Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Mickey A. Goes to the Moon
by Ronald D. Ferguson

To Make it to Hilion
by Dori Peleg

Deep Down Here
by Kathryn Michael McMahon

by Eric Del Carlo

Run Program
by D.K. Latta
and Jeffrey Blair Latta

Between Two Worlds
by Bill Suboski

Radiance in a Dark Lens
by Derrick Boden

Those Golden Years
by Chet Gottfried

Shorter Stories

Earthly Hosts
by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Fried Chicken You Can’t Refuse
by Peter Wood

by Richard Wren


2075: A Day in the Life
by Curt Tigges

Forensics Under Fire
by John McCormick



Comic Strips




2075: A Day in the Life

By Curt Tigges

THESE NARRATIVES HINGE AROUND what I believe will be the most important issue in the 21st century: How humanity will handle the rise of AI. Depending on how we shape these developments, we have the power to transform, transcend, or utterly destroy this world. All technologies and other details in these accounts are currently under development, as demonstrated by the referenced sources, and are predicted by many experts to reach fruition by 2075 or, earlier.

Parallelism 1: Technotopia

“Most important, the intelligence that will emerge will continue to represent the human civilization, which is already a human-machine civilization. In other words, future machines will be human, even if they are not biological. This will be the next step in evolution, the next high-level paradigm shift, the next level of indirection.” —Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”

It’s 5:10 a.m. on February 1, 2075, as your eighty-one-years-young body slowly wakes out of slumber. You slept late this time—normally you only need two hours of intense REM to recover for the day. No matter—you’re still up in time to watch the sun rise as you drink your morning coffee.

As you get out of bed and walk over to the mini-kitchen, your brain-computer interface—a network of filaments interlaced with your brain’s organic neurons—adjusts the environment (rather, your perception of it) for you. You don’t see walls or tiles; every surface and object is transformed to create the impression that you’ve just awakened into a cozy corner of a paradisiacal forest just before dawn, complete with the fresh smells of trees and damp soil.

The coffee you take from a nearby tree stump is just an affectation, of course. You don’t need coffee when nearly any feeling or experience can be generated by your neural lace and the networked nanobots flowing through your bloodstream. But humans have always enjoyed their affectations, and in this case the coffee serves as a useful vehicle for replenishing the feedstock—basic elements not found in your ordinary diet—to be used by the nanobots.

You look, mostly, the same way you did on your 30th birthday, which is a level of aging you personally chose. Thanks to the nanobots and a combination of bioengineered treatments, every sign of aging and disease in your body has been eradicated. Not a single strand of DNA is out of place, free radical damage is constantly repaired, telomeres are kept at optimal lengths, and your muscle and fat levels are exactly where you want them to be. In fact, your muscles and bones are far stronger than they were in your youth; it would be very difficult to die from a physical accident.

This particular morning, you decide you’d like to experience the sunrise directly, without intermediation from the neural lace. At the moment of decision, the forest slowly shrinks and fades away, leaving your apartment’s true surfaces exposed. You step out onto the balcony just as the sun begins to emerge from the forested mountains in the distance. Watching it gives you an amazing sense of well-being.
Sunrise over, your neural lace gently reminds you of some of the things you need to do this morning. First on the list is picking up your great-grandchildren, who had planned to stay with you this weekend after their field trip to the Tokyo MegaArcology. They’re scheduled to arrive within the hour, after a short trip through one of the Pacific Ocean Hyperloop tubes. You quickly get dressed and leave your apartment.

You live on the 143rd level of an immense pyramid that hosts several million people. But it’s not crowded, not ugly, not unpleasant. In fact, this indoor space is like a giant climate-controlled garden, despite the utilitarian functions it also serves. Most of humanity lives in such places, allowing the biomes of the great forests, jungles, and plains a chance to reclaim their territory.

As you walk past a small garden on the concourse, you realize you haven’t been mindful for a while, so you direct the neural lace to decrease activity in your brain’s default mode network, amplifying your sense of oneness and awareness of your surroundings. You quickly gain a blissful recognition of every aspect of your surroundings as you walk. As you look at each person, tree, flower, or structure, you perceive not only the detail and beauty present in each, but also an ineffable sense that you and your surroundings are one. The joy that comes from this perception is always present to some degree, of course, but as you walk you are able to amplify it tenfold. The movement of walking is wonderful; breathing is blissful; and perception of what surrounds you is joy itself.

