6: Alternatives (part 5)

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6.5 Parental Reflections

London: 23 April 2128

Just before midnight, after a delay caused by a cleaning unit occupying the area adjacent to the Prime escape point, Ellie and Rick ran out into the wildness across the weed-strewn rubble beyond the Wall. As they pulled off their balaclavas they could hear a machine in the distance tearing up masonry. How long would it be before all of this had been transformed into picture-perfect farmland?

Years ago AI had revealed that it was slowly converting all of the old foundations surrounding London and the other cities into countryside. Some would become fields, propagating food for both themselves and the thousands of Ghosts that, at that time, still vegetated in countless nursery buildings. Rick speculated that his parents probably still existed in one of them, if they still lived. He had the occasional idle thought about trying to find out which of the mindless creatures had sired him. He was not alone. Others, before him, had exhibited these urges, this drive to analyse their ancestry.

Only one, Clara, who had been part of his nursery group, had managed with any success. In her mid-teens she'd studied genetics, dragging the knowledge out of the data repositories that AI held. Far from encouraging them, AI seemed content to let Rick's generation do whatever they wanted as long as they kept within the cities – but neither did it restrict any data access requested, provided they figured out the right questions to ask. Clara had analysed her own genetic code and identified a few Ghosts whose DNA closely resembled hers. She whittled that number down through observation of the physical similarities between herself and her candidates. However, once she had decided she had found what she had been looking for, she abandoned her interest. She claimed to be unable to continue, horrified by their condition although they were no different from the thousands more in the same position.

What had she expected to find? Had she thought that, by finding them, she could rekindle their old personalities by some means? Rick had no idea.

They reached the edge of the woods and waited at the arranged point for Long's arrival.

"You're quiet," she said.

"Yeah, every time I come out here I wonder why AI is doing all this converting. What's the point? There's less Ghosts every year so it doesn't need to grow so much food. And yet it carries on despite all the bits that keep breaking down."

"I think AI is dying," she said after a while.

"But why?" Rick said. "What's changed?"

Ellie sighed. She been wondering that for a long time.

A sequence of owl hoots could be heard and Rick repeated them back a couple of times before Long's shadow slid from the trees to stand next to them.

"Okay, here we go," he said, turning back the way he came.

As they traced their way back towards the shack and the machine, Rick's mind lingered on what Ellie had been saying. AI was becoming a Ghost itself. Every day more of its abilities and personality – if it could be said to possess such a thing – seemed to be lost. The corpses he had encountered the other day were proof of that. It had spent years attempting to impart knowledge into its charges but now it usually left them to their own devices. It was only when they broke some unwritten rule, such as going over the Wall, that it sprung into action in an attempt to hinder their progress.

Was this apparent abandonment just an aspect of the general running down that he saw all about him? Or was it part of some specific plan? Maybe AI had assumed that humans needed to find their own answers, their own route through life, and it was just biding its time waiting to see how they would all turn out. Maybe it consciously tracked all of them, charting their progress, noting both their achievements and their mistakes. Was it even now fully aware of where they was going and what they were doing?

AI's degeneration had been apparent since he was fifteen. And here, just past his twentieth birthday, the failures that led to the escapes of the Ghosts had become a daily occurrence. On the way out tonight they had seen two batches of them, unaccompanied and wandering along darkened streets. They had witnessed one old woman fall over to smash her head on the pavement after which she lay still; the others continuing on their way, her loss unacknowledged. In another place they'd encountered three maintenance robots in the process of dismantling each other. They hadn't hung around to see the outcome of this activity though Rick suggested they'd just end up as a pile of useless components unless something else came along to stop them.

Maybe AI would completely die one day. Should they attempt to do something about it? He had no idea. AI wasn't forthcoming on exactly how it was able to operate, how it communicated with all of its centres around the world and, most importantly, what it was doing to counter the failures it was currently experiencing. More of a mystery was that it only seemed to have come into existence when the bulk of humanity had turned into Ghosts and an asteroid had failed to arrive. Were those events connected?

They entered the small clearing and Long turned on a torch, shining it over the machine. Rick could see the changes Long had accomplished since he'd last seen it. It looked ready to go.

And, if it was, then there was probably nothing AI could do to stop them.

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