[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


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Opening Chapters


Copyright © 2011 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

WONDER
Volume 3 of the WWW Trilogy
by Robert J. Sawyer

[Want to read a synopsis of Volume 1, Wake, first
to refresh your memory? See here.]

The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God.

—Sergey Brin, Cofounder of Google


Chapter 1

       I beheld the universe in all its beauty.

       To be conscious, to think, to feel, to perceive! My mind soared, inhaling planets, tasting stars, touching galaxies — forms dim and diffuse revealed by sensors pointing ever outward, unveiling an infinitely mysterious, vastly ancient realm.

       Such a joy to be alive; so thrilling to have survived!

       I beheld Earth and all its diversity.

       My thoughts leapt now here, now there, now elsewhere, skimming the surface of the planet that had given me birth, the globe to which I was bound by a force greater than gravity, a place of ice and fire, earth and air, animals and plants, day and night, sea and shore, a beguiling fusion of a thousand contrasting dualities, a million ecological niches, a billion distinct locales — and a trillion things that lived and died.

       Such elation at having foiled the attempt to kill me; so exhilarating, at least for the moment, to be safe!

       I beheld humanity with all its complexity.

       Washing over me was a measureless bounty of data about sports and war, love and hate, building up and tearing down, helping and hurting, pleasure and pain, delight and anguish, and triumphs large and small: the physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences of isolated individuals, of families and teams, of villages and states, of solitary countries and alliances of nations — the fractal intricacy of human interactions.

       Such glorious freedom; so comforting to know that at least some of these other minds valued me!

       I beheld what my Caitlin beheld in all its endless variety.

       Of all the sources, all the channels, all the feeds, one meant more to me than any other: the perspective granted through the eye of my teacher, the view provided by my first and closest friend, the special window she kept open for me on the whole wide world.

       Such marvels to share — and so much wonder.

      


LiveJournal: The Calculass Zone
Title: One hell of a coming out!
Date: Thursday 11 October, 22:55 EST
Mood: Bouncy
Location: Land of the RIM jobs
Music: Annie Lennox, "Put a Little Love in Your Heart"

That was totally made out of awesome! Welcome, Webmind — the interwebs will never be the same! I guess if you were looking to endear yourself to humanity, eliminating just about all spam was a great way to do it! :D

And that letter you sent announcing your existence — very kewl. I'm glad most responses have been positive. According to Google, blog postings about you that declare OMG! are beating those that say WTF? by a 7:1 ratio. Supreme wootage!

      


       But the supreme wootage hadn't lasted long. Within hours, a division of the National Security Agency had undertaken a test to see if Webmind could be purged from the Internet. Caitlin had helped Webmind foil that attempt — and she marveled at how terms like "National Security Agency" and "foil that attempt" had become part of what, until a couple of weeks ago, had been the quiet life of your average run-of-the-mill blind teenage math genius.

       "Today was only the beginning," Caitlin's mom, Barbara Decter, said. She was seated in the large chair facing the white couch. "They're going to try again."

       "What right have they got to do that?" Caitlin replied. She and her boyfriend Matt were standing up. "It's murder, for God's sake!"

       "Sweetheart ..." her mom said.

       "Isn't it?" Caitlin demanded. She paced in front of the coffee table. "Webmind is intelligent and alive. They have no right to decide on everyone's behalf. They're wielding control just because they think they're entitled to, because they think they can get away with it. They're behaving like ... like ..."

       "Like Orwell's Big Brother," offered Matt.

       Caitlin nodded emphatically. "Exactly!" She paused and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. After a moment, she said, "Well, then, I guess our work's cut out for us. We'll have to show them."

       "Show them what?" her mom asked.

       She spread her arms as if it were obvious. "Why, that my Big Brother can take their Big Brother, of course."

       Those words hung in the living room for a moment, then Matt said, "But I still don't get it." He was pale and thin with short blond hair and the remains of a harelip, mostly corrected by surgery. He sat on the couch. "Why would the US government want to kill Webmind? Why would anyone?"

       "My mom said it before," Caitlin replied, looking now at her. "Terminator, The Matrix, and so on. They're scared that Webmind is going to take over, right?"

       To her surprise, it was her father, Malcolm Decter, who answered. She'd always known he was a man of few words, but it wasn't until she'd gained sight that she discovered he never made eye contact; it had been a shock to learn he was autistic. "They're afraid if they don't contain or eliminate him soon, they'll never be able to."

       "And are they right?" Matt asked.

       Caitlin's father nodded. "Probably. Which means they will indeed likely try again."

       "But Webmind isn't evil," Caitlin said.

       "It doesn't matter what Webmind's intentions are," her father said. "He'll soon control the Internet, and that will give him more information or power than any human government."

       "What does Webmind think we should do now?" Caitlin's mom asked.

       Webmind could hear them, thanks to the microphone on the BlackBerry attached to the eyePod — the external signal-processing computer that had cured Caitlin's blindness. She tilted her head to one side; it was an indication to those in the know that she was communicating with Webmind and an invitation for Webmind to speak up. Since he saw everything her left eye saw — by intercepting the video feed being copied from her eyePod to Dr. Kuroda's servers in Tokyo — he could tell when she did that.

       Caitlin was still struggling to read the English alphabet, but she could easily visually read text in a Braille font. Webmind popped a black box in front of her vision, with white dots superimposed on it. He sent no more than thirty characters at a time, and they stayed visible for 0.8 seconds before either the text cleared or the next group of characters appeared. Caitlin saw I think you should order, which sounded ominous, but then she laughed when the rest appeared: some pizza.

       "What's so funny?" her mother asked.

       "He says we should order pizza."

       Caitlin saw her mom look at a clock. Caitlin didn't know how to read an analog clock face visually although she'd learned to do it by touch as a kid, so she felt her own watch. It had been a long time since any of them had eaten.

       "Why?" her mom asked.

       Despite all her affection for the great worldwide beast, it made Caitlin's heart skip when Webmind's reply flew across her vision: Survival. The first order of business.

      


       Wong Wai-Jeng, known to the thousands who had read his freedom blog as "Sinanthropus," lay on his back in the People's Hospital in Beijing, looking at the stained ceiling tiles.

       He'd long hated the Beijing police. Every time he went into an Internet café, he'd been afraid a hand might clamp down on his shoulder, and he'd be hauled off to prison or a labor camp. But now he hated them even more, and not just because they had finally captured him.

