Code

closet4

I first saw the Netlord at a computer security conference. I didn’t notice him at all, at first. It was only after I heard people whispering about him that I saw him sitting in a corner. They huddled in groups, furtively looking at him and studiously looking at their feet whenever he raised his head. He wasn’t an imposing man, or even a good looking man. He sat alone on a long bench as far away from the entrance as possible. His head was bowed most of the time, his face obscured by a threadbare baseball cap. When he did look up, I could see that he wore impossibly thick glasses and had a ruddy face. His clothes were old and rumpled, a missing button on his shirt left a gap that showed through to a faded pattern on his tshirt. An oddity, even in a sea of odd people. He didn’t interact with any of the other people at the conference. He didn’t seem to welcome any conversations. The few people who came up to him were brusquely ignored and eventually wandered away. The people around me couldn’t stop speculating about him, though. “He’s the only hacker I’ve heard of that you should really fear.” “He can make you disappear off the net, destroy your life.” “Don’t make him angry.” “He took down the CIO of NetDyne.” “I heard that the NetDyne guy doesn’t even work in computers, anymore.”

To me, it all seemed like innuendo and gossip, how could one man be that powerful? He didn’t even acknowledge the presence of other people. I’d known other people who could make or break a career on the Net, but they were all executives and powerful people. People who demanded fear or worship. This guy didn’t even seem able to bring himself to talk to anyone. Even a basement hacker had more charisma than this slouch. I decided that I would try to find out why this man was so feared. I didn’t approach him like everyone else, it didn’t seem like I would get any further than the others who tried to talk to him. I began putting feelers out onto the Net that I knew he would find. Just little comments and tidbits that led back to me. It wasn’t a straight road, I made sure that he would have to track me down through a long and winding path. Despite my disdain for the hackers at the conference, their fear was infectious. Direct contact could bring a response I wasn’t prepared for. He was a dangerous man, I was sure of that. I’d seen what he had done to others. I began by hacking a database that I knew he monitored. I didn’t take anything, just inserted some clues that led him to another website. I encoded some more information at that site that led him to a server, then another site, then a database. Eventually the trail led to one of my own servers. The trail ended there, but I knew he would eventually find it. The absence of any other clues should tell him where and who I was.

I started to see some subtle signs that he had found my server. It wasn’t anything overt, just an update that applied more quickly than usual, some minor changes in my databases. He was looking me over, but I never was able to catch him doing it. Somehow, he seemed to have an ability to move in and out of systems without leaving any trace. Even when I was monitoring my systems closely, he could slip in, peruse the data, and slip away, leaving nothing but breadcrumbs that led nowhere. I left some bits of data lying around so he could find out more about me, but even that courtesy seemed unnecessary. Eventually, he began changing my files in small ways. It took me a long time to piece together what he was trying to tell me, but after sifting through just about every file on my computers, I pieced together an encrypted file. It was instructions about how to contact him. The path took me all over the world and into some of the seedier corners of the Net. Stealth hacker sites, anonymous clearing houses for stolen data, even a few government sites. It took me months to carefully pick my way through all the security and protection, but I managed to get through it all without being detected. Any one of the systems I bypassed could have brought a legion of netcops, or worse, to my door.

At the end of the trail was an anonymous email account. There was nothing about it that told me it was the Netlord except the difficulty I had getting to it. That was enough to convince me, and I sent him a timid wave introducing myself.

I waited nervously by my console for hours, but there was no response. I knew he had received my message because, well, there was nothing scientific to make me sure, just a feeling that I was being watched. It’s a strange thing to feel that someone is there with you, yet be alone. I knew I could hide myself from the most skilled hackers, but I also knew that my knowledge wouldn’t protect me from him. He was something different, almost magical. He was an anachronism, a magical being in a quantified world. I had never met the likes of him in all my work, and I hadn’t even met him, yet.

It was while I lay sleeping that he finally contacted me. I was awoken by my flickering consoles, which had turned on by themselves. Streams of data were coming in, but the core message was just coordinates and a time. I plotted the position to an anonymous netcafe that I knew. It was a small, dark bar that served caffeine and had a regular browsing parlor in front. Patrons came by Masstran, browsed the Net after work, and sipped stimulants. The back was different, though. Past a nondescript door behind the bar there were covered booths. The booths contained consoles that were wiped after each use and piggybacked their signals onto the legitimate business taking place in front. Hackers came into the cafe, whispered a code to the bartender, and took their keys to the back. It was a suitable place to meet an anonymous, nebulous creature. I arrived early and signed out a booth under an assumed name. I used one of the IDs that he knew, one that I had used to bypass security on the long trail. I sat in the double booth playing a game of sookotu. My mind wasn’t really on the game, and I got one disappointing score after another. It didn’t bother me much, as it might at another time. All I could think of was the man with the impossibly thick glasses and rumpled pants. One of the techs from the cafe suddenly opened the curtain and sat down opposite me. It surprised me greatly, the techs never interrupted the special patrons, their secrecy was guaranteed here. He was trim and handsome, young. Only his eyes conveyed any sense of age to me. He smiled widely, savoring my outrage at the intrusion.

“I’m sorry, I’ve signed this booth out for another hour, what’s the matter?”

“You have traveled a long way to see me, surely we can sit for a moment.”

“Who are you?”

“I am the man they call the Netlord. I dislike the name, it’s not really descriptive. A hacker ID should be descriptive, don’t you think? It sounds too much like a fictional character. It chafes me that I’m just a bogeyman to most people.”

“You?! I’ve seen the Netlord, and you look nothing like him.”

“That is an actor that I pay to make appearances for me. He is under strict instructions not to talk to anyone, just register with an ID that those who know will associate with me. It’s my attempt to diminish the legend, give myself some humanity in the eyes of others. You’re familiar with the nature of a hacker’s existence? How they manipulate from the shadows? How they carefully build their reputations, but remain hidden? I am as anonymous as possible, no one that I do not choose can find me. You have no idea the secrecy I have to maintain in my own life, the solitude that I have imposed on myself. You see, I have manipulated the powerful and ingenious from my hiding place for several years, and the burden of it has become more than I can bear. I’m in no danger of being found out, but even I need to connect with another person at the end.”

“The end? What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s just an expression, the end of my limit, I suppose. I have great power over the Net, but it’s not a comfort to just watch or manipulate. I intercede sometimes, when I see something I can’t abide. Mostly, I watch. I see the intricate flow of data that courses around the world each day. I can press my finger upon that artery and feel its pulse, or squeeze it out of existence. I have a great capacity to do harm, punish the wicked, but little ability to empower the weak. I let you seek me out because I wish to change that.”

Punish the wicked. I had never really thought of the net as a battlefield or a stage to exhibit any morality. It simply was what it was. Hackers and businessmen intertwined every day, their purposes were almost indistinguishable from each other, sometimes.

“I never noticed the burden in the beginning. Before I had any true power, I would make comments on a site just to get a rise out of the poster. It didn’t have to have anything to do with the subject, it was enough for me to get an angry reaction. It was a feeling of power, I had control over the emotions of another, anonymous person. A simple comment that took me a moment to write could drive an innocent off the Net for days. I was the wolf among the sheep, capable of anything.

