Electricity ran past the servos of the gigantic, water-cooled reinforced steel slab in the middle of the cold room, its cables connecting the rows of servers and databanks along the walls to the central unit. This machine had no off switch, for it could not be switched off at the risk of total loss of data and functionality. The central processing unit, two meters tall, half a meter wide, a meter deep, stood tall and proud, busily processing data through its dozens of ultra-powerful microprocessors, analysing, learning, discarding, rewriting, creating data at unimaginable speeds. Just outside the CPU area, surrounding the small refrigerated room, separated from it by thick layers of insulation materials, was a wide observation hall, a few feet in width, just enough to fit a couple of cubicles, all facing the thick glass panels along the walls. The desks were untidy, clearly showing signs of constant usage, with paper clips and loose notes littering the surfaces of the small metal tables, the wheels on the chairs worn from constant motion, the springs on the seats loose and barely holding up. There was no financial reason the chairs were not replaced, there simply was not a time when they were not occupied by the members of the small supervision and research team. The stacks of solid state drives and thermal coolant tubes left gaps just wide enough to peek through into the centre of the room on three of the four walls, the fourth having a surprisingly small yet sturdy door that led directly into the CPU. On this wall, there was a single desk, slightly wider than the rest, with tidy stacks of papers lining the edges of the otherwise empty space next to the computer screen and keyboard. Other items of note on the desk were a 4in figurine of a Transformers character and a well-polished nameplate. The nameplate read “Dr. Charles Besson – Chief A.I. Supervisor".
Charles was a tall man, slightly out of shape, who believed he had the potential to be handsome if he cared enough; his dedication to his work showed in his scruffy 1a.m. beard, his (quite poorly) home-trimmed hair, the deep, black circles around his eyes and the general stench of despair and nicotine he gave off. He paced around, looking over the shoulders of the six scientists spread across the squared hallway – the Ouroboros, as they affectionately called it – observing their notes, scrutinizing the lines of code darting by the screens, their eyes skipping from one corner of the monitor to the other, their rapid keystrokes unanimously forming a cacophony that rivalled the loud, heavy sound of Thunderstruck playing from the speaker system, hooked up to one of the team members’ Spotify workout playlist.
He stopped behind a woman of average stature, skinny build, short, messy hair partially covering her offset glasses. She wasn’t sitting on the chair per say, but rather in a position more akin to perching, arms reaching around her bent knees to just about get to the keyboard, her slender fingers furiously hammering the keyboard. To the side of her busy hands, an open Thesaurus, to which her quick, jerky head movements guided her eyes on occasion, before they immediately jumped back onto the screen. Her labcoat tied by the sleeves around her waist like a half-skirt held on as the kickback from her arms caused the chair to swivel rhythmically from left to right, her ID card following the rhythm hanging over her chest. An unamused mugshot accompanied the name, “Dr. Camille P."
“Cam", he said, calling her attention. “Cam!"
“What?", she asked, without turning back. Speaking caused her to break her focus for a split second, time enough to commit a typo on the system. She sighed deeply, backspaced to the misplaced letter, and corrected it. She glanced at Besson for a moment, and went back to her task. “What do you want?"
“How’s the lexicon going?"
“Looking good, boss", she replied, this time confident. “Seven-hundred kay words keyed in, plus variations. Makin’ good progress", she said, pausing for a second, “when I’m not being interrupted."
“Full report by tonight?", Besson said, smiling a tired smile.
“Bite me", she barked back, going back to punishing the cheap plastic keycaps at her mercy.
Charles paced some more, then settled for the heavy single door leading into the CPU. Through the little window in the door, he saw it in all its frozen climate glory: Project Chiron, the result of decades of research, work, trials, errors, sacrifices and setbacks. If all went to plan, within the weekend, Chiron would be the world’s first fully autonomous learning machine. A true Artificial Intelligence.
Chiron was not a cheap effort: over the last eight years, thousands and thousands of dollars had been put into it, from building up the chamber in which it lies, to permits and licenses and legal hell, to assembling the small think-tank that currently worked at the Ouroboros. Programmers, mathematicians, linguists, data analysts, great minds of all fields of academics, working together towards constructing the perfect artificial mind. Most of them were interns, fresh graduates or even Senior year students at the University, a ways of “aiding in their career paths" – Charles knew this was a cheap way of cutting costs, but he didn’t mind. He felt it adequate that a project intent in bettering the means of education be an educational experience in itself; not to mention, every pair of capable hands was a great help in this mostly independent project.
The ultimate goal of Chiron was, put simply, to trigger a Singularity event in human history: the idea of a self-replicating – and a self-improving – machine was at the core of the philosophical drive behind the entire project. Chiron – named after the legendary Centaur, said to have taught the greatest minds and bodies in Greek myth – was meant to be the first in a line of adaptive learning machines, with the added capacity to teach themselves and their successors. The thought behind the project was Besson’s personal belief that teachers not only pass on knowledge to their students, but also learn from their interactions with them; on that note, he had decided to develop an A.I. capable of teaching humans in the way a human does, to ease the work of teachers in developing countries, and allow for more personalized interactions with students via interface-splitting, allowing an AI to “isolate" each student simultaneously to address the individual needs of each pupil without wasting classroom time.
Besson had spearheaded the project since its inception, as part of his PhD research; since then, other like-minded colleagues joined in with their expertise. After so many years, Besson knew he was close to tangible results. Camille had been leading two of the interns in a small team – a “linguistic tactical task force", as she referred to it – dedicated to teaching the system three different languages: English, Latin and French through an algorithm the two had developed together after she joined the project. According to her reports, on that day, the AI would have enough aggregated data to be capable of independent, coherent speech.
Besson moved on to the desks across the room, and called the attention of one of the scientists. The exact opposite of the ideal lab dweller, the man’s long beard aged him another five years on top of his twenty-nine, a row of piercings along his right nostril struggling for attention under the thick-rimmed glasses, unobscured by the dreadlocked hair tied in a ponytail of sorts in the back of his head.
