Designed by Steven Prey (All rights reserved. Used by permission of Steve Prey)
For Chuck and Cindy Bluth,
for their many years of friendship, mentorship,
and, most of all, their enduring generosity of spirit
What is going to be created will effectively be a god. It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it? . . . [And] This time you will be able to talk to God, literally, and know that it’s listening.
former Google executive and founder of Way of the Future, a new church based on the religion of artificial intelligence (from an interview by Mark Harris, Backchannel/Wired, November 15, 2017: “Inside the First Church of Artificial Intelligence”)
With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.
at the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department’s Centennial Symposium, 2014
Notes from the Historical Record
Notes from the Scientific Record
First: Ghost in the Machine
Sub (Mod_1) / ENDOCRINE MIRROR PROGRAM
Sub (Mod_2) / ALLTONGUES
Second: Toil and Trouble
Sub (Mod_3) / HARMONY
Third: Eve of Destruction
Sub (Crux_1) / PARIS OP
Fourth: Ashes to Ashes
Sub (Crux_2) / NOGENT OP
Sub (Mod_4, 5) / BGL AND OXYTOCIN
Sub (rep_Crux_1, 2) / PARIS OP AND NOGENT OP
Fifth: Dust to Dust
Sub (Mod_22) / MARA SILVIERA
Sub (Crux_7.8) / BACKDOOR
Sub (Crux_10.8) / DARKNESS
Sixth: The Gates of Hell
Metaheuristic Analysis: ///PROBABILITIES
Author’s Note to Readers: Truth or Fiction
About the Author
Also by James Rollins
About the Publisher
Notes from the Historical Record
“Eu non creo nas meigas, mais habelas, hainas.”
I don’t believe in witches, but they do exist.
—an old Galician proverb
From February 1692 to May 1693, twenty people in colonial Massachusetts—fourteen of them women—were accused, sentenced, and put to death for the practice of witchcraft. While the infamous Salem Witch Trials have left an indelible mark on history, it was merely the final spasm of hysteria at the tail end of the great witch hunt that had already swept Europe. There, persecutions ran for nearly three centuries, and all told, more than sixty thousand “witches” were burned, hung, or drowned.
All of this bloodshed and death started rather abruptly in the fifteenth century and can be attributed to the publication of a single book, a witch hunter’s manual titled the Malleus Maleficarum (which translates to The Hammer of Witches). It was published by a German Catholic clergyman named Heinrich Kramer in 1487 and received approval by both the University of Cologne and the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Innocent VIII. With the newly invented printing press, copies were quickly made and spread across Europe and over to the Americas. It grew to become the instructive “bible” for Inquisitors and prosecutors to identify, torture, and execute witches, with an emphasis on female heresy in particular. Many scholars deem it one of the most blood-soaked books in history, even comparing it to Mein Kampf.
Still, prior to the manual’s publication, the relationship between witches and Christendom was not as straightforward as it might appear. Initially, witches were not so adamantly vilified. In the Old Testament, King Saul sought out the Witch of Endor to conjure the spirit of the deceased prophet, Samuel, and throughout medieval times, witches were often educated healers, harvesting beneficial herbs according to ancient traditions. Even during the bloody Spanish Inquisition, it was heretics—not witches—who were most often hunted and tortured.
As further proof of this blurring between the role of witches and the Catholic Church, the cult of Saint Columba flourished throughout the Middle Ages in Spain, mainly in the northern Galician region, which was considered a bastion of witches. According to legend, Columba was a witch from the ninth century, who met the spirit of Christ on the road. He told her she could not enter heaven unless she converted to Christianity, so she did—but she remained a witch. She was eventually martyred and beheaded for her faith and became known as the “patron saint of witches.” To this day she acts as a protector for witches, interceding on the behalf of good witches, while fighting against those who would corrupt such craft for evil purposes.
And now might be a good time to light a candle to Saint Columba, for we are about to enter a new age of witchcraft.
Notes from the Scientific Record
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
—Arthur C. Clarke, 1962, from his essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”
Let’s discuss the end of humankind—especially as we may soon have little say in the matter. A dangerous threat looms on the horizon, one likely to arise in our own lifetime. World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking described this coming crisis as the “worst event in the history of civilization.” Elon Musk believes it will lead to World War III. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin has stated that whoever controls this event will control the world.
That event is the creation of the first true humanlike artificial intelligence (AI).
