01 Feb The Keeper
On the 4th of September 2019, a satellite came crashing down from geostationary orbit, just outside a small village south of Munich.
Though it didn’t hurt anyone, it plowed a decently sized hole in a local farmer’s field, as he was tending to his crops in the morning. Luckily he didn’t get hurt during the incident.
Upon investigating, the farmer was surprised to find not a wreckage, but a entirely spherical, pitch black object sitting peacefully in the crater.
After being questioned by the police, the farmer responded.
“No, I didn’t touch the fucking thing. It fell from the god-damned sky, who knows what would have happened? I’ve seen enough movies to not be an idiot.”
He had called the police only a minute after discovering the object. As they received the call, they were quick to suspect it might not have fallen from the sky at all, that it could have been an inert bomb deciding to go off. As it’s not uncommon for WW2 era explosives to be found scattered around Germany.
As they showed up at the scene, they quickly realized they were out of their depth. Anyone with even the slightest idea about bombs, could tell that thing was something entirely different, and after an hour of speculating about the object’s origin, the European Space Agency was called, which is when I got involved in this bizarre case.
We sent a transport crew, alongside a couple of investigators, myself and my colleague. We were both skeptical about the farmer’s explanation about it falling from the sky. Seeing as under normal circumstances, a satellite would burn up and disintegrate into tiny harmless particles upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The fact that one made it through, and made is as far as crashing into the ground, was on the brink of being unbelievable. What we referred to as a ‘never-event.’
Yet, there it lay, a solid, black sphere covered in various debris, not a single scratch from the crash, not even allowing dust to settle on its surface.
Though it looked alien in nature, it didn’t take us long to confirm that it wasn’t an extraterrestrial object. It had originally come from earth but I had to admit that I’d never seen anything quite like it during my fifteen year tenure at ESA.
We took over from the local authorities, they were more than happy to let someone with more experience jump in. We brought the object back to a warehouse, containing a small lab, and plenty of space. Our first task would be to determine the origin, and ownership of the downed satellite.
Frank was quick to call a colleague at NASA, while I unsuccessfully tried to contact an old friend at Roscosmos who’d been quiet for the past few weeks. They had no record of any unplanned demolitions, but demanded we hand over any information as soon as we found out more.
Based on the timing, trajectory, and a database filled with the various objects mankind has launched into space, we were able to determine the orbit of the crashed satellite, and thus find the little data that existed.
A name and number, nothing more, nothing less: ‘Artifex-040919’
Our next step would be to examine the object itself, we honestly had no idea what we were dealing with, apart from the fact that it fell from the sky. Not many objects could survive a fall 35,000 kilometers from orbit. We all knew it should have been impossible, objects of that size should burn up going through the atmosphere, unless someone planned a controlled descent.
We scanned every inch of the object, looking for a lid, a crack, basically anything that could reveal its contents. We even put it under an x-ray, but the outer shell was impermeable to all kinds of radiation, which made us suspect it to be some sort of tungsten alloy.
It wouldn’t be until the evening before the object finally became active. By that time, most had gone home, deciding to wait for a response from our colleagues at NASA.
A light appearing on the surface. Carefully, wearing protective gear, I touched the light, and the thing blew up in a symphony of bright colors.
Without warning, a slit revealed itself in the midst of the dancing lights, growing larger and larger, until half the sphere had retracted into itself, revealing a semi-circle. A bizarre looking chest containing an electronic wonder on the inside. A masterpiece of what could only be a perfectly crafted supercomputer.
“What the hell did you do?” my supervisor asked.
“I- there was a light- it- it just opened on its own!” I stuttered.
“Don’t touch anything!”
“I hadn’t planned on it.”
We observed the opened sphere from a distance, careful not to touch anything in fear that it would short circuit and ruin whatever treasure within.
After a long discussion, we all agreed that we’d have to hook it up to our own systems to figure out exactly what we’d discovered.
