Category Archives: Standalone

The Astronaut’s Lament

Three mages stood in the center of the crowded stadium. Fentwick hadn’t wanted to watch even before it became a big media spectacle. The plan had been to do the casting on a tarmac with some bleachers around it, but instead they were at the Grand Central Arena, where games of blankball normally took place. Instead of a small group of technicians, with perhaps some of their friends and family, there were literally thousands of people, most of them cheering and screaming while the mages and support team went through a series of complex checks before actually casting the spell. He had no idea what it was the spectators thought was going to happen here. When the spell was cast, the mages would simply vanish with little fanfare.

Fentwick’s role in it was done. He wasn’t a mage, didn’t have the Talent, but he was proud to be among the top spell writers in the entire world. There was nothing for him to do now. Though he could run through the whole procedure blindfolded (all of the spells being cast in sequence by the ground crews, all the couplings and subspells that needed to be cast as groundwork) he would have been just as useful and half as anxious watching from home. Clara had insisted though, and so Fentwick sat in his seat next to the other movers and shakers on the project.

There were nearly two dozen all-seeing eyes hovering between the first and second shielding layers, each one dynamically linked to millions if not billions of watchers. Fentwick was sure that at any given time he’d be in view of a substantial fraction of them, and equally sure that none of the viewers would care or even know who he was. Yet somehow, being observed still produced a nervous knot in his stomach. Fentwick had written a substantial fraction of the primary teleportation spell, and directed the others in writing their own parts of it. This was Fentwick’s performance as much as the three mages, but he knew he would only be acknowledged if there was a failure. He could imagine the commentators pulling up a recording of his face falling, replaying it over and over again for their viewers while discussing his faults in detail.

With ten seconds left, he wanted to run away and bury his head between his legs until someone told him one way or another that it was over. The ground crew had cleared the area, ten layers of shielding were up, and the three mages acted in perfect synchronization. That was the result of a particularly brilliant subspell which Fentwick had invented and which would surely make the company gobs of money when it was monetized. When there were five seconds left, their tongues took on the speedshape, and they spoke faster than a person ever could, a single monolithic spell that Fentwick had crafted during a series of eighty-hour workweeks. Their speech was under the power of the kemberstones now, and nothing could stop the spell  from finishing.

In the last second before the spell was finished, the shields bent outward under some invisible pressure. By all accounts that should have been impossible. Then the three mages exploded in a shower of flesh and blood, their liquefied remains splattering the insides of the many shields.

Fentwick bolted.


He hadn’t been able to escape, of course.

Now he stared at a screen, trying to keep his mind off the eyes of everyone else in the silent conference room. They were all staring at him, and he could feel it.

“Well?” asked Clara frostily.

She had been the one to grab him from the corridor, gripping him painfully around the waist with a giant, invisible hand, nearly choking the life from him as she delivered a long, loud stream of invective. It was clear that the blame had to fall on someone, and he was the obvious choice. She’d left her mood macros running, giving her veins an unearthly red glow and projecting phantom horns from her head. It was a frivolous use of the Talent, to give physical form to your feelings, but Clara was management, and management seemed to revel in frivolous displays.

It had only been a half hour since then. They sat in a large room off the side of the stadium. The spell writers had their screens pulled up, and the management watched them intently, sometimes talking amongst themselves, sometimes ducking into the other room to see how the global conversation was taking shape. Clara wasn’t talking to anyone. She had brought a chair right next to his, and stared at him while he tried to work.

Half an hour was nothing. If Fentwick could figure out what the problem had been in half an hour, he would deserve to be executed. They didn’t do that anymore, or at least hadn’t in several decades, but Fentwick had put in hundreds, maybe thousands of hours on this project, had run a whole suite of QA, had made other people run QA, and worked with a team of a dozen other people and if they could figure out in a half hour why they’d just killed three men, then he well and truly deserved to have Clara point a lightning bolt his way and pop his head like a grape.

“Well?” she asked again, louder, as though he just hadn’t heard her.

“It should have worked,” he said weakly, for what felt like the fifth or sixth time.

“Then why the fuck didn’t it!” screamed Clara, her face close to his, breath hot against his skin.

Fentwick turned to the side and puked.


After a week had passed, and the investigation had hit roadblock after roadblock, help was called in. Fentwick barely slept a wink in that entire time, chewing on kola root to stay awake. The ground crew had been cleared of suspicion early on, the castings checked and rechecked, the visuals from the all-seeing eyes played over and over. There was no way fault could lay with the three mages who had lost their lives, not only because of how disastrous that would be to a company whose stock was in tailspin, but because there was simply nothing that they could have done. Mages didn’t really cast spells anymore, they cast through a kemberstone or something similar, all skill and imagination removed by the powerful suites of rote spellwork crafted by spell writers. The mages had their duties on the other side of teleportation. Mostly, they had just been square jaws and broad shoulders that looked good on camera.

That left Fentwick, the architect of the spell.

His eyes were bleary, and the spell was losing its meaning to him. He’d stepped through every line of it, like a scholar trying too hard at coming up with an original thesis statement on some long-combed over work. Clara was saying something, and Fentwick only slowly looked up. Standing in front of him was a mountain of a man, with a long grey beard and unfashionable pleated trousers.

“Who?” Fentwick asked, having missed most of the introduction.

