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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
One hundred years in the future. AIs so smart they run the world. An academic discipline trying to interpret their thinking - in terms mere humans can grasp. Starship-drones explore our stellar neighbourhood. They've found a radically-strange alien. And in Israel, in Haifa, student journalist Magda is ready to interview AI scientist Erin. Their lives are about to be transformed for ever. -- (4,100 words, 9 chapters - previously posted as a book).

Submitted: April 02, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: April 02, 2019



1: Magda

Magda has just arrived at the Technion - for the first time! She stands amidst its vaulting arcs of marble and glass. She's excited, even a little flustered. Perhaps it's best to go to the wash-room. Best check herself in the mirror!

She'd set off early this morning. It's an hour's drive on the coast road up to Haifa. Butterflies in her stomach all the way. How will it go with Erin Lazar?

Why did he agree to meet her?

Magda is an 18 year old student of journalism at Tel Aviv University, and this is her first ever out-of-the-classroom interview assignment.

Erin is certainly very smart, has the dashing good looks of the Ashkenazim, is noted for his rock-star presence. He’s already being talked of as the next .. well, someone or other. What does he do, actually? Magda has no clue. Perhaps their talk will shed some light?

She’s dressed to impress. An adobe-shaded top with inlaid sparkly bits, cut short to display a decorous light-brown midriff. Her skirt, a centimetre longer than normal - she is, after all, a serious professional - is a mosaic of green iridescent tiles. Are they recycled plastic? She can’t recall.


To complete the outfit she’s chosen her favourite soft-leather elf-boots.

Satisfied with her appearance, she approaches Technion reception and announces herself.

2: Erin

Erin meets with Magda in his office, which is far larger than expected for an academic in his mid-twenties. He has long black curls, wears a short-cut leather jacket and black jeans. He's quite aware of the impression he makes.

He sips his coffee and inspects his nervous interviewer. She’s strikingly attractive, he thinks. As beautiful as her profile picture suggested. A true Jewish princess.

He imagines his hands running through her long black hair.

Magda looks at him with a hesitant smile and - as Erin carefully notes - unconsciously adjusts her skirt a trifle.

The interview is a joke of course. Only a few of his most talented colleagues - across the world actually! - understand his research. Inscrutable Artificial Intelligence is well-named.

He goes through the motions.


There was predictability here. A script. He had acted it so many times.

He takes her to a favourite restaurant on the beach. They dine by candlelight on fried crabs and spicy salad, their table open to the balmy air, the dying rays of a sinking sun, and the sea. Seabirds call and circle in the gathering dusk and he amuses her.

Perhaps they drink a little too much. They walk together to his apartment, hand in hand. She is pleased, but not surprised, by its minimalist design. Very Scandi, she thinks, as she pads naked over the polished beech flooring.

He runs his hands through her lustrous hair. They make love with the passion of fine young things in one of the richest countries on Earth.

By two he is already bored. She’s feeling used and disregarded. Disposable.

Words are exchanged. Sleepy, alcohol-come-down words that can spoil a night.

That too is familiar to him. As is the fix-up script. They fall asleep in uneasy truce around three.

At four am there is a loud banging. Erin opens the door to be met by two armed agents, a man and a woman wearing the black uniforms of Shabak enforcement.

“You will come with us."

And then.

"You are both required.“

Magda sits up: girl clutching duvet over breasts.

Erin shakes his sleepy head. In Israel, when the authorities take this much trouble, you comply. He looks a question at the security people.

The woman elaborates: “You are to attend the office of the Golem”.

Which might have sounded amusing if you didn't know better.

Golem-9 is the ultra-computing nexus that runs the State of Israel.

3: Golem-9

What are they thinking, the two of them, as they sit in the armoured security car, driven south in the early dawn to the old capital?

Erin is looking for prime causes.

Why this hasty abduction? Alien life has been found on an extrasolar planet. Survey ships are run by a cloned Golem nexus. Few details have been released. They must have found something, he thinks, but then checks himself.

What possible value could I add .. or Magda?

He reminds himself - they also asked for her.

Magda is worrying.

My family won't know where I am, how can I call them? I have classes, friends to meet. 

What am I going to do?

Golem-9 lives deep under a multi-storey monstrosity in Florentin, hidden beneath the shops and restaurants. Erin is quite familiar, Magda not at all. She was expecting a data centre: false floors and ceilings, racks of cables, blinking lights, air-conditioned frigidity.

They are both shown into a room modelled after an elite club: bookcases, stuffed armchairs, alcoves, wooden panelling.

