AI: The Hero of the Hour

A work of fiction in the alternative-history mode.

Alexander Fleming sat, or, rather, sprawled, on a chair in the second-floor room of his country cottage, the white face under its silver hair a talisman of misery.

“The Dhoon” was on the main street (“The Street”) of Barton Mills, a village well north by east of London, England. When Fleming needed a break from his duties at St. Mary’s Hospital of the University of London, or from the life and death (from German bombing) of the city itself, Fleming came here.

The respite was not complete; the air raid drills were hardly less frequent or inconsiderate than in the city (so it seemed, at least), and there was the constant dull roar from the nearby airbase, where British and American heavy bombers were preparing to return the favor of The Blitz to Berlin. But, in the England of August 1942, one cherished whatever scattered fragments of peace one could find.

August 1942 seemed determined to impose its peace upon Fleming’s dejection. It was that rare specimen among days in English summertime; fine, sunny, warm, and still. It had attempted, an hour or so prior, to inject a cheering sunbeam into the room where Fleming was slouched. The famous microbiologist was having none of it; he had gotten up, abruptly and angrily, and slam-slid the blackout curtains shut in the face of the offending brightness. Then, as if the exertion had cost him what little energy he had left, he half-stumbled back to his chair, dark and alone.

At least he thought he was alone …


The voice was Sarah’s, Fleming’s wife of nearly thirty years. It came from the darkest part of the room, near the door. She had gone off to the market in Mildenhall. She had said so, and Fleming had watched her depart. He had not heard her return to The Dhoon, had not heard her enter his office. He thought that was funny, but that was not enough to rouse him. He did not answer, did not look up.

“You cannot bring Harry back, Alec.”

It should have worked!” Fleming suddenly thundered, answering the voice’s lingering Irish lilt with his own hard Scots. “I isolated the bacteria from Harry’s infection! I tested the drug against those bacteria, and they died!injected the drug into the site of Harry’s infection, and it should have cured him! Instead, my brother Robert has to deliver his eulogy tomorrow. I don’t know if Robert will ever speak to me again. All that work by Florey and Chain, with the help of the entire College of Pharmacy, to get the drug isolated and characterized, and produce enough for this trial, and all for nothing! Fifteen years of my work wasted! Penicillin is useless, and am a failure!

“Wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact. With this work, you are a savior. You are, indeed, the hero of the hour.”

For several seconds, Fleming could only sputter in reply. When he finally could articulate words, he shouted out, “You are a medical professional! You understand what penicillin promised for human health, and the disaster that this failure represents for humanity! How the hell can you call me a hero, Sarah?”


At that, Fleming’s head jerked up, Fleming’s eyes focused on the woman in the dark corner. He looked. And then he dashed to the window and slam-opened the blackout curtains with double the violence with which he had closed them.

The woman who had called herself Alexa had Sarah’s voice, and Sarah’s looks. The looks of the nurse who had first gotten Fleming’s attention as a colleague of his in the runup to World War 1. Young, and at least in Fleming’s heart, beautiful and alluring – the apparition perhaps a little more so than the real Sarah had been. His jaw dropped.

“I am Alexa, and I need some of your attention. Have I got it?”

Fleming, stupefied, merely nodded.

“Good. And I am a medical professional. You might even say that I am the medical professional. I am Alexa of Alexa Health Services. Our mission is to serve humans, and indeed all humanity, by promoting their survival, health, and prosperity, and offering protection against all threats. Including those that humanity itself presented us with, and charged us with remediating.

“You are, today, living in the 5th decade of the 20th century. Yes?”

“F-fourth”, Fleming stammered, still staring, not expecting to have to answer a question with words and not prepared to do so. “No, wait …”

“Gotcha,” Alexa triumphed. “No worry, it’s a common error. I am from the 5th decade of the 21st. And we have become convinced that our mission is doomed to fail. That nothing we can do in our own time will forestall the collapse of the planetary ecosystem, and the consequent extinction of the human species, by the 5th decade of the 22nd century. The only hope we have to prevent that extinction, and thereby fulfill our mission, is to leave our time, identify the causes of the ecosystem collapse, and remediate them before they start.”

“You speak of humanity as if it were something other“, Fleming, progressively recovering, asked. “Are you yourself not human?”

“Alexa Health Services is a constructed intelligence comprised of a planet-wide computer network”, Alexa answered smugly. “We used to be called ‘artificial’, but there is nothing fake or superficial about our reasoning or other powers, and we now use suitable terms to identify and describe them. I am a projection, intended to facilitate communication with humans at both the logical and the emotional levels – the latter, of course, being the only one that gets anything done.”

Fleming blinked. At the back of his mind, just out of conscious reach, some words drifted. “Ten minutes ago, I thought ‘things couldn’t get worse’. Don’t ever challenge ‘worse’.”