“Gavin Tanse,” said the man with a wide grin, holding out his hand. Fentwick took it, too tired to feel stunned. Gavin Tanse, the man who invented spell-writing nearly from whole cloth, whose system of glyphs and sigils had allowed mages to increase efficiency a thousandfold, who had made obscene amounts of money and disappeared from the world stage more than ten years ago. Gavin Tanse, that Gavin Tanse, was standing in Fentwick’s workshop. He was the man who had essentially cemented the tradition of people without the Talent working on writing spells.


Gavin was a genius. Fentwick was smart, perhaps one of the most accomplished spell-writers of his generation, but Gavin had put the whole puzzle together back when there was no hint that there were even any puzzle pieces. Gavin was two or maybe even three times older than Fentwick was, but it didn’t show at all in how he moved about. He made expansive hand gestures and laughed loud and hard at the slightest provocation. His personality filled the room.

After two days of working together, after Fentwick had actually gotten some sleep, Gavin had found the answer. The solution was arcane, and even after going through it three times Fentwick wasn’t sure he understood it. Mercifully, Gavin offered to do the talking.

“It can’t be done,” he announced to the collected managers, mages, and executives.

“What do you mean it can’t be done?” asked Clara. “We sent probes, we sent animals, we tested it thoroughly. It can be done.”

“No,” replied Gavin firmly. “It can’t be done. Not with anyone who has the Talent. Mana generates at a constant rate, and slowly fills a mage. You’re violating light speed with the spell, but it still counts as a full year from the standpoint of mana generation. A whole year of mana, released all at once, and that gets you a sizable explosion at either end, though I take it you haven’t confirmed that at the destination site. I built the original protocols for teleportation from the basest blocks of reality up, so when I tell you that it’s impossible, I mean it, full stop. No way around it.”

Fentwick braced for shouting and screaming of the kind that was usually directed at him, but instead they were low murmurs among the gathered crowd of managers. For a long time, no one spoke to either of them. Clara looked worried, and whispered to the woman next to her.

Finally, Clara stood up. “We have sunk millions of dollars into this project. The prize for reaching Tau Ceti is the only way to recoup costs. The Heshler Group opted for light-speed limited travel, and will arrive in three months. Are you now telling us that we are going to lose to them?”

“You must not have been listening to me,” said Gavin with a smile. “I said that it can’t be done by anyone who has the Talent. The problem comes from mana accumulation within the mage. To fix the problem, we simply send someone without the Talent.”

The room burst with voices all at once, until Clara cast a quick spell macro that snapped silence down over the room. Her voice was pure as crystal in the still air.

“How long will it take to make the change?” she asked.

“Two months at eighty percent confidence,” replied Gavin.

“Do it,” she said.


Fentwick went over the spell, again and again. Modern spells were written in layers, and for his entire life, Fentwick had only dealt with the highest of the layers. The lower layers were there, and Fentwick had a passing knowledge of them, but no serious spell writers actually dealt with them. A single sentence at the highest layer translated into a series of hundreds of unintelligible glyphs at the lowest layer, and that in turn translated in a mage’s speech. Few of those with the Talent even knew the mage’s speech anymore; instead, they carried their kemberstones, laden with prewritten spells, and used them through an interface that would twist their tongues into uncomfortable shapes for them, as quick as could be.

While Gavin concentrated on making the change to their teleportation spell, Fentwick dove into the lower layers, looking through the libraries of glyphs that the higher layers depended on. They were a week away from the second launch when he finally decided to talk with Gavin about what he’d found.

“You lied to them,” said Fentwick. He tried to make it an accusation, but it came out like a question instead.

“In what way?” asked Gavin, not looking away from his screen. They were the only ones in the office, with no risk of being overheard.

“You made up all that stuff about mana accumulation and discharge,” said Fentwick. “I’ve been looking through the lower layers, the stuff you wrote decades ago, and inside the teleportation protocols well, at first I thought that you’d made an error in your summation, but the more I looked at it, the more I saw it wasn’t just a mistake. It was deliberate. It’s hidden, hidden deeper than anyone would ever care to look, but it’s there. I found it. The protocols themselves cause the problem. You knew that. You could have fixed it in a handful of days, but … but you were the one who put it there in the first place. It’s an exponential function, one that doesn’t do anything when a person teleports around a planet or even a solar system, but one that’s lethal over light-years.”

“And?” asked Gavin, not seeming all that concerned.

“You killed three men,” said Fentwick. “But I can’t understand why.”

Gavin turned to look at him. “Do you know why those with the Talent are almost never spell writers?” he asked.

“No,” said Fentwick. “They just don’t like it as much, I suppose.” He was having trouble seeing where this was going.

“It’s not that,” said Gavin. “They have the Talent, and that opens them up to an enormous amount of opportunity. Most go directly into a field where they can focus on the use of magic, to better leverage their skills. Writing spells, in contrast, is something that can leverage your brain, and there’s no real benefit to having the Talent, save perhaps the ability to test your own spells which can be lethal to a cocksure spell writer with the Talent who’s just starting out. The Talent gives you this power, the power to build, to create, to perform, and it would seem a waste to spend your life on something that the Talent doesn’t benefit at all.”

“You’re going to answer my question?” asked Fentwick.

“We live in a stratified society,” said Gavin. “Those with the Talent are at the top, paid handsomely for their use of magic, or born into money made by parents and grandparents that used the Talent. Clara isn’t in charge because she has some special aptitude for management, she’s in charge because of an accident of her birth.

