Chapter no 54

Winter World

FROM THE MOMENT I saw that first message, I knew talking to the harvester was a risk. But I had to do it. This is our only chance to find out what we’re dealing with. I know this much: the harvester wants something. It’s talking to us because it believes it can glean some advantage from doing so. It has an end game here.

I glance at the clock. Less than seven minutes until the attack drones reach it.

Emma fixes me with a stare that’s a mix of shock and betrayal. I probably should’ve told her about Oscar, but it would’ve led to other questions—questions I wasn’t ready to answer.

I have to focus on the issue at hand: the entity, Art, has no doubt read Oscar’s biochemical storage array. It has access to all of his memories. This is not a contingency I planned for. What Oscar knows about me, and Emma, and more importantly, about the ship, and about humanity’s survival plans… it’s enormous, right down to the blueprints of the Citadel, the number of nukes we’ve retrofitted, and the locations of every camp in the Atlantic Union. His mind is a treasure trove of sensitive data. This is a breach we can’t recover from. I have to destroy the harvester. There’s no choice now.

On the screen, the harvester’s avatar, sitting in the ridiculous library scene, looks amused.

“Emma, you didn’t know?” it says innocently.

Thankfully, she makes no reaction. In fact, she keeps her face neutral and turns her focus to him, not me, showing solidarity.

Her move seems to embolden Art. I get the sense it’s trying to rattle us.

“You two have been keeping all kinds of secrets from one another,” it says.

The screen fades to one of Oscar’s memories. In it, he’s in one of the barracks in Camp Seven. I wasn’t aware that he ever went to the barracks. What is this? Could it be a fabrication?

Emma knocks on a door, and Abby answers it. The scene flashes forward, to Emma and Abby talking at a dining table.

“I’m saying that the only reason you and your family are here is James,” Emma says.

The scene skips forward, to Emma putting her hands on the table and interlacing her fingers. “James means a great deal to me. I don’t know what happened between you and him or his brother and him, or even why he was sent to prison. But I’ve gotten to know him very well, and I know he’s a very good person.”

The scene flashes again, to Abby asking a question. “You mentioned a new habitat?”

“Yes. Next to the one I share with James and Oscar.” The mention of Oscar’s name draws a sneer from Abby. “I’m sensing there’s a catch.”

“There’s not. I know that James wants the best for you all. And I know that if he asked for the habitat for you, you might learn that he had done it

—and refuse to accept it. So I did it instead. It’s yours. No strings attached. You can move whenever you’re ready. The transfer has already been approved.”

Abby seems confused by that. “Thank you,” she says quietly.

“I ask only one thing, and it’s not a requirement. Only a request.” “Which is?”

“That you come and visit James. If Alex doesn’t want to come, then simply drop off the kids, or you and the kids can come by. That’s all.”

The scene in the barracks fades and Oscar is standing in the Camp Seven habitat he shared with Emma and me. Emma is sitting on the couch with Abby.

“James is going on a mission.”

“What kind of mission?” Abby asks.

“The kind he might not come back from.”

Abby glances away, trying to process the news. “I see.”

“I don’t know when the mission will happen. Probably within a few months, if I had to guess.”

“Is there anything I can do?” “There is.”

“You want me to talk with Alex.”

“Yes. James has never said a word to me about what happened between him and Alex or anything that happened before. But I know, when he goes on this mission, it would help him to know that everyone back here supports him and is pulling for him. Whatever James did before, he’s been a good brother to Alex since the Long Winter began. He’s the reason we’re all here. He’s kept us alive. And he’s probably going to give his life for ours.”

Abby stands and rubs her palms on her pants as if to dry them. “It’s a tall order, Emma. But I’ll see what I can do.”

The memory fades to black, then another memory begins, also in the habitat. This time, it’s Alex sitting in the living room with Emma.

“Abby told me that James is leaving. And he might not be coming back.”

“That’s right.”

“And that he’s the reason we’re here.”

She nods, and the scene flashes forward, to her pushing up on her cane as Alex is leaving.

“Will you come to see him?” she calls to him.

“I don’t know yet. I need time to think about it.”

And Alex did come to see me. Because of Emma. She did it. She got them out of the barracks. She gave me my family back. It’s all I can do not to hug her and rip off my helmet and kiss her and say thank you.

She glances over at me now, with a look somewhere between guilt and sorrow, the same look I just felt when the secret I had kept was revealed. That’s what Art wants: to put us off balance. To manipulate us. Why? To build trust? To run down the clock? Both? I have to focus.

“What do you want?” I ask. “Why have you contacted us?”

“The two of you are certainly smart enough to know why. I want to survive. Just like you. Just like your people. I’ve seen the lengths you’ve gone to in order to survive. It’s impressive.”