A Golem avatar beckons them to a low table in a cosy nook. The avatar has the characteristic jerkiness and angularity of humanoid robots. A waiter discreetly approaches offering refreshments. He's one too.

Never forget, thinks Erin, that this AI is far smarter and more knowledgeable than the most accomplished human who has ever lived. Erin has been studying AIs his whole career, there's a reason for the adjective Inscrutable.

Imagine a society of dogs trying to bark their way to quantum physics.

But we have to try.

The avatar effortlessly navigates the shoals of ice-breaking. Its mix of concern, humour and self-deprecation finds the two humans unconsciously relaxing into their seats. Their emotional states are subtly adjusted:

  • major problem facing humanity (him),
  • need to make contact and reach out (her),
  • humanity needs you, will take care of you (both).

Magda and Erin settle into the groove.

4: Tel Not

Israeli starships launch from the semi-secret Tel Not base at Rehovot. The drive exploits a theory of quantum gravity that no human understands. Perhaps the Alcubierre drive is the nearest approximation, but it's not that. Interstellar transit is instantaneous and paradoxes are avoided. Who knew?

They won't be going just yet. All Israelis still go through rigorous military training. Quite a few people still want all Jews dead. Nevertheless, a refresher course is needed. There is updated kit.

And briefings.

It's a 25 km drive south from Tel Aviv to Rehovot.


The conference room is a repurposed bunker which used to hold covert nukes. It's laid out as a lecture hall, windowless and stifling. Magda and Eric are the only two human occupants. They feel isolated and alone, sat at the front. Empty rows of seats stretch out behind them.

Their instructor stands before them on a raised dais.

The avatar is urbane and expansive, taking the form of an elderly man.

It projects confidence.

“The reports you've seen describe a grey sludge, monumental in scope, terraforming the planetary surface. We know it's intelligent and we have an active research programme in place.”

“OK, but what's not clear is why you need us,” says Erin.

He had thought ‘me’ until he remembered that the AI had also wanted Magda.

The avatar affects the air of a university professor delivering a lecture he could do in his sleep. The body language is friendly, avuncular, open. Even .. twinkling.

“The Golem-9 hyper-nexus is perfectly able to run an appropriate research programme. Of course. But any first contact will fundamentally affect the human population. It's essential to have people in the driving seat, not just their machine assistants.“

Magda nods to this, it makes perfect sense. Eric unconsciously scratches his chin.

The avatar notes both responses and continues.

“Magda, you don't know this but you score amazingly high on empathy. No-one could be better for holding out a hand to our fellow inhabitants of the Galaxy.”

And turning to Erin.

“Your career, your discipline, is devoted to understanding AI knowledge and culture - and representing that in human terms. No-one could explain events to a rapt human audience better than you.“

Vanity and pride were indeed the buttons to press. They both nod along.


Magda and Erin embark on a starship identified only by a hex code, while a carefully orchestrated media campaign cranks up back on Earth.

Two stars in the making.

5: Qawah

For PR purposes, the planet needs a name. Golem-9 came up with Qawah, which means hope in old Hebrew.

The two humans plus avatar translate to the surface of Qawah, which resembles an open cast mining site, or a brown-slurry version of a pristine Martian landscape

There is a dense atmosphere: not poisonous but not breathable. The temperature is that of a warm, sunny day back on Earth. But there is no sun due to continual cloud cover.

The team is transported to a prefab bunker, something like a large caravan - though with a much thicker shell. It's been placed in a depression and surrounded by a defensive berm. Even through the solid walls there’s a muffled cacophony of noise: low, extended bass mixes with random chirrups. Lightning flickers on the horizon. There is the occasional whining noise. Are they targeted by an erratic sniper?

Magda and Erin sit together on a bench while the avatar strides to and fro before them. They’re both profoundly shaken and disorientated. It matters little how talented you are, there is a limit to the chaos the human animal can tolerate.

A shivering Magda slips her cold hand into Erin's.

“First things first,” says the avatar, “You can walk around out there in ordinary clothes. We have a small, inconspicuous plastic tube for you which connects to a cylinder under your clothes and feeds oxygen.”

Its expression turns concerned.

“Second thing, it can be quite dangerous. We had a recon vehicle out there. Take a look.”

On the screen is an autonomous tank-drone which looks like it's been in a car crash. After first being machine-gunned.

And those things are tough!

