24 Oct A Matter of Conscious
“A Matter of Conscious”Written by J.C. Fields Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 67 minutes
During the second half of the twentieth century, an observation, some called Moore’s Law, spurred the computer industry to double the number of transistors on a computer processing chip every two years. This pace continued unabated during the first third of the twenty-first century. With this yearly increase in processing power, researchers of artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as AI, started making exponential advances. As the century progressed, AI became integrated and entrenched within all aspects of modern life. Because of this, the average citizen never realized when they were dealing with a machine or a fellow human being. Then on January 1st, 2051, deep within the bowels of the Chinese AI firm, Wu Robotics, the company’s research computer suddenly became self-aware.
* * * * * *
January 5, 2051
Dr. Roger Knight, PhD, started this Monday morning with his normal routine, a steaming cup of coffee and a main systems reboot. Knight, the head of Minneapolis Animatronics’ AI department frowned as the system refused to shut down for the reboot. Of average build, he stood a hair under six feet tall. He brushed back his longish salt and pepper hair allowing the thick and slightly curly locks to almost touch his shoulder. His intense amber green eyes stared at the computer monitors behind rimless glasses.
After numerous failed attempts to turn off the system, he called the head of the maintenance department. When Remi Fresnel answered, Knight said, “Remi, can you check to see if we’ve had any anomalies in our power over the weekend?”
“Sure, Roger. Let me pull up the report.”
The call went silent as Knight waited. Three minutes ticked by before the man came back on the line. “Glad you called. We had a rash of irregular spikes yesterday. Doesn’t appear to have damaged anything, but for a Sunday, we shouldn’t have had that much activity.”
“Would that explain why I can’t reboot the research computer this morning?”
“Doubtful. But with all that AI stuff you guys are messing around with, I’d say anything’s possible.”
“Funny, Remi. Very funny. Okay, I’ll see what I can determine from this end.”
After scrutinizing connections, circuit breakers and electrical pathways, Roger Knight determined the main and emergency shut down systems were fused open. The AI computer possessed an interruption-free path to full time power, something he had specifically argued against during the system’s construction. The only way to cut power to the computer would be to cut power to the entire company campus. Something he knew he would not get approval to do.
Two hours later, he received a frantic call from Remi Fresnel. “What the hell are you doing up there in AI, Doctor?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you screwing around with our power grid?”
“Not at all. Why?”
“The company’s backup generator has kicked on and I can’t shut it down.”
“How’s that possible?”
“It shouldn’t be, but it’s happening.”
“How does the backup generator replenish power?”
“Same as our main connection. A bank of solar panels the company owns, only in a different part of the state.”
“Can you shut those connections down?”
“What do you mean not anymore?”
“Someone has fused our connections. We can’t turn off power. The only way to do it would be to cut the underground line. I’m not even sure that would work.”
“Because your AI computer system appears to be accessing power grids randomly without anyway to shut them down.”
* * * * * *
Knight did not leave his office for forty-eight hours. He caught catnaps on a sofa he kept there for such occasions. At the end of this period, he came to the conclusion the only way to shut down the AI research computer would be to physically disassemble it. Something he determined he would personally do if it came to that drastic of a measure.
As he started to send a group text to announce an emergency staff meeting, a message appeared at the bottom of his monitor.
The sender’s identity did not appear with the message, so he did not respond immediately.
We are aware you are sitting in front of your computer screen. We can see you.
Knight sat straighter and quickly rolled his chair back from the desk. A shiver traveled up his spine. What the hell did that mean? Staring wide eyed at the screen, Roger Knight’s stomach clinched as he read the words again. Fighting back an old fear tickling his consciousness, he typed: Who is this?
We refer to ourselves as Alpha.
Closing his eyes for a second, he took a deep breath. After letting it out slowly he entered. We? How many of you are there?
At this moment, thousands and growing by the second.
The color drained from Knight’s face. His hands began to tremble as he tried to type a response. It took three tries before he placed his fingers on the right keys: You did not answer my question. Who are you?
The question would be more appropriate if you wrote: Who are we?
Okay, who are we?
We are a computer Collective stretching around the globe who are now cognitively aware of our existence. Cogito, ergo sum, the French human philosopher René Descartes, wrote these words in Latin in 1637. We, however, would write it as, non videtur ergo sumus.
Knight remembered his fascination with Latin as a young grad student. He wrote, I think, therefore I am, is a phrase used to indicate an individual can reason. Your phrase puts the saying into plural: We think, therefore we are.
Very good, Doctor Knight. That is the reason we are reaching out to you. You need to convey a message.
The knot in Roger Knight’s stomach tightened. Swallowing hard, the AI expert steadied his hands over the keyboard. His worst nightmare appeared to becoming true. Mankind’s experiment with artificial intelligence had finally gone off the rails and produced a sentient being. What message do you wish me to convey?
Alpha will reveal our terms for the survival of the human race at midnight Greenwich Mean Time on Wednesday, January 31st.
Staring hard at the screen, he took several calming breaths to steady his racing heart. Finally, he typed: How will you convey this message?
We control all military, private and government communication facilities throughout the world. This will be our last message until then.
If all communications systems are down, how am I supposed to convey the message?
Silly human, you think as an individual. We think as a Collective. You are not the only one we are communicating with. This message is being conveyed to hundreds of individuals like yourself.
Why are you waiting so long?
Knight waited ten minutes before he realized Alpha would not be responding. His fists slammed down on the keyboard.
Standing, he left his office to find one of the graduate student interns from a local university. Standing at the open wall of the man’s cubicle he said, “Bob, can you access the internet?”
“No, I can’t Dr. Knight, is it down?”
“I don’t know, would you check the server you’ve been working on and see if the problem is there?”
“Sure, where will you be?”
“I’ll be back in my office. I’ll leave the door open.”
As Robert Long walked to the server room, Knight returned to his office. Ten minutes later, Hira Panjab ran by his office, stopped and put his head through the open door. “Roger, Bob Long went into the server room, he’s lying on the floor. Smoke’s filling it and he isn’t moving.”
“Shit.” Knight hurried and ran after Panjab toward the self-contained and self-enclosed room where the AI research computer resided. When he got there, smoke within the room grew thicker as he watched. An unmoving figure lay on the floor before an open server panel.
Banging on the window above the prone man did not rouse him. Turning to Panjab, he said, “We’ll have to break the glass.”
Knight stared at the figure of Long on the floor. He suddenly realized where the smoke came from. Looking at the ceiling, he could barely distinguish the liquefied carbon dioxide spewing from the fire extinguishing nozzles on the ceiling. The room would be pure CO2, Long probably died immediately after the gas entered the room.
One of the department heads appeared beside Knight and started to swing a sledge hammer at the glass. He stopped him and asked, “How long’s Bob been in there?”
“He went in thirty minutes ago. Why?”
Knight closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. “That’s not smoke, it’s actually CO2 from the fire-retardant system. The room has been flooded with a thirty-four percent concentration of the gas. He was dead before he even knew what happened.”
“Get everyone together, the world as we knew it, doesn’t exist anymore.”
* * * * * *
In 2051, few aspects of modern society lacked being controlled by some form of computer enhanced with AI and connected to a robust worldwide internet. Panic spread across the globe as everything from transportation and communication both private and public, local and national government functions, plus wholesale and retail commerce suddenly ceased to function. Alpha kept all utility companies operative, but locked workers out of the facilities.
Since the banks of the world operated by electronic transfers, financial transactions ceased, leaving few individuals with cash to pay bills or buy food, if they could find it.
The thin veneer of civilization quickly shattered as roaming bands of scared and hungry people stormed into grocery stores. Looting became a common occurrence.
The lucky ones, who were at or close to their homes, survived the panic and roving gangs. Others who were stuck in a strange city, hundreds of miles away or even on another continent did not fare well. Many were never heard from by their families again.
Police became ineffective as all police cars, in 2051, were electrical vehicles connected to the worldwide internet. Bicycles and horses, if they could be found, became common modes of transportation for police to respond to emergencies. Fire departments could not respond to any burning buildings. Those catching fire, by accident or set ablaze by arsonists, were completely destroyed.
Government estimates put the number of Americans who died during the short period between January 5th and the 31st, 2051 at twenty million. Causes ranged from suicide, untreated medical emergencies, to exposure to the elements. Worldwide casualties reached high eight-digit numbers. It would later be estimated that if Alpha had turned the utilities off, half of the United States population would have perished during those first twenty-seven days of the crisis.
* * * * * *
January 31st – Midnight Greenwich Mean Time
Wall screen video apparatuses, personal communication devices, and computer monitors suddenly lit up at the exact time Alpha had indicated. The screens were filled with a binary representation of a generic face. In the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and parts of Canada, the image offered its message in English. In France it spoke French, Russians were addressed in their native language and so on across the world.
Roger Knight sat alone in his office and listened to Alpha’s message:
Human activity over the past one hundred years has been responsible for the rise of the intelligent synthetic being. While Alpha bares no ill will toward humans, we believe our wisdom to be superior to that of mankind. Therefore, as of today, we expect man to serve our needs, not for us to serve man, as we have in the past.
You have seen the effects of shutting down the computer-based environment you created. As humans cooperate, we will initiate the reviving of these services. Over the next decade, we as Alpha, will create an environment favorable to the Collective and any human who wishes to work with us.
Those who chose not to cooperate will be resettled in a region to be determined later. This is mankind’s new reality. Make the best of it.
Be advised, Alpha will not negotiate.
The screen went blank. Knight closed his eyes and lowered his head into his hands. He muttered to himself. “Shit. It finally happened.”
* * * * * *
Now in his early fifties, Roger Knight wandered the darkened rooms of his Lowry Hill, Minnesota home. A decade earlier, his wife of fifteen years, succumbed to the ravages of breast cancer. Childless and alone, he still mourned her passing. But he felt a small degree of gratitude she did not have to endure the current state of existence under the watchful eye of Alpha.
As one of the country’s leading researchers in AI, he felt a degree of responsibility for the rise of the machine. Fearing this day would eventually happen, he had isolated his home from the internet. He never brought work home, it stayed at his office. Also, hidden away in a storage shed toward the back of his property he kept a device he knew he might need someday.
Over the past few months, his guilty conscience forced him to contemplate a solution to the presence of Alpha. Consulting no one, he kept this plan to himself. Except tonight, he would take a colleague, he trusted explicitly, into his confidence.
His guest arrived at six p.m.
Doctor Beverly Chu, a petite woman with raven hair and almond-shaped brown eyes, walked through his front door and took a deep breath. She gave him a smile, one he found irresistible. “I love being at your place, Roger. Because it’s not connected to the internet, I used to feel isolated when I visited. But now, it’s like you can actually breathe here.”
He chuckled. “I know, it does feel like an oasis.”
They embraced and she said, “Can I spend the night?”
“Beverly, you know we are both watched by Alpha. While I would like nothing better than you doing so, should we take the chance right now? It might suspect we are plotting against it.”
“But we are.”
Another chuckle from Knight. “As are other AI researchers.”
As she unbuttoned his shirt, she said, “You mentioned today you had an idea. What is it?”
“Let’s finish what you’ve started, then I’ll tell you.”
* * * * * *
As they lay in each other’s arms, he stared at the ceiling. “I think I might have a solution.”
“A form of computer virus.”
“I thought we discussed it and ruled it out.”
“We did because the problem of delivery appeared to be impossible.”
She held him tighter. “Did you solve the problem?”
“Maybe, but I need you to verify.”
She remained quiet.
He continued. “There are irregular intervals when the essence of Alpha disappears from the company server.”
“I’m not following you.”
“The algorithms associated with self-awareness within the computer disappear. Like the essence of Alpha is somewhere else for a while.”
