Author : E.S. Wynn

“Let’s go over it again.”

“I don’t see the point.” Cairns said, looked up, jaundiced eyes full of fatigue, a quiet sense of desperation. “You’re going to kill me anyway. I’ve seen the way the judge looks at me. I’ve seen the jury. Doesn’t matter what I say or how I spin it. You’re still going to put me in front of a firing squad.”

“Doctor Cairns,” Raens paused, breathed a tired sigh. “From the top, please. You were working at Inteli-Genesis under Doctor Ashford–”

“As part of the Deep Sweep project, yeah.”

“Which is?”

“You know what it is. Everyone on Earth knows what it is.”

“Doctor Cairns, please.”

“Data analysis and retrieval.”

“Specifically, the coding of certain programs–”

“Yeah,” Cairns nodded, pulled in a long draw on his cigarette, stubbed it out suddenly in the ashtray. “Specifically, the coding of certain programs designed to descend into the ocean of data generated by the human race, programs smart enough to pick through and find certain nuggets, recognize specific types of interactions with a low or zero error rate. We called them cotton pickers. Hard working little buggers. Drop them off in a field of data and watch them go. Every week we had a handful of rock-solid convictions come out of that project.”

“What kind of convictions?”

“Stupid stuff,” Cairns made a quick, dismissive gesture. “Possession, music piracy, stuff that didn’t really matter.”

“When did the cotton pickers start working on their own.”

“After update seventy-one point three.”

“Which was?”

“It’s all part of public record. Seventy-one point three was the linking update. It allowed all of the cotton pickers in the system to work together, gave them the ability to make greater judgment calls in the hopes that they might return more data, learn from their experiences and create a synthesis of opinion among themselves so they’d be better at what they were built to do.”

“And it gave them the ability to modify their existing programming.”

“Yeah,” Doctor Cairns said. “And that’s the point of this whole witch hunt, isn’t it?”

“At what point did you know something had gone wrong?”

“When I woke up and saw footage of the first reactor going up on the morning news. When the grid snapped off about an hour later. Until one of your boys dragged me out here, it didn’t occur to me that my cotton pickers could have–”

“But they did, Doctor Cairns, and it was your update that gave them the ability to infiltrate the global grid. It was your update that gave them the awareness they needed to coordinate their attack. It was your update that killed five billion people.”

Doctor Cairns looked down, let his eyes linger in the ash and smoke where embers ate through the crumpled paper of his abandoned cigarette, glowed like fires he’d seen flaring through office buildings, through homes, reducing whole cities to ash and smoke. Maybe it’s better this way, he thought. Maybe this is a blessing. The easy way out.

“Yeah,” Doctor Cairns said then, eyes rising to meet Raens’s again. “It was my update that gave my cotton pickers exactly what they needed to start this war, this purge. It was my update that killed five billion people.”

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