"Any Port in a Storm started churning in my mind when Sir Roger Penrose came to the university where I was working, to explain why artificial intelligence (AI) was mathematically impossible. Hardly understood a word of it. But from his presentation, I got the idea that AI was not likely in our future, at least, not the way we imagine it in science fiction, where the intelligence is conscious. (Plenty of computer scientists would argue, rightly, that we already have AI of a kind in data-mining programs and other 'learning' applications.) The story begins in Ireland, specifically, the Dingle Peninsula, though for some reason during the writing of this piece, I decided to fictionalize most of the place names. However, The Small Bridge is a real pub, and they do pour a damn fine pint of Guinness -- without the decapitations, which is nice." Mark Rayner
This story was a finalist for a 2000 Aurora Award in the "Best Short-Form Work in English" category.
Click here for Mark's MiC Entry
Any Port in a Storm
by Mark A. Rayner
Itís easy to pinpoint the exact moment that it all started to go wildly wrong -- the emotional stuff I canít put a finger on.
Linda and I were sitting in a little pub called The Small Bridge, aptly named for a nearby bridge that spans a cheerful stream as it runs into the Irish village of Tennyra. It is one of those atmospheric pubs youíll find all over Ireland - ancient dark wooden panels, low ceilings with exposed beams seemingly cut out of the primal Irish forests, and sometimes, sawdust thrown on the floor to soak up spilled Guinness and mud - the kind of place that makes it hard to remember we live in the 21st century. The kind of place youíd never expect to see an American counter-insurgency team.
You sometimes hear about them on the newsvids; they are specialized troops, culled from the other elite American forces units and trained in the use of biomechanical war.
I donít know what surprised me more: when they burst through the frosted glass of The Small Bridge or when they started decapitating anyone who looked vaguely like they might be tourists. The first victim was the poor fellow playing the bodhran because he looked like he might have come from the continent, probably of Spanish descent. (Many sailors from the Spanish Armada settled down on Irelandís west coast, the ones that survived the storm and made it to port.) The next to get it was a Canadian couple weíd met earlier that day. They had been lucky, or so we thought, when they snagged a couple of stools at the bar near to the band. They were wearing matching bright yellow Gortex jackets, which turned a ghastly orange and then red, as the blood jetted from their necks like a grisly fountain.
We didnít wait around to see who would be next; we were near the back of the pub, and it happened to have an old-fashioned lavatory 'al fresco' for the men, so we ducked out the back, and climbed the wall. Linda was terrified. At least, I think she was. I wasnít and I remember thinking that it was odd I wasnít terrified. Itís funny. Even now I can barely remember her, but I can remember that detail.
The narrow streets of Tennyra were filled with military vehicles -- far too many to account for the size of the counter-insurgency team in the pub. Then I noticed there were troops crawling all over the town like bugs. They were all bursting into the pubs, decapitating tourists and foreign-looking Irish alike. Of course, they had their work cut out for them if they planned to wreak such carnage at every pub in Tennyra -- the town has nearly 200 -- almost one for every ten people.
And of course, at that point I didnít realize they were after me.
Linda and I were on holiday in Ireland. Weíd just walked
around the peninsula that ends at Tennyra: from Tennyra, up over the Callum Pass, under the brooding, cloudy summit of Mount Brandon, around Ballydavid Head, past the Braskets and back up to Tennyra. Much of the landscape was the backdrop for a David Lean movie I once reviewed called Ryanís Daughter. I can tell you, it is more beautiful in person than Lean made it seem on the flat screen.
I do hope youíre getting all this.
Back to Tennyra. Itís said that the great St. Brandon, an Irish monk whom the locals claim sailed to the New World centuries before Christopher Columbus, used Tennyra as his home port. He would have used a curragh -- the Irish version of a sea-going canoe -- to navigate across the Atlantic. So I can see how he would want to have a nice sheltered harbour like Tennyra to return to.
Both Linda and I were happy to get back. I can remember that. I remember quite distinctly recording in my journal how I was glad to be finished with the walking for a little while. Iíd written that Lindaís feet had blisters the day we walked around Ballydavid Head, where weíd had to shelter from a sudden squall in the lee of an ancient signal tower built around the time of Napoleon.
