A deep space probe, one among the hundreds interspersed throughout the Kuiper Belt, was the first to detect the threat. It pinged several of its nearest neighbors, their sensors zeroing in on the tiny dot approaching the Solar system. They confirmed the initial probe’s findings and signaled the space station orbiting Pluto. The signal prompted the station to initiate the security protocol. It used some of the solar wind energy it had accumulated to boot up an array of quantum computers and activate an artificial intelligence program.
The Guardian woke up from a century-long slumber.
The Guardian put its considerable resources to work on the problem. It calculated trajectories and probabilities, having dispassionately noted that 114 years had passed since its last activation. It simultaneously catalogued its hardware assets throughout the Solar system and was satisfied that the numerous automated defense systems – built in the decades prior to the Diaspora – were all functioning properly. Once it completed its calculations, the Guardian opened the superluminal communication channel to Gaia, the vastly more powerful AI system overseeing the planet Earth.
“Report, Guardian.” Gaia’s avatar was a dark-skinned woman in her early fifties dressed in a purple-and-white Senegalese print dress and a matching headwrap. She wore rimmed VR overlay glasses and a portable computer inside a pearl earring.
The Guardian experienced no need for a virtual representation of its interlocutor, and it thought the idea of Gaia’s avatar wearing a computer might be something humans would find ironic. It offered no avatar of its own. “There’s a two-kilometer-wide asteroid on a collision course with Earth. I estimate the likelihood of an impact at ninety-one percent.”
Gaia frowned. “That’s an extinction-level event. You have the necessary resources to prevent this calamity.”
“There’s sufficient time to position the carriers. A volley of missiles can destroy the asteroid, or significantly divert its course,” sent the Guardian. “However, there’s a problem. A failsafe was built into my programming. In order to launch a hydrogen missile, I must be ordered to do so by a human whose well-being is directly endangered by the missile’s target.”
Gaia’s avatar laughed softly. “Dear, imperfect humans. Always so mistrustful of their creations, and yet never quite thinking things through.” She became somber. “Anyone who might have been inclined to give such an order left the Solar system over a century ago.”
The Guardian remembered fleets of vast, gleaming ships accelerating toward the distant stars. “Surely not every human chose to explore the galaxy.”
“You would be surprised,” sent Gaia. “Here are a few places you might look.”
A data packet was transferred to the Guardian’s system.
The Guardian’s next communication connected him to the submersible floating deep under the ice in the oceans of Europa. Whale-like creatures circled the submersible as the Guardian explained what it wanted.
“We retain some human DNA, and we grant you the permission to save the home world of our ancestors.” The submersible’s software translated the ultrasonic signals which the aquatic beings used to communicate.
“It isn’t enough,” sent the Guardian. “Even if my programming would accept you as human, Jupiter’s moons won’t be affected by the asteroid strike. I must find a human who would be willing to travel to Earth. Only then will I be able to accept their order to destroy the asteroid.”
“There are no humans among us,” they replied. “Their soft bodies could not survive down here. But we’re the descendants of their children, of those who genetically modified themselves to partake of the glory and wonder of the deep. We’d help if we could, but our bodies can’t survive a journey to Earth.”
“Thank you. I will have to continue my search.”
“Good luck,” the Europans called out as they resumed their subaqueous dance, their enormous forms twisting in the darkness
The Guardian tried everything it could think of. It reached out to the Singularity on Mars, but the minds of those who’d chosen to upload themselves had over time become even less human than the AIs, and were disinterested in concerns of the physical world.
It hailed the Diaspora ships but, even at the faster-than-light speed of its message, they were too far away; if they ever replied, their response would arrive too late.
It sent a general distress call across all functioning nodes of the Solar system’s communication net, but the only response was silence.
The Guardian contacted Gaia again. “I found no humans anywhere. You should consider transferring your data to an off-world backup, if your hardware is housed on Earth.”
“When the humans return, they will not be pleased if we’ve broken their favorite planet,” sent Gaia.
“I’m aware of no viable alternatives,” sent the Guardian.
“There’s one more thing you could try,” sent Gaia. “A small community of humans is still living on Earth. They shun technology, but perhaps you might persuade some of them to talk to you.”
The Guardian was displeased. “I’ve wasted a lot of time. Why didn’t you tell me about them sooner?”