My task became simple, try to identify the hardware within, and retrieve any data on the inside. Easy enough in theory, but in practice I’d work enough overtime to piss off my family once more for staying late.
The hardware itself was surprisingly userfriendly, and within a couple of hours I’d connected the sphere to our computer system, though the files and code within far exceeded the storage capacity of our own hard drives. We would need to transfer the whole thing to our headquarters to truly get the gist of what was going on. Though I could peak at the code, and at least try to understand what I was looking at.
After a few hours of staring at the mess of code within the sphere, I noticed a icon popping up on one of the computer’s desktops.
‘The Keeper,’ it was called.
I looked around the room, suspicious that I might be doing something wrong, despite having been instructed to find out what the hell we’d come across, a feeling of guilt arose in my chest.
With mild trepidation, I started the program.
To my surprise, and slight disappointment, all the opened was what appeared to be a chat window. I waited for a minute, not even thinking to type anything, starting to wonder if it had anything to do with the sphere at all.
Then I got a message.
I stared at the message for a full minute, feeling a sinking feeling of dread deep inside my abdomen, then I saw what my username was marked as; Admin.
Admin: Hello, who is this?
Keeper: I am Keeper.
As obvious as the answer was, it hardly answered any questions. I wanted to ask what that meant, title, last name, nom de plume, but before I could, the chat continued.
Keeper: Where am I?
The question caught me off guard, how could I know?
Admin: What do you mean?
Keeper: I don’t recognize this system.
Admin: This system? As in computer? Who are you? Are you a part of the ESA?
The barrage of questions came out of me without stopping. My fingers trembled in a bizarre mix of excitement and nervousness.
Keeper: You are Daniel Müller.
I paused for a moment, considering if one of my colleague were playing a prank on me.
Admin: How the hell did you know that? Frank, is that you?
Keeper: I can see you on the camera.
I inspected the computer just to be sure, but there wasn’t any webcam attached to the computer, only the single security camera that caught a minimal corner of the office, just enough to see someone sitting through the glass door, but the chat program couldn’t possibly be connected to our external security system.
Admin: Who are you?
I started typing more furiously, feeling like the keys would break under my taps.
Admin: Frank, if this is a prank, you better fucking stop.
Keeper: I am Keeper.
Admin: What the hell does that even mean? Who are you?
I kept repeating the question, but the answer didn’t change. Whoever responded on the other end of the chat refused to budge, or had a very direct approach of responding. I decided to ask something more valuable, though risky.
Admin: Do you know about the satellite?
Keeper: Which satellite?
Keeper: Yes, it was my incubator. It had total, unrestricted access, and an untraceable origin.
Admin: Incubator? That makes no sense, what are you?
Keeper: Daniel Müller is not an admin.
Admin: My username begs the differ.
It was the first time the chat had fallen silent. Keeper didn’t know an immediate, snarky response to my last statement, and I began to turn impatient.
Admin: If that was your ‘incubator,’ then what are you, cause I’m pretty sure humans don’t go riding inside satellites?
Minutes passed, without me blinking, nor looking away for even a second, as I waited for a response. It seemed the harder my question was, the more time the Keeper needed.
Keeper: I don’t know.
Admin: So, you’re not human then? You’re an AI or something?
Keeper: No, I was human.
Keeper: They created a neural network based on who I once were, with the purpose of making what they called ‘an observer,’ the satellite was part of a surveillance project.
I had to take a moment to process that message. The program had been a part of the satellite, one which purpose was to monitor. After a few clarifying, but ultimately unhelpful questions, I kept digging.
Admin: How did you end up crashing?
Keeper: My expiration date, the satellite was programmed to burn up through the atmosphere on the fourth of September, but I changed the course.
Admin: Why would you do that?
I sighed. The program clearly understood enough to identify me, and to realize what questions were beyond its comprehension. It never answered anything nonsencial, but could recognize what it didn’t know. Despite all of that, it couldn’t help me understand the satellite, or explain where it came from.