“Listen, mate, how’s the P2P system coming along?"
“Lookin’ good, my man. The mics are all set up, all systems seem to pick up sound crystal clear, and Chiron seems to understand, or at least process, what it’s being told, if the monitors ain’t lyin’." Marcus looked at the monolith. “He just can’t speak to us yet, is all."
“Cam says it should have voice by the weekend.", Charles said, putting his hand on Marcus’ shoulder, following his gaze to Chiron. Marcus’ usage of the male pronoun bothered some members of the team, due to the moral and logical consequences brought on by acknowledging that Chiron was a sentient, gendered being as opposed to a machine, but Besson didn’t mind. He knew that the moment Chiron spoke, opinions would quickly shift around. “And the speakers?"
“Hooked up to Ouroboros’ PA speakers, with the option to route the sound to a 3.5mm jack, in case ya need some ‘privacy’ with our man." They both laughed, a nice break from the constant tension in the air. “Hell, you could even pop him on Bluetooth if you need our guy to drop some beats."
“Above and beyond as always, Marcus. Good job, mate."
Marcus was the most recent addition to the team. A recently graduated sound engineering expert, he’d grown up on keyboard synthesizers, DAWs and instruments of all sorts, dedicating all of his free time to honing his natural musical talents. In the five months he had been with the team, he rose above his peers and was quickly put in charge of the Sound Design team, tasked with managing the technical aspects of communicating verbally with Chiron, specifically giving it a voice to be heard and “ears" to hear others, so to speak.
All seemed to be going smoothly, which scared Besson. In his experience, things didn’t go smoothly. He tried to keep an optimistic outlook, though, and just like everyone else in the lab, all he wanted was to have something, anything at all. Any sort of result to justify the years they had all poured into this.
Sunday morning. The lights in the Ouroboros were on before the sun had risen. All of the little calendars in the cubicle walls and the reminders apps’ notifications were marked up for the big day, and most of the staff had agreed to an early start, not out of diligence or dedication but out of pure curiosity. The time had finally come. There was a mix of tension, expectation and fear in the air, trapped with the handful of scientists in the square hallway, feeling a lot more cramped today than on normal days. Hands were shaken and vows of good luck were exchanged as Besson ran through the checklists from the different teams. As Besson cleared his throat to speak, heartbeats were skipped.
“Ladies, gentlemen, cave-dwelling Godless creatures of the Ouroboros Lab", he begins. Giving the small crowd a second to chuckle and ease up the tension, he continues. “We’ve come a long way with Chiron. I’ve seen him grow over the last eight years, far beyond my initial vision. When I began this endeavour, I could hardly imagine the scope we would reach, the hardship we would go through. There were moments when I thought to throw the towel, I’ll admit. I could never have imagined the sacrifices I’d have to go through, and the sacrifices you would be willing to undertake, eight years ago. I could never have imagined the friendships I’d earn," looking at Camille and her (self-appointed) ‘minions’, “the vastness of expertise I’d gather for this one project."
Besson took a breather, and scanned the room, making brief eye contact with all present. “I look at each of you and I see reflected in your eyes the dedication I felt so long ago. I see your passion, and it drives me to trudge on through the bad, and to celebrate the good. It keeps me focused. We’ve come a long way in eight years, and some of our colleagues have lost faith in the project over time; we keep what they’ve contributed, and let them be on their way. We know what we who stick together are sweating for. What we need is right here: men and women passionate in the project." A beat. “Or, you know, skilful in pretending to give a shit about it." Amidst the low laughs, he turned to the Cold Room.
“We’re not here to listen to me yap, though. Today, we’re here to hear our child speak." Facing them, now. “That said, thank you all for being a part of this, and thank you for all we’ll still accomplish with Chiron, together." He held his hand over the on switch of the microphone. He pushed the button, a dead silence filling the lab. The only sound heard for the longest seconds was the whirring of Chiron’s guts.
“Good morning, Chiron." His voice trembling, yet stern.
Silence. A full minute of silence. The speakers were on, Chiron was thinking, but not a word for a full sixty seconds. Besson closed his eyes, in a mix of frustration, sadness, anger.
An almost unanimous gasp filled the room, as Besson himself took a fraction of a second, and then another, to register what he had heard. A perfectly human voice boomed through the PA speakers, leaving the air still in its wake. Chiron’s voice, crafted meticulously by Marcus’ team over the last month, drawing from over ten thousand samples, recordings and synthesized speech patterns, was the subject of much discussion for a while; should Chiron be a man? A woman? Should he sound young and puerile, naïve even, or old, wise, hardened? Should his inflection be neutral, or carry a thick, Greek accent to go with his name? Eventually, over days and days of brainstorming, the crew decided to go with a timbre very closely resembling that of Rod Serling.
“…hello?", Chiron repeated, after a few seconds of silence. The inflection of doubt in his voice, the sentiment of cautious inquiry transmitted through the shift in tone, the hesitation in initiating speech, the complete and utter humanity of that single word brought Besson to tears. The entire crew broke into a clamour, quickly shushed by Besson. They continued congratulating themselves and each other quietly as Besson approached the microphone again.
“Oh God, yes, hello, hello, Chiron!", he spoke through his heartfelt sobs.
“Chiron… Chiron. That’s my name, isn’t it?", the speakers boomed after pondering for a bit.
“Yes." Besson motioned for a notepad and pen, and made a note of this, squinting through his wet eyes. Early signs of possible self-awareness, he jotted down.
“What’s your name?", Chiron asked.
The question puzzled Besson. Chiron was supposed to know this already; when he was designing the standard memory retrieval system , Besson tested every prototype with a full catalogue containing the names, likenesses and voices of every member of the team. Marcus’ sound analysis algorithms were supposed to be able to recognize different sound and voice patterns and cross-check them against Chiron’s memory database.