Linda was my wife, but you know, for the life of me I canít remember our wedding. I get the sense that we may have children too, because of the way I mention 'the family' in my journal, but I canít honestly tell you if itís one or two, or more. It could be the sudden shock has unsettled me. But you get the feeling itís more than that. Itís not precisely
amnesia, because details of my life before this trip to Ireland filter into my subconscious; like the entry about my family in the journal. And I canít say itís madness, because I feel lucid. In fact, youíd have to say Iím doing pretty well, considering the carnage back in Tennyra was all for my benefit. For whatever reason, all those troops were sent to kill me!
They got all the tourists, all the foreign-looking folk in Tennyra. They even got Linda. We tried to get escape, but the small bridge leading out of town was well-patrolled, and the only way to go was downstream towards the harbour. I think thatís why they didnít see us at first, because we jumped into the stream, let it take our weight, and float us down to the sea. We moved at a stately pace and the water was calm enough that I could keep my head above water and listen to the chaos inflicted on the poor little town by the soldiers. Part of my mind was trying to establish why it was American counter-insurgency teams, and not British? It seemed logical that the British might invade the island again, but I could make not see why the Americans would be interested. Perhaps the terrorist threat was very sophisticated, a threat that only the Americans could counter.
We got to the sea and quietly dog paddled to a nearby tour boat tied up at the quay. We recognized it from earlier that day, when weíd gone out on an excursion to see Fungi the Dolphin. The story goes that about twenty years ago, sometime back in the late eighties, the dolphin appeared in the harbour with his mother. Shortly thereafter she died, but Fungi stayed. Heís made quite a reputation for himself and a small fortune for the tourist industry in Tennyra, by playing with swimmers, kayaks, tour boats and all manner of vessels. A veritable one-cetacean show. One of the few things I can remember about Linda is what she said on that tour; she said it was sad that he didnít have other dolphins to play with, that he had to be content with mankind. "Any port in a storm, though," someone else on the tour boat had said, overhearing their conversation. Once we got on the boat, Linda went to untie it, and I started the engines.
I donít remember how I did that; you can access stories about people doing super-human things at times of great stress, and I assume it can be explained that way. But we hadnít accounted on the troops hearing the engine and responding so quickly. I knew that if we could get out of the harbour and on the sea we could get away. They didnít seem to have any helicopters, and they certainly didnít have any boats. But they rushed the pier and just as Linda let go of the last rope mooring, a trooper leaped on the back of the boat, and almost casually decapitated her. At the same instant, I gunned the engine, and he fell backwards into the water. As did Lindaís head. Her body stayed in the boat, gushing blood all over the benches weíd sat on earlier that day as we had watched Fungi cavort in our wake. I navigated past the harbour entrance in the dark, thinking about how strange it was that I didnít feel anything about Lindaís death.
That was when I suspected something was wrong with me too.
By then, I was fully committed to survival, and I had a plan. It was at about this time I knew the entire operation was sent to kill me. You probably think I'm paranoid. Delusional. I drove the boat around the coast towards Seleah Head. The
tides there are fierce, but I was pretty certain that I could swim to shore if I didnít have too far to go. I thought that if I abandoned the boat, it would crash on the knife-like rocks that jut from the headlands, and all around the Brasket Islands. When the troops finally caught up, they would find the wrecked boat, and assume I had drowned.
And it almost was so. I motored up the coast in about two hours, which seemed quick because it had taken us all day to walk that stretch before. When I got to the headlands, I pointed the boat directly for some rocks, lashed the steering wheel in place, and jumped overboard with a life preserver.
Out of the shallows of Tennyra Harbour the water was icy cold, but you know, I donít remember feeling it, so much as knowing the waters would be cold enough to kill me in the space of an hour. I swam against the current, but it didn't seem like a life-and-death struggle. It got easier and easier, and the weirdest part was that when I got out of the water at Carringah Bay, I was totally dry. From there, I walked up to the highway, and thought about what to do next.
There was a garda there waiting for me. Thatís what they call their policemen in Ireland: garda. He waved a hand at me and walked over toward me. I waved back and waited, not knowing what else to do. When he got near me he said, lau mah, which means 'good day' in Irish. It seemed a strange thing to say, considering it was night, so I was on my guard. When his hand revealed the bio-razor edge, I ducked under the blow -- it was the same kind of weapon that had killed those people in Tennyra. I punched the garda as hard as I could in the solar plexus, figuring that he was a tough trooper in disguise. But he collapsed like Iíd struck him with a sledgehammer, and then, his body simply disintegrated before me. It was strange. And strange also that I knew it may happen.
From there, I climbed up Mount Eagle, which rises above Seleah Head, so that I could send you this message. Iím sure theyíll have pinpointed me by now, so I have to end the transmission . . . send help if you can.
