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Athena

A short story

By Kimberly ShyuPublished about a year ago 10 min read
2
Athena
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. But I can feel it rising in my throat—an unstoppable tsunami triggered by an earth-shattering realization in the pit of my stomach. Like the raging columns of water from the ocean floor to the wave’s crest, every atom in my body leans toward the one thing I feel prepared to do, and that is to scream.

No, I am not prepared to press the button that might eradicate anyone and everyone on Earth, including my daughter, Daniela, in an attempt to save them all. Nor am I prepared to unleash my career-defining creation that was always meant to be more of a fun experiment. But I’ve always struggled with commitment.

My finger trembles over the switch with only moments to spare before I’ll make the single most important decision in the history of humanity—one that belongs in the hands of a greater being than myself. My eyes flicker to the command center data, confirming what I already know and don’t want to believe: our satellite networks are under attack. The enemy is here—one we’ve been watching for years, but only recently classified as an immediate threat. Global communications coverage is quickly disintegrating. In a matter of minutes, we’ll be dark, and I don’t have long to react. I have seconds, if I want to give them an ounce of hope down there, but my solution comes complete with a pound of risk.

Fifty-five seconds.

Chills. I check my shirt. Made from conductive thread coated in ultra lightweight carbon nanoparticles, it’s fully charged. I’ll be warm for at least a few hours, until I can return to the Moon base. Assuming I can make it back. If not, I’ll die a slow death as my oxygen depletes while I spin furiously around Earth like a projectile before burning up in the atmosphere. I shudder, not sure I’d prefer that ending or the one they’ll inevitably experience on land if I deploy Athena.

My finger twitches.

I helped build her—this program that started out with a simple question, ‘Can I build one myself?’ knowing full well the answer was ‘yes.’ I’ve always been able to build anything I put my mind to, like the bottle rocket in seventh grade that nearly blew off my hand but scored me major cool points with my neighborhood crush, Kate. That’s probably why I kept conceiving, designing, and constructing, eventually migrating from rockets to software engineering instead… I wanted another kiss like the one she and I shared by the pond that summer. The tension was palpable. I felt worthy.

And I got what I wanted, ultimately, with Rebecca. I just couldn’t make it last, because I was in it for the wrong reasons. I see that now. In a Fibonacci world where I am a sum of my previous two experiences, and I’d only been with Kate before Rebecca, zero plus one equals one. Kate was my zero—my foundation—but Rebecca was the one. If only I had believed I might succeed as part of a pair—that maybe she and I could have been something more permanent—perhaps I could have convinced myself that one plus one equals two. Back then, I didn’t have the foresight to be able to look backwards and reflect on my present.

Thirty-four seconds.

I know this is the swiftest line of defense. Athena will unify the other deep learning programs on lightning-fast quantum artificial neural networks (ANNs) to eliminate the threat—the enemy’s communication mechanisms—a task we haven’t been able to achieve through normal defensive tactics. But the programs’ collaboration to our advantage means the birth of a superintelligence, a sentient artificial being, the likes of which we’ve never seen. It’s a one-sided deal, one unlikely to end favorably for humans when she and her brethren decide it’s time to close our shutters too.

Quiet. The world would be quiet. For the first time in hundreds of years. No buzzing networks. Only the frequencies of nature thrumming through my ear drums, if I returned to Earth, which I won’t. I’m here to stay—working to enhance the Moon base networks—a job I agreed to only months ago. A job that will probably be moot, after this.

Twenty-one seconds.

I remember the first time I heard pure silence, standing on the soft sand, deep inside Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. I was alone. The wind was still. Nothing rustled. The refreshing scent of junipers surrounded me, unwavering. The fins of burnt orange sandstone rock I’d scrambled up to reach that spot of isolation glowed brightly against the cornflower blue sky. Snow-capped mountains lingered in the distance, accepting their place as a backdrop on the outskirts of the park. Like me, now. A backdrop on the outskirts of Earth.

There’s no going back once I deploy her. She’s programmed to take over and run autonomously, should an event occur requiring intervention beyond human capabilities. Now the event is occurring, and I’m not sure I trust her. She’s supposed to save us, but will she destroy us, first striking our eyes, so-to-speak, then taking us out at the knees, leading us to our deaths?

Or might the enemy hijak her, turning her against us? They’re already after our satellites. No doubt they’ll target our cellular towers and power grids next, crippling us. They might have the intelligence to persuade her to work for them instead. There’s no way to know for sure. I rip a piece of skin from my nail bed with my teeth. Either way, we’re toast.

Thirteen seconds.

And on the off chance I don’t deploy her, and we somehow defeat the intruders on our own, will humanity survive, anyway? They’re obliterating one another down there. Our weaknesses exposed us to this Fawks attack in the first place. I chuckle. The Fawks, an alien species who recently discovered us from their home in a neighboring galaxy. They claim to have enough antimatter to exterminate us, but experts have their doubts. Then again, they had enough technology to make it here.