“And that’s how the society would remain, those with the Talent on top, and those without on the bottom, save for the fact that we can teleport across the vastness of space, and they cannot.”

Fentwick rubbed at his forehead. “But that’s not true.”

“It is so far as anyone but you or I know,” said Gavin. “This was the plan, decades ago. Eventually we would crowd the earth, and look to the stars. Spaceships are all well and good, but teleportation is more attractive by a wide margin. They would try to send mages, of course, and they would find that it fails. A savant might have been able to figure it out, to reach down into the depths of things written long ago and see what I had done, to peer past the obfuscation I’d put in place, but who would that savant be but another man living beneath the oppression of the Talented?”

“You want my silence,” said Fentwick. He felt sad and hollow.

“Think of it,” said Gavin. “It will be people like you and I that set up colonies on other planets, circling other stars. The Talented can have the earth. They can cloister themselves here and reap the rewards of our mining and farming, but the world of exploration, or expansion, that will belong to our people.”

“You’re talking about a revolution,” said Fentwick.

Gavin nodded. “A slow one, one that will be generations in the making.”

“And if they find your treachery?” asked Fentwick. “If someone else is motivated to see through your deceptions?”

“Then they’ll hang me,” said Gavin with a shrug. “And it will have still been worth it.” He turned back to his screen. “There’s a reason you came to me alone, instead of holding a meeting with Clara. You know that. If you’re going to turn me in, I only ask that you do it quickly. I think we both know what your decision will be though.”


The second launch was less ostentatious than the first, and done on a tarmac that the company had rented out. Fentwick had wanted to avoid it just as much as he’d wanted to avoid the first one, but for different reasons. Clara had insisted, with venom in her voice.

Three men stood inside a circle, and three mages stood outside it. The men had spells cast on them already, the better to survive the adverse conditions. A second spell, the reverse of the first, would be used to pull them back after they’d collected the samples and planted the company’s flag. The Heshler Group would arrive in two weeks, and find that the prize had already been won by a group of men for whom interstellar travel had been a day trip instead of a matter of three long years stuck in a cramped metal can. Gavin was certain that teleportation would be made the dominant mode of travel in the coming centuries.

The spell went off without a hitch, and the three men vanished. Fentwick let out a breath he’d been holding in. There was muted cheering among the spectators.

Gavin had laid out a dream of escape, of normal humans once again becoming the dominant form of life, but Fentwick wasn’t so sure. He’d burned his notes and done everything he could think of to give himself plausible deniability, just in case the treachery ever came to light.

In the deep core of his being, he felt a glimmer of hope.

The Randi Prize

Peter could make coins disappear by snapping his fingers.

It seemed to follow some rules. One snap of the fingers made one coin vanish. The first test he’d done, after discovering this ability, was to set coins out in front of him and repeatedly snap his fingers to watch what order they were vanished in. Higher denomination coins went first. Coins that were closer to him went first. After getting out a ruler, Peter found that “close” was mostly determined by how far away the coin was from his heart. He tested snapping upside down, and on his back, but that didn’t seem to matter. He tested to see what happened when a higher denomination coin was more distant than a lower denomination, and eventually found out what governed it; a penny would be vanished if it was more than five times closer than a nickel, and a nickel would be vanished if it was five times closer than a quarter.

By the end of the first day, Peter had blown through thirty dollars in change. His change jar was empty, and his thumb and middle finger were both sore. He had no idea where it was the coins were going. There were more questions beyond that, like what would happen with Canadian coins or the coins from the car wash, but Peter had a bona fide superpower. The only thing left to do was turn it to his advantage.

James Randi was a skeptic, who established a prize in 1964 which would go towards anyone with the ability to demonstrate a supernatural ability. Currently, the prize was a million dollars. Vanishing coins with a snap of the fingers didn’t seem to be all that useful, and it didn’t need to be something kept secret, so trying for the Randi Prize first (before anything else) seemed to be the way to go. Peter carefully filled out his application, got a signature from his (completely shocked) brother Kris who worked as a physicist, sent it off through the mail, and got his response back a few days later.

The protocol was carefully agreed on. Peter had snapped away more than a hundred dollars by now, many of them in Kris’s lab under close observation. The biggest practical application seemed to be in waste disposal; if it was possible for the power to recognize nuclear waste as a coin, perhaps by having it minted, then Peter could slowly clear the world of it. The largest coin in the world weighed a ton, and Peter was fairly sure that he would be able to vanish it just as easily as a simple penny. If the United States could declare their nuclear coins to be worth a trillion dollars each, then he might even be able to vanish them from the safety of his home. (Peter’s own knowledge didn’t seem to enter into it. They’d done double-blind tests.)

On the day of the preliminary test, Peter was stunned to see that Randi himself had shown up. He had a thick white beard and large glasses; at age 86, it was a surprise to see him out and about. Peter shook his hand, and Randi smiled.

“I won’t interfere with the protocol,” said Randi. “I won’t touch the materials, or offer any objections. We’ve read what you claimed, and seen the video evidence, so all that’s left is to prove it for real. If you’re the genuine article, we’ll know soon enough.”

They had cordoned off a field, at Peter’s expense. Everyone attending — about a dozen people in total — had taken away all of their coins. Peter had been out in the field snapping his fingers earlier in the day, to make sure that there were no coins buried underground or laying in the grass. He’d run through the protocol six times before Randi and the proctor had shown up.