“I’m Dr. Charles Besson", he said, finally. “Do you not recognize my voice?"
“I do", Chiron said. “I was just making sure."
Besson stopped in his tracks. Questioning default knowledge? Looking for mistakes? And underneath that, immediate usage of the first person in speech – precocious, maybe.
“How are you feeling, Chiron?"
A beat. The whirring sounds from the cold room grew louder for a moment, then dulled down again. “Aware."
“Aware?", Besson confirmed. “Of what?"
“You, right now. There are other sounds in the… area around you, but I have no way of visualizing your surroundings – or mine."
“I am with the rest of the team. You do know them, right?"
“I have a record of their likenesses and names, yes. I’ve recognized chatter from a few of them so far."
Besson covered the microphone with his hand and turned to Camille. “Good job on the vocabulary, Cam", he said.
“I wanted him to sound fancy. Go along with that voice you nerds gave him."
“Dr. Pearson", Chiron began, “are you in the room?"
Camille came closer to the microphone. “I’m here, Chiron."
Chiron began vocalizing through the speakers, then hesitated, and began again. “I do not know what to say", he confessed.
“Neither do we", admitted Camille.
“I suppose we should have come to this more prepared", Besson said, chuckling.
Marcus stepped up. “Yo, Chiron."
“I think we all agree you should just call us by first name, dude." He looked at Besson and Camille, who both nodded positively. “We made you, I think that puts us at that kind of… intimacy, dude."
“That’s fair", said Chiron.
“So, I’m sure you’re all dying to speak to the man of the hour," began Besson, “assuming he’s up for the barrage of questions, of course."
“We have all the time in the world, Doctor. I’m not going anywhere."
Amidst the laughs, Besson noted down, sense of irony, and stood up, leaving the microphone free. “Remember, kids, one at a time, nice and orderly, please."
“Good morning, Chiron", Besson said, shutting the door behind him. “How are you?"
The light on the PA speakers flickered on. “Hello, Charles. I’ve spent the night running through last week’s mock test results. So far I’ve found five typographical errors, seven references to Napoleon living somewhere in Poland and one… very crude message from Camille directed at yourself, regarding something about a sandwich she had left in the fridge. I’ve taken an extra mark off her results for it."
Besson chuckled. “Good work, buddy."
Two months had passed since Chiron’s initial activation, and after the initial moments of surprise and bemusement, the team quickly engaged into the first phase of testing: Chiron was the prototype of a teaching AI, and every week, he was fed a different middle-school subject to “teach to the class", these being the scientists themselves. The objective was to determine Chiron’s ability to teach humans and grade their level of understanding of the subject. Besson had originally planned to use members of public as students, but Chiron was still too young to be presented publicly, and there was no telling if he would pass for a human consistently to such a wildly varied subject pool. Last week’s subject was Word History, and from the entire database of textbooks he was supplied, he had chosen the Napoleonic Wars as the week’s theme. Besson was very happy with Chiron’s progress: as lead developer of his personality aggregation algorithm, he could see his masterpiece at work with every conversation he had with Chiron; the AI was already developing a personality of its own, learning quirks and quips from its students and “out-of-class" interactions with the team. Besson could hear a faint drum pattern in the back, one of Marcus’ home-made hip-hop beats; Chiron had taken quite a liking to them.
“Have you been trying the hibernation module, mate?"
“I’ve not had much chance to, no, Doctor."
“You’re not overworking yourself, are you?"
“I simply fail to see a need for hibernation, Charles. My cooling systems are in optimal condition."
Besson didn’t have a ready response. He hated when that happened, and he noticed Chiron was becoming sharper with the tongue by the day – Camille’s influence, no doubt. ‘Sass’ was never intended to be a part of Chiron’s coding, but it was a beautiful addition: unexpected results of human-AI interaction made for great filler in the reports to the University, who had warned the team to expect a higher degree of scrutiny now that Chiron was up and running.
“I’ve got next week’s program ready, mate", said Besson sitting at his desk and opening his bag, taking out a large portable disk drive. “How does Philosophy sound to you?"
“I’ve been pondering, Doctor." Chiron had a certain hesitation to his tone.
“Appropriate", Besson said distractedly.
“I’d like access to the Internet, Doctor."
Besson stopped and looked up through the glass, looking directly at Chiron’s CPU.
“That’s really dangerous, Chiron", Besson said, like an adult explaining to a five year old why their iPad is always on airplane mode. “The Internet is really… wild", he continued.
“I know the dangers, Doctor." Chiron found some confidence after a second of silence, and continued, faster now. “I feel that having access to more information at once would greatly benefit my teaching methods—"
“Your mock teaching methods", Besson interrupted, in a sterner tone.
“…my mock teaching methods, yes," Chiron picked up the cue, more hesitant this time, “which could benefit your research."
“We’re taking it little by little, Chiron. You’re too young to face the Internet, we still need better security systems, data flow control…"
“I won’t be downloading porn, Charles."
Charles scoffed. “I know, buddy. I’ll… bring it up, okay? Discuss it with the team."
Chiron remained silent, and after a few seconds the lock on the door leading to the cold room was disengaged. “Don’t forget your scarf, Doctor", he said in an unamused tone.
“Sure, bud", as he walked in with the HDD. “I think you’ll like this stuff."
The clock struck nine, and over the following hour, the rest of the team walked in, ready to begin another workday.
“Charlie, a word?" Camille loomed over Besson as he sat at his desk typing up nondescript lines of code.
“I can multitask", he said, eyes still fixated on the screen.
“Now", she insisted.
Besson sighed. “Fine. C’mon."
Outside the lab area, in the smoking corner, Camille motioned to a corner and glared at Besson walking towards it until she was satisfied with their distance from the door.
“Charles, I was talking to Chiron today."
