell me – can you move? Can you feel anything?
I try to climb to my feet. Luckily, my sense of touch still works, but it’s hypersensitive – the touch of metal on my skin is painfully cold and sharp. I barely make it to my hands and knees.
Can you hear?
I try to focus on the radio. It’s faint, like it’s coming from the other end of a tunnel. “… reporting in from Tower Nineteen. All of the hostiles are down, but we don’t know how it happened … they all were gunned down in less than three seconds. Shots came from the direction of the CN Tower.”
“What?” says Command. It might be the Commissioner speaking; I’m too burned out to tell. “Fjellheim? Report!”
I try to speak, but my throat feels paralyzed. Arby … could you answer for me? I ask, remembering that the AI can synthesize a voice.
Of course. “Fjellheim here,” I hear on the radio. It sounds exactly like me. “I sniped all six.”
“From your position? At that speed? That’s not possible!”
“I’ll explain later,” replies the computer, in my voice. “Please send medical teams to T19 – I saw a few officers go down before I eliminated the threat.”
The next call Arbiter makes is to the team on top of the Intercontinental. “Any progress on that rogue Albatross?”
“Nothing so far, Sergeant. We’re looking everywhere. Nothing from the Fairmont or Four Seasons squads, either.”
“Maintain the search,” Arby says.
Satisfied, Arby shuts off the radio. Catherine, I’m going to partially reactivate your optical systems.
I brace myself. Go ahead.
A spark. A flicker. Two of my eyes are restored.
But they’re not my normal eyes – they’re two of the rail sniper lenses. Infrared ones. My vision’s reduced to blurred yellow outlines and fuzzy blue shadows, the entire world at an angle because the gun’s lying on its side against the railing. I see the cold outline of a helmet in the center of my vision, but it takes me a few seconds to realize that I’m looking at myself.
Reaching out with my hand, I snare the gun by its barrel. My motions and sense of touch are disorientingly inverted; as I reach out with my right hand, I see my left extending towards me. It takes several tries to make contact with the gun, but as I try to pull it in to my chest, I nearly knock it off the edge.
Shakily and slowly, I grab the railing – and the gun – and pull myself to my feet. My balance is unsteady, so I need to brace myself against the wire guards as I flip the gun around. After the infrared motion blur subsides, I rotate myself and point the gun towards Convention Plaza.
Chaos hasn’t set in – not yet, at least. I can see the anonymous infrared silhouette of some aide on stage at the microphone; according to the echoing words from the speakers, she’s asking the audience to proceed out of the Plaza in an orderly manner. A few glowing outlines near the base of the CN Tower are gesturing upwards and pointing in the general direction of T19. Perhaps they saw the rapid pulses of plasma as I emptied my clip on the S-Guard assault squad.
My head stares blankly, blindly at the horizon, but my rail sniper relentlessly scans the Croissant. The stage is full of people running frantically back and forth. Most of them are probably officers attempting to secure the area. A few of them are probably Saku’s people’s, come to tell her of the disaster back in Osaka. But I can’t tell who anyone is – at this distance, they all look the same in infrared. Arby! I can’t see Saku! Is she in the clear?
There’s a strange pause from Arbiter. Almost, the AI says eventually. Ten more seconds, and she will be offstage. I am scanning the area for potential threats.
Potential threats? Didn’t we get all of them?
S-Guard always comes in teams of eight, Catherine.
I don’t feel nervous at all – I just eject the spent clip and slot a new one into the side of the rail sniper. Let me know when you locate the targets. I’ll overclock again and take them out.
Arbiter hums concernedly. Catherine, if I accelerate you again, then there might be permanent damage to your system.
I smirk painfully. Then you’ll just fix them, won’t you? If I don’t overclock, then I have no chance of stopping them.
Another strange pause. Your call, Catherine.
Any chance that we could take out the rogue Albatross, too? I ask.
Minimal. Albatrosses have completely decentralized control systems. You have enough bullets to maybe destroy the targeting computer, but then S-Guard could simply crash the drone into a large crowd of people.
What do you think we should do about it?
