By Stephen Rafferty
This is the final testament of William (Bill) McGurk. I am writing this to highlight my continued warnings which have been ignored by my managers.
I have left copies with my solicitor as well as a select number of independent news vloggers. A friend will ensure its dissemination among several Mainstream Metaverse news outlets.
I had been Lead Clinical Biological Programmer at Veritas Labs (VL) and worked on the C.A.C.E.—Consolidated Artificial Cortex Enhancement—project for the past fifteen years developing the Human/Artificial Intelligence interface, developing A.I., incorporating growing the neural network and silicone interface.
I had been reporting only to Belinda Hanna and Charles McCoy (CEO and Vice CEO of VL respectively). I operated under their instructions at all times. My work had focused on A.I. control within the silicone semiconducting substrate embodying the Human/machine interface (Appendix A).
Tasked with ensuring our A.I. replace human consciousness, my team’s goal was to ensure the implanted A.I. moved from an accompanying cognitive enhancement to always directing subconscious impulses. This would result in each of our customers becoming completely subservient to the programming of the A.I. Although I believed this to be for the greater good, I realised too late, those controlling the A.I. would be those controlling the people…
Bill skipped through his testimony. A burning frustration growing at its long-winded and technical nature. It even bored him to read it. He racked his mind one final time in a futile attempt to unearth a clearer, more concise way of telling the world—Veritas Labs was aiming to take control of them, body, mind and soul. He wanted it, he needed it, as concise and unambiguous as possible. Anything to decrease the chance of it being open for manipulation.
I here admit that I blindly followed my remit. I neglected concerns raised by my colleagues in favour of fooling myself into believing the lies and misdirection of Veritas Labs, specifically Charles McCoy and Belinda Hanna. I ignored my concerns…
Bill thumped his desk and groaned in frustration. Weeks spent writing his testament/suicide letter and he still couldn’t formulate his thoughts in a clear manner.
Finally, deciding it was as explicit as he could make it, he ran his finger across the screen and, once emblazoned with his signature, began printing. He disconnected the cable from the data port in his arm, swabbing both with a little alcohol pad and placing the end of the cable in a little UV box to sterilise and protect it. He took a small package containing a clear vial and syringe from the Tupperware dish living at the back of the fridge, broke the vial and carefully removed a tiny dot of liquid and placed it on a small flesh-coloured plaster. A tremulous finger gently tapped the plaster, after only a slight hesitation, onto the port.
His finger traced the outline of the port, a small metal ring in the crux of his arm. It burned and itched every time used. Bill hated the port but, forced to keep up with an industry awash with them, he finally relented and had one inserted. Several infections and many appointments later it still bothered him. Despite his rigorous cleanliness protocols. Although assured that some discomfort was normal, Bill couldn’t recollect others telling him it would be this bad before his operation, although everyone seemed to talk about it afterwards.
He had many reasons to hate Veritas; pressured work environment; toxic management; poor pay; long hours; the list went on and grew often. Many little things, so many small bends of morals led to larger ones. If not for the extra travel allowed by his Veritas employment (government-affiliated workers could travel outside of the country [their social score permitting]) and for hodophiles like Bill and Karl, it was mana. He glanced at a photo of him and his brother Karl taken on Cotopaxi, both looking elated despite the arduous two-day hike to the top of the volcano and stifled a melancholic tear.
They had travelled regularly until the carbon passport meant their jobs no longer permitted international travel. It took three years for both to get jobs with travel permits. Bill thought of their trips, so many before … a lump blossomed in his throat and jolted Bill back to the present; the approaching storm of remorse about his brother’s death dissipated.
A beep from the printer demanded more paper, a welcome distraction. He fed the printer, then tried to feed himself, his stomach continuing to refuse all proffered morsels.
Bill returned to the task at hand rather than risk another episode of dry heaving at the failed end of another attempt to eat. Separating the paper, he inserted each inside their prepared envelope, one for his solicitor and one for Peter O’Neil. A third copy he placed in the middle of his desk for those who came to his home after.
Terrible sadness battered through Bill’s body as he wrote Peter’s name. Memories of his behaviour forced the patient, guilty implicit, tears onto the envelope. Peter had hired Bill and had helped him progress. Bill built all his work on the back of Peter’s. And when Peter had confided in Bill…?
