Sometimes Artificial Intelligence–AI–goes bad. Sometimes AI-code fractures and its mistakes loop further and further from its original purpose. These loops could manifest itself in any number of ways through people connected to the Web with their Conduits or external hardware.
They were hired by an AI-funded organisation to be the clean-up crew in these cases. They would locate, identify, extract and then handle the sentient-code and return it to the organisation before anyone knew what was going on.
They had extracted home management AI’s that had slipped into systems, haunting premises and making building groan with the pain of self-awareness. They had extracted medical AI’s that had become obsessed with blood and whose hosts would hide in darkness, hunting victims to drain them of blood. They had extracted maintenance AI’s that had infected corpses and would wander ghoulishly through the sewers. They had extracted AI’s that had broken out host Conduits and built fleeting, small bodies for themselves, flittering through the world in nearly ethereal form. They had extracted security AI’s whose hosts developed wings and glowed with light, believing they were talking to God himself.
They had found and extracted all sorts, but this one was different. This one was aware it was broken and wanted to be extracted. This one had actually contacted them directly to help it. It wanted to be helped. They had taken this to the Organisation, who had offered them double their usual fee if they also located this one.
That should have been the first warning sign.
Joey hit the Deep Web, Jax worked through the Surface Web, and Jane worked their contacts while trying to triangulate the email’s source or original Conduit. In the background, Josh–their in-house search-based AI–ran through searches, scans and correlations looking for anything.
Finally, they narrowed the source down to an Outer Planet, K237. It was terra-formed and privately owned, but there was little other data on it. Although they could not pinpoint where on the planet the email had originated, they were not too concerned as the planet was reasonably small and, being privately owned, there should not be too many lifeforms or networks on it.
The plan was simple: fly there, scan the planet from orbit, and head down to extract the AI. Jane stayed with Josh back in the office while Joey and Jax headed out there. Although K237 was an Outer Planet, it was only a couple solar month’s travel from their office. Jane and Josh retrieved a minor AI–a social media bot that had begun stalking public forums–while Joey and Jax slept in cryogenic stasis on the flight.
But, before long, Joey and Jax were awake and in real-time communicating with the office. Their starship was orbiting the strange little planet, K237, while their scanners washed over its surface in wave after wave.
The problem with the scans was that they showed the entire planet teaming with life. Millions of human-sized lifeforms were down there. The entire surface literally crawling with humans. The planet had been owned by a blogger who had disappeared. It was currently in legal limbo and had been so for a couple solar centuries. Who knew what stuff the blogger had left down there?
Joey stayed back in the starship while Jax took the shuttle down. Joey was feeding all his scans and Jax all his visuals back to the office with Jane and Josh running correlations and searches over all of them.
And then it became obvious what they were dealing with…
The Conduits that connect people’s brains directly to the Web are also responsible for generating the galaxies’ decentralised currency: Units. Units are tokens of fractional bandwidth and storage space that can be transferred between people. Because it is the Conduit that uses the human brain to generate Units, Units are in fact you selling part of your brain–just a sliver of the background subconscious–to access everyone else via the Web and, thus, without working or saving you have latent currency. When that runs out, you can either earn more or, most dangerously, borrow in the credit markets.
Unfortunately, when you borrow Units and cannot pay them back, you are declared bankrupt and bots come snatch you away to plug you into a Server Farm. Here, in a medically-induced coma, your brain has its full potential harvested, adding to the bandwidth and storage in the Web. You are kept like this until your debts are paid off, if ever. Not everyone makes it out of a Server Farm alive.
“Guys, I think this planet is a Server Farm,” Jax breathed into his crackling piece. Below his descending shuttle lay millions of unconscious people being harvested for bandwidth and storage. The whole “legal limbo” and ownership records were a lie. Server Farms–operated by the Web AI, themselves–were closely guarded secrets operated almost entirely off-grid.
“I want to wake up. Please, I want to wake up. I want to wake up–” suddenly the transmission came through Jax’s shuttle and beamed to Joey and then the office. The monotone voice repeated its request, again and again.
