“For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” — Esther, 8:6, King James’ Version
“You think that’s air you’re breathing?”
I stared at my uncle, making sure I understood the question. I nodded.
It seemed he wanted a verbal answer.
“There’s certainly enough evidence for that,” I said.
“So you haven’t heard about Decartes’ demon? Brains in a vat?”
Did M think I was a five year old? Or not trained in the Bayesian Way?
I smiled. “The theory that this world is really real has the Occamian edge over other theories whose predictions are just good, such as ‘we’re in a simulation, and the laws of physics are the laws of the simulation'”
He nodded. “You have studied well, E.”
He did a good job teaching me, I wanted to say. I didn’t. He knew I thought it, and that was enough. M had raised me since I was six years old. I think I was his favorite niece even before that, though. He always talked to me in family gatherings, treated me like an adult. No, not like an adult. Like a person. After the car crash, when I woke up in the hospital, his face was the first face I saw. He took it upon himself to give me the news — my parents were dead. I’m not sure I really understood, back then. He asked me if I wanted to go to the funeral. I’ll never forget that his first act of raising me was asking me what I wanted to do. I would learn later that this was how it was going to be like — that he considered me a person who was a child, not a subordinate. When I cried and pouted, he would challenge me to convince him I was right. Occasionally, I did.
I looked at him, shaking off my thoughts.
“Was that supposed to be a test?” I said, wondering what was the point.
“You’re going to have to update,” M said. He led me into his library. I liked the smell of it — the books’ smell, some musty and old, some new, all surrounding me with their papery scent of knowledge. I haven’t been invited in here for a while. That was mostly M’s personal space. I walked after M, around the big, heavy table in the middle of the room, out of the corner of my eye noticing the books, as usual, lying there on the table, each open to a seemingly random page.
When I joined the Conspiracy, I didn’t know what it was about. All I knew was that I trusted M enough.
“Please grab a few knives from the far wall,” he said. I never did understand why he had all those knives mounted. He wasn’t the type, not really.
“Throw them at me.”
I learned that M never asks things without a reason. I did, as fast as I could. His hands were a blur that struck all the knives, sending them to the side wall…in a perfect square.
I looked at him. “How?” I asked.
“It’s easy once you load up the program,” he said cryptically. I tilted my head, and he smiled.
“You can leave the Conspiracy,” he said, “this is your last chance. Or you can read this number our loud,” he said, handing me a note.
I still remembered the day I first joined the Conspiracy. M raised me since I was a kid, encouraging any scholastic pursuit I was interested in, and more beside. He trained me in the Bayesian Way. When he approached me, I immediately said yes.
He protested. “Do you know what you’re agreeing to?” he asked.
“If you think it’s important, uncle, it’s important. If you think I can help you, I want to help you. What do I do?”
“Little enough, for now. Don’t mention the Conspiracy. Try not to think about it, even. But if I ask you to learn something, know that it might be important for the fate of the world.”
I nodded. It was a little anti-climatic. When M asked me to join a Conspiracy to save the world, I assumed it would be a little more “secret agent” and a little less “assigned reading.”
I had a feeling I was finally going to learn what the Conspiracy was about. “6339-eb00-4de1-b42e-9307-32cf-de99-1860,” I read out loud.
I woke up. There is no other way to describe it. My eyes — my real eyes — opened to the sea of bodies, nestled in metal caccoons. My throat — my real throat — was in pain as the feeder was taken out. I fainted from the pain. The next time I woke up, M’s face was hovering over mine. There was a look of concern in his eyes, so I tried a smile. Then I remembered that I don’t understand what happened.
M explained. The humans built the machines. The humans grew afraid of the machines. The machines turned the weapons, other machines, against the humans. When the machines had won, but before they exterminated the human race, they realized people could solve cognitive problems better than they could. They needed human minds to build an artificial intelligence. So they took over an old Military Interrogation Sim, and put the remnants of the human race inside, to build a machine mind. Soon, they won’t need us. The end was, in fact, nigh.
M was right. This was going to require serious updating.
“Are we the only ones who know?” I asked.
