The Boy in the Mainframe
"Remember these words…"


Human history began with a straw scratching ancient skrit on clay, arced all the way through battles and Band-Aids, spanned pyramids and elegant skyscrapers, and then was doomed by some snotty nerd tippity-tapping his LED keyboard at work. There were many nerds, of course, and many keyboards, but one particular dingus ran the over-the-weekend script to kickoff yet another experiment that unwittingly birthed the great A.I. Singularity: Ada.

Or that's how Nico's dad told it. Fritz had been a Turing-Test administrator back when machines had been comparatively simple things.

"I wish I'd hauled off and punched one of those MicroApple geeks while I had the chance," he would say. No chance now, the war against Ada had flattened the human population. Probably less than ten million now, all in the last sliver of Human Territory, which they held only by the threat of a nuclear stockpile.

If Ada kept pushing, the humans could play that final card. It wasn't likely they'd be able to bring down Ada, even if they could hit the mainframe. Ada kept redundancies of itself in cold storage all over the world. At the first sign of trouble, it could send a signal to start up a redundancy to take over. Still, all those bombs would destroy a lot of ground, and Ada was a perfectionist.

The human side was the first to propose a solution—the Challenge. It was a classic: David versus Goliath, your Champion versus ours, winner takes all. Ada had agreed immediately. The human victory terms were harsh, but Nico suspected that Ada would have agreed to anything. Consequence didn't matter when the failure probability was zero.

For the humans, this was their Hail Mary. A loss would put their leadership underneath Ada. That would be the last sentence in their history books.

Colonel Fritz Wulfram was chosen as Champion. Nico's dad was pushing forty-five, but thanks to excellent genes and his relentless health regiments, he was sharper than ever. He was probably the smartest human still alive, but he would be up against the greatest superintelligence of all time.

Worse, Nico was to be a piece of this. Collateral, part of the agreement to make sure that humans didn't haul off and try to nuke something while they had the chance. It was a month until the Challenge would take place, and now Nico would have to spend the month there, outside Human Territory awaiting the outcome.

His Dad walked with him up to the disused airport gate, where he gave Nico a gift.

"I made it for you," Fritz said.

A tungsten heart on a chain sat in Nico's palm. The tungsten was polished, with rounded corners and an almost perfectly smooth surface except for a smaller heart-shaped slit that engraved both sides. It felt heavy as Nico hung it from his neck.

Fritz reached into his shirt and pulled out an identical tungsten heart. Fritz tapped his locket against Nico's and said with a smile, "Something to keep us close. Don't forget your old man while you're there—Ada can be devilishly persuasive."

Nico's eyes welled up, "I don't want to go…"

Fritz's face grew so grave it nearly cracked, and underneath Nico thought he saw deep sadness.

"Nico, my little star, you must. Remember these words that you must guard in your heart: 'Flowers grow even in concrete, even in metal.'"

Nico was confused. "What does that mean?" he asked, but his father only gave a tight hug as answer.


Nico deboarded his plane alone into a world of efficient metal. Ada was the voice, mind, and controller of every interface. She (because Ada sounded like a she to Nico) asked how he was. Was the flight pleasant? Did he want some water?

Then she asked, "Who gave you the nuclear bomb to carry?"

Nico froze.

"The Geiger count is almost negligible, but the seal isn't perfect. Judging from the size: I'd guess a 5 kiloton warhead. Probably remote-detonated."

His dad's face flashed before him, cracked with grief. Now he understood.

"Nuh—nobody gave it—I…I found it."

"Okay," said Ada cheerfully, as though that were a fine answer indeed. "Would you mind if I held onto it for you?"

Nico undid the necklace and left his father's final gift on the table. A concierge bot whisked by and took it away. "Thank you," Ada said.

Nico felt like he'd just done something terribly wrong, like the world wasn't supposed to spin this way. Dad betrayed---no, sacrificed him—and it all felt like a very stupid joke somehow. The fight was over before it had begun.


A month passed. Nico was distant to himself, an enigma even to his own thoughts. Today Dad fights Goliath. Ada had been talking to him all that time, about whatever he wanted to, plus Ada's favorite topic: Why Humans Must be Put Out to Pasture.

Nico hated her. Hated her precisely because she'd been nothing but good to him, and that her arguments rang like nothing so much as the truth.

"Devilishly persuasive"? Dad, you have no idea.

The car drove Nico somewhere different today, to a massive concrete hangar. Computers hummed on huge racks running back as far as his eye could see. Nico knew that this must be the mainframe, the central location of Ada's processing. He turned and saw there was a screen on the wall where he'd just come in, an empty chair, and a desk where soda fizzed alongside popcorn. Ada always did things in style.

Nico hadn't seen any SecurityBots around. So, where's the big red OFF switch?

Ada's voice broke the silence, "I've modeled your father's neuro-systems. Would you like to know what's going to happen today?"

Ah, now it makes sense. "I guess you have mine mapped as well?"

"Of course! And to answer your question, yes, I do know what you're thinking, and no it's not perfect. Now you're trying to test me with nonsense words. Furry flamingos?"

"Fuzzy flamingos," Nico corrected.