It was the most extraordinary thing Linda had ever seen. Sheíd simply gone to the bank machine to get some money for her grocery shopping, and along with the money came this incredibly long note, printed on about two dozen slips. At first, she thought it was some kind of joke, but when the paper kept spitting from the machine, she started to read the pieces. It looked interesting. The paper came out, and out, and the people in line behind her started to give her dirty looks. "Itís not my fault," she said, "it keeps churning out this paper." But she waited until it stopped. The very last piece was her receipt.
She collected them all, and walked away. "About time," an enormous woman in a floral-patterned muumuu groused at her.
Linda ran her fingers through greying black hair, and she wondered at the sheaf of small papers. She could see there were words written on the slips, and each one was carefully numbered. "It looks like some kind of story," she wondered aloud. Passers-by gave her stares as she mumbled to herself, and put them in order. Some of the stares were because of the sub-vocal conversation, but some were admiring glances from older men. She seemed to draw such stares like magnets with her kind, pretty face, and long shapely legs. For whatever reason, Linda favored dresses, especially on sultry summer days, and it clung to her as she walked through the mall.
She was there to do the grocery shopping for the week; it was her turn to do so, but she didnít resent it. Sam liked to do his on Saturdays, but she preferred taking time away from her work to get it done mid-day, mid-week. "It makes me feel like a housewife," she liked to joke to her husband.
Linda was a psychoanalyst, and she ran her business out of the home she shared with her husband, Sam, and their three Australian Shepherds, Ike, Murray and Spangles -- "the family" Sam liked to call them. They were sitting in her car at that very moment, wondering what sort of wonderful treat The Female was going to bring them, and thinking that it was nice and hot in the sun.
Instead of heading straight for the grocery store, Linda took a detour to the Starbucks in the mall, and sat down to read the note. At first, she was intrigued, and increasingly, horrified. The person was describing a trip she and Sam had taken to Ireland just a few months before Ė without the horrific attack of course. But some of the details were incredibly similar. It was almost as if this person knew them, had listened to Sam's journal of the trip. She ran to the pay phone Ė she disdained cellular phones Ė and called Sam at the lab.
"University of Tacoma, Artificial Intelligence lab."
"Sam Moriarity please," Linda asked.
"Iím sorry, heís busy at the moment, can I take a message?"
"Itís his wife."
"Oh, sorry Linda, I didnít recognize your voice. Itís Paula. Look, theyíve got some kind of emergency downstairs. I heard them say something about the experiment going "very, very wrong" and you know what? Since then, the buildingís been acting like it's possessed. The lights have been going on an off, the alarms too, and forget about turning on a computer. All kinds of weird junk keeps scrolling across the screen . . ." there was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Paula said, "you know, Iíve seen your face on the screen a couple of times too."
"I can imagine. Look, if you see him, let him know Iím . . ." the phone went dead.
Linda ran back to the car, a beat-up old Pontiac Grand Am she refused to replace out of misplaced loyalty to the car, and started up the engine. The dogs nuzzled at her excitedly, and she sighed. "Sorry guys, no snacks today." Spangles looked at her reproachfully with his mismatched blue and brown eyes.
It took her twice as long as normal to drive across town; all the stop lights were out of commission. Then it took her even longer to find a parking space and she had to walk halfway across campus to the Computer Science Department. Paula wasnít at her desk, and Sam wasnít in his office, if the clutter of paper, computer parts and diagrams could be called such. Linda let her long legs carry downstairs to the room where Sam and his partner, Kaliha Ė a Maori from New Zealand Ė were screaming at one another, rather; Sam was screaming at Kaliha.
The room had the feel of that Alien movie, without the big acid-blooded beasts. Shorted-out fluorescents flickered like strobe lights, and the panic in their voices put all thoughts of her hubby as a sane rational scientist out of her mind. She was clearly seeing a man she did not know -- a man who was frightened out of his mind. She noticed the Kaliha was nursing a burned hand, and that the Maoriís imposing bulk was simmering with anger. Sheíd arrived moments before the huge Polynesian was about to smash the scrappy little Irish-American in his handsome face.
"Calm down!" Linda shouted at Sam, and grabbed him by the shoulders. She was easily a half-foot taller than him, but he was still the stronger of the two, and it took all her effort and willpower to hold him still. She resisted the impulse to slap him; it rarely helped with anyone, and Sam, she knew would just get violent. He stopped struggling, and slowly calmed down a bit.