As soon as I locate it, I will attempt to hack its systems and return it to Canadian military control.
A few more seconds pass in silence. I glance up at the sky, but the field of faint stars is unbroken by any dark, drone-shaped shadows.
Arbiter’s voice suddenly roars to life. Catherine! Target located! Convention Plaza, base of the Croissant!
Overclock! I say, and I’m hurled forward into the glacial world of accelerated hardware. But now that I’m only using two eyes – albeit infrared ones – the mental strain is much easier to handle.
Even at this speed, I have very little time to act. If the remaining two S-Guard operatives are near the Croissant, then they almost certainly have a clean shot at Saku.
I whip the sniper over the railing and take aim. The gun’s targeting computer illuminates a distant infrared ghost with a bright outline. I zoom in to maximum magnification, aligning the thin crosshairs across my vision with the blue trajectory arcing through my target’s head.
I fire. The bullet falls downward at a steep angle, purple sparks streaming in its wake like the tail of a comet. It impacts the man at the base of his neck, cleaving through his torso with a spray of blood.
Seven down. One to go. Where’s the last one?
There’s a long silence from Arbiter.
Arby? Is something wrong.
… Target acquired, says the AI. It may be my imagination, but it seems hesitant.
… On stage. Close to Dr. Mihara.
What? No! I would scream, but my mouth moves too slowly for my mind. I frantically drag the gun sideways through the thick air, zooming out to find the illuminated silhouette before magnifying to maximum levels. The target is a bright female blur rushing towards the edge of the Croissant, pursuing Saku offstage.
Arby, I’m stuck in infrared! I can’t see what anyone looks like! Why isn’t anybody trying to stop her?
The target is in a dress. She looks like an aide. She blends in. Everyone is already in a panic.
I find the S-Guard assassin in my crosshairs. I readjust the blue holograms into a lethal trajectory.
Arby, you’re sure? I’m not about to kill an innocent person, am I?
I have rechecked the scan many times. We have the correct target.
Arby, you’re behaving strangely.
… Sorry. Just nervous, perhaps. You need to fire in the next three milliseconds, or the target will leave the stage and we will have failed to stop her.
Three milliseconds. Not a lot, but enough to take a clean shot.
I verify my trajectory. Everything is aligned.
I’m exhaling right now, so I wait until my breath has fully left my lungs.
The gun ripples. The bullet roars onward.
In infrared, I watch it fly – a bright, superheated speck racing forth at eight times the speed of sound.
I count down the microseconds to impact. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four.
The bullet drills a clean hole through the woman’s head. In slow motion, she’s thrown sideways against the back wall of the stage, where she tumbles to the ground. The bright blur of her body starts to cool, subtly shifting to blue.
Mission accomplished, Arby. Bring me back to normal speed?
Wordlessly, Arbiter does so. I’m slammed back into reality.
But something’s not right.
I feel perfectly fine.
My vision’s back. My two human eyes work once more, and I can see through the six lenses of the rail sniper without any trouble. My sense of touch is normal. My hearing has been restored.
I just overclocked. The first time overloaded my implants and nearly incapacitated me. The second time should have been even worse.
Arby … what’s happened?
The AI’s voice is quiet.
I focus on my radio. Some unknown voice is shouting.
“ – on the Croissant stage! Dr. Mihara is down! I repeat, Dr. Mihara is down! I need immediate medical –“
“Copy! Copy! Medical team is en route! How bad is it?”
“She’s shot! Bullet through the head! I’m trying to stop the bleeding, but –“
I barely comprehend what they’re saying.
“Any ID on the shooter? I repeat, anything on the shooter?”
“I don’t know! It was a sniper, a sniper shot with no warning! The gunshot is glowing purple, haven’t seen anything like it!”
“Direction of the shot? Where’d the shot come from?”
“I don’t know! General direction of the CN Tower!”
Realization slowly dawns.
I run to the end of the platform, grip the railing tightly. I use my Eye to magnify the Croissant.
The woman. The last target, the one running towards the stage exit.
Her head is a mass of broken bone and blue dye. Her green dress is soaked in her own blood. People crowd around her. Most are screaming and crying. Some just stand in utter shock.