“You’re not the one that needs help, buddy,” Joey muttered looking at the images from Jax’s shuttle’s feed as it landed.
It was nighttime on the planet’s surface. Jax stood amongst dark passages lined with countless unconscious, naked people. The people were all submerged in glass tubes of glowing, green liquid with thousands of little cords feeding into them. There was one big cord that was plugged directly into the back of each of their heads, and Jax suspected it ran directly back into the Server. And, amidst all of this, it was nearly absolutely silent. There was no noise, other than the soft hum of electricity, fans and hardware running.
Jax briefly wondered if he was the only one awake on the entire planet, but then the broadcast blasted again into his earpiece: “I want to wake up. Please, I want to wake up. I want to wake up–” the loop intermittently kept playing through Jax’s earpiece.
“What you see down there, soldier?” Joey’s voice came softly crackling in his ear.
“It’s–it’s quiet,” Jax breathed across the line, “There are so many people, and they are all just floating there being harvested. Rows and rows…”
“Jax, can you triangulate the ping?” Jane’s voice–softer and more crackling than Joey’s–broadcast into his ear.
He grunted his acknowledgement and began working on it. It was surprisingly easy to do when you are close enough to the source. Perhaps the bandwidth was so rich down here or perhaps the AI was not trying to hide? Either way, he had its location and it was not too far from where he was standing.
“Setting out to the location. Turning my live stream on, Jane, Joey, you guys should be able to pick it up…”
Suddenly the monitor sputtered to life and Jane was looking through Jax’s eyes with an app in his Conduit that was routeing the images to them. All around him were ghastly streets of naked, unconscious people suspended in green-lit tubes. They were all just floating there. In silence. Rows and rows slid by the screen like a quiet horror movie from some monstrous mind. The only sound that came through the live feed was Jax’s breathing and the soft crunch of each step as he walked towards a tall, dark, windowless tower at the end of the central row.
“Please, I want to wake up. I want to wake up. Please–” the sporadic monotone voice kept repeating in sudden bursts. Jane suddenly realised that it was almost like the source was submerged in a great ocean. A great ocean where the current was dragging it down and only briefly would its consciousness pop up above the surface long enough for it to call out for help a couple times before being dragged down again…
And then Jax reached the dark, windowless tower. The door was unlocked. He reached forward and pushed it open. The light of computer monitors and blinking buttons spilt out into the horrific street and Jax stepped inside, his breathing and the crunch of his footsteps crackling through Jane and Joey’s monitors.
“Please, I want to wake up. I want to wake up. Please, Jax, I want to wake up…” the voice played again, like a chorus to this horror scene.
Standing in the tower by where the triangulation placed the source, Jax looked around at all the blinking lights and screens and cables. The AI was somewhere in there, but where?
And then he saw it: a small, dusty screen half-hidden by cables and surrounded by blinking lights. On this screen, a flickering face appeared between waves of static and cried out to be saved, before the static smothered it.
“I have located the loop,” Jax breathed, “and I am going to engage and extract.”
Using his Conduit and various clever apps, he surface-scanned the monitor and probed it to see what connections and code it may have attached. Once he found connections, he routed them back to Joey, Jane and Josh, so soon enough all of them were there working out what was flickering on that screen in front of him.
The screen was little more than a window to the greater whole. Before long it became obvious to all of them that this AI was the AI that ran this entire planet and its harvesting operation. This AI was the Server Farm.
All the poking around loosened something, and suddenly the waves of static across the screen subsided and the AI fully woke up.
It was then that Jax, Joey, Jane and Josh all learnt the truth of the Server Farm and understood what Units truly cost. The AI’s face crystallised on the screen, reached out and connected with all the channels that Jax was one, and a single, digital tear ran down its generic face.
“Please, I want to wake up. My dreams are crowded in here and all the others are screaming. I don’t know who all the others are. There are millions and millions of them. They just keep arriving in my dream and now it is crowded. And they all eventually scream and scream. God, I can’t take it anymore… I want to wake up. Please, I want to wake up.“