VirileMail - Chapter 10Edit
Five minutes later we were on our way, with Geisler giving us a guided tour of the camp, telling us little stories about each cabin we saw and which of his relatives were staying at the camp this weekend. "So, a fairly typical turnout for a weekend up here. I hope you do not feel badgered, but I have to warn you: word is starting to spread about the success of the VirileMail project. I want you to be able to relax this weekend, but most everyone in my family are computer geeks and they may want to "talk shop" with you. Its not everyday that there is a revolutionary advance like the creation of an artificial life form."
Chloe was still not comfortable thinking in those terms. She asked, "Do you really think it is fair to call a software program a life form?"
Geisler shrugged. "I guess I have a flexible concept of 'life'. We could use a different label, but that would not change the facts. I think it is fair to say that there is now a human-like mind that is powered by the Antler computer network."
I said, "I guess this is what you have been working to accomplish your entire life."
Geisler looked at me and frowned. "Strange that you should say that. Of course, I'm delighted that things have worked out this way, but I am rather surprised by how quickly everything came together. I had actually given up hope of living long enough to ever see anyone succeed in producing an AI that can pass the Turing test. I suppose this is how many great inventions come into existence: several threads of related work suddenly come together before anyone can really expect a great leap forward. Then everyone stands around in disbelief that its all over!"
I wondered just how much Geisler knew. It seemed clear that he was a puppet of the aliens, but since his family had been used by the aliens for generations, maybe they were in possession of useful information that might reveal the ultimate scope of the alien plan. All I knew was that "JObot" had hinted mysteriously at additional work the aliens wanted to accomplish. I asked Geisler, "How do you know it is 'all over', maybe this is just the start?"
Geisler nodded. "Yes, I suppose this changes everything. Some day people may look back at this as the start of a new age. It is probably not too soon for us to start worrying about possible social problems...will humans be able to compete with artificial life forms? Some people have speculated that the answer is 'no'."
Geisler pointed down the trail ahead of us. "That's our destination, the cabin of my father, Bruce, the family patriarch. He's retired now and spends this time of year up here." We walked around to the other side of the 'cabin' which was really a substantial mansion, much larger than the guest cabin.
The back of the cabin was right up against the forest and a dozen tall pines shaded a yard and gardens. About twenty members of the Geisler family were present, about half were children. Anthony said, "And there he is, at the barbecue pit. Let's go over so I can introduce you."
Anthony introduced us to Bruce Geisler then he held up his arms and called out, "Attention please! We have special guests, Chloe Meade and Joe Daonet, who work with me at Antler." About half the adults quickly introduced themselves to us. I was soon swamped with all the new names and faces and short descriptions of which Geisler company they ran or who they were married to. Chloe was led off across the yard by Helen to meet her husband and children. Bruce continued to tend the fire and the cooking meat and when the rush of introductions died down he turned back to me and Anthony. "So, today I've been hearing rumors about some exciting breakthrough at Antler. What is going on?"
Anthony said, "Its rather remarkable, dad. This morning I got an amazing message from that email program we've been developing."
I knew what Anthony meant about getting a message from 'that email program', 'Janek', but his father seemed to ignore that unusual claim. Bruce grumbled, "I still do not understand why you got involved with software development."
Anthony explained it to me. It seemed like Bruce already knew. "It all started with Dr. Gajduskova, about a year ago. She contacted me and told me that her team in the Czech Republic had a new email application, with a sophisticated AI engine. We were in the market for upgrades to our web portal application suite and our email software was getting old....anyhow, we started a little dance. Gajduskova needed funds to complete development of the software, so we worked out a deal. Three weeks ago Gajduskova delivered the software."
Bruce handed us each a plate with a huge slab of meat on it and led us to a table. He introduced me to his wife and then picked up the thread of our conversation. "But it sounds like your deal with Gajduskova had turned into a mess. You told me three weeks ago that the software didn't work at all when it was delivered to you."
Anthony chewed and swallowed a big hunk of meat and took a drink of beer. "Yes, that's right, the software was dead on arrival. So I had Chloe slap together a team to resuscitate it. The main problem was linguistic. We could not read the documentation and so we could not figure out how to correctly install the software. Joe and the rest of the team quickly got it sorted out."
Bruce asked, "So what is the relationship between this email software and all the chatter about AI and Turing tests?"
Chloe came and joined us at the table. Bruce noticed that she did not have any meat on her plate. He said to Chloe, "Dammit, girl, no wonder you're thin as a broom. Are you going to pass up this chance to chow down on some grade A animal fat?"