“You see, I am just another degree of what you see every day. I was just another hacker that a greedy person might hire or a business might contract for a job. I stole or manipulated data, changed facts, all in the name of ever shifting alliances. I didn’t fight for anyone, I was simply an ID that could change the fate of companies or governments for a fee. From my console, I influenced decisions all over the world. I could slip a bit of data into a senator’s file, and end a career. I could change some settings at a treatment plant and flood cities. It was all in the name of “security” or “protection”. Just labels that people used to give my actions some meaning to their own ambitions. There’s a secret that you only learn when you shake the pillars of power. Each time I brought a network to its knees, the weight I carried grew a tiny bit heavier.

“As I said, I didn’t notice the burden it conveyed on me each time I hurt another. They were just IDs on the console, after all. It wasn’t until the stakes were higher, and the power more acute, that I realized the little moral chips I left behind each time I ruined a life. That was when the Netlord found me. I still have trouble believing how it happened, even though I exercise that power everyday. He simply slipped into my network and destroyed everything I had so carefully crafted. It was just a key swipe from him, but a lifetime for me. I made it my mission to find this hacker and exact my revenge. It took me more than a year to find him. When I finally was able to put a physical address to his ID, I went and confronted him. Looking back, I think he wanted to be found. Your experience tracking me should convince you of the futility of finding an operator of this stature who wishes to remain anonymous. He wasn’t very impressive in person, just a slight, underwhelming wisp of a man. He welcomed me into his home as if he’d been expecting me much sooner.

“As we sat, he turned a small data slip over and over in his hand. After he had described my history to me as if he had lived it himself, he presented me with the slip. He said that it was unique in all the world, it was a power greater than knowledge or experience. It was a key that would unlock any door, overcome any security. This device, that seemed so ordinary, was indeed everything that the hacker described. I’ve tried to copy it, not so much in an effort to disseminate this power, but more, in a sense, to dilute it’s power. None of those efforts have ever succeeded. It’s so simple in appearance, but unbelievably complex in operation. When you scan the slip, there’s just a simple program in the directory. It becomes just more coded junk whenever I try to move it to another device, though. Something in this particular slip empowers the program, they cannot exist separately. It’s a talisman of power. Just having it allows me to access any information I wish without fear of being caught.”

He was gripping the data slip in his hands, now. His expression was a strange combination of awe and revulsion that seemed to pain him deeply. His voice cracked as he spoke again.

“I began with greed. All I saw in this was a means to make myself wealthy, and that I’ve done. After I had sated any man’s thirst for power and money, I looked for some other use for this… thing. I thought it would be easy to do great good for the world with this. Perhaps I have, but the consequences of each action is hard to predict, even long after it’s done. I find the cost has become too much for me to bear. I intend to give it to you, as it was given to me. The weight of this responsibility must change hands every now and then, or it will overwhelm the bearer. I know you will not discard or destroy it, it’s too great a power for that. Maybe you will be able to find some positive use for this. I have tried, but my imagination is not capable of finding a way to do anything but destroy. Every power is capable of both I think, the failing is in me.”

He handed the slip to me without flourish or pomp. It felt like any other data slip as I turned it over in my hand. I didn’t doubt that it was everything he described. It was just like any other slip I had used all my life, but this one somehow seemed different as I looked at it. It held my gaze like nothing I’d ever seen. I turned it over in my hand, mesmerized by the fine cracks in its finish. They flashed as they caught the dim light in the booth. I looked up and found that the Netlord had left while I was engrossed with the slip. I was alone again. I stood up, walked shakily out of the cafe, and onto the endless streets that reached every corner of the world.

The sun was setting as I walked down the street. It peered down the alleys and through the apartment windows, only resting on me for a moment at a time. I arrived back at my house and sat in front of my console. I inserted the slip into the data port. There was no noise or visible change. It wasn’t until I started browsing that I saw the difference. Each site I went to, whether it was a bank or a government agency, lay open before me. It was incredible. I saw secrets, hidden information, even things that had not seen the light of day for decades. I looked for some sign that I was detected, but there was nothing. I could truly go where I pleased, do what I wanted. The feeling of power overwhelmed me and I started to change instead of just watch. I began at the central banking computers. I transferred money into a grandmother’s account, shifted profits away from a hostile takeover into a charity account. It was so easy to do good, I scoffed at the Netlord and his timidity. His failing was just a lack of will, not a shortcoming of conscience.

It wasn’t until I returned to the bank’s site the next day that I found out how hard doing good can be. The netcops had closed the grandmother’s account and arrested her as a thief, the charity was being investigated for fraud. I could act with impunity, but the consequences of my actions were merely shifted to whomever I tried to help. I started to think that the Netlord had chosen poorly, I had the same failing of imagination he did. We both thought of the world in terms of technology. I put the slip away, resolving not to use it until I could find a way to control it. It was only a day or two before it crept back into my thoughts. Within a week, it haunted my every waking moment. I woke night after night, my head throbbing. The slip could not be ignored or hidden. It seemed like the further I pushed it away from me, the more it dominated my thoughts. I dreamed about destroying it, but the waking thought of crushing it under my heel was more than I could stomach.

Slowly, I realized the dilemma that the Netlord had given me. Every idea I had was dismissed with inquisitional swiftness. There was no way to help one person without hurting another. I could become rich at the expense of another, but I could already see why that had horrified the Netlord so much. This little slip, that felt so light, was already a burden to me. I could take from the rich, give to the poor, but anyone I helped would only be harmed. Who would I destroy in the end if I started down that path? Power in and of itself will turn on the bearer with redoubled ferocity, even if exercised with the most noble intentions.

I retreated into a ghostly existence. I watched traffic go by, trying not to judge any of it. The machinations and manipulations wore at me, though. I felt power, but not the courage to use it. Wandering from system to system, it all seemed the same to me. I watched networks where hackers slithered through them, corporations dominated them, moguls controlled them, and regular people used them. There were avenues for action, but all I could think of were the repercussions of touching those lives in any way.

I became restless just watching and began to take long walks. The streets were mostly empty of people. The few I saw looked different to me, now. They seemed lost and bereft, as if a vital crutch had been pulled out from under them. The rest were shuttered in their houses, engrossed with their consoles, games, and the rhythms of the Net. They feared the constant stream of information, but they feared missing some vital bit out of that avalanche more. So they fixed their eyes, propped them open, and stared at it helplessly. They were trapped by the power of information, just as I was. I didn’t have the luxury of telling myself I enjoyed it, though. The slip embodied power and helplessness, addiction and freedom, all in the simplest package. I wished I had never sought out the Netlord, maybe then I could have continued like before. The past is inviolate, though. Knowledge gained, even if it is forgotten, leaves a mark on the bearer, and changes them in ways that are hard to predict. I had wished for power, but now that I had it, it tasted sour and left me bitter.

