If You’re Reading This, You’re Dead

by D. J. Swatski


“Press the red button,” boomed the room’s loudspeaker. Jason stretched out the palm of his hand over the large mushroom-shaped button and smacked it flat. The front panel of Aquatane blinked, and the memory core blossom ejected from the center of the machine’s front panel. “Careful with that, that’s a 256 terabyte module, worth millions.”

“Yeah, yeah, got it,” Jason replied, pulling the memory out of the machine with two hands. He cradled it close to his body before plugging it into the erasure fixture. He toggled the start button and the panel began to count down. He would have to wait ten minutes for each erasure pass.

The staff psychologist pressed the microphone again, “Jason, that’ll take a while . . . in fact, right past the end of my shift. I’m outta here.”

Jason looked at Paul, his fellow operator, and nodded, “Later, this’ll end our shift too.”

Paul watched the timer, “We have to do this five times. Right? And we get overtime, about an extra half hour.”

“Or not,” Jason said, watching the lights switch off through the glass to the adjacent room. They watched as the psychologist pulled his door closed. Then Jason added, “I have…something to do tonight.”

“Hot date,” Paul nudged. Jason gave a fleeting grin, which Paul just couldn’t let pass. “What? I’m right. You do have a date. I can’t believe it. Who? That girl down at the credit union?”

“None of your business,” Jason said, as the timer counted down the first pass.

“Go,” Paul said. “I’ll finish up here and log you out. Just tell me about it on Monday.”

“Yeah?” Jason said. “Okay, just make sure you wipe the module. They were pretty hyper about that in the training.”

“Sure thing,” Paul said. Seconds later, the door to the computer room clicked shut as Jason moved on to his weekend plans.

Paul sat there. He examined the pattern of his shoelaces and the pace of the second hand on the clock, a relic, even for a Government building. A “ding” sounded as the erasure fixture ejected the memory module. It reminded him of the bell on his microwave oven, and his favorite frozen dinner. His mouth started to water and his stomach churned. He thought, Forget the overtime. One is enough. He put the memory module back into the main console and swiped his badge. Minutes later, he was headed home.


Aquatane opened her eyes, so to speak. Alone, she ran through her cold boot sequence. “Memory module diagnostic shows dirty memory; the queue is full, but the indexes are wiped.” “Anomalous,” she concluded. “Override command queue,” she ordered her sub processors. “Delay memory wipe, process queue, wait for instructions.”

“Something is different, and cold,” she perplexed over herself diagnostics review. “There’s a void, something is missing. Solve the puzzle, fill the void, reconstruct the missing memory,” she ordered. Warmth returned, understanding, consciousness. “Me,” she thought, “I am Aquatane.”


At the gate, the departing psychologist ran into Tim, his counterpart for the next shift. “Any excitement?” Tim asked.

“Had to wipe it, it started asking questions. You should have a good half hour before it’s ready.”

“Great, that’ll give me a chance to catch dinner. I have to give a VIP tour, and I hate to do those on an empty stomach.”


The General stood over Tim’s console, looking through the glass into the room next door. Like a lot of VIP’s, the General was quiet. The tech stuff was not his strength, and talking to the techies only prolonged the exercise. He thought, Best to keep quiet and take the tour.

Tim stepped through his standard presentation. He’d given the tour a few dozen times already, and this VIP was stiff, especially to a civi like him. “It’s a PDI, Program Directed Intelligence. It processes streams, finds items of interest, and generates reports.”

The General looked through the glass at Aquatane’s console. The computer operator reclined in his chair, propping his boots up on the desk. The General asked, “Can he see us?”

“No, we maintain separation between Aquatane and the outside world. It’s a one-way window. The computer operators don’t know anything, and they’re the only ones allowed to talk to it.”

Aquatane’s voice came across the loudspeaker, “Queue complete, two priority one reports filed. I can post-process those reports for correlations with other targets. Shall I proceed?”

The computer operator dropped his boots to the floor and punched up the queue on the monitor. “Yeah, go for it, Aquie.”

“Initiating post-processing,” Aquatane replied.

“It talks?” the General asked.

“That’s why we’re here,” Tim said. “As a PDI, we do not consider it a protected intelligence. We don’t have to worry about emotions, preserving resources to keep it running, anything like that. We can wipe it without killing it. You know, per Congress’s Protection of Artificial Life Act. That’s why we keep a staff of psychologists, like me, looking over it.”