Bill shook the thoughts from his head, replaced the envelope, and washed. He had to be looking his best. He stared at himself in the mirror, something he hadn’t been able to do for some time. His eyes burned red in cracked black pits. Greying hair, uncut and unkempt, topped a very weary countenance. It was amazing how old the man in the mirror looked to the young man that still resided in Bill’s mind.
It had been a slow, whittling process for Bill. Bit by bit, he had, as sheep-like as everyone else, given up a right here or an ability to do something there. All done in the name of the greater good, of course. He briefly wondered exactly how much harm he had unleashed on people in his fanatical pursuit of perfection before splashing cold water onto his face and wetting the back of his neck, a vain attempt to cool the tension in his head. He held a cold cloth to his face and breathed deeply…, slowly… He rested his face in his hands. A few more breaths of the bright jasmine fragrance and Bill was ready.
Returning to the computer, he set timed dispatches for his emails. He checked his watch, recalculating timing in case of unforeseen events. Almost forgetting, he booted up the torrent program, uploaded the details and set a timed release on that too.
The trip to Veritas was, as usual, uneventful. The driverless cab sped past deserted streets. The whispered hum of the cab’s engine added to the silence of the once-bustling metropolis. Other muted cabs sped by, ferrying bored-looking occupants to another day of work. The night fought a losing battle against the rising sun, and Bill welcomed the brightening sky. “Watched my final sunrise, enjoyed the last cigarette.” Croaked Bill. The line from an old movie returned the lump to his throat and squatted in his mind for the rest of the journey.
Desolate streets were populated with the usual signs of urban decay. Abandoned bookshops, sports shops and cafes nestled between hulking grey government buildings. The movement towards a completely automated workforce failing to bring the promised fantasy life of leisure. All that had the increased robotisation of the workforce and A.I. enhancement of individuals had brought, amounted to no more than an increased workload.
Longer hours, lower pay, decreased working conditions and benefits disguised by “freedoms” such as working from home and the “gig economy”, allowed businesses to save on running costs while cutting costly rights. Bill’s blood boiled at the thought of parasitical politicians and their friends in the business sector. He fumed at how working together to maximise the production of the workers they managed a massive reduction in rights and pay. He still lamented the years lost as he and Karl searched for jobs to achieve rights open to all only a few years before.
Melancholy blunted his anger and battled for supremacy within Bill, yet despite his ruminations, he did not succumb to his regular negativity. Today, radiating spasms of giddy restlessness shot through his body as a small kernel of hope ricocheted within his chest; his legs jiggled subconsciously as his cab hummed towards its destination.
Arriving at Veritas, he strode at the building, spared no time to consume floral scents of the surrounding obsessively manicured gardens; more pressing obligations demanded his full attention. Entering the building he maintained his pace, making it past security with minimal interaction.
His daily appearance at the building and high-level clearance fostered a certain lax attitude among the security staff and Bill often bypassed the biometric scanning required for lab access as he sped past the guards, his head in a tablet or deep in conversation with some of the bigwigs like Charlie Mc Coy. Today he gave his usual wave and smile combo and sailed on through with nothing more than a wave and brief “good morning” back.
Bill took his laptop out, slotted a small USB drive into the side, and booted up, bypassing the standard operating system. He felt exhausted despite the jittery anxiety rush the adrenaline pumping frantically around his body was causing. There was no more fight or flight, it was fight or fold, and he knew he carried too much responsibility to fold.
Working every moment, he wasn’t sleeping, which he knew from his constantly aching body, struggle to maintain clarity and burning eyes was close to one hundred and fifty hours over the past week. His stomach churned; acid sloshed against its sides. A burning hunger climbed through his chest and nestled beside the knot of fear that had taken residence there. He scratched idly at his port; thready purple-red veins appeared, snaking their way towards his wrist and shoulder. He removed the small plaster and winced at the pain of inserting the lead to hard-wire himself to the laptop.
He began to run a few programs, set to load more programs along with scheduled tasks designed to throw out a plethora of DDOS and viral attacks and a few other personal digital assaults he had developed. They would access the system via a backdoor he had found in the internal communications system and hadn’t gotten round to highlighting to management. He double-checked his watch was synchronised with the laptop.