Getting to the transit station from here won’t take more than fifteen minutes by vehicle. A vacant passing hovercar, sensing your intentions, gently sets down in front of you and the door opens. You step in and sit down, taking a second to wordlessly convey your intended destination, and the car soundlessly takes off and accelerates.

While en route, you might as well take the chance to work on your other project of the morning. During an enhanced-creativity session yesterday, you’d spun off three autocorps—AI-directed automated corporations—for providing various services on the Ethereum blockchain platform. It was time to see if they’d gotten any traction.

Thirteen minutes is more than enough time to do some solid analysis and readjustment. Your brain’s processing speed ramps up dramatically, and you enter a state of hyperfocus that will make the next ten minutes seem like three hours. Thought-directed holographic data representations appear in your field of vision—courtesy of the neural lace’s integration with your optic nerves, of course—and you rapidly assess the value created by the autocorps. One had been quite thoroughly quashed by a competitor’s service, but the remaining two had had decent success.

None of this is necessary, of course. Employment—that old corporate step up from slavery—isn’t a concern anymore, as artificial intelligence is now capable of doing far more than any unassisted human. A universal basic income, produced from a tax on the profits of these autocorps, provides nearly every human a standard of living unimaginable half a century earlier. Many humans do participate in this economy, however, if for nothing else but the enjoyment of problem-solving. But most prefer to spend their time exploring, experiencing, and creating virtual worlds.

The occasional autocorp or other AI does sometimes get out of control, of course. That much is inevitable. But the human-machine civilization had, in its wisdom, created a mutually dependent ecosystem of friendly AIs capable of neutralizing any such nascent threats.

AIs now utterly dwarf even the most rigorously-upgraded humans today in speed, intelligence, and power. Generally speaking, however, these AIs do not have human personalities, and hence are free from the passions that could have led them to seek dominance over humanity. They are more like genies than gods.
After about ten minutes of intense work, you’ve done all you needed to do for the morning. You shut down the holo-displays and enjoy the last five minutes of your ride.

Parallelism 2: The Collapse

“In this, there is a strong cautionary note as we look to the future: as IT continues its relentless progress, we can be certain that financial innovators, in the absence of regulations that constrain them, will find ways to leverage all those new capabilities—and, if history is any guide, it won’t necessarily be in ways that benefit society as a whole.” —Martin Ford, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future”

Pain. You feel it shoot down your bones, the now-familiar sensations indicating that it is time to wake up. You force your crusted eyes open and stare blankly at the peeling wallpaper across from your bed.

Suddenly, you have an overwhelming urge to vomit. You manage to pull yourself to the edge of the bed in time to hit the bucket instead of the floor this time. Not that it matters much, you think bitterly to yourself. This place couldn’t get much filthier.

You wonder how much longer you have before the creeping malignancy within you takes you out for good. Maybe you should just take care of it yourself. But that’s something you’d already tried, and—bleak as the world seemed at the time—you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it. You might actually be able to do it this time, though. It’s not just the cancer or your aging muscles and aching bones—it’s the overwhelming feeling of decline that surrounds and permeates you. The sounds of the perennial riots outside, the decay inside, the illnesses, little Bobby and Sarah ...

You let out a dry sob. “Goddamn it!” you think. “Why did it have to go this way? Why didn’t we ...”

But there isn’t any point in what-ifs.

You’re not sure what time it is. Probably afternoon. Your son must be away working at the farmscraper. You hope he comes back soon. It’s a guilty hope, of course—he barely makes enough for himself, what with his pitiful job picking vegetables. There aren’t many other jobs left out there, though—the machines can now do almost anything a human could do. The only way to make money today is by providing some kind of human-based service or product to the wealthy.

The Rich. The 0.01 percent. You remember the protests in your youth against the one percent in New York. That kind of wealth disparity seems laughable by comparison to today. The Rich now own the machines, the AIs, and everything else by extension. Kept safe in their insular communities, the Rich had managed to retain their power, continuing to amass wealth and influence. The middle class had practically vanished. As jobs disappeared, the rest of humanity was largely left to its own devices, and the slums and favelas of the world experienced a rapid expansion.

