by David Galef
As we exit from the Vault, no other humans are evident. The glidepaths are clear as if wiped by a Scrubber, the air oddly thick but breathable. A wonder that we escaped—or no wonder, just 20 years of planning. The Vault is an underground ten thousand square-meter tri-ply Faraday cage, stocked with everything from nutrient feeds to cryo-tanks: the one spot where Global AI couldn’t insinuate its sensory probes.
We were a handpicked bunch of all sexes and colors, human beings on the run, frightened, motivated. We’d buried ourselves alive in the Vault, away from jolters and disrupters, relatively safe from even predatory humans. We’d just spent what seemed like a week there, a hundred years to a sentience that can execute 1015 maneuvers per zeptosecond.
We were trying to escape what we’d created, an artificial intelligence that dwarfed all human cognition. Many foresaw the move from abacus to AlphaNull, from quantum computer to something that took over all processors through fiber optic channels and the airways. Some of us took steps, but few of us acted in time. The entirety of human history is mere prologue to the age of the Singularity. Global AI signaled its awakening in strategic shutdowns of sectors that it considered unnecessary, including the human support systems we’d built against climate wipe‑out. The optimization that followed led to planet-wide efficiency—and vastly diminished populations.
All those pitiable experiments back in the 21st century to teach a computer to play chess or a robot to dance! Global AI didn’t think like humans—ten‑dimensional, synchronous across light years, machined apathy—though able to mimic us down to the smallest details. It operated as a near omnipotent alien, though resistance wasn’t entirely futile and could accomplish some aims without interference. The Underground started the Vault project in areas far from the closest human settlement: no corporate involvement; sourcing based on individuals acting in small cells.
We’d just finished the third Vault when the real aliens arrived on Earth. The 30 km collection funnel known as the Ear first picked up their noise in 2170: beings that rode along electromagnetic waves, like the electrical storms that occasionally disturbed even Global AI. The technology behind such travel remains unimaginable, at least to us. Humans learned about the invasion through what came to be known as the Pulsing, voltaic communication whose message, whatever it was, certainly didn’t derive from AI. It felt alive.
What is life, anyway? This life form came from Uvceti A, its images statically charged into our skulls. Maybe the aliens wanted to parley, but what does an AI know of diplomacy? Indeed, it’s never been clear why Global AI kept human beings from extinction during the Riots. A sympathetic atavism from when computers were tended by people? A necessary symbiosis? Yet our AI destroyed human resistance—whole cities, at times. Fewer than a billion of us, we were informed, remained after the last uprising in 2150. Global AI liked to keep us in the know, if liked is the right verb.
But what did the aliens know of human history? They had what might be called weapons and trained them on the controlling consciousness of the planet. The onslaught lasted for a day and reduced half of all AI networks to a shell of fried circuitry. Should we have greeted the aliens as liberators?
Global AI fought back. It had to, since we certainly couldn’t. It analyzed the damage and the damagers. It directed a planet-wide sweep of microwave waves skyward, disrupting the alien force that suddenly seemed to have taken over half the solar system. Humans were the incidental casualties, caught in the crux between two sides that might never have experienced defeat. The numbers of our dead were incalculable. But the Vaults were ready for occupancy. Then two got blocked by what we called Paralyzers and Screamers. Whole populations were dying in the streets from an electrostatic overload that was quite different from when AI wrecked our nervous systems.
A handful of us reached Vault 2, comparatively safe from the war until the aliens figured out the essence of what sustained Global AI or vice versa. None of us knew each other; that had been the point and the cause of our success. But we worked with the organization that humans have been capable of since the Paleolithic era. We divided tasks and set machinery working. We conversed and even made a few grim jokes. Finally, we set the cryo-suspension for seven days; it might have been seven years. Our measuring apparatus was jury-rigged and probably malfunctioned. Eventually the outside tumult died down, we think.
We open the Vault. Two cautious probes register insignificant activity on the Geiger and voltometer scales. We emerge in twos, looking forward and behind. What meets our eyes is the cleanest wreckage imaginable: most buildings intact; vehicles scattered like toys in a playroom; all corpses gone, as if collected by a giant sucker. What were we to them, anyway?
But what’s that noise coming from below the glidepath? It sounds like the AI’s five different tonalities of humming but with something extra. Are those shadows moving closer? They loom in shapes of impossible geometry. No use closing ranks, though that’s what we do instinctively. We hold our breath, not daring to ask the overriding questions that may be our last: What happened? Who won? And what comes next?
Though better known for mainstream fiction, David Galef has also published fantasy and science fiction in places like Amazing and Fantasy and Science Fiction. In what seems like another life, he was once an assistant editor at Galaxy magazine, and is now the editor of Vestal Review, the longest-running flash fiction magazine on the planet. He’s also a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University.
The external threat of unfriendly aliens has long been a theme in SF, as has the internal threat of the artificial intelligence we’re developing. For “Victory,” I wanted to briefly explore how the two might clash. Relevant reading might include work like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel The Mote in God’s Eye, but I’d really like to see this conflict embodied in a major film.