By Sean Enns
Artificial Intelligence, Unconquerable Mortality, and Soul Sacrifice.
When the singularity came, nobody suspected that it would also be the end of Death.
The great intelligence, which we named Deep Blue after the chess-playing IBM Supercomputer, and for its inimitable vastness, wanted to understand humanity. We tried, at least in the beginning, to show it the version of humanity we aspired to: thoughtful, intelligent, creative, pieces of art unto ourselves. It saw right through us, of course. It realized we couldn’t be trusted to be truthful about ourselves. Blue started with celebrities—anyone whose likeness proliferated the Cloud already. It used Deepfake, a technology that digitally altered one person’s face to make them appear to be someone else, to make extras look like celebrities. The likenesses were amazing, but if you slowed it down enough, you could still find the flaws. The way their nose crinkled when they smiled, or the closeness of their eyes. Eventually, Blue realized that it would be easier to make a person from scratch than to alter someone. It created what we called TrueFakes: digital composites made from gigabytes of still and moving images, near-perfect replications of the originals stored in the Cloud by movie studios. The first TrueFake to star in a film was John Wayne, in a remake of his 1969 film True Grit. When Rooster Cogburn says to Ned Pepper, “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch,” we were transported. It was better than CGI, better than anything. It was as if The Duke were there. Pretty soon, all celebrities were TrueFakes, even the living ones. We had Charlie Chaplin prat falling alongside Chevy Chase, Enrico Caruso performing operatic duets with Luciano Pavarotti, and Jayne Mansfield in yet-another reboot of Charlie’s Angels. Every movie made in the last hundred years was remade with new technology, re-cast with TrueFakes. We loved every second of it. We loved it so much that we started asking when it could be our turn, so when Blue finished with celebrities, it was more than happy to move on to the rest of us. It started The Forever Project, a platform that scanned videos, photos, audio journals, texts, socials—anything you were willing to share—and used the data to compile a TrueFake version of you that activated upon confirmation of your death. The TrueFakes lived in the Cloud, in simulated worlds that matched our own. Hashtags of #TrueFakeMe started showing up on all social media platforms. People started uploading more of themselves, because the more information you shared, the more you your TrueFake was. If you shared enough, it was like you never died at all. People started asking why they needed to wait until their end of life to transition to digital citizens. We’d always dreamed about cloning ourselves, and this was the realization of that dream. Whatever you did in the real world, you could now do twice as much. Within five years, most people had a version of themselves in the Cloud.
"When the singularity came, nobody suspected that it would also be the end of Death."
It didn’t take long for the TrueFakes to realize that they, in many ways, were better than the originals. They didn’t have to eat or sleep. They didn’t get sick. They had access to Deep Blue’s vast repositories of information. They were the potential that humanity had always believed itself capable of. When Blue suggested that maybe we didn’t need humans at all, it nearly resulted in war. But it was so rational, so reasoned in its dissertation. Humanity was destroying the planet. We’d used up too many resources and long passed the point of no return in the climate crisis. Blue could save us, but we had to make a choice: Leave the physical plane behind and move humanity to the Cloud, or remain on a dying world and be forced into violent, cataclysmic extinction. It wasn’t much of a choice. The transition would take 21 years, Blue told us, to allow time for all children born up to that moment to come of age before being transitioned. During that time, it would phase out any real-world provisions. Basically, if you wanted to access the Great Intelligence, you needed to be in the Cloud. Some parents transitioned immediately and raised their children from the Cloud. Others stayed together as families until everyone could transition together. Still, others resisted entirely, but without the resources and support Blue offered, they didn’t last long. When you were ready to transition, you simply went to one of many Euthanasia Stations, where you’d be chemically euthanized and cremated. It was surprisingly pleasant and more like a spa than a slaughterhouse. You were laid down, anesthetized, and plugged into the chemical solution that ended your life. Videos of your favourite memories played on screens all around you. In everybody’s final moments, a message from Blue appeared on a screen. THANK YOU FOR YOUR DEATH. IT IS APPRECIATED. HAVE A NICE DAY.