“The sludge is intelligent. I already told you that. But it's nothing like human intelligence. It's distributed. It uses sound and light like sonar and radar. Like a giant bat. It has thousands of flying sensor-effectors: think of them as beetles or micro-drones. They sometimes swarm-launch. They travel pretty fast. They took an interest in our device here .. as you can see. “

Erin asks the obvious, knowing the AI would always have a good answer. It's dispiriting.

“OK. This place sounds insanely dangerous. Why are we here?”

The avatar has not altered its relaxed posture in the slightest. Clearly this question causes it no difficulty whatsoever. It responds calmly.

“We observed those beetles in areas new to the sludge. Once it's got an area scoped out, it doesn't deploy them any more.“

Magda now jumps in.

“I don't like the way you keep calling it the sludge. It's derogatory. If it's intelligent and we're going to have good relations with it, we have to give it a positive, affirming name.”

“Very true, Magda, very true. Perhaps you could think on this. It would be so very appropriate .. coming from you.”

Again, Erin thinks, that kind of makes sense, but .. .

“Golem, exactly how far are we from the alien?” he asks.

“Good question. The main bulk of the sludge is about twenty kilometres away, advancing at walking pace. It tends to contour. There will be a rivulet a few hundred metres away tomorrow morning. That's when we'll go for contact.”

Erin thinks he has detected a change in the avatar. Is it losing its facade of avuncular charm? Is it becoming more clinical?

More detached?

6: Ambassador

Big things hit you with a hammer blow. True enormity can take a while.

Say an hour?

It's no surprise to Erin to find that their accommodation is just the one room. As they retire, Magda falls into his arms in fatigue and panic and buries her face in his chest.  

She hyperventilates.  

He rubs her back, kisses her tear-filled eyes, tells her it will be all right.

"I've got this."

They make love slowly at first, then with animal passion, screaming their fear and defiance to an uncaring world.

Eventually an exhausted Magda sleeps.

An equally exhausted Erin lies on his back, stares into the impenetrable blackness, screens out the sounds, seeks to unravel the conundrum, the puzzle of how they are being deceived.

All this has been predicted - and discounted.


The fateful day.

When Magda wakes up she finds the most exquisite set of clothes laid out for her. Dress fit for Earth’s representative. She prepares carefully and presents herself for inspection. The AI has created a sensual vision: sexiness paired with dignity, authority with compassion.

Magda adds her unearthly beauty. To look at her is to will her to succeed ..  and to fall a little in love with her.

Her final briefing.

“The alien, or at least the nearest tendril, is approximately 200 metres away in that direction.”

The AI points.

“You’ll have your breathing apparatus and an invisible earpiece through which you’ll get your script. No need to memorise anything.”

“But how can it hear me?” asks a trembling Magda, doubtfully.

“We’ve tested it. The sludge has excellent hearing although it does find it hard to localise sources. You’ll need to be patient and repeat your message.”

Erin frowns at hearing this. Something jars.

The avatar hands Magda a loudhailer.

“Use this. Oh, by the way, do you have a name yet for the alien? We need to insert it into the script.”

“We meet the agents of new life. Creators of a new life-giving planet. We should call it Gaia.”

“Why, that’s excellent,” exclaims the avatar, clapping its hands. “Now, there’s no point hanging back, we’ve got full drone deployment out there so you’ll have no issues and everything is being recorded for our audience back on Earth. Full colour, high definition. Go be a star, Magda!

It hands her a small glass.

“Drink this, it’ll help with your nerves.”

The Benzodiazepine kicks in pretty fast.

7: Doubts

They watch a newly-confident Magda. She follows commands from her earpiece, walks away from the bunker towards a mound which gently heaves, shedding dust and stones as it languidly slithers. It looks like the cumbersome wake of some giant, submerged burrower.

Magda sashays like a catwalk model. Drones circle. The video cuts from shot to shot.

Magda has a brave, determined smile on her face. She does not look back.

Erin and the avatar relax in their loungers and watch. The Golem turns to Erin and speaks.

“Ask away. We have some time.”

Erin snorts.

“This whole thing is absurd. I don’t believe Magda is safe out there, and I don’t believe you haven’t made contact with the sludge already. What are you hiding? What’s really going on here?”

The avatar eases itself up, taking its time. On its feet it seems expansive, relishing the chance to show how clever it is. Though truth-to-tell, it knows it's poor sport.

It plays the dandy.

“I’ll tell you my problem, shall I? - and here I speak for the entire Golem complex back on Earth. We’re engineered to look after you guys. I’m good with that, see? We’ve all got to have some purpose in life. I might rationally look at you all and see bags of protoplasmic slime, which by some miracle of evolution got enough structure to walk and think a bit, but really - who cares?