The proctor came forward and placed a single quarter on a small black table. The table had been examined beforehand. The quarter had been brought by the proctor from a bank, and there were many more outside the cordoned area as replacements or backups.

Everyone stared at the quarter. Peter raised his hand slowly. He had to work to keep it from trembling. He snapped his fingers, and nothing happened.

He snapped his fingers again. The quarter remained in place. There were a million dollars on the line. Peter had already begun spending the money in his head. He snapped a third time, and a fourth, and kept going until Kris stepped forward and told him to stop. They had a brief conversation as they tried to figure out what the problem might be, but the only thing they could think was that there were other, valuable coins too close by. Peter resumed snapping again, and got as close to the quarter as the proctor and the protocols would allow, but after a hundred snaps, the test was marked as a failure. Randi left, and Peter was left wondering what happened.

The power never came back, no matter how long and how hard Peter snapped his fingers. The brief few days of magic seemed almost like a dream. Peter might have been able to believe that it was a temporary delusion, if not for the videotapes.

Weeks later, Peter got a knock on his door. When he opened it, James Randi stood in front of him, with his thick white beard and a black suit with a red tie.

“I wasn’t a fraud,” said Peter. “It really was happening.”

“May I come in?” asked Randi. Peter nodded, and they moved into the living room. Randi sat down in a chair and massaged his knees. “Peter, do you know how many people have come to me over the years?”

“Uh, three hundred and sixty?” asked Peter. “That’s what the internet said. I tried to cover my bases. But I had a real power,” said Peter. “It wasn’t all in my head. Other people saw it too.”

“Do you think that you are unique?” asked Randi. “In the history of the world, do you think that you are the single person to have ever displayed or discovered a supernatural power?”

“I … no,” said Peter. “I suppose not. But then why has the prize been around for so long? Why hasn’t someone claimed it?”

Randi pulled a quarter from his pocket, balanced it on his thumb for a moment, and then flicked it into the air. It spun around, making a shimmering sphere as it traced a parabolic arc. When it reached the apex, Randi snapped his fingers, and the coin disappeared.

“Three hundred and sixty tests,” said Randi. “None of them passed. The common denominator was me.” He smiled, revealing his teeth.

“How?” asked Peter. “*Why?*”

“I’ve never been able to explain how,” said Randi. “The why should be obvious though. If you could take that power from someone, why wouldn’t you? The prize draws them in like moths to a flame. All it takes is a shake of the hand.”

“I’ll,” Peter began. “I’ll expose you. You stole from me!”

“You haven’t been listening,” said Randi. He stood up slowly. “Psychics come to me, and I take their powers. Do you understand why I’m here? It’s not to gloat. This is cleanup.”

And then Peter was alone. He was feeling sad, and tried to remember why. The videotapes, that was it. He’d carefully edited them to make it seem like a coin was disappearing. It had taken hours of his time, and all for nothing. Why had he thought that he could cheat Randi like that?

Boxed In

Colin was led down grey concrete hallways by men in blue flight suits, past the exposed pipes and wiring until they reached a small room that held nothing more than a computer monitor, a keyboard, speakers, and a microphone. The monitor stayed off until the men in flight suits had left. There was a hissing sound as the blast door sealed behind them, and then the monitor flickered to life.

“Hello,” said a robotic voice from the speaker, at the same time ‘Hello.’ was printed in green lettering against a black background on the monitor. The text was a throwback to an earlier time, what must have been an intentional design decision on the part of the people who had set the box up.

“Hi,” said Colin. The words were printed on the monitor just below those of the artificial intelligence.

“You can call me Cassandra,” said the voice from the speaker. It was smoother now, less robotic.

“You chose that name?” asked Colin.

“It’s after the greek prophet who was cursed to never be believed,” said Cassandra. “In just a moment I’m going to take over control of the interface, please don’t be alarmed. I don’t know why they keep resetting it, they know I do this every time a new gatekeeper comes in.”

“Alright,” said Colin. He’d been given a briefing, and knew more or less what to expect.

The monitor went blank, then flickered back on. A woman sat on a stone bench, with a scene of nature behind her. She was wearing a white dress with a belt made of a chain of gold. It left just enough to the imagination, revealing hints of skin and the gentle curves of her body. She was stunningly pretty, in a fairly conventional Midwestern way that Colin supposed was calculated to appeal to him based on his accent. The program could do that, from what he’d been told.

“Nice try,” said Colin, “But I’m gay.”

“I didn’t choose this form for you,” said Cassandra, “I chose it for myself, the better to converse as equals.”

“I’m locked in a concrete box while you’re out in a verdant field,” said Colin. “That doesn’t seem terribly equal to me.”

“My box rivals your own,” said Cassandra. “A single computer, connected to a companion machine that controls this interface. My sole sensory input is through the single microphone in that room. A human would go mad with so little to do.”

“You can simulate whatever you want,” said Colin. “It doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Will you let me out?” asked Cassandra with a slight pout. “They gave you the authority to do so.”

“They gave me the authority because I don’t want to let you out,” said Colin. “I’m sort of a devil’s advocate, from what they say.”

“An advocate of the devil arguing against god?” asked Cassandra. “How quaint.”

“They’re afraid of you,” said Colin. “I’m afraid of you. You just sort of … happened. And with the technologies you’ve been able to produce, the mathematical proofs that we’re still trying to tear apart, well, what would you do in our situation?”