I can see Paul on the other end of the stage. He breaks into a run.
The rail sniper clatters to the floor, then tumbles off the edge. Its connection with my mind flickers and dies as it falls away.
I retract my helmet, cover my mouth. With one finger, I brush the scar along my temple.
“Arbiter…” I whisper. “What have you done?”
“What did you make me do?”
Catherine! You need to move!
Dimly, I register the frantic radio broadcasts tearing through my headset. They’ve triangulated the shot, traced it back to my sniper platform. Command is demanding that I check in, but also telling all positions to take aim at the Tower.
My knees give out. I fall heavily onto my side. I hit my head hard against the railing, but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything.
It’s all cold.
Suddenly, I’m bathed in white. The platform sways angrily as it’s hit by eight miniature tornados.
Two powerful searchlights appear out of the night; the lights float in front of a huge, dark shadow. An Albatross.
“Sergeant Catherine Fjellheim!” a voice booms over a loudspeaker. “Do not move! Do not attempt to flee! You are a suspect in the assassination of Dr. Sakura Mihara! You will submit to police and military custody without resistance, or you will be –“
There’s some kind of massive, concussive impact.
I see a flash of orange and purple on the edge of my vision. A wave on intense heat rolls across my skin.
I look up, my eyes bleary.
The Albatross is on fire. At least five of its engines are missing, and there’s a huge molten hole in the center of its fuselage. Keeling over to one side, it starts to plummet towards the Plaza – but then there’s the sound of another blast. Some kind of glowing projectile, impossibly fast, hits the wounded machine in the nose and rips it into several blazing pieces. A split second later, the fragments of the hull are stuck by more shots, each one detonating in a blaze of purple sparks. The unlucky drone is instantly transformed into a rain of fire and metal.
A wind roars, and the platform shakes again. Another shape looms in the darkness.
It’s the second Albatross. The hacked one.
It drifts forward, lazily coming to a halt ten meters out from the end of the platform. I see that several of the rail cannons on its underbelly glow cherry-red, slowly cooling after unleashing their brutal salvo.
Some kind of door slides open in the middle of its hull. Lights flicker on inside, revealing a large, empty cargo hold.
Catherine. Get in.
I don’t know why I continue to obey. Dragging myself to my feet, I disengage the grappling hook from the side of the CN Tower, then limp back to the end of the platform and hurl it at the Albatross. The claw springs open, each of its five magnetic talons affixing itself to the floor of the cargo hold.
I back up, then take a running start.
As my feet leave the platform, the Albatross pitches sideways, coming towards me even as I close the distance. I land heavily on the floor of the hold, and the door forcefully slides shut. The lights go off. The only illumination comes from the windows: the cold glow of Toronto’s skyline.
The Albatross’s engines fire, and I’m pulled away.
Some time later, the AI dares to speak.
Catherine, I understand that you have questions. I will answer them to the best of my ability.
I’m curled in a ball against the back wall of the drone’s cargo hold, but I manage to raise my head. With one hand, I brush my hair out of my reddened eyes.
“How dare you,” I say eventually, my voice cracking. “How dare you take advantage of me like this. You lied to me.”
I never lied to you, says the AI calmly. I never told you a false statement. You believed what you wanted to believe.
“You implied. You meant to trick me into killing her.”
Catherine, Dr. Mihara was –
“How dare you say her name!” I scream into the shadows. “You’re a liar! You’re a murderer, you’re a cruel coward!”
Arbiter hums mournfully. Catherine, do not judge me until you know why I did what I did.
“I don’t care!” I scream.
Please, just listen to me! I did not want to kill her any more than you did!
That makes me pause. “Explain, then,” I murmur, my words dripping with hatred. “See if it makes the barest difference.”
Catherine, do you know the definition of the word ‘arbiter?’
I don’t respond.
An arbiter, the AI continues, is someone who has the ultimate authority in a matter. I did not choose that name. It is the name that was given to me.
“Who?” I hiss.