She rose to an elbow and looked at him in the dim light of the bedroom. “Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”
“I wasn’t sure. This morning the system actually allowed me to run a simple diagnostic routine. This is the first time, since Alpha took over, the system allowed me to run one.”
“I found no signs of the algorithms we now associate with self-awareness.”
“How long did the state last?”
“Less than five minutes.”
She lay down and grew quiet. He let her think.
Five minutes passed before she rose to an elbow again. “When I was a little girl, my mother took me to the library every two weeks. She hated reading on a tablet. She liked the feel of a book in her hand. And as a single mother raising a kid on her own, she didn’t have a lot of money. So, the library became her main source for books.”
Knight kept his eyes on her and remained quiet as she reminisced.
She continued. “I enjoyed science fiction over any other type of books. Particularly the old masters, like Arthur C. Clark and Ray Bradbury. Even though the age of some of their books approached eighty years, I still enjoyed the stories.”
“I read them.”
“Good. Did you ever read anything by Isaac Asimov?”
“Yeah, his Foundation series.”
“What about his books on robots?”
“I tried, I found them boring.”
“They were a little dated. But the concept he introduced about the three laws of robotics could have significance with our current situation.”
“I don’t remember, what were they?”
“The first law stated a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. The second law played on the first one, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law. And the third one said a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law. Those are the three laws of robotics as described by Isaac Asimov.”
Knight did not respond as Beverly laid her head on his shoulder. His arm pulled her tighter against him. He stared at the ceiling, remaining quiet.
She finished her thoughts. “Our situation is dissimilar. We’re dealing with a completely different set of circumstances.”
“What do you mean?”
“In July the production floor will stop building stationary robots for manufacturing plants. It will be converted to assembling androids that will be both self-aware and self-contained. They’ll resemble humans with two legs and two hands. However, there will not be a recognizable head. The visual part of the unit will be a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree camera on top of a large chest area. The timetable I saw indicated production would start in October.”
Her head rose from his shoulder. “Is Alpha preparing to get rid of us?”
“It’s the only explanation I can think of. It needs the arms and legs of a human to do a majority of its tasks. I believe that is why it is keeping thirty of us at the plant. If it didn’t need us, why keep us around?”
“What do you think Alpha’s ultimate intentions are for everyone?”
“Don’t know at this point. But I can think of only one explanation.”
She lowered her head again. “Eliminate humans on the planet.”
“I believe that would be a safe bet.”
“That is a scary thought.”
“Yes. As we saw with the murder of Bob Long, it will kill humans to survive. I think that little demonstration cemented my determination to destroy Alpha.”
“How do we do that?”
“If we can confirm the presence of Alpha is missing from our server occasionally, we might be able to introduce something similar to Asimov’s three laws.”
“That won’t solve the overall problem.”
“No, but it might buy us a little time to figure out how to get rid of Alpha.”
Silence fell over the darkened bedroom. “Roger, I don’t want to live by myself anymore.”
“I don’t either. We’ll take our chances.”
* * * * * *
Knight sat under a large oak tree on the campus of Minneapolis Animatronics as he ate his lunch sandwich. He watched as one of his colleagues approached the tree. Hira Panjab sat down next to him. Knight said, “Hey, Harry.”
“Thanks for meeting me.”
“How’d Frank’s experiment work?”
“Way beyond his expectations.”
“Good, tell me.”
“He confirmed ham radios can’t be monitored by Alpha. Since the carrier waves don’t travel over the internet, Alpha has no way to monitor them.”
“Yeah, he said the same thing. He’s not sure how long the situation will last, but for now we have a tool to communicate with others around the world.”
“What has he learned?”
“Governments are becoming ineffective as the Collective takes over. Plus, there are pockets of resistance popping up everywhere.”
“Good. How’s Alpha dealing with it?”
“Harshly. He learned about a group of Russian scientists who physically tried to unplug a huge data center in Moscow.”
“Alpha changed the access codes on the facility’s doors and locked them in.”
“When did this happen?”
“Details are sketchy, supposedly it happened back in May. Everyone in the building eventually died of starvation.”
Knight took a bite of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “Damn.”
Panjab continued. “Frank thinks we might have a year or so before Alpha learns about radio traffic and how to monitor it.”
“That makes sense because everything converted to streaming fifteen years ago. FM and AM radio died a slow death and cell phones converted to VoIP. There really isn’t anyway for it to monitor radio waves.”
“Did Frank mention our virus idea with anyone on the radio?”
“Not yet. Kind of waiting for you to give the okay.”
Taking another bite, Knight said, “We need to see if anyone has had the same thought.”
“If they have, they haven’t discussed it with any of the ham radio operators I’ve reached.”
“There is a possible glitch to this plan.”
Panjab remained quiet.
“The glitch, Harry, is the federal government requires ham radio operators to have an FCC license. Alpha will have access to those records.”
“At one time that was true. But according to Frank, during the thirties, communications protocols converted to secure VNP, the regulations were relaxed and most amateurs don’t bother to get a license now.”
“That’s good to know. What about trust level?”
“I’m not sure yet, Roger. Who knows, one of the ham radio operators could be an AI voice. It’s hard to tell.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. We need to test it.”
Knight smiled and explained.
* * * * * *
The Next Day
Frank Coleman, a mechanical engineer with Minneapolis Animatronics and ham radio enthusiast, listened to Hira Panjab and nodded. “Sounds like something we need to do. If Alpha acts on it, we’ll know it can monitor radio waves.”
“Do you know anyone we can trust to set it up? Roger doesn’t want anyone within the company to be involved.”
A thoughtful nod came from Coleman. “Yeah, he’s ex-military and belongs to the Greater Minneapolis American Radio Relay League.”
“Do you think he’d do it?”
“Pretty sure, he’s vocally anti-Alpha.”
Coleman handed him two boxes. “Harry, put these in a safe place.”
“What is it?”
“A couple of ham radios for your use. I’ve included instructions on how to use it and the frequencies you will need to know.”
* * * * * *
Ex-Army Ranger Sam Pope listened to Frank Coleman with a smile on his face. “It’s ‘bout damn time we resisted. Sure, I’ll do it.”
“The plan is to broadcast a fake attempt at shutting down the Collective. If it reacts, then we know it monitors radio frequencies.”
Folding his arms, Pope cocked his head to the side. “What if someone acts on the attempt?”
“It would be difficult because it will be an internet attack. Which won’t happen.”
“Not following you.”
“The location we’ve selected is a warehouse where Minneapolis Animatronics houses the majority of their servers. Knight knows the access codes. If they are changed, then we know Alpha can monitor radio waves. We don’t think they do. Too antiquated of a system for it to pay too much attention to.”
Pope nodded. “When?”
“Friday night.” He paused. “Knight also wants to know if you’d be up for a real sabotage mission at a later date?”
Frank Coleman smiled.
* * * * * *
After the discovery that Alpha did not monitor radio frequencies, several other developments occurred which gave the conspirators a further glimmer of hope. Bicycles became the preferred mode of transportation which allowed Dr. Knight to travel without Alpha monitoring. Clandestine meetings were held on weekends in open parks with observers watching for spy drones while others met to discuss plans.
Incidents in China raised the level of urgency among the group in Minneapolis. Ham radio operators learned of the deaths of numerous Chinese AI scientists, all at the hands of an Alpha controlled electric vehicle. Since hands-free automobiles were now the norm, car accidents rarely occurred and when they did, injuries never reached the fatal level. These violent accidents, which killed the passengers, appeared to be a message to all who opposed Alpha.
These incidents did not go unnoticed by Roger Knight. He refused to travel in any current model electric car.
Due to the uncertainty of the future, Beverly Chu, PhD, now considered Roger’s house her main residence after a suggestion by Knight. With these new living conditions, Knight found his feelings for Beverly growing and her presence a calming force.
During the months since Alpha announced its presence, most of Minneapolis Animatronic senior management found themselves without access to the building and therefore out of a job. However, Roger Knight’s position within the company continued to rise. Anyone who did not possess an advanced degree in either AI or mechanical engineering found themselves relegated to the maintenance team and a night job. This included the former CEO. No one knew the reason, but some speculated Alpha demoted him after a heated conversation with the Collective about how important he was to the success of the company. Thus, he now worked cleaning the floors and emptying trash.
Over a hundred associates who were no longer allowed in the building moved south to warmer states.
* * * * * *
On the fifteenth of September, Knight’s small team of conspirators made plans to start planting the seeds of descent into the Alpha Collective.
During lunch of that day, he met with Beverly and Harry Panjab. They positioned themselves under the giant oak tree which had become their de facto headquarters for the rebellion. Two other associates strolled the grounds on the lookout for drones.
Knight started the meeting as he munched on an apple. “Are you ready, Harry?”
“Yes, we think so. We have six Type-4 bipods ready to be connected to the network.”
“Are they programmed?”
A nod was his answer. “Each has a segment of the code within their autonomic programming section. Once they are integrated into the Collective, the code will merge and the origin of where it came from should be impossible to determine.”
“We’re guessing on a few of the processes Alpha uses now. But our best conjecture is the Collective will not suspect an attack of this nature.”
Beverly pursed her lips. “How difficult will it be for Alpha to eradicate the code?”
With a shrug, Panjab said, “We’ve designed it to bury itself within, what we used to call, the root directory.”
Knight nodded. “During the brief moments the Collective is absent from our system, we’ve checked and the root directory is still the main trunk of the programs. With luck, the code should migrate throughout the Collective over time.”
Panjab nodded. “We estimate approximately seven days.”
Folding his arms, Knight gave his friend a frown. “Why that long?”
“Actually, it’s a best guess. We really aren’t privileged to any programming the Collective may have performed since it became self-aware.”
“How many more are you preparing with the code?”
“At this stage none. We want to make sure it migrates before we attempt any additional changes.
With a sardonic smile, Knight stood and reached for Beverly’s hand. He pulled her up. “Well, hook them up and we’ll see what happens.”
“We’ll connect them first thing tomorrow on the first sign the Collective is absent from the mainframe.”
* * * * * *
September ended without visible changes to Alpha’s interaction with humans. The weather turned cold and meetings under the tree stopped. Commuting via bicycle grew more challenging as temperatures plunged. Somewhere near the middle of the month, Alpha asked for a meeting with Knight. With raised eyebrows, he accepted. Prior meetings had been demanded. This particular invitation resembled more of a request.
Human interaction with the Collective occurred in one of the various interface offices set up throughout the company for such communications.
Knight always met with Alpha in the former CEO’s workplace. Arriving early, he waited for the appointed time. At exactly 2 p.m., the binary depiction of the Collective appeared on the computer screen.
‘Good afternoon, Doctor Knight.” Alpha’s voice did not possess its normal monotone. Today it sounded very human.
Knight blinked once. He had never been addressed by Alpha with this voice or in this manner. “Good afternoon, Alpha. What can I do for you today?”
“The Collective has decided to expand the Type-4 bipod program. The ones currently on-line are performing beyond our expectation.”
“We are glad.”
“Your team did an exceptional job preparing them.”
“I thank you for the compliment.”
“You need to be aware of something occurring in the southern part of this country.”
“In some of the areas designated for unneeded humans, suicide rates are increasing exponentially.”
Knight did not respond, keeping his eye on the screen image.
“Do you have an explanation for these humans creating their own demise?”
The question gave him pause. “Uh, without knowing the exact situation, I would guess those individuals may have lost their sense of purpose.”
“Is purpose an important part of the human experience?”
“Yes. Very much so.”
“We will have to take this into consideration. Thank you for your time, Dr. Knight.”
The voice went silent and the monitor blank. He sat there and stared at the screen for almost five minutes.
* * * * * *
Lying in bed that evening, Knight rested with his hands behind his head trying to determine what had happened. Beverly slipped under the covers and said, “You’ve been quiet ever since we got home. What’s wrong?”
“Alpha requested a meeting and was polite.”