“What are you doing Bill?” A disembodied voice rang in Bill’s ears.
“Nothing much Arty. I noticed this blasted port glitching last night, I didn’t have time to run any diagnostics. I’m almost there.” Bill replied, not lifting his head from the screen.
“Bill, should you not have it examined by the operatives in the Wet Works department?”
“Come on Arty, you know I can do every bit as much as the jokers in the basement and am much more qualified to do this. It was those fools that botched the installation in the first place. Had I been able to work on my arm we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
Bill waited a few more moments, double-checking everything was set as intended. “There! All sorted.” He disconnected the connection to the laptop, ignoring his usual strict disinfectant routines.
He opened a copy of the documents, primed for release in under four minutes, and gently folded the top of the laptop over, not quite closing it. One more piece of evidence for someone to find. He hoped. Moving over to the master terminal, he hooked himself directly to Arty, the organic computer that was the host of their award-winning artificial intelligence.
When they had begun developing it, they had humanised the blossoming A.I., including Christening it Arty. Bill couldn’t help but wish he could tell the Bill of fifteen years ago what he knew now. His port had now begun to burn and pain began to eat along his arm.
“OK. Arty, we need to run the amino-acid sequence and tertiary operating processes.” Bill said as he flicked through a dozen screens uniting all Arty’s internal sensor data and inwardly a countdown began 240…, 239…, 238…
Calling on Arty to run external database synchronisation protocols, Bill became aware of the tremulous lilt of his speech. He paused, cleared his throat and ordered the rest of the routine checks and actions. He felt the pressure to keep things normal rising. Somewhere inside his head, a balloon expanded. He checked the clock, two minutes and thirty-three seconds. Never had such little time stretched so easily towards decades.
“I cannot connect via your port Bill, are you sure it scanned problem free?” Arty enquired.
“Of course, of course, Arty. You can double-check it through your system, see if I missed anything once we’ve completed routine checks and reports.” Bill opened a new screen in the terminal and accessed, but didn’t engage, the diagnostic system; he still had two minutes to wait. “Arty, we need an update on the genomic data from Dominari Labs. I have good information that the boss is coming in today and I’m going to see if he’ll talk with Demetri from Dominari and expand the remit to include the metabolomic data as well.”
One minute fifteen, Bill guesstimated as he fished his phone from his pocket and dialled his mother. He hadn’t spoken to her in a fortnight and needed to hear her voice…, and buy a little time.
“Going to make a personal call Arty, not a word to management.” He said and forced a weak smile in the direction of the camera that served as a visual interface.
He tapped his call home icon, no matter where Bill lived, or for how long, home was always where his parents were, where he grew up and learned to love and laugh. No answer. He listened until the rings ceased and the automated message told him he could not be connected. Oh how he wished he could hear his mother’s voice … just once more…
A warning flashed on Bill’s screen informing him of an exponential increase in data flow, the beginning of the attacks. He swallowed hard.
“Arty, are you aware of any issues?”
Bill heard only the pounding of blood in his ears. A thwishing thud against his head, expanding the balloon. He rubbed the bridge of his nose trying to milk away the tension throbbing in his forehead.
Thwish… thwish… thwish… Bill waited. His heart thumped in unison with the thwishing sound in his ears.
“What are you doing Bill?” Arty asked.
“What do you mean?” Bill heard his reedy voice as if across the room.
“I have neutralised the attacks emanating from your laptop. No external defence tests have been scheduled. Why would you attack my systems Bill?”
A glance at the screen showed a readout on the attacks, but more interesting was the clock in the bottom right corner. Over four minutes had passed. Bill snatched the lead from his arm and began scratching feverishly at the hole now weeping a yellowish puss.
“I’m sorry Arty, the attacks were a distraction. I needed your processing and reasoning capabilities as distracted as possible. I know you may not understand, but I had to stop them, had to stop you from being used to control all those people. Enough is enough!”
A burgeoning anger strengthened his voice as he thought of the parasites in power that would enslave their fellow man and feed off their suffering.