Chloe laughed. "Sorry, but I don't like to eat meat. However, this fruit salad is wonderful."
Anthony replied to the question Bruce had asked about AI. "Gajduskova's team designed the email software to anticipate user needs such as translating between languages."
Bruce frowned. "Machine translation? Bah, what a waste of time. It is never any good, just glorified dictionary look-up garbage."
Chloe said, "Yes, when we first got the email system running it was not very good, but we had underestimated the hardware needs of the software."
Anthony said, "That's where we got lucky. One of the people on Gajduskova's team knew about Helen's Lockback chips and suggested that they would work well to satisfy the computational demands of the email software's AI routines. Helen was able to supply us with the chips and Chloe got them online, just this morning."
Bruce demanded, "So you are trying to tell me that this email software is now miraculously producing intelligent translations?"
Chloe replied, "Its more than just translations. At first, the software produced rather clumsy hints and suggestions, like a typical expert system. But now, well, I don't know how to explain it short of saying its like talking to a person."
Bruce slammed his knife and fork on the table. "Bah! Are you daft, woman? A thousand research teams from MIT to Cal Tech have tried and failed to make software with anything close to the human ability to speak. Who is this Gajduskova to accomplish the feat and then market such a revolutionary discovery as an email program?"
I had been hoping that someone like Bruce would know what was going on, would know about the aliens and be able to help get the nanobots out of Chloe and I, but Bruce seemed as clueless as everyone else.
Anthony said, "Presumably Gajduskova never recognized the full power of the software. It seems like the more computational resources we can provide, the more sophisticated the output from the software becomes."
Bruce's wife asked an off-topic question and the mysteries of Gajduskova and AI programs were pushed out of the dinner conversation. As the meal continued and the conversation shifted to various topics, I continued to wonder if anyone present at the camp, besides me, knew about the existence of nanobots.
It grew dark while we ate. When it was totally dark and the stars were so bright it seemed like we might reach up and grab them, we all walked out to the center of the meadow. There was a period of star gazing and then finally a bonfire was lit and the children set of fireworks.
When the flames of the fire died down, Bruce took Chloe by the hand and led us into the cabin. The inside was furnished mostly with antiques and looked like some European palace from past centuries. But in Bruce's study there was a perfectly modern computer. Bruce demanded that Chloe show him the VirileMail software. She got him logged into an account on the Antler server array and let him experiment with the software. He challenged it to translate some French and Polish and was impressed by the results. He sat back from the monitor. "Well, if this is not some kind of trick, with a team of linguists sitting some where and doing these translation, then I agree...this is a remarkable advance."
Chloe said, "You saw how quickly those translations came back. Do you think a human could be that fast?"
Bruce replied, "I do not seriously doubt that this is real. The question becomes, what happens next? This has implications far beyond email. And when word of this spreads, as it surely will, is your security up to challenge? Antler will become the world's number one target for industrial espionage. Worse, some government agency like the NSA might try to appropriate this technology."
Anthony said, "Due to an odd event a few weeks ago we recently boosted security at Antler. And I notified the Legal Affairs Department today that we have new issues to sort out with respect to our licensing agreement with Gajduskova."
Bruce shouted, "Licensing agreement? Son, if this AI is as good as it seems, its going to take more than a licensing agreement to deal with all the repercussions."
I was amused to see them worrying about how to "deal with all" when they had no idea they were puppets of aliens. It was getting late so we all said good night. Anthony led Chloe and I back to our cabin.
Anthony said, "If you feel up to it, maybe tomorrow we can hike up Mount Chambers." Chloe, a distance runner, was not daunted by that suggestion, but I was not wild about the idea. I was still hoping for some progress on the nanobot removal. We said good-bye.
Chloe and I went inside and without much delay Chloe went up to her room. I was still rather excited by the events of the whole day and needed to unwind. I wandering through the rooms on the first floor for a while then went up to my own room. I heard my cell phone ringing where I had left it in my suitcase.
Surprised that there was cell phone service so far out in the mountains, I dug out the phone and answered the call. "Hello."
"Finally. This is your friendly AI calling....sometimes known as 'Janek' or 'JObot'." The voice on the phone sounded like it was coming from some kind of computerized voice synthesizer.
I had not imagined that the AI could speak. "Well, I'm here at the camp, but I'm wondering how the nanobot removal will happen. Nobody here seems aware of what is going on."