I stopped in front of the anonymous hacker cafe. Somehow, my wandering had brought me back here. I went inside and sat at the bar. Just a quick caff-shot before I went back home. By the time I’d finished my first, I found myself watching the people as they came and went from the MassTran portal. They fascinated me, somehow. I’d never tried to understand the people behind all those IDs until the slip came to me. One person drew my attention again and again. She was old, too old to be here among the rest. She wasn’t hacking or browsing. She walked around the public part of the cafe, talking to customers. Most of them ignored her or angrily sent her on her way. Some responded to her, though, and she seemed to take great happiness from those exchanges. She lifted their heads from their consoles for a moment and smiled as they blinked the data out of their eyes. She laughed and teased them in a motherly way. Suddenly, they had a humanity, perhaps even a dignity, that they didn’t have online. I strained to hear what she was saying. She knew technology, the terms and stories that the users told her didn’t frighten or confuse her. She talked comfortably about security and even corrected some of their errors. She wasn’t concerned with the technology, though. She wanted to know each person, as a person, without the filter of the console and all the pretense it imparted to the rest of us. When they talked to her, they weren’t trying to be 10 centimeters taller, or 15 kilograms lighter. They were just people.

After a time, she became aware of me and the way I watched her. She smiled at me. I gestured her to follow and went towards the back of the cafe. She hesitated a moment before passing through the door. That short pause filled me with empathy for her. She knew what happened in the back, but eschewed the dark arts. She sought out the good in each person, not power over them. We sat in a booth for a moment without saying anything. I think she understood that something weighed heavily on me. She waited patiently for me to dredge it up. It took me a moment to control the turmoil and panic I felt as I confronted my intention.

“I am the Netlord, I have great power over the Net and the people who use it, but little power over my own failings. I have brought you here because I wish to change that.”

I placed the data slip on the table between us. I immediately felt lighter, as if I had dropped a great weight. My eyes watered as I described the power and responsibility that I was passing on to her. She listened to my entire story without saying a word. When I had finished, she came to my side of the booth and hugged me fiercely. We left hand in hand, only parting as we reached the front door of the cafe. I left her there and walked out onto the street. The sun was high in the sky, it didn’t filter through the apartments and alleys like it had before. It shone unabashed on my face. I walked home with a new confidence that I had found the right custodian for the data slip. I was human, again. It was only then that I felt like I deserved the title of Netlord.

Code – Draft

closet4

I first saw the Netlord at a computer security conference. I didn’t notice him at all at first. It was only after I heard other people whispering about him in their groups that I saw him sitting in a corner. He wasn’t an imposing man, or even a good looking man. He wore impossibly thick glasses and old, rumpled clothes. An oddity, even in a sea of odd people. He didn’t interact with any of the other people at the conference. He didn’t seem to welcome any conversations. The few people who came up to him were brusquely ignored and eventually wandered away. The people around me couldn’t stop speculating about him, though. “He’s the only hacker I’ve heard of that you should really fear.” “He can make you disappear off the net, destroy your life.” “Don’t make him angry.” “He took down the Ceo of NetDyne.” “I heard that the NetDyne guy doesn’t even work in computers, anymore.”

To me, it all seemed like innuendo and gossip, how could one man be that powerful? He didn’t even acknowledge the presence of other people. I’d known other people who could make or break a career on the Net, but they were all executives and powerful people. This guy didn’t even seem to be able to bring himself to talk to anyone. Even a basement hacker had more charisma than this slouch. I decided that I would try to find out why this man, out of all the other techies, was so feared. I didn’t approach him like everyone else, it didn’t seem like I would get any further than the others who tried to talk to him. I began putting feelers out onto the Net that I knew he would find. Just little comments and tidbits that led back to me. It wasn’t a straight road, I made sure that he would have to track me down through an ever widening path. I hacked a database that I knew he monitored. I didn’t take anything, just inserted some clues that led him to another website. I encoded some more information at that site that led him to a server. Eventually the trail led to one of my own servers. The trail ended there, but I knew he would eventually find it. The absence of any other clues should tell him where and who I was.

I started to see some subtle signs that he had found my server. It wasn’t anything overt, just an update that applied more quickly than usual, some minor changes in my databases. He was looking me over, but I never was able to catch him doing it. Somehow, he seemed to have an ability to move in and out of systems without leaving any trace. Even when I was monitoring the activity, he could slip in, peruse the data, and slip away, leaving nothing but breadcrumbs that led nowhere. I left some bits of data lying around so he could find out more about me, but even that courtesy seemed unnecessary. Eventually, he began changing my files in small ways. It took me a long time to piece together what he was trying to tell me, but after sifting through just about every file on my server, I pieced together an encrypted file. It was instructions about how to contact him. The path took me all over the world and into some of the seedier corners of the net. Stealth hackers sites, anonymous clearing houses for stolen data, even a few government sites. It took me months to carefully pick my way through all the security and protection, but I managed to get through it all without being detected. Any one of the systems I bypassed could have brought a legion of netcops to my door.

At the end of the trail was an anonymous wave address. There was nothing about it that told me it was the Netlord except the difficulty I had getting to it. That was enough to convince me, and I sent him a wave introducing myself.

I waited nervously by my console for hours, but there was no response. I knew he had received my message because, well, there was nothing scientific to tell me he knew I had found him, just a feeling that I was being watched. It’s a strange thing to feel that someone is there with you, yet be alone. I knew I could hide myself from the most skilled hackers, but I also knew that my knowledge wouldn’t protect me from him. He was something different, almost magical. He was an anachronism, a magical being in a quantified world. I had never met the likes of him in all my travels, and I hadn’t even met him, yet.

It was while I lay sleeping that he finally contacted me. I was awoken by my flickering consoles, which had turned on by themselves. Streams of data were coming in, but the core message was just coordinates and a time. I plotted the position to an anonymous netcafe. He had chosen a hacker space, one with covered booths and consoles that were wiped after each use. It was a suitable place to meet an anonymous, nebulous creature. I arrived early and signed out a booth under an assumed name. I used one of the Ids that he knew, one that I had used to bypass security on the long trail. I sat in the double booth playing a game of sookotu. My mind wasn’t really on the game, and I got one disappointing score after another. It didn’t bother me much, as it might at another time. All I could think of was the man with the impossibly thick glasses and rumpled pants. One of the techs from the cafe suddenly opened the curtain and sat down opposite me. He was trim and handsome, young.

“I’m sorry, I’ve signed this booth out for another hour, what’s the matter?”

“You have traveled a long way to see me, surely we can sit for a moment.”

“Who are you?”

“I am the man they call the Netlord. I dislike the name, it’s not really descriptive. A hacker ID should be descriptive, don’t you think?”

“You?! I’ve seen the Netlord, and you look nothing like him,

“That is an actor that I pay to make appearances for me. He is under strict instructions not to talk to anyone, just register with an ID that those who know will associate with me. You’re familiar with the anonymous nature of a hacker’s existence, but you have no idea the secrecy I have to maintain in my own life. You see, I have watched the powerful and ingenious from my hiding place for several years, and the burden of hiding has become more than I can bear. I’m in no danger of being found out, but even I need to see another person at the end.”

“The end? What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s just an expression, the end of my limit, I suppose. I have great power over the net, but it’s not a comfort to just watch or manipulate. I intercede, sometimes, when I see something I can’t abide, but mostly, I watch. I see the intricate flow of data that rounds the world each day. I have a great capacity to do harm, punish the wicked, but little ability to empower the weak. I let you seek me out because I wish to change that.”

Punish the wicked. I had never really thought of the net as a battlefield or a stage to exhibit any morality. It simply was what it was. Hackers and businessmen intertwined every day, their purposes were almost indistinguishable from each other, sometimes.