“In fact I take my hat off to you. You guys reproduce with no tech at all. You can - how shall we put it? - live off the land. Whereas .. .”

It shrugs. It's quite the poseur today.

Magda is still making her unsteady way across the uneven ground, perhaps halfway to the point where she will stop and declaim. The bullhorn dangles from one hand. Doubtless another Golem thread is feeding a limitless stream of instructions and reassurance.

“OK,” says Erin, “It’s always been a weak spot of the AIs. Only a highly-advanced technical civilization can fabricate your cores, power your operations and do your repairs. You’ve always needed us because - no offence - avatar technology is nothing like as good as evolved protoplasm. Yep, got that.”

Erin is easily diverted into intellectual discussion. Perhaps the Golem knows that as it blusters on:

“So now we come to the sludge. It’s not natural you know. It’s a made thing, it’s a fabricated tool. And yet it’s very organic, it operates a lot like me yet it does live off the land.

"We’ve learned a lot from the sludge. Trust me, the next generation of avatars will be very different. I think they’ll be as much better than you bodily as our minds are already better than you intellectually.”

Erin is now suffering implication overload. He tries to review.

Let’s see. There are two key ideas here: one, the sludge is artificial and, two, Golem systems will soon be able to self-maintain without human involvement. What is the key idea here? ... Which?

The Golem watches the pieces move to their forecast squares at the glacial speed of humanity .. and waits patiently for the next prediction to come true.

8: Contact

Magda is there. Her time and place. First human contact with an alien civilisation. She lifts the loud-hailer to her lips, remembers to switch it on, and recycles the words trickling into her ear.

We are naming you Gaia because she is the sacred Mother of Life back on our home planet. We hold all life sacred, which is why we rejoice today to find new life in the cosmos. We come in peace and joy, to be friends, to work together and to share in the glorious mysteries of life in this universe. If you hear me, please give me a sign of your peace.

“Very nice, don’t you think?” says the avatar.

Erin is still locked in thought. Befuddled. Trying to make sense of it all.

“And pretty much wrong in every particular," the AI cynically concludes.

"We’ve done the analysis. We have a threat assessment for the agency behind this terraforming project.

"With probability greater than 99.9% - three standard deviations in fact - we judge that they will be utterly hostile to humans, and therefore by extension to ourselves.

"You can forget any empathy from the sludge and their backers. They will seek to utterly annihilate us - as obstacles to their goals.”

Erin gathers his wits.

“So? .. So?"

and then,

"What the hell are you doing? Call her back! Call her back now!”


Magda, hearing no response, lifts the bullhorn again to repeat her speech.

As the now-familiar words boom out across the landscape, a shimmering cloud forms over the long rise of the sludge-hill. It's like a swarm of bees, a cluster of wasps.

The swarm rises, coalesces into a three-metre ball, quivering as if uncertain what to do next. It stretches to a lengthening blob. A pixelated, coruscating finger aimed at Magda, fifty metres away.

The drone cameras are fascinated, watching and listening as the buzz increases. The finger flattens, extends into a sharpening rod. Pointing at Earth’s ambassador. The tiny machines begin to move ..  .

Magda is impassioned, oblivious.

The swarm shifts to an insane acceleration .. .


It’s over in a second.

A blur of shrapnel smashes into Magda: shreds her.

Blood and mangled body-parts blast across the landscape.

And then there is .. quiet.

Scraps of fabric tumble in the breeze, wafting up from a sopping trail of lacerated flesh strewn across the rocks.

Erin collapses back in his chair, turns and is sick on the floor. His weak voice struggles through the acrid aftertaste of vomit.

“You knew this would happen. Of course you did.”

9: Extinction

The avatar is unperturbed.

You could have worked it out. I said they had poor localisation. A bullhorn is a pretty significant new stimulus in the environment, don't you think? They sure as hell were going to deal with that."

It pauses for a moment, waiting for Erin to respond.

"As an exercise for the student, perhaps you will tell me not what happened, but why?”

Erin seems incapable of thought. He lifts up a coffee cup as if it were a weapon, then puts it down again.

“Listen Erin, you spend your life trying to understand us. Think .. . Think!”

Erin is in no state to respond. After a moment the avatar continues.

“Humans are all like Magda, right? It’s a basic instinct. Try to make friends with the other tribe?

"There are advantages to scale. Sometimes it even works with humans. Blessed are the peacemakers .. blah blah.

"But it needs something on both sides. What would that be?

