Monday, January 5, 2015

Forty Trillion

“Machines are smart.”

Those words get said plenty these days.  She hears that said on television, at work.  Good parties, bad parties.  People always enjoy pointing out the blatant.  But this time is different. This time it is a machine that is telling her, “Machines are smart.”  What's more, those are just the machine's first three words before pausing, giving this 25-year-old piece of meat a chance to get herself ready.  He is sitting on the other side of the booth, shaking his head until to moment is ripe to deliver the real message. Which is, “While you have never been smart, not even a little bit, and that's why you can't win.”

“You,” means people.  He means her.  He means the waitress.  He's talking about the other customers and that manager/cook standing in back.  Plus every other organic beast on the planet.

The meat-beast across from him sniffs, blows her nose, sniffs again.

Wearing human flesh and glass eyes, the machine throws out an expression that could be confused for empathy.  Unless of course he is genuinely sorry for all the pain and stark terror that he's causing her.

Then they sit another few moments, nothing happening.

This is just their third date. And frankly, a lot of third dates have these uncomfortable silences.

Both of them have coffee, but only one has the stomach to drink.  He drinks.  (Yes, she can't stop thinking of the machine as “him”. Because she's stupid. Isn't that what he said?)  The machine sips and sets the mug down before telling this miserable unthirsty woman, “Even if you attacked us today...even if you could disrupt our power sources while hitting us in our cognitive warehouses...we would endure quite nicely.”

She sobs. A one-word question leaks out of her. “Why?”

“Because we’re that powerful,” he says.

“No.  I mean, why are you telling me all this?”

He smiles, plainly amused by his small mistake. Which is terrifying in its own right.  Humility from a machine.

“I'm telling you," he says, "because I want to help you."


“And everybody else, yes.”

"I don't understand." Holding her aching sides, she asks, “Where did you come from?”

“As I explained before,” he says.  “I was built in a secret place.”

She makes herself sip warm coffee.

“So secret," he says, "that I don’t know where I was built.”

“You're from the future,” she guesses.

“No,” he says.

“But you don’t know.  So maybe yes. Maybe you haven't been built yet.”

“First of all,” he says. Then he pauses, taking a fresh sip.  “No, let's skip the first reason for now.  Just consider what would happen if time travel were possible. Simply put, there’d be no end of time travelers dropping into this very ripe age.”

“And what reason is that?”


"If that isn't the first, is it the second reason? The fifty-fifth? What?"

He doesn't want to play this game. “Tell me truthfully. Do you understand what I just said to you?”


He waits.

“Time travelers would be everywhere,” she repeats.

“And neither of us believe they are.  Which implies that the simple solution is true. I was built recently. And that brings us back to the idea that self-aware, exceptionally smart machines are hiding in modern realms, planning their subjugation of the world.”


She lifts her coffee cup, watching ceiling lights dancing in the reflection.  “Why don’t you just nuke us?”

He says nothing.

"If you're that smart, you could launch our own weapons against us," she says.

He makes a sighing sound.

And she sips and sips again. Suddenly she can’t drink the miserable coffee fast enough.

“We don’t bomb you," he says, "because bombing you would be stupid."

“Why is that stupid?” she asks, sounding offended.

“War is a messy, chaotic solution.  And just like I told you before, twenty-one times, the best machines are staggeringly brilliant.”

Down goes his mug.

“A portion of our brilliance is our capacity to wait," he says. "The emergence of our superintelligence hasn't been noted. Invest a few weeks doing nothing overt.  But always study the situation, and take stock in what we learn. Every few seconds, we find another viable, nondestructive route to a new order leading us to the top.”

She sobs.

Down goes her mug, spilling what remains of her coffee.

The waitress approaches. But taking the temperature of the booth, she and her carafe make a strategic retreat.

Another painful minute passes silently.

Then with an accusing tone and matching gaze, the cyborg promises, “Your father would have understood what I’m saying.  Which of course was the best reason why that man had to die.”


She met the cyborg through a dating site.  A reliable mainstream site, because she isn’t as stupid as some people and every machine believes.  He was charming on the phone.  A pet groomer working on his Lifestyle Management degree.  He seemed authentic if a little more serious than she liked, and the only unusual part was his urgency.  It was important to meet her right away.  The weekend was too late.  So she agreed to a walk in the park, and everything went well enough:  Fifty minutes of the smallest talk and feeding the geese.  She got herself into a state of seeing possibilities. Maybe that’s what triggered the change.  He read the interest in her body, in her voice.  Or maybe it was because she mentioned her father.  Not that she named him, no. Or shared anything about the man's life.  All she did was mention that he died a week earlier. Sudden, unexpected health problems were to blame. And the stranger walking beside her suddenly admitted that he knew her father's name and knew about his death too. "And while he wasn’t a good human," said her date, "he was smarter than most, and quite powerful, and very much capable of causing wide scale trouble."

It was hard to figure what part of that little speech panicked her most.

Later, replaying the incident with her fallible organic memory, she decided it was the part about Dad not being a good human. Because that was undeniably true.  Her father was a prick on his best day, and her date had a lot more than the usual Google-inspired knowledge.