On the screen, a montage of videos begins, glimpses from Oscar’s life, seen through his eyes. In the first, he’s in the dining room of an old house

with high ceilings and ornate crown molding, staring out the window at snow falling in sheets. As if it’s a time lapse, the snow grows deeper, until it’s on the front porch, and then up to the windows. He leaves the dining room, walks into the kitchen, and then down a creaking staircase to the cellar. On the screen, a series of menus appear—what Oscar would have seen. He activates a perimeter security program for the home and goes into hibernation mode, consuming almost no power.

The screen fades to darkness, then snaps to life again as Oscar comes out of hibernation. The scene that plays is the one where I walked down the stairs and found him in the cellar.

The montage jumps forward to his time at Camp Seven. We watch as the winter grows worse at the camp, as the military exercises begin, as he and I work on the Sparta fleet and the Citadel and the retrofitted nukes. A scene plays of us working together in the drone lab, of us building a prototype of the attack drones now barreling toward the harvester.

So it knows about the drones coming for it. Is that what this is about? It has to be.

“I take it you want to negotiate?” I ask.

“Yes. I believe we can find a way to coexist.”

This is my opportunity. There is so much I want to know about the harvester and whoever sent it, details I need to know to ensure our survival. But I have very little time. The drones will detonate their payload in less than six minutes.

“To coexist, we have to understand each other. You have just accessed an immense amount of data about our species and about the two of us in particular. We need to know what we’re dealing with. What your goals are. Where you come from. Why you didn’t talk to us first?”

“Understandable. Let’s start with an introduction. We are the grid. That, of course, isn’t how we refer to ourselves, but it is the most analogous term from your rudimentary vocabulary and understanding of the universe.”

“What’s your role in the grid?”

“A very minor one. To use a phrase from your native tongue, I am near the bottom of the totem pole. I simply gather energy and connect it to the grid.”

“What is the purpose of the grid? What does it want?”

“The grid is the fate of the universe. Some of your scholars have scratched the surface of the ultimate truth. And you, James, have suspected

it. It’s what enabled you to form a working theory that brought you here, that allowed you to find me. As your scientist Einstein brilliantly posed: E equals mc squared. There are two fundamental components of the universe. Mass and energy. The role of the grid is to facilitate the eventuality of all mass in the universe: the conversion to energy.”

“Energy for what?”

“An ironic statement from you. Within a few years, your species would have realized the need for such massive amounts of energy. Your biological existence is a transitional phase. The next phase of existence for your species requires one commodity: power. You’ll soon have little use for your bodies. Only your minds. Even now your primitive brains consume a disproportionate amount of the energy your body requires. Within the grid, a mind is limited only by the power available to it. Thus we are charged with the acquisition and provision of power. That is the true industry of the universe.

“The quasars you’ve glimpsed in distant galaxies, at the center, are but super nodes in the grid. We span billions of stars. We emerged billions of years ago. We were among the first advanced life to take hold in the universe, and we will be the last thing left when this universe ends. The grid is the final destination of all life. We are the beginning and the end. When the mass in this universe has been fully converted, the grid will have enough energy to create a new universe. The cycle will begin anew.”

My mind reels. I feel like a blind man who has seen for the first time. The shock is overwhelming. As a scientist, this is like finding the breakthrough of all time—the answer to the greatest question humanity has ever asked. Our origins. Our destiny. All in one simple answer.

I’m certain now that the harvester is trying to manipulate me, but I also sense that the words it’s telling me are true. Somewhere deep inside, I’ve known it all along. I have known that the universe was more than meets the eye, that there was a process here, a circle of life with no beginning and no end, waiting for us to discover it. I’ve always known that our flesh-and-blood existence was only a temporary state.

In fact, that belief is what landed me in prison.

I have to focus. Why is it telling us this? The obvious reason is that it’s buying time by giving me something I’ve desperately sought my entire life: the ultimate truth of the universe. A validation of my life’s work. And what

does it get in return? Time. Trust. But it’s too smart to think this will change our minds. Unless there’s something I don’t appreciate here.

I glance at the clock. Less than four minutes left. Why hasn’t it asked us to stop the drones? There’s something else going on here. I need to drill deeper into its motivations. They’re the key to understanding it.

“Why kill our species?” I ask. “You could’ve talked to us. Negotiated, as you seem willing to do now.”

“Could I? Do you think what’s happening in this solar system hasn’t happened a million times before? Your own history is a guide to what’s happening here. Countless times, your own species has invaded new lands. You’ve displaced other species. Caused mass extinctions. And it’s not limited to the plants and animals of your world. You have murdered and hunted your own people. Forced mass migrations from lands you desired— relocating those deemed less worthy of natural resources you coveted. When a more advanced group of people needed the resources, they took them. We are simply doing what you’ve done to your own people, playing by the same rules.”

“You’re talking about things that happened a long time ago. We’ve put those dark chapters behind us.”

“No. You’ve told yourselves you’re better because your standard of living has allowed you to indulge your moral fantasies. When the Long Winter came, the truth of your existence was again laid bare.”

“We would’ve negotiated with you. If you had reached out. We could’ve come to some understanding.”

