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Crucible (Sigma Force #14)
Author:James Rollins

Crucible (Sigma Force #14)

James Rollins


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.

—ANTHONY LEVANDOWSKI 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

“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 iden tify, 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. Nearly 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.

Zugarramurdi, Spain

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.”