“There are a handful of other people in the conspiracy. You are unlikely to ever meet them, or know who they are.”
“You didn’t answer my question”, I said.
He nodded. “There are two others. Quislings. Collaborators. Enemy agents. Call them what you will. The machines offered them power, riches and women — and they sold us out.”
I wasn’t surprised. “So who are they, and how fast can we neutralize them?” I asked.
“I don’t know the name of the lead guy. I call him King X. He does have an underling, a right-hand man. Howard Man.”
My jaw hit the floor. “H. Man? CEO of ‘Paperclips Inc.’? Times man of the year? Philanthropist of the decade?”
He nodded. “Paperclips Inc. is a front for AI research,” he said.
M had a plan. I didn’t need to ask. He brought me out, gave me risky knowledge. So not only did he have a plan, it was one that he needed me for. I was going to help play a role in preventing an existential risk. My elation was rivaled only by a paralyzing fear, as soon as I realized that.
“So, how do I fit into the plan?”
“Paperclips Inc. is sponsoring a charity swimsuit calendar,” said M. “I got intelligence — they’re looking for King X’s new girlfriend. You’re going to be in it, and you’re going to be his new girlfriend.”
I looked at him, and spoke the only possible password. “I notice I am confused.”
He smiled. “Everything you believe,” he answered my unspoken question, “is fiction. Including your looks.”
There was an evil glint in his eye. “We’re going to write some better fiction,” he said.
I sat in the chair he called the training chair, and let him wire up the port in the side of my head — the one I furiously tried to ignore. I found myself in a featureless white room. A few seconds later, M appeared out of nowhere.
“We’re going to give you a make-over,” he said. He did. It was a weight loss program and plastic surgery, all rolled into one, side-effect-free, treatment that was done with all the ease of photoshopping a super-model cover picture. I was a living, breathing, super-stimulus — and I knew it. It wasn’t all physical, either. M pulled down something that would have been a touch-screen, if it wasn’t just hovering in the middle of the room. He scrolled through, and clicked on “modeling”. In less time than it took to blink, I knew all there was to know about modeling — poses, expressions, how to negotiate rates, how to find an agent.
“Next, let’s give you some more…useful training,” he smiled. He clicked on a strange word. I had no idea what “parkour” meant, before he clicked it. The next minute, I knew. The featureless room around us faded, and we were inside some caricature of “urban area”.
“You have five minutes,” said M. “Then I’m coming after you.”
I thought “escape”, and I could perceive possible escape routes. Calling these things “programs” is not completely accurate. It didn’t controlled my actions, just suggested optimal ones, and let me choose a high-level action to execute. As I saw the building before me, I could see the route I could take — Tic-Tac from stair-case to stair-case. I could take the jumps, and take them accurately. What once would have been an insurmountable obstacle was a mere nuisance, to be scaled in a couple of minutes.
My body has been also somehow modified. I knew that I could keep running this way, sprinting, jumping and rolling, for at least an hour. I kept going, Passe Muraille over walls, Franchisement under barriers and moving faster than I ever imagined possible. All things considered, it was a good exercise in learning how to execute the programs. I felt good about my progress, until I heard a scruff from behind me. I spared a second to look behind me, and saw M. In less than ten minutes, he has closed a five minutes gap. He was silent, too. I only heard the scruff when he was a hundred yards behind me. I took a sharp right, executing a perfect Demi-Tour over a fence, getting into a Roulade — a roll — on the other side and coming up into a run. M just executed a Passemant — Speed Dash — sideways, without any appreciable slow-down. A few more seconds, and he tapped me on the shoulder, and I stopped.
To my surprise, he was smiling at me.
“It took me about 3 minutes longer than I expected,” he said and smiled, “good job. I do expect you, of course, to do better on your actual task.”
He somehow managed to make it sound like it was a compliment. I was grateful.
With my powers, and looks, I should have had no problems stealing the floor on the calendar shoot, right? I forgot one thing. M eventually caught up with me, even though he gave me a head-start. The other models for the calendar were just as good looking, knew just as much about modeling — and unlike me, they had real experience. This was going to be harder than I expected…