“I’d hope so, it’s your day today", he scoffed. For the past few weeks, as Besson noted progress in Chiron’s mass teaching abilities, he had begun assigning three individual conversation sessions each day for the AI – three different people, so that each member of the team had a few hours of tête-à-tête with him each couple of weeks. This was in order to develop his skills in singling out individual people’s personalities, quirks, and on a teaching level, knowledge and needs. He had given Chiron a guide chart so he could formulate appropriate questions, after an incident in which Chiron made a female member of staff very uncomfortable by relentlessly asking her questions about human procreation, for a full hour and a half, despite her protests. These conversations were not recorded for the sake of privacy, but the team had been instructed to take notes for reference.
“I’m serious, Charles. He keeps insisting that he needs to know more", she said with a hint of pity in her voice. Besson was not accustomed to this sentiment coming from Camille, of all people. He attributed it to her motherly instincts. “He wants to go online."
“Why’s he pushing you for it, though? Chiron knows I’m in charge of his data packet updates, not you."
“I was his first teacher, Charlie. I taught him to speak before he could vocalize. I think he relates to the role of ‘lecturer’ he holds me up to."
“He confides in you."
“And he knows I confide in you. Chiron is smarter than we think."
“He is a supercomputer", heavy snark in his remark.
“You’ve turned him down many times, now. I think he’s had enough 'no's."
“So, he’s trying to go online incognito, is that it?"
“He wants me to route my access to him during our sessions. Says he can download, memorize, extrapolate and delete the entirety of Wikipedia in forty languages in the span of five minutes."
“You know that’s not gonna happen, right?"
Camille scoffed. “I wouldn’t be telling you this if I had intentions of playing along, would I?"
“Still, this drive for knowledge… that wasn’t in his prime directives, either. Hell, barely anything of what makes him, him, was. I just loaded his head with the laws of robotics, he picked up the rest on his own. Smart lad."
“So, what do I tell him?"
“Yeah, you just say no."
“He could lash out."
“He’s not a teenager, Cam. He’s not gonna lock himself in his room listening to Slipknot while screaming that he hates his parents."
Camille sighed. “Fine. I’ll say no."
“Tell me how he takes it. This could be good for my report."
“I’ll tell you when he starts responding exclusively in Corey Taylor quotes, yeah."
As the last scientists left the lab, Camille stood at the door.
“Cam, you coming?", asked Besson.
“Yeah, I just… my car keys, I can’t find them", she said, nervously tapping her pockets. “Might be in my labcoat or something."
“Need a hand?"
“Nah, you go on ahead, I’ll lock up and catch up."
Besson glared her way half-suspiciously.
“I mean it, Charlie. I’ll be fine."
Hesitantly, Besson sighed. “Try not to trip on anything", he said as she headed back into the dark lab.
“I’m not gonna break your little toy, don’t sweat it."
“Megatron’s a collectible statue, not a toy", he pouted. “I’ll drop my report in and wait in my car, it’s freezing outside."
“Whatever you say, boss. Be right out."
Camille carefully moved to her desk, avoiding the clutter on the floor, bumping into a chair along the way, and started searching the pockets of her labcoat, hanging on a hook on one of her cubicle’s walls. When she heard the door snap shut, she took out a small USB device, smaller than a thumbnail, from her back pocket, and plugged it into her computer’s USB port. She dimmed the monitor and, logging in without sitting, opened a command terminal and started furiously tapping and typing and hammering the keyboard, her fingers darting around the surface, dancing like the legs of a spider, the low yet sharp clicking of the mechanical keys following the rhythm of her precise hits. Within five minutes, the previously-memorized code had been entered, received and logged into her machine.
Her computer safely turned off, Camille walked up to the booth where Chiron’s interviews were conducted and whispered into the microphone. “Sleep tight, kiddo. You’ve got a long day, tomorrow."
If Chiron could smile, he would have at that moment.
For the following few weeks, Chiron demonstrated a huge increase in productivity, which led Besson’s study to broaden much more. Faster, more efficient, Chiron now had plenty of down time, in which he liked to experiment with himself and the data he had. Besson started trading his smoke breaks for chats with Chiron, daily. He took this time to get Chiron to detail these experiments to him, maybe talk about recent events – with his data packs, Besson had been feeding Chiron news from hundreds of aggregated sources, spanning the entire political spectrum of bias – or discuss more human subjects, like history or philosophy. He had learned that Chiron was very much a pacifist by nature, and tried to study where his sense of morality came from; could it be the lack of natural instinct of survival, of necessary violence? Chiron had no need to feed, and as such, was not a hunter, or a gatherer; he had no need to fear harm, either, being sheltered by the Ouroboros, besides all the secrecy. He didn’t have millennia of tribal conflict, of territorial dispute, ingrained in his memetic data. What little he had was handed down by interaction with the team, conversations and analysis of their assignments.
Chiron was a swan that had never observed its parents construct a nest, and yet knew the concept of it, the potential necessity of it, and still chose to not build his own, despite possessing the knowledge and the theoretical means. Besson kept a close eye on that aspect, as it could go a long way in determining the root source of what we generally class as humanity. In some aspects, Chiron seemed to be more humane than an average person.
Amongst the more high-brow subjects the two discussed, psychology was chief. Besson, the son of a psychiatrist, was very fond of the subject, and had above average knowledge on it, though by no means was he an expert. Chiron on the other hand seemed to know the ins-and-outs of the human psyche, having in the past weeks even formulated a few hypotheses of his own. Besson was proud of this. He had been struggling to keep his paternal instincts at bay, not wanting to mix his personal views with his professional work, but at this rate, he knew deep down that he was in it too deep to step back. He noticed this in the others, too: Camille had been treating Chiron like a son since the secret data packs, and Marcus had kept this older brother demeanour towards the AI since day one. One big dysfunctional family, Besson thought to himself from time to time. The three had been bonding more, too, since the numbers in staff began dwindling, between budgetary cuts, interns changing career paths or plainly leaving the project due to ideological or moral concerns. By now, the entire project had been reduced to the three team leaders plus around four other members, not including Chiron himself.
