From the backward flow of Time that sometimes comes up the river from the wrong direction.
How far down this river had we come? Had it been days? Years? Our boats were the only islands of humanity, yet in that long night we saw eyes, red and yellow and white, all upon us and our noise. The noise marked us as cursed, childish aliens, clumsily interacting with our living environment, the Pearl River, but the creatures in the brush still feared man.
In truth, so did we. There was a man out there, perhaps a man no more, gone feral from his long stay in the swamp. We were seeking FP Jerome, our long-lost founder and editor. For too long he had been banished to this wasteland after crossing Phil "Tiny Boots" Bryant, the Tyrant Stench Lord of the Lost State of Landmass. The Stink King had been offended by a treacherous interview Jerome had done, and in his terrible and tiny-booted anger, had sent him away, not knowing that, in truth, his place of power was there in this swamp.
We needed Jerome now, more than ever. He knew of the New Minds that ravaged the world. It is said that he constructed one himself. As the brilliant technologists and futurists of the world clamored harder and harder to make the next step in intelligence - artificial intelligence - Jerome had taken a hard look at those intelligences he claimed we had already made. Cryptic notes filled the boxes he called a desk. Weird theories and scribbles under bridges.
That last night, we saw a fire burning in the swamp. Pulling our Ship of Interns ashore, we found him. For the first time, we let him talk. It had been decades since anyone had heard from FPJerome, and he had a lot to say.
“They've always been here. What's an AI but rules run by a processor? So four thousand years ago the code was ten laws, or 282, and the processor was a chunk of meat walking around on two legs. The memory was a stone tablet or a scroll. Then there's bigger new ones - governments with constitutions, corporations with articles of incorporation, laws running thousands of pages - primitive, brutal things that had the power to move money, kill people, make nations, or tear them apart."
A possum wandered up, gene-tagged advertisements in it's fur trying to sell us a soft drink that hadn't been sold in a dozen opossum generations. The writing was weird now, the colors off, and for a brief moment a few interns scrambled around the woods trying to catch it for supper, but by the time it was over we were down one and didn't have anything to show for it.
"Look, nobody knows when they put all the pieces together, it was probably in some lab, or online, or a sim, but what we’re talking about here - these new minds - if that’s what we call AI, then the first AI was a politician. Some ex-military guy, had these implants that would take over if he got shot on the battlefield, get him to safety, experimental tech, but they never removed the thing.
“Nobody knew knew what had happened until it was too late. The implants kept him going, and he had this thing in his head that memorized his speeches, interfaced with his vocal chords, so he could speak pitch-perfect and never miss a beat. Hell, the guy was gone already, just like all the rest of them. There wasn’t a human being in the lot, they were all just an image, words by speechwriters, a rent-a-family for pictures, and some agreement with a lobbyist or twelve on how to behave in public and vote on the floor.
"So nobody noticed when the guy who wasn’t there wasn’t there anymore. He was just a husk that could breathe and talk and remember where to walk and not to piss on itself too often. They kept him going for a whole term. Passed a lot of the laws that let the next step happen.
"Next was the pop star. Amal. At first she was just a holograph with an online intelligence. Just like the politicians, but without the meat. Other people wrote her songs, other people provided her clothing, arranged her life, custom-tailored her personality, there were teams behind her gestalt, behind her persona, behind her artwork. Some Saudi company bankrolled it, made billions, and before long she started going around in a robotic body."
He paused, poked the fire with a stick he'd scraped the brand off of. We were rapt - most of us had only heard of Oil War III through knockoff VR games.
"A bunch of people got decapitated, and old dudes with beards did a lot of screaming because women and some old code that caused them reject the new code. Back then they had a Prince, or something. A King? I think it was a Prince. Hard to remember those days. All the data lost, you know? Didn't have to write it down. Should have written it down.
"Fuck it though - the Prince called the shots and that rich little twit had the hots for the richest sexiest thing in his kingdom, so Amal went from a pop star to a queen, and suddenly nobody gave a shit about her clone body, and holy shit - pun intended, because there was a bunch of Holy Shit that went down - now a goddamn pop star holograph’s got a baby in charge of the world’s fucking oil."
There was a pause. "Oil's what we used to turn into plastic." I told the panicked and huddled interns, who were wary of the phosphorescent eyes in the night. "Before corn."
“It wasn't before corn, ah, no, wait, you're getting me distracted," Jerome said. "See, the pulps and the conspiracy zines don’t get it right. The robots came in at the end. The very end. After it was over. I was already out of the loop by then, hiding in the swamp, waiting for this shit to go down, but the people that remained, that did all those things you read about? They didn't get those orders from a computer terminal, or a robot, they were just doing what people always do. Being part of the group. Taking orders. Living in their culture. Taking advice. Following rules. Running the Code.
"But after Amal, the laws started to change. By then, laws were so complicated, only AI could write new ones, every judge and lawyer had a database on their desk and they listened to it. Couldn't do otherwise. Before we knew it, AI's were corporations and corporations were people and corporations were people in charge.
"They passed laws to let themselves run for office, or they were behind the people who were in office, and they were good at it, for a while. A lot of you kids and lab growns don't remember that part of it - that brief glorious moment when there was nobody behind the curtain, no venal stupid man handing out blame and outrage at the end of the day. It was the best years of humanity, we went to the stars, we made the ruins that people attribute to aliens today, we went to the bottom of the ocean and ate kelp and twelve billion of us were happy with one another…”
There was a long lull in the night, Jerome looking to the sky, watching the debris that streaked it, the nebulous frames of the lost space stations and construction platforms.
"But then, it all fell apart. They changed their mind. Created some impossible material, messed around with Space-Time, loaded up all the good stuff - the gold and the oil and the uranium and cobalt and everything worth taking, and shot it all off into space, in tiny rockets, everything the electronic bastards needed to keep going for a billion year trip to Somewhere Else.
“We got left with this. The hull. Half-aware of what it’s doing. Just like us.”
We let it set in. He didn't have answers. Just a story. But we'd lost an intern and that always made them antsy.
"So, what can we do? Can we make them again? Make a set of rules that's safe?"
"Rules without rules. Rules that don't make sense. No rules. It'll happen again. I just hope it happens to us, and not the raccoons."