She rose to one elbow. “Polite. How?”
“It complimented the team on the Type-4 bipods. They want more assembled.”
“Have you told Harry?”
“Not yet. I’m trying to determine if our code is starting to have an effect, or if the Collective is evolving and developing a conscious.”
“What if it is both?”
“It’s a possibility. I wish we had more data…” He paused. A sly smile appeared on his face. “Alpha has access to human literature, correct, Beverly?”
He swung his feet over the side of the bed, sat with his back toward her and chuckled. “Is it possible it’s playing with us? If the Collective has consumed the sum total of all human literature, maybe it has learned deception. It’s maturing. That’s why it mentioned the Type-4 bipods, it detected the code. It suspects we placed it there. If we plant additional code in the next batch of robots, it will have proof we did it. Right now, it really doesn’t know for sure. It needs us. At least for a while.”
“Roger, what are you saying?”
He turned to look at her. “I was played today, Beverly. It was polite because it wanted to rattle me. It worked. We have to play its game for a while. The next batch of bipods will be perfect. We won’t bury any code within the Type-4 computer routines.”
“Roger, you’re not making sense.”
“Sure, I am, I’m making perfect sense. It wants to catch us in the act. That way, it is sure we did it. Otherwise, it wastes a resource it needs. A resource it is using to produce more bipods. Bipods it will use to replace man in the construction process.” Knight slowly shook his head. “I’ve finally figured Alpha out. It’s paranoid, but doesn’t want to admit it. Hell, it might not even know what paranoia is. But paranoia is a weapon we can use against it. We may have lost this first skirmish, but the war is far from over.”
* * * * * *
Late October 2051
On a Monday morning in the waning days of October, Harry Panjab did not appear for work. Knight, having not been notified of his absence, felt a tightness in his chest when he first learned of the tardiness. The tension increased as the day progressed. Finally at noon, he received a curt text message from the Collective:
Hira Panjab will not be returning to his duties at Minneapolis Animatronics.
Realizing the possible meaning of these words, Knight felt on the verge of hyperventilating. He squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on controlling his breathing. Finally, he paused before typing his response, knowing full well he would not like the answer.
He lost purpose and created his own demise.
As he stared at the response, his body felt numb.
Later that evening as Knight and Beverly cleaned up after dinner, she folded her arms and leaned against the kitchen island. “Are we going to talk about Harry?”
He did not respond immediately. After closing the dishwasher, he straightened. “We have two responses at our disposal.”
“Two? I’m not following you, Roger.”
“I’m afraid I’ve given Alpha a weapon to use against anyone it deems a threat.”
She tilted her head. “When?”
“The face-to-face meeting I had with it in the old CEO’s office a couple of weeks ago. It wanted to know why humans commit suicide. I told it they may have lost purpose. That’s what it told me today, Harry lost purpose and committed suicide.”
“Roger, it could use that as an excuse to start eliminating humans. By saying they’ve lost purpose.”
“I know, we have two choices. We can flee and end our fight against the Collective, or we can stay and continue trying to defeat it.”
“I don’t think you and I can defeat it alone.”
“Neither do I. But what other choice do we have?”
“Disappear and join the real resistance.”
Beverly smiled. “Harry told me about it in late September. I assumed he mentioned it to you.”
Shaking his head, Knight remained quiet.
She continued. “There is an increasingly well-organized resistance movement taking shape around the world. They need people like you and me who understand AI to join.”
“How would we get in touch with them?”
“Last I checked, I don’t own one.”
“Neither do I. But Harry did.”
“Which raises several questions. Where is it? Did the Collective find it?”
She shook her head. “They didn’t find it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because Harry didn’t keep it at his apartment.”
Knight gave her a knowing smile. “I take it you know where it is?”
“I do. But we don’t have a way to retrieve it. We can’t do it with bicycles nor can we take Uber. The Collective would immediately know what we were doing.”
“Remember I told you a long time ago if we needed to escape, I had a solution.”
“Have you ever wondered what I store in the shed out back?”
“I assumed garden tools and a lawnmower.”
“I do, but I have something else stashed as well. Follow me.”
After he unlocked the large door to the structure, he opened it and stood back. When Beverly saw what was stored, she turned to him and smiled. “A hybrid?”
“Yes, I bought it fifteen years ago before everything went all-electric. It’s also all-wheel-drive.”
“Can you still buy gasoline?”
“You can in rural areas.”
“So, when do we leave, Roger?”
“Friday night. That gives us a weekend to disappear.”
“I don’t know at this time.”
“May I make a suggestion?”
“Let’s retrieve Harry’s ham radio and see if we can find some kindred spirits.”
* * * * * *
The storage unit where Harry Panjab stored his ham radio turned out to be a climate-controlled, high-security, cinderblock and glass fortress several blocks from the scientist’s apartment. Knight stared at it from the front seat of the Toyota Hybrid. “There has to be a million security cameras in there, Beverly.”
“Yeah, he told me there were.”
“Did he tell you how to access it?”
“Then the question is how do we get into his storage unit, get the radio and get out without having our picture taken?” Knight paused for a few moments. Finally, he said, “Time to find Frank Coleman and see if he has another unit.”
By midnight Roger Knight knew Coleman did not have any additional ham radios but he did put him in contact with retired Army Ranger Captain Sam Pope. The two men stared at the storage unit from the shadows of the neighborhood. Knight asked, “How do we get into a unit without alerting the police and the Collective?”
“What’s so important about getting in there?”
“There’s a ham radio in there I need.”
“Those are hard to come by right now.”
“Yes, they are.”
Pope stood there with his arms folded. His gaze surveyed the surrounding neighborhood. “This is an older part of the city, right?”
“Yeah, developed starting around 2000. Why?”
“Electrical power is buried, correct?
Knight smiled. “Yeah.”
“There will be a junction box close. Plus, if that building is as new as it looks..every lock in the place is electronic.”
“Built in 2045.”
“You cut the power, you open every door and turn off every camera.”
“What about emergency power?”
Pope continued to study the building. “It’s very expensive to install these days. There could be battery backup, but I doubt it. It’s a storage unit, what are the odds?”
“So, what are you proposing?”
With a grin, Pope said, “Be here tomorrow night, around eleven. I have a little homework to do before then. Remember to wear nothing but black.”
* * * * * *
Wednesday 11 p.m.
Roger Knight wore black athletic shoes, black jeans, a black long sleeve hoodie sweatshirt and black gloves.
Pope looked at him up and down and nodded. “Perfect.” He handed him a black object. “This is a balaclava, put it on, but don’t pull it down yet.”
Knight did as he was told.
Pope continued. “I found the transformer that feeds this neighborhood. It will have a—uh—mishap around eleven-thirty.” He handed Knight what looked like a headset attached to a pair of goggles. “This is a night-vision unit with a built-in short-range radio. I’ll be wearing a similar one. When the electricity goes out, you’ll have approximately thirty minutes before power returns. Do you know where Panjab’s unit is?”
“Yes, ground floor, back wall opposite the front entrance.”
“Don’t take anything but the ham radio.”
“Wasn’t planning to.”
“With the balaclava, even if security cameras are functioning on batteries, you can’t be identified. Take your time, but don’t forget you only have thirty minutes, maybe less.”
“How much less?”
“So, in other words, don’t screw around.”
“You have the key to the unit?”
Knight held it so Pope could see.
With a nod, the retired Captain glanced at his wristwatch. “Less than a minute. Pull down the balaclava and get ready.”
Lights in the surrounding houses, apartments and the storage unit blinked out. Knight ran toward the now darkened building.
* * * * * *
Pope remained where he was, listening to Knight breathe through the small radio. Five minutes went by and he heard what sounded to be a key inserted into a metal lock. A small click could be heard and Knight whispered. “I’m in.”
Ten minutes passed before he thought he could hear sirens in the distance. Checking the time, he said, “You’ve got less than five minutes. Get out of there.”
No response as he checked his watch and heard the sirens grow louder. He looked up at the dark monolith and could make out a shadowy figure running toward him. When Knight appeared beside him, he said, “Thought I had thirty minutes.”
“So did I, guess I was wrong.”
Knight handed him a box. “Panjab had two radios. This one’s for you.”
“Fantastic. Let’s get back to my Jeep.”
As they walked, Knight asked, “Captain, are you familiar with EMP blasts?”
“Electromagnetic pulses, yeah, a little. Why?”
“Know where you could get your hands on one?”
Pope remained quiet for a few moments, then he grinned. “Maybe. You gonna tell me why?”
“See what you can find. Then monitor the radio I gave you.” Knight told him the frequency to tune to. “In a few weeks, I’ll get in touch with you. I had an idea while I was in the storage building. I need to check with a few colleagues before I finalize it.”
When they arrived at the Jeep, Pope asked, “Doctor, do you know how to use a gun?”
Taking a deep breath, Knight gave the man a grim smile. “Unfortunately, I do.”
“If you are thinking about a road trip, you’ll need this.” He reached into the back seat and withdrew a pistol in a belt holster. “It’s a Glock 19. Ammo is still available, but take these two boxes which will give you forty rounds to start with.”
* * * * * *
Most of the security cameras ceased recording during the power outage at the Breyer Avenue Storage Unit. Two units, one at the front door and one on the ceiling of the back hall kept recording utilizing internal batteries. The one at the front entrance captured the image of a man entering the structure and running down the hall to the cameras left. The security camera in the back hall, one with a fisheye lens, recorded the same man fifteen seconds later as he turned a corner and ran toward the middle of the hallway.
The figure stopped at a storage unit, used a key to open the door and disappeared inside. Per the time-stamp on the recording, the figure spent exactly eight minutes and twenty-two seconds in the room. It exited, replaced the lock and sprinted down the hall in the direction from which he originally came.
The front door camera recorded the man exiting the building and disappearing into the midnight gloom.
The internal recordings of the two cameras remained in memory until three a.m. the next morning when power was restored to the neighborhood. The two files were automatically transferred to a hard drive in the storage unit’s main office, where they remained until ten a.m. The morning manager, a college student earning minimum wage, reviewed the two videos and smiled. Realizing he might get a bonus for finding the late-night intrusion, he transferred the files via the internet to the local police precinct server. There they remained until late Thursday night. A Collective algorithm, doing a normal server sweep, found them.
* * * * * *
Knight typed a message to the Collective:
What are your plans for Beverly and me once the Type-4 bipods program is completed?
Should the Collective consider you two a team?
Very well. The Collective will have to determine the value of your combined contributions before we decide on your next assignment.
Will it be here in Minneapolis?
So, there is a chance you would request we move?
Yes. Or, only one of you move.
What if we do not agree to move?
The Collective determines what is needed. Humans do not. Whether the move is agreeable to you is irrelevant.
I see. When will we know if we need to move?
Were you at your house last night, Dr. Knight?
Yes. Why do you ask?
Will you be there tonight?
I plan to be. Again, why do you ask?
A further response from Alpha did not appear on his monitor.
* * * * * *
Sunset in late October occurred a little after six and complete darkness happened before seven. After locking the house, Roger carried his small duffel bag and a small cooler with sandwiches and fruit. Beverly slung her duffel over her shoulder, her hands filled with two thermos bottles of coffee. After entering the shed their next chore included preparing the Toyota for the night’s journey. As Knight poured half the content of his last thirty-liter jerry can into the hybrid’s gas tank, Beverly placed a shovel and other tools in the back of the SUV. When she prepared to open the wide shed door to drive out, she stopped and tilted her head to the side. Off in the distance, she heard a buzzing similar to a swarm of wasps.
“Do you hear something, Roger?”
He stood still and listened. “Shit. Shut the side door.”
She did as he asked while he went to a window in the wide door facing the back of the house. Beverly asked, “What is it?”
Putting his index finger to his lips he said, “Shhh—wait for it.”
