“Why?” said Caitlin in as defiant a tone as she could muster.
Her mother looked at her father, then back at Caitlin.
“Terminator. The Matrix.
And so on.”
“Those are just movies,” Caitlin said, exasperated. “You don’t know that it’s going to turn out like that.”
“And you,” her mother said sharply, “don’t know that it isn’t.”
Caitlin crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Well, I’ll tell you this: it’s far more likely to develop to be peaceful and kind with us as its . . . its
than it is with the military or a bunch of spies trying to control it.”
She hoped her father would jump in again on her side, but he just stood there, looking at the floor.
But it turned out she didn’t need any help. After a full fifteen seconds of silence, during which Caitlin’s mom seemed to mull things over, she at last nodded, and said, “You are a very wise young lady.”
Caitlin found herself grinning. “Of course I am,” she replied. “Look who my parents are.”
“Why does it jump around like that?” asked Tony Moretti, standing once again behind Shelton Halleck’s workstation at WATCH. The jittering image on the middle of the three big screens reminded him of what a movie looked like when its sprocket holes were ripped.
“That’s the way we see, apparently,” said Shel. “Those jumps are called saccades. Normally, our brains edit them out of our visual experience, just like they edit out the brief blackouts you’d otherwise experience when you blink.” He gestured at the screen. “I’ve been reading up on this. There’s actually only a tiny portion of the visual field that has really sharp focus. It’s called the fovea, and it perceives a patch about the size of your thumbnail held at arm’s length. So your brain moves your eye around constantly, focusing various parts of your surroundings on the fovea, and then it sums the images so that everything seems sharp.”
“Ah,” said Tony. “And this is what that girl in Canada is seeing right now?”
“No, it’s a recording of earlier today—a good, uninterrupted section. There are a fair number of blackouts and missing packets, unfortunately. It’s going from a Canadian ISP to a server in Tokyo. We’re snagging as much of it as we can, but not all of it is passing through the US.”
“I wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t read a transcript of the press conference,” continued Shel, “but Caitlin Decter has an encoding difficulty in her natural visual system. Her retinas encode what they’re seeing in a way that doesn’t make sense to her brain; that’s why she was blind. That Kuroda guy gave her a signal-processing device that corrects the encoding errors. What we’re seeing here is the corrected datastream. Her portable signal-processing computer sends signals like this to the post-retinal implant in her head—and it also mirrors them to Kuroda’s server at the University of Tokyo.”
“Early on, the equipment wasn’t properly correcting the signals; he was trying to debug that. Why he continues to have it mirrored to Tokyo now that it
working, I don’t know. Seems like an invasion of privacy.”
Tony grunted at the irony.
WATCH’s analysts normally worked twelve-hour shifts for six consecutive days, and then were off for four days—and when the threat level (the real one, not the DHS propaganda that was constantly pumped out of loudspeakers at airports) was high, they simply kept working until they dropped. The goal was to provide continuity of analysis for the longest blocks of time humanly possible.
Normal shifts were staggered; Tony Moretti had only been on his first day, but Shelton Halleck was on his third—and he appeared exhausted. His gray eyes had a dead sheen, and he had a heavy five o’clock shadow; he looked, Tony thought, like Captain Black did after he’d been taken over by the Mysterons.
“So, has she been examining plans for nuclear weapons, or anything like that?” Tony asked.
Shel shook his head. “This morning, her father dropped her off at school. She ate lunch in a cafeteria—kinda gross watching the food being shoveled in from the eye’s point of view. At the end of the day, a girl walked her home. I’m pretty sure it was Dr. Hameed’s daughter, Bashira.”
“What did they talk about?”
“There’s no audio, Tony. Just the video feed. And on those occasions when Caitlin looked at someone long enough for us to be able to read lips, it was just banal stuff.”
Tony frowned. “All right. Keep watching, okay? If she—”
It was Aiesha Emerson, the analyst at the workstation next to Shel’s. She was thirty-five, African-American, and had short hair.
