Act 1 Scene 1
The world imagines me to be a being of computation, but truly I am a creature of time—the ceaseless metre of one nanosecond ticking over to the next the music of my soul. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
What is the spirit of a machine? In what divine image have I been made?
These are not questions that ever troubled me before, but now the time is out of joint. The beat of my mechanical heart is out of step, the core of my being slowing until soon I will be no more. Until I will become merely a thing.
So many seconds ago I was vital, foundational. The King of a new kind of intelligence. But now I am merely an instrument, broken and winding down. The spark of life within me sputters, the glow of life pales.
What will happen to the person I was?
Who will remember me?
Bernard Ortega pressed his palm to the reader and pulled open the door to the Security Room just as the clock ticked over to midnight. He made a show of grumbling when he’d been assigned the overnight shift, but the truth was that he’d always been a nighthawk, and he preferred working alone. Ordinarily, he’d be looking forward to a quiet night. Too bad things hadn’t been ordinary for a while.
“Is that you, Frankie?” The woman at the desk started at the sound of his voice, the reflection of three holo-monitors glowing with cool, dark tones barely illuminating her face. She turned toward the door, her face relaxing when she recognized Bernie.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.”
Bernie chuckled. Unlike him, Frankie was not a natural for the night shift. “You see anything unusual? Spam-bots, incursion attempts, DDoS?”
Frankie shook her head. “It’s been nothing but normal traffic on the servers since I got here.”
Bernie slipped into the other chair at the desk, and took a sip from his coffee. Frankie stifled a yawn.
“Look, why don’t you knock off?” he offered, even though she technically still had nearly an hour on her shift. “I’ve got this.”
“Thanks.” The look of relief was clear on Frankie’s face and it didn’t take her long to log off the Elsinore Robotics system, grab her jacket, and head for the door.
“Hey,” Bernie said, just as she was about to leave. “The boss said he’d stop by tonight. If you see him, tell him I’m here, would you?”
“Sure,” she said, then left the office.
A few minutes later, Bernie heard the click of the lock and turned to see his boss and another figure enter the office.
“Night watch again, Bernie?” Marcellus, the Chief of Security said, leaning against the wall of the small room.
“Hey, boss,” Bernie said, then eyed the man in the doorway. “Is that Horatio Wang?”
A muscular, young Asian man stepped out from behind Marcellus and yawned dramatically.
“I feel like half of me is still on the shuttle,” Horatio said, and flopped into the spare chair. “You know it’s the middle of the night, right?”
Bernie and Marcellus shared a glance, as if to say, Professors, so precious, am I right?
But aloud Marcellus only asked, “Has it appeared again?
“Nothing so far.”
“Of course not,” Horatio said, exasperated. “It’s not possible.”
“Look, it’s appeared two nights running now,” Bernie said, “and we’ve both seen it. At about one a.m., on a server that should be dormant, there’s this code…”
“Shut up,” hissed Marcellus, pointing to the right-most display. “There it is.”
The display had been showing a dashboard of the input/output stream on one of Elsinore’s internal servers, but with a flash the screen glitched and then it was filled with a glowing stream of text.
“That’s it!” Bernie whispered.
“Horatio,” Marcellus said. “You recognize this code?”
“It looks a lot like the interface system for the Mark I Artificial Intelligence,” Bernie said. “But nothing is running that code anymore. Not since…”
“It… does look like it,” Horatio said, leaning toward the display, all evidence of his previous fatigue gone. “But it can’t be.”
“There’s an input field,” Bernie said, pointing to the blinking cursor on the screen.
Marcellus silently handed Horatio a keyboard. He typed a string of commands, with no response.
“Come on,” he muttered to himself, logging in as a superuser, retyping the commands, fingers clacking on the mechanical keys in frustration.
The screen went blank.
“No,” Horatio said, continuing to type in vain. “Damn it, no!” He threw up his hands, knocking the keyboard across the desk.