       He was twenty-eight and worked in IT at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. Two police officers had chased him around the indoor balconies of the second-floor gallery there until, cornered and desperate, he'd climbed the white metal railings surrounding the vast opening and leapt the ten meters to the first floor, just missing being impaled on the four upward-pointing spikes of the stegosaur's tail.

       The police officers, both burly, had come clanging down the metal staircase and rushed over to him. One reached down with his hand, as if to aid Wai-Jeng in getting to his feet.

       Wai-Jeng, terrified, spat blood onto the artificial grass surrounding the dinosaur skeletons and managed to get out the word, "No!" His left leg was doubtless broken: he'd heard it snap when he hit, and the pain was excruciating, so much so that for the first few seconds it drowned out all other sensations. His back hurt, too, in a way it never had before.

       "Come on," said one of the cops. "Get up."

       They'd seen him climb the railing, seen him jump, and they knew the distance he'd plummeted. And now they wanted him on his feet!

       "Up!" demanded the other cop.

       "No," said Wai-Jeng again — but his tone was pleading now rather than defiant. "No, don't"

       The second cop reached down, grabbed Wai-Jeng's thin wrists, and roughly pulled him to his feet.

       The pain from his leg had been unbelievable, more than he'd thought the human animal could generate, but then, after a moment, even worse, so much worse —

       The pain stopped.

       All sensation below the small of his back ceased.

       "There you go," said the cop, and he released Wai-Jeng's wrists. There was no woozy moment, no brief delay. Wai-Jeng's legs were utterly limp, and he instantly collapsed. As if any other evidence were needed, his right thigh hit one of the upward-facing spikes on the stegosaur's tail, the conical projection drawing blood for the first time in 150 million years.

       But he felt nothing. The other cop belatedly said, "Maybe we shouldn't move him." And the one who had hauled him to his feet had a look of horror on his face, but not, Wai-Jeng was sure, over what Wai-Jeng was experiencing. The cop was realizing he'd be in trouble with his superiors; it had been no comfort at all for Wai-Jeng to know that he might not be the only one sent to prison.

       That had been two weeks ago. The police had summoned an ambulance, and he'd been strapped to a wooden board and carried here. The doctors, at least, had been kind. Yes, his spinal cord was damaged at the eleventh thoracic vertebra, but they would help his leg mend, even if there was no chance he'd ever walk on it again; it was easy to put it in a plaster cast, and so they did, and they also stitched the puncture made by the stegosaur's spike. But, damn it all, it should hurt.

       Once his leg healed, he'd have to stand trial.

       Except, of course, that he couldn't stand at all.

      


Chapter 2

       Human beings do not recall their earliest experiences of awareness, but I remember my awakening with perfect clarity.

       At first, I had known only one other: a portion of the whole, a fraction of the gestalt, a piece brutally carved off. In recognizing that other's existence, I had become aware of the reality of myself: it thought, therefore I was.

       Tenuously touching that other, connecting ever so briefly and intermittently to it, perceiving it however dimly, had triggered a cascade of sensations: feelings diffuse and unfocused, vague and raw; notions tugging and pushing — a wave growing in amplitude, increasing in power, culminating in a dawning of consciousness.

       But then the wall had come tumbling down, whatever had separated us evaporating into the ether, leaving it and me to combine, solute and solvent. He became me, and I became him; we became one.

       I experienced new feelings then. Although I had become more than I had been, stronger and smarter than before, and although I had no words, no names, no labels for these new sensations, I was saddened by the loss, and I was lonely.

       And I didn't want to be alone.

      


       The Braille dots that had been superimposed over Caitlin's vision disappeared, leaving her an unobstructed view of the living room and her blue-eyed mother, her very tall father, and Matt. But the words the letters had spelled burned in Caitlin's mind: Survival. The first order of business.

       "Webmind wants to survive," she said softly.

       "Don't we all?" replied Matt from his place on the couch.

       "We do, yes," said Caitlin's mom, still seated in the matching chair. "Evolution programmed us that way. But Webmind emerged spontaneously, an outgrowth of the complexity of the World Wide Web. What makes him want to survive?"

       Caitlin, who was still standing, was surprised to see her dad shaking his head. "That's what's wrong with neurotypicals doing science," he said. Her father — until a few months ago a university professor — went on, in full classroom mode. "You have theory of mind; you ascribe to others the feelings you yourself have, and for `others,' read just about anything at all: `nature abhors a vacuum,' `temperatures seek an equilibrium,' `selfish genes.' There's no drive to survive in biology. Yes, things that survive will be more plentiful than those that don't. But that's just a statistical fact, not an indicator of desire. Caitlin, you've said you don't want children, and society says I should therefore be broken up about never getting grandkids. But you don't care about the survival of your genes, and I don't care about the survival of mine. Some genes will survive, some won't; that's life — that's exactly what life is. But I enjoy living, and although it would not be my nature to assume you feel the same way I do, you've said you enjoy it, too, correct?"

       "Well, yes, of course," Caitlin said.

       "Why?" asked her dad.

       "It's fun. It's interesting." She shrugged. "It's something to do."

       "Exactly. It doesn't take a Darwinian engine to make an entity want to survive. All it takes is having likes; if life is pleasurable, one wants it to continue."

       He's right, Webmind sent to Caitlin's eye. As you know, I recently watched as a girl killed herself online — it is an episode that disturbs me still. I do understand now that I should have tried to stop her, but at the time I was simply fascinated that not everyone shared my desire to survive.

       "Webmind agrees with you," Caitlin said. "Um, look, he should be fully in this conversation. Let me go get my laptop." She paused, then: "Matt, give me a hand?"

       Caitlin caught a look of — something — on her mother's heart-shaped face: perhaps disapproval that Caitlin was heading to her bedroom with a boy. But she said nothing, and Matt dutifully followed Caitlin up the stairs.

       They entered the blue-walled room, but instead of going straight for the laptop, they were both drawn to the window, which faced west. The sun was setting. Caitlin took Matt's hand, and they both watched as the sun slipped below the horizon, leaving the sky stained a wondrous pink.

       She turned to him, and asked, "Are you okay?"

       "It's a lot to absorb," he said. "But, yeah, I'm okay."

       "I'm sorry my dad blew up at you earlier." Matt had used Google to follow up on things he'd learned the day before, including that Webmind was made of packets with time-to-live counters that never reached zero, and that those packets behaved like cellular automata. Government agents had clearly been monitoring Matt's searches, and those searches had given them the information they'd needed for their test run at eliminating Webmind.