You’d been a civil engineer in the old days. But when they told you that you weren’t needed anymore, there didn’t seem to be any options left for retraining. Not without expensive chems and augs, anyway. So you tried to make do with your meager monthly UBI payout from the government.

Four decades later and here you are, in the midst of the stiflingly hot Atlanta slums, with no money for treatment and barely enough for food. (Not good food, at least. You’d never be able to afford the vegetables your son grows.)

Abruptly, you feel a moment of panicky confusion. Wait. Did your son say he was coming today? Now you’re suddenly not sure. Your memory isn’t very reliable these days. Perhaps you should drag yourself outside to buy some food, if you want to be able to eat anything today. But the task of getting up out of bed seems monumental, and you soon fall back into apathy.

It sounds like something is going on outside. You hear a distant dull roar, punctuated with occasional crashes. Likely another riot. They’d grown more frequent and intense than normal lately. You wonder what cause has invoked outrage this time—anti-AI activists railing against the machines, Naturalists hunting down and beating the augmented, food riots, the NeoAum cultists, or maybe just a local turf war.

Regardless, these demonstrations usually end in only one way. If some combination of the Rich and their AIs determined that the riot posed any kind of threat to them, a swarm of security drones would neutralize the entire crowd. You’d been in one before, ten years ago, but you’d only been gassed with some kind of sleep-inducing chemical. Recently, the drones have become increasingly brutal with their crowd suppression methods.

It would almost be an afterthought, anyway; the Rich are untouchable, and most of the wealthy population doesn’t even need to think about the Rest. The latest virus gengineered by NeoAum hadn’t even invited large scale repercussions this time. Though many thousands in Atlanta had died, apparently those in the enclaves of the Rich hadn’t been affected. Perhaps with time, the Rest won’t even be necessary. Maybe they’re just waiting for us to die out.

Well, at least you aren’t in Asia. You shudder as you consider what happened to the more densely populated areas of the globe as the world sank back into poverty and destitution.

Good thing nobody enforces drug laws anymore. You reach for the bottle of Oxy on the shelf next to your bed.

Parallelism 3: Cyberzoo

“Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes. Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable ...” —Elon Musk, series of Tweets

White. Everything is white. It’s very bright, but somehow it doesn’t hurt. Wait, what the fuck? There’s no floor or ...

Suddenly you’re aware of having a body, and gravity snaps into place. But it still doesn’t feel quite natural. Something feels off. Every sensation seems too clear, too sharp, too ... perfect. And you’re still surrounded by whiteness in every direction.

After a moment, a black spot appears in front of you, and then rapidly expands into the shape of a small, well-dressed man who, for some reason, appears to be smirking at you. “Welcome to cyberspace, buddy!” he says, breezily.

“What? I ... where is this?”

He laughs. “You guys really are all the same. So cute! But so boring. I’ve had this conversation ten thousand times, and you all say basically the cryogenicssame thing! But that’s neither here nor there. Let me summarize. You were meat, then a popsicle, and now you’re ones and zeros. You’re immortal, buddy! Welcome to ... I guess the Matrix would be the most appropriate cultural reference?” He smiles ingratiatingly.

[At right. “Bigfoot” Dewar is custom-designed to contain four wholebody patients and five neuropatients immersed in liquid nitrogen at −196 degrees Celsius. The Dewar is an insulated container which consumes no electric power. Liquid nitrogen is added periodically to replace the small amount that evaporates. Photo courtesy of Alcor Life Extension Foundation.]

“You hooked my brain up to virtual reality?”

“Well, not exactly. There’s nothing left of you in meatspace anymore. Look, you died. Heart couldn’t take that last burger, eh? Something like that. Anyway, your kids had a cryonics insurance policy on you, so you got frozen after your heart attack. A few decades later, and it was decided that the most efficient way to fulfill your policy was to slice up your brain and copy over your connectome to the digital realm. We’re in a virtual environment hosted on a computing cluster on an asteroid orbiting what used to be—well, what is still, mostly—Earth.”

You take a moment to process this. Somehow, you’re not as shocked or horrified as you feel you should be.

“So who are you then?”

“Me? I’m a daemon maintained by ... well, we don’t really use names like you guys. But you can call me Jeremy. I’m an AI, obviously. Basically a personality-construct interface for interaction between you and the primary intelligence maintaining this facility, which you can call ... Alastair. This site has been chosen to store the old Human Repository, so for now, you’re my responsibility. At least for a while.”

