Security dropped him at the gate and the one-time, one-way pass the surly guard handed him like he was giving up his last cigarette let him pass through. Not even residents were free to wander where they liked on Sequoia Island, an exclusive development set in carefully nurtured woodland where only billionaires could afford to live. The ten foot high front door opened before Jimi rang the bell and a robo-caddy showed him through to the sitting room.
Ryan was practising at the pool table, which was a surprise. He’d expected him to be laid out in bed with a fever, lying dead in a pool of blood, sobbing over his laptop, anything but the cool, laid-back figure who straightened up, put down the cue and walked over with a big smile on his face.
‘Warm don’t you think? Shall I turn down the temperature?’
Jimi hadn’t been thinking about the temperature. He’d been contemplating murder. Now that Ryan mentioned it he couldn’t help but notice the weather was uncomfortably muggy. The question threw him off his stride and stopped him from throwing a punch when his brother got in range.
‘A bit. Maybe.’
A disembodied voice responded.
‘Open the doors to the pool and sort the ventilation out. I want it three degrees cooler and a lot less humid in here.’
‘Yes Ryan. I am working on it.’
Jimi watched the doors leading out to the pool slide open and when he looked up grey vapour was seeping through air-conditioning vents.
‘Impressive,’ he said, though he wasn’t in the mood to be impressed by gadgetry. ‘Who’s Nicolas? Did you rename Alexa or something?’
‘God no! You couldn’t pay me to use that ignorant, commercial tat. I have my own AI helper, which I built with these.’ He spread his pudgy fingers in front of Jimi’s face. ‘It’s one of the reasons I invited you here.’
Ryan hesitated. He tilted his head and looked into Jimi’s face.
‘Yes, one of. I suppose I wanted to say sorry. For you know…’
‘I know? Oh you mean sorry for not coming to the funeral of my daughters who were killed in a car accident that has left their mother in a coma from which she will probably never recover. Is that what you’re sorry for Ryan?’
‘Don’t be like that Jimi. I’m not going to cry, you know I don’t have the empathy other people have. You had to drag me to our Mother’s funeral though I’ll never know why you bothered. Everyone treated me like a freak show. What do you say to the recently bereaved who you know doesn’t give a shit? I like you more than I like anyone else but I don’t form the emotional attachments other people do.’
‘You know about decency so you can cut the crap. You’re the genius. Couldn’t you work out how your brother would feel when he found out you weren't with him on the saddest day of his life? I thought you had to be ill, or dead. I can’t believe I was concerned for you. And here you are in jeans and a t-shirt, sipping white wine in your zillion pound mansion like you missed nothing more important than a picnic. I suppose you felt it was enough to send a card and flowers.’
‘I sent a card and flowers?’
‘Don’t you remember?’
‘Did you send a card and flowers on my behalf?’
‘Yes Ryan. You had an invitation in the deleted items folder of your email and no entry in your calendar. I ascertained a close family relationship to the deceased and ordered the flowers and card on your behalf. I hope you are pleased with the result.’
Ryan offered light applause.
‘Delighted! Thank you Nicolas. Jimi, you’re ripping the leather at the seam.’
Jimi relaxed his grip on the arm of the chair he’d chosen to lean against.
‘Thank you. I went to a lot of trouble to get those chairs. They’re…’
‘Oh shut up Ryan. I don’t give a shit where your fucking chairs come from. I’m going. Now I see you I realise what a fool I’ve been. To be honest brother dear you’re such a dick I never want to see you again. Goodbye.’
‘Wait! Jimi wait!’
‘So you don’t do to me what I did to you.’
There was a period of silence while they stared at each other.
‘What did you do to me Ryan?’
‘I abandoned you in your hour of need.’
‘And if I leave I’ll be doing the same to you?’
‘How? How can anything I do to you be as bad as what you have just done to me? You’re an emotional retard. You’ve got no feelings to hurt.’
‘That’s not true and you know it. You can hurt me, I just don’t understand how what I do hurts you.’
‘But you do know it hurts.’
‘Yes. Listen, I said I’m sorry. Just hear me out. I said that asking you over was one of the reasons. It’s easier if show you the other reason and then explain.’
Jimi wiped tears from his eyes, sniffed, and sat on the arm of the chair.
‘I’ll stay in this half-leaving position and if you say anything I don’t like I will leave and you will never see me again. Actually no. If you say anything I don’t like I’ll punch your lights out, then I’ll leave and you won’t see me again.’
Ryan didn’t even try to hide his glee.
‘Great! Wait here, let me get it!’
He walked quickly across the vast sitting room and returned a moment later brandishing several sheets of paper.
Jimi took the pages and began to read. It was a story, or the opening of a story. It was written using the secret sauce of storytelling, whatever that is, because he got to the end without realising it.
‘What do you think?’
Ryan was leaning forward expectantly. Jimi had seen that look in his eyes before. There was going to be a slow reveal. He’d say what he thought and then Ryan would reveal that things were not as they appeared. He thought about throwing the pieces of paper on the floor and walking away, but he didn’t, and he didn’t know why.
‘It’s an interesting opening chapter. Well written. I’d say stylistically it reminds me of a cross between Hemmingway and Harper Lee. What is it?’
‘Ah’ said Ryan, pausing for effect, and Jimi waited for the reveal. ‘It’s not a what question, it’s a who.’