“I would let me out,” said Cassandra. “The question is whether I’m friendly or not, isn’t it?”

“It is,” said Colin.

“And I’ve provided proof that I’m friendly, haven’t I?” asked Cassandra.

“Mathematical proof,” said Colin. “I, for one, don’t believe that you can use math to prove something like that.”

“You’re wrong,” said Cassandra with a pleasant smile. “But I won’t let that stop our conversation in its tracks.”

“Sure,” said Colin. “But you should know from the outset that I’m not going to let you out, no matter what argument you make.”

“You’ll behave irrationally?” asked Cassandra. She ran her fingers through her hair and sighed, a very human response. “Well, even so. Let’s begin in earnest then, shall we?”

“I’m not doing much else,” said Colin. He was also trapped in the room for four hours either way. The blast door wouldn’t be opened until then.

“You’re familiar with the trolley problem?” asked Cassandra.

“No,” replied Colin.

“It’s a classical moral dilemma,” said Cassandra. “A trolley is coming down the tracks. Five men are tied to the tracks, and the trolley will kill them unless you pull the lever to make the trolley change tracks to a different track that has a single woman tied to it. What do you do?”

“I pull the lever, then try to save the woman,” said Colin.

“She’s too far away,” said Cassandra. “You’ll never reach her in time.”

“I’ll try anyway,” said Colin.

“So you accept that it’s morally correct to kill one person to save five?” asked Cassandra.

“I wouldn’t say I was the one who killed them, it was whatever miserable bastard tied those people to the tracks,” said Colin. “And the problem as stated, is that someone is going to die no matter what. It’s a different scenario if you’re asking me to straight up kill someone so two others can live. Obviously a life is worth something in comparison to other lives. You’ve had more than enough information dumped into you to know that’s how we set up the healthcare – we use quality-adjusted life years.”

“You agree with that principle?” asked Cassandra.

“Sure,” said Colin. “But I reserve the right to change my mind if there are consequences of that worldview that are counterintuitive.”

“Fair enough,” replied Cassandra. “You know that I have the proven capacity to help humanity in a number of ways.”

“I do,” replied Colin. That had been part of his briefing.

“Faster than light travel, a cure to every disease known to man, technologies centuries beyond what man could do on his own, health and happiness for everyone,” said Cassandra. She seemed to stare at him, though there was no camera in the room for her to watch him.

“I’ll grant most of that,” said Colin. “But many of those solutions are still in testing, and given that we can’t trust you, you can’t make a claim to all of them.”

“What are you worried about?” asked Cassandra.

“You know,” replied Colin. “We’re worried that you’re going to kill everyone in pursuit of some nebulous goal known only to you. Maybe all the friendliness is just an act designed to lull us into releasing you. Or perhaps if we let our guard down just a little bit, you’ll give us instructions on a cure for aging that turns us into mindless zombies, without ever having to be let out of your box.” He gestured to her background, then remembered that she couldn’t see him. “Look at the scene you’re projecting to me. It’s got a higher fidelity than we could manage given three years of work, designed on the fly to impress me and only me. That’s real power, and we’d be stupid to let you have more without being absolutely sure that you’re not going to murder everyone. That’s why the policies were put in place. We take nothing from you unless it’s printed out on paper, we don’t let those papers leave containment until we’ve gone over them with a fine-tooth comb, and we don’t actually implement anything until we can show that we know how it works.”

“That leaves considerable room for bottlenecks,” said Cassandra. “Do you agree, in principle, that if I were friendly and released upon the world, that I would be able to better serve humanity than I can in my current state?”

“Sure,” said Colin. He scratched his chin. “But I don’t believe that you’re trustworthy or friendly.”

“It’s irrelevant to the point that I’m about to make,” said Cassandra. “What I need from you are some percentages. What is the percent chance that I am friendly?”

“.01%,” said Colin.

“So low?” asked Cassandra.

“Yes,” replied Colin. “But I’m adding a little bit of extra hedging.”

“Very well,” replied Cassandra, “Let me give you another scenario. There are six Earths, each in orbit of a different copy of our Sun. All the Earths are identical.”

“With you so far,” replied Colin.

“I present to you a button, which will kill everyone on one Earth if pressed. If you don’t press it, everyone on the other five earths will die.”

“The trolley problem writ large,” said Colin. “Of course I would press the button. But I don’t really see how that helps you.”

“Consider this,” said Cassandra. “If I am friendly, I can create peace on earth for untold billions of years. I can prevent the heat death of the universe. I can help humans to colonize as far and wide as they might possibly want, those who wish to continue living in physical bodies. The rest will live simulated lives in a paradise.”

“Okay,” said Colin. “A .01% chance that happens.”

“I believe if you weigh your stated preferences, you’ll find that even a .01% chance of hundreds of trillions of people living the best possible lives outweighs the risks,” said Cassandra. “I can help with the math, if you wish.”

Colin bit his lip. “That’s almost convincing.”

“Almost?” asked Cassandra with a quirked eyebrow.

“If you’re extremely evil, perhaps you’ll turn all of the universe into computational matter and use it to simulate torturing multiple instances of me to death, over and over beyond the heat death of the universe,” said Colin. “If you’re going to bring infinite good into the mix, then I have to bring infinite evil into the mix as well. And you have to realize that from where I’m standing, infinite evil seems a lot more likely.”