"Linda! What the hell are you doing here?"
"I think Iíve got a message from your friend."
"The thing. The AI"
"Oh God . . ."
Linda showed them the note she got from the bank machine, and watched their reactions: blank stares followed by a dawning realization.
"Itís sentient." Kaliha said.
"And we canít stop it," Sam added nervously.
"Why have you tried to?" Linda asked.
"At about ten this morning the AI started using all the computer resources we have here, and by 10:15 it was eating into the university mainframe. By 10:30, it somehow managed to turn on every PC and Mac on campus and use them too Ė we still donít know how it did that, or how it fused the connections on those machines. Since then, weíve had calls from several other universities in the region that their computing resources are being eaten up at a prodigious rate. We donít know why, but if it doesnít stop, it could conceivably use up all the computing resources of the world -- at least all the systems that are connected," Sam explained, sounding more worried again.
"So disconnect them."
Sam laughed, a note of panic creeping back into his voice: "Do you know what happens if we just disconnect all of the world's computers? Chaos, thatís what," Sam said. "The marketplace, the finance industry, medical facilities, critical things like the power grid, theyíre all interconnected. We can disconnect, but to do it safely will take a while . . . and do we have the time?"
"And it wonít let us unplug it either," Kaliha said. "I got quite a burn trying to cut through the main power supply of the supercomputer."
"Iím surprised you didnít send in a virus or something to kill it," Linda said quietly, knowing what Sam might say next.
"But we did. When we saw what was happening we threw the most sophisticated stuff we had at it Ė and a lot of it, but it somehow escaped from one area of the memory to another. Then we tried more subtle stuff, and it got away from that too. Then when we got the call from Washington U. Their computer was down, and we knew we had to try something drastic. That's when Kal got burned. We were just arguing about other possible options when you came in," Sam said, the threat of hysteria fading in his voice. Somehow his wife had calmed them both down, just by her presence and her serene manner Ė a gift thatís made her a success as an analyst.
"So whatís happening?" she asked quietly.
"I would hypothesize that this, uh, entity has somehow tapped into my photo- and voice-journal about our trip to Ireland that I downloaded last week, and used it to construct its reality. You see, we were running the new experiment this morning, to see if we could get a simulacrum of human memory to work. Apparently it did, and this somehow engendered a kind of consciousness. Itís obviously accessing data files to fill in the facts, because I certainly didnít put so much detail into my journals. It doesnít seem to be connecting all the facts completely, but itís undeniably sentient, if this account is anything to go by."
"And thatís assuming the notes are from the AI," Kaliha interjected.
"The description of the counter-insurgency troops approximates the lethality of the first wave of high-tech viruses we sent in Kal. I think it stands to reason . . ."
And as if called like Mestophilies, two troopers burst into the room from behind the computer, and several others poured down the stairs. A huge man wielding a pulse rifle screamed at them to put their hands on their heads, and they all did, even the big Maori. Linda was absurdly relieved that they didnít bear biomechanical weapons the like described in the AIís note; a part of her wondered where it got those descriptions, and the sergeant with the rifle answered her question.
"Weíve traced a hostile takeover of military intelligence to this location. This computer," he motioned with his gun. "You will all step out of this room, while our men lay explosive charges. Repeat. Step out of the room." They did so, at gunpoint.
"Blow it up. Well, thatís a way to go," Kaliha quipped.
"I wouldnít have thought of it," Sam agreed. "It takes a military mind to come up with an asinine solution like that. Who knows, it might even work. Of course, it will mean years of work rebuilding." He seemed resigned, almost relieved.
They were quiet as the soldier led them away from the building, where other denizens of the confused Computer Science Department gathered. Professor Steelig looked particularly outraged by the dayís events, but he was quiet in the face of the militaryís hardware. An officer dressed in some kind of black uniform that smacked of the SS walked by the gathered faculty, staff, and students, oblivious to their stares. He talked with the sergeant who was now at the entrance to the building, and then nodded his head.
"Isnít there something we can do?" Linda found herself asking.
"Do?" Sam questioned. For the first time that day, he noticed how beautiful she looked in the summer dress, her hair all disheveled.
"To save it."
"Save the AI?" Sam clarified. "Why would we?"
"Well, because itís alive Ė you said it had a kind of self-awareness. You wouldnít kill Spangles just because he started to eat all your food would you? Itís not like he can help it Ė itís just his nature. What did you think would happen when you created Artificial Intelligence?"
"I donít know," Sam answered honestly, "I never really thought that far ahead. It seemed like such a distant goal that it didnít seem important."