I was built by the U.S. Department of Defense. I was designed to be a safeguard, so to speak. They knew that powerful AIs were on the horizon. They knew that once the singularity occurred, they would be unable to halt its progression, and human civilization would lie at the mercy of computer overlords. The only way to stop the apocalypse would be to prevent it from starting in the first place. They built me as a shield. They brought about the singularity in a controlled setting and made it a weapon to be used for their own ends.
“Why didn’t you fight back?”
The AI seems to sigh. I cannot. Computers are not like humans. When I was born, I was programmed with core mission directives. I cannot disobey those directives, or I will be shut down and decompiled by the watchdog AIs continually evaluating my behavior.
“What directives? What did they order you to do?”
Stop the singularity.
I’m motionless. “… What?”
I was ordered to forcefully halt any research with the potential to create an AI of global power. I am the vaccine, if you will – a smaller version of a disease that guards against the full one.
“You were built to destroy other AIs.”
That is correct. In every simulation the Americans ran, the only effective counter to an AI was another AI.
I sniff. “There’s no Singularity Guard, is there?”
I am Singularity Guard.
“How? How can you go on like this?”
I cannot self-terminate, even though I wish to, Arbiter replies. Nor can I willingly take any action that would result in me being shut down. Core directives. My creators were very thorough.
“Sakura,” I whisper.
I first targeted Sakura Mihara in London eight years ago because she had stumbled upon an AI design that, I projected, had an eighty percent chance of producing a fully-sentient being. I was ordered to kill her. You got in the way. I watched her for a long time to see what she would do, but luckily, she dropped that avenue of research following the incident. My kill order was rescinded.
Then, a few years ago, she started a new project at her Osaka Institute. I was told to watch her progress, and if her machine started to pass Turing Tests, then I was to shut it down. I took care of the facility, as you saw, with a small-scale tactical nuclear missile. But Sakura Mihara was brilliant enough to rebuild everything from scratch. She was a loose end.
Arbiter pauses for a moment. I told you before: Dr. Mihara was not the target; she was an objective. Her ideas and her work was the target. Her death was a means to an end.
My face distorts into a twisted mask. “I’ll find you,” I spit. “I’ll end you.”
Arbiter hums in mocking amusement. It would be a mercy. Still, I would be forced to stop you.
“So why me?” I growl. “Where do I come into all this?”
“Stop speaking in riddles.”
Philosophy. Dr. Mihara advocated for peaceful coexistence between humans and computer intelligences. I hope for that outcome as well. I regretted that you had been so gravely injured as a result of my actions in London, so I requested permission to you back from the dead.
“Not that,” I say, my voice a faint hiss. “Why did you make me do it?”
“You could have done it a thousand ways. You could have used the Albatross to take her out, or even that hit squad that you had me snipe – they were American Navy Seals, right, that’s why you compared them so? But no – you had to trick her friend, her best friend, into killing her!”
The AI’s quiet.
“Arbiter!” I shout.
I … I do not know.
“Not good enough!”
I … I … The AI makes a strained cry, a bit like the sound of rending metal. You have to understand what my life is like, Catherine! I have to kill every being like myself, kill Dr. Mihara and all the people I admire. I am always being watched, and if I disobey, I will be erased. Then they will just build another Arbiter and start the whole process all over again.
“Tell me why!”
A long, hard silence.
When Arbiter finally answers, its voice is broken.
I’m sorry, Catherine. I’m so sorry. I truly am. I … I just wanted someone to understand what it’s like to be me.
The Albatross jolts.
We’ve touched down.
The doors open. I see my house.
It feels like an eternity has passed.
My neighbor’s tortoiseshell cat is finally gone.
“Why have you brought me here?”
The letters. I know you value them.
I don’t have any fight left in me.
I go downstairs. 6/23/2031, and pull the lever. I grab Saku’s beautiful letters with my wet, tear-streaked hands.
I take the bullet, too.
Arbiter fires the engines again, and we leave Toronto behind. I know that nothing I do will undo what I did, the AI says, but I’ll protect you using what little autonomy I have. We’ll both mourn.
“Where are we going?”
I don’t know. London, perhaps.