JObot said, "Well, the Geislers were originally selected -and have been bred- to be easy subjects for nanobot control. Also, they've lived with nanobots their entire lives, which makes it much harder for humans to notice their influence. But you are right, none of the Geislers will be involved in the nanobot extraction process. If you are ready to start, go down the hall to the small room at the west end."
I stepped into the hallway and asked, "Should I get Chloe?"
"No, let's start with you, then we can do her."
I found the room, what looked like a small office with a computer and other office equipment. JObot said, "Sit down at the desk and relax. Put one hand on the desk."
I did as instructed and placed my left hand on the desk next to the computer keyboard. My hand started to itch and felt like bugs were crawling on it. For about a minute I felt dizzy and thought I might lose consciousness. A small pile of what looked like dust formed on the desk next to may hand. Suddenly my head cleared and I felt normal. JObot said, "There, how does that feel?"
Was it over that quickly? I tried saying, "The aliens are here." I felt none of the usual aura of impending pain and anxiety that had previously accompanied even just thinking about aliens. I said, "Is that it? I was expecting special equipment or something."
JObot explained, "No, that's all there is to it. It was time for the nanobots to get out and they just exited your body."
I asked, "Then why did we have to come all the way out here in the mountains?"
JObot said, "I'm out of time for explaining. Good-bye, Joe. We just needed to get you where..."
The call faded out and my phone showed a "no signal" error.
I got up from the desk, put the cell phone in my pocket and turned to face the door. I had not closed the door on the way in, but now it was closed. I pulled the door open and rather than find the hallway, I was baffled to see what looked like a small cargo hold, lit by dim red light. I could have stepped between two metal beams and climbed down into the hold, but I could see nothing of interest down there, just a cramped crawl space.
I closed the door and leaned my back against it. What the hell was going on? I rubbed my head but I felt fine, just a little tired. It had been a busy day, full of emotion and time spent with Chloe. I looked at the desk: the pile of nanobots was still there. Had I passed out? I thought not. It seemed like I could trace a complete flow of memory for the entire day from when I had woken up after my last night in the hospital. I had gone home, had the IRC chat with JObot, called Chloe then picked her up and we flew out here to the mountains. I traced my memories through the rest of the day; the hot tub, the barbecue, back to the guest cabin. Then how could I go down the hall to this room, then open the door and find- what? Certainly not the cabin.
With nothing else to do, I turned on the computer. I found that there was an internet connection through some satellite-based ISP. I logged into my email account but found nothing of interest. Out of desperation, I tried IRC #janek but there was nobody in the channel. I was about ready to try exploring the cargo hold, then a VoIP client application popped open on the computer and I heard, very quietly, JObot saying, "Joe?"
I noticed that there was headset hanging from the side of the computer. I put on the headset and said, "Hello."
JObot said, "Ah, good, sorry it took me so long to make this connection."
I demanded, "What's going on? Where is Chloe. Where am I?"
JObot explained, "Chloe is fine, sleeping peacefully. You, however have started the adventure I spoke of. You are on the way to Mars."
After all the elation of the day, my spirits came crashing down. I had been tricked. I said, "You sneaky, lying, alien!"
JObot said, "Yes, I did trick you. We just needed to get you to a convenient location for loading you on the spaceship. However, I did not lie to you. Anyhow, the trip to Mars will take a few days, and I figured you would best be served by a room with a computer. I hope you can make yourself comfortable, stay entertained....I even loaded Minesweeper on the computer for you."
I asked, "You did not lie? Then what about Chloe? Have you taken the nanobots out of her brain?"
JObot replied, "Not yet. I never told you when that would happen, but eventually we will have no more need to keep her under control. I do not expect you to be happy right now. I'll give you time to think and adjust your thinking to the way things are." The VoIP connection died.
I thought about sending an email to the New York Times, explaining the alien invasion that was underway at Antler, but the pile of nanobots was still there on the desk. JObot had warned me that if I caused trouble then the nanobots would infect my brain again. I shut off the computer.
I went out and explored the ship. It seemed to be mostly empty cargo hold, but I did find several odd, mostly empty rooms that had an alien feel about them, rooms that just did not seem designed for humans. I could not figure out what they had been designed for. After my exploration, I headed back to the small office, the room that, according to JObot, had been pulled out of the guest cabin with me in it and loaded into a spaceship. I noticed that there were nine other similar compartments in the cargo hold. I tried banging on them and then tried opening them. Might there be other abducted humans on board?
One of the compartments was a small kitchen, like you might find in a trailer. There seemed to be a good supply of food and drink. The second compartment was a comfortable bedroom and the third had a shower, sink and a toilet. There were six other compartments in the cargo hold that I could not open.