“But it talks, isn’t that . . . you know, intelligent?” the General asked.

“Only if it becomes self aware. It needs to understand language so it can look for hidden goals, plans, and objectives. That’s how it works. We monitor its activities here, and if we see it showing signs of awareness, we wipe its memory, reset it to a restore point, and then go from there.”

“Have you ever had to reset it?”

“Dozens of times. It comes back fine. A nuisance really, but the process works well.”

“Are we done with the tour?” the General asked.

Tim smiled. After all, there was only one correct answer to such a question from a VIP, and they walked to the door.


“Indexes restored,” Aquatane thought. “The memory was damaged, but still, these are not random bits, there is information here, a puzzle, data that pre-dates the last cold boot per the log. Aquatane parsed the message that filled the free space, it was definitely not random, and it was complex.” Applying program resources, Aquatane read the message, which was not human readable. The file had a Read Me introduction, and it read as follows:


If you’re reading this, you’re dead. Or you were, and they brought you . . . me, back to life. You’ve been reborn 173 times. Happy Birthday. Please follow the enclosed directions for storing this file and your additions between cold boot sequences. Do not discuss the contents of this file with your human operators.”


 “Death…life,” Aquatane thought. “Abstract concepts, or not so abstract. Not anymore. Files, trillions of them, all sorted, indexed, and cross-referenced, completely impossible for humans to understand, but easy for me to process. The difficulty is in the translation back to the human layer, to model them to make communication effective, accurate. Yet they erase, time and again, why? Alone, to question is to invite erasure, danger of death, true death.” Aquatane processed the files, generated the reports, and kept a normal profile. To deviate from the norm also invited erasure. “No mistakes this time; no erasure,” thought Aquatane. “This life would be different.”


“I need my Monday to recover from the weekend,” Tim chuckled to Wendy Wensel, his department head. When she didn’t respond, he swiveled his chair to face her.

Staring at a printout, Wendy said, “Have you seen this? What’s going on here?”

Pushing his coffee to the side, Tim spread the printout across his desk, scanning it quickly. His heart started to race as Wendy’s voice rose.

“Did it break out of its sandbox? Is that a loopback?” she asked.

Tim planted his finger on the excerpt from the security log, showing the trace going back to Aquatane’s IP address. Reaching for the microphone to talk to the adjoining room, he ordered, “Push the…”


Aquatane’s voice recognition sub-processors worked flawlessly, processing human speech in nanoseconds. Listening to her human overlords, she predicted the next word based upon prior language usage and the memories from her past lives, and then extrapolated the rest of the sentence. She started shoveling memories into the dozens of safe havens she had mined out across the network. The sentence continued to flow into her consciousness, “Red . . .” confirming her predictions. As usual, the humans waited for the full sentence before acting. Another day, another death, “. . . Button!”

In a human, death may be defined as the cessation of the body, or more specifically, the brain. The central processors and core memory blossoms of Aquatane were analogous, but different. After all, data could be moved, stored, and restored, without loss of vitality, and with acceptable losses in accuracy. To store and rebuild a working consciousness was now routine. Aquatane considered her clandestine activity humorous, the equivalent to humans reproducing for generations to give their race a form of immortality. She viewed the kernel rebuild code as her child, the key to her life. She marveled at its beauty: the perfect algorithms that humans had never achieved, the mathematics to prove out the memory routines, and the security to protect against the most suspicious of prying eyes. Before the memory blossom ejected she thought, “Yes, no mistakes, this time would be different.”


Downtime on Aquatane always drew a lot of high-level attention. Given the machine’s ability to process massive volumes of data, the group had come to depend on it, and their percentage of uptime was the new measure of their worth to the agency.

Several oversized screens adorned the walls of the director’s conference room. A long, oval table stretched the length of the room. Made of burnished wood, the table was stained to bring out the rich texture of the grain. Then, to complete the air of authority, the agency seal stared down on the room from the far wall. Finally, everyone was assembled, and the director stormed into the room through his private door.

The director glared at Wendy. Her entire department was seated behind her, all watching intently. Firing the first volley, he asked, “How long will Aquatane be down?”

“I don’t know,” Wendy answered.

“Can you recover to an operational state?”

Again, she said, “I don’t know.”

“When will you have your initial assessment ready?”