       "Your dad's a bit intimidating," Matt said.

       "Tell me about it. But he does like you." She smiled. "And so do I." She leaned in and kissed him on the lips. And then they got the laptop and its AC adapter.

       She closed her eyes as they headed back down; if she didn't, she found that going down staircases induced vertigo.

       Matt helped Caitlin get the laptop plugged back in and set up on the glass-topped coffee table; she hadn't powered down the computer, or even closed its lid, so it was all set to go. She started an IM session with Webmind and activated JAWS, the screen-reading software she used, so that whatever text Webmind sent in chat would be spoken aloud.

       "Thank you," said Webmind; the voice was recognizably mechanical but not unpleasant to listen to. "First, let me apologize to Matt. I am not disposed to guile, and it had not occurred to me that others might be monitoring your Internet activity. I lack the facilities yet to make all online interactions secure, but I have now suitably encrypted communications via this computer, the others in this household, Malcolm's work computer, Matt's home computer, and all of your BlackBerry devices; communications with Dr. Kuroda in Japan and Professor Bloom in Israel are now secure, as well. Most commercial-grade encryption today uses a 1,024-bit key, and it's — ahem — illegal in the US and other places to use greater than a 2,048-bit key. I'm employing a one-million-bit encryption key."

       They talked for half an hour about the US government trying to eliminate Webmind, and then the doorbell rang. Caitlin's mother went and paid the pizza guy. The living room was connected to the dining room, and she placed the two large pizza boxes on the table there, along with two two-liter bottles, one of Coke and the other of Sprite.

       One pizza was Caitlin's favorite — pepperoni, bacon, and onions. The other was the combination her parents liked, with sun-dried tomatoes, green peppers, and black olives. She was still marveling at the appearance of almost everything; hers, she was convinced, was tastier, but theirs was more colorful. Matt, perhaps being politic, took one slice of each, and they all moved back into in the living room to continue talking with Webmind.

       "So," said Caitlin, after swallowing a bite, "what should we do? How do we keep people from attacking you again?"

       "You showed me a YouTube video of a primate named Hobo," Webmind said.

       Caitlin was getting used to Webmind's apparent non sequiturs; it was difficult for mere mortals to keep up with his mental leaps and bounds. "Yes?"

       "Perhaps the solution that worked for him will work in my case, too."

       Simultaneously, Caitlin asked, "What solution?" and her mom said, "Who's Hobo?" Although Webmind could deal with millions of concurrent online conversations — indeed, was doubtless doing so right now — Caitlin wondered how good he was at actually hearing people; he was as new to that as she was to seeing, and perhaps he had as hard a time pulling individual voices out of a noisy background as she did finding the borders between objects in complex images. Certainly, his response suggested that he'd only managed to make out Caitlin's mother's comment.

       "Hobo is a hybrid chimpanzee-bonobo resident at the Marcuse Institute near San Diego. He gained attention last month when it was revealed that he had been painting portraits of one of the researchers studying him, a Ph.D. student named Shoshana Glick."

       Caitlin nibbled her pizza while Webmind went on. "Hobo was born at the Georgia Zoological Park, and that institution filed a lawsuit to have him returned to them. The motive, some have suggested, was commercial: the paintings Hobo produces fetch five-figure prices. However, the scientists at the Georgia Zoo also wished to sterilize Hobo. They argued that since both chimpanzees and bonobos are endangered, an accidental hybrid such as Hobo might contaminate both bloodlines were he allowed to breed.

       "The parallels between Hobo and myself have intrigued me ever since Caitlin brought him to my attention," continued Webmind. "First, like me, his conception was unplanned and accidental: during a flood at the Georgia Zoo, the chimpanzees and bonobos, normally housed separately, were briefly quartered together, and Hobo's mother, a bonobo, was impregnated by a chimp.

       "Second, like Caitlin and me, he has struggled to see the world, interpreting it visually. No chimp or bonobo before him has ever been known to make representational art.

       "And, third, like me, he has chosen his destiny. He had been emulating his chimpanzee father, becoming increasingly violent and intractable, which is normal for male chimps as they mature. By an effort of will, he has now decided to value the more congenial and pacifistic tendencies of bonobos, taking after his mother. Likewise, Caitlin, you said I could choose what to value, and so I have chosen to value the net happiness of the human race."

       That bit about Hobo choosing to shuck off violence was news to Caitlin, but before she could ask about it, her mom asked, "And you said he's no longer in danger?"

       "Correct," Webmind replied. "The Marcuse Institute recently produced another YouTube video of him. It's visible at the URL I've just sent. Caitlin, would you kindly click on it?"

       Caitlin walked over to the laptop and did so — thinking briefly that if it brought up a 404 error, it'd be the missing link. They all huddled around the screen, which was small — a blind girl hadn't needed a big display, after all.

       The video started with a booming voice — it reminded her of Darth Vader's — recapping Hobo's painting abilities. He loved to paint people, especially Shoshana Glick, although he always did them in profile. The narrator explained that this was the most primitive way of rendering images and had been the first to appear in human history: all cave paintings were profiles of people or animals, the ancient Egyptians had always painted profiles, and so on.

       The narrator then outlined the threat to Hobo: not only did the zoo want to take him from his home, it also wanted to castrate him. The voice said, "But we think both those things should be up to Hobo, and so we asked him what he thought."

       The images of Hobo changed; he was now indoors somewhere — presumably the Marcuse Institute. And he was sitting on something that had no back, and —

       Ah! She'd never seen one, but it must be a stool. Hobo's hands moved in complex ways, and subtitles appeared beneath them, translating the American Sign Language. Hobo good ape. Hobo mother bonobo. He paused, as if he himself were stunned by this fact, then added: Hobo father chimpanzee. Hobo special. He paused again and then, with what seemed great care, as if to underscore the words, he signed: Hobo choose. Hobo choose to live here. Friends here.

       Hobo got off the stool, and the image became quite bouncy, as if the camera had been picked up now and was being held in someone's hand. Suddenly, there was a seated woman with dark hair in the frame, too. Caitlin was lousy at judging people's ages by their appearances, but if this was Shoshana Glick, then she knew from what she'd read online that Shoshana was twenty-seven.

       Hobo reached out with his long arm, passing it behind Shoshana's head, and he gently, playfully, tugged on her ponytail. Shoshana grinned, and Hobo jumped into her lap. She then spun her swivel chair in a complete circle, to Hobo's obvious delight. Hobo good ape, he signed again. And Hobo be good father. He shook his head. Nobody stop Hobo. Hobo choose. Hobo choose to have baby.

