Alex was watching the Earthrise while their spaceship approached humanity’s first permanent moon base. Like everything else these days, it was a fully automated process, which gave him plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.
Despite the beauty of the moment, Alex couldn’t shake the feeling that something ominous was going on. It wasn’t just him. Everyone agreed that too much of what had happened just didn’t add up.
Many people claimed that the countless predictions of an AI takeover had finally materialized and that one or more rogue superintelligences were now plotting their ascendence. But the experts claimed they were certain that this possibility could be ruled out. No antagonistic behavior had been observed since they figured out how to align AI with human values. But skeptics argued that there had never been convincing proof of alignment, just a hodgepodge of methods and kludges such as inverse reinforcement learning that gave the appearance of alignment.
Others thought that humanity’s accelerating colonization of space had awoken alien probes which were now taking precautions against the possibility of large-scale resource acquisition by humans or their creations.
Still others argued that the seemingly unexplainable incidents were the signs of an emergent global consciousness. Nobody was in charge, Gaia was developing a will of its own.
Alex had his own theories but hoped that it would turn out to be something benign, like the Gaia hypothesis, or Gwern’s law of the hyper-networked global media: humanity was simply lending undue attention to anomalies. But events like the recent mass suicide of researchers at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute just seem too out of character to be coincidences.
His musings were cut off unexpectedly.
India had gone offline. All of it. More than a billion brain implants were abruptly torn from the global hive. Moments later the United States of Europe followed.
As an astronaut and member of the European Space Force, Alex’s brain implant was not a commodity product. Its OS kernel was formally verified to be secure. There actually existed a mathematical proof that it couldn’t be hacked.
“DEFCON 1: massive global surprise assault on brain implants underway!”, it shrieked in his head.
Even though Alex was a veteran who had been involved in several special operations, this message struck him like a bolt of lightning. He felt dizzy. Had humanity’s worst fears come to pass?
Seconds later it could be ruled out that the Chinese-Russian federation was behind the attack as they had gone offline as well. Nobody would be insane enough to stage this level of mayhem in order to gain a strategic advantage. Indeed, other than hardened military gear, almost all of humanity was now disconnected.
As the last remnants of civil society went offline, the black spheres appeared in orbit all around earth. Alex didn’t need to tap any military satellites or make use of his eye implants to see them. They were clearly visible at normal eyesight even from his orbit around the moon.
Virtually at the same time, all hell broke loose on Earth. The spheres were under attack. A mind-boggling number of projectiles appeared to be hitting each of the spheres, turning into small suns upon impact. Alex’s artificial eyes immediately blocked each of the glares, which were bright enough to burn a normal human retina.
Some of the projectiles appeared to be targeting empty space. But they never made it past the spheres, vanishing in smaller bolts of light.
The velocity of the projectiles was so high that they could only be originating from railguns. Even though the great powers were certainly in possession of such weapons, none of them was capable of such rapid and prolonged firing. Sure, Alex did not have the necessary security clearance to know about black projects but this was clearly many orders of magnitude above anything humanity was capable of. And the projectiles appeared to be launched from all over the globe.
This amount of firepower would also have made no strategic sense from the perspective of a human polity. No, this was clearly built in anticipation of something like those spheres.
Never mind the enormous firepower directed at them, the spheres didn’t budge. They just sat there motionless.
Everything happened so quickly that Alex had barely been able to form any coherent string of thoughts. And then the attack stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
The spheres appeared to grow hairy tentacles that were reaching out to each other. Earth was being enshrouded in a black hull.
Several hours passed and Alex’s ship had eventually docked the moon base. Understandably, the mood on the station was fatalistic. The Earth was a black sphere and all connections, including the military channels, had been cut. The population that lacked a military-grade implant was catatonic.
After approximately 8 hours the black cloak vanished.
All hope was lost.
The Earth was a furnace, a glowing piece of molten slag. It had been thoroughly sterilized.
For some reason, humanity’s outposts in space had been left untouched. Moon, Mars, and several other bases and space stations were still functioning. Reports from Mars indicated that whatever had affected people’s implants on and around the Earth had not infected them.
As most industries were fully automated and manufacturing consisted of advanced 3D printers, both the moon and Mars were self-reliant.
Humanity still had a fighting chance.