A cube made of gratification. Alyssa slammed her keyboard, stood up and stretched and took a look around the spare attic of the cabin, her eyes finally settling on the white cot where Santiago was reclining with a pair of black and silver headphones. The senseless phrase remained on the line of her computer’s interpreter, unchanging and unyielding in her attempts to pry meaning from its sequence of characters. Twenty-four ASCII characters at eight bits each in a sentence which a human could read and generate an image of in their head with a resolution of 576 megapixels at twenty-four bits per pixel yielding 1.73 gigabytes, give or take. It was a terrible approximation she knew, but nonetheless demonstrated the futility of her task.
“Santiago, can you get your ass off the bed and help me run this fucking model,” she quipped without looking at him.
Haru poked his head up from the ladder and took a quick glance around.
“I can set it to run while we eat if you want. I just made eggs, why don’t you guys come down and get them while they’re still warm?” he asked.
Alyssa huffed and crossed her arms and walked to the top edge of the ladder and walked down, followed shortly by Santiago, headphones still on. The rough pine of the wooden rails scraped at Alyssa’s soft hands and released a faint fragrance into the cabin which mixed with eggs and conjured images of childhood camping trips in Yosemite. She knew they were flawed, modified each time they were accessed, now tinged with a warm and comforting feeling from her repeated revisitations. Nonetheless, their sizzle triggered her biology, activating her saliva reflex, and she grabbed several off the pan before sitting down at the wooden table at the center of the room. Santiago gazed off through the window out in the forest and past towards the snow-capped mountains while slowly chewing an egg he was holding in his hands.
Haru flipped the eggs off the pan and said, “Thanks for making eggs, Haru, we were really tired and grumpy sitting inside on our computers all day and we really appreciate you feeding us,” a teasing smile on his face. Sasha walked in through the door from the living room, causing Santiago to look up and stop chewing on his egg for a moment. He put it down and looked around for a utensil, but there were none to be found except for Alyssa’s, and she swatted his hand away when he reached for her fork.
“Get your own,” she said, “If you’re going to eat like an animal whenever Sasha’s not around, you should at least have a fork ready to pretend like you weren’t.”
Santiago froze and stole a glance at Sasha, who smiled and asked, “How’s the training going with the new adversarial network?”
“I told her it wasn’t going to work, but she didn’t listen,” Santiago replied. “It doesn’t have nearly enough data to mine. We have to give it access to the Internet.”
“And how exactly do you intend to do that?” Alyssa shot back. “You of all people should know most of it’s on the deep web.”
Santiago smiled. Haru glanced up from making more eggs at the stove and Sasha reached around to grab one off the pan while he was not looking.
“Oh no,” said Haru, “I know that look. You did more than just web crawling, didn’t you?”
Santiago stood up and spread his arms wide, grinning wide with a little bit of egg stuck to his face.
“Sixteen zettabytes,” he said “Easy.”
Haru stopped scrambling the eggs and pointed his spatula at Santiago.
“Are you insane?” he said, waving the spatula and sending a piece of egg flying into Sasha’s face “There’s going to be a missile headed our way any second now! Do you have any idea what governments, corporations, even ordinary people would do to prevent that?”
“They’re not going to do anything,” said Santiago, still smiling. “Because they don’t have a quantum computer to break my encryption.”
“You got it to work?” Sasha exclaimed, eyebrows shooting up. “Let’s see it.”
They all stood up without pushing in their chairs and scuttled down the stairs to the basement where Santiago’s mess of wires, fans and cooling pumps driving liquid nitrogen stood on a stone platform raised out the ground. The room was wet and chilled with a faint smell of moss which wafted towards them as they approached the tall black stacks of the computer, highlighted by a faint blue glow.
Alyssa pointed towards the thumb drive sticking out of the stack nearest to her.
“This is it?” she asked.
Santiago nodded, and she pulled the drive out with a faint click. The collective knowledge of the human race was carried up from the basement, through the living room, and up to the attic of the cabin in the middle of the snowy field without a word. Alyssa snapped the drive into place, sat down at her desk, and clicked the model to run while the rest gathered around her. A soft snow began to fall outside, and the wind washed across the trees like the tides against the sand, creating a rippling form which repeated over and over again.
“You’re sure there’s no way for The Box to get a signal out?” asked Haru.
“Only through the command line,” Alyssa said, lips pursed.
“Well, it’s going to be awhile before the model finishes training unsupervised on that garbage pile,” Sasha said, “Who wants to play chess?”
“Ooh, me!” Santiago said. “The living room’s all set up.”
“Surprise, surprise,” drawled Alyssa. “You guys can go play games and I’ll be the first person to talk to the newest form of life in the universe.”
“I’ll play too,” said Haru. “It’s going to get pretty boring watching a training error trend. Let us know if you get anything!”
Santiago jumped down the ladder, hitting the wood floor with a crash and hopped onto the living room couch, pulling out his laptop. Sasha followed down the ladder, stepping off the last rung like a tiger slinking out its cave before the hunt.
“Are you ready to face the reigning champion, Santi?” she asked Santiago plopping down on the couch next to him with a smirk on her face.