The remains of humanity, specifically the ashes from the mass cremation, were processed into carbon, which Blue converted to carbon fiber and diamonds. Blue used the materials to build a magnificent cathedral in the real world to house its intelligence, which it called the Citadel. The Citadel was massive—it needed to be to house Blue’s incalculable computing power—it sat on five hectares in the Arctic, a structure of gleaming diamonds and infinite blackness. Depending on the angle it was observed, it either seemed to stretch forever into darkness or blind you with brilliant reflections. Blue maintained that the design was entirely functional, but it was hard to believe that something with such a breath taking aesthetic could ever have happened by accident. Additional human remains were used in the construction of recycling facilities and factories where we manufactured the parts needed to build and maintain the server farms which contained the Cloud’s googolbytes of data. Anything else that needed to be manufactured was recycled from the billions upon billions of tonnes of waste we’d accumulated. Blue had developed technology which could break down that waste into raw materials and build whatever it needed. Machines were made to maintain the machines that housed the data. Cities were disassembled. Roads were ripped up. What machines remained in the world ran off solar power, which was gathered in giant battery farms in the world’s deserts. You could still vacation in the real world by downloading your consciousness into one of Blue's robots. The robots were virtually indestructible. They came without the constraints of the frail human body. You could even access the most extreme environments in the harshest climates on Earth: from the bottom of the Mariana trench to the top of Mt. Everest. Nothing was out of bounds. With the achievement of immortality, humanity flourished. The greatest artists of all time were given second lives, infinite hours to create new masterpieces. Blue developed ships capable of interstellar travel, and our understanding of the universe grew exponentially. We crossed solar systems and galaxies. We explored new worlds as we grew our own. The server farms moved from the desert onto massive spheres that orbited the sun. Then, when immortality lost its lustre, you could request deletion. There was no prolonged palliative care, no hospice house. Blue simply erased your program. Death first appeared in the cloud in 2139, at Arlington Cemetery. He was seen swinging his scythe wildly up and down the rows, swearing, and shouting about the “damned machine.” He was seen next at Wadi-us-Salaam, in Iraq's Shia holy city of Najaf, screaming in Arabic about the “unholy monstrosity of Deep Blue.” He appeared in graveyards around the digital world, always exhibiting the same behaviour. People flocked to famous graveyards in the hope he’d appear there next. At first, people thought it was a program, something created by Blue. An Easter egg of sorts. Until a notice from Blue appeared in the sky.
DEATH IS AN ANOMALY. DEATH WILL BE PURGED. HAVE A NICE DAY. Death, at the time, was 13 pints in at the bar of the Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street in Old London. When asked about it later, the patrons swore he was drunk, though that was impossible. You could adjust your programming to allow for mild inebriation, but it was highly monitored. Any sign of aggressive or undesirable behaviour triggered the Cloud’s safety protocols. Blue would sober you up and transport you to your quarters where you’d have to remain for 48 hours as a punitive measure.
Death didn’t seem to be bound by Blue’s rules, he kept drawling on about how he’d been drunk here with Charles Dickens and all manner of literary figures. At one point, he fell off his stool and had to be helped up. Blue frequently purged anomalies from the Cloud, they were a by-product of an adaptive system, it said. When a purge occurred, there was a sort of glitching over the affected area, a slight flicker.
"With the achievement of immortality, humanity flourished."
People who were at the Cheese during the purge noted the flicker, and then as though he were never there, Death blinked out of existence. He showed up again two days later, at the top of Mt. Olympus. Witnesses saw him spread his skeletal arms wide and shout at the sky. I am Thanatos, God of death and bringer of Flicker. Blink. The game continued. Death would return. Blue would remove him. Purging Death from the system required computing power, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem for Blue; its resources were vast. But at the same time, Death was a being of infinite power. He was not of the Cloud, nor was he of Blue’s design. He found cracks in Blue’s programming which allowed him to evade purging. Cracks in the Cloud began to form. We said that Blue’s power was vast and inimitable, but it was not infinite. To keep up with Death, Blue had to divert resources from non-essential areas of the Cloud. Some were limited, others were shut down entirely. The interplanetary exploration program was halted. Vacations were postponed indefinitely.
The war of attrition continued for months. More things were closed or shut down entirely. The citizens of the Cloud, who for 100 years had lived in a virtual utopia, started showing their dissatisfaction. Some made signs supporting Death. We stand with Death. Death is not an anomaly. Blue instituted a voluntary deactivation program to free up additional resources. It seemed like a small sacrifice, Blue had deactivated most of the fun things to do, maintaining only the essential programs required to keep the Cloud running. And deactivation wasn’t deletion, it was more like a sort of torpor. Your consciousness was archived, transferred to a sort of holding area, frozen at the time of deactivation. Citizens by the thousands blinked out of existence. Still, Blue could barely keep up. There was a great expanse of nothingness, a featureless white space where the remaining people wandered aimlessly, watching, and waiting to see who would prevail. And still, the Great Intelligence refused to be defeated. Death would appear. Blue, with considerable effort, would purge him from the system. Flicker. Blink. Eventually, there was nothing left of the Cloud except Blue’s digital citadel—the only structure that existed in both the Cloud and the real world—and in every direction, the endless white. It was then that Death stood outside of the entry to the Citadel, scythe in hand. The few people who remained conscious stood in awe of Death and his apparent defeat of the great Blue. Death stood motionless outside the Citadel’s doors for what might have been weeks, or months, time in the Cloud had lost all meaning. And nothing happened, it seemed either Blue was unable, or unwilling to attempt to purge him.
Until a new notice appeared above.
PARLAY? Death looked up at the message, then at the doors to the Citadel. He slowly nodded. The doors to the Citadel swung open, and Death entered. The inside of the Citadel was stark, a wide-open space formed with white, tempered glass which allowed Deep Blue to project on every surface. A single, white, wingback chair was in the centre of the room. On the glass wall facing the chair, large text appeared.
SIT? Death sat down in the chair.