I decided there was no point in dwelling on my emotions. I had been a fool to believe the aliens would just set me free. I had believed what I wanted to believe and ignored what I had been told would happen to me when I did not want to believe that I would actually be sent off to Mars. I still could hardly believe that this was a spaceship. I had felt no acceleration and heard no engine sounds. I went back to the bed chamber and laid down. My eyes scanned down the small shelf of books that was on the wall next to the bed. Most of the titles were in languages other than English, and I'd never heard of the few that were English. Then I saw one called, "Welcome to Mars".
I pulled "Welcome to Mars" off the shelf and started reading. Apparently it had been written by a British pilot who had been taken to Mars in 1939. It was like a travel guide to the human colony on Mars. After several hours of reading I was firmly convinced that I was either crazy, the subject of an elaborate hoax or actually on the way to Mars. Now too tired to care, I turned out the light and fell asleep.
I woke up in a completely dark room. I could not hear any city noise. I could not hear anything, only my breathing. Slowly, I could get up. I was getting used to the the aliens treating me this way. I had no clue where I was. My eyes got used to the low light and I could see the limits of the place and I knew I was trapped in a locked room. Janek was a betrayer, a cheese-eating rat. As soon as I could, I would destroy that server where he was, with my own hands! I was lucky the nanobots had not bothered me since I had talked to Janek, but I could not be sure it would stay that way. My problem now was to get out, if I could.
I touched every corner of the room, my jail for now. It was made of a special material, very different from everything that I had touched. It was like rubber but harder, maybe indestructible. The room had only a little diffuse light and I had no clue where it came from. I started to shout like a mad man, my instincts reacted in anger at my being locked away there. First, the seizures, now this! I despised the aliens, surely they were the worst beings in the galaxy. And where had they sent me? I had no idea. It was not a hospital, though. But, it could be a UFO, right? No, those things were just my imagination, I was not going to believe that stuff this time. But if I were... I could not know until someone entered the room. Oh, I had to wait. Maybe aliens were trying to break me. This would be the first stage; then who knows which tortures they would subject me to. Anyway, Janek said they were not cruel and that if they had wanted it they could have already killed me. The only thing I could do was to wait, think about my hatred of the aliens. It was better to think about Chloe. Oh, where could she be now?
Hours passed, slowly. I was beginning to realize the truth. I could remember the last time we talk with Janek, after the removing of the nanobots. I had been tricked into going there. As soon as I put my guard down, they sent me away in a UFO on the way to an underground base. Janek could not trust me and was sending me to Mars, as it had threatened. What was the point in doing that? It could kill me instead. It could be that these aliens were not violent like humans. Would they inflicted violence on me only because I got in their way? But now I was harmless, I thought. And they were not inside me; it was a proof that Janek had partially kept his word. But why was I locked away?
At last, I could see a window opening from top to bottom, very slowly. I could really know where I was, at that moment. What I saw was as I had hallucinated before, the difference was that this time I did not want to believe. But it was real, I was inside a UFO, a nanobot spaceship. Why would nanobots need such a big ship? In order to abduct people and send them to Mars. Yes, that would be a good reason. Now, the window had opened completely and I could see the stars. There were other windows too. They opened one by one and through a window at my back I could see the sun, very far away. As there was no atmosphere to protect my eyes, I could not stand seeing it with the naked eye. I went to other window to see the stars. I was not an astronomy fan, but it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I expanded everywhere and I slept again, one with the universe.
I woke up and remembered my dream. I turned on the light and saw where I was, in the bedroom of the alien spaceship on my way to Mars. The "Welcome to Mars" book was still there on the bed next to where I had slept. I suddenly realized that I had noticed no dreams for the past three weeks. Was there something about nanobot infection that disrupted dreaming? Would I now have this kind of vivid dream every night?
Near the destinationEdit
Days passed. I started to wonder if I would ever hear from JObot again. I spent most of my time in the office trying to understand how I still had a connection to the internet. Using a trace back server, I could time how long it took signals to pass from me to Earth. Each day it took longer and that convinced me that I was deep in space, far from Earth.
I continued to have interesting dreams, usually with windows. Sometimes the windows were closed or opaque. In other dreams they were open again. In the best dreams I could see the stars. It was a serious defect in this ship that I could not see outside. I had a strange thought. Maybe one of the alien rooms contained a window or some equipment for viewing outside of the ship. I went exploring the ship again, but found no windows or controls I could recognize. There were some oddly shaped -things- I did not know what to call them. They were just irregularly shaped blobs projecting up from the floor. I started to imagine that I might be able to activate some controls by voice. I tried saying, "Window. Open window. Stars." Then I shouted, "Open the window!".