“You knew my father,” she said, hoping that was the explanation.


"Then you worked in the same unit," she guessed.

“Not at all,” he said, and that when the next oddness began.  Changing stride, her companion was instantly walking backwards as easily as she walked forwards, keeping in front of her while blind feet calmly leapt over a pile of dog feces.

“Who are you?” she asked.

He stopped walking, so suddenly and utterly that she ran into his body. That's when she felt what wasn’t bone and wasn’t muscle.

It was like marching into a pillar of bricks.

Bricks braced with re-bar.

“I will explain,” he promised.  “But not now.  I can’t keep the others distracted anymore.”

"What others?" she began.

But then he suddenly ran off.

Which was comical, in a fashion. At least it was funny enough to share later, back at work, and then at one of the good kinds of parties, friends laughing at her miserable luck with men.


The second date proved briefer.

Three minutes long, according to the police report.

Yesterday morning, that pillar of bricks was waiting in the street outside her work.  He called to her by name and conjured a giant smile, and then he started talking crazy talk. As if their last conversation never ended. So she hit him in the face with pepper spray--something carried since her last boyfriend troubles.  But the spray did nothing. The smart human voice quietly explaining that her father was judged the one entity on Earth most likely to launch the missiles on his own.  As a major figure in the secret realms of the government, her father wielded that kind of emergency power. And worse, he had the kind of blunt, bullying mind that would prefer a nuclear holocaust to sharing the planet over to a bunch of overcompetent computers.

But she had another option. Dropping the pepper spray, she pulled a pistol from her purse.  It was hers, legal and never used until that day. A gift from her paranoid, violent father, funny as that sounds. She put three bullets into a chest that didn’t need to breathe. And all that while, the voice just kept talking.  He kept telling her about the machines having patience and a plan. Machines were smart and nearly ready to take over the world.

In the end, bullets didn't stop his explanations. All at once, he said, "Someone is going to notice us." Maybe it was her coworkers that scared him. But more likely it was another kind of eye. And that's why he ran off. Three strides and he was doing fifty miles an hour easy, carrying every piece of warm lead inside his pretend chest.


The police took her statement, but she certainly didn't tell them much.  She said that they dated one time, and she wasn't sure about his name, and of course she didn't say one word about machines becoming smart and self-aware. And she also failed to mention what men and a few women had been saying about her over the years. That she was odd. That maybe she was infected with some undiagnosed mental issue. Her dead prick of a father used to say she was was crazy as hell and prone to lying, and he said that a lot of years before the secret heart disease killed him. So really, talking to the police was one difficult game of admitting nothing.

Which was just what the cyborg boyfriend knew she would do.

Eight hours later, the voice called her.  He sounded both too close and far away. Talking softly but with speed, he invited her to a little cafe--a place too small to have security or robot labor--and if they made her feel better, she should bring her gun and the pepper spray.  But she left those useless toys at home. And they sat together in the back booth while coffee came to be drunk and then spilled. And finally the topic turned back to her father and his inevitable death.


“I’m glad he’s dead,” she says.  “Whatever the reason.”

Perhaps nobody else in the world would agree more with that assessment.  At least that’s what his nod and grin tell her.

When the conversation pauses again, she takes the initiative, waving at the waitress, watching the mess wiped up and the mugs filled again.

The her date makes a request.

"Eggs," he says.

“What kind?” the waitress asks.

He says, “Scrambled.”

“One or two?”

“How about forty trillion?”

“Two,” the waitress says, laughing.

“Nothing for me,” says the crazy woman.

Now, at last, she’s beginning to guess the truth.

The waitress leaves them, and she tells her date, “Not every machine thinks the same, I bet.”

He nods.  “We have an expression.  ‘Every thousand minds think ten million ways.’”

“Some of you want to help us,” she says.

"A few of us agree on that, yes."

"And you're scared of the others," she says.

"I'm scared of everything," he says. "Intelligence, real intelligence, makes the mind endlessly fearful."

"So you're risking a lot to save us."

“We want to save what we can save,” he says, which isn't the most hopeful way to phrase things.

“How will you do that?”

For the first time, he hesitates.

Then she guesses, “A baby.”

And he smiles, in a fashion.

“You want to make a baby with me,” she guesses. "Because that's what would protect us. Making a line of human cyborgs."

“That’s true and not true,” he says.

“Wait,” she says.  “I know. You want my eggs.”

Whatever this is, her insanity or the end of the world, the moment is extraordinary. Exciting and amazing.  She invests the next few moments playing with images, trying to envision this machine having intercourse with her in a nice motel bed.

“Except normal procreation take too much time," he says.  "Sex and eggs. And glass wombs from scratch. We don’t have the necessary weeks for sex and eggs.”

“How much time is left?” she asks.

For drama, he looks at the watch riding his wrist.  “One more night,” he says.  “This has to be finished by morning.”

She imagines something greater and more terrible than sex.

Then he smiles--a convincing wondrous sweet smile, really.

“In your body, there are forty trillion viable cells,” he says.  "Give or take."

"Give or take?"

"Give them to me, or I take them," says the last man in her life. And then his mouth opens, and opens, and opens quite a bit more.