Such a moment already terrifies those in power. In February 2018, a secret closed-door meeting was held at the World Government Summit to discuss the fate of AI. It was attended by representatives from IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon, along with officials from across Europe, Russia, Singapore, Australia, and the Arab world. The consensus was that our very existence was at stake, but worst of all, the attendees concluded that regulations or international agreements could not halt the inevitable progress toward a self-aware AI. Any countermeasures were deemed “elusive,” especially as history has demonstrated that any bans would likely be easily circumvented by stealth companies or organizations operating covertly in remote corners of the world.
So how close are we to the arrival of a new intelligence on our planet? Already various forms of AI have infiltrated our lives. They’re operating in our computers, our phones, even our appliances. Nea
rly 70 percent of all buy/sell orders on Wall Street are currently performed without human guidance, eking out transactions in under three milliseconds. AI has become so ubiquitous that few even recognize it as “AI” anymore. But the next step in this technology’s evolution is fast approaching: when a computer will demonstrate a human-level of intelligence and self-awareness. A recent poll revealed that 42 percent of computer experts believe this creation will happen within the decade, with half of those claiming within five years.
But why is this event such a crisis? Why is this the “worst event in the history of civilization”? It’s because the first humanlike intelligence will not be idle, but instead it will prove to be very busy. It will quickly—in weeks, days, maybe even hours—evolve into an incomprehensible superintelligence, a creation far superior to us, one that will likely have little use for humans. When that occurs, there is no way of predicting if this new superintelligence will be a benevolent god or a cold, destructive devil.
Regardless, such a creation is coming. There is no stopping it. Some even believe it might already be here. And because of that, I must offer one final warning: Buried in the heart of this novel is a curse. Simply by reading this book, you may inadvertently doom yourself.
So, please, continue at your own risk.
June 23, 1611 A.D.
Behind the iron bars, the witch knelt on a filthy bed of straw and prayed to God.
Alonso de Salazar Frías studied the unusual sight. The Inquisitor could barely discern the figure within. The cell was dark, lit only by the flickering flames rising from the neighboring village square. Through the same window slit, the smell of burnt flesh accompanied the ghastly, dancing glow across the stone walls.
He listened to the witch’s whispers in Latin, studied the folded hands, the bowed head. The prayer was a familiar one, Anima Christi, composed by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. It was a fitting prayer considering the witch kneeling here was of that same order, a Jesuit priest.
Alonso silently translated the last of the prayer: At the hour of my death, call me into your presence, lead me to praise you with all your saints. Forever and ever.
“Amen,” Alonso said aloud, drawing the accused witch’s attention.
He waited for the man to stand. Though surely no older than Alonso’s forty-seven years, the priest creaked to his feet. The robe that had been left to him hung from thin shoulders. His face was sunken and pocked with sores. The jailers had even shaved his head, leaving his scalp scabbed in several places.
Alonso felt a flicker of pity for his poor state, even knowing it was a man of God who stood accused of heresy and witchcraft. Alonso had been summoned to this tiny Basque village at the personal request of the Inquisitor General to conduct this interrogation. It had taken him a week to traverse the Pyrenees to reach the small cluster of homes and farms near the border of France.
The priest hobbled to the iron bars and grasped them with bony fingers plagued by a tremoring palsy of weakness.
When had they last fed this man?
The Jesuit’s words, though, were firm. “I am not a witch.”
“That is what I have been ordered to determine, Father Ibarra. I have read the charges brought against you. You have been accused of practicing witchcraft, of using charms and amulets to heal the sick.”
The priest remained silent for two breaths before speaking. “Similarly, I know of you, Inquisitor Frías. Of your reputation. You were one of the three judges during the witch trials in Logroño two summers ago.”
Alonso hid a wince born of shame and had to look away, but he could not so easily escape the flicker of flames, the reek of blackened flesh. The sights and smells here were all too familiar. During those tribunals at the nearby township of Logroño, he had gone along with judgments of the other two Inquisitors. Guilt for that decision ate at him. It had been the largest witch trial in Spain. The accusation of a single woman—Maria de Ximildegui—ignited a wildfire of hysteria and panic. She had claimed to have witnessed a witch’s sabbath and pointed fingers at others, who in turn cast aspersions upon even more. In the end, three hundred stood accused of consorting with the devil. Many of the accused were mere children, the youngest being four years old. By the time Alonso had arrived in Logroño, the other two Inquisitors had narrowed the trial to thirty of the worst offenders. Those who admitted to their crimes were punished, but mercifully spared the flames. Unfortunately, a stubborn twelve refused to admit they were witches and were subsequently burned at the stake.