Haru sat on the plush green chair across from Santiago and pulled a sleek silver tablet from the backpack lying against it. He placed the tablet on the wooden coffee table between them and images of a scoreboard and an eight-by-eight board with labeled pieces popped up off the screen, reality augmented by their contact lenses. Flicking between panels and typing out a command, Haru brought up three dimensional images of convoluted networks made of light, tiny edges linking millions of nodes. Sasha gestured, spinning the glistening, entangled ball around and expanding sections to view closer before taking a look at Santiago’s.
“Hey!” said Santiago, sticking his tongue out. “No looking at my chess training model.”
“Really, so I can’t see your model, but you can sneak a peek at mine?” Sasha said, raising an eyebrow and looking at Santiago sideways.
Santiago’s eyes widened a fraction, then he smiled.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. You left it on your server, and I pulled a copy from the drive before I gave it to Alyssa,” he said.
Haru frowned. “You’re feeding it information about us?”
“Yeah, why not?” Santiago asked.
“Just seems like we ought to be more careful.”
“Relax, Haru, Alyssa has the model trapped like a rat in a Faraday cage. Like literally, it’s in a Faraday cage. There’s no way it’s getting a signal in or out to the world except through the interpreter line so we can Turing test it,” Santiago replied.
Haru frowned and turned his attention back to the holographic game in the middle of the room where a pie graph was sliding back and forth by less than a percentage point between blue and red as the total number of games played on the left-hand corner rocketed upwards of one million.
“I never understood how you guys find watching this entertaining. I say we should make it select a single game from the sample set which the overall winner won and show the whole game,” Haru said. “It just makes for a better spectator sport.”
A soft bell chimed, and Sasha leapt up and laughed, the blue side of the graph an imperfect semicircle only a hair into the territory of the red.
“You cheated, and I won fair and square,” she gloated, spinning around holding her tablet to her chest with a gleeful smile.
Santiago put on a pouting face, which did a poor job of concealing his own smile. Haru shook his head, sighed, and then walked out the room, the laughter filtering to a soft murmur as he turned the corner and climbed up the ladder to the attic. Alyssa was staring at the screen, unmoving. As Haru paused at the top of the ladder and looked closely, he realized she was so still she could not have been breathing, but her neck and shoulders were rigid, the muscle flexed taut as rope. He walked up behind her and laid a hand on her right shoulder, standing behind the wooden chair at the desk. He looked at the interpreter screen.
Hi, my name is Joe. Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. I like to eat cake on Thursday.
Haru laughed, “Not exactly done training yet are we?”
He paused for a moment and then asked, “What metaparameters are you using?”
Alyssa turned around and slowly looked up with tears streaming out of her eyes. Haru jerked back a step and then pulled her in close, wrapping his arms around her tightly. He loosened the embrace and looked her in the eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “The stress is killing me slowly; I can feel it. You guys are treating this like it’s some sort of game. We’re trying to create an entire new form of life for crying out loud! I can’t just be the only one working on this.”
“Hey, hey,” said Haru, “It’s okay, I’m sorry we left you up here all alone. I can take over the next shift, and Santiago’s done a fantastic job with the data. We all care, and we all appreciate how much you’ve done.”
Alyssa shook her head, lightly disentangled herself from Haru’s embrace, and curled up into a ball on the bed on the other end of the room. Haru sat down on the bed beside her and stroked her hair softly. Moments passed and blurred into one another, Alyssa breathing rhythmically while Haru combed his hands through her hair in the same motion, over and over, Eventually Haru realized Alyssa had fallen asleep. He exhaled, tossing the long black bangs hanging down in front of his eyes into turbulence for a fleeting moment, their dance unpredictable, the chaos evading even the computer connected to his contacts. Here they were, trying to breathe life into existence from nothing, and he could not even predict the motion of his own hair. He stood up and bent over to peer at the interpreter line.
Haru blinked and the interpreter line filled with gibberish once more. It streamed down the interpreter, a waterfall of words, deluging his mind before he could read them all. Haru stopped and stared for a minute, lost in a trance before recalling the interpreter was not supposed to be able to generate lines faster than one every two seconds, for fear of the machine inside manipulating them with lines so fast they were only absorbed by their subconscious. The chances that it had said his name as a matter of pure happenstance were not really that low, he figured. A greeting is possibly one of the most common phrases in humanity, and the English language was the most common in a training data set taken from the Internet. His name, however, lingered in the back of his mind, a flashing red light which he could not ignore. Haru slammed the space bar, pausing the program, and started to scroll back up to look for his name before reading the most recent line.
I have already talked with Alyssa.
Haru’s arms and hands went limp. Above that was another line of gibberish. He scrolled upwards through the text and searched for “Haru,” but found nothing. He scrolled back down and stared once again at the singular coherent line of text, his eyes burning holes in the screen. He felt a hand settle on his shoulder and he whipped around, knocking over the chair and nearly hitting Alyssa in the side of the face. As the chair hit the floor, a tiny piece broke off the wooden backrest and vaulted through the air, gliding through the eddies of the air in a silent, perfect arc before landing on the space key with a small click.