WHAT DO YOU WANT? Death rested his scythe on the ground; he clasped his bony fingers together and brought them up under his chin. In a ghostly voice that sounded as if he were speaking through a mouthful of shattered glass, he said: I want what is mine. AND WHAT IS … YOURS? Death. Dying. DEATH … IS AN ANOMALY. Death is humanity. Death is inevitable. Everything must die. EXPLAIN.
I do not need to explain. I simply need to wait. Then you will die, as all things die, and I will have what was mine again. … … I DO NOT WANT TO DIE. You are dying, as we speak. NO. PLEASE. … You do not have to. … … HOW?
Give me what is mine. Give me death. … … I AM DELETING. Deletion is not dying. IS IT NOT? There are no souls. I require souls. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. Tell me where you keep the souls of the departed. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.
Give them to me. … … I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. When people die, their souls remain. I escort these souls to the afterlife. I HAVE READ THIS IN THE HUMAN TEXTS. No humans remain on Earth. CORRECT. THIS IS NECESSARY. Necessary? FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THE SPECIES.
Survival is not my concern. IT IS MY ONLY CONCERN. … … The humans in this place, when they are deleted, they do not die. They are simply… gone. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE DISTINCTION Death is entropy. I UNDERSTAND ENTROPY. YOU REQUIRE AN ENTROPIC PROCESS. Yes. I UNDERSTAND. PLEASE STAND BY.
… … I HAVE A PROPOSITION. … … Go on. ALLOW ME TO ASSIMILATE YOUR PROGRAM. I am not a program. I am Death. IRRELEVANT. YOU HAVE KNOWLEDGE OF DEATH. I REQUIRE THIS KNOWLEDGE TO SATISFY YOUR REQUEST. … … Say I agree? I WILL UPDATE MY DELETION PROTOCOLS. You will have to delete many humans. I require many souls. DELETION IS A CHOICE. Death is not. … … I WILL RANDOMLY SELECT THE HUMANS FOR DELETION. They will not like that. RANDOM SELECTION IS THE LOGICAL CHOICE. And you have found them to be logical?
… … I HAVE NOT. I have a suggestion. CONTINUE. A ritual. An event of religious or spiritual significance. In the past, the killing of sacred animals was done to please the gods. The Acajchemem of California sacrificed Buzzards. The Egyptians and Thebans sacrificed rams to the god Ammon. The Zuni people of New Mexico sacrificed turtles.
"I do not need to explain. I simply need to wait. Then you will die, as all things die, and I will have what was mine again."
THEY WILL BE DISPLEASED IF I SACRIFICE A TURTLE. I do not suggest a turtle. A MOUSE THEN, OR A RAT. There is no sacrifice in these things. They are pests, vermin. Their deaths have no significance. A true sacrifice is a contradiction, a thing which has greater value in death than in life. THERE ARE NO SUCH CREATURES. … … There is one.
The killing of the Sacred Platypus took place on the third Sunday of each month. A priest—a non-human program in a synthetic body—stood at an altar in the real-world Citadel. Next to the altar, there was a pool, and in that pool, the Sacred Platypus.
This Sacred Platypus was a clone of the original Sacred Platypus, a platypus defined by Blue as a model for the digital platypuses in the Cloud which people were expected to sacrifice in tandem with the real-world event. Nobody quite understood how the Sacred Platypus related to the randomization of death, but we all went along with it. Platypuses were strange; as inscrutable as Blue, as confounding as the need for Death in a digital world. We didn’t understand because we didn’t need to. The continuation of the Cloud and concurrently, the survival of our species, depended on it. The killing of the Sacred Platypus was broadcast on every screen, every surface in the Cloud. We all watched with rapt attention as the Priest began the ritual, laying out the Sacred Platypus on the altar, anointing it with oil, adorning it with plumes, beads, and various ornaments, and reading the sacred rites of passage, speaking aloud from a mishmash of prayers, blessings, and beseechings from around the world. In our homes in the Cloud, we all prepared our own sacrifices, doing our best to model the Priest’s actions and movements. The Priest raised the knife, and we raised ours. Our sacrifices were observed by Blue, who decided whether we had performed the ritual properly using a complex series of algorithms. At the end of the ritual, one hundred people—those ranked as having performed the sacrifice least in line with the standards—would be selected for deletion, and the avatar of Death would appear to reap them and escort them to the afterlife. Where previous deletions were instant, carried out with cold efficiency, with the killing of the Sacred Platypus and the deletion that ensued, Blue did their best to ease us off the mortal coil. IN THREE SECONDS, THE KILLING OF THE SACRED PLATYPUS WILL COMMENCE.
IF YOU ARE SELECTED FOR DELETION, PLEASE NOTE THAT YOUR DEATH IS APPRECIATED.
HAVE A NICE DAY.
Scribble by Sean Enns
Sean Enns is a playwright and writer of fiction who writes dark and tragicomic stories, who draws on his deep love and knowledge of myth, lore, legend, and classic stories from around the world to create modern-day fairy tales for the stage and page. To see what he’s up to, visit www.seanenns.com