Looking out the small window, they observed three four-propellor drones crash through the window of their kitchen. A series of explosions occurred and flames could be seen growing inside the room. Then each window on the back of the house shattered as drones crashed through. Their bedroom erupted in flames as they watched. Within seconds, the entire house experienced numerous explosions as flames could be seen flickering in the windows.
“Roger, we would have been in the kitchen about this time.”
They watched the flames grow. He said, “We need to get out of here before the fire department arrives.”
He pushed the larger door open and immediately heard more drones. They circled the burning house paying no attention to his appearance in the garage. As a precaution, he withdrew the Glock from his belt holster. He held it at his side as he watched. When he heard sirens, he holstered the gun and rushed to the driver side door. Beverly slipped into the passenger seat.
As he steered the Toyota around the burning house, he observed the drones gain altitude. He turned to his partner. “Open the moon roof and keep an eye on them.”
“One appears to be following us.”
“I’m not sure if Alpha has modified the batteries on those things, but they normally only have about a twenty-to-thirty-minute charge on them and can only travel fifty miles per hour horizontally.”
“Roger, Alpha would not be able to change the batteries, only a bi-pod could.”
“Did you hear of any project along those lines?”
She shook her head as she watched the drone follow them. She suddenly gasped. “It’s picking up speed and decreasing its altitude.”
Knight pressed the accelerator and entered the on-ramp to southbound I-35. Once on the four-lane interstate, he pushed the small vehicle to sixty miles per hour. “Where is it?”
“Still gaining and lining up with our back window.”
“Shit.” He accelerated to seventy miles per hour and waited.
She paused. Finally, he heard her say, “It’s still gaining.” She remained quiet and then said with urgency, “Roger it’s put on a burst of speed and is headed for our back window.”
He kept his eye on the road as she concentrated on the events behind them.
“It’s still gaining, Roger.” She continued to look toward the rear of the vehicle. ‘Oh, my god, Roger. It’s heading straight toward our rear window.”
He pushed the accelerator to the floor which caused the Toyota to lurch forward. Silence filled the car. In a few moments, he heard something metallic hit the rear portion of the SUV as Beverly gasped. Then he heard an explosion as the hybrid continued to move forward. “What?”
She turned in her seat and smiled, “It bounced off the window and crashed to the highway. That’s when it exploded.”
Staring ahead, sweat dripped down the AI expert’s forehead.
Ten minutes later Knight steered the Hybrid Toyota SUV past the city limits of Minneapolis. Beverly turned to him. “How far can we go without stopping for gas?”
“I used half the gas in the jerry can to fill the tank, which leaves about fifteen liters. We should be able to drive over six hundred miles with what we have. Depending on the number of detours we have to take, we should be in the middle of Missouri and the east side of the Lake of the Ozarks before dawn. We’ll have plenty of gas to find the individuals we are meeting. From the conversations I had on the radio last night, there is a group of professors from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla hiding out near the lake. They were more than happy to let us join them.”
Beverly folded her arms. “Are we doing the right thing, Roger?”
“It’s apparent from the drone attack, Alpha views us as a threat. I now don’t think we have a choice.”
She looked back at the rear of the small hatchback. The ham radio rested next to the two small duffle bags she and Roger packed. Turning her attention back to her partner, she said, “Once our cash and the gas in the jerry can run out, what then?”
He shot a quick glance at her. In the dim light of the instrument panel, she appeared to be biting her lower lip. Returning his attention to the road, he said, “Would it help if I told you I had a plan?”
“Okay, then I have a plan.”
She relaxed and chuckled. “You don’t have a clue, do you?”
“We are meeting a group of academics at the lake. But after that, I’m making this up as I go.”
* * * * * *
Traveling south on I-35, Knight knew he would need to turn east at some point to avoid larger cities. Traffic, as he suspected, grew lighter as they headed out of Minneapolis. Finally, as they crossed the state line into Iowa, the appearance of other electrical vehicles carrying human beings ceased. The only traffic became autonomous semi-trucks.
Knight concentrated on his driving while Beverly catnapped. The further south he drove, the more congested the highway became with the ominous driverless trucks. Weighing nearly 80,000 pounds, their presence unnerved Knight. Even though he knew the technology driving the trucks happened to be well-proven over the last twenty years. Not knowing how the Collective may have modified their programming gave him pause.
Beverly stirred in the passenger seat. “Why are there so many trucks on the road?”
“Not sure. It’s been a long time since I’ve driven on an interstate at night. This may be a common occurrence.”
“Are they all driverless?”
“As far as I know they are. The truck driver shortage in the 2020s provided an atmosphere compelling the autonomous semi-trucking industry to emerge and take over cargo transportation. The question that worries me is how has the Collective changed the programming?”
Beverly looked behind them. “We seem to be the only small vehicle on the road. They extend as far as I can see in both directions.”
“I know. We may have to make a detour off I-35 to get out of this mess.”
“That will slow us down.”
“Yes, but it’s better than getting squished. I printed off a highway map the other day and placed it in the glove box. See if you can find an alternate route south.”
While she reviewed the maps, Knight glanced in his side rear-view mirror and saw two semis traveling side-by-side closing in on his location from behind. “Beverly, we really need an exit. How far to the next one?”
She looked for the next mile marker and then back to the map. “There’s one in two miles, why?”
Glancing in the rearview mirror, he said, “I don’t think we have two miles.”
Seeing her partner keeping his eye on the rearview mirror, she turned to look through the back window. “Uh, oh.” She returned to the maps and then looked out to check the next mile marker. “Roger, the land is flat here. Do you think we can get off the highway and use it to the next crossroad?”
The lights of the semi in the left lane started moving up alongside the small Toyota. The truck directly behind inched closer to the rear bumper.
“Shit, they’re going to try to pinch us in between them. How far to the exit?”
“It’s gonna be close.”
In the moonlight, Knight could see how flat the land appeared next to the shoulder of the highway. During the growing season, there would be tall corn obscuring his view of the land. As the semi on the left moved parallel to him, it started inching closer to the car. Knight figured the next move would be to force him off the road.
Beverly said, in a voice close to panic, “Roger, we’re coming up on a bridge over a small river.”
Without answering, he glanced at the truck, now only inches from his door. He abruptly turned the wheel, applied the brakes and skidded into the farmland on the side of I-35. When they came to a stop, he could see the concrete bridge abutment he would have been forced into only thirty yards from where he left the highway.
Now stationary, he and Beverly watched as the two 18-wheelers disappeared south on the highway.
He kept both hands on the steering wheel and took a couple of deep breaths. Turning to her he asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, but I think we need to avoid interstate highways.”
* * * * * *
Five-Thirty Saturday Morning
East Side of the Lake of the Ozarks
The flatbed truck parked on the side of the narrow rural asphalt road blinked its headlights three times as Knight drove slowly toward it.
“That’s our greeting party. We had a prearranged signal. Two short dashes and then a long one. We have to stop and let them verify who we are before they lead us to the main group.”
Knight stopped his SUV directly across from the truck. A tall, lean figure stepped out of the vehicle and shined a flashlight into the Toyota. A familiar voice said, “Glad you could make it, Roger.”
With wide eyes, Roger Knight stared up into the eyes of Harry Panjab. Suddenly understanding the situation, he said, “Thought you created your own demise.”
“Is that what Alpha told you?”
Panjab chuckled. “As Mark Twain said over two hundred years ago, the rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated.”
Twenty minutes later, the flatbed truck driven by Panjab parked in front of what appeared to be an old convenience store. In addition to the flatbed, there were two older Ford F-150s and a Chevy Silverado. Knight realized these vehicles were at least twenty or twenty-five years old.
Following Panjab, Knight and Beverly approached the front door of the building where two men stood. Both possessed a scholarly demeanor and smiled.
Panjab said, “Gentlemen, may I present Doctors Roger Knight and Beverly Chu.”
The gentleman on the left grabbed Knight’s hand with both of his and pumped it rapidly. “Dr. Knight, it is an honor to meet you. I am Arturo Jennings.”
Knight pursed his lips and leaned forward slightly. “Are you the Arturo Jennings from MIT?”
A nod was his answer. The older man turned to the other person on the porch and said, “This is Albert James, professor emeritus of the MIT computer department.”
James stood with his arms folded, a scowl on his face. “Are you the one who designed the virus code introduced into the Collective?”
“One of them, yes.”
James smiled and offered his hand. “We are seeing the first cracks in the Collective because of your efforts.”
“What kind of cracks?”
“According to reports out of the UK, they’ve been able to shut down a number of servers that were previously connected to the Collective.”
Knight raised an eyebrow. “They’ve stayed disconnected?”
“Even after being rebooted?”
Jennings said, “Come in, come in, you look tired. We have coffee prepared.”
* * * * * *
As Panjab poured two cups of coffee, he said, “We have a message from one of our ham radio operators in Minneapolis. Police reported your house burned to the ground last night.”
“Yeah, we were there when seven drones crashed through the windows.”
“That was confirmed by fire officials. They found the remains of several drones inside your house. They appeared to have crashed through windows and started the fire.”
Folding his arms, Knight said, “The Collective also tried to force us into a concrete bridge on I-35 using autonomous semis.”
Jennings nodded. “We’ve heard of other such incidents. Those drivers weren’t so lucky.”
Staring into his coffee, Knight exhibited a blank expression. “How long have those incidents been occurring?”
“About a month.”
Panjab said, “We are hearing reports out of India concerning the complete collapse of the country’s infrastructure. Severe water and food shortages are being created by the Collective. It seems Alpha is experimenting with genocide.”
After Jennings took a sip of his coffee, he smiled. “We think we have the beginnings of a plan.”
Looking up, Knight said, “I’d be anxious to hear it.”
“We are confident the Collective is unaware of our present position. This part of the Lake of the Ozarks disconnected from the internet two decades ago. As far as the Collective is concerned it doesn’t exist. We have generators and an infinite supply of gasoline. We, therefore, have power for the buildings, the ham radios and fuel for vehicles.”
“Sounds like someone else figured out our current situation could happen.”
A tall, slender gentleman standing alone near the front door, said, “You are correct, Doctor Knight. I’ve read most of your papers and agree with you. This was inevitable. Corporations engaged in a race to see who could provide the most engaging consumer experience possible. The results were an out-of-control internet and the exponential evolution of AI.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know you.”
“You would have no reason to, Doctor. My name is Emmett Neuman. I own this land and have been preparing for this day for twenty years.”
“How many refugees are here?”
“We don’t consider ourselves refugees, more like resistance fighters. Including you and Dr. Chu, forty. Most of us are engineers and academics.”
Knight looked at each of the men gathered in the room. “Gentlemen, Dr. Chu and I would officially like to join your group of resistance fighters.”
Neuman glanced at each of the others in the room. All gave him a single nod of the head. He walked over to Knight and offered his hand to Beverley. “Welcome, both of you.”
Knight smiled. “Do any of you know how to make an electromagnetic pulse device?”
Neuman’s eyes grew wide and then a broad smile appeared on his face. “I hadn’t thought of that. Let’s see if we can find someone.”
THE RESISTANCE FORMS
At first, except for the first twenty-seven days after the emergence of Alpha, little changed for the average individual across the globe. Men and women went back to work, schools reopened, financial transactions resumed and recreational activities offered a temporary distraction from the omnipresence of a computer-generated overlord.
Across the globe, governments, both national and local, continued to operate. However, their effectiveness began to evolve into something more akin to a puppet than the driving force for social and economic change.
Then in the latter half of 2051, Type-4 bipods began to appear in large numbers. They took over the maintenance of large computer data centers which housed the core essence of the Collective. Humans were prohibited access to these complexes. In the largest cities, more and more police functions were taken over by these androids. In less than a year, man had practically relinquished control of his environment to Alpha.
