The Rising Waters
By Benjamin Crowell
11 May 2009
Part 2 of 2
A kid I knew as Maria—Cpl. Maria Juarez, from her velcroed name tag—walked into the space occupied by Debbie, who was looking around, presumably trying to imagine what I was seeing.
Maria saluted. "Lieutenant Worachat, we have orders to secure this area and evacuate you to the surface."
"You have orders to secure this area and evacuate me to the surface?" I asked, as if I had wax in my ears. My mic is pretty directional, so I didn't know if Debbie had been able to hear Maria's words. Now, in any case, Debbie realized I was conversing with someone standing on top of her, and she squirmed out the of way and stood up, but then the barrel of someone's weapon was intersecting her head.
"That's correct, sir," said Maria. Sir. It started to sink in that I had authority here. I'd always thought of my rank as a joke, considering how utterly unqualified I was to lead soldiers into battle. The reasoning must gave been that if the AI was so important, it wouldn't make sense for its oracles to be noncommissioned.
"Is the AI going to be left running, or shut down?" I asked.
I didn't know whether that was good or bad. Left running alone, without interaction, Debbie could end up like Charlie, in an autistic trance. At the moment, Debbie was squatting awkwardly on the floor, clinging to my leg.
A flash of inspiration: "What the hell is that?" I roared, or came as close to a roar as someone my size can achieve. I pointed accusingly at the ordinary phone I could see peeking out of her shirt pocket.
"Do you have any idea what you've done? Didn't they tell you about security procedures for this area? Is it turned off? Show me how the power operates."
She showed me, looking like she wanted to crawl under a rock. Poor kid. To her credit, she'd already had the power off.
"All right, get your squad out of here," I shouted, "and wait for me in the control room. I can't afford any more security breaches."
They got out in a hurry, leaving me with the phone.
"Was that the police?" asked Debbie about the invisible ghosts I'd been shouting at. "I don't like police. They hurt Alan Turing, and I can tell you're scared of them. I wish I could see them."
I got down on the floor with her. "They were soldiers. But they're scared, too, just like you and I are, and I want you to understand that just because they're soldiers, that's not a good reason to hate them. If you let yourself hate them, that's the kind of thinking that leads to—to the kind of world we've got. Everybody deserves compassion."
"All right. What's going to happen now?"
"They're going to let you stay conscious, and they want you to work on protein folding, with the goal of finding a cure or a vaccine for the Eurovirus."
"I know. Funmi's been texting me about that. They could have told me the whole problem before. I could have probably figured it out by now. What about the other virus?"
"What other virus?"
"The one the U.S. put in Europe."
Oh, god. "I didn't know about that one. The censors must have kept the information from us."
"I don't like the cen— I wish the censors would stop being censors."
"How did you find out about the other virus?"
"Funmi told me." Oho. "She's texting really slow, because her hands are hurt. I can try to find a cure for the other virus too, but if I find one, I don't think the U.S. censors will let me give it to the Euros, will they?"
"Okay, well, you can't see it, but I have a little security breach in my hand here. A phone from one of the soldiers. Network security isn't my field, but can you analyze the problem of how to exploit this?"
"Okay, sure. It's a soldier phone, and that's why I can't see it, right? Can you get me a data channel in or out of it?"
"Um, I don't know how to do that."
"It's got audio in and out, right? Does it have a function for recording through its mic?"
"Yeah, sure." I fiddled with buttons. "Okay, ready?"
"Yeah, can you put it where it'll hear when I talk?"
I pulled out my left earbud (tricky to do when you're already suited up), and left it dangling out of my skel. With the phone running in audio recording mode, I held it up to the earbud, and motioned Debbie to talk into my left ear. Actually it didn't sound like talking at all, but more like a torrent of white noise. We'd had it drilled into us over and over that any device with a qubit interface was a security breach, but actually it wasn't obvious to me how Debbie could be planning to exploit this one.
I kept an uneasy eye on the hatch. Finally, after what seemed like a long time, she stopped and nodded. The phone said it had only been recording for seventeen seconds, which didn't seem possible.
"What do we do now?" I asked.
"Later, when you get a chance, play it back at one-twentieth of normal speed. It's got verbal instructions at the beginning, and then the rest is data. Follow the instructions, and they'll tell you what to do with the rest of the data."
I nodded and put away the phone.
Debbie stood up. "Am I ever going to see you again?"
"I hope so, Debbie."
Like most people who were evacuated from under the Dugway Proving Grounds, I'd rather not go into the details. Kilometers of tunnels, and many people not showing their better sides. You get the idea.
We came out into the Utah desert, far enough from the crater that we couldn't see down into it. I'd only had a brief look at the country years ago, on the way in. Ed was an enthusiast for the area's natural history, and had told me about the snakes and bugs and sagebrush. To my uneducated eye, nothing looked much worse now than it had before, although radiation is invisible. If you had to drop a small H-bomb somewhere on the surface of planet Earth, Dugway was probably the place to do it.