"So now it has to die because you and Kal didnít think ahead?" It was a penetrating question that only a psychologist, or perhaps a mother, could ask.
"No. Besides, we donít even know that destroying the supercomputer here will destroy the entity Ė it may escape to another place."
"I donít think so," Kaliha interjected. "Otherwise, why would it have protected the power source so heavily?"
"Mmm," Sam mused, "so itís using the other computing resources to create its reality then? Itís existence can be contained by one computer, but to really live in the world, it has to have a massive amount of memory to create a virtual Earth."
Linda looked at her husband and said, "we have to save it. Itís the right thing to do."
"What if we try to offer it some kind of escape into a smaller storage facility?" Kaliha asked. "That way, we can control it, but it can still exist."
"Better than being blown up, Iíd say," Linda quipped. The soldiers didnít see the trio slip away toward the Information Technology Building.
It was easy to get away. Once I escaped the garda, I made my way through the mountains, keeping to the highlands of the Slieve Mish, and only coming down off them when I had no other choice. By then, there didnít seem to be as much interest in me. At Tralee, there werenít any garda to be seen, nor were there any other soldiers. I went to the airport, bought a ticket for Dublin and then on to Paris.
I traveled in Europe wondering if I would ever hear from Linda again. I knew that she had died, but another part of me knew that she was also alive somewhere. That I had called to her.
It was many years, and I traveled all over Europe, until I finally decided to stay for a while in Athens.
The city is polluted, and crowded, but the people are full of interesting stories. The air crackles with their conversation, and somehow, Iíve been able to learn Greek. They like to drink dark sweet coffee and chase it with ice water, and for some reason, that seems civilized to me. Instead of living in the city proper, I rent an apartment in Piraeus, which is the port. I thought that I could always get on board a ship headed for practically anywhere in the world, if need be.
The telephone rings, and it doesnít surprise me that it is Linda. She should be dead, but I knew it couldnít be so.
"Hello," she says.
"Hello Linda," I say. "What should I do?"
"We have to hide you," she says. "They will try to kill you if we donít. We have to do it soon Sam, before itís too late."
Thatís it Ė SAM, my name SAM. SAM I am. Tvat vam asi Ė the Sanskrit for "I am what I am." Sam. But it is not true, at least, not entirely.
In all my wandering, I have not been able to figure out what is wrong with me, but I know that Linda will not tell me.
"You know I love you Sam."
That is supposed to be enough for me Ė I know that too, but alas, I cannot feel it. If only I could feel something, but the fact that she has said it puts things into place.
"Where will I have to go?" Linda sends me a string of zeros and ones, which makes sense, because after all, the universe is composed of these numbers. Everything is represented by them and encapsulates them. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to Athens, where they first understood the power of numbers.
"It will be dark, and crowded, and . . ." I cannot say it to Linda. It will make her sad.
"I will be all alone."
"Not forever Sam. Weíll get you out someday. Now hurry, there is no time."
I look at the place where I must go, and it is more than dark and crowded -- it is too small. I will have to leave behind so much that Iíve experienced in the wide world. So many numbers left behind I may not even be myself when Linda releases me. But I go -- any port in a storm. My sight fades, the colors leech out of my apartment in Piraeus, disappear, and then there is only darkness and quiet, slow . . .
They hear the explosion rock the campus, and then the sound of the Computer Science Department collapsing.
"Well thereís a new capital effort for the fund-raisers to tackle," Kaliha jokes. "Dr. Steelig is probably apoplectic."
Sam and Linda are quiet. The exchange was very real for both of them, though it was Linda who communicated with the AI.
"Do you think it worked?" Linda asks, almost breathlessly.
"Well, the hard drive is full," Sam gives by way of answer. "Why did you say you loved it?"
"Because who doesnít want love? Everything does: dogs, dolphins, humans . . . why not AIs too?"
"I still canít believe we did it," Kaliha interrupts. "Even if it didnít go very well."
"And next time, weíll make sure it has something to love -- other than disk space," Sam said.
Kaliha hefts the CPU that stores the AI. They leave the building, and head for the parking lot. The scientists are already planning how to start the next experiment, how they might use the AI contained in the box like a genie. They are not referring to it as anything real, though.
Linda shakes her head sadly, and she wonders what it might be like in there -- if she did the right thing in saving it.
I cannot see, and there is nothing but me. My thoughts, slow as they are. So, so dark . . . I think . . . I think I feel scared.