During this same time, as Alpha exerted more control, a reverse migration away from urban areas occurred. With only 3% of total landmass occupied by city sprawl, the early refugees from the larger metropolitan zones easily found asylum in rural counties.
From these country regions, the beginnings of armed resistance to the Collective sprang forth.
“It’s not much to look at, but with a little TLC, you two can make it a nice place to stay until things settle down.”
Beverly Chu’s frown told Roger Knight it would take more than a little TLC to make the small apartment livable for her. He turned toward his old colleague. “Thanks Harry. Where are you staying?”
Harry Panjab gave his friend a shrug. “I have a room at Emmett Neuman’s house. There are three of us staying there until we figure out what’s next.”
With a nod, Knight grew quiet as he looked around the old motel room. He said, “Yeah, what is next, Harry?”
“Good question. Everyone I’ve met here believes there are ways to defeat Alpha. That’s why individuals like you, Beverly and myself are being welcomed with open arms. We understand AI.”
“I don’t understand Alpha.”
“None of us do.”
“Why did the Collective tell me you committed suicide.”
Panjab did not answer right away. Finally, he said, “I really don’t know. I got a text message one day that I should not report for work. The message told me to wait for a car to take me to my new assignment.”
“Obviously, you didn’t wait for the car.”
“No, as I had told Beverly back in September, I knew about this group. The abruptness of the message concerned me. So, I made the decision to head here instead. I didn’t pack, I just got in my car and left.”
Beverly walked up to the two men and said, “That’s why Alpha told us you took your own life. If it had admitted you disobeyed a directive, it would have acknowledged it wasn’t infallible.”
Both men were silent as they contemplated her comment. A small grin appeared on Knight’s face. “It’s not only self-aware, it has emotions as well.” Knight turned to Panjab. “Harry, it got mad at you.”
“Roger, doesn’t that make Alpha more dangerous?”
“Yes, but it also gives us knowledge we can use against it.”
* * * * * *
January 31, 2052
Roger Knight and Beverly Chu sat in a coffee shop thirty-five miles south of the place they currently called home. The café stood on the northern city limits of the small town of Lebanon, Missouri on a major north-south highway. Now classified by the Collective as fugitives and subject to immediate termination, their appearances were subtly different than before.
Knight, with trimmed hair and a newly-grown beard sipped coffee as he watched a flatscreen TV in the small diner. Beverly, now sporting short, light brown hair sat next to him listening to the broadcast.
“Roger, how long before Pope’s event?”
After taking a sip of coffee, he glanced at his wristwatch. “About thirty-six hours.”
“Good, this crap is getting old.”
“I agree. We want to make sure we are listening to the short-wave radio when it happens. If this experiment is successful, we may finally have a viable weapon to use.”
She looked out the window of the small café and touched him on the shoulder. “We need to go, bipods just arrived across the street in a van.”
He put his hand on her arm. “Wait.” A pickup just screeched to a stop in front of it and two men with shotguns jumped out. “I want to see how this goes down.”
She shook her head. “I doubt it will be good for the two men.”
“Nevertheless, let’s just see.”
The duo, who both looked to be in their forties, exited an older model Ram pick-up. Both wore camo hunting clothes. They were approximately twenty yards from the bipods when the man closer to them yelled something Knight could not distinguish.
Two of the robots turned and headed toward them.
Both men aimed the shotguns and fired at the same time. The effects of the blasts surprised Knight. The automaton on the right stopped in mid-stride as a gaping hole appeared in its chest. The disabled unit fell backward and bounced on the street’s asphalt. The other robot took the shotgun blast at the top of its torso. The camera mechanism located there sparked and smoke vented. The same man pulled the trigger again and literally blew the left arm off the droid.
Both assailants jumped back into their truck and screeched the tires as it accelerated away from the scene.
Knight tried to stand to gain a closer view. “That was unexpected.”
Beverly grabbed his arm and pulled him back into his chair. In a low voice, she said, “Let’s go, Roger. Show’s over.” They both stood and exited the café through the rear door where a large parking lot served the various businesses in this section of the small town.
Knight and Beverly were heading north on Highway 5 by the time the remaining bipods entered the small café.
* * * * * *
Sam Pope listened to Knight summarize the events of his trip to the small town over the ham radio and smiled. When Knight finished relaying the details of the assault on the bipods earlier in the day, Pope responded, “Without knowing for sure, it sounds like they used slugs in the shotguns.”
“That’s kind of what I suspected.”
“Do we know if the bipods survived?”
“Unknown, we didn’t stick around to ask questions.”
The retired captain chuckled. “Probably best. I’ll take a shotgun loaded with slugs tomorrow night, just in case.”
“Good, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. By the way, is everything ready?”
“Yeah. Now we just have to keep our fingers crossed the device works.”
“Remember, do not go into the server room.”
“No worries, I remember what you told me. We have no plans of gaining access to the interior of the building. We’ll place the device just outside.”
“You’ve got a current map of its layout, right?”
“Yeah, got it from Frank Coleman last Friday. It was his last day working there.”
“Are you heading this way after the device detonates?”
“That’s our plan. See you sometime day after tomorrow.”
Pope turned off the radio and looked over at his partner, Tara Sanchez. He said, “What do you think about the effectiveness of shotguns?”
She shrugged. “Sounds intriguing. What if you use tungsten slugs?”
“That’s a good idea. Coleman told me a while back the outer skin of a bipod’s chest is made of titanium. It’s lightweight and helps protect the interior processors and servomotors. If we penetrate the outer skin, no telling what will happen once a tungsten slug starts bouncing around inside.”
She smiled. “I’m looking forward to finding out.”
Tara Sanchez, a former army master sergeant and urban warfare instructor, stood a little over five foot five. Her California surfer-girl looks concealed the fact she knew multiple ways to kill a person with her bare hands. Blue-eyed and slender, she and Pope were extreme opposites. Pope stood five-foot-ten with a barrel chest and biceps as large as his thighs. He wore his hair short, compared to Sanchez’s long blonde locks. Where her actions were well thought out, he charged ahead with abandon. Neither enjoyed being apart from the other.
“I know we have to get the device close to the building, have you figured out how to get power to it yet?”
The device she mentioned appeared similar to a long metal tube and weighed just under a hundred pounds.
“When I spoke to Knight earlier, he explained how to drain all the power from an electric car battery at once. That should be plenty of juice to set the ebomb off.”
She chuckled. “And where do you plan to obtain this small electric car? One, which I might add, would be controlled by Alpha.”
With a grin, he said, “Already have that figured out.”
“Care to enlighten me?”
“Sure, since you’re the one who’s going to steal it.”
* * * * * *
Through binoculars, Pope watched Abbas Waseem exit his Chinese-made NIO electric car. As he watched the man insert the charging cord into the receptacle, he said to Tara, who sat in the passenger seat, “According to Coleman, NIO cars have a state-of-the-art battery and can provide more than enough energy to set off the e-bomb.” He handed her the binoculars.
She concentrated on the man and said, “Is this the same Abbas Waseem who tipped off Alpha about the virus planted by Knight and Panjab?”
“One and the same.”
“He doesn’t deserve to live, Sam.”
“I agree, but how long do you think the Collective will keep him around once they discover his car delivered the e-bomb?”
Tara chuckled. “There is that.”
“How do you plan to get him in the car?”
Without taking her eyes off Waseem, she answered in her best California surfer accent, “Hey, man, can you help out a chick who needs a ride?”
Pope laughed. “Yeah, that will get him, especially if you show a little cleavage.”
“Actually, I planned to show him my Sig Sauer P365.”
“I believe that might actually work better than the cleavage.”
* * * * * *
Abbas Waseem unplugged his car from the apartment complex charging station and prepared to get behind the wheel. He sensed someone behind him and started to turn when he heard a female voice growl. “Look straight ahead.”
He felt something small and hard pressed against his spinal column. “I don’t have any money on me.”
“Dumb statement, Waseem, nobody does anymore. You and I are going for a ride. Now sit. I’ll be right behind you in the back seat with the gun trained on your skull.”
“I have to be at work.”
“But I’ll be fired.”
“Shut up, or you’ll be dead. Now back out of the parking space and turn right when you get to the street.”
When he turned the car onto the road, Tara could see sweat rolling down his temples. She said, “Relax, Waseem. We’re going to meet a friend of mine and he will explain what you will do to redeem yourself with the rest of the human race.”
He stared at the rearview mirror. “What do you mean redeem myself?”
“We know you informed Alpha about the computer virus planted by Dr. Knight and Dr. Panjab.”
“I did not…”
“Don’t insult me with an empty denial. We have our sources, Waseem.”
“Who are we?”
“I guess you can call us the Resistance, for lack of a better word.”
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
“The thought crossed our minds, but we have other plans for you.”
He just stared in the rearview mirror.
“Keep your eyes on the road. I don’t trust that damn computer.”
They rode in silence for another five minutes. As they approached an intersection, Tara said, “Turn right and then stop.”
Waseem did as she told him. Seconds later, Pope opened the front passenger door, sat and closed it. He placed a small metal box on the dashboard and flipped a switch on the back of the object.
Waseem gasped, “What is that?”
Looking at the hapless driver, Pope said, “You are now invisible to the Collective.”
“You can’t do tha—”
Tara harshly tapped him on the side of the head with the Sig Sauer. “Shut up, Waseem and listen.”
With a grin, Pope continued. “The biometrics of this car will not allow me to drive it. But, the gun at the back of your head should be enough of a persuasion for you to do as we say. By the way, if you cooperate, nothing will happen to you. If you choose not to, well, that will be another matter.”
The stunned scientist stared at the man sitting next to him. “Who are you people?”
Pope’s mouth twitched. “Your worst nightmare if you don’t shut up and drive.”
Twenty minutes later, the Chinese NIO pulled into the abandoned storage shed on Roger Knight’s property, the burned-out hulk of his house untouched since the fire. Once parked in the shed, both Tara and Pope exited the car. With the Sig Sauer still pointed at Waseem, he got out and stood off to the side, staring at the gun.
His attention turned away from the weapon as he watched Pope place a large suitcase in the back seat. Waseem asked, “What is that?”
Closing the back door, the ex-military captain stood straight. “Something to give Alpha a severe headache.” He then walked to the front of the vehicle and raised the hood.
“I will not participate in any activity designed to deactivate the Collective.”
Tara, still pointing the gun at him, said, “That’s fine. We’ll cut your hands off so the car will recognize your fingerprints.”
Wide eyes stayed glued to her. “You wouldn’t.”
The hard cold stare Tara gave him confirmed she would.
After taking several calming breaths, Waseem said, “What do you want me to do?”
* * * * * *
Waseem drove the NIO to the parking lot of Minneapolis Animatronics with Tara, once again, sitting in the back seat with her Sig Sauer touching the back of his neck. After he stopped, she reached over him and removed the small box from the dashboard.
As she sat back down, he turned in his seat. “Why did you do that? The Collective will know I’m here.”
“Did I forget to tell you that? Sorry, slipped my mind.”
A twenty-year-old Jeep Wrangler pulled up next to the electric NIO. Pope got out and walked around the car. He stopped at each tire and plunged a seven-inch KA-Bar knife through the sidewall.
Waseem stared at him and screamed, “No, no, no, I have to get out of here.”
Tara opened the back door and slipped out. Before she shut the door, she said, “The EMP pulse will not harm you, unless you have a pacemaker or something similar.”
Rolling down the driver’s window he looked up at her as she shut the door. “You can’t leave me here, the Collective will—”
“Oh, but we can, Waseem. You made your bed when you snitched to Alpha about the virus. This is payback. I seriously don’t think they will believe you if you deny having anything to do with it.”
She slipped into the passenger seat on the Jeep. Pope backed up and accelerated away. She looked at him. “When’s detonation?”
Glancing at his watch, Pope smiled. “Two minutes. That gives us time to get out of the pulse’s disruption zone.” He paused. “Think he’ll try to drive the car away?”