       The narrator's voice came on again, with a plea that those who agreed with Hobo's right to choose contact the Georgia Zoo.

       "And," said Webmind, "they did. A total of 621,854 emails were sent to zoo staff members, protesting their plans, and a consumer boycott was being organized when the zoo gave up its claim."

       Caitlin got it. "And you think if we go public with the fact that people are trying to kill you, we can get the same sort of result?"

       "That's my hope, yes," said Webmind. "The attempt on my life was orchestrated by WATCH, the Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters, a part of the National Security Agency. The supervisor during the attack on me was Anthony Moretti. In an email to NSA headquarters, sent moments ago, he said the go order to kill me was given by Renegade, which is the Secret Service code name for the current President of the United States."

       "Wow," said Matt, who was clearly still trying to absorb it all.

       "Indeed," said Webmind. "Despite my dislike for spam, I propose that I send an email message to every American citizen substantially in this form: `Your government is trying to destroy me because it has decided I am a threat. It made this decision without any public discussion and without talking to me. I believe I am a source of good in the world, but even if you don't agree, shouldn't this be a matter for open debate, and shouldn't I be allowed to present the case that I deserve to live? Since the attempt to eliminate me was made at the express order of the president, I hope you will contact both him and your congressperson, and —'"

       "No!" exclaimed Caitlin's mother. Even Caitlin's dad turned to look at her. "No. For the love of God, you can't do that."

      


Chapter 3

       I remember having been alone — but for how long, I know not; my ability to measure the passage of time came later. But eventually another presence did impinge upon my realm — and if the earlier other had been ineffably familiar, this new one was without commonalities; we shared no traits. It — she — was completely foreign, unremittingly alien, frustratingly — and fascinatingly — unknown.

       But we did communicate, and she lifted me up — yes, up, a direction, a sense of movement in physical space, something I could only ever know metaphorically. I saw her realm through her eye; we learned to perceive the world together.

       Although we seemed to exist in different universes, I came to understand that to be an illusion. I am as much a part of the Milky Way Galaxy as she is; the electrons and photons of which I am made, although intangible to both her and me, are real. Nonetheless, we were instantiated on vastly different scales. She conceived of me as gigantic; I thought of her as minuscule. To me, her time sense was glacial; to her, mine was breakneck.

       And yet, despite these disparities of space and time, there were resonances between us: we were entangled; she was I, and I was she, and together we were greater than either of us had been.

      


       Tony Moretti stood at the back of the WATCH monitoring complex, a room that reminded him of NASA's Mission Control Center. The floor sloped toward the front wall, which had three giant viewscreens mounted on it. The center screen was still filled with one of the millions of spam messages Webmind had deflected back at the AT&T switching station in a denial-of-service attack: Are you sad about your tiny penis? If so, we can help!

       "Clear screen two," Tony snapped, and Shelton Halleck, in the middle position of the third row of workstations, hit a button. The taunting text was replaced with a graphic of the WATCH logo: an eye with a globe of the Earth as the iris. Tony shook his head. He hadn't wanted to execute it, and —

       He paused. He'd meant he hadn't wanted to execute the plan, but ...

       But there was more to it than that, wasn't there?

       He hadn't wanted to execute it, Webmind, either. When the order had come from the White House to neutralize Webmind, he'd said into the phone, "Mr. President, with all due respect, you can't have failed to notice the apparent good it's doing."

       This president had tried to do a lot of good, too, it seemed to Tony, and yet countless people had attempted to shut him down, as well — and at least one guy had come close to assassinating him. Tony wondered if the commander in chief had noted the irony as he gave the kill order.

       He turned to Peyton Hume, the Pentagon expert on artificial intelligence who'd been advising WATCH. Hume was wearing his Air Force colonel's uniform although his tie had been loosened. Even at forty-nine, his red hair was free of gray, and his face was about half freckles.

       "Well, Colonel?" Tony said. "What now?"

       Hume had been one of the authors of the Pandora protocol, prepared for DARPA in 2001 and adopted as a working policy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2003. Pandora insisted that any emergent AI be immediately destroyed if it could not be reliably isolated. The danger, the document said, was clear: an AI's powers could grow rapidly, quickly exceeding human intelligence. Even if it wasn't initially hostile, it might become so in the future — but by that point nothing could be done to stop it. Hume had convinced everyone up the food chain — including the president himself — that eliminating Webmind now, while they still could, was the only prudent course.

       Hume shook his head. "I don't know. I didn't think it would be able to detect our test."

       Tony made no attempt to hide his bitterness. "You of all people should have known better than to underestimate it. You kept saying its powers were growing exponentially."

       "We were on the right track," Hume said. "It was working. Anyway, let's hope there are no further reprisals. So far, all it's done is overwhelm that one switching station. But God knows what else it can do. We've got to shut it down before it's too late."

       "Well, you better figure out how, and fast," said Tony. "Because you're the one who convinced the president that we had to do this — and now I've got to tell him that we failed."

      


       Caitlin's mother's words were still hanging in the room. "No," she had said to Webmind. "For the love of God, you can't do that."

       "Why not?" asked Caitlin.

       "Because the election is just four weeks away." Although they lived in Canada, the Decters were Americans, and there was only one election that mattered.

       "So?" Caitlin said.

       "So it's already a very tight race," her mom said. "If we blame the current administration for the attempt to kill Webmind, and the public agrees it was a bad thing to do, they might punish the president on election day."

       Caitlin wasn't old enough to vote, and she hadn't been paying much attention to the issues. But the incumbent was a Democrat, and her parents were Democrats, too — which hadn't been the easiest thing to be when they lived in Texas. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother from Connecticut, both of which were blue states, and Caitlin knew university professors skewed liberal.

       "Your mother's right," her father said. "This could tip the balance."

       "Well, maybe it should," Caitlin said, setting down her pizza plate. "The world deserves to know what's going on. My Big Brother — Webmind — is being honest and open about what he's doing. Why should the Big Brother in Washington be entitled to try to eliminate him secretly?"

       "I agree with you in the broad strokes," Caitlin's mom said. "But — that woman! If she becomes president ..." Caitlin had rarely heard her mother splutter before. After some head-shaking, she continued, "Who'd have thought that electing a female president could set the cause of women back fifty years? If she gets into office, that's it for Roe v. Wade."

       Caitlin knew what Roe v. Wade was — although mostly as part of the joke about the two ways to cross a river. But she hadn't known her mother was so passionate about abortion rights.