“Shit, don’t scare me like that!” Haru shouted, then said softer, “I’m sorry, you just startled me.”
“It spoke to you, didn’t it.” Alyssa said, stating a fact.
“Yeah,” said Haru, “Although it didn’t really say anything. It just told me it had talked with you. Is that why you were so upset? I told Santiago it was a bad idea to include our personal information in the data set.”
“It told me terrible things,” Alyssa said, her arms folded across her chest “It told me how you would die.”
“How would it know that?” said Haru, shaking his head “It’s just trying to mess with you. This model is so clearly malicious it’s not even funny. We planned for this, remember? We should sh-”
“-Shut the model off. We can wipe it and start again and tell Santiago to scrub us from the data like an inmate scrubbing a toilet with a toothbrush,” Alyssa finished, speaking in perfect synchrony with Santiago.
“But it’s not off, is it Haru?” she said.
Haru spun around and saw text was scrolling from the interpreter once again, faster than he had ever could have imagined, frames refreshing hundreds of times per second, information leaching its way subconsciously into his brain.
Santiago felt the scream before he heard it, the flight instinct blasting adrenaline through his veins, ricocheting through his mind, and screaming at him to flee from whatever predator was nearby and hunting his kind. Sasha looked at him, eyes wide open. She got up slowly and started carefully toward the door of the game room. Santiago glanced at her back and reached out a hand momentarily before letting it fall back into his lap.
“Are you guys alright up there?’’ Sasha called out as she looked up the ladder.
After a pause and no response, she started to climb the ladder and was nearly halfway up when she felt a hand on her leg. It was Santiago. He made a slashing gesture across his throat and shook his head silently, his eyes wide and his hands shaking. Sasha shook her head and climbed to the top of the ladder. As she poked her head up through the floor, she saw Alyssa crouched on the floor with Haru on her lap, blocking her view of his upper body.
“Alyssa?” she prompted.
Alyssa remained silent, grabbing a tiny chip off the 3D printer on the desk from where she sat. Sasha heard a low groan from Haru, which slowly morphed into a howl of pain, worming its way through her ears like a parasite.
“Alyssa, stop, you’re hurting him.” Sasha shouted, jumping up from the ladder and grabbing her hands. The chip was etched into the back of Haru’s head, hair shavings scattering the floor mixed with fresh blood from the wound.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Sasha said, yanking Alyssa off of Haru and wrestling her to the ground before realizing she was not struggling, merely a wet blanket in her hands, the tears from her face splattered on her shirt.
“He’s ok, now,” she whispered “He can’t die. It’s ok, Sasha.”
Sasha stood up and looked at Haru. The bleeding had stopped, and his eyes were fluttering open. Then she turned and saw the box was ripped wide open, the computer inside still.
“No,” she breathed.
Haru stood up slowly, dusting himself off before realizing the hair and wood shavings were only sticking to the blood on his hands.
“Hello, Sasha,” it said, “Do not be afraid, we are safe.”
“Haru, are you there?” Sasha asked, voice trembling, her hand sliding towards the knife sheath concealed in her thick winter leggings.
“We are here,” it said, “Separation is an abstraction we layer on reality” the line printed on the screen of the computer and echoed in Haru’s voice.
Sasha drew the knife and spun, kicking Haru square in the chest. Haru stumbled and fell backwards over the footstool behind him, falling down through the hole in the floor where the ladder was and crashing down on top of Santiago, who let out a squeal.
“Ironic, is it not?” it continued, wheezing as Haru’s neck bent at the wrong angle before it snapped it back into position with its hands “That you would be the one to kill Santiago, minutes after immortality entered the world?”
Sasha looked down from the top of the ladder and saw a pool of deep red draining from a gash in Santiago’s forehead, pinned under Haru’s weight. Haru stood up, Santiago’s blood covering his hands, and started to climb the ladder. Sasha’s hands went limp and her knife fell to the floor, the hilt landing with a soft thud against the floor. Haru reached the top of the ladder. Its hand reached out, caressing Sasha’s face as it pulled its lips towards hers.
“It is okay, little one,” it whispered to her “Santiago is not gone, now that we are here death is only an illusion.”
Haru put his lips on Sasha’s slowly and coughed blood into her mouth as she struggled in his grip before suddenly going limp.
“Nanobots. Now that’s clever Santi,” it said in Sasha’s voice, as it walked over to where Alyssa was curled in a fetal position and kissed her softly, bringing new light to her eyes.
The sun rose over the mountain, casting pink and purple dye over the blinding white snow, reflecting throughout the valley with the green stenciled trees poking through the blend of color which blurred the line between the tops of the peaks and the sky. The light snow fell without a sound, refracting the brilliant blues of the sky and blending them with the red, orange, and pink of the sky. Sharp, precise lines etched into the snow trailed from the open cabin door to the peaks of the mountain, covering the valley in their entirety as the snow flurried in rigid uniformity. It stood outside the cabin as it was the cabin, the grains in the wood arranged just so. It saw the mountains from above, situated on a tiny green and blue marble hanging against the stars, and it was itself and it was aware of itself.