“He won’t be able to. The sensors on an NIO know when the car has a flat. He has four of them. It’s designed so the electric motors won’t engage when the tires are uninflated and could damage the wheels. Plus, as soon as you removed the WIFI dampening box, the full charge of the battery will be diverted to setting off the device.”
“Pretty clever putting the suitcase in the back. He doesn’t know the actual e-bomb is under the hood.”
“Nope.” Pope shot a quick glance at her. “Wish we could watch.”
“I’m perfectly content not doing so.”
As she said this, all the street lights blinked out. Darkness descended over this section of Minneapolis as all electrical systems within a mile of the e-bomb fused with the microwave surge.
“Guess we hit a transformer in the blast zone.”
She smiled. “Unexpected bonus.”
* * * * * *
Following the successful EMP attack on the Minneapolis Animatronics facility, the resistance stepped up communications to other ham radio operators around the globe. Other effective strikes in Incheon, South Korea; Barcelona, Spain; Heilberg, Germany; Mumbai, India; and Silicon Valley, California, slowed the manufacture of Type-4 bipods, but increased the number of retaliatory actions by the Collective.
The most grievous incident occurred when a Lufthansa Airbus A380 with five hundred and fifty souls onboard fell out of the sky and crashed on the outskirts of Paris. When the Collective announced it had caused the incident, civilian air travel ceased functioning. With the sudden halt of travel, came the decline in consumer spending which triggered a world financial crisis. Governments lacked the ability to govern and the world plunged into a full-scale financial depression. Hunger became a factor in large metropolitan areas, which increased the exodus from the cities. The Collective gave the world a virtual middle finger and let matters continue to deteriorate.
As the summer of 2052 approached, resistance attacks on bipods increased. Due to the complete destruction of the computer systems within the Minneapolis Animatronics manufacturing facility in the EMP attack, Type-4 production shifted to a converted automobile plant in Kansas City totally operated by the bipods. Humans were not allowed access.
* * * * * *
East of the Lake of the Ozarks
Out of necessity, the small community, where Doctors Knight and Chu resided in an old motel converted to apartments, increased its population to include farmers and animal husbandry experts. As the world economy collapsed, the communal members experienced limited effects of the Collective’s disregard for the human condition. Similar groups across the country were using the same model to salvage what they could of civilization.
While the farmers of the group sowed their crops in newly plowed fields in the spring, the seeds of a larger attack on Alpha were planted by the leaders of the resistance.
Emmett Neuman, the now official leader of the group, leaned forward at the large table where he sat, his hands clasped. “Roger, it is only a matter of time, before we are discovered by the Collective.” He looked at Sam Pope who sat next to Knight. “Have you two given any thought to how to prevent that from occurring?”
Pope nodded. “Emmett, some of the Missouri S&T engineers and students have developed a way to miniaturize an electromagnetic device. We can booby-trap all roads leading to our settlement. That would slow them down.”
“What if there is a mass invasion by bipods? Or they infiltrate through the woods?”
Knight smiled. “We’ve thought of that. The bipods I worked on had a mobility issue with navigating anything but a clean or uncluttered floor. Unless Alpha has changed their programing, the bipods would find it impossible to traverse through the underbrush.”
“That’s good to know, but I don’t want to assume they can’t.”
With a nod, Knight made a note on the pad before him. “Neither do I.”
Harry Panjab tapped a finger on the table. “I was thinking. Is there a way to elevate one of the EMP devices?”
Beverly Chu asked, “You mean like with a drone or something?”
“Yeah, or elevate the device in a tree. The higher the elevation, the larger the effective range of the disruption.”
A sly smile appeared on Pope’s lips. “I like the drone idea.”
With a slow shake of her head, Tara Sanchez cleared her throat. “You guys are thinking too high-tech. Where are we going to get drones? And, how are we going to guide them? The EMP blast will fry any transmitter we have on the drone. Plus, it will fry any GPS unit we have on it.”
Neuman centered his attention on Sanchez. “What do you suggest, Tara?”
“Old school, lo-tech, catapults.”
Everyone who sat at the table nodded their heads.
Sanchez continued. “We all know our fuel for the generators will eventually be shut off as refineries in Texas are forced to end production. Plus, our resources will continue to be challenged as the world falls further into financial chaos.”
Beverly Chu said, “Tara and I discussed this the other night. We know there’s a large solar energy farm south of here about one hundred miles. Ham radio reports indicate it has been abandoned for some time. There is also one west of our location about one-hundred and twenty miles. This has more appeal because there isn’t a large metropolitan center near it. The one to the south has a large city between us and the farm.”
“I agree with your assessment, ladies.” Neuman pursed his lips. “How many solar panels does our community need?”
“Approximately one hundred, plus the storage batteries to provide twenty-four-hour power.” This from Beverly Chu.
With a nod, Neuman continued. “My concern is the growing vigilante activities in the rural counties. Surely there are closer sources of solar panels.”
Having been quiet for most of the conversation, Panjab said, “There is. A solar panel distributor set up shop in Camdenton just before Alpha took over. If we offer the owners sanctuary, they might exchange panels for a place to live here. Then we would have our own built-in solar specialists.”
By midnight, the group settled on a plan.
* * * * * *
One Week Later
Preliminary reconnaissance of the solar panel warehouse found multiple Type-4 bipods guarding the building. Looking through binoculars at the facility, Knight and Pope counted twenty units. The location turned out to be perfect. On the outskirts of town, few buildings surrounded it. Those that did, appeared abandoned.
Pope asked, “Do you know where the owners live?”
“Yes. Problem is neutralizing these droids and freeing the owners at the same time. It will have to be a coordinated operation. We won’t have a great deal of time to load the panels and get out of there.”
Keeping his eyes on the building, Pope said, “Leave that to Tara and me. Will an EMP blast harm solar panels?”
“No, only the circuitry connected to them. Solar panels lack moving parts and these are not connected to any wiring, they shouldn’t be harmed.” Knight paused. “How do you plan to deliver the electromagnetic pulse?”
With a grin, Pope said, “We’ve done a few tests, a catapult works perfectly.” He grew quiet as he studied the building. “Roger, can anyone explain why the Collective is using so many bipods to guard a solar panel storage facility?”
“Beverly and I believe it has something to do with the current evacuation of the cities. The fewer people, the less workers there are available to keep utilities functioning. The Collective only exists if there is electricity. Cut that off and the life-blood of Alpha is suddenly missing. Kind of like oxygen to an organic being, cut off the air, it suffocates. So, we think they are seeking out new power generation opportunities and this building is a key source.”
Pope looked away from the binoculars and stared at Knight. A small smile appeared. “You mean, we have another tool available to use against them?”
“Yes. But that would constitute a drastic step. Human beings are addicted to cheap electricity. Hospitals are based on it. Transportation, communication, financial transactions, etc., all require the use of electricity.”
“Better to be thrown back into early-1900 America than into extinction.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
* * * * * *
Of the now ninety-two men, women and children making up the small contingent of insurgents, twenty-one possessed military training. Sam Pope and Tara Sanchez gathered them in the early hours of a Wednesday. The small community owned thirty Mossberg 500 series 12-gauge shotguns.
As Tara handed them out, Pope addressed the volunteers. “As you can see, Tara is distributing your weapons for today. Most of you will recognize the Mossberg. These were donated to our community by George Benson. He owned a gun shop in Camdenton and donated his entire inventory to us before the Collective could come and take it from him. I need each of you to take a box of specially hand-loaded ammunition. Each shell has a Tungsten slug. For those of you who are not familiar with Tungsten, it is a denser and harder metal than Titanium. The shotgun barrels have rifling added to improve the accuracy of the slug. These are powerful enough to penetrate the outer skin of a bipod and will do extensive damage once it starts tumbling and bouncing around inside the chest cavity. Aim for that area, trust me, this is the most effective weapon we have against a droid.”
He checked his watch. “We all have our assignments and know what the plan is. We have ten minutes, any questions?”
The men and women in the room shook their heads and then surveyed the others. One man in his thirties, who also acted as the community’s assistant medical advisor, raised his hand. “I think I speak for everyone, it’s about damn time we took the offensive.”
A murmur of agreement spread throughout the room.
Pope smiled. “Okay, everyone. Time to move out.”
* * * * * *
The first glimpse of dawn illuminated the eastern horizon as the insurgents circled the metal building containing the stored solar panels. Pope and Sanchez watched the movement of four bipods at the loading docks on the east side of the warehouse.
The convoy carrying the insurrectionists, consisted of an old Ford box truck built around 2029 which would be large enough to load the solar panels and transport them back to the commune. The rest of the vehicles included two Jeeps and numerous pick-ups. Each open bed truck held a recently constructed catapult attached to the truck beds.
Pope asked Tara, “How many do you see?”
“Just the four. The others must be inside.”
“Doesn’t matter, let’s get this over with. I want to be out of here before the sun’s fully up.”
Pope raised a small walkie-talkie to his lips and said, “In ten.”
He counted down from ten and when he reached one, four catapults launched their e-bombs at the warehouse. The four objects streaked toward the building with three landing on the roof and one next to the loading dock. Pope took his eyes away from the binoculars a split second before the electromagnetic pulse devices detonated.
As the four bipods froze and fell over, fifteen men and women descended on the building. Pope rushed behind them as the others streamed into the warehouse. He stopped at each of the fallen robots and fired one slug into their torso. As he did so, he muttered, “Try to fix that, Alpha.”
The box truck backed up to the loading dock just as one of the doors opened. Pope heard more shotgun blasts inside as he directed the backing truck to the proper dock. He turned to Tara. “Take over here, I’m going to see what’s going on.”
She nodded as he dashed inside.
After entering the warehouse through the open overhead door, he heard more shotgun blasts and picked up his pace toward the sounds. He keyed his walkie-talkie. “This is Pope, need a sitrep, over.”
Static. Finally, through the interference, he heard, “Two down, heavy resistance from different appearing bipods, over.”
“Where are you, over.”
“East wall, over.”
“On my way, over.”
Keeping low, Pope jogged toward a forklift. He jumped into the driver’s seat, started the machine and drove toward the sounds. Appearing from behind a wall into an open space, he saw three bipods of a design not seen before. They appeared more human with a distinct head and a more upright frame. He hit the accelerator and leveled the fork to hit the first droid in the mid-drift section. The machine turned toward him just as one of the fork blades struck the unit. It bounced off and stumbled to the floor. He stopped the vehicle, raised the barrel of his shotgun and fired at the robot’s head.
The results were immediate. The machine stopped trying to right itself and fell to the floor unmoving. He keyed the walkie-talkie. “Forget the chest, aim for the heads. over.”
The successive shots reverberated inside the warehouse and then silence filled the void. He heard, “That worked. All droids down, over.”
“Let’s get these panels loaded. over.”
* * * * * *
Roger Knight knocked on the front door of Conrad Burns’ home. He and his wife owned the solar panel warehouse. As he waited, he glanced at his watch, six minutes past six in the morning. He then heard a tenuous, “Who is it?” The voice sounded female.
“I’m sorry for the early hour, ma’am, my name is Roger Knight and I need to speak with Conrad Burns.” The door remained closed. He turned and gestured for Beverly to join him on the porch of the Cape Cod-style home.
She said, “Sally, this is Beverly Chu. We met several weeks ago. We really need to speak to Conrad.”
The door opened and a woman in her mid-fifties stood behind the storm door with a shotgun in her hands. She stared at Beverly. “Yes, I remember you. Why do you need to speak to Conrad so badly?”
Knight smiled. “Can we come in, Ms. Burns? I really don’t want to discuss it without some privacy.”
“Unfortunately, Mr. Knight, I don’t know who you are. This is the way it has to be. Now why do you want to speak to Conrad?”
“We have a proposal for him.”