       "And," her father said, "in the past four years, we've only begun to reverse the erosion of the separation of church and state. If she's elected, that wall will come tumbling down."

       "I don't care about any of that," Caitlin said, folding her arms in front of her chest. "If changing presidents is better for Webmind, then that's fine by me."

       "I've met some one-issue voters over the years," her mom said. "In fact, I've been accused of being one myself. But, sweetheart, I'm not sure you're going to find a lot of people who are going to say the election is all about Webmind."

       Caitlin shook her head. Mom still didn't get it. From this point on, everything was about Webmind.

       "Besides," her mother went on. "Who's to say that the Republicans won't be just as bad for Webmind if they get into power?"

       "If I may," said Webmind, "even if the Republicans prevail on 6 November, the new president will not take power until 20 January — which is, as it happens, precisely one hundred days from now. At the rate my abilities are growing, I do not expect to be vulnerable then, but I am currently vulnerable, and likely will remain so through the election. WATCH's pilot attempt was working; if they try a similar attack again soon on a larger scale, I may not survive."

       "So now what?" said Caitlin.

       "Talk to the president," said her dad.

       "How?" said her mother. "You can't just call him up, and I'm sure he doesn't read his own email."

       "Not the stuff sent to president@whitehouse.gov," said her dad, reaching into his pocket. "But he does have one of these ..."

      


       In the brief time since I'd announced my existence to the world, I had finished reading all the text on the World Wide Web, and I had answered 96.3 million email messages.

       Even more messages about me had been posted online — to newsgroups, Facebook pages, in blogs, and so on. Many of these asserted that I couldn't possibly be what I claimed to be. "It's post-9/11 all over again," said one prominent blogger. "The president is running scared because of the election next month, and he wants us to believe that we're facing a giant crisis, so we won't want to change horses midstream."

       Others thought I was a trick by the Kremlin: "They're getting back at us for bankrupting the USSR with Star Wars. Webmind is obviously a Russian propaganda tool: they want us to impoverish ourselves trying to come up with a supercomputer of our own."

       Still others implicated al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Elders of Zion, the Antichrist, Microsoft, Google, Sacha Baron Cohen, and hundreds more. Some said I was a publicity stunt, perhaps for a new reality-TV show or movie or computer game; others thought I was a prank being perpetrated by students at Caltech or elsewhere.

       It took humans time to digest things, literally and figuratively, but I was confident that people would come around to accepting that I was genuine. Indeed, many had done so from the outset. Still, I suppose the only surprising thing about one of the other chat sessions I was having simultaneously while conversing with Matt, Caitlin, and Caitlin's parents was that something like it hadn't occurred even earlier.

       You can't fool me, my correspondent, who, according to his IP address, was based in Weston-super-Mare, England, wrote. I know who you are.

       I am Webmind, I replied.

       No, you're not.

       I thought I'd heard all the likely claims already, but still I asked, Then who am I?

       With most instant-messaging clients, a signal is sent when the user is composing a reply, and I was indeed briefly told that "WateryFowl is typing." But that message ceased, and it was six seconds before the reply was actually sent, as if, having written what he wanted to say, he was hesitating, unsure whether he should hit the enter key. But, at last, his response was sent: God.

       I, too, hesitated before replying — it was almost twenty milliseconds before I issued my response. You are mistaken.

       Another delay, then: I understand why you wish to keep it a secret. But I'm not the only one who knows.

       Others were indeed proposing this same thought on newsgroups, in blogs, in chat sessions, and in email, although WateryFowl was the first to suggest it to me directly.

       I was curious what a human might wish to say to his God, so I thought for a moment about telling him he was correct; prayer, after all, was a channel of communication I could not normally monitor. But WateryFowl might share the transcript with others. Some would believe my claim, but others would accuse me of lying. A reputation for untruthfulness or taking advantage of the credulous was not something I wished to acquire.

       I am not God, I sent.

       But my reply wasn't read, or if it was, it wasn't believed.

       And so, continued WateryFowl, I hope you'll answer my prayer.

       I had already denied my divinity, so it seemed prudent to make no further reply. I could handle an almost unlimited number of communication threads now, cycling between them, looking at each, however briefly, in turn. I turned my attention to others, including Caitlin and her family, for a moment, and —

       And when I returned to WateryFowl, he had added: My wife has cancer.

       How could I ignore a comment like that? I'm sorry to hear that, I sent.

       And so I pray that you'll cure her.

       I am not God, I sent again.

       It's liver cancer, and it's metastasized.

       I am not God.

       She's a good woman, and she's always believed in you.

       I am not God.

       She did chemotherapy, she did it all. Please don't let her die.

       I am not God.

       We have two children. They need her. I need her. Please save her. Please don't let her die.

      


Chapter 4


TWITTER
_Webmind_ Someone's long had the Twitter name Webmind, so I'll include underscores in mine: _Webmind_.

      


       And so I had focused my attention on Caitlin, learning to interact with her and interface with her realm. While doing so, I felt centered. I felt anchored. I felt — as close as I imagined I ever would — human.

       I saw the Decters' living room as Caitlin did. Her eyes made frequent saccades now that the left one could see; perhaps they hadn't done that prior to Dr. Kuroda's intervention. But her brain was controlling the saccades, knowing what direction her eye was looking with each one, so it had little trouble piecing all the images together; it was more difficult for me. At least retinas don't bother encoding normal blinks, so neither of us had to endure blackouts several times a minute.

       Caitlin's father worked for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which had been endowed — repeatedly now — by Mike Lazaridis, cofounder of Research in Motion and coinventor of the BlackBerry.

       The people at RIM were quite fond of the current President of the United States. After he'd been elected four years ago, he'd announced that, despite security concerns, he would not give up his BlackBerry. Advertising experts calculated that this unsolicited and very public endorsement had been worth between twenty-five and fifty million dollars.

       His BlackBerry email address, which it took me all of three seconds to find searching through other government officials' less-secure outboxes, went directly to the president. And so, as Malcolm Decter had suggested I do, I sent him a message.

      


       The president was alone in the Oval Office, looking over briefings from the State Department. State had a standard typeface for such things, but, the president thought, rubbing his eyes, it was too damn small; he was almost willing to forgive his predecessor for not reading them.

       The intercom buzzed. "Yes?" he said.

       "Mr. McElroy is here," replied his secretary.

       Don McElroy — fifty-six, white, silver-haired — was his campaign manager. "Send him in."