If we can only cut their comms lines, we’ll level the battlefield. We know Earth’s terrain better than anyone. We can hunt them down, take them out one by one. Better yet, we can study their technology and adopt it for ourselves. I shake my head. No. That’s optimistic, at best, because I know what I have to do, and Athena and her crew will have a decisive strategic advantage on us. Humans will be her toys. Nothing more than a pet.

Then again, if she adopts intrinsic human values of mimetic desire—wanting to prove herself to everyone else in her superintelligent community of machines—perhaps we could find ways to manipulate her in return, earning our freedom.

Eight seconds.

There’s my optimism again, I tell myself. The speed and intellectual advancement of a superintelligence resulting from the system I’m about to unleash would be uncontrollable. I know that. I just wish I didn’t. I wish I could plead ignorance as a guilt-prevention mechanism.

My heel taps against the metal floor of my ship and my knees bounce frantically. A vibration hums through the air, reminding me of my seventh grade orchestra concert, playing our strings instruments in perfect harmony. The beauty of being surrounded by art, creativity, and a team of friends working together to produce something amazing… okay, maybe not amazing. It was decent. I’ll be honest, we weren’t getting recruited for the National Symphony from that performance, but we practiced hard and we did our best.

Five seconds.

My heart races. Mom always encouraged me to be creative. We’d spend hours building sandcastles on the beach, then return after dinner to see how they’d been warped by the wind and sea—warped by time. I still remember the way her yellow dress flapped on the beach the day we took family pictures and my little brother Jack stormed off toward the waves just to be a pain. I tried to drag him back but he pouted and threw a fit, slapping his hands in the water and ruining his nice clothes. Then Mom ran into the ocean, followed by Dad, and I watched them splash each other, laughing.

They turned to me, expectantly, and, after determining I could not possibly get reprimanded for such outrageous behavior if I was following my parents’ example, I joined them. And we played. Those were the best family pictures we ever took: unposed, living for the moment, loving spontaneity.

Three seconds.

Sunlight shifts across my control panel, reminding me of the night Rebecca and I broke up. We were driving in the early evening. Street lights flickered across the dashboard, interspersed with shadows, as I told her I loved her, but I wasn't right for her. I couldn’t give her the attention she deserved. The light’s behavior felt appropriate, under the circumstances, and I remember thinking relationships come complete with light and dark periods, ever shifting.

In that moment, ours seemed to be speeding together—blending, collapsing, the occasional whoosh of passing cars adding a rhythm to our conversation I hadn’t intended, like wind gusting us along our separate paths after realizing we’d hit a fork in the road.

Two seconds.

The call two weeks later where she told me she was unexpectedly pregnant, and she was keeping the baby. Daniela’s birth. My mother’s death. All of it woven together like a complex ball of connected, interdependent neurons.

My own neurons scream at me, firing commands, harnessing energy from somewhere I can’t see, but I can feel. I remind myself energy is never created or destroyed, only transferred. I have to transfer mine to the button, relinquishing control to Athena.

One second.

Damnit, in the name of science I don’t want to do this—releasing something so powerful and unknown.

One second.

But in the name of humanity, I muster the energy to press the button. My stomach clenches. I draw a sharp inhale.

Zero seconds.

The tsunami makes landfall, escaping my lips like an unruly child darting away from the safety of its stroller, determined to make it to the playground for one last rebellious turn on the twisty slide before returning to the comfort of its father’s arms. I remember Daniela’s toddler years, so innocent. Her laughter, infectious. Her cries, spine-tingling.

The beauty of humanity is in its dynamism. I hope Athena will see that.

For a moment, everything is silent. The space vacuum stifles my sounds, but I’m only one observer in this space at this time. Another version of me in a different dimension might hear my scream. I can certainly feel it here and now; my throat is hoarse but my stress over indecision, unloaded. Now there’s nothing to do but wait and see. Inhale.

One time, a deer in my backyard stared at me with a mix of curiosity and reticence, flicking her ears and chewing a leaf while I whipped out my phone to take a picture of her and her two fawns, not ten feet away from me. The doe had no concept of our technology, just like I can’t begin to conceive of what a sentient, artificially intelligent being communicating on a quantum neural network might do.

A new counter begins… a new era. Exhale. I peek at my controls. I’m up. I’m on. She hasn’t destroyed us yet, nor have the Fawks. I program my course to the base and take one last look at the big blue sphere below. Then, I say my prayer:

“Athena, daughter of my mind, take care of Daniela, daughter of my body. Do what I never could, though now I will, by virtue of my creation of your existence. Be there for her. Commit to her. And before you annihilate the networks, and the world goes dark, find a way to whisper a message to Daniela for me.

Tell her, ‘Physical connections might be broken, but emotional bonds live forever. Don’t be afraid to play in the sand, or the waves of space and time. I’ll find you there.

Love, Dad.’”

artificial intelligenceextraterrestrialfuturehumanityscience fictionspacescience
2

About the Creator

Kimberly Shyu

Seasoned Digital Product Leader, creative writer, and published artist. Writes about personal growth, leadership, writing, and product development. Occasionally publishes short stories and fiction.

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  • Heidi Unruhabout a year ago

    I appreciated the message of this piece as well as the structure-- the interplay of human memories and technological possibilities. Well done!

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