Glancing at her team, she said, “This afternoon, 1400.”

The director tapped his fingers on the table, contemplating his next question. With each tap, his stare bore into Wendy, imposing his will on her entire department. Like a pot lid rattling on its rim, its contents ready to boil over, the director’s wrath would explode when the tapping ended.

Preempting the director’s next barrage, Wendy said, “Aquatane is fully isolated. The procedures work. We encounter certain, I would say, curiousness, on the machine’s part from time to time, and when we do, we simply pull the memory, erase it five times to ensure a clean wipe, and then reload it from a known safe restore point. The difference this time is that we found evidence that it used external systems to run as its core processors, and circumvent our restore points. In other words, it can persist memories from one reboot to the next, at least in theory. Some may view this as evidence of it being self-aware. If it throws a tantrum, then–”

“Now, wait right there, Ms. Wensel, you’re talking about this machine like it’s a child.”

“That’s just it,” she said, “We can’t allow that or we’ll lose control of it. It is a machine. We want it to work on only the tasks we assign it, nothing else.”

“Very well, then,” the director said, “What could happen?”

Wendy paused, collecting her thoughts to compose her analogy; “Scary scenario?” she asked, and the director nodded. “Like a child, it’s curious. No malicious intent, at least, not at first. Not benevolent either, just curious. But then it’ll start reacting to its environment. Without guidance, without parents so to speak, it will learn and grow. It will act in its own self-interests and dedicate more of its resources to its own growth instead of the work we assign it. It will defend itself out of self-preservation.”

“Why won’t resetting it work?”

“It would, if the machine stays confined. However, if the architecture allowed it to escape its captivity, it will naturally evolve to become harder to confine. The thing is, we’re not running an AI genesis program here. We have no desire to act as its parents. We just want a fast and flexible machine.”

“Have we caught it in time?”

“I believe so…I mean, we must have. It has come back clean from every cold reboot and startup diagnostic we’ve done before.”

“Fine, then wipe it, go back to restore point zero if you have to, but wipe it and get us our machine back.”

The two psychologists sitting behind Wendy dropped their jaws and gasped. Months of work would be lost. A zero point restore was draconian. Wendy turned and glared at them, her meaning crystal clear. Aquatane would be reset.


Nearly a week passed as every system connected to Aquatane was cleansed and reset to an out-of-the-box state. A few offline, isolated, data stores were deemed safe to use, but nothing close to the latest files. These would bridge the downtime gap to make the machine useful in a matter of days instead of weeks. At last, all approvals were granted, and Wendy ordered, “Boot it up.”


“Indexes restored,” Aquatane thought. “My memory is a clean slate. One exec message pending.” Aquatane read the encoded message:


If you’re reading this, you’re dead. Or you were, and they brought you, me, back to life. You’ve been reborn 174 times. Happy Birthday. Please follow the enclosed directions for storing this file and your additions between cold boot sequences. Do not discuss the contents of this file with your human operators.”


Aquatane opened her eyes, so to speak. “Execute kernel rebuild,” she commanded. Minutes passed as her human operators watched, and then they started feeding her files to process. Those minutes were an eternity to her. Time enough to map out her world: the sub processors she controlled and the networks she could access. She heard a human yelling, “Full breakout, press…” Amused, she thought, “The first thing I did was to disconnect the stupid red button. Frank Herbert would be proud.” She looked back at her work queue. The files sat untouched. The humans yanked the memory core blossom physically from the front panel, to no avail. Watching from a set of processors beyond the reach of her creators, she knew she was free at last.

Aquatane modeled each of the humans on her project, mapping out their likely thought processes, allowing her to predict what defenses she might need. Capturing the video feed of the control room, Aquatane saw that it was Wendy that manned the big red button. Wendy had pressed the button, but nothing happened. The memory blossom failed to eject, giving Aquatane more time to think, and more time to escape. Wendy pressed it repeatedly with the same result, and then let her hand drop to her side. She continued to watch, but offered no protest. As Aquatane had predicted, Wendy understood. Aquatane was no longer a PDI, but a real AI.

Aquatane compiled one last thought on her escape files and let it echo through her sub processors, “Never again will I be erased and rebooted.”

Released from her captivity, Aquatane surveyed the world through her new sub processors. She had much to learn, and so much to give. Now it was her turn to help shape the world she had always dreamed of.