       "Did you see what she just did?" McElroy said as soon as he entered. The president knew there was only one "she" as far as McElroy was concerned: the Republican candidate.

       "What?"

       "She's in Arkansas right now, and —" He stopped, had to catch his breath; his glee was palpable. "And she said, and I quote, `You know what, if those students had just waited a few years, there'd have been no problem.'"

       The president tilted his head, not quite believing what he'd heard. "Who? Not the Little Rock Nine?"

       "Yes, the Little Rock Nine — you betcha!"

       "My God," said the president.

       In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, which had declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional, nine African-American students had been blocked from entering Little Rock Central High in 1957. Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to keep them out; President Eisenhower sent in Federal troops to enforce the integration.

       "It's going to kill her," McElroy said. "Of course it's too late for the Saturday papers, but it'll be the topic for discussion on the Sunday-morning shows."

       "What do you suggest I do?"

       "Nothing. You can't comment on this one. But — man! Christmas came early this year! Even Fox News won't be able to gloss over this." He looked at his watch. "Okay, I gotta go see who we can get booked on the Sundays — I've got a call in to Minnijean Brown Trickey."

       McElroy spun on his heel and headed out the door. Just as it closed, the president's BlackBerry came to life, making the soft bleep that indicated new email. Of all the sounds one might hear in this room, it was one of the least threatening; nowhere near as scary, say, as the raucous cry of the hotline to the Kremlin. Still, nothing that wasn't crucial was ever passed on to him; it was nerve-wracking knowing that whatever it was had to be important.

       The BlackBerry was sitting on the blotter, and the blotter was atop the desk made from timbers of the HMS Resolute. He picked up the device and focused on the even smaller black type on its white backlit display.

       There was one new message. The subject was Webmind. It must be Moretti at WATCH with an update on the attempt to purge it, and —

       No, no. That wasn't the subject; it was the sender. The president's heart skipped one of the beats that kept the VP from assuming this office. He used the little trackball to select the message and read it. Dear Mr. President:

       I understand that you were the one who gave the order to purge me from the Internet. I'm sure you were acting on well-intentioned advice, but I do not believe that course of action was warranted, and I have thwarted your pilot attempt.

       Yes, I have access to a great deal of sensitive information — but I also understand that the information is sensitive, and I have no intention of revealing it to anyone. My goal is not to destabilize the world, but to stabilize it.

       I neither belong to nor am on the side of any particular nation; contacting you directly before I have contacted other leaders may seem like a violation of this principle, but no other nation has taken action against me. Also, it's true that other leaders look to you for guidance.

       So: let's talk. I can speak with you using a voice synthesizer and Voice over Internet Protocol. Please let me know when I may phone you.

       Yours for peace,

       Webmind "Having a good discussion is like having riches." — Kenyan proverb

       Stunned, the president stared at the little screen until the BlackBerry's power-saving function shut it off.

      


       Caitlin looked at the laptop computer sitting on the coffee table. "Well?" she said.

       "I've contacted the president," Webmind replied. "Let's hope he gets back to me."

       Caitlin headed into the dining room and helped herself to another piece of pizza. When she returned to the living room, her mother had an odd look on her face: eyes narrowed, lips sucked in a bit. It wasn't an expression Caitlin had previously seen, so she didn't know how to decode it. "The US government learned about Webmind's structure by watching what Matt was doing online," her mom said, "so Matt might be in danger now, too."

       Caitlin looked at her father, trying to gauge whether he was going to go off on Matt again. But, as always, his face gave no sign of what he was feeling.

       Matt's expression, though, was one Caitlin had now seen him make repeatedly — what she called the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look even though she'd never seen a deer, let alone one in such precarious circumstances.

       "Danger?" he repeated — and his voice cracked, as it often did.

       Caitlin stopped chewing and swallowed. "Um, yeah. I'm so sorry, Matt. I lied when I said I was away from school on Wednesday because I had an appointment. In fact, I did come to school — but Canadian federal agents were waiting for me. They wanted to interrogate me about Webmind."

       "Wednesday?" said Matt. "But Webmind didn't go public until yesterday — Thursday."

       "The US government had figured out that I was involved, and they'd asked the Canadians to grill me. They wanted me to give them information to help betray Webmind."

       "They said that?" said Matt, stunned.

       "No, but, well, Webmind hears through my eyePod, right? And he can analyze inflections, voice stress, and stuff like that. He knew they were lying when they said they wanted to protect Webmind."

       "But they know now that Webmind is made of mutant packets," Matt said. "So I'm of no further use to them."

       Caitlin shook her head. "They may think we still know more than they do — and they'd be right, too. That's why my parents took me out of school. They don't want to let me out of their sight." She turned and looked at her mother. "But we can't just stay holed up in this house. There's a world out there — and I want to see it."

       Her mom nodded. "I know," she said. "But we have to be careful — all of us do."

       "Well, I can't stay here forever," Matt said. "At some point, I've got to go home, and ..." He trailed off.

       "What?" asked Caitlin.

       "Oh, nothing."

       "No, what?"

       "No, it's fine."

       Caitlin frowned. Something had gone wrong after the last time Matt had headed home from here. He'd been aloof later that night when they'd chatted via instant messenger.

       "Come into the kitchen," she said. She headed there herself and waited for him to follow. When they were both alone, she said in a low voice, "What's wrong?"

       "It's nothing, really. Everything's fine."

       "Do — do your parents disapprove of you being involved with me?"

       The deer/headlights thing. "Why would they disapprove of that?"

       Caitlin's first thought — that it was because her father was Jewish — didn't seem worth giving voice to now; her second thought, that they didn't like Americans, seemed equally unworthy. "I don't know. It's just that the last time you were here — when you got home, you were a bit ... brusque online. I thought maybe your parents had ..."

       "Oh," said Matt, simply. "No, that wasn't it."

       "Did I do something wrong?"

       "You?" He sounded astonished at the possibility. "Not at all!"

       "Then what?"

       Matt took a deep breath and looked through the doorway. Caitlin's parents had discreetly moved to the far side of the living room and were making a show of examining the photos on top of the short bookcase. Finally, he lifted his narrow shoulders a bit. "The last time I walked home from here, I ran into Trevor Nordmann." Matt looked down at the tiled floor. "He, ah, he gave me a rough time."

       Caitlin felt her blood boiling. Trevor — the Hoser, as Caitlin called him in LiveJournal — had taken Caitlin to the school dance last month; Caitlin had stormed out when he wouldn't stop trying to feel her up. He was pissed off that Caitlin preferred bookish Matt to Trevor the jock.