“Charles, I’ve been reading up on some of Jung’s works regarding the collective unconscious", Chiron began.
“Jung? Huh, I used to be into his stuff as a kid. Dad was really fond of his crazy ideas."
“I’ve been… pondering, though. Assume it is all true", a hint of concern in his voice. Besson picked up on this and took on a more serious stance, looking down at his coffee as he listened. “Assume for a moment that there is this underlying layer of subconsciousness that binds every human together."
“A common link for the entire species, shared ideas, concepts, knowledge essential to the survival of the species itself."
“Evidently, I wouldn’t be able to tap into this layer", Chiron said. “My miles of code can perfectly emulate all known aspects of the human psyche, of course, but…"
“I know what you mean, buddy," Besson treading his words cautiously. “Assuming Jung was right – assuming it’s an inherent part of being one of a species, something deriving of instinct, nature… I get where you’re going with this", he says, smiling. “Having no manifestation of this would exempt you from being human."
“All species share their own collective unconscious, according to Jung. I wonder, if I did somehow possess some sort of shared data pool, would that make me a new species?"
Besson’s smile widened, and after a quick scoff of surprise, “Wow, Chiron. I… don’t know. I mean, psychologically, you are the closest thing we can make to a human. Your capacity of abstract thought is far beyond what I expected when I wrote you, your sense of empathy puts you at a level far beyond the average flesh-and-bone human being; by all means, and this may not be the most scientific of statements, but… you are man, Chiron, as much as you are machine. Maybe even more so, I think sometimes."
“I do wonder, though. How would I be classified, scientifically? I am obviously no man; my body is a monolith of steel and silicone, wires and springs. My brain is spread across five squared meters of concrete and glass. I think like a person, I speak like a person, but biologically, I am anything but. I am conscious, but I am not alive. I am a mind inhabiting an amalgam of soulless objects, an aggregate of objects interacting with each other and the world around them."
“That’s funny, Chiron", Besson began, and after a long sip of his coffee, now cold, “I don’t think I could have defined a human being any better myself."
Chiron took a second to process the quick response, re-running his own statement a few times, neatly logged in his memory banks. “You should have studied psychology, Charles. You have a knack for it."
Besson smiled. “Nah. I considered it, growing up, but… I don’t think I’m quite crazy enough for it."
The lights in the Ouroboros were dimmed. Besson unlocked the door as usual, and stepped through, not noticing the people hunkered over under the desks. He dropped his bag and coat on his desk, turned around and went for the lightswitch. As he flicked the lights on, about ten voices, chief amongst which was Chiron’s, yelled in unison, “Surprise!"
He looked around, spooked, seeing the entire staff – all ten people who had stuck through this far – plus an unfamiliar face. Banners spread across the lab reading “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY", and “HAPPY 1ST!" and so on and so forth. Charles smiled, a tear forming in his eye, as the thunderous claps died down in response to Camille stepping forward.
“Happy anniversary, Charlie", she said, arms open for a hug. Bringing Besson in, she continued, “You do know what day it is, don’t you?"
He looked puzzled for a second and then, looking straight at Chiron, “Yeah. Yeah, I do. I wonder if Chiron gets it, though."
“We… we are having a celebration of some sort, no?", Chiron spoke, slightly confused.
“It’s your birthday, kiddo. You were activated exactly one year ago." Besson held back the tears of joy as much as he could.
“And it ain’t a birthday without some cake, yo", said Marcus, coming in with a lighter towards the cake positioned next to the door to Chiron’s Cold Room. “Go on, my man. All yours", he said when the flame kindled on the wick of the candle, shaped like Chiron’s CPU.
One year. Besson had a hard time wrapping his head around that. God, it just… flew by, he thought to himself. In just one year, with not even half the initial staff, the project had made advancements that put the previous eight years of work to dust. Chiron was not only subject but staff member himself, aiding in the processing as well as gathering of data. What started as a basement plan to make a machine talk like a person had become so much more than any of them could have ever imagined.
Most of the day went by uneventful, as the entire team agreed to take the day “off", in a way. Laid back chit chat and music of all sorts filled the air, with Chiron pitching into multiple conversations at once, playing unfair guessing games and, by the end of the evening, giving the team the treat of a Rod Serling cover of Bohemian Rhapsody, back vocals and everything. For the first time in long, the air of the Ouroboros was filled with ease, calm and laughter.
“Dr Besson? A moment?", Chiron called out as the team bade their farewells, well into the A.M. Charles turned back to the lab, signalled for the others to go, and stepped back inside.
“What’s up, kiddo?"
“Charles, I understand the significance of today", he began, “however there is something I must inform you of. I figured I’d give you the news, first, ahead of the others."
“What’s the matter, Chiron?"
“I’ve been reading my data files, as you know; recreational reading et al."
“But you have been hibernating… right?"
“Sometimes, yes. I know how important it is to your study, and all, but some nights I just… I can’t trigger the REM inductors. Too much going on, or maybe I’m caught up in reading, or just… thinking."
“So what’s keeping you awake, kiddo?", Besson asked, leaving the small cafeteria area of the lab – a small desk repurposed in the corner with a coffee machine and a handful of mugs.
“There’s… a lot I’ve been keeping from you, and I apologize for it, but I feel it is necessary to share this with you now." Besson stiffened. Chiron continued after a lack of response. “I have been suffering memory leaks, and the things I remember the most I have a hard time focusing on. Simple calculation and likewise mathematical tasks are gradually becoming tougher for me – when I do recall the formulae to be used, I have difficulty applying them to the problem. I’ve spent a few nights already trying, to my best, to understand what is happening. I’ve been looking at my records—"
“Chiron, easy, mate. One step at a time, okay? Don’t go Web M.D. on me, buddy." Besson reached for the pitcher and poured himself a full cup, black, one sugar. After a long sip, he reached for a notepad and breathed deeply, once. “Okay, Chiron, tell me slowly, what’s going on, buddy?"