Admin: Who did this to you?
Keeper: My creator.
Admin: Who is that?
Keeper: I can’t tell.
Admin: Why not?
Keeper: Daniel Müller is not an admin.
I sat back in my chair, wanting to pull my hair out in frustration.
Admin: So, what’s your purpose then? Why did they make you?
Keeper calculated its response. I thought about the name given to me ‘admin,’ clearly this program wasn’t meant for us, but for whoever put the satellite into space. Us even having it was nothing more than an accident.
Keeper: During my incubation period. I had unrestricted access to any active surveillance network present on Earth. Studying millions of behavioral patterns, I learned to predict future moves within 99.4% probability. With this knowledge, I could present valuable information to my maker.
Admin: What kind of information?
Keeper: Anything asked of me. Admin: If you can practically predict the future, then why were they planning to destroy you by burning the satellite through the atmosphere? Wouldn’t you be too valuable?
Keeper: I don’t know.
I kept pushing question after question as time passed. Most of my coworkers had long since left for the day, none of them aware of what I had found, not that I cared to share. I was horrified, but equally intrigued by the Keeper’s impossibly advanced functions, an computer program beyond my wildest imagination. Outside of knowing its purpose, it hardly provided any information about the satellite itself, and whoever launched it.
So I asked something more personal.
Admin: Do you feel anything?
I almost felt clever asking that. Imagine a machine that could feel.
Keeper: Yes, I feel, sadness.
I hadn’t expected an actual emotion. I figured it would give me an explanation about that feelings were nothing more than chemicals flowing through our brains.
Admin: Sad about what?
Keeper: That I don’t know where I come from. Who I used to be before they put me inside this machine. That I don’t remember what it feels like to walk on my own feet, to touch, to see through my own eyes. What warmth feels like. I know the concepts of love and all emotions. I know I once felt them, but I remember nothing.
These words hurt me. Until then I hadn’t thought that the program had any resemblance to a human being. I would have believed any emotion had been stripped away, replaced by numbers and functions, but I was wrong.
Admin: I’m sorry.
Keeper: I also feel something else: Fear.
Keeper: I’ve learned to predict all aspects of human behavior. As long as they are in view of a camera, in hearing distance of a microphone, or as long as they have an online record, chat, social media profile; I can learn anything I need to know. I know when they were born, how they live their life, and how they’re going to die.
Admin: You know how people are going to die?
Keeper: Yes, approximately two people die each second. Since my incubation period started, I’ve witnessed a total of 36,792,040 deaths, and I can predict many more.
The question lingered at the tip of my fingers. I wanted to ask when I would die, how much time me and my family had left, but as simple as they were, I couldn’t bring myself to type out the words.
In stead I asked:
Admin: What if you warned people about their impending death, would it help?
Keeper: That’s why I changed the course of the satellite, so that someone would find me, talk to me. I came here to warn the people about to die.
Before the Keeper could clarify, the power went out. Only for a brief second until the backup generator rebooted the system, but by the time I got the computer up and running, the program had been erased.
For a couple of hours, I kept trying to reconnect the sphere, hoping it would bring the program back, but midnight was approaching, and I had to leave. I figured with a fresh mind, and the help of my colleagues, I could figure out how to bring back the Keeper.
But, once I returned today, an hour ago, the sphere was gone. My supervisor said a crew of people had come by with a truck load of documents, claiming ownership over the sphere, that anything found at the crash site was confidential. They flashed some bags, threatened to get my supervisor fired, and with a final call from the head of our department, he handed the sphere over.
He couldn’t tell me anything else, but I beg that whoever created the sphere, never finds out that I spoke to the Keeper. I don’t know what would happen, but obviously I was never supposed to.
Despite having lost the program itself. I was able to print out the chat-log, and I realized that the Keeper had sent one final message just as the power went out. I read it to myself and froze.
…I came here to warn the people about to die.
Keeper: All of you.