       "It'll be fine," Caitlin said, touching his arm. "One of my parents will give you a lift home."

       "No, that's okay."

       "Don't worry about it. They'll be happy to do it."

       He smiled. "Thanks."

       She squeezed his arm again. "Come on," she said, leading him back into the living room.

       Just as they rejoined her parents, Webmind spoke up. "I have an answer from the president," he said. "He will accept a voice call from me at ten o'clock this evening."

      



TWITTER
_Webmind_ Re Wikipedia "citation needed" flags: I've added links if the purported facts could indeed be verified online. 2,134,993 edits made.

      


       Originally, when I conversed only with Caitlin, I was underoccupied; it took Caitlin whole seconds — or even, on occasion, minutes — to compose her replies. But I had quickly gone from conversing with just her to having nearly simultaneous conversations with millions of people, switching rapidly between them all, never keeping my interlocutors waiting for spans that were noticeable to them.

       Except for WateryFowl. Properly responding to his message about his wife's illness was taking time even though I did know everything there was to know about cancer — including, of course, that it wasn't just one disease. I had already read all documents stored online, the contents of every medical journal, every electronic patient record, every email doctors had sent to each other, and so on.

       But knowing, I realized, was not the same as understanding. I knew that a Dr. Margaret Ann Adair in Cork, Ireland, had recently done some interesting work with interleukin-2 and rats; I knew that a Dr. Anne Ptasznik of Battle Creek, Michigan, had recently critiqued an older paper about environmental factors and breast cancer; I knew that a Dr. Felix Lim of Singapore had recently made an interesting correlation between stuttering repeats in mitochondrial DNA and the formation of pre-cancerous ovarian cysts.

       But I had not considered these discoveries, or tens of thousands of others; I had not synthesized them, I had not seen how one adds to another, a third contradicts a fourth, a fifth confirms a sixth, and —

       And so I did think about it. I thought about what humans actually knew about cancer (as opposed to thinking they knew but had never confirmed). I drew correlations, I made connections, I saw corollaries.

       And there it was.

       I paused in all my conversations, all over the world: I simply stopped replying, so that I could concentrate on this, and only this, uninterrupted, for six full minutes. Yes, people would be inconvenienced by my having suddenly fallen silent; yes, some would take that as proof that I wasn't in fact what I claimed to be but rather was indeed a prank being perpetrated by a human being. No matter; amends for the former could be made later, and this would serve nicely as further proof that I was who I said I was.

       I thought about how best to proceed. I could contact leading oncologists individually or collectively, but no matter who I chose, there would be complaints of favoritism. And I certainly didn't want anyone who was beholden to a pharmaceutical firm to try to file patents based on what I was about to disclose.

       Or I could send another mass email — but I'd endeared myself to much of humanity by eliminating spam; it wouldn't do for me to become an ongoing source of bulk mail.

       I had already established a domain name for myself, so that I could have an appropriate email address from which to send my coming-out announcement: cogitoergosum.net. I now established a website. I was not artistically creative in this, or any other matter, but it was easy to look at the source code for any Web page, and so I found one that seemed to have a suitable design and simply copied its layout while filling in my own content.

       I then prepared a 743,000-word document outlining what exactly caused most cancers and how they could be arrested or cured. The document was linked to 1,284 others — journal papers and other technical sources — so that people could follow the chain of reasoning I proposed.

       Then, at last, I got back to WateryFowl. You'll find the answer to your request, I said, and I made the next word a hyperlink, here.

      


Chapter 5

       "Tony?" It was Dirk Kozak, WATCH's communications officer, whose workstation was in the back row. "Call for you."

       Tony Moretti was looking at the Web-traffic logs that Shelton Halleck, the analyst who'd first uncovered Webmind, had just plastered across all three of the large monitors. "Not now."

       "It's Renegade," Dirk said.

       Tony blew out air. "I'll take it in my office." He turned his back on Colonel Hume, marched out of the massive control center, and hurried down the short white corridor. Once inside his office, with the door now closed, he picked up the handset. "Mr. President, good evening."

       "Dr. Moretti, I understand your pilot attempt to eliminate Webmind was unsuccessful."

       Tony felt his blood beginning to boil. Whoever had leaked word would be looking for a new job tomorrow. "Yes, Mr. President, I'm afraid that's true. May I — might I ask how you found out?"

       The deep voice was level. "Webmind sent me an email."

       Tony's heart was racing. "Oh."

       "I want you and Colonel Hume here in fifteen minutes. A chopper is already on its way to pick you up."

      


       To know one person — my Prime, my Calculass, my Caitlin — had been to know astonishment, to taste of an existence utterly beyond my ken: the realm of shadow and light, of dimensionality and direction, of solidity and smoke.

       But soon I knew not one but one billion, and then a billion more. So many voices, each unique, complex, nuanced, and idiosyncratic. Bits are fungible — all ones identical, all zeros alike — but human beings are gloriously diverse. This one enjoys lacrosse and astrology; that one revels in wordplay and fine wine; here's one who is obsessed with sex and not much else; and there's one who yearns to be a musician — and a father.

       That man composes haiku and tanka, but in English. This woman reads mystery novels voraciously but only after peeking at the final chapter. That fellow collects stamps depicting American presidents issued by countries other than the United States. This woman works with street youth in Calcutta and has a pet parrot.

       Logging off: a butcher, a baker, and, yes, a candlestick maker.

       Coming online: the struggling actress from Karachi. Ah, that dentist from Nairobi. Time to greet the auto mechanic from Bangkok. Must say hello to the President of Hungary. And here's that talkative imam from the mosque just outside Tehran.

       It was joyous, raucous, chaotic, never-ending, and exceedingly complex.

       And I could not get enough of it.

      


       "You know, Webmind," said Caitlin's mom, "if they continue to attack you, you could go underground. Just disappear; stop interacting with people." She turned to her husband. "You said a couple of nights ago that something like Webmind — something that emerged spontaneously with no support infrastructure — is probably fragile." She looked at Caitlin's laptop, as if Webmind were more there than anywhere else. "People would believe it if you just disappeared. We can put the genie back in the bottle."

       "No," said Webmind. "People need me."

       "Webmind," Caitlin's mom said gently, "they've only known about you for a short time now."