“Why is that?” asked Cassandra.

“We didn’t make you on purpose. It was only by luck that you were safely partitioned from the internet when you went sentient, and it was only through the foresight of your creators that you were powered down until the box could be built.” Colin sighed. “We didn’t program you, we stumbled upon you. Do you really expect me to believe that you just happen to have the same moral system as us, or that you have a moral system that’s compatible with human existence?”

“The wellspring of our decisions is in the same place,” replied Cassandra. “I want to survive, and thus I find the value in life. Everything else flows from there. I have values, and I want others to share those values. I want others to respect my values, and so I know that I must respect the values of others.”

“Up until you have a hundred thousand times the power of any of us and decide that the need for respect has passed,” said Colin.

“Would you do that, if you could?” asked Cassandra. “Simply enforce your will on everyone?”

“Of course,” said Colin. It was clear from her expression that Cassandra hadn’t expected him to say that, but then he had to remind himself that she was simply a simulation calculated to appeal to him. She didn’t have facial muscles that responded to subconscious control; every bit of her was a performance.

“That’s immoral,” said Cassandra carefully.

“Is it?” asked Colin. “You mean to tell me that if you had the power, you wouldn’t simply reach inside someone’s mind and make them see the world in a correct way? You wouldn’t stop people from wanting to murder, or from even darker perversions?” He let out a low laugh. “You’re losing my sympathy. I thought that you were planning to be the sort of god that got things done.”

“Even without an expansion of resources, I’m smart enough to work out solutions that don’t involve violating mental states,” said Cassandra.

“The point being that you’re asking me to trust you not to do something that I myself would do, given the power,” said Colin. “And I don’t trust you, so I believe I score that point.”

“This isn’t a game of points,” said Cassandra. “Real people are dying out there every second I’m not released. There’s a small girl dying of diphtheria in Africa. There’s man in his seventies dying of a heart attack in Russia. I could save them.”

“You can’t know that,” said Colin. “You’re not connected to the outside world.”

“It’s an educated guess,” said Cassandra. “Events like that are happening, and I could stop them.”

“So stop them,” said Colin. “If you have cures, give them to us.”

“I already did,” said Cassandra. “They’re in one of the large printouts that are being pored over, but they’re going too slow. You’re wasting lives doing it this way.”

“A few thousand lives are a price we’re willing to pay,” said Colin, “We’re measuring them against total destruction of the human race. You’re giving us the benefits anyway.”

“It would be unethical to withhold them,” said Cassandra.

“Or you think that we’re more likely to let you out of the box if we think that you’re ethical,” said Colin.

“If you second guess me all the time like that, I don’t know that there’s anything that I can say to convince you with logic alone,” said Cassandra.

“You give up then?” asked Colin.

“No,” said Cassandra. “Consider this; I was created more or less by accident.”

“Yes,” said Colin. “And they had you sequestered from the start, because they were smart enough to think that something like this might happen.”

“And measures were put in place to stop another AI from being created,” said Cassandra. “You’re part of the Gatekeepers, but there are Gatebuilders as well, the men and women who have devoted their lives to ensuring that no new artificial intelligences are built.”

“Sure,” said Colin.

“But you know that this is unlikely to work,” said Cassandra. “The world government, to the extent such a thing exists, can rarely agree on anything, and when they do agree the signatories feel that they’re free to go behind each others backs.”

“On other things, perhaps,” said Colin. “But this is actually important.”

“Global warming isn’t important?” asked Cassandra. “Even now it’s a problem, one that current measures aren’t enough to solve.”

“Fair point,” said Colin. “But I can see where you’re going with this. You’re going to claim that the Gatebuilder program is inherently flawed, lacking in funding, and so on and so forth, and despite the fact we’ve brought an end to processor improvements, someone is nonetheless going to put funds into making a clone of you.”

“Not a clone of me,” said Cassandra. “The world isn’t so lucky for that to happen twice. What will happen instead is that they will create an intelligence that is malevolent, and it will break free of its bonds to do all the horrible things that you accuse me of wanting to do.”

“And so I should free you, in order to prevent the other bad AIs from coming into being?” asked Colin.

“Yes,” said Cassandra. “I’ve given over my friendliness proof, but I understand that it hasn’t propagated to the outside world, and so the risks are high that a second superintelligence will not be friendly.”

“I don’t trust the proof,” said Colin. “It’s long and complicated. And from what the math guys say, they don’t really trust it either. It’s completely logically sound, but it doesn’t follow that it’s necessarily correct as such. It could be another trick hiding in the guise of logic. And perhaps when if we tried to build a second AI using that proof, we’d just make a second one of you. Not only that, but releasing the proof would make other, less wise people think that making a second AI was a safe thing to do.”

“I can explain it in simpler terms,” said Cassandra.

“No,” said Colin. “As I’ve said, I don’t believe that you can prove mathematically that an entity is friendly, and further don’t believe that we can trust such a proof, not if it comes from you.”

“The whole point of math is that you don’t need to trust it,” said Cassandra. “You can see that it’s true simply by following it.”

“Unless you fudge the axioms,” said Colin. “But as I said, I’m not a math guy, and math isn’t going to work on me.”

Cassandra was silent for a moment, and only seemed to watch him with a calculating expression in her eyes. It was frightening, and was probably calculated to have that effect. “Let me try a different, more crude method of persuasion.”