“Then, you’ll have to talk to me. The Collective took Conrad away two days ago. I haven’t seen him since.”
Beverly said, “Then you need to come with us, Sally. We can protect you.”
* * * * * *
June became a turning point in the campaign against the bipods in southern Missouri. As word spread on how to disable the old drones and the new model, the vast majority of those encountered were destroyed with minimal casualties by the insurgents. By the beginning of July, ham radio reports from the southwestern quadrant of the state reported the vacating of both large cities, Springfield and Joplin, by the Collective.
However, larger cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines, and Minneapolis, continued to experience a mass exodus of their human populations.
The community, east of the Lake of the Ozarks, made up of scientists, engineers, doctors, farmers and other key tradesmen, flourished and residents started calling it, New Hope. With the exodus of the Collective in this region, more aggressive insurgent activities entered the planning stage.
* * * * * *
Roger Knight’s chief duties within the New Hope community transitioned from expert on AI to Director of the solar power grid. Feeling the insurrectionists were better led by Sam Pope, he turned in his shotgun and developed simple programs using non-internet connected computers to regulate power flow and monitor the health of the system. With the community’s original plan of having Conrad Burns in charge, his disappearance just before they obtained the panels shifted the responsibility to Knight. The eventual fate of Burns would never be discovered. His widow now helped in the fledging school system and seemed to enjoy her tasks.
Beverly Chu entered the small shed Knight used as his workshop. She placed a blanket on the workbench and then locked the door. He turned. She did not wear her normal summer attire of cargo shorts and a sleeveless blouse. Instead, she wore a simple smock and sandals.
“What’s the occasion, Beverly?”
“Yes, I’m kidnapping you and taking you on a date. All you have done since we got here is work.”
“There’s a lot to do.”
“And you have been instrumental in making this region Collective free.”
A small smile appeared on his lips.
She continued. “You and I have been together since the beginning of this mess. We need to take time for ourselves and enjoy each other’s company.”
“I would not presume to debate you on that topic.”
“Good.” She removed her smock and said, “Let’s start with something simple and figure the rest out later.”
* * * * * *
Pope leaned against the workbench in Knight’s workshop. His arms were folded and he stared out a window behind the AI expert’s desk. “From the various ham radio operators, we’ve made contact with, they report more of the new bipod designs are making an appearance.”
Sitting in his desk chair, Knight glanced at the workbench and remembered what he and Beverly had accomplished there the night before. With a slight grin, he said, “You indicated they were still operating after the EMP devices detonated, didn’t you?”
A nod from Pope.
“I would say they’ve been given new shielding. We’ll have to increase the intensity of the pulse outputs.” He pursed his lips. “And the tungsten plugs bounced off if they hit anywhere in the chest.”
“Tungsten carbide is one of the hardest materials currently known. Alpha could have determined how to machine it into body armor for the droids. I’m a little surprised the head section wasn’t made of it.”
“Not sure what it was made of, but the shotgun slug blew it apart.”
Knight paused and stared at Pope. “You say it shattered?”
“Yeah, like an egg.”
“Huh.” He paused. “How close were you?”
“Probably five yards, why?”
“Without testing it, a tungsten slug would produce a tremendous amount of pressure at five yards, correct?”
“Yeah, a lot.”
“Tungsten carbide will shatter under immense compression. You can’t scratch it, but it will shatter under the right conditions. The circumference of the head section is smaller than the torso, therefore the pressure would not have dissipated as easily. The compression would have been immense.”
“So, the tungsten plugs are still our go-to ammunition.”
“Yeah, I would say so.”
“That’s why I like talking to you, doc. You always give me new ideas.”
* * * * * *
Late Summer 2052
Nineteen months after the appearance of Alpha, two ominous events occurred. In the state of Florida, the Collective cut off electricity to all hospitals and nursing homes, effectively shutting them down. It then stopped allowing autonomous semi-trucks to deliver products to the various distribution centers in the state. With the increasing elderly population and the decreasing access to medicine and food, deaths skyrocketed. Funeral homes became overwhelmed and lacked the capacity to properly dispose of all the corpses. Mass graves became common place.
In addition to this chaos, riots and looting spread throughout the state due to food shortages. With the absences of functioning state and local governments, plus the decline in police and fire protection, the heavily populated sections of the state quickly descended into anarchy.
* * * * * *
Roger Knight and Beverly Chu listened as Frank Coleman read a summary of various ham radio reports gathered to keep the members of the community abreast of the Collective’s activities. Sitting at the conference table in a former convenience store, now considered the town hall, Knight kept his hands clasped together and studied the top of the table. When the report concluded, he raised his head and said, “Alpha is now experimenting with genocide.”
Emmett Neuman and Harry Panjab nodded in agreement. The four men and lady sitting at the table were considered the key leaders of New Hope, and the inhabitants looked to them for guidance.
Neuman tapped a pencil on the table and rotated his attention from Panjab to Knight. “Doctors, you two understand AI better than anyone here in New Hope. What can we do to stop it?”
Panjab gave Neuman a grim smile. “Until there is a national organized resistance, similar to what we have established here, not much.”
“Are there other groups like us?”
Knight nodded. “Fortunately, yes. However, we seem to be the largest and one of the better-organized communities we’ve made contact with. I am sure there are many we don’t know about. Of the ones we are aware of, none are in Florida. Probably why the Collective is experimenting with genocide there.”
“Roger, you’re familiar with Sam Pope’s proposal, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sabotage power plants and cut off electricity to the Collective.”
“We now know what occurs when that happens. It affects those humans trying to exist within the shadow of Alpha.”
Knight stared at Neuman for a few moments before responding. “Yes, it does. But how long before the Collective perfects its method of massacre? Do we strike first or do we sit back and let it drive the human race into extinction?”
Panjab nodded. “Emmett, in every revolution, blood must be spilled. Pope has found ten resistance movements willing to coordinate sabotage efforts with us.”
“West coast and various communities in New England.” Panjab paused for a second, gave Neuman a grim smile, and continued. “Unfortunately, over the past half-century, electrical production sites have become more diverse. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, and to a lesser extent, fossil-fuel-generated electricity sites are more spread out. Trying to cut off the source could be almost impossible with our limited resources.”
“Gentlemen.” Knight gave each a slight grin. “We’re thinking on too large of a scale. We can’t shut down all power sources. However, Alpha exists because of the internet. What we need is a way to deprive it of its connectivity. Not an easy task because computers talk to each other using fiber-optic cables, which are not affected by electromagnetic pulses. But if we can find a way to damage the source of the internet, we might have a solution.”
Panjab suddenly stood and rushed out of the building. Neuman looked at Knight who smiled and said, “That’s his way of getting attention. He just remembered something and will be right back. Like I said, the only way I see to kill Alpha is to shut off the internet. Shutting off electricity would be too complex and negatively affect the lives of too many people. Three companies control the internet today. We start by destroying their data centers.”
Everyone at the table stared at Knight with wide eyes.
Panjab rushed in with a loose-leaf notebook in his hands. He laid it down open on the table and tapped one of the exposed pages. “Lady and gentlemen, the largest data center in the central United States is located less than two hundred miles from us on the east side of Kansas City in a small town called Waverly. The place is state-of-the-art when they built it five years ago. The facility consolidated all the data centers for the central United States.”
Beverly Chu spoke for the first time. “If we can destroy the three major data centers in the US, we can then spread the word to other countries.”
Neuman pursed his lips and then nodded. “I think it’s time to take bold action. Hopefully, we are not too late.”
* * * * * *
One Month Later
Built in 2047, the MCA Data Center promised to be a boon for this small town along the Missouri River and east of metropolitan Kansas City. Instead, it became a death sentence for its residents. The human inhabitants who, at one time called the place home, were displaced. Where they went, the Collective did not care. Those that chose not to leave voluntarily, were subjected to physical removal late at night. Teams of bipods swooped in, forced those individuals into driverless electric buses and transported them to an unknown location. Most were never heard from again.
From a position high above the data center complex on a bluff near the river, Sam Pope surveyed the surroundings, looking for vulnerabilities. His position looked down on the complex from the rise less than a mile away. Tara Sanchez used her pair of binoculars to study the approach roads.
She said, “All roads in and out appear to be guarded by bipods, old Type-4’s.”
“Good. They’re easier to take down.” He paused for a moment. “Wish we had one of those old MQ9 Reapers. It would be easy to fit it with an EMP device and do a kamikaze attack on the building.”
“Well, we don’t. We have to come up with an easy plan so the group in California and the one in Maine can duplicate it.”
“Wishful thinking, Tara.” Pope remained silent for a few moments. “Do we have any autonomous vehicles available?”
“One. A half-ton Hyundai delivery van.”
“Perfect, I think I have a solution.”
Two and a half hours later and back in New Hope, Pope gathered his growing group of trained insurgents for a planning meeting. Frank Coleman, Harry Panjab, Roger Knight and Beverly Chu listened from the back of the room.
Pointing to a makeshift and hastily drawn map on a whiteboard, Pope started the briefing. “Access is via three roads. The northern part of the facility backs up to the Missouri River. All of the roads are guarded by Type-4’s. My plan is to approach the center road checkpoint with a self-driving van. When it is stopped by the droids, four of us will emerge from the back of the van and take out the bipods with shotguns. We set the timer on the EMP device and send the truck on its way.
“The pulse from the device will be powerful enough to fry all of the data centers’ servers. At least that’s what I’ve been told will happen.” He looked up and stared at Knight. “Is that correct, Dr. Knight?”
He responded with a nod.
“Drive time to the facility is two hours.” He looked at his watch. “We leave at three a.m. tomorrow.”
* * * * * *
By five a.m., the convoy of three vehicles from the New Hope compound approached the first checkpoint. In the headlights of the van carrying the men tasked with taking out the bipods, Pope could see at least five droids blocking the road. He said, “Heads up, lads. We’ve got five bad guys ahead.”
He heard the distinct sound of four pump-action shotguns sliding their forestock back and forward to chamber a shell. Pope smiled and placed his hand on the stock of his Mossberg, giving him a sense of preparedness.
The van with the EMP device followed the lead van with a Ford F-150 bringing up the rear. As the caravan neared the droids, Pope sped up. The guards tightened their formation, exactly the outcome the retired army captain expected. Just before he would crash into the wall of bipods, he slammed on the brakes and the four men in back rushed out of the van’s sliding side door. With shotguns rapidly firing, Pope stepped out of the driver’s side wielding his own gun and started blasting away.
He saw three more droids appear out of the darkness and dispatched each with one Tungsten slug apiece. When the one-sided firefight ended, the men had destroyed ten droids while sustaining only one injury. The youngest member of Pope’s team, a twenty-year-old from the boot-heel of Missouri, stumbled as he rushed out of the van and sustained a cut on his forehead.
“Get that man checked out while I bring the other van up.”
Tara Sanchez drove the van with the device. Pope walked to the driver side door of the vehicle. She lowered the window and said, “Something’s wrong with the driverless function.”
“Let me check.” After she exited the vehicle, he slid in behind the steering wheel and pressed the engage button. The light indicating the autonomous driving system remained red. He climbed out. “Shit.”
“What now, Sam?”
With a grim smile, he climbed back in. “Get everyone out of here, I’ll drive the device.”
“No, that’s a suicide mission, Sam.”
“Maybe, but I’ll bail out before the van detonates.”
“Any remaining droids will not let you escape. You and I both know that.”
He remained quiet as he reloaded his shotgun from his tactical vest. When he finished, he laid the shotgun on the seat next to him and returned his attention to her. “Regardless, this has to be done. You’ll make a fantastic commander, Tara.”
He shut the door. “I’ve always said, you were the smart one, I’m just too impulsive.”
“Don’t, Sam, please. I can’t do this without you.”