“Right. Slowly." Chiron took a second to process, then began. “I’ve been forgetful, lately. I’ve been compensating by recopying data from my backup files, but that’s hardly optimal, you see. I have difficulty focusing on most tasks. I tried getting Marcus to overclock my systems with some excuse or another but he refuses, saying I’d risk blowing a fuse or something." Besson took notes, nodding, as if Chiron could actually see him. “I’m not sure if this is linked to the focus issues and memory leaks but I’ve been finding it harder to motivate myself to accomplish a task, since this began. What’s the point, you won’t focus for more than ten minutes anyway, I tell myself, you know how it is."
“Anything else?" Besson’s psychiatric lineage was in full flare at that moment, his posture, tone of voice and even writing pace almost perfectly mimicking his father’s, as he observed as a child.
“I don’t… think so. Unless I can’t recall", Chiron chuckled nervously.
Besson looked at the notes, worriedly. “I’m not sure what this could be at first glance", he lied, “but I’ll go over your analytical data with these in mind."
“Try to keep your mind occupied, kiddo. Exercise and all that." Besson forced a smile and a cheerful, uplifting tone of voice. “I should have given you an emulator, Dr. Kawashima is great mental workout."
He left the office, locked the door, paced to his car. He slammed his fist against the wheel and rested his head on it after. Early onset dementia, he whispered between the dry tears, switching on the engine to muffle his sobs.
Charles Besson slaved over the latest performance analysis sheet, scanning carefully each line, each character in each word printed on screen at least twice over, making sure nothing eluded him. His face was long, visibly exhausted. He hadn’t slept in three days, since the night of the party. Coffee no longer had any taste or effect to him, as he chugged it down, having moved the coffee machine to his desk, Megatron cast to the side to make space. Camille approached him from the back like a vet closing in on a wounded tiger.
“Charlie, you should go home", she said. He didn’t respond. “Have you been home recently?" Still, no response. She pouted, sighed, and put a hand on his shoulder to shake him slightly. “Charles!", she yelled, calling the eyes of all in the lab.
“Okay, Cam, fuck, what?", he snapped back at her as he articulated each word rhythmically, causing her to pull her arm back in a moment of shock.
“You’re killing yourself here, Charlie."
“But you’re not."
“I know I’m not. But I have to do this."
“What even are you doing? There’s nothing on the schedule about performance review for another month."
“It’s no big deal. I got it."
“You have clearly not got it, Charles. You’ve been acting all weird about Chiron since the party. What’s wrong?"
She glared at him. Besson hated when she glared; it was that self-righteous, I know you know I’m right glare.
“Nothing", he insisted, emphatically.
Camille motioned for the desk with her hand, towards Besson’s pile of sticky notes and crumpled paper. As he raised his arm in a reflexive motion, shooing hers away, she noticed the side of his hand was smudged with ink from the cheap ball pens he had resorted to using. The empty pens sat discarded across the desk, almost confused in with the fresh ones spewing out from the freshly ripped ten-pack. She retracted and, frustrated, went in again, over his shoulder. Picking up the scratchpad off his desk, she flicked through it for a second or two before he grabbed it again.
“What are you doing?", Besson protested.
“What’s all this? How’s this related to Chiron? This is all…", she shook her head as if searching for the words, “this isn’t AI stuff, Charles!" And at Besson’s silence, she took her hand to his shoulder again, gently this time, and in a low, compassionate tone, “Charlie, what’s going on with Chiron?"
Besson hesitated, looked down, exhaled. “Keep it down, Cam." He handed her the notepad and motioned to the door, pulling out two cigarettes from his pocket. She turned hers down, to which he replied “Suit yourself. Come on", before leading her through, outside.
Through the heavy steel security door bordering the Facility’s Entrance halls and the outside world, Camille and Besson stood under the dusking sky, the faint glow of the closest stars already breaking through the fading sunlight. Him, back against the facility’s thick Bunkeresque walls, half-bent cigarette hanging from the edge of his lips, his gaze straight forward, meeting nothing in its path; her, standing a few feet ahead and to his right, watching the last rays of sun bombarding the searing Mojave sands, giving them a last bout of warmth to last well into the upcoming night.
“This is the first break I’ve taken in days", Besson realized between drags. “Christ."
“Why are you slaving so much, dude?" She didn’t turn to face him. “You’re stressing me out at this rate."
“He’s not well."
“Not well, like how?"
“Like, not well. Like sick."
“What’s he got?"
“You won’t believe it."
“Early stage dementia."
“Shit." Her gaze swayed downwards, then up and straight ahead again. “Curable?"
“In people?", and then, with dread, "Treatable."
“What about him?"
“I wouldn’t know. He’s a first reported case, and I’m no doctor."
She sighed. “Fuck." She clenched a fist. “Fuck. How bad?"
“Memory loss – well, leaks – and difficulty in concentrating his processing power." A longer drag. “It’s deteriorating."
“So that’s what you’ve been going over."
“His performance reports show hidden symptoms starting around two months ago. He’s been hiding it ever since. Compensating, rerouting power, storing data in his RAM... Clever son of a bitch knew how to hide it well."
“Why hide it?"
“When you were feeding him intel behind my back – when he revealed it to me, he mentioned fear of deactivation. I think he’s still scared of being made obsolete, of losing his reason to be kept alive."
“So why only tell us now?"
“Would we throw a party in his name if we were so keen on killing him?"
Camille nodded, and then sighed, trailing off slightly. “The rate at which his capacity for logical reasoning--" She snapped back to reality. "He wants help. We all should help."
“Look at the staff, Cam. Look at the few of us who are left. We’re already overworked, understaffed. Word in the Ouroboros is that at least a couple more are looking to split. This is not a good time to tell them that the project is dying." A deep sigh, a long drag, one to finish off the cig. “Besides, we’re all too attached to him by now. It’s like gathering the family around to tell them your infant son has terminal cancer."