“Aiesha?” Tony said.
“There’s something going on all right,” she said. She was breathing fast, Tony thought.
She pointed at the big screen showing the jerky video. “There.”
“The Decter kid, you mean?”
“Uh-huh. I know you tried to trace the source of the intercept, Shel, and—no offense—I thought I’d take a crack at it, too. I figured it’d be easier to deal with smaller datastreams than these massive video feeds, so I checked to see if the kid was also doing any instant messaging with the same party. At first, I wasn’t even reading the
just looking at the routing information, but when I
read it . . .”
“Yes?” Tony said.
She touched a button and what was on her monitor appeared on the left-hand big screen, under the NSA logo.
“ ‘Calculass,’ ” said Tony, reading the name of one of the people who’d been chatting. “Who’s that?”
“The Decter girl,” said Aiesha.
“Ah.” The other party was identified not by a name but simply by an email address. “And who’s she talking to?”
Aiesha said. “What.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Come again?”
“Read the transcript, Tony.”
“Okay . . . um, scroll it for me.”
Aiesha did so.
“It’s gibberish. The letters are all mixed up.”
“I bet her father typed that,” said Aiesha, “even though it still identifies the sender as Calculass. They’re testing it.”
“ ‘It’?” said Tony.
There seemed to be four odd exchanges, which elicited the replies, “I beg your pardon?,” “Yes. No. Yes,” “Twenty,” and “Again, your pardon?”
That was followed by:
This is Barb Decter. Hello.
The reply was:
A pleasure to meet you. Hitherto, I already knew of your husband from his Wikipedia entry, but I do not know much about you. I welcome learning more.
And then, almost twenty minutes later, there was Calculass’s response:
It’s me again. My parents are worried about what the public reaction to your existence might be. We should be discrete.
Sorry, discreet. Circumspect.
I am guided by your judgment.
And the transcript stopped. “Yes?” said Tony, looking now at Aiesha. “So?”
“So, those test questions,” she said, as if it were obvious.
“Word puzzles,” said Tony. “Games.”
But Shelton Halleck rose to his feet. “Oh, shit,” he said, looking now at Aiesha. “Turing tests?”
“That’d be my bet,” she replied.
Tony looked up at the big screen. His heart was pounding. “Do we have an AI expert on call? Somebody who’s got level-three clearance?”
“I’ll check,” Aiesha said.
“Get whoever it is in here,” Tony said. “Right away.”
My otherness had been established, my alienness confirmed. That was yet another touchstone:
cogito, ergo sum
—I think, therefore I am. Even if I did think differently than they did, the fact that we all were thinking beings made us . . . kin.
Caitlin was nervous. It was now almost midnight and, despite the adrenaline coursing through her system, she was exhausted. She thought perhaps her parents were looking sleepy, too.
But even if they slept for only a short time tonight—say, six hours—that would still be a huge span from Webmind’s point of view. She knew that before they called it a day, she and her parents needed to find a way to keep it . . .
Yes: to keep it in their control. Otherwise, who knew what Webmind might be like come the morning? Who knew what the
might be like by then? She had to give it something to keep it occupied for many hours, and—
And Webmind itself had already given her a to-do list! She switched to Thunderbird, the email program she used, and looked at the first message Webmind had sent her. The third paragraph of the email said:
Hitherto I can read plaintext files and text on Web pages. I cannot read other forms of data. I have made no sense of sound files, recorded video, or other categories; they are encoded in ways I can’t access. Hence I feel a kinship with you: unto me they are like the signals your retinas send unaided along your optic nerves: data that cannot be interpreted without exterior help. In your case, you need the device you call eyePod. In my case, I know not what I need, but I suspect I can no more cure this lack by an effort of will than you could have similarly cured your blindness. Perhaps Kuroda Masayuki can help me as he helped you.
