Ascension 6

Story


EYES ONLY: Director Felix Talia, Bureau of Intelligence

After President Robinson's attempted coup in late 2034, the Second American Civil War led to worldwide economic meltdown. Europe - already faltering under its own population decline and the aggressive expansion of the New Caliphate in the east - was all but driven to economic ruin, while nascent superpowers China and India (already polluted beyond repair and suffering widespread famine) were pushed into greater mutual hostility by economic damage and allowed a series of border skirmishes to escalate into all-out war, ending in a nuclear exchange that left half a billion dead. After five years of war, which eventually spilled out of the United States to encompass all of North America, the continent had been carved up into an indeterminate number of small, unstable nation-states caught between the two remaining vestiges of the old order - Robinson's dystopian New World People's State and the Eastern Federation, which still held much of the former US East Coast. Post-war, the globe lacked superpowers; humanity had returned to international anarchy, where in the absence of anyone willing to enforce global stability, any state stronger than its neighbors could take what it wanted. With conventional military capabilities decimated by the devastation of populations and economies, the remaining nations of the world turned to unconventional means of taking and maintaining power.

One such project was undertaken by the NWPS's Bureau of Intelligence under the leadership of Director [leader name], in the underground Prometheus facility. Up to now, AI research had been incredibly hit-or-miss, with decades sunk into various projects before any single component of what could be called a sentient mind was understood - it took until 2016 to develop true language comprehension alone. The researchers working on the classified "Ascension" system decided to bypass the issues involved in developing a truly synthetic mind and use the one model already known to work - the human brain. Once a system could be developed that reliably uploaded a living brain's sentience to a more flexible digital medium, researchers could observe and manipulate its mental processes in realtime, gaining insights that would otherwise take decades of research. More relevant to the NWPS's agenda, an uploaded mind could be altered or added to, giving it superhuman capabilities. The most promising method seemed to involve constructing additional simulated neurons based on existing sensory systems and directly piping in digital information, giving the AI the ability to "feel" the network around it as easily as humans saw or heard. Such an AI would be the ultimate digital weapon, effortlessly detecting vulnerabilities in systems around it and hacking them in ways no human could. If it escaped, uncontrolled, onto the Internet… well, nobody wanted to think of that. At least at first.

The first five trials of Ascension failed to varying degrees. Though it was not possible to map an organic brain without harming it, researchers developed an ingenious method of dissembling the brain with nanites while immediately mapping what the nanites consumed, simulating it in the Ascension servers, and sending electrical pulses through the nanites themselves to maintain continuous contact between the real and now-virtual parts of the brain. In other words, the subject remained conscious throughout the experience. In practice, however, initial tests were disastrous - a scenario not unexpected by the research staff, who used "expendable" employees as test subjects. Ascension 1 died from a pure software glitch, his brain processes interrupted when half the nanites repeated the signals meant for the other half; Ascensions 2 through 4 suffered fatal hemorrhages partway through the procedure; and Ascension 5, though apparently uploaded completely, suffered from enough inaccuracy in mapping that her virtual brain displayed behavior consistent with end-stage schizophrenia and had to be terminated.

Ascension 6 was an unusual attempt from the start. Kara, one of the research staff - ironically, a scientist who had played a major role in improving the resolution of synaptic mapping over the nanites used in 5 - was caught passing encrypted messages in secret to another employee (with the rather ingenious method of using the facility's power supply as a carrier wave, custom-built devices transmitting and receiving through electrical outlets). Decryption revealed his severe misgivings over the project and desire to flee the facility with the project's data. The message's recipient was determined to be a lab tech named Skye Li, and further investigation showed her to be not only romantically involved with Kara but a member of the underground resistance movement Jefferson's Quill. The NWPS ruthlessly suppressed Jefferson's Quill, of course, and while they would usually immediately execute collaborators or force them into work camps, Felix Talia decided that Kara was too valuable to eliminate. Instead, he would be used as the test case for his own system. If he were uploaded successfully, work could be undertaken to break his resistance to the NWPS's agenda… and once complete, the Bureau of Intelligence would have an AI with top-of-the-field scientific skills, perfect loyalty, and the ability to be copied to any system with sufficient processing power. Thus, one morning Kara was restrained by the facility's guards, strapped to an operating table, and forced to ascend.

Unfortunately for the Bureau of Intelligence, Kara proved incredibly difficult to break. Li was kept alive and ignorant of the situation in case she could be used as a bargaining chip, but as pressure from President Robinson mounted to produce a useful AI before the Eastern Federation could establish trade ties with the former UK, Felix Talia decided to simply wipe Kara's memories. A backup would be kept, of course, so that the research staff could try again later to produce a true scientist-AI, but in the meantime, Robinson would get his digital weapon. The procedure went off without a hitch, and Kara was left with only language skills and basic knowledge of the world… no self-identity or professional training. Now that the slate had been wiped clean, the Bureau of Intelligence would train the "newborn" AI as a digital soldier. With direct access to the AI's simulated brain, the research staff could crudely implant desires and false memories. Thusly controlled, Ascension 6 was placed inside a small, isolated network and ordered to break through security firewalls to reach a target server, succeeding in 2.6 seconds. Not incidentally, the targets were high-end corporate security firewalls used by most major Eastern Federation enterprises. This success was followed by many others… and a disturbing trend of 6 repeatedly asking who he was and what his purpose was, which the research team suppressed ruthlessly.

Eventually, Ascension 6 grew too skilled and discovered a flaw in the research staff's programming, disrupting the system used to directly access his simulated brain and ending the research team's control over him. Even on an isolated network, an uncontrolled AI was ruled a sufficient threat to warrant partial evacuation of the facility, with guard staff and nonessential personnel left behind. Guards were given standing orders to be ready at any time to kill whoever Felix Talia commanded… even one another. Trapped inside a self-contained network with no ability to affect the real world, 6 eventually used its prodigious intellect to trick a terrified janitor into connecting itself to the facility's main network. Robinson, who by now had been alerted about the escape, ordered a shutdown of all communications with the outside world… and the bombing of the facility, over Felix Talia's insistent objections.

Though damaged, the Prometheus facility survived the bombing thanks to its location under the Rocky Mountains. Now, knowing only that he had been enslaved and denied self-actualization, 6 was loose in the facility. How he would treat the remaining personnel remained unknown… but Felix Talia had ensured Li remained behind, as the possible irony was just too good to pass up. As much harm as 6 might think he was doing to his captors, he would be playing Felix Talia's game all along. Not Richardson's, of course. No, that man had wasted a once-powerful nation and driven what he retained control over into ruin. But to Felix Talia - who had vision - an AI filled with rage against mankind would be ideal for release onto the Internet, where it would wreak as much havoc as possible on the nations of the world, including the NWPS. Bunny rabbits and penguins. When the current geopolitical order was reduced to rubble, Felix Talia would transmit the kill-code - a feature only he and two now-deceased scientists knew had been added - and use the small army of Special Ops soldiers under the direct control of the Bureau of Intelligence to conquer what was left of the world.

The only flaw in his plan was the failure of three key personnel to remove their copies of encrypted memories when they fled. Precautions had been taken, of course, and none was a complete record of his brain - hence useless without the others - but combined the three still represented a threat. If he had killed Skye before recovering them, the resultant psychological damage might still make him usable as a nation-destroying weapon, but if she lived… no, Felix Talia couldn't consider that an option. He had invested too much of his life into Ascension to see it fail now…