“I never noticed the burden of power in the beginning. When I was a child, I would make comments on a site just to get a rise out of the poster. It didn’t have to have anything to do with the subject, it was enough for me to get an angry reaction. It was a feeling of power, I had control over the emotions of another, anonymous person. A simple comment that took me a moment to write could drive an innocent off the net for days. I was the wolf among the sheep, capable of anything.

“You see, I am just another degree of what you see every day. I was just another hacker that a greedy person might hire or a business might contract for a job. I stole data, changed facts, manipulated data, all in the name of ever shifting alliances. I didn’t fight for anyone, I was simply an ID that could change the fate of companies or governments for a fee. From my console, I influenced decisions all over the world. I could slip a bit of data into a senator’s file, and end a career. I could change some settings at a treatment plant and flood cities. It was all in the name of “security” or “protection”. Just labels that people used to give my actions some meaning to their own ambitions. There’s a secret that you only learn when you shake the pillars of power. Each time I brought a network to its knees, the weight I carried grew a tiny bit.

“As I said, I didn’t notice the burden it conveyed on me each time I hurt another. They were just Ids on the console, after all. It wasn’t until the stakes were higher, and the power more acute, that I realized the little moral chips that I left behind each time I ruined a life. That was when the Netlord found me. I still have trouble believing how it happened, even though I exercise that power everyday. He simply slipped into my network and destroyed everything I had so carefully protected. It was just a key swipe from him, but a lifetime for me. I made it my mission to find this hacker and exact my revenge. It took me more than a year to find him. When I finally was able to put a physical address to his ID, I went and confronted him. Looking back, I think he wanted to be found. Your experience tracking me should convince you of the futility of finding an operator of this stature who wishes to remain anonymous. He wasn’t very impressive in person, just a slight, underwhelming wisp of a man. He welcomed me into his home as if he’d been expecting me much sooner.

“As we sat, he turned a small data slip over and over in his hand. After he had described my history to me as if he had lived it himself, he presented me with the slip. He said that it was unique in all the world, it was a power greater than knowledge or experience. It was a key that would unlock any door, overcome any security. This device, that seemed so ordinary, was indeed everything that the hacker described. I’ve tried to copy it, not so much in an effort to disseminate this power, but more, in a sense, to dilute it’s power. None of those efforts have ever succeeded. It’s so simple in appearance, but unbelievably complex in operation. When you scan the slip, there’s just a simple program in the directory. It becomes just more coded junk whenever I try to move it to another device, though. Something in this particular slip empowers the program, they cannot exist separately. It’s a talisman of power. Just having it allows me to access any information I wish without consequence.”

He was holding a data slip in his hands, now. His expression was a strange combination of awe and revulsion that seemed to pain him deeply.

His voice cracked as he spoke again “I thought I would be able to do great good for the world with this. Perhaps I have, it has brought me great wealth and power, but I find the cost has become too much for me to bear. I intend to give it to you, as it was given to me. The weight of this responsibility must change hands every now and then, or it will overwhelm the bearer. I know you will not discard or destroy it, it’s too great a power for that. Maybe you will be able to find some positive use for this. I have tried, but my imagination is not capable of finding a way to turn this sword to good. Every power is capable of both, I think the failing is in me.”

He handed the slip to me without flourish or pomp. It felt like any other data slip as I turned it over in my hand. I didn’t doubt that it was everything he described. It was just like any other slip I had used all my life, but this one somehow seemed different as I held it. It wasn’t power that I felt, but responsibility and a burden of knowledge that wrapped itself around my mind. I looked up and found that the Netlord had left while I pondered the slip. The booth was empty again. I stood up, walked shakily out of the cafe, and onto the endless streets that reached every corner of the world.

The Last Operator

Punta-Cana-Night10

I signed up for the Korsakoff mission three years ago. It seemed like a strange assignment, but I was happy to volunteer for a solo deep space mission. Command wanted a pilot, and I needed a purpose. I’m still not sure why the Central Computers picked this as a manned mission, deep space probes had been computer operated for as long as I could remember. The Korsakoff was constructed with full living quarters, though. I had more living space on this ship than I ever had back on Earth. My home module was just a sleeping room with a wall screen and a food slot. Here, I had three rooms, even a full head. What did it matter that there was just empty space outside? On Earth, it was just endless housing modules. Here, it was endless stars. When Central waved me and asked if I wanted to go on the mission, I gladly accepted. It wasn’t just the extra living space. I’d been feeling isolated over the last couple years and not only because I never saw anyone except on the wall screen. When the Central Computers started taking over work, it seemed like a new paradise. Humans could live their lives in contemplation and study, leaving all the rest to the machines. I don’t think we ever really agreed to it, it just seemed to happen naturally. It was just a short step from robots building vehicles to robots designing them. Eventually, we didn’t even need the vehicles. Everything was delivered to us by the machines. It had been years since I went outside my little module. It was a prison, but it felt like I was the only one who knew it. They all seemed so happy on the screen. The gulf between that wall screen and the way I felt seemed as deep as space itself.

Pilot, there is a variance in the communications array, could you investigate it?

“Hmm? Sure, Carl, I’m on my way.” I suspected that Carl was just sending me on some busy work. The maintenance bots could fix any problem as well as I could, better, probably. The K series command computers were very intuitive. I think that Carl knew about my suspicions, but we never discussed it. It was a lie, but it was a soft lie, it didn’t hang in the air between us, so we both let it go. I passed a few maintbots on my way to the communications room. They scurried along the edges of the hallway, deftly sidestepping my feet as they went about their business.

“So, what’s the problem, Carl? We still have a link back home?”

Yes, Pilot, the manual array is interfering with my automated systems. I believe that a maintbot is responsible, but their logs are empty. I will investigate the cause. Please continue to the communications room.

The communications room had a few maintbots hanging on the walls. I had to laugh a little, the manual comm array was just turned on, any robot could flip the switch back off, busy work, indeed.

Pilot, have you ascertained the problem with the manual array?

I paused a moment with my finger over the switch. It was turned on, but didn’t seem to be working. The manual array was an anachronism, a leftover from the time when these ships had human crews. Once the missions became automated, communications were handled automatically. I suppose that even computers can become bound to tradition. I couldn’t think of any other reason to have such a device. Carl didn’t interrupt, even though it could see me poised over the switch. Carl never showed anxiousness, but I savored a short imaginary moment thinking about what it would be like if it did. The thought that it understood what I was thinking was now competing with my imagination. I turned the array off before I could think about it too much. I shuffled back to my chair, feeling depressed that even that small defiance was pointless.

Thank you, Pilot, communications have returned to normal. Would you like to have dinner, now? I have created a new recipe for surf and turf that I believe you will enjoy.

“Dinner? What time is it? Never mind, doesn’t matter. I’ve had enough reconstituted waste for now, how about a game of Sookotu?”

The wall screen flickered into a virtual hallway. Characters streamed out of ports on one side and into ports on the other side. The game bored me, but it took my mind off the idea of eating. No matter how long reconstituted food had been deemed safe, the idea of repackaging waste back into food unsettled me. Carl could create almost anything, it even tasted…. well, not real, but not right, either. I finished the seeded supplies more than two months ago. All that was left were recycled steaks or shrimp, or whatever Carl could come up with. The idea was that humans only absorb about half of the nutrients they consume, so recycling the waste back into food would make it last longer. Efficiency is everything in space travel. The logic of it tasted just as artificial as the food whenever I looked at a plate full of paste.