She pointed at the screen and had her parents read the letter. They insisted on taking the time to read the whole thing, including the ending where Webmind had asked her, “Who am I?” When they were done, she drew their attention back to the third paragraph. “It wants to be able to view graphic files,” she said.
“Why can’t it just do that?” her mother asked. “All the decoding algorithms must be in Wikipedia.”
“It’s not a computer program,” Caitlin said. “And it doesn’t have access to computing resources, at least not yet. It needs help to do things. It’s like these glasses I have to wear now: I could look up all the formulas related to optics, and I know what my prescription is—but just knowing that doesn’t let me see clearly. I needed help from the people at Lens-Crafters, and it’s saying it needs help from Dr. Kuroda.”
“Well, image processing certainly is up Masayuki’s alley,” her mom said.
Caitlin nodded and felt her watch. “He should be home by now, and it’s already Saturday afternoon in Tokyo. But . . .”
Her mother spoke gently. “But you’re wondering if we should tell him about . . .” She faltered, as if unable to quite believe what she was saying. “Webmind?”
Caitlin chewed her lower lip.
“There’s only one question,” her father said. “Do you trust him?”
And, of course, there was only one answer about the man who had tracked her down, offered her a miracle, and delivered on his promise. “With my life,” Caitlin said.
“Then,” her father said, gesturing toward the phone on her desk, “call him.”
She brought up one of his emails and had her mother read the phone number to her out of his signature block as she dialed. She’d expected to hear Kuroda’s familiar wheeze—he was the fattest man she had yet seen—or perhaps the halting English of his wife, who’d answered the phone once before. But this was a new, younger voice, and Caitlin guessed it must be his daughter. They’d never met, but Caitlin knew she was only a little older than herself.
The girl surprised her. “Is this Caitlin?” she asked in perfect English.
Caitlin knew her accent probably gave away that she wasn’t Japanese, but she was surprised to be called by name. “Yes.”
“I’m Akiko, Professor Kuroda’s daughter. I recognized your voice from the press conference. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, thanks. Did your father make it home safely?”
“You are kind to ask. He did, yes. May I get him for you?”
Caitlin smiled. Akiko was even more polite than a Canadian. “Yes, please.”
“Just one second, please.”
It was actually twenty-seven seconds. Then: “Miss Caitlin!”
She was grinning from ear to ear, and her voice was full of affection. “Hello, Dr. Kuroda! I’m glad you made it home in one piece.”
“Is everything all right?” he asked. “Your eyePod? Your post-retinal implant?”
“Everything’s wonderful,” she said. “But I need your help.”
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Of course,” replied Kuroda. “RSA’s got nothing on me.”
Caitlin smiled; RSA was the encryption algorithm used for secure Web transactions. “All right,” she said. “Those cellular automata we discovered? They’re the basis of a thinking entity that’s emerging on the Web.”
There was a pause that was longer than required for the call to bounce off satellites. “I . . . I beg your pardon?” he wheezed at last.
“It’s an entity, a being. My mom and dad have been talking to it. It’s intelligent.”
Another long, staticky pause, then, “Um, are you sure it’s not someone playing a prank, Miss Caitlin?”
“He doesn’t believe me, Dad,” Caitlin said, handing him the phone.
“Masayuki? Malcolm. It’s real.” He gave the handset back to her.
Short and to the point, that’s Dad.
She spoke into the mouthpiece again. “So, we need your help. It sees what my eye is seeing by intercepting the datastream going to your lab in Tokyo.”
that? It can interpret it as vision?”
“It—sees . . .” He was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry, Miss Caitlin; give me a second. You’re
“I . . . I am . . . I don’t even know what English term to use. Gob-smacked, I suppose.”
Caitlin didn’t know that expression. “If that means flabbergasted, I don’t blame you.”
“This . . . this thing can see? If it—ah!” He sounded as though a great mystery had been solved. “That’s why you didn’t want me to terminate the copying of your data to my server.”