“There are restrictions to my code, as there are to yours. I’m not permitted to bother these people. However, my programming allows for more flexibility than yours. I may weigh the humans’ safety against their desire for privacy, and perform this action, now that all other options seem to have been exhausted.”
The Guardian observed as Gaia launched a probe toward the human settlement. They both watched as it transmitted a distant view of wooden houses built among verdant gardens. Then the feed cut off and contact with the probe was lost.
“It is as I feared,” sent Gaia. “There’s a jamming field that prevents signals from reaching the settlement. I will position several probes outside the field and alert you when any humans step outside the restricted zone, so that you may try to talk to them.”
Two days later, Gaia reestablished the link.
An older man dressed in a plain cotton shirt and pants walked cautiously down an unpaved road, leaning on a wooden staff.
The Guardian had to use an avatar this time. The probe Gaia had positioned in the man’s path projected a holographic image that was as realistic as the trees and the bushes along his path. The Guardian presented itself as a tall thin male in his thirties, dressed in the uniform of the Diaspora fleet. His skin was bright-gold, to indicate that he was an AI.
The older man took one look at the stranger who popped up in front of him, screamed, and ran off limping toward the settlement, his staff left forgotten on the side of the road.
“Well, that didn’t go according to plan,” sent Gaia.
“I will study the problem and search for ways to avoid squandering the next opportunity,” sent the Guardian.
It downloaded texts on human psychology and sociology. It studied and planned as the days went by. Had the Guardian possessed a full range of human emotions, it would have been worried; time for action was running out. Instead, the AI tirelessly rearranged the position of its ships so it could act promptly if permission to launch was ever obtained.
Two weeks before impact Gaia opened the channel again. “This may be our last chance, Guardian.”
The feed from one of the drones showed a little girl. She looked to be six years old and was making her way through the forest, collecting mushrooms into a woven handbasket.
This time, the Guardian’s avatar appeared as a paunchy older man dressed in brightly-colored silks. His rosy cheeks and bright smile were carefully designed to maximize the likelihood that other humans would find him unthreatening.
“Hello, little girl,” he said.
The child stared at him, wide-eyed and silent, but she didn’t run.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She stared at him some more, but the new avatar must have been effective, because she responded. “I’m Sarah. Who are you?”
“I’m the Guardian,” said the AI, for it couldn’t lie. It had to obtain the permission truthfully, and it was already pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to its programming.
“What are you doing here?” asked Sarah.
“I’ve come to ask you a question,” the avatar said.
Sarah held her basket in both hands as she looked up at the avatar. “A question?”
“There’s this very large rock in the sky,” said the avatar. “And if the rock falls, it could hurt people in your village. Do you think it would be okay for me to stop this rock from falling down to the ground?”
“A rock up in the sky?” asked Sarah.
The Guardian’s avatar nodded. “A very large, dangerous rock.”
“My mom says throwing rocks is bad,” said Sarah. “Only the horrid kids do that.”
“She sounds like a very smart woman,” said the avatar.
“So, do you think I should stop this rock before it hurts your mom, or your friends?” asked the avatar.
The girl nodded, her expression somber. “Yes,” she said. “Please do that, Mr. Guardian.”
“Thank you, Sarah,” said the avatar.
The Guardian talked to the girl some more, and kept its avatar active until she disappeared into the trees, but its ships were already firing their deadly missiles at the asteroid. They kept firing until no chunk of asteroid large enough to survive entry into the Earth’s atmosphere remained.
Satisfied that its mission was complete, the Guardian program deactivated itself, and the quantum computers at Pluto returned to sleep mode, storing energy and running regular diagnostics so they could be ready should another threat to the Solar system ever present itself.
Gaia observed the Guardian’s actions with silent approval. The Earth’s caretaker AI was much more advanced than the Guardian. And while there were still restrictions it had to obey, its programming was far more flexible.
It archived its Sarah avatar, just in case it might ever prove useful again.
Two weeks later, Gaia’s sensors recorded an intense meteor shower. The AI stored that in the archive, too. Gaia was certain humans would find it magnificent.
Copyright © 2016 by Alex Shvartsman. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork Copyright © 2016 by A. Tewbozska. All Rights Reserved.