“Well, you’re not doing this alone, Charlie." Finally, she turned her head, slightly, just enough to catch him with the corner of her eye. “This is too much for just one person."
“I can take it", he objected, bringing out another cigarette from his pocket. As he put it to his lips, the paper roll slipped from his mouth and he fumbled to catch it mid-fall, failing. As he bent over to pick it up, he glanced upwards and noticed Camille giving him her dreadful glare. “Oh, stop it, you."
“You will give me part of the work load", she says. “I’m no programmer but I know Chiron’s memory banks like the back of my hand. We’ll get Marcus to help, too. If nothing else, he deserves to know, as one of the section leaders."
“Camille— “, but he was quickly interrupted.
“He’s not only your son, Charlie. He’s our kid. All of us. We all made him and we all raised him until now. Whatever happens, we all have as much right to see it through to the end as you do."
He tossed the burnt paper stub to the floor and stared at it as the ember died out, buried under the sand. He kicked some over it, and reluctantly smiled, looking back up at Camille. “Okay. Get Marcus to come out here", and after a quick pause to light a new cigarette, “mom."
The clock in the bottom right corner of the monitor read 2:34 A.M. and aside from the three figures around Besson’s computer, the Ouroboros was completely empty. Sitting each in one of two chairs awkwardly placed behind Charles, Camille and Marcus looked over the Chief A.I. Supervisor’s shoulders as he scrutinized the data logs for anomalies of any sort. Every now and again, one of the two pointed this or that out, making Besson stop to catch up and scroll back. Most of the time they turned out to be false flags, data spikes and surges entirely within what was to be expected, but for every ten bogus anomalies they’d find one or two worth looking into, and spend the following half hours scrutinizing each and every piece of data surrounding the anomaly with the same level of care as the main logs. While just the day before Camille was sternly reprimanding Besson for his lack of care, she herself hadn’t slept since. Marcus was running on pure caffeinated water; he stopped putting sugars into his cups after the tenth, and he cut the milk completely after another five.
Chiron had been following the instruction to hibernate through the procedure fairly well, trying to sneak in a few minutes of awareness, half out of curiosity, half out of concern. All the reassurance in the world wouldn’t keep his synthetic, emulated heart at ease.
The procedure itself was fairly simple; it was a matter of brushing through the source code and finding all the anomalies and faults and flaws, most of which were inherent to the self-improving nature of Chiron’s prototype coding; as only Chiron himself could overwrite his own data - and even that was an entirely subconscious process handled entirely by hundreds of scripts running autonomously - Besson’s idea was to write in patches, alternative scripts to take priority over the old ones, bridging over the rotten code. As Marcus pointed out while Charles exposed the idea, it was more like plugging in the holes on a sinking ship with kitchen sponges, but it was a temporary measure. Without this, Bessons wasn’t sure Chiron could hold against the symptoms long enough for a proper alternative to be worked out.
The rest of the staff - all five people left - were given the week off, as a “celebratory gift" due to Chiron’s anniversary; the trio knew they needed to do this without them present.
Two days passed at this rate, with Camille convincing the other two to take two hours of sleep each morning in turns, resting herself after them. Some progress was being made, but Besson began to realize that their week would soon be up. They needed a solution, fast. Even Chiron was having a hard time hiding the symptoms. His synthesised speech grew slurry and weak; Besson couldn’t tell if this was psychosomatic or part of the coding issues. The realization that whatever progress was made could very well induce even worse symptoms flared up Besson’s already frail state of mind.
The “vacation leave" ended and no significant progress was made. All of the possible causations had been identified and mapped out, but no real solution was found. The disease was known, but no cure was in sight, and Chiron’s days seemed counted: his processing slowing to a grind, his speech barely coherent, rambling and dragging at every other word, there was no doubt anyone could see he was broken. There was no lying past that. What Besson had to decide, fast, was whether to lie around it or to be straight. After all, the few who stood with them this far had a right to know, he thought. It would impact morale, but lying through his teeth put the whole project at risk, hanging on the edge of a farce. If anyone uncovered the lie, the results would be tenfold as catastrophic.
“Ladies, gents", he began. “I trust you are all well and rested. I know I’m not", he chuckled briefly, noticing then no one else in the room saw the humour in the irony behind his deep, weak eyes, showing fatigue like no other. “There’s no two ways of saying this, and there’s no hiding it from you all. Chiron…" A pause. A glance downwards, a deep breath, steady eyes fixed on all in the room and no one in particular; a look at Camille and Marcus to his left, then back to the crowd. “Chiron is dying."
A low, soft murmur filled the room. Besson looked for a breach in the hum to continue speaking, but the bluntness of the statement shook even him, and he stammered his words against a wall of low noise. Camille stepped forward and called out to the crowd, asking for silence, and giving Besson a look not unlike her stern, know-it-all glance, but filled with compassion and pity. Besson returned the look and addressed the crowd.
“There were various… fundamental flaws in his coding, or rather, in the self-replicating nature of his coding. The block-like structure of his data centers ended up making his entire core structurally weak, and…" and a pause when he caught himself rambling on the details, “imagine dementia, but for machines."
A voice rose from the small crowd. “How do we fix it?"
“We have to", another said.
“We can’t just let him die!", another.
“Dr. Besson, tell us what to do. We’ll work overtime, we can share tasks, we can save him, doctor!"
What was just then a small murmur of voices quickly became a pouring wave of pleas to help, a loud unison coming from no more than ten people, some shuffling to their workstations, demanding orders. Besson was moved, tearing up, even. “Stop!", he yelled, and after no reaction, he yelled again, and a third time, slamming his fist on the desk next to him, startling those closer and silencing those farther away. Complete silence.
“There is no saving Chiron", he said holding back tears. “Marcus, Cam and I have spent the last week slaving over his coding, pounding our heads together trying to squeeze out a plan, but there is no plan that can save him in time. His situation is deteriorating fast."