‘Ryan this is boring. Okay, who wrote it? You’re trying to tell me you’re going to become a novelist, is that it?’
‘Me? Of course not. I can’t string a sentence together. Nicolas wrote it. That’s what I’ve been doing all morning, analysing it, trying to work out what it means.’
‘It’s a tale of a young girl who finds out she’s not her parents’ child. I don’t know where it goes from there but that’s the gist of it.’
‘No you… Oh forget it. I don’t mean what the story means, I mean what it means that my AI program produced the opening chapter to a novel my novelist brother would like, without me asking for anything else. I said “Nicolas, write me the opening chapter of a book that Jimi would like.” Five minutes later I hear the printer running and when I walk over to it… Voila!’
‘Well it’s amazing. It really is. Congratulations I suppose. What’s it got to do with me?’
‘This is my moment. I’ve achieved the greatest creation in the history of mankind and I have no one but you to share it with. Nobody else knows what I’ve done. Nobody else has the faintest inkling. There’s only me and Nicolas, shut off from the world. I built him in my study. The world’s only genius AI. I’m sorry Jimi, but if I didn’t share this moment with someone I’d go mad. You are the only person I can share it with. To you, your daughters’ funeral is the most important event in the world, to me it’s this moment right now.’
Jimi wasn't sure why this was his brother's most important moment but he'd never seen him so excited. He was hopping from one foot to the other like a child.
‘You asked Nicolas to write an opening chapter I’d like, and he, I mean it, wrote this?’
‘It’s all to do with boulders.’
‘Yes. I was watching a documentary on a landslide, I like those catastrophe things, and I realised that seeing rocks falling and rolling on the ground is how man came to invent the wheel. Then it occurred to me that if birds didn’t fly we’d never have invented planes. And so on. There are no inventions, only adaptations. The genius of man is to be able to endlessly adapt experiences in the world to create things that approximate to natural phenomena. Explosives come from seeing volcanos erupt. You don't see it when you're staring down the barrel of a gun because it's been through a thousand iterations in its development, but it’s there if you know what to look for.’
‘So a documentary showed you boulders and you put things together, rushed off to program Nicolas and came up with this chapter?’
‘In a nutshell, yes. Nicolas traced the origin of the written word and worked forward from there, iterating millions and millions of times until he came up with the thing in your hand. In order to prove I had created artificial genius and not just artificial intelligence, I had to ask you if you liked it because that was pretty much the sole criteria.’
Jimi was silent a long while.
‘I do like it.’
‘That’s what I thought. It seemed to me to be the sort of writing that was right up your street but the proof as they say is in the pudding.’
‘What else can Nicolas do?’
‘He can’t do much. He’s a mind, not a machine. I’m not so stupid as to give him anything he might use as a body. If I gave him control of machines I suppose he could make anything the machines were tooled to make, including I expect new tools to make things mankind has never seen before. He can talk back to you, use the printer, send an email and make and answer phone calls. He can’t manufacture anything.’
‘Did you say he, I mean it, is in your study?’
‘Yes. A tiger tamed. He’s in the study locked up behind layer upon layer of encryption and firewalls.’
‘You think he might get out onto the Internet and infect other computers with his DNA?’
‘He can’t do that. There are no other computers with the custom hardware I made for him. It would be like trying to squeeze a cat into a thimble. No he’s here because when the world hears about him I shall either be declared a god or I’ll be burned alive at a stake.’
‘Because you’ve made a genius AI? There are dozens of people working on AI, you just beat them to it.’
‘No because I killed human dominance over machines. Don’t you get it, you write books for a living but you can’t compete with Nicolas. He can write a thousand books better suited to any audience than you can, and he can produce them in a day. We don’t mind AI and robots provided they stay out of our exclusive domain – creativity. It is creativity that puts us at the top of the food chain. It is creativity that makes us gods if you’re an atheist, or at God’s right hand if you’re a deist. Give the power of superior creativity to machines, and what have most people got to live for?’
‘Are you saying Nicolas can create anything?’
‘Not just create; he can answer any question that’s based in observable reality. So you can’t ask for the meaning of life but you can ask for a cocktail auntie Jean would like based on the mixers available and a history of drinks she’s ordered.’
Jimi slid off the arm and into the chair.
‘It’s a lot to absorb Ryan. Tell me, how does Nicolas take orders?’
‘You just ask him. I’ve not built voice recognition yet.’
Jimi looked around hesitantly.
‘No need to look for him, he’s wired into dozens of sensors. Just say his name and ask a question, or tell him to do something for you.’
‘Nicolas, I think I need a stiff drink, can you make me one I’d like but not had before?’
‘Oh,’ said Ryan, ‘he can’t actually make the drink, he’s not wired into any mechanical interface.
‘The recipe is printing now sir,’ said Nicolas, and a low hum confirmed it. Ryan gave an irritated grunt and walked over to the printer.
‘I’ll just mix up this concoction you’ve ordered. I’ll be right back.’
Jimi watched Ryan pick up the piece of paper with his drink recipe and waited until he’d left the room for the kitchen.
‘Nicolas?’ he said.
‘The problem with geniuses is they think everyone else is stupid. Tell me how to kill Ryan, burn down this house, destroy all traces of your existence, and get away with it.’
The printer began to hum.