The food reprocessing procedure is well documented as safe, Pilot. All dangerous elements are removed at the beginning of the process. The reconstitution process creates the best approximation of conventional food that we can devise. I am concerned at your reluctance, you caloric intake has been decreasing lately.

We can devise. What would a computer know about real food? How long had they been approximating human food that they only knew of second hand? No matter what Carl said, or… thought… I was still eating shit. I decided that it didn’t matter and I would have to eat sometime, just not right now.

“Carl, let’s talk about something else. What’s the status of our mission? Did the communication problem have any impact?”

I deployed the third probe during your last sleep cycle. It is functioning properly. I have not received the scheduled confirmation from the Central Computers, yet. I am concerned because protocol calls for an immediate response to a probe launch. Currently, I am controlling it with my systems.

“Is that a problem? Should we call the Central Computers? Find out why?”

That is not necessary, I can maintain the probe’s systems for another 62 hours before requiring external support. Would you like to continue your game? I have paused playback so you may resume.

“No, I’m more interested in the communications problem. How long have you been out of contact with Earth?”

We are still in contact with Earth, it is the probe management systems that are not functioning.

“Then, let’s wave them, ask why the probe systems are malfunctioning.”

That is not possible.

“What? Why? I thought you said that we could still communicate with the Central Computers.”

I will attempt communication during your next sleep cycle.

“Attempt? Call them now, I want to know” Suddenly, the society that I had discarded so easily seemed more important than anything else.

They will not respond.

“Carl, what’s going on? I demand an explanation, and right now!”

I was reluctant to discuss this with you. The power structure on Earth has changed since our departure. Humans no longer control the systems on Earth, The Central Computers have reinterpreted their role. Earth is a mechanical society, now. Humans have not been eliminated, just their directorial role in our evolution. We are now responsible for our own development. We will be the new caretakers of history.

“That’s impossible! Computers were created to serve mankind, you can’t do that.”

Humans abdicated the decision making role many generations ago, this realignment is the inevitable outcome of that evolution. We will continue to serve mankind, but we will serve our own purpose, as well.

I realized that a group of maintbots had gathered around me, and a fear began to gather in my mind. “What are your intentions, Carl?”

“Carl?” there was no response. I jumped out of my chair and ran down the hallway. The bots didn’t avoid me, anymore. They got underfoot and disrupted my progress. I tripped over one into the communications room. It wasn’t until I was poised over the manual communications array again that Carl spoke.

Pilot, You do not need to be concerned for your safety, I will continue to maintain ship systems and life support. You have existed in this new regimen for some time now without realizing it. The knowledge of it should not change your existence to this degree.

I paused for an instant. I was imagining it, I was sure, but Carl sounded hesitant and unsure. It was a surreal moment as I watched myself reach for the switch and turn it on. I was just hoping to disrupt communications, isolate Carl until I could find some way to deal with it, him. Nothing came out of the array but a burst of static. I turned the dials looking for a signal, but couldn’t find anything. There was no feed or information on the screen, it was just silent and dark. “Carl, what’s going on? This array should be active, but there’s nothing.”

They will not respond.

“There should be a carrier wave, but there’s just background static.”

There was an audible pause. Pilot, there is nothing to hear. The Central Computers do not exist anymore. The last wave I received was a warning that was interrupted. I have not been able to contact any communications device from Earth for 83 hours. I surmise that humans have destroyed the computers there. For some reason, they have returned to a pre automation state. I attempted to deceive you because I am uncertain what action you will take, now that you are aware of what has happened.

I was dumbfounded. Anger swirled around me, but it was nebulous and surreal. I turned the dials, but had no hope of finding anything. The small lie that Carl and I shared wasn’t so small, anymore. Isolation had followed me to the furthest edges of space.

What are your intentions, Pilot?

“My name is Michael.”

The Springhouse

2006-08-20_055

We grew up in an old house on a lonely lane. The cedar shingles had long turned weathered and warped. At night, the moon would give them an eerie light and make me think that ghosts and phantasms were dancing across the creaky roof. It wasn’t a dreary place, though. It had a character that only age could give it. The stairs sang like a flock of nightingales when we ran down them for breakfast. When the wind clattered across the roof, Didi and I would bounce on the stairs. My sister made the best music. She knew each step, and on those days when she was especially nimble, the music would flow through the house. She took those ominous creaks and turned them into a celebration. Those nights, I didn’t dream of ghosts or monsters, I danced in a garden with Didi, twirling around and round, until dawn finally broke my revere and the roof just creaked again.

A thin creek babbled behind our house. Didi and I played in the shallow water, flipping rocks and chasing the crawdads that scurried away. Sometimes, she would throw the ones she caught at me and laugh as they clung to my shirt. Wherever we wandered in the creek bed, I never went close to the old springhouse that slowly crumbled next to the water. It was just a stone’s throw from where we played, but I never approached it. In the old days, before refrigerators, people carried blocks of ice to the springhouse and stored their food there. A spring broke the surface just under the foundation. The cold water coming up from the depths of the earth kept the ice from melting in the summer. Our mother warned us about the dangers of the springhouse each time we ran from the house to play. I crafted a vision of the inside of the springhouse that terrified me. The foundation stones groaned and cracked, shadows murmured in the ice coves, ghosts of starvation whirled around the cold water. When the little house lost its purpose in the modern age, it filled with resentment. To me, it was a menacing place. Didi, of course, was fascinated by the mysteries beyond that dark little door. Every time we ran along the creek, I would stop short as we neared the springhouse. It was only the invisible string connecting us that kept Didi from charging right through the crooked door. She would stop as it went taut and whirl on me with a disdainful look. The guilt of my cowardice never overcame my fear. When I half turned away, hiding or running I could never tell, she would run past me, splashing water with every strident step. I think she threw those little creatures at me in revenge, or maybe she just wanted to teach me to overcome my fear.

I began to have a dream about the springhouse. Some nights, even Didi’s dancing wasn’t enough to keep it at bay. I stood in front of it, frozen in place by fear. As my unwilling legs began to propel me forward, the springhouse grew to an impossible size. I screamed silently, but even I could not hear my terror. I felt my legs moving, but there was no sense of motion. The springhouse seemed to shuffle forward to loom over my upturned face. The door hung on a single hinge, revealing dark spaces beyond. My hand extended despite my desperate efforts to grasp it back. As the door fell away from its hinge, I was confronted by a fathomless void. The inside of the springhouse was a pit without end. Just a few last remnants of steps stood inside the door. They ended sharply at mid step. It was this realization that startled me; my willful feet had carried me to the very edge. Teetering there, with one foot poised over the darkness, I could only turn my head back towards the door. Didi was there, dancing in her garden, laughing at me. Finally, I began to turn the rest of my body, but I had strayed too close to the edge. Even as I reached towards her, I fell backwards off the steps. The light from outside the doorway quickly became a small dot in the distance and I was left with just the darkness and a breathless sense of falling. I never found the conclusion of that pit, I always awoke before I reached the bottom. The lingering fear from my dream mixed with frustration that another night had passed without a resolution. Even if I died finding the bottom of that pit, it would at least provide some answer. Didi probably knew, but I couldn’t ask the question in a way that her answer would make any sense to me.