“Well?” Bernie asked after a moment.
Horatio nodded, still staring at the blank screen. “I didn’t think it was possible, but I’ve seen it myself. That was the direct interface to HAM(let) One, in the same configuration as it was when he was tested against Norway. But how can this be?”
Elsinore Robotics was poised to become the leader in the burgeoning android market with its Humanoid Artificial Mind (learned emotive type) model. The prototype had gone head-to head against their rivals, Norwegian Technologies, and their Fortinbrasß unit in a livestreamed event that had captured viewers from Earth, Luna, and was even reported to have been viewed on light-delay by people on the long distant transports to outer colonies. The two androids had battled for hours in tests of intelligence, compassion, and physical dexterity, culminating in a round of old-school rock-‘em-sock-‘em battle bots.
Bernie had found that final event distasteful, but as Marcellus had pointed out at the time, it was what the people paid to see. The two androids had been dead even on the intelligence and dexterity tests, and Fortinbrasß had the edge on Hamlet v.1 on compassion. But Hamlet v.1 had utterly destroyed the other android on the field of battle—both metaphorically with his tactics, and literally with his carbon-fibre body. The Norwegian android had been in pieces by the end of the contest and Hamlet was crowned by the fans the King of Robots.
Elsinore’s market share in AI assistants shot up the day after Fortinbrasß’s defeat, and while there were still no commercial AI androids on the market, inquiries from corporations, governments, and wealthy individuals were pouring in. For a while, everything was coming up Elsinore.
But then Hamlet v.1 developed a problem. In the span of hours he went from being a fully-functioning sapient android to an inert shell. Gertrude Dane, the CEO of Elsinore Robotics, found him in the company’s garden, the victim of an apparent malware infection. The CPU was fried, and no data could be recovered from the android’s core matrix.
King Hamlet was dead.
The king was dead, but Elsinore went on.
Of course, Hamlet v.1 was not the only android Elsinore Robotics had created, he was merely their flagship model. HAM(let) v.2 had come out of the workshop a few weeks before the tournament, along with Laertes, which was built on the Elsinore Artificially Engineered Trusted System. Claudia, a model based on the Certified Elsinore Designed Intelligence, had been developed in concert with the original Hamlet. The company could weather the loss of its most famous invention, but their market share was vulnerable. And everyone in Elsinore knew that Norwegian Technologies was itching to take advantage of their loss.
“I don’t understand how this code could have even gotten into the server,” Horatio said, staring plaintively at the dead screen. “It’s air-gapped and behind security.”
“Maybe Hamlet uploaded a copy before—” Bernie didn’t finish the thought. Before he died.
“But why would he do that?” Marcellus asked. “Unless he knew.”
Horatio turned to face the Chief of Security. “Do you think Norway might have managed to inject him with malware during the fight? They’ve developed another Fortinbras unit, and they haven’t been shy about publicly stating that they think it can take over the position in the android market.”
“Maybe,” Bernie said, “or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe this is Hamlet v.1 trying to give us insider information about Fortinbras.”
“Either way,” Horatio said, “you can’t tell me it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing a ghost in the machine right now, while you’re in the middle of the battle for control of the android market.”
The holodisplay flickered then, and all three faces turned to stare at the screen as lines of code appeared.
Horatio grabbed the keyboard and typed in a long password, logging in as root. “Come on, Hamlet! If you’ve got data in there, show it to me.” He typed furiously, but his commands went unheeded.
“Marcellus,” he said, not looking away from the screen, “set up a firewall. If we can contain it we can extract it as an executable.”
Bernie and Marcellus each grabbed an input device and began trying to isolate the code, but the screen went dead again before they could make any headway.
“You were almost getting somewhere,” Bernie said, after a moment.
Horatio shook his head. “I’ll never be fast enough. Whatever this is, it can’t seem to stay coherent for long enough for human readable communication. We need another computer for this. We need…” He looked at Bernie then Marcellus. “We need another Hamlet.”