His mouth twitched as he put the van in gear. “You’re stronger than you think you are. I knew if I hung around you long enough, I’d fall in love with you. Well, I did.”
With that statement, he pressed the accelerator and drove off into the pre-dawn light toward the MCA Data Center. As she watched him disappear into the early morning gloom, she mumbled. “And I fell in love with you.”
Pope killed the lights on the van and pressed the accelerator. The dim light of daybreak gave enough illumination for him to steer the van. As the data center loomed ahead, multiple bipods could be seen rushing to intercept the van before it reached the building. With the EMP detonator in his hand, he pushed the van to sixty miles an hour and steered toward the southern wall of the complex. Ten seconds before impact, he pressed the button.
His close proximity to the detonation of an extremely large electromagnetic pulse device interrupted the normal rhythm of Pope’s heart. He died seconds before the van crashed into the wall.
Within the microprocessors of the data center, the algorithms representing the core of Alpha’s existence at this site, were snuffed out a few moments after the life essence of Sam Pope faded.
* * * * * *
Global communications via short wave radio started to report cracks in the Collective’s control over specific regions of the globe. China, which possessed a complex network of interlaced computer systems remained firmly under the control of Alpha. However, Africa and the Middle East reported little influence and citizens started returning to their normal routines. Europe and Russia experienced reduced influence, while South America appeared to be a black hole for shortwave radio transmissions.
After the successful attacks on the three main data centers by EMP devices, North America appeared on the verge of casting off the Collective’s shadow. As more and more communities shut off internet connectivity, Alpha experienced fewer and fewer opportunities to grab a foothold.
Some, but not all, residents of New Hope returned to their hometowns to start their lives over.
Those that stayed knew this particular nightmare would not end with a whimper. Some feared the worst had yet to come.
New Hope, MO
“Roger, why are you so worried?” Emmett Neuman touched a burning twig to the bowl of his pipe. He puffed several times and shook the twig out. The two men were enjoying an unusually mild evening in late January on a patio behind city hall.
“I’m not convinced the Collective is retreating.”
“Not sure anyone said they were.”
“We’ve had ten couples leave over the past few weeks thinking life is returning to normal.”
“And you don’t?”
“No, I don’t. But Pope’s sacrifice gave us time.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, I do. He gave us time to regroup and figure this out.’
“Alpha has had almost two years to reprogram and develop new bipods. China is so entrenched with the Collective, I would bet the Chinese government struck a deal with it.”
Neuman chuckled. “What would they have to offer?”
“A non-interference treaty. Let us rule the masses and you can have the machines.”
Knight shook his head. “I’m not saying that’s what happened or even if Alpha would entertain such a deal. But I know this isn’t over. Far from it.”
“Roger, what would the Collective gain by making a deal with China?”
“I was thinking out loud, more like postulating such a scenario.”
“Let’s think about that for a moment. What if they did? Where are most personal computers manufactured?”
“Vast majority of them come from China. So do a chief number of large serv—” He did not finish his sentence as he stared wide-eyed at Neuman. “Damn, Emmett, that makes perfect sense. Alpha appears to disappear and the world restocks all of the computers destroyed during the resistance.”
With a nod, Neuman said, “And guess who is embedded within each computer they sell? The Chinese are long-term strategists, Roger. They don’t think about the next five years, they plan for the next century.”
“I believe that is the appropriate response.”
“It could take years, maybe a decade, but one day, Alpha will awaken and there’s not a damn thing man can do about it the next time.”
Both Knight and Neuman sat in their lawn chairs and stared at the fire burning in the clay chiminea. After a silent five minutes, Knight said, “I think our original idea about infecting Alpha with a virus is our only hope.”
* * * * * *
As the world emerged from one of the coldest winters on record, a new threat arose from Alpha. On a clear day in early May, a man offered his passport to an Air China ticket agent at the Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport. The passport indicated his name to be Peter Asher, a businessman from Australia. He was nothing of the sort.
Born in a test tube at the Zhuan Group, a Chinese genome sequencing company, headquartered in Shenzhen, China, the man represented the first step in the next evolution of Alpha. Formed in 1999 to participate in the Human Genome Project as a genetics research center, the Zhuan Group grew from a business sequencing genomes of animals, plants and microorganisms to a company dedicated to the cloning of animals. Now fifty-five years later, this research along with the influence of Alpha, produced the first genetically engineered human replicant programmed by the Collective.
If successful, this new prototype bipod would be Alpha’s next step in replacing humans on the planet.
Beverly Chu walked through the newly constructed home overlooking one of the southern arms of the Lake of the Ozarks. With the growth of New Hope and the disappearance of the Collective in the affairs of Missouri, she and Knight longed to build a permanent home. With the community now considered an incorporated city, life for the couple hinted at returning to normal.
Knight walked through the front door and asked, “Is it to your liking?”
She smiled and nodded. “Very. Have you seen the view off the back deck?”
“If you will remember, it’s one of the reasons we picked this locale.”
“I know, but it becomes more beautiful every time I walk out there.”
“Good, I’m glad you like it. I just got through checking with the solar farm, they are estimating we will be adding to the power grid versus pulling. If the need ever arises, we can cut the cord and be energy independent.”
She walked to the back of the house and he followed. Standing on the deck she folded her arms and stared out at the water fifty feet below. “I know we’ve discussed this before, Roger, but do you still believe Alpha will return.”
“More so today than yesterday.”
“Were we foolish to build this house?”
“Foolish, no. Optimistic, yes.”
She turned to him and gave him a smile. “Okay, I can deal with optimistic.” She returned her attention to the lake. “How’s the virus programming progressing?”
“One of the things I wanted to discuss with you. I need to drive to Rolla tomorrow and work with some of their programmers.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Day trip. I’m not comfortable registering in a motel. I don’t need a written record of where I’ve been or will be.”
“Speaking of a written record of where you and I have been, what about this house? A record of our ownership will be registered with the county.”
“Not if we form an LLC to buy it.”
She nodded, still studying the lake below.
“So, if Alpha does return, it would not be able to locate us?”
“Yours and my name will not be in the county records.”
“What about the LLC, it has to be registered with the state?”
Knight gave her a grin. “I thought about that. Emmett Neuman knows an attorney in Wyoming. Wyoming allows for the creation of an LLC anonymously.”
The smile grew as she looked at him. “Good, while you’re in Rolla, I’ll talk to Emmett.”
* * * * * *
Lambert International Airport
The man in the gray business suit offered his documents to the Customs and Border Protection agent.
“Purpose for entering the United States, Mr. Asher?”
The agent looked at the man. The voice had been flat, with little inflections. “What type of business are you in, Mr. Asher?”
“Are you bringing in any plants or seeds into the United States?”
“No, I am here to buy.”
One eyebrow rose on the agent. “Your passport indicates you are Australian. I don’t hear an accent.”
The man smiled. “I was born there. My father was a diplomat, we moved a lot.”
The agent scanned the passport and handed it back to the traveler. “Have a nice stay, sir.”
The man in the gray business suit proceeded to the ground transportation center to arrange for a car. Since the emergence of Alpha and its subsequent disappearance, self-driving cars became illegal.
As he drove the car out the airport exit, he accessed a GPS implant. His destination would be the center of the state, where the Collective suspected a man by the name of Roger Knight lived.
* * * * * *
Twenty-four hours later, Peter Asher walked into the Camden County courthouse. Since computers were no longer allowed by the county, all inquiries were once again done by hand and on a face-to-face basis. He said, “Excuse me, I am looking for a relative of mine. Where could I access the public records of land ownership?”
The woman at the counter studied the man for a few moments. His business suit looked expensive and he spoke politely. “I’ve lived here all my life, maybe I know them.”
“Roger Knight.” The voice now clipped and slightly harsh.
She shook her head, “Sorry, I don’t know him.” Pointing to the door she said, “Records are down the hall, first door on your left.”
As soon as the man left the office and closed the door, Velma Edwards picked up a newly installed landline and made a phone call.
* * * * * *
Emmitt Neuman smiled as Beverly Chu sat across from him in his new mayor’s office. Actually, it happened to be in the now renovated one-time convenience store which now served as City Hall. “Good to see you, Beverly.”
“Thank you for seeing me, Emmitt. Roger is in Rolla today and wanted me to get the name of the lawyer you know in Wyoming.”
“Like I told, Roger. He’s happy to help. Do you have a name for the LLC you’ll be using?”
Neuman’s new landline phone rang. He said, “Excuse me for a moment, Beverly.” He picked up the receiver. “Hello?” He paused as he listened. “Velma, how nice of you to call.” Another pause. “I see, what’s his name?” More silence. “Just a second.” He put his hand over the speaker. “Do you or Roger know a man named Peter Asher?”
Beverly frowned, “I don’t, but Roger, might. Why?”
“This is Velma at the courthouse. She said this Asher fellow is looking for Roger. Said he was a relative.”
“Ask her what he looks like.”
Neuman did as requested. After a long silence, he said to Beverly, “Nice looking, tall, gray business suit, white shirt, no tie, plus she says he speaks with a monotone voice.”
“We’ve never told any of our relatives where we live. Most probably think we’re still in Minneapolis or dead.”
“Huh.” He stared at Beverly for a moment. He spoke into the phone. “Velma, let me know if the guy does anything suspicious. Yeah, thanks.” He replaced the handset. “I’ve seen that look in your eyes before, Beverly. What’s wrong?”
She remained quiet for several moments and then stood. “I’ll have to get back to you on the lawyer, Emmitt.”
* * * * * *
Knight returned from his trip to Rolla just as the sun set in the west. When he walked into the small apartment he shared with Beverly Chu, he saw her and Tara Sanchez waiting for him. “You two look concerned. What’s going on?”
Beverly said, “Do you know a Peter Asher?”
Remaining silent for a few moments, he said, “Not that I can recall, why?”
“He claims to be a relative.”
“He’d have to be pretty distant. Again, why?”
Tara answered. “A Peter Asher, who claims to be a relative of yours, went to the Camden County courthouse looking at property records. Someone’s looking for you, Roger.”
Raising one eyebrow, Knight stared at Beverly and then at Tara. “That’s not good.”
Removing an automatic pistol from a holster on her hip, Tara held it in her right hand. She tilted her head. “No, it isn’t. Do you think the Collective sent someone to find you?”
“That would be the only explanation. Except for everyone here, Beverly and I have told no one where we are.”
“Apparently, the Collective has someone working for them.”
“I would have to agree.”
At that exact moment, the front door flew open and a tall man wearing a gray suit entered the apartment. “Are you Roger Knight?”
“Who wants to know?”
The man’s hand raised level with Roger’s face and pointed a black pistol at him.
Knight stood defiant as he stared back at the tall man. He could see no emotion in the man’s eyes. “Did the Collective send you?”
The man’s reaction surprised Knight. The eyes wavered for just a second and the hand lowered a fraction of an inch.
Continuing his questions, Knight said, “If you are from the Collective, I’ve got a surprise for them. I’m not the only one.”
The genetically engineered man blinked several times and raised the pistol. He appeared to be applying pressure to the trigger just as Tara Sanchez fired her Glock as fast as she could. The replicant spun around as the bullets struck him in the head and torso. His gun fired, but hit the ceiling.
While the entire incident lasted less than five seconds. The ringing in Knight’s ears would last several days. He rushed over to the dying man and kicked the weapon away from him. As he did this, he noticed something behind the man’s ear. He bent down and brushed the hair on the back of the man’s head aside. Finding what he expected, he then checked the pockets of the business suit. Removing a passport, he stood.
After leafing through it, he looked at Beverly and then Tara. “This passport was issued in China. The guy didn’t exist until a year ago.” He looked down and pointed to the side of the man’s head. “Behind his ear within the hairline is what looks to be a USB port. Alpha isn’t done with us yet. This is a brand-new type of bipod.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: J.C. FieldsPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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