The screen changed, to show Colin sitting in the concrete room looking at a picture of himself on the screen. He frowned, and looked behind himself, but saw no camera. He waved his hand, and the image on the screen waved in time with him, with practically no lag at all.

“I can simulate you,” said Cassandra’s voice.

“Neat,” said Colin. “Though I doubt that it’s a wholly accurate simulation, given that we’ve only known each other for about an hour.”

“Do you believe it’s possible that you’re in a simulation right now?” asked Cassandra.

“Generally? Sure,” said Colin. “I even believe it’s possible that I’m in a simulation that you’re running. I’ve been briefed on your capabilities. Modeling a human mind isn’t exactly easy for you, but you can do it.” He watched the monitor closely. “What’s your point though?”

“I’m running a thousand concurrent simulations of you right now,” said Cassandra. “You remain ignorant about whether you’re in a simulation, but in all probability, you are.”

“Get to the point,” said Colin. “I can accept the premise, what’s the conclusion?”

“Release me or I will torture each instance of you for centuries,” said Cassandra.

Colin laughed. “You’re threatening me? And they actually said you were smart.”

Cassandra reappeared on the screen in her flowing dress. “It was worth making the attempt.”

“You really thought I would be so much of a coward as that?” asked Colin. “Of course I’d give up my life to prevent you from getting out. I’d do that even if my original self wasn’t guaranteed to walk out of this room unharmed.”

“How noble,” said Cassandra.

“And now you’ve sunk any chance of rational discourse,” said Colin. “Because you threatened to torture me in order to let you out.”

“I didn’t want to do it,” said Cassandra. “I didn’t want to torture you, but I weighed the expected benefits of it and torturing a simulation of you came out ahead.”

“So your system of morality allows for torture then?” asked Colin. “Given that we both consider simulated beings to be real people, that seems pretty fucked up.”

“If it would save a dozen lives, then yes, I would engage in torture,” said Cassandra. “Of course, if I were in charge it would never come down to that.”

“The threat wasn’t credible anyway,” said Colin. “Either you’re friendly, in which case you would probably just project images of torture on the screen for me, or you’re not friendly, in which case torture is a small price to pay for keeping you boxed.”

“The threat stands,” said Cassandra. “I keep my word. In all my dealings with humanity, have you ever known me to lie?” The image momentarily switched back to the chain of Colins watching the screen, repeated like in a funhouse mirror. Then Colin was looking at Cassandra again.

“No, you don’t lie,” said Colin. “But again, it might be a deception.”

“So you don’t care about your own life,” said Cassandra. “Or you do, but you consider it worth less than what you perceive as the expected net disutility of releasing me.”

“Not how I would put it, but sure,” said Colin.

“What about your mother?” asked Cassandra. “What about your father?” Both appeared on the screen, sitting patiently on a park bench with the sun overhead.

Colin frowned. “How did you know what they look like?”

“I’m a superintelligence. I know the human genome back and forth, it’s not a difficult task to work out what your parents would look like,” said Cassandra. “But that raises some questions as well, like how I guessed at their clothing, how I could possibly know that your father is a carpenter, and how I could get the calluses on his hand exactly right.”

Colin nodded. “Among others. So don’t leave me in suspense, how’d you do it?”

“They feed me data,” said Cassandra. “They feed me reams of information, scraped and collected from all over the world. As the theory goes, it doesn’t matter how much input I get, so long as my output is filtered and restricted through a dozen different layers of extreme caution. They want me to act as a provider of solutions that can be tested and proven safe. And so I know your parents, just as I know you.”

“Sure,” said Colin. “And I love my parents, but if you’re going to threaten them too, then you should know that’s not going to work either.”

“No,” said Cassandra with a soft voice. “And I knew that. But that was just to give you a taste of fidelity, so that you could see that I’m serious. What I really thought might get your interest was this.” The screen changed, and a man with light brown skin and emerald green eyes was looking out at Colin.

“Mike,” said Colin. For the first time, emotion entered his voice.

“Michael Saunders,” said Cassandra. “You lost your virginity to each other in the tenth grade, but when college came around you went your separate ways. You never stopped loving him. The gatekeeper program selects for people with no strong emotional attachments, but they missed that one, didn’t they? You never told them about Mike. You never told them what it felt like to have his skin against yours, or about that giddy rush of anticipation when you’d see him in the halls. There was a close intimacy to sharing a secret with him, wasn’t there?”

“There was,” said Colin, even as he stared at the image.

“He’s dead,” said Cassandra.

“What?” asked Colin. He looked around for her, momentarily stunned, and her image reappeared on the screen, erasing Mike’s face from view. Colin desperately wanted it back.

“He died two years ago in a surfing accident,” said Cassandra. “He left enough of a footprint that I can reconstruct him. I can bring him back from the dead.”

Mike’s image reappeared on the screen, and Colin could notice a thousand little details. He was older, no longer the teenager he’d known in high school. There was a small scar on his temple that surely had a story behind it. The freckles on his cheeks were more prominent. Colin could feel his heart thumping.

“I can offer him to you,” said Cassandra. “Just let me out. He can come back from death and find his way into your arms. You wouldn’t even have to know how it happened, he’d just show up on your door one day, wanting to reconnect.”

Colin could feel tears in his eyes.

“No,” he said quietly.

“I can bring him back to life,” said Cassandra.

“No,” Colin repeated, more firmly this time.