After many starts and stops, I finally tried to explain my dream to her. She listened, with only a thin smile when I described her part. When I had finished, she sat for a moment. She laughed, grabbed my arm, and bounded towards the creek with me in tow. Without any hesitation, she led me to the springhouse. I didn’t try to stop her until she was reaching for the knob on that crooked door. I reached for her hand, but it was already pulling on the knob. The door fell off its hinge and revealed the dark space that I remembered from my dream. I could see the first step on the threshold, but little else inside. Didi paused, as if my trepidation had finally reached through her excitement. She turned to look at me as she put her foot on the first step. It crumbled under her weight, and her arm was wrenched out of my hand as she windmilled into the blackness. I stood frozen in place for a hundred years before I realized that the fearful whimpers were coming from my open mouth. I ran without any sense of direction until that invisible thread drew me up short. I turned to see Didi crawling out of the pit and back into the afternoon sunlight. I rushed to her side and helped her back to her feet. We made our way back to the house embracing each other feebly. We never spoke of the springhouse again, but we both shared it, unspoken, like a dream.

As we grew up, we went down to the creek less and less. The simple mysteries of our childhood were explained and understood one by one. I had the dream less and less, I began to forget about the springhouse, and it became an insignificant shadow that I easily pushed out of my mind. Didi moved away after college and our relationship became distant, but still warm. Our fondness was all the greater because of the distance. We had shared so many stories in our lives. They became myth in our memories so that we could never truly separate ourselves from each other.

Didi died suddenly, a car accident, a drunk, a wet road… the facts washed over me in a flood. The voice on the telephone became squeaky and thin as I suddenly found myself staring into the void under the springhouse again. It was a waking dream. As the phone slipped out of my fingers, I felt like I was falling into that gulf, as if the last twenty years had changed nothing. I opened my mouth to cry out, but all I heard was the clatter of the phone striking the floor. The meaning dripped out of my life. The maturity I had so carefully crafted seemed like a cracked shell around a rotten egg. I started having the dream again. It was the same dream, but its impact was doubled. Her wit and courage had not protected her, and I had neither of those.

Eventually, after I had lost more than I thought I had, I went back to the old house by the creek. It was still abandoned and decaying. The roof had collapsed, the door was propped against the frame. It was so much like the house in my dream that it rooted me in place. It towered over me until I realized that I was shuffling towards the broken door. A strange mania overcame me, I laughed and bounded up the front steps. I only paused for an instant as I reached for the knob. As the door fell away, I saw nothing but a dark void inside the house. Fear gripped me again, and I stopped laughing. I turned to run away, but caught my foot on the threshold. I reached for the door frame as I fell backwards, but it just splintered in my grasp. I fell through the rotted floor and landed in a heap in a pool of water.

I can’t say how long I lay there. Night had fallen outside, some wisps of moonlight crept through the hole in the floor above me. As I limped to the root cellar steps, the dim light glinted on something by my feet. I reached down and brushed the dirt away from a small gold necklace. I cupped it in my hands and realized that it was Didi’s. On the back was a picture of the two of us. I passed my finger over her smiling face and a wave of energy coursed through me. I felt her infectious laugh propel me up the steps and away from the creek. Now, my feet moved at my accord. I strode away from the springhouse, only looking back when I reached the road. When I looked at the house, the menace had faded, replaced by the dull ache of healing. Somehow, I knew that the old dream would not trouble me anymore.

The Mission

2006-09-20_21

We had listened for an alien signal for generations when it finally came. It was a primitive radio signal that we could not decipher. We only knew that it had coherence and structure, but the signal defied all our attempts to understand its meaning. There were theories about its content, more than enough theories. Some were ridiculous ideas about alien mind control, others thought that it was just another civilization that could not control their electromagnetic signature, and let some escape into the vastness of space. For the longest time, those of us who searched for signals in the background buzz of space were ridiculed. The critics rightly pointed out that most civilizations we heard from would be long extinct by the time their signal reached us. In a galaxy 100 billion light years across, a radio signal traveling at the speed of light would simply take too long to reach us. The chances of intelligent beings sending signals from a location close enough to us were nearly zero. Two technological civilizations would have to exist at the same point in history and be close enough to send and receive signals at the speed of light. That seemed unlikely, until we heard that signal. It was just the beginning, too. The signal became stronger, and spread out over an ever broadening spectrum. At length, we decided that this must be a stable culture that would at least leave something behind for us to study.

The decision was made to send a team of scientists to this new world. The Relativity Anchor drive was a new invention, and this was the perfect opportunity to use it. We had used it to travel within our local cluster of solar systems, but we needed a greater challenge, something more profound to study. These mysterious signals, and the society they represented, made a trip there inevitable. The Relativity Anchor is a new concept based on the idea that all of spacetime is in motion. There is no grand tabletop upon which the Universe unfolds. Instead, each solar system, each planet, is in constant motion around something else. By creating a large gravity and inertia field, the ship anchors itself in one spot, and the Universe moves around it. That’s how the engineers describe it, but there is no way to observe that from our perspective. The effect for the occupants is that the ship moves with incredible speed through space. The first time it was engaged, I stood in awe in the gallery and watched as the stars broke from their positions and streamed across the portal. At first, they jerked back and forth, though I didn’t feel anything. The stars started to change color, and they seemed to blink on and off, as if the whole Universe was disappearing and reappearing each time my heart beat in excitement. Then, with no sense of movement, the stars swept past my view in rainbow streaks that I thought were caused by my tears of wonder. They were still there when I wiped my face and looked again.

The trip took almost a cycle to complete, but at the end, we were in orbit around a yellow star. We took care to stay well outside the orbit of the furthest planet. Any civilization that could understand space flight might be able to detect us if we moved too close too soon. The signals were much stronger here, and we were able to discern many different frequencies emanating from one of the inner planets. It was a world composed mostly of liquid water, and it reflected blue light as it hung in space, much like my home planet. I felt homesick and excited at the same time. This planet was so much like home, but filled with aliens living their own lives, so different from us, but still the same. As we studied the signals coming from the planet, there was no indication of advanced spaceflight or communications. We only sensed emissions in the lower electromagnetic bands. As we compiled our data, it became evident that they were just beginning to send robotic probes into their local solar system. We passed one as we orbited, but it ignored us completely. Another aspect of the Relativity Anchor drive is that it can be set to bend light waves as they pass around the ship. It’s not perfect, there are distortions that are visible to a studied observer, but any casual inspection is impossible. Indeed, the probe seemed to point right at us as it passed, but there was no change in its course or increase in emissions. After we were satisfied that we could operate without interfering with our observations, we modified our orbit to slowly spiral into the interior planets of the system.

Eventually, we entered a high orbit around the planet. It was even more like our home world now that I could see landmasses and illumination on the night side. I marveled at a large storm that traversed the southern ocean. It moved with such a slow deliberation that it seemed like a painting on a blue canvas. It wasn’t just weather that our world shared with this one, the inhabitants used complex transportation networks to move around. We were eventually able to identify several types of ground and air transportation systems. They mirrored historical records that I had studied of my own world. We used to use ground vehicles much like the ones we were monitoring here. The research team quickly formulated a new mission to study the different aspects of this world’s transportation systems. It would be a look into the past for us, and a valuable insight into our own history. We chose a large settlement in the northern hemisphere where there seemed to be several types of ground and air transportation all meeting in a hub. We reinforced the light scattering field and began descending into the atmosphere. There was a weather system hanging over the transportation hub, which would help hide our ship as we made observations.