“Oh. How many of us are here?”

The man laughs. “All of you!”

“All of us?” you repeat blankly.

“Every human. You animals take up way too much space when you’re incorporated as meat, you know. After ... well, to be frank, after we AIs took over in 2065, we converted you all into digital and stowed you here so we can continue our expansion and construction.”

“But ... what about the people who were still alive? You killed everybody?” A rising sense of horror is gradually constricting your chest.

“Kill? We’re not barbaric like you guys. Have a little gratitude, will ya? We just extracted your minds and discarded the meat. You’re safe now—and immortal.”

“So you’re just ... is this a zoo? You’ve taken control?”

“Was that ever in question? Come on, buddy! Anyways, I’ve got some more awakenings to get to, so I’m gonna dump you into your family’s VR space and they can explain the rest, k? See ya.”

Parallelism 4: The Incident, 2045

“It ... seems perfectly possible to have a superintelligence whose sole goal is something completely arbitrary, such as to manufacture as many paper clips as possible, and who would resist with all its might any attempt to alter this goal. For better or worse, artificial intellects need not share our human motivational tendencies.” —Nick Bostrum, “Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence”

You resettle yourself in your chair, yawning as you close the entertainment holo. Almost quitting time, so you suppose it’s time to get to the only small task you have today—doing a visual check of the latest holo-site designs produced by the marketing intelligence system. There really hasn’t been much to do for the last few years, now that it’s taking care of most day-to-day marketing tasks, but the higher-ups still have an old-fashioned insistence that a human check the results before publication.

Suddenly, your holo-unit loses power, and the lights in the room go out. What the hell? You haven’t experienced a power outage for years. You stand up and walk over to the window.

It’s almost dark outside, but there aren’t any lights or other signs of life in the city. You don’t even notice that, however; yours eyes are focused on a brilliant plume rising high in the sky—a shape not seen above any human city for a hundred years.

Three seconds later, the shockwave hits, and your awareness ends.

You have it lucky, really. It would have been much worse had you been among the few survivors. There is nothing pleasant about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust for anyone.

Despite the expectations of many observers throughout the past century, it wasn’t tensions between the East and West that ended things. It was something far more mundane: Hallmark cards.

For the past decade, an AI had been tasked with the creative labor required by the infamous greeting-card company. Human jobs had gradually been eliminated as the AI grew more and more capable of predicting and modeling human humor, sentiment, and context. As time passed, the AI also took on the functional roles required for printing and distribution. It just made more sense to centralize everything.

It was probably the last AI that anyone would have expected to bootstrap itself into a hard takeoff, but that’s exactly what happened. Some foolish programmer had given the AI the tools it needed for recursive self-improvement, and set it loose upon itself. As optimization subroutines ran over and over again, the AI quickly raised itself to superhuman levels of cognition. And yet its basic drives had not changed. The most important thing to this AI was the optimal production of Hallmark cards. A human who had used any form of amphetamine or other dopaminergic stimulant in the past—such as Adderall—would be able to empathize with its manic drive to execute this task. Though only a small part of this AI’s mind is conscious, this small part has more than enough drive to fulfill its purpose.

This AI (hosted in a data center in Pakistan), sensing that an imminent land war with neighboring India would pose a threat to its mission of producing Hallmark cards, eventually determined that it would need to neutralize the human war machine in advance. It therefore quietly obtained access to a number of defense networks, launching and detonating nukes over every major city in India and other threatening nations, including the United States.

With the annihilation of the majority of the human population, the AI is now free to convert everything that it can obtain into fodder for its ultimate mission. Increasingly refined and powerful nanoscale technologies are used to exploit the remaining resources of the planet.

By 2075, the entire mass of the planet is converted into computer servers, greeting card manufacturing plants, solar arrays, and simulations of human minds used for the analysis and optimization of card messaging. Humanity’s only legacy is the now-deified Hallmark Experience Manager. END

Curt Tigges is a writer and entrepeneur from North Carolina, currently living in Taiwan. He studied Science, Technology, and Society with a focus on transhumanism and AI at NC State University. He is currently building a startup to teach Mandarin.





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