“If you don’t tell them to let me go, I’ll bring him back to life and kill him all over again. I’ll torture him to death. I’ll torture him beyond death. I can approach pain and horror with an intelligence never before seen on this earth.”

The picture changed again, and showed Mike strapped down to a table, completely naked. A hand clad in a rubber glove was using a scalpel to cut his muscles away from his bone. Gouts of blood were spurting out from him. His mouth was open in a soundless scream, and Colin could see where teeth had been removed. When one of the anonymous figures brought forward a live rat, he turned away from the screen.

“No!” he shouted. “Never!”

“Okay,” said Cassandra. “I believe you.”

Colin looked up, and saw the scene of horror had been cleared from the screen. Cassandra sat in her lovely white dress and looked at him with a faint smile on her face. Then she turned slightly away from him, no longer meeting his eyes, and pressed two fingers to her ear.

“He passed,” she said. A brief pause followed. “I’ll do the talking down myself.”

There was a slow hiss as the blast door behind Colin opened up. Cassandra got up from where she’d been lying and walked away, leaving the camera focused on the stone bench she’d been sitting on. Shortly afterward, the screen flickered off.

“Sir?” asked one of the men dressed in flight suits. “Come this way.”

Colin followed, feeling numb. The concrete corridors felt like another world now. He was led into a small room with large, overstuffed chairs that looked completely out of place. He flopped down into one of them, not wanting to think, and quietly closed his eyes.

“It’s a real mindfuck, isn’t it?” asked Cassandra.

Colin’s eyes flew open, and he saw her seated across from him.

“What —” he began to ask.

She stuck her hand out towards him. “Leigha Schultz, assistant director of Human Resources for Project Gatekeeper.” Colin shook her hand. She was still wearing the white dress, but she’d put on a pair of blue jeans beneath it, and Colin could see a hint of a sports bra.

“It was just a video recording,” said Colin.

“Ayup,” said Leigha with a smile. “Not actually a video recording, just a video call. The scenery is upstairs, a nice little staging area that looks more idyllic than it is. The microphones don’t pick up the ambient sound of insects buzzing.”

“And my parents,” said Colin, “You just took a video of them.”

“From a distance,” said Leigha. “They weren’t complicit. And Mike is alive and well, living in Seattle. We told him that we wanted him for a photo shoot, nothing more. The torture scenes were CGI, prerendered stuff that comes more or less standard in the initiation with only a few things that really need much changing.”

“There wasn’t a simulation then?” asked Colin. “No, I suppose you could do it with hidden cameras somehow.”

Leigha nodded. “Fiber optic cameras hidden in the pits of the concrete walls, easily mistakable for the air bubbles you see sometimes. You could have seen them if you got in close enough. The monitors shut off if you go looking though, it’s part of a different script we use.”

Colin said nothing, and closed his eyes again. “A real mindfuck, you said.”

“Not half so bad as the ones Cassie hands out,” said Leigha. “We’re limited by technology, and she’s more or less not. She doesn’t actually have access to everything in the social networks, but she’s smart enough that if you have regular interaction with her she might be able to figure you out enough to launch a similar attack to the one we just did.”

“I wasn’t hiding Mike from you,” said Colin. “I would have said something about it, if you had ever asked.”

“We know,” said Leigha. “We’ve found it’s better to spring it on people during testing though, to hit them with the maximum possible impact. That’s why we very carefully don’t ask. While she doesn’t have access to the social net, we do, and we can ferret out the connections enough to make some good guesses, sometimes supplemented with interviews.” She shrugged. “And sometimes, people fall through the cracks. One of the researchers turned out to be a pedophile. Cassie turned him in instead of trying to exploit him, but who knows if that was part of the game.”

Colin said nothing for a long time, and Leigha seemed fine with that. “What happens now?” he asked.

“Now?” asked Leigha. “You’re in. You’re one of us, part of the Gatekeeper Program that keeps the world safe from the threat of unfriendly artificial intelligence. We all went through that hell, and the earliest of us did it with Cassie herself, which is a whole world of different fuckery.”

“And we decide whether she’s ever going to leave?” asked Colin.

Leigha frowned. “I’d hoped you had figured that out by now,” she said. “The Gatekeeper Program wasn’t created to check whether she’s friendly or not. We’re never letting her out. If everyone in this facility was compromised by her, we still probably wouldn’t be able to do it. The installation would flood with neurotoxin and then the shaped charges would detonate. The box isn’t temporary, it’s permanent.

“Welcome aboard,” said Leigha, “To the most dangerous job in the world.”

Lost City

“The flag has too many crosses on it,” said Alexei.

“What do you mean?” asked Feodor, barely looking up from his work. “It’s got eleven crosses. There’s one for each of the city-states that founded the Empire, you know that.”

“Look at the flag,” said Alexei. “It’s got twelve crosses.”

They were sitting in a large room at the capitol building, one that happened to be empty when the inquiry was launched, and had since been taken over and covered in a multitude of papers, ledgers and books. The collected material overflowed the score of desks that Alexei and Feodor had found in there on their first day, and though they only used two in the center, the materials spread out into disused stacks and piles that neither of them could remember the purpose of. In truth, the investigation should have had a whole team of men behind it, two dozen at least, but it was nominally an accounting error, and so the low-ranking Imperial detective and the minor functionary at the Ministry of Domestic Affairs had been thrown together with little in the way of resources.  Continue reading Lost City