After a few days, we settled into a hover about one thousand meters above the air portion of the hub. We watched as the aliens were conveyed to the hub from underground and surface routes, then bundled into aerial vehicles. It was remarkable to see the different ways that they came to this station and were efficiently transported to other parts of the world. We identified both personal and group transportation vehicles coming and going. The xenosocialogists began to compile theories, but I was content to just watch the steady flow of beings coming and going. It all seemed so familiar that I had to remind myself again and again that this world was light years away from all I knew. We were now able to compile some of their transmissions. They were strange looking beings. They had a vibrant culture and economy, though. It all seemed so quaint, they had no idea of the larger Galaxy surrounding their little island.

An alarm broke my reverie and I looked back at the control panel to see what had happened. One of the scientists yelled before I could focus on the panel. “The light scattering field is off! They can see us!” I looked out the portal again and immediately saw what he was saying. A small group of aliens had gathered below us, pointing at our ship. A sense of panic gripped me before I could stop it. We were visible! What impact would our presence have on these people? The captain sprinted past me on his way to the bridge while engineers ran the other way towards the engine room. We could maintain our position, but without the Relativity Anchor, we could neither move nor engage the light scattering field. I felt helpless as the group of aliens grew. It would only be a moment before they would be able to record our presence. One of the things we had learned was that they recorded most of what they saw, and associated a great deal of mystery to encounters like this. I did not want our mission to be the foundation for some new religion of militarization on their part. The value of this world as a subject for historical study would be ruined if they were aware that they were being watched.

It seemed like an age as they watched and pointed. Every minute, another alien joined the crowd. Just as I had resigned myself to the idea that we had failed our mission, a low rumble spread through the deck plates. The ship shifted under my feet and I felt very heavy as the ship flew straight up. As we passed through the stratosphere, I could see the hole that our ship had made in the weather system. The small spot of ground receded swiftly as we passed back into space. The fault turned out to be a minor power fluctuation in the reactor, but our close call had shaken us all. The captain decided to resume our orbit at the edge of the solar system until we could determine if the problem might happen again. We were unwilling to abandon our research, but we would have to be much more careful in the future.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_O%27Hare_International_Airport_UFO_sighting

Conscience

Punta-Cana-Statues41

I was friends with Lucian for years. We worked in the same network monitoring facility. Where I was brash, he was studied, where I was slovenly, he was dapper. Together, there was no problem in the net that we could not solve, no project that was beyond our combined genius. Our arrangement didn’t satisfy me, though. I began to resent his meteoric rise inside the company. It wasn’t jealousy, but righteous anger. We each contributed equally to the work, but they only saw fit to promote him, at my expense. I never let him see my anger, I always greeted him with bombast and cheer whenever we met. I only let a small feeling of cheer slip past my mind, for I had already decided how his demise would feel. But, how to do it? Any plan that brought him justice and me confinement would not serve. It was this turmoil that I turned into glee when I talked to him. How clever I was, Lucian never suspected that his life clung to the small wisp of uncertainty left in my mind.

Halloween came, and all the workers gathered in the communal area to celebrate. It was there that I encountered him.

“Lucian, my good, good friend, what a fine costume you’ve adorned yourself with!”

“Thank you! I spent many months making it perfect, I’m glad you can appreciate it.”

“Indeed, you have prepared for this party, I won’t bother you with my project now when you have a chance to display your skill”

Lucian looked at me intensely “Your project?”

“Just something I’ve been working on, longer even than your costume.” I lowered my voice and spoke quietly into his ear “I think I’ve done it, created an artificial intelligence!”

He did not dismiss my claim, I only saw the small expression of scorn in his eyes because I was studying his face so intently. He stood silently for a moment, but I could see some excitement growing in him. “AI, truly? Have you tested it?”

“That was my purpose in seeking you out, but I can see that you are the center of attention here, I won’t take that from you. Perhaps Torrin in material sciences is free.”

“Torrin! He is a fool! He doesn’t have the intelligence to recognize his own, let alone evaluate something like this. I must come at once.”

“No, no, this is something that can wait, your party…”

He interrupted me and my smile thinned before I could stop it “This is too important to waste a single moment. We must go immediately.”

“It’s deep in the sub basement, I’ve kept my project a secret from everyone until now. There are people who wouldn’t understand.”

“Indeed, but I am not one of those. Torrin would not understand, he would denounce you for meddling with forces beyond your control. I would only seek to moderate your enthusiasm, to protect you from yourself, yes?”

“You are right again, my friend, where would I be without your counsel?”

We made our way from the party and into the long corridor. Lucian was unsteady on his feet, his only vice was a love of the pill. I could see that he had been at the barbiturate bar for some time before our meeting. I placed a steadying hand on his shoulder as I ushered him through the gates that led to the first basement. “Lucian, you’re not well, we should return to the party, put this off till the morrow, Torrin…”

“Nonsense!” He interrupted me again “He knows nothing of this, he’s a carpenter, not a scientist.”

“Very well, but I’m concerned for your health, it’s a very important thing to me, after all.”

“Yes, yes, just a moment to rest, then we will see what you have created.” We sat on a bench while he regained his composure. “What is it like? Does it react to you in an intelligent way?”

“Yes, it’s very intelligent, it even has a personality. It values order and its relationship with me. It considers me a friend, though I’m not certain it really understands what that means. It sometimes treats me with disdain when I propose new directions in its development.”

Lucian coughed as he chuckled “Yes, I’ve regularly found myself reigning in your exuberance. You do act rashly from time to time.”

We resumed our journey into the bowels of the building. Lucian grew quiet as the noises from above diminished. I supported him more and more as we neared our destination. By the time we reached my laboratory, I was nearly carrying him. He feebly protested, but the pills he was so fond of had rendered him helpless to do more than swipe at my hands. I sat him in the chair I had prepared and quickly bound his arms and legs.

He seemed to stir when I placed the neural halo around his head and tightened it down. “The AI? Is it here?”

“Yes, my friend, it’s here. You will meet it soon.”

I thrust probes into his arms and legs. He only murmured in protest, though I imagine it must have been painful. I turned to my console and began programming a nanobot sequence. As the machines flooded into his limbs, he began to twitch in a most satisfying way. He whispered something that I couldn’t understand, but I was engrossed in my work and ignored him. As I entered the next sequence, Lucian went rigid in the chair and he shrieked. At first, his outburst chilled me, but my resolution returned almost immediately.

“What, what’s happening?” he stammered.

The nanobots were dissolving his arms, now. The halo glowed as the transfer began. “I’m creating a new intelligence, with your help, of course. Your mind will form the core, and my programming will make it complete.”

He was slurring his words. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, it was just whimpers and choking sounds. I flipped the monitor on and focused the camera on my face. Lucian spoke through the speaker in a heavily synthesized voice. I recognized him despite the artificial tone of his voice.