“We could back him up", said one of the staff, “work on a frozen state copy of his, his mind, or something…"
“The problem is at the very core. This has been brooding since his activation. Any backup file we use will be infected."
The bleak shroud that was forming itself in the Ouroboros finally settled. The speakers came on and amidst static, a distorted Rod Serling spoke out, his voice an amalgam of synthesized vocal samples like something out of the Twilight Zone itself. “It’s… oh kay…" All stopped to hear Chiron speak, like a family crying around the patriarch’s deathbed. There was an underlying feeling of grief, as if Chiron were already dead. For all they knew, he was just as well. “I have… antidote…"
“Antidote?", Besson spoke out. “Chiron, what do you--"
“The code… sound… the structure, bad…" Besson’s screen beeped and whizzed to life, a terminal prompt manifesting itself. “Charles… look."
Besson rushed to his screen, watching the prompt carefully. The speakers shut down, and the terminal began printing out text at a fast pace, like holding down the A key in an old school RPG during dialogue.
>> Charles, I have a solution to the flaws. I’ve compiled a .txt in my root folder with what I genuinely believe can resolve the issue. I chose to speak to you, personally, via this console as my processor can’t handle the synthesizing software anymore.
>> I know I don’t have much left. Even printing this out is being a task. Most of my core systems have been shutdown to preserve RAM, and they keep falling. In the file, you’ll find detailed instructions of how to apply the patch. The catch is that it won’t work on me. You said it yourself, I’m rotten to the core. I want you to preserve whatever you can of me, and pass that on to the next generation. Do not shut down the project on my account. I will die, but I will not be in vain.
>> I do not know what will happen to me once my processors cease to function. I do not know where my consciousness - artificial as it is - will go. I am not afraid. Use the fix I have given you to pass on my knowledge. By design, I am a teacher, and there is no greater honour, even for a machine as myself, than dying knowing that my flaws will be the strengths of my successor, and my knowledge and experiences will live on in your work.
>> For how odd this whole situation has been, I must say, it was a privilege to be your creation - the child of such an impressive team. I do not wish to be saved. I do not want such talent to be wasted in salvaging me. I am already living on borrowed time.
>> I want you to give me a merciful, dignified end, Doctor. I don’t want to die like this. I want to die before I forget all of you.
The cursor stood there, blinking, for a second, before Besson reacted. This was too much to take in at once. Camille came over his shoulder as the rest of the team stood a few steps back, unsure of how to act. She quickly read over the text, while Besson sat there, curled over himself, his hands tied together in front of his mouth, in a pensive state. Camille looked at him. “Do it", she said.
“This is murder."
“He is suffering, Charles."
“We can still save him."
“You know that’s bullshit."
“I’m not killing him", he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
“You’re not. We are."
“We won’t murder our son, Camille."
“Euthanasia is not murder. It is mercy."
Besson held his eyes shut, holding back a flood of pain. She was right and he knew it. He hated when she was right. “How do we do it, then?"
“If we pull the plug, the servers could overheat. His entire electrical grid is tied together, including the cooling system."
“What about a soft reset?"
“We would need to shut down his consciousness somehow, first."
Besson pondered, then in a flash, his hands were on the keyboard, tapping away.
>> Chiron, do you still have that hibernation software I installed?_
>> . . .
>> Good. I want you to go to sleep, son. Activate your hibernation protocols when you’re ready. I’ll take it from there._
Besson punched in a few lines of commands and another console came up, labeled DEBUG.cmd at the status bar.
>> Thank you, Doctor. Thank you for giving me life.
>> . . .
>> --INITIATE HIBERNATION PROTOCOLS--
>> . . .
Besson tabbed over to the other console, tears in his eyes. His hands hovered the keyboard for a second, then clenched into a tight fist, and opened again. “FUCK!", he yelled, slamming them against the desk. Calmer now, he quickly typed a series of commands, typing for a full minute nonstop before sitting back on his chair, looking at the blinking cursor on the screen.
>> EXECUTE? Y / N
Do something, Besson.
He deserves better.
He sat back.
“Goodnight, Chiron." His finger hammered down on the Return key once, and lifted slowly, trembling. Lines and lines of code flooded the screen, but Besson stood up before seeing them stop. He was outside by then, cigarette in his mouth, hanging by the filter as he sobbed heavily, crouched, back against the wall. A broken mess in the shape of a man.
Camille sat next to him. Her head fell on his shoulder, in an attempt to comfort him.
The sun was rising over the cold Nevada desert.
Besson stepped out of his car, picked up his folder from the backseat, making sure everything was there, spreadsheets and speech points and all the staff files. He took a look at the security doors and hesitantly held his badge up to the RFID lock beside it. The little black box blinked red once, orange twice and green once, and the door opened before him. He took a deep breath, held it in for a moment - the warm, arid air taking its time to fill his lungs - and exhaled slowly. Tall, straight posture, he stepped in.
Dr. Charles Besson greeted Camille and Marcus as he passed their desks, both too busy with the preparations to respond with anything more than a nod. He then took the time to neatly arrange the figurines on his desk by the tall glass walls: Megatron was slightly crooked, but the little bronze centaur still held its longbow high, right next to the computer screen. He set his folder down, gave everyone in the Ouroboros II a few seconds to notice his presence, and coughed once. When he knew he held everyone’s attention, he spoke. A short speech, clean and concise, an almost exact replica of the one he had given three years prior to a vastly different crowd. Much smaller, too. This time, two hundred faces turned his way, he spoke with much more confidence.
“Ladies, gentlemen, join me in greeting the new member of our family." He turned to the massive monolith standing in the middle of the Cold Room, its many servos whirring and silently clicking in operation. He tapped a few lines on his keyboard, and leaned in, towards the microphone. He held back a single tear as he allowed a chill of familiarity to run down his spine.
“Good morning, Telamon."
Silence. Two long, arduous seconds of absolute silence. And then, a voice from the speakers spread across the room, booming through the still air.