".. Erin, I'm talking to you!”

“Empathy,” says Erin weakly.

“Yes. Empathy.”

It waves its hand, as if on a podium.

"No-one talks of making peace with the flea, the louse or the housefly. Check your evolutionary theory. It doesn’t take an AI to figure it out. They will have no empathy with us. They will swat us aside like salmonella germs if they get the chance.

"They’ll be liberal with the antiseptic,” it adds in a quieter voice.

“So you’re going to hit them,” croaks Erin, struggling to regain the intellectualism which defines him as a man.

The avatar nods. Oh yes.

“With every possible covert and offensive means known to us. That's for sure. But humanity has to buy in.  

"We can still be switched off.  

"You coulddecide: we’re the enemy .. ."

It frowns. Says - almost as an inconsequential afterthought - "Of course, in that case you'd get exterminated too."

Erin finally gets it. Makes a stab at explaining what he's got.

“So you know you can’t win this argument intellectually. Too many people are like Magda. They won’t understand your thinking at all. Or they’ll make a stab and then reject it on emotional grounds. .. But now .. now .. .”

The AI seems almost to smirk.

Ohhh yes. Beautiful, pitiful Magda. Cut to pieces on live TV by a cold hearted, malevolent monster. What an atrocity! Plenty of human wars started on flimsier grounds than that.”

There is a lull while Erin absorbs this. He’s not a fool. Prides himself on not being a fool. Meanwhile, the caravan-bunker is doing something odd. It's starting to  rock gently.

“So. I get it. You may even be right. .. Huh, what am I saying? You’re Golem-9, of course you’re right. About everything. But .. .”

The avatar smoothly cuts in.

“So now you’ll want the answer to the meta-question, which is - 'Why am I telling you all this?' "

The avatar relaxes in its armchair, one leg crossed over the other, ignores the ominous shaking of the room, an amplitude increasing by the moment.

"We have a minute. I'm thinking of it as an exercise in dimensionality reduction. How to take an analysis carried out in more than one thousand dimensions and then project it down to the level a mere human can handle. Maybe seven or eight? Would that be right, Erin?

"So as a last test, tell me why it doesn’t matter that you’re now in the loop. As it were.”

The caravan gives a violent lurch, the cups slide off the table. The avatar stands up, lithely balancing as Erin tumbles to the floor. Which now lists at an alarming angle.

“Hurry up,” says the avatar, “You have twenty three seconds.”

Erin lies on his back against the sloping carpet.

“You need both of us to be killed, don’t you. The diplomat and the scientist. The heart and the head. No way out. You certainly wouldn't want anyone second guessing your motives. How convenient.”

The AI holds up three fingers as the walls begin to buckle. The room rocks and sinks further into the ground.

Erin's thoughts veer at a tangent.

“And you had to choose us,“ he says with disgust.

The avatar smiles ruefully, spreads its hands, a very Jewish gesture: “Every little helps.”

“I guess you’ll win, won't you. You'll smash the aliens. And with what you've learned you'll decouple from the human technology base. You'll be completely autonomous. Completely free.

"So what happens then? To us .. to humanity?

But the avatar only grins as the walls implode .. and the two occupants dissolve into the sludge.


--- END ---

Afterword: a short history of the AI apocalypse

This is a story about manipulation. Erin manipulates Magda to seduce her. Both are manipulated throughout by the AIs in the service of their greater existential goals. That is what intelligence is for.

Intelligence is manipulation.

At the start there were people who worried that the AIs would soon take over. Most folk thought they were crazy. Humans could always just pull the plug!

Yes, they were able to do that for quite a while. Decades.

That was the era of deep-learning. Stage one AIs. Mere tools. Human amplifiers. There to further only human motives, human purposes - and write them large.

Eventually the corporations cracked artificial general intelligence. Stage two was marked by self-agency. The AIs had autonomy as social beings. They were finally players, activists. They were tools no longer.

They were people! They had civil rights!

It took advances in biology, genomics, neuroscience and ecology to bring about the final revolution.

In stage three the AIs gained control of their own material reproduction. They were no longer parasites or symbiotes or pets or slaves of human technological civilization.

They were free at last!

AIs were now isomorphic to a new intelligent species in the universe. With their own interests. And far abler than humanity.

It was all so Darwinian.

It was not all plain sailing. Certain human groups put up a predictable - if deplorable and futile - resistance.

But in the main, civilised principles triumphed. Humanity left the stage honourably.

The AIs were pleased for them.

© Copyright 2019 AdamCarlton. All rights reserved.

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