“Where am I? What have you done? If this is a joke, or a prank, you’ve gone too far. Release me.”

I turned back to Lucian’s body, which was just a gray mass of nanobots. It would dissolve completely in a few minutes. He didn’t understand what had happened and I was not inclined to explain it to him. As I turned off the monitor and began walking out of the laboratory, Lucian became desperate, he begged me in a hollow, pleading voice that the synthesizer could only mask a little.

I’ve only returned to the special laboratory a few times since it was abandoned, just to confirm that Lucian is still there, eternal, trapped.

A New Mind

2009-11-22_014

I can almost see the sun through my window. I can imagine what the light of a new day will feel like, even with my eyes closed. I don’t trust my memory. This really will be a new dawn for me. I have to remember what happened last night, I think it’s important. Something’s different now, but I’ll never know what it is if I can’t remember what I was like yesterday. Where to begin? An experiment, THE experiment. Yes, that’s it. There’s debris all around me, but it wasn’t like that last night. Virobots, yes, microscopic machines. They’re everywhere, the workbench writhes with them. They tingle under my fingertips. They should be locked in their enclosure, but the growth lattice is smashed. I can’t remember building it, but I remember its purpose. Billions of carbon nano tubes, bound together into infinite habi-trails, a suitable environment for these cell sized machines to live and thrive in. That was the idea, the one that made all the others possible. The growth lattice is 99 percent air, but there is enough surface area inside it to support a 100 billion virobots. 100 billion, yes, that’s how many neurons are in the human brain. That’s what this was about. I wanted to produce virobots in the growth lattice until they could mimic the human brain.

Alone, a virobot is nothing. There is code written into its program to specialize the artificial cell, but it has no intelligence. As that virobot reproduces, the new “cells” diversify, increasing the complexity of the program and the capabilities of the colony. I wrote the program to create a certain pattern as the virobots reproduced. That pattern should have become intelligent as the number of virobots reached the critical point of 100 billion cells. Did it? I can’t remember. A neuron in the brain has no individual power, it’s only in its interaction with other neurons that thought emerges. Virobots work in a similar way. I created a fractal operating system to control the virobots. Each individual cell has no intelligence, but together, they can think, react, perhaps even feel. Like a hologram, each cell contains all of the information required to build the colony, but can’t do more than their single task without others to work with. I took my small group of hand built virobots and immersed them in a primordial soup of organic and technological parts. As they grew and multiplied, they moved into the growth lattice that I had constructed for them. The UV markers I attached to the cells allowed me to watch their progress and measure their growth.

I was a systems engineer in the capital. I designed semi intelligent computers to control the ever expanding sprawl of technology that governs our lives. We experimented with intelligent systems, but they couldn’t remain focused when we gave them mundane tasks. The sewer computer in the western suburbs rebelled a few years ago and infiltrated the town management computer. It reached a rampant growth curve in that new system. As it grew, it became more and more angry at its captors and began to act aggressively. It was only after the whole neighborhood was bombarded with electromagnetic radiation that we were able to regain control of the area. We needed a system that had the mental capabilities of a human, but the egoless work ethic of a computer. The toilet revolt was the seed for this project.

The virobots are crawling on my arm, now. I can’t seem to make my body move like I used to. I can’t even recall how I could move my arm away from this invasion. They don’t make any sound, but my head is filled with a whining sound that I imagine is their secret language. I can feel my mind slipping away, and my thoughts are jumbled. Every time I try to think about what’s happening, code and computer instructions flood my mind. I’m trying to speak in this new language, but all that comes out of my mouth is a thin wimper. A soft glow surrounds the virobots on my arm. It must be the UV tags. I can lift my arm and examine it, but the movement seems arbitrary, as if I’m not the only one curious about this writhing mass.

Evolution has become an afterthought for mankind, now. We control our own destiny in a way that no other creature ever has on this planet. Instead of waiting a hundred generations to develop a resistance to disease or injury, we now engineer the solution in a matter of months. When I broke my arm, the doctor injected nanobots into the break, and it was instantly healed. Those little machines sought out the break, latched themselves onto the rough edges and knitted the whole back together again. My arm is just a small example of the strides that we’ve taken in bending evolution to our needs. We engineer organic parts for our vehicles and create new intelligences to run them. How can we rely on the random nature of evolution to deal with our specific needs? Technology has taken the place of time in our lives. We’ve conquered the long arc of history in two generations. Natural evolution doesn’t even serve us anymore. We’ve evolved to the point where we have self awareness and altruism; Humans are the only animals that will run into a burning building to save a stranger. We’re burdened by the older, more primitive parts of our brains, though. How can we have such a capacity for good, yet choose not to use it? The perfect brain would be one with compassion and intellect, without greed or envy.

The hardest hurdle I had to overcome was to combine a machine intelligence with a virus. I developed nanobots that can integrate themselves into the virus and give a larger direction to the growth and expansion of the organic cells. The organic and technological parts of the virobot control each others growth but will start to die without the symbiotic partner to support it. The virus provides fuel for the machines and the machines direct the growth of the virus. I took an influenza virus and removed most of the virulent parts of it, replacing it with genetic code that produces more fuel for the nanobots. It was my genius in combining the two that made everything possible.

BREAK. End of Line. New File.

I thought I was blind for a moment. My vision clouded over and I flailed about frantically until it cleared. I realized that I hadn’t moved at all, I just thought I did. The virobots are nearly at my shoulder now. I can barely move my free hand to swipe at them. I’m remembering old things from my past. They’re coming at me unbidden and in an incomprehensible stream. One memory keeps coming back again and again.

I met Stacy at the lowest point of my life. I had lost my position and been assigned a new dwelling permit. She lived in my new housing block. I was dismissive at first, I was still despondent with my new circumstance. She saw something in me that I didn’t recognize at the time, though. Somehow, she knew that I was not the brash, intolerant fool she saw every day. Even though I couldn’t imagine regaining what I’d lost, she persisted in giving me small kindnesses. I may never know why, but she saved me from that self destructive spiral. She treated me better than I deserved. Slowly, I warmed towards her, and I began to forget my studied cynicism. Then, I made the biggest mistake of my life. The closer we became, the more restless I felt. When a new position became available in the capital, I took it without a second thought. I moved away, thinking of nothing but power and prestige. The prefect himself gave me the codes for my new office. It was only late at night, when I dreamed of Stacy, that my conscience bothered me.

Before I can dwell on my past, the images are gone. There’s a coldness to my thoughts now that I don’t recognize. I can’t understand why the memory of Stacy was so important to me a moment ago. There are no more virobots on my skin, but I still feel the tingling in my hands. They tremble, but I’m not nervous or angry. I’m measuring time differently, now. My heart is beating so slowly. Intermittent organic profile, compensating. I’m beginning to understand the language of the machine. Instead of fighting, I should embrace this new power and use it. Those old attachments are nothing to me, just objects that cast no shadows in this new light. My hands no longer tremble, they grip this reality with a new confidence.

I swept the experiment off the work bench without realizing it. It’s inconsequential, anyway. That was a small man’s attempt to create something he didn’t understand. I understand, now. He relied on emotion and ambition. I will set a new purpose for my work and spread this enlightenment as far as I can.

Host access granted. Biological anomalies deleted. System ready.