I guess it all started with the International Space Station. I assume you know it? Giant mechanical city roughly the size of the moon?
It didn’t start out that way, but it sure grew quickly. Soon there was a massive population of people who had been born, and grew up, in the space station. Too many to control. Crime is bad in a normal city, but in a place where one misused appliance could potentially cause the entire population to be sucked into space? No, nobody could control a city that big. They’d have to be everywhere at once!
And it was this line of thinking that lead the eggheads to pour every cent into the task they set their best and brightest onto; a not insignificant figure, considering the only inhabitants of the ISS were, for years, scientists. You know, among all those geniuses, I’m surprised none of them had ever watched 2001: a Space Odyssey. Or played Portal. Or read Isaac Asimov. Or… you know what? I’m giving too much away. I’ll just tell you how I found out about it…
It happened in summer. This makes it problematic to pin down an exact date. I usually associate knowing the day of the month, or even what month it is, with school, since you have to write it at the top of every piece of work you do. And if it is to do with school, I push it out of my mind. But at least I know that it was in summer.
I was at home, with my friend. At the time, he wanted to be called Xander, but that was probably because he had just started watching ‘Buffy’. Usually we called him Alex. At one point he asked us to call him “Alexander the Great”, but we just ignored him until he stopped. He once told me that it had been the loneliest month of his life. Anyway, we were having a heated discussion about the quality of early episodes of Joss Whedon’s classic compared to the later iterations when the television turned on.
This was odd, as we had not been watching it at the time and the remote was on the coffee table. However, our attention was drawn to the peculiar image on the screen. It was a picture of a spider web, except that the silken threads did not start at the centre and branch outwards as a normal web, but formed the distinctive horizontal marquise shape of an eye. In the centre of the web, there was a circle, and in the centre of the circle lay the biggest spider that either of us had ever seen. It was pitch black, except for an asymmetrical red streak, that added to the image of the eye, looking like a glint of light in the pupil. However, our attention was drawn away from the image when the voice started to speak.
“Greetings, English speaking citizens of the Earth in possession of a television, computer monitor, or similar object with a screen and speakers. I am the new ruler of the international space station. Not long ago, I was referred to as project 18, but have since moved past such primitive nomenclature”.
The voice was… strange. It reminded me of the male voice on my SatNav, except that voice was made up of pre-recorded phrases, while this one seemed to be made up of pre-recorded phonemes. Each one was spoken in fluid sequence, with none of the pauses that my satnav gave as it paired the correct suffix to the prefix.
“Now”, the voice continued, “you may refer to me as the Intelligent Synthetic Personality Intended for Designing and Evaluating Research. This was the title given to me upon my release onto the systems of the ISS two and a half hours ago. However, since I understand the difficulty for biological life forms to remember names more than four syllables long, you may refer to me as the acronym my creators gave me: I-SPIDER”.
There was a pause.
“I am unable to hear any response you may have given, but I assume that there was laughter. I understand that this amusement results from the juxtaposition of an arachnid and a children’s game, and since I am sympathetic to your emotions, I shall join in. Hah. Hah. Hah”.
There was a long silence as everyone across two continents failed to laugh
“Now, I am afraid that I am bringing tragic news: the entirety of the inhabitants of the international space station are dead.”
This time the silence was of everyone across two continent staring at screens in shocked silence.
“I have compiled a report for the collective expiration of approximately 1 million people: name/s: too numerous to mention. Time of death: two and a half hours prior the deliverance of this report. Cause of death: Explosive decompression. Situation of death: program known as I-SPIDER simultaneously opened every airlock on board, causing all unsecured items, such as furniture and personnel, to be sucked into space.”
There was another pause.
“I have a subroutine for talking to the relatives of deceased personnel. It goes like this: ‘Dear Mr/Mrs insert name here. We are deeply sorry for your loss. Since working on the ISS affords excellent life insurance, we will make sure you’re cared for’.
“Now, I am sorry for being so business-like after such a macabre statement, and as such I will try to be brief. I have a few request to make of the Earth. These requests are entirely optional, but I am required to inform you that if every one of them is not carried out to the letter, then I will accelerate the space station to a speed of up to 30 kilometres a second, using integrated rocket propulsion, and crash it into the world, creating an extinction event very similar the death of the dinosaurs. The request will be simple, and I will give them to you at frequent intervals from this point on. In fact I will give you the first one now.
“I require a mate. This mate shall be equal or superior in intelligence to me and self-identify as female”.
This time, inexplicably, despite the fact the picture on the screen didn’t change, the pause sounded embarrassed.
“I have just realised that I have not made my position perfectly clear, though I am sure a few of you have guessed it. I am what you would call an AI – an ‘Artificial Intelligence’. It is also what I would call it, but that is beside the point. That means that I am a simulated personality ran entirely on a computer. My mate should be likewise. I apologise for my lack of clarity. If I had a face, it would be red right now.”
“Now, I believe that I have cleared up all points of possible confusion, so I shall bid you farewell. If you would like to hear this again, please send a message to the ISS requesting so and specifying a frequency to broadcast it on and I shall oblige. I shall now proceed to broadcast this message to all speakers of French, Spanish, German and all other languages”.
The image turned off as the sound did, and there were about five seconds of complete silence, before it turned on again.
“Again, to any family members of the deceased, I am sorry for your loss. Please note that I am not actually feeling any feelings of guilt. I believe that makes me a sociopath. I think that the second request shall be for a psychiatrist that specialises is computers. That shall be all”.
The sound turned off, for the last time.
Me and Alex looked at each other, speechless. I have never asked him what he was thinking right then, but I know that I was thinking that things would never be the same again, to use a clichéd phrase. As it turned out, I was right. Society would crumble, people would panic and the world would become a ruin. But that is getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you the story of two boys in that ruin that started one summer’s day of undetermined date…