While a few math geeks appreciated Joshua Calisto’s obsession with predictability, the general population thought he was just weird. A genius yes, but weird. Like most gifted mathematicians, he spent his life in obscurity, few ever seeing his work, fewer still understanding it.
Now, at last, Calisto’s moment had arrived. As he stepped up to the podium, camera flashes danced across his bearded face like fireflies. When he waved his gangly arms, the crowd roared in approval.
“I’d like to thank everyone for sharing this historic event with me. When I founded Predictalon several years ago, I was an easy target for cartoonists and talk show hosts. Their barbs were painless compared to the scoffs from my colleagues who viewed this endeavor as an exercise in futility.
“Today, we release Nostradamus, the first artificial intelligence that can predict the future. How foolish is that?”
When the cheers died, a somber-faced woman joined Calisto at the podium. “Now, I’d like to introduce Claire Walker, Consumer Advocate’s vice president of research. If any skeptics remain after her presentation, I’ll buy them dinner.”
Walker took a deep breath before speaking. “As many of you know, Predictalon’s audacious claims have created a storm of controversy. To get to the truth, I proposed a challenge to Mr. Calisto which, to my surprise, he accepted.”
Only those close to the podium saw Walker’s hands begin to shake, but everyone heard the quiver in her voice. “I, I’d like you to watch a recording made two days ago, where I asked Nostradamus three questions about future events.”
When the video began, the audience watched a happier woman saying, “This is Claire Walker from Consumer Advocate’s, speaking to you on Tuesday, October 4th, from the labs at Predictalon Corporation. I’m here to find out if Nostradamus, their newly developed AI, can actually predict the future.
“Nostradamus, are you ready?”
“Yes Claire, fire away.”
“All right…Tomorrow, when hurricane Jesse makes landfall at Daytona Beach, what will be the death toll?”
“I’m sorry to say that Jesse will veer north and make landfall at Hilton Head, causing ten deaths.”
“Okay. What will be the outcome of tomorrow’s World Series game?”
“Houston will win by a score of 3-0 behind Javier McAllister’s ten strikeouts.”
“Finally, describe a random event that will occur in two days.”
“Japan will experience a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, five miles north of Osaka.”
When the lights came up, Walker’s tears glistened under the spotlight, but she spoke nonetheless. “After the hurricane and baseball game, I, I should have warned the Japanese…. I could have prevented so many injuries, saved so many lives. I…”
The crowd sat in shock as Calisto helped the broken woman from the stage. When he returned several minutes later, his eyes were misty. ”God help me, I had no idea this would happen. Like all of you, that was the first time I’ve watched the video.
“It’s hard to imagine what Claire’s going through, but I think there’s something we can learn from her experience, something to look forward to. Tomorrow, after we roll out Nostradamus, we’ll never be blindsided by disasters again.”
Within days, Nostradamus turned the world upside down.
Savvy investors became billionaires by short-selling anything associated with gambling, while states dependent on lottery revenue saw instant deficits. Thanks to Nostradamus’ forecasting power, accidents of every kind diminished.
Since countries could preview each other’s military plans, wars became obsolete. Similarly, by removing the element of surprise, terrorists found their missions foiled at their onset.
Of course there were unanticipated outcomes. For example, nobody foresaw the changes in dating behavior. Since those seeking long-term relationships could pinpoint their future partners, they squandered opportunities to meet other interesting people.
Everyone paid the five dollar monthly fee. To be without Nostradamus was a disadvantage few could overcome. As a result, Joshua Calisto became the richest person the world had ever known.
At midnight on Friday the thirteenth, three years later, Predictalon’s support center experienced a huge uptick in calls. Each customer reported the same problem: when asking for predictions more than five days in the future, they received a disconcerting response: “Unable to complete prediction. World ends before requested event.”
Because Nostradamus had never made an inaccurate prediction, scientists worldwide used everything at their disposal to detect pending cataclysms. Millions of queries turned up empty, but when the carefully worded question, “Is there a way to prevent the end?” was asked, Nostradamus replied, “Yes.” Unfortunately, the obvious follow-up question, “How?” elicited no response.
After three frustrating days, a Swedish philosopher, unbound by scientific dictates, asked, “Is a sacrifice required?”
Her terminal displayed, “Yes.”
When she asked, “What kind of sacrifice?” her screen remained blank.
Rephrasing the question, she queried, “Is a human sacrifice required?”
Outwardly, Calisto accepted the decree calmly, but inside he was overjoyed. His invention had made him fantastically wealthy, the envy of billions. Now, Nostradamus was offering him immortality. As Earth’s martyred savior he would become a saint.
And so, on the fifth day, while Calisto waited, wires from his life-support monitor were plugged into Nostradamus. With the entire world watching, he uttered his last words.
“My hope is that you view this sacrifice as a wake-up call. Humanity will survive this disaster, perhaps the next, but eventually Earth will end. And so, I’ve donated my entire fortune to a new foundation whose sole goal is to promote the exploration and population of other worlds. Please don’t waste the opportunity.”
With that, he gave a thumbs-up, then closed his eyes. An anesthesiologist injected a lethal cocktail into his vein. Ten minutes later, when Joshua Calisto’s heart stopped, terminals worldwide displayed, “End of world averted.”
Reactions were mixed. Most people celebrated, a few expressed disappointment at Earth’s survival, and thousands committed ritual suicide in support of Calisto’s sacrifice.
Even the programmer who had jokingly inserted the “End of World” Easter Egg inside Nostradamus was surprised by the AI’s next words.
“Heh-heh, tricked you.”
Jeffrey Abrams’s stories have received the following recognitions:
“Chasing the Cup”: 2016 Writers of the Future honorable mention
“The Value of Garbage”: 2015 Writers of the Future silver honorable mention
“Pandora’s Canon”: 2014 Writers of the Future honorable mention. Later published in the October 2015 issue of Nebula Rift magazine.