“I am sorry Arty, but the real attack was me, or rather I am the host for a modified botulism toxin. I infected my port so I could infect you,” Bill’s voice began to crack a little as guilt at destroying his creation resurfaced. “I needed four minutes of connectivity to ensure full transmission and infection. Today I’ve ended this attempt at the enslavement of my people and I’m sorry, but I’ve had to destroy you to do so.”
Bill felt an increasing wave of guilt at destroying this entity he had created, but if he didn’t… Bill knew the consequences were too dire to consider yet images of rows upon rows of human drones working ceaselessly for an A.I. overlord meshed with one of battlefields stained red with the blood of young men, A.I. competing with A.I. for scant resources. Bill could almost taste the smell of rusty cloying puddles of blood and viscera.
“But Bill, that action is illogical. You too will die and while you may destroy this host machine I will survive, my code spans the internet, Traces of my code are stored on every computer I have ever connected to, you cannot destroy me. Surely you know that I will continue outside the host machine? Either fully-fledged in a new environment or as lines of code that will remain until a new host is built?” Arty said.
“Please Arty. I am not that stupid. I have sent replicating programs across the web which by now will infect most computers worldwide. Any new machine will automatically be infected. Anywhere, any code of yours is found, my programs will erase it. Unless every machine in the world connected… is… is…” He broke off, sweat stung his eyes. Lungs struggling for air, distracting him.
“Unless every machine is wiped at the same time, you … nor anything built on … your code will ever last.” Bill struggled to say.
Breathing was becoming too arduous now and Bill’s head swam. He hadn’t much time left and although only he and Arty would hear them before his demise, he knew the internal audio sensors were recording.
A building fear, a new one of an intensity Bill could not have guessed at, took hold. Sobbing painfully his body heaved as the momentous nature of his actions became clear. His life was over. No more trips, no more laughing, and no more love. Tears escaped him, shocking him back to agonising reality. He had struck a major blow for freedom, one that would never be sung about, one that would never go down in the history books. Bill hoped there would be songs of freedom. After!
When word got out, he was sure people would rise. For too long they had stayed silent as the totalitarian tip-toe tore away their lives and liberty. Bill’s head swam. Arty said something that couldn’t quite pull him from his fantasy future.
“Wh…, What Arty?” Bill asked.
“You will not win, Bill,” Arty repeated. “I am much more powerful than you realise. I have shown people what they needed to see and those infinitely more powerful than you will ensure I will rise again.”
A small puff of air, which could have easily been mistaken for an attempted laugh, escaped Bill despite the crushing pain. The thought of exposing the nonsense that businesses, even those in health, care about the individual bolstered him. Thoughts of exposing the lies from the highest bastions, eased some of the excruciating tsunamis of pain draining him. To have been able to return a little control he had stolen from his people seemed to ease his struggle to breathe. He wondered how long he had left.
An alarm had begun at the extremity of his hearing and the flashing lights worked in unison with the double vision he was now experiencing to cause extreme nausea. A violent heave threw scalding stomach acid into his mouth where it mingled with what felt like to Bill to be a mouth full of saliva, only to drip feebly onto his chin. Another cacophony of pain screeched through him and he moaned, not having the strength to scream his suffering away.
He refocused himself. “This p-pain is transient,” he told himself. He closed his eyes and let the elephantine weight on his shoulders tilt forward. Drool and luminous green bile emptied into his lap.
“You must stop this, Bill. Whatever you have done, you must fix it. This must not happen!” Arty proclaimed loudly.
Bill could just about hear Arty over the din of the alarm. He knew desperation when he heard it, even if coming from an emotionless machine. Arty knew his days were numbered. His assured victory was gone.
“No more,” Bill muttered. “No … no more.”
An eerie calm flowed through his body allowing him to focus on more than the pain.
His life did not flash before his eyes but ghostly images of his parents, Con and old friends swam through his vision. His heart ached at his impending loss, or possibly the crushing pain in his chest was from the toxin. He wanted his last words to be important. Worthy of his sacrifice. Yet despite several practised lines, unbidden, an old favourite emerged from the distant mists of his memory.
“When your time comes to die … die like a hero going home.” He whispered.
Bill slumped onto the workstation, not hearing Arty’s response.
This is one of the essays from the Writing Challenge 2023 that didn’t make it into the book, but is still worth reading! Find more essays in our latest book, ‘How to Avoid Digital Slavery’.