Alonso carried their deaths upon his soul—not because he failed to get them to admit they were witches, but because he believed in their innocence. He expressed just such a conviction afterward, risking much by the admittance to Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, the Inspector General of the Spanish Inquisition in whose friendship Alonso trusted greatly. His faith in their relationship proved well founded. The cruel and bloodthirsty time of the Royal Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, was a century in the past. The Inspector General sent him alone to carry out an investigation throughout the wider Basque region of Spain, to separate hysteria from reality. He had been on the road for nearly two months, questioning those accused or imprisoned. So far he had discovered only false testimonies pried forth during torture, stories rife with contradictions or inconsistencies. During his travels, he had yet to discover a single verifiable case of witchcraft.
In his private struggle to spare those souls accused of such crimes, he wielded a single weapon. He returned his attention to the priest and patted the leather satchel at his side. “Father Ibarra, I carry with me an Edict of Faith, signed by the Inspector General. It allows me to pardon anyone who admits their crimes, swears fealty to God, and denounces the devil.”
The priest’s eyes shone in the darkness, fervent with pride. “I have no qualms about swearing the latter—of expressing my love of God—but as I said from the beginning, I am not a witch and will not admit as such.”
“Not even to spare your life?”
Ibarra turned his back and studied the firelit window of his cell. “Did you arrive in time to hear their screams?”
Alonso could not hide his wince this time. Earlier, as he descended out of the mountains, he had spotted streams of smoke rising from the village. He prayed the smoke marked bonfires being set to celebrate the summer solstice. Still, fearing the worst, he sped his horse faster. He raced the setting sun, only to be greeted by a chorus of wails as he reached the village outskirts.
Six witches had been burned at the stakes.
Not witches . . . women, he reminded himself.
Unfortunately, Alonso was not the first of the Inquisition to reach the hamlet. He suspected Father Ibarra had been spared until now because he was a priest.
Alonso stared at the man’s back.
If I’m only able to save him, so be it.
“Father Ibarra, please, just admit—”
“What do you know of Saint Columba?”
Taken aback by such a strange question, it took Alonso a moment to answer. He had attended both the University of Salamanca and the University of Sigüenza, studying canon law in preparation for taking holy orders and joining the Church. He was well versed in the litany of all the saints. But the name spoken by Father Ibarra was not without controversy.
“You speak of the witch from Galicia,” Alonso said, “who encountered the spirit of Christ in the ninth century during a pilgrimage to Rome.”
“Christ warned her to convert to Christianity if she wished to enter heaven.”
“And she did and would later be martyred for it, beheaded for refusing to forsake her religion.”
Ibarra nodded. “While she entered the Church, she never forsook being a witch. Peasants throughout the region still revere her for both sides of her person—both witch and martyred saint. They pray to her to defend themselves against evil witchcraft, while also asking her to protect good witches against persec
ution, those who heal the sick with herbs, amulets, and enchantments.”
During his travels throughout northern Spain, Alonso had heard whispers of the cult of Saint Columba. He knew many women—educated women—who studied the natural world, who sought medicines and herbs, drawing upon pagan knowledge. Some were accused of witchcraft and poisoned by priests or burned at the stake; others sought shelter in nunneries and monasteries where—like Saint Columba—they could worship Christ, yet still plant secret gardens and help the sick or afflicted, smudging the line between paganism and Christianity.
He studied Father Ibarra.
Was this priest a part of that same cult?
“You yourself are accused of using charmed amulets to heal the sick,” Alonso said. “Does that not mark you a witch of the same ilk? If you would admit as much, I can use the Edict to intercede—”
“I am no witch,” he repeated and pointed to the smoke wafting through the cell’s tiny window. “There go the women who healed many of the sick throughout these pastures and mountain villages. I was merely their protector, acting as a humble servant of Saint Columba, the patron saint of witches. I cannot with a true heart claim to be a witch. Not because I despise such an accusation, but because I do not deserve to be called a witch . . . for I am not worthy of such an honor.”
Alonso took in the shock of these words. He had heard countless renunciations by those accused of witchcraft, but never a denial such as this.
Ibarra pulled closer to the bars. “But the story of my amulet . . . that allegation is true. I fear those who arrived here at the village before you came seeking it.”
As if summoned by his words, the door opened behind Alonso. The hooded figure of a monk, robed in black, entered. Though the newcomer’s eyes were covered by a strip of crimson, he could clearly still see. “Has he confessed?” the man asked gruffly.
Alonso turned to Ibarra. The priest stepped from the bars and straightened his back. Alonso knew Ibarra would never break. “He has not,” Alonso admitted.
“Take him,” the man ordered.
Two of the monk’s brethren pushed into the room, ready to drag Ibarra to the stake. Alonso blocked them. “I will walk him out.”