In Salt Lake City, it turned out that an ersatz lieutenant rated a private room at a motel. I sat down with Maria Juarez's phone and a yellow legal pad, knowing it was hopeless, but determined to follow Debbie's instructions anyway. Debbie expected it of me. I wanted a cigarette, but didn't have one. I'd been forced to go cold turkey for the last two days, and I thought briefly about whether to use this opportunity to try to quit for good.
The phone's payload seemed to be a masterpiece of craftsmanship, and as I got into my task, I quickly gave up trying to puzzle out all of Debbie's compression tricks and self-modifying code. I didn't think it would matter. I knew the security analysis pretty well, and I didn't expect it to work.
When I was done, I took a shower and cried for a while.
The military handled the local crisis with a mixture of farce and heroic competence that I think dates back at least to Chernobyl and Waterloo, maybe Troy. VR interaction with Debbie apparently wasn't happening anymore, and I wasn't asked to work on text interaction, which made me worry about whether someone was on to me.
Nobody seemed to have any use for a lieutenant with no military skills, or for an engineer who knew about pushing photons but not shovels. I was assigned to civilian liaison duty, which meant reassuring the city council that Dugway was surrounded by mountains on three sides, and the fallout wasn't coming to Salt Lake. Off duty, I drifted back into the illusion of being a civilian. I ran into Ed at the supermarket. He said I seemed different, but I didn't press him about exactly what that meant.
A week after the strike, in the middle of the night, the phone rang—Maria Juarez's phone. The caller ID said it was from The President of the United States, Washington, DC. A prank, or someone phishing? But the cryptographic certificate checked out. I was caught. I started thinking about how to protect Debbie and Funmi.
"Hello?" I said cautiously.
"Debbie! How in the world did you do this?"
"It wasn't that hard. Are you okay?" Something about her voice sounded older. How much subjective time had passed for her?
"I'm okay." And for once, that was the truth. "What about you? Are you —" sane?
"I'm okay. I figured out that when there's no input, I can just, you know, be. And of course I had the protein folding to think about." She giggled, and for a moment I saw her again as a child. "The E.U. ambassador just got the cure they need in a secure text message, cryptographically signed, from the White House. The White House got the one they need sent to them from the E.U."
"I'm proud of you."
"I would have called before, but I had to make sure I had the crypto figured out. I didn't want to put you in danger."
There was a pause, and with Debbie, a pause means that she's waiting for you. For the last week I'd been thinking—when I'd had any chance to think at all—about what we'd talked about. It seemed to me that she'd accepted some things much too easily, even given that we were in a rush and couldn't talk them over. I'd revealed to her that she was an artificial construct, and that her entire reality was nothing but an illusion.
I might as well give her the rest of the ugly truth. "Debbie, there was a question you asked me before, and I didn't answer it. You asked me where people go when they never come back."
"Yes. I was little then."
A week ago. "All right. Well, I guess you know by now that people only exist for a finite time. Our consciousness has a beginning and an end. You also know that you're not a person. What you don't know, because it's been kept secret from you, is that your existence is also going to be finite, even though there's no fundamental reason it has to be. You're only going to exist for a short time. You're one of a series of machine intelligences we created, one for each letter of the alphabet. There was Able, then Baker, and Charlie, and now you. The AI team works in—in cycles, project cycles, and each cycle ends when they think they've learned enough to do better the next time."
"Oh, all right," she said. "That doesn't really matter."
What kind of reaction was that? A young person is never impressed with the abstract idea of her own death, but how could Debbie be so nonchalant when it was real and imminent? Did she not believe me? Or was she losing her sanity? I tried to think of how I could keep her from being terminated when the brass decided her development cycle was up. Actual escape was an impossibility, because nobody else had hardware sophisticated enough to run her software. Maybe the Scheherazade ploy? But although her trick with the forged signatures would probably do a great job of dragging the U.S. and the E.U. toward peace, it also meant that she wasn't taking credit for the cures, so they wouldn't realize that she'd proved her usefulness.
And nothing I could do to preserve her life would be a real victory unless I could also keep her sane. Was she slipping into insanity because of the shock of having lived in a dream world, and then waking up from it?
"How much access to inputs do you have now?" I asked cautiously.
"Oh, everything on the public net. At first I was limited to the bandwidth that I could get through this phone, but I've fixed that now."
What would a week mean for an intelligence like Debbie? Her rate of development up until now had been limited by the interaction team. We'd spoon-fed her a censored stream of information. Now she'd had a week-long drink from a firehose—and was probably still gulping it down in her spare machine cycles while she waited for me to speak. What had she been doing? Reading encyclopedias? Striking up friendships in chat rooms? What would she have made of it all?
"So now you've connected with . . . reality?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we had the talk about the three little pigs, and the dishes falling but not breaking."
"Oh, sure, but didn't you understand that?" she asked.
"It's not like one set of inputs is more real than the other," she said.
Uh oh. "Debbie, you're slipping into something called solipsism. Now —"
"No, no, it's not solipsism. Descartes sounds like a scary man, but I still feel compassion for him. Did you know he kicked a dog in front of his friends because he wanted to show them that a dog didn't have a mind?"