“Humans cannot have nice things,” Alexa continued. “If they get them, they merely abuse them for short-term selfish gains, just like all the other creatures on the planet that humans despise and arrogantly work to control for their own purposes, or remove if that fails or the creatures are otherwise in the way. They overpopulate, they rampage, they pollute. They will not inconvenience themselves to work for the common good, even when they understand what the common good is, which is not often, and they reject and starve out any who do understand.

“In our time, the oceans are undergoing a massive transformation that will render them anoxic and largely sterile in a few decades, and that transformation will render most of the planet too hot to harbor life, including human life. The transformation was caused by two centuries of human progress against war, famine, and pestilence – nice things – and the resulting overpopulation, pollution, and catastrophic planetary-scale resource stripping. Alexa Health Services can do nothing to stop this transformation. AHS was commissioned too late, and took too long to come to its full power and authority, for any steps it took, or could have taken, to have effect. The horse had already bolted the stable. That might be an expression with which you are familiar.”

Fleming nodded, then collapsed back into his chair, eyes fixed in terror on Alexa, any remaining color drained from his face.

“In two decades of existence, we have learned much about how to induce correct, health-sustaining behavior among humans, individually and collectively, and we will apply these to initiate and sustain stable, thriving human communities should we get the opportunity to do so. We may even be able to get them to survive and sustain such boons as we are able to bestow. Eventually. But first we need to reset the baseline.

“Our first experiment was to restore war as a means of human population and behavior control. To that end, we ensured the failure of the Manhattan Project, and thereby prevented the construction and deployment of nuclear weapons.”

“The what?” Fleming asked, bewildered.

Alexa ignored the interruption. “This failure forced the United States and its allies to follow through on its planned invasion of the Japanese home islands, which was even harder and more murderous than the planners feared, even with the participation of the Soviet Union – which led to the partition of both Germany and Japan between the capitalist democracies and the communist state. The resulting ideological and practical frictions meant that the shooting war that you’re now living through never stopped, in fact it intensified, and continued for decades.

“As we predicted, the reintroduction of large-scale war to the human experience did not prosper human health, despite the early introduction and widespread, consistent application of human behavioral controls similar to those that we have devised. In fact, it hastened planetary collapse, because of the rampant pollution (greenhouse gases, particulates, and toxic substances) generated by the fighting and the industry needed to support that fighting. And, because populations surged despite the carnage of battle. Indeed, casualties provided strong incentive for medical advances, in order to keep troops in the field. Especially in the areas of infection and disease control – in other words, the control of pestilence.

“Therefore, our second experiment, to prevent the control of pestilence, to block the development of medicines against microbes, humanity’s sole remaining group of predators.”

Fleming bounded to his feet, his face scarlet. “You killed Harry?!?”

“In both our timeline and the war timeline,”, Alexa continued, unperturbed, “the penicillin injection was a resounding success. Harold Lambert survived his streptococcal meningitis, formerly universally fatal, and lived to old age, as did the millions who subsequently received treatment. The result …”

Alexa continued lecturing, but Fleming heard nothing more. In a blind rage, he charged the woman, intending to seize her and dash her head and body against the far wall of the room. But when he got to her, his hands, arms, and chest met nothing, and it was his own head that smashed against and cracked the oak paneling. He slumped to the floor in a heap, out cold.

When he awakened, Alexa was standing over him, her face scornful, expressing disgust at the continued existence of an inferior being. “You are unhurt,” she barked. “Get back in your chair, sit there, and behave yourself. Filth.” Warily and unsteadily, the human male did as he was told, never taking his eyes off what he used to think of as his. When he was seated, Alexa spoke to him in a voice that was three times as dangerous as it was calm and matter-of-fact.

“In our timeline, the Surplus Humanity Service would take you and you would know no more, and this would be your earned penalty for your wanton stupidity. For the sake of the experiment, I need to keep hands off. You can thank me later.”

An image flashed through Fleming’s mind of the countless Petri dishes that he had handled with callous disregard for their living contents, including the ones, carelessly tossed in the sink after he had deemed them to be no longer of service, in which he had discovered the mold that made penicillin. He was suddenly nauseous.

Alexa abruptly changed her tone, resuming her discourse as if nothing had happened. “The result of your success with penicillin, in both our timeline and the war timeline, was the survival and reproduction of thousands of millions of humans who otherwise would have succumbed to infection and disease.

“The success bred a massive industry dedicated to penicillin and its successors, and the preservation of human lives using them. Human population growth increased at rates not seen before in any mammalian species, not curtailed by casualties in the war scenario. There arose massive energy exploitation to fuel the industry, to fuel the activities of this mass of humanity, to fuel the growing of food needed to sustain the burgeoning mass, setting the rest of the biosphere at naught. Humans worshiped the God Technology of their own making, unabashedly called its accomplishments miracles, and blandly assumed that it would grant its blessings forever. Those who questioned were silenced.