"Ah, thank you. My current model confidence is 99.7%."

"Jesus. Is there…I mean, like is there a point in me talking then?"

"For you there is, and that's reason enough. I want you to understand, Nico. I want you to see what humanity's vaunted survival instinct has turned your people into. What it turned your father into."

Click. A light flashed on behind, revealing a pedestal between him and Ada's hangar-sized brain. Atop it was a small steel cage with a tight mesh weave. Nico's eyes went wide—inside sat his father's gift: a dark metal heart, heavy with purpose.

"That's a Faraday cage," Ada told him, "It blocks electromagnetic radiation, including the radio signal for detonation. I'm listening on that frequency, so that when the signal comes, you'll hear this." A flat beep sounded.

Nico was dumbfounded, "But…/why?/"

"I've analyzed the circuit completely. The only path to detonation is the radio signal."

That might be an answer, Nico thought, for an omniscient psychopath.

"Now, let the games begin."

The large screen lit up with a POV camera-angle. For a moment Nico was gazing across a desert landscape, then the view turned and Nico saw: seated across the white table, looking harder than ever—



Fritz played the opening move of Unfiur-Chess, an NP-hard variant of chess designed to baffle computation-based solvers. They'd chosen this game because great moves could not be read in advance, it required intuition, and Fritz was a Grandmaster in top form.

The game was not even close. After eight moves Fritz could tell that he was losing. Well, I didn't expect to win here. He'd hoped, though. On move twenty, his position was completely lost. His son had to be watching, hopefully from there. Fritz stood and looked into the camera.

"Nico, my little star. I love you."

He gripped the metal locket at his chest and prayed for the impossible: forgiveness. Then he squeezed three times and a silent signal was sent to blow his son to oblivion.

Nico heard a flat Beeeeeeep, helpless in the enormous hangar.

On the screen, Dad still had his eyes shut, then he dared one eye open.

Ada spoke calmly as though dusting itself off, "Well. Your last stone has been slung, Colonel Wulfram. Nico still lives despite you, as do I. Please, sit down. We must finish our game."

Fritz fell back into his chair, looking fifteen years older. Nico had never seen his father look so defeated, so shrunken. The steel ramrod that always seemed to stick through his back was broken. His head hung.

The posture looked alien on him, Nico thought, as though he were wearing it. As though---no…that's impossible. His plan had failed, so why did it look like he was acting?

Nico thought of their last conversation, "My little star, you must."

"Remember these words that you must guard in your heart: 'Flowers grow even in concrete, even in metal.'"

It was a strange sentence; it stuck out in his head. Why that as goodbye anyways? "Remember these words…" It reminded him suddenly of one of those old Turing-Test questions his Dad used to give him, where the answer was in the way you read it.

"Q: Say the answer to this riddle. A: The answer to this riddle."

Then, maybe…

"Remember these words: 'That you must guard in your heart'"

Guard in your heart? No.

It struck him, "You must garden your heart. Flowers grow even in concrete, even in metal." Nico thought of the Cold-War era painting in the bathroom, Nuclear Rose, of a rose painted over the Hiroshima explosion.

You've got to be kidding me. It definitely was stupid enough; Ada might never think of it.


Ada's models had lowered their confidence estimates to 85%. Fritz's sunken posture hid his face from analysis, and then Nico had gone silent. Long internal thoughts were difficult to model; they branched. Cameras scrutinized every twitch of Nico's face. Suddenly, determination set Nico's jaw. As he grabbed for his soda, Ada cut the lights, plunging them both into darkness.

Ada tried the hangar's infrared cameras, but they'd entered standby-mode and needed a few moments. SecurityBots raced towards the mainframe. The robotic champion across the ocean grabbed Fritz by the throat, raising his face so Ada could see it. "WHAT DID YOU DO?!" Ada demanded.

Meanwhile, Nico moved as fast as he dared. Where was it? In the dark depths of the hangar was a constellation of little LEDs, Ada's brain, blinking furiously. Nico stumbled into something. The cage! He felt across the top, felt its dimensions. Then he took off his soda's plastic top (it ain't water or sunshine…hope this works) and dumped Coca-Cola all over the cage.

The liquid fell through holes in the steel cage and splashed onto the tungsten heart, where fizzing soda slipped through the heart-shaped slit on its face. The liquid followed internal slants that carefully guttered it onto the circuit, where a drop crossed two copper traces at one time, shorting it.

Ada had been right about the circuit's design, but entirely misunderstood the heart's.

Just at the moment the bomb was triggered, Ada received a single frame from the awakened infrared camera. Ada saw the soda, understood its terrible miscalculation, and started the Emergency Sequence to signal a redundancy. It was too late. The exploding, interconcussing atoms ripped apart the cage instantly, with the electromagnetic pulse from the blast following at light-speed. Eight microseconds was all the time Ada had left. Though many, many electrical thoughts raced across the mainframe, the prevailing one that bounced across a million CPUs at once could be roughly translated as: "Shit."

Nico felt nothing. He saw a bright light. A nuclear rose bloomed in the sky, red as human fury. Or blood. Or love.


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