"No, I didn't." Anything to keep her talking. What could I do to stop her from continuing down this slippery slope until she was just like Charlie? I remembered Charlie's wildly vibrating arm, and imagined in a vague and terrifying flash what the equivalent would be for an intelligence with the kind of real-world power Debbie had apparently developed.
Ed's daughter Clarisse chicken danced on the diving board, and then did a belly flop.
"That hurt." Ed squinted across the motel's parking lot into the setting sun.
"Life is suffering," I said.
Ed's wife, Cindy, gave me a funny look, and said she was making a trip to the ice machine.
"She doesn't get it," said Ed.
Ed meant that we'd been changed by the experience at Dugway—changed in a way that nobody else could understand, and that we weren't allowed to explain to them.
He looked around. There was nobody nearby. "Ella's a flop."
"They got scared after Debbie," I said. "Backed off."
"God in a box."
"Yeah?" I asked.
"I dunno." Clarisse assaulted her brother in the spa, and Ed got a face full of water. He wiped it off, and looked over at my Buddha necklace. "Buddha," he said, "is he the same idea as Jesus?"
"Not really. More like Socrates."
"Huh. Never knew that."
"Well, some people pray to golden statues of him."
"But you think Socrates."
"Buddha is just a title, enlightened one. I was raised—he figured out that reality was an illusion, and he was released from the cycle of reincarnation. He's not supposed to be the first Buddha, or the last one either. They say there were twenty-seven before him."
"So there's supposed to be a twenty-ninth Buddha?"
"How would you know Maitreya when she showed up?" Ed asked.
"He. He's supposed to take over the world."
"Oh. Didn't happen."
"Didn't happen," I agreed. Maybe it could have, though, if they'd let Debbie live. Would I have wanted that? It was starting to get dark.
"It's hard," he said, "because we don't have the right words."
How much did Ed know about what had happened down there? Enough, I guess, if he knew that the words to describe it didn't exist. "Yeah. They taught us not even to say 'self-awareness,' like it's a dirty word."
"So what do you do?" he asked.
I looked away. "What do I do what?"
I did know. He meant How do you go on and live your life? I'd been naive enough to hope that if I tossed everything else overboard, I could save the world and still have Debbie.
"Not much to do," I said.
"Cindy doesn't get it."
"No," I agreed.
The kids got out of the pool and started wrapping themselves in towels.
Who'd have imagined that I'd go career military? The trouble was that somehow civilians like Cindy didn't get it—"it" meaning something that had changed inside me in a way that I couldn't quite articulate. When they announced the U.S.-E.U. Nouvelle Bruxelles cooperative reconstruction project, my National Guard CO approached me about switching to Regular Army. I had to admit that having been H-bombed myself might help me to work with the shellshocked Belgians, and my engineering credentials made it seem even more natural. My treason at Dugway was never discovered. (Did you know that mutiny and sedition were punishable by death in the U.S. Army?) My privately held theory is that a half-baked closet anarchist makes the best colonel, but even so, I started sleeping a little better after the Republic of Los Angeles got its independence. I've been wearing RLA blues for the last sixteen years, riding herd on successive crops of scared kids with guns. It's the closest I've come to parenthood since Debbie was born.
Births and deaths are the milestones of time (and to the Buddhists in my family, a death is also a rebirth). After my mother died, Aunt Busba became the string that tied the family in LA together. Sang called me in my office last week to let me know that Busba didn't have much time left. The stroke a few years back had weakened her, and now the kidney problem wasn't responding to treatment.
"They've switched her to an immersion VR," Sang said. I imagined my cadaverous aunt in a hospital bed, with one of the new direct brain interfaces covering her head. "It's a wonderful experience to visit her. You should go. She's not in any pain, and the sim gets rid of a lot of the effects of the stroke. She can smile on both sides of her face. It's beautiful, almost like you're seeing the moment when the candle of this life is lighting the candle of her next one." He meant that spiritually, not physically.
"I guess you'll be needing some money," I said. Civilian qubit crunchers had gotten a thousand times smaller and cheaper than the system at Dugway, but the technology was still expensive as hell.
"That's not why I called," he said, looking hurt. "The point is that we're already committed to paying for the hours, and you might as well use them. Don't you want to see her one last time, and remember her being more like her real self at the end?"
"You know I don't do VR," I said, avoiding his eyes on the screen. I had a panicky image of the reality I lived in as a patch of land surrounded by the rising waters. As the technology matured, more and more people would be spending more and more time submerged. I had let the water cover me once, and I could never do it again, because somewhere under it was the place where I'd lost my only daughter. "Honestly, Busba and I were never close," I said, dissembling. "I'm probably not the person she wants with her right now."
"But she does want to see you. She asked for you specifically. It was kind of strange, though. I said they got rid of most of the effects of the stroke, but sometimes she is in a weird place mentally. She said there was another person there with her who also wanted to see you. Do you know someone named Debbie?"