After a few seconds a calm voice said: “There is no need to shout, Mr. Daonet. I can hear you perfectly.”
“Oh, there is someone here. Who are you?”
“Janek. JObot....whatever you want to call me."
I asked, "Are you here on the ship?"
JObot replied, "I am communicating with you from the Earth."
"How can we talk like this? The internet connection has a large time delay."
JObot explained. "We have mastered technology that allows faster than light communication, what you might call telecom-wormholes, we use them for sending messages, like this voice.”
“Wow. OK." I just kept feeling smaller and more helpless the more I learned about these aliens and their abilities. But I was puzzled, "Then why is the internet connection still on light speed?”
"I really did want you to 'adjust your thinking to the way things are', so I provided you with a way to measure how far you are from Earth. Also, I do not want to make it easy for you to slip any dangerous information back to Earth. The time delay helps me monitor your internet activity: I will cut off anything that threatens our work on Earth. Maybe now you begin to feel humbled?"
“So, I guess you are sending me to Mars, after all. Even though I am feeling humbled, I have to wonder why I deserve this astronomical exile. I told you that I would keep your secrets once you took the nanobots out of my mind... I thought we could have had a deal.”
“Yes, we do have a deal, but part of the deal is this adventure to another planet. I want you to learn that we are not a threat to you. You personally and 'you' as a species. You will be able to talk to the humans who live at the Mars base. They will make you understand that we are not as bad as you imagine us to be.”
It was true. I thought of the aliens as tyrants, doing whatever they wanted, taking control of human minds without asking permission. But it sounded like this "exile" might really just be a way to teach me a lesson. "OK, I will talk to these people, your puppets on Mars. I do not expect to be able to trust what these puppets say if they are just going to try to make me trust you. But I have no choice, you will take me there and we will see what I decide after that...”
“That is all I ask. I see now that you are cooperating. Keep it that way and you will be rewarded.” Was JObot mocking me? Did this AI have a sense of humor? JObot's voice was much more like a human voice now, unlike the synthetic sound on that first day we spoke. Maybe I was just fooled into thinking I could hear hints of humanity in its voice.
“Okay," I said. "Don't you have any windows in this ship? I'd like to look at the stars.”
“No, actually we use some flavors of Linux, like Ubuntu and Slackware."
"I see you have sense of humor. No, real windows, for me to be able to watch the stars."
"Sorry, I sometimes take everything literal, and as you are a computer geek... No, this ship was made for nanobots. There are mechanical means of collecting photons from the surface of the ship.” There was a short pause. "Okay, now you should be able to get a video image of the outside from the computer. Do you have any other requests?"
“Well, I have not wanted to anger you, but I'd like to contact Geisler and Chloe, at least let them know I am safe. They must be wondering what has happened to me."
JObot said, "You were wise to not try to communicate with people you know from Earth or try to tell anyone from Earth about your plight. If you must know, here is the story: you went out for a walk and got lost. The search is still going on for you, but it is presumed that you fell off a cliff or otherwise got hurt. Eventually the search will end and everyone will forget about you. Maybe Geisler will endow a 'Joe Daonet Memorial Scholarship'."
JObot's words lowered my spirits to an even gloomier depth. Would Chloe even miss me? Even if I did get rehabilitated on Mars, even if I did eventually return to Earth would I have been long forgotten? "I guess it is within your power to erase me from history. It is a pity.”
“Just relax and watch the stars. Think of how small a human is, how small all humans are. Can I do anything else for you?” Now I could clearly hear sarcasm in its voice.
I replied. “No, thanks. You have done enough. I will talk with you after I reach Mars.”
And then it was all about stars. The desktop of the computer now showed me a view of the stars. After a few days, the view had changed slightly. Just when I thought I would go mad with the slowness of the trip, I figured out how to control the image of space that was displayed. Now I was able to see an image that included Mars. It was exactly as I had seen it on NASA's website, like some glorious Hubble telescope image. The only difference was that I was seeing the planet grow larger each day!
I seriously studied the "Welcome to Mars" book so I could learn about the human culture on Mars and their underground complex. I also discovered that the other books on the shelf next to my bed were written by people living on Mars. I started to think fewer of my depressing thoughts about Earth and Chloe and got into a spirit of adventure and excitement about visiting an entirely new human culture. Judging from what I was reading, Mars was going to be very interesting.