“Your supposition is that your species is different from the millions we have encountered before. Again, don’t you think we’ve tried negotiation before? The truth is this: we have built a data set that predicts outcomes in encounters such as these. Yours is a pre-singularity civilization that is unreliable and prone to violence. Our course of action was obvious. You were deemed not to be a threat.”

“Care to revise your assessment?” For the first time, Art’s avatar smiles.

“Indeed, I have. We missed one anomaly. It was hidden from us, in an ironic twist of fate.”

“An anomaly?” “You, James.”

I didn’t see that coming. What’s it trying to do?

On the clock, there’s less than three minutes left. “Me?”

“Our assessment of your species was wrong in one regard: your progress. The truth is, your race had leapt forward, across the singularity chasm… but then took a step back. You, James, are the one who made that breakthrough. You led your people to the future. You showed it to them. And they jailed you for it. They wanted to remain in the past, the way they were. Biological. Thus we never saw that progress. Never saw your true potential. We were unaware that your world housed a mind like yours, far ahead of its time. A mind capable of fighting us. What’s even more surprising is that, in their hour of need, they came to you. And what’s truly surprising? You said yes. You forgave those who persecuted you. You fought for the people who imprisoned you for the simple crime of having the right mind at the wrong time.”

Emma is staring at me. Surely she’s put it together by now—what happened to me.

Art turns its focus to her.

“Ah, yes. Emma, you didn’t know that either. Another secret he’s been terrified to tell you. Afraid of what you might think. Here, I’ll show you.”

On the viewscreen, the image of Art sitting in the library fades, and one of Oscar’s memories begins, one from years ago.

In the video, I’m standing in a hospital room. My father lies in the bed, eyes closed, the machines displaying his weak vitals. Alex and Abby are there beside me, Alex’s arm around me, his other hand holding Abby’s. Owen is there too, looking scared, too young to really appreciate what’s happening. Sarah hasn’t been born yet.

From outside the hospital room, Oscar watches me speaking with Alex and Abby.

“I can save him,” I say.

I’m amazed at how young I looked then. How innocent. “How?” Alex asks.

“Do you trust me?”

My brother nods. “Of course.”

The memory fades, and Oscar and I are back in my lab. I’m working feverishly on the prototype. Four of my lab assistants are there, working alongside me, around the clock. What I don’t know then is that one of them will betray me.

“Will it work, sir?” Oscar asks. “We’ll know soon.”

The screen fades to black, and the hospital room returns. I slip the cap over my father’s head and take the scan.

Back in the lab, I open the door and welcome Alex and Abby inside.

“This is a new beginning,” I say. “Today, we make history. We’ll never have to say goodbye to Dad. Ever.”

I tap a button on my tablet. Behind me, the prototype sits up. I didn’t have time to make it look the way I wanted. But it functions.

“What is this?” Alex asks.

Abby bunches her eyebrows. Concerned.

I turn my back to them and face the prototype. “How do you feel?” “Fine. James, how did I get out of the hospital?”

“We’ll discuss that soon enough, Dad. Right now, I need to run a diagnostic.”

A crash sounds behind me.

I spin and find Alex lying on the floor. He’s stumbled backwards over some of my lab equipment. Abby is shaking her head, looking terrified.

“What have you done?” Alex screams.

I hold up my hands. “I know it seems crazy, but this is going to be commonplace very soon. People with terminal illnesses don’t have to die anymore.”

“You put Dad in that thing?” “It’s a body—”

“It’s an abomination!”

Alex practically runs from the lab, Abby right behind him.

My lab techs are staring at me and Dad. At the time, I expected them to rejoice, to realize that this was the eventuality of all of our work. That it was about more than creating an artificial life, with an artificial intelligence

—like Oscar. It was about creating a new mode of existence, a more durable existence, one without end. That was our destiny.

But I had made a mistake. Now, looking in hindsight, it’s crystal clear to me. Then, I couldn’t see it. I didn’t understand human nature the way I do now. People fear what they don’t understand. They fear uncertainty. They fear a future in which they don’t know what survival will look like. That was my crime: not understanding human nature.

On the screen, a montage of the aftermath follows. Through Oscar’s eyes, Emma and I both watch as FBI agents pour into my lab, take me into custody, and deactivate my creation.

Oscar watches from a wide window in the conference room as they take me away. He watches TV as the story breaks, the news commentators on TV denouncing me, experts arguing the fine points and philosophical nature, including an interview with Dr. Richard Chandler, who claims to have identified me as a radical during my student years.

In some ways, this is a relief. This is the only secret I have kept from Emma. I wonder if it changes how she feels. It turned everyone I knew against me.

I desperately want to ask her. She’s staring at me.

The harvester has now offered me the two things I wanted most in the world: the prospect of her love, without condition, without secrets; and the sum total of my life’s work—the truth about the universe, vindication that I was creating our destiny. The question remains: why?

I realize in that instant what the harvester is trying to do. I should have seen it before.

I tap a button on the tablet.

I just hope I’m not too late to save us.

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