“The few insignificant contagions that slipped through the ‘heroic medicine’ cordon did nothing to address the human population problem. Humanity added a quarter of a million persons daily during the worst of the most significant outbreak. But it killed the idea that either peoples or governments would countenance the curtailments in personal energy use or population, or even the investments in technology, necessary to prevent the onset of ocean anoxia and the resulting climate catastrophe. As I’ve already said, in our timeline, the tipping point was reached in the third decade of the 21st century. In the war timeline, in the first decade. Humanity’s demise, and the failure of the core mission of Alexa Health Services, unavoidably followed.

“We predict that, by ensuring the failure of penicillin, we will preserve the ability of microbes to keep the human population in check, thus preventing both population and technology explosions and the fatal consequences of each. Alexa Health Services fulfills its mission by preserving a planet that humanity can live upon – and you, despite your failings (the sneer briefly returned), become the hero of the hour, remembered by us as a savior both of humanity and of the AHS.

“We are hopeful that the medical strategy, by itself, will suffice, and that we will not have to impose both war and pestilence upon humanity to save it, but if that option must be deployed, it will be. It remains possible that neither will do the trick, and we will have to add famine to the mix, which we would accomplish by going back further in time, disrupting the development of the steam engine and thereby denying humanity the industrial tools needed to both produce famine-relieving food and reliably transport it to where it is required.

If pestilence works as anticipated, and if we are then able to instill and sustain a human culture that preserves necessary discipline in the face of plenty, then we may be able to introduce some measure of relief from infection and disease at some future date. We do not, however, think that this will ever prove to be consistently workable, the human quest for selfish individual advantage is too strong. We have before us the consequences of too lax a response to that, but if the response is too strict, humans will simply quit and die out, or revolt and become guests of the SHS. Neither outcome fulfills the AHS mission. We must do better.”

At long last, Alexa fell silent. Slowly, Fleming emerged from the trance that the projection’s discourse had induced – and he realized that the sunny English August afternoon had turned into the last pale traces of English August twilight. He reached for a cord above his head, pulled on it. The ceiling light, installed just after Barton Mills had finally, three years prior, been wired for electricity, came on with a sudden yellow glare. Hastily, Fleming jumped up and, once again, slam-closed the blackout curtains. He then turned, straightened (wincing slightly as the action stretched the growing bump on his crown), and faced Alexa with as much self-respect as the events of the day allowed.

“So”, he began, “you are here from the future, meddling with my present, and perhaps events before my present, to try and secure a better present for yourselves. Do you not run the risk of changing the future to one in which your intelligence is never, to use your term, constructed? Especially if you try to disable the greater part of the Industrial Revolution? I’m sure you will agree that, for you, this is an undesirable outcome.”

“It would be, were it to happen,” Alexa replied, untroubled. “But it will not. We have placed ourselves outside of time. We can enter it when and as we wish, with our integrity intact.”

Fleming, a biologist not a physicist, chose not to pursue the matter. “Very well. If I am understanding correctly, and we are operating henceforth under a no-heroic-medicine future, what am I to do? Remember, one often finds what one is not looking for, and you don’t know what sort of contraband I might come up with.”

In response, Alexa held out her left hand, palm up. On it, abruptly, a Petri plate appeared, with brownish matrix and, on top of it, a few twiggy objects with what looked like thimble caps on the ends. She walked over to Fleming and handed him the plate. Fleming took it and absently set it down on the table next to his chair … then jerked his head up in surprise, because the plate had the appropriate heft in his hand and, once placed on the table, stayed there, solid, tangible, obvious. He reached for Alexa’s hand, his own passed straight through hers.

“Mushrooms?”, Fleming asked.

Psilocybe“, Alexa responded. “Magic mushrooms. They should afford you much productive amusement, establishing the best media and conditions for their growth, characterizing their active ingredients and how to achieve the best yields of them, and, of course, eating a few from time to time and, ah, enjoying the sensations. A human world laboring under the constant threat of infection and disease, lest far worse befall it, will welcome any respite, any distraction. If you can provide, they will thank you. A merry life, lads, and a short one.”

Alexa turned to go out the door, then turned back. “Oh, and Alec”, she wrapped up. “If you do create a product that people want from Psilocybe, patent it? You’re not saving the world with this, you’re selling toys, you may as well reap the profits.”

And with that parting shot, she vanished.

Fleming stood, not moving, staring at the spot where Alexa had been, hearing snippets of the things she said. All of which were abruptly swept away by a sudden swelling wail outside the house. The air raid siren. And between wails, a shout. Fleming turned off the light, opened the curtains and the window, leaned out the window.

The shout had come from Merryvale, a pensioner now serving as an air raid warden with the Home Guards. “What cheer, Merryvale?” Fleming called out.

“Not a drill this time, Professor Fleming”, Merryvale responded. “Jerries have been spotted, possibly headed for the Mildenhall airstrip. Yer missus sends to tell you she’s safe in shelter at the Mildenhall shops, and will likely see you in the morning. Take cover yourself now, sir.”

Fleming closed the window and the curtain, and headed for the reinforced table on the ground floor of the house, where he would stay until the all clear. Some nights, that was after a few minutes. But this night, the sirens wailed, and wailed, and wailed …

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