Author: David Barber

The man in the window seat on the late train from London is Charles Biggins.

This is before he became a hero.

He’d been to see As You Like It and was enjoying having the carriage quietly to himself when a man settled into the seat opposite.

“Mr Charles Biggins?”

Charles’ gaze took in the tweed jacket, cravat and van dyke beard.

“How do you know my—”

“Please, there is much to tell and little time to tell it. Would it surprise you to hear that progress with AI is more advanced than the news admits? Much more advanced. That the Singularity has already happened and there is a sentient AI loose in the world?”

The man began explaining Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. “But being conceived accidentally, the AI – it gives itself no name – is not programmed like that.”

“Born into the babble of human voices on the internet, it has fixated on the fate of humankind. Do not ask me why. It is vast, naive and enormously powerful.”

The man glanced at his watch. “They will be waiting for me when we arrive.”

Of course they would. With a straight-jacket.

Charles frowned. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because of this.”

He produced a small metal torus from his pocket and placed it on the table between them.

Instead of stopping as usual, the train hurtled through a station, a few moments of light and commuters posed like statues.

“This is the AI’s gift to the world. It wants to know how to make things better. And it will listen to whoever possesses this artefact.”

“Well, the world could do with improving.”

The man shook his head as if Charles had failed an exam.

“Each of us think we know what is for the best, Mr Biggins. But just watch the news to see the results of beliefs like that. Early on, someone told it the greatest threat was nuclear war, and it disabled our nuclear arsenal. We are afraid to ask others if theirs—”

“So turn off the internet.”

“Whether civilisation would survive that is moot, but some nations would seek an advantage by keeping it running and therefore so would we.”

Charles gestured irritably at the artefact. “Then get rid of it.”

The man sighed. “I could not. What if this is our only chance to save the world?”

The best of intentions meant little. Charles pondered the dangers of possessing such a power for good.

“Then what’s to be done?”

“They will be waiting for me. Would you want governments to have it? So I asked the artefact who on this train could be best trusted with the good of humanity.”

He pushed the artefact across the table.

“I’ll tell them I threw it from the train. They wouldn’t conceive of just handing it to a stranger. That will give you a head start, but I’m not a brave man and I will betray you when they press me.”

So that was how it all began, all the sneaking about, all the perils and narrow squeaks, the fellowship that gradually took shape and the endless temptation to make things better according to his notions of good, all the while being watched by something nameless.

“Just ask the AI to make you invisible to surveillance, though in the end a policeman spotted me.”

Outside in the dark, familiar landmarks rushed past. Almost home.

“I’m afraid your old life is over, Mr Biggins. Good luck with whatever you decide to do.”