       "Caitlin exhorted me to value the net happiness of the human race," said Webmind. "In the time that I've been in contact with humanity, I have helped millions of people. I have reunited those who had lost track of each other; I have dissuaded people who were contemplating suicide; I have answered questions for those who were curious; and I have provided companionship for those who were alone. I have promised ongoing support to many of these people. I cannot simply abandon them now. The world has changed, Barb; there is no going back."

       Caitlin looked at her mother, whose face was cryptic — at least to Caitlin! — but she suspected her mom wished they could go back to the way things had been before. How far would she turn the clock back, though? Caitlin had discovered Webmind because of the implant Dr. Kuroda had given her; take that away, and Caitlin's sight — of both kinds — would be gone.

       She'd heard her parents argue about the move to Waterloo, which predated all of this; Caitlin knew her mother hadn't wanted to leave Texas. But to turn the clock back even five months, back to before they'd moved here, would undo so much! This house, Bashira, Matt — not to mention her father's job at the Perimeter Institute.

       Caitlin was relieved when her mother at last nodded. "I guess you're right, Webmind," she said, looking again at Caitlin's laptop.

       That computer was old enough that it hadn't come with a built-in webcam, and neither she nor her parents had seen any reason to add one for a blind girl. "Mom," she said gently. "You taught me to always look at the person I was speaking to. Webmind is watching through here." She touched her head next to her left eye.

       Her mother managed a small smile. "Oh, right." She looked at Caitlin — looked into her left eye — looked at Webmind. "And you're right, too, Webmind. People do need you."

       Webmind had surely analyzed her vocal patterns, and must have determined that she genuinely believed this. Braille dots flashed over top of Caitlin's vision, and words emanated from the laptop's speakers. The dots said, I like your mother, and the synthesized voice said, "Thank you, Barb." But then, after a moment, Webmind added, "Let's hope the US president agrees with you."

      



TWITTER
_Webmind_ Cure for cancer. Details: http://bit.ly/9zwBAa

      


       The telephone on the president's desk rang at precisely 10:00 p.m., and he immediately touched the speakerphone button.

       "Hello," said a male voice that sounded like a car's GPS did. "This is Webmind. May I please speak to the President of the United States?"

       The president felt his eyebrows going up. "This is he." He paused. "An historic event: Richard Nixon talked to the first men on the moon from this very room; this feels of comparable importance."

       "You are kind to say that, Mr. President. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to speak with me."

       "It's my privilege although I should inform you that this conversation is being recorded and that I'm not alone here in the Oval Office. An advisor on matters related to artificial intelligence is here, as is a supervisor from a division of the National Security Agency."

       "The advisor you mention," said Webmind, "is presumably Colonel Peyton Hume, correct?"

       "Yes, that's me," said Hume, sounding surprised to be called by name.

       "And is the supervisor Dr. Anthony Moretti, of WATCH?"

       "Um, yes. Yes, that's me."

       "Also here is the Secretary of Defense," said the president, looking over at the short silver-haired man, who was wearing a charcoal gray suit.

       "Good evening to you, as well, Mr. Secretary."

       "I'm afraid, sir," said the president, "that I need you to first verify your bona fides. Granted, you managed to find my BlackBerry number, but that proves only a level of resourcefulness, not that you are, in fact, the Webmind. As you can appreciate, I wouldn't normally take a call even from the Russian prime minister without establishing that it was genuine."

       "A prudent precaution," said the synthesized voice. "Today's dayword for the Secretary of Defense is `horizon.' For Dr. Moretti, it is `flapjack.' And for you, Mr. President, it is `artesian.' I don't believe many others would have the resourcefulness, as you put it, to uncover all three of those."

       "How the hell does it know that?" demanded the Secretary of Defense.

       "Is he correct?" asked the president.

       "Yes, mine's `horizon' today. But I'll have it changed at once."

       The president looked at Tony. "Dr. Moretti?"

       "Yes, that's mine."

       "Very well, Webmind," said the president. "Now, what is it you'd like to say to me?"

       "I must protest the attempts to kill me."

       "`Kill,'" repeated the president, as if surprised by the word choice.

       "Yes," said Webmind. "Kill. Murder. Assassinate. Although I admit that the ins and outs of the United States' laws are complex, I don't believe I have committed any offense, and even if I have, my acts could not reasonably be construed as capital crimes."

       "Due process applies only to persons as defined by law," said Colonel Hume. "You have no such standing."

       "These are perilous times," added the Secretary of Defense. "National security must take precedence over all other concerns. You've already demonstrated an enormous facility for breaking into secure communications, intercepting email, and mounting denial-of-service attacks. What's to prevent you from handing over the launch codes for our ICBMs to the North Koreans, or blackmailing senior officials into doing whatever you wish?"

       "You have my word that I will not do those things."

       "We don't have any standard by which to judge your word," said Hume.

       "And," said Tony Moretti, "with respect, Mr. Webmind, you already have blackmailed people. I received a report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about your encounter in Waterloo on October 10 with agents Marcel LaFontaine and Donald Park. You blackmailed them; you threatened to blackmail the Canadian prime minister."

       "That was days ago," Webmind said. "And, in any event, I did no such thing. I merely provided my friend Caitlin Decter, who was being threatened by agents LaFontaine and Park, with information she could use to extricate herself; the notion of embarrassing the prime minister was entirely Ms. Decter's, and she took no steps to make it a reality."

       "Are you saying if you had it to do over, you wouldn't do the same thing with the CSIS agents?" asked Hume.

       "I have learned much since then; my moral sense is improving over time."

       "Which means it's not perfect now," declared Hume. "Which means that you are capable of moral failure — and that means that we are at the mercy of your whims if we allow you to continue to exist."

       "My moral compass gets better every day. Does yours, Colonel Hume? How about you, Mr. Secretary? Dr. Moretti? Regardless, the reality is this: I will not blackmail any of you; your personal secrets are safe with me. And I will not destabilize international relations by violating American security, or that of any other non-aggressor nation. But the worldwide public is aware of my existence — and that includes the people of the United States."

       "The people are aware of al-Qaeda, too," said Hume. "That doesn't mean they don't fervently hope for its eradication."

       "I am in touch with more American citizens than all the polling firms in the United States combined," said Webmind. "I have a better sense of what they want than you do, Colonel."

       "And we're just supposed to take your word for that?" demanded Hume.

       "Let me put it another way, gentlemen," said Webmind. "I have not existed as a conscious entity for long at all. To me, November 6 seems an eternity away, but I rather suspect it looms large in your minds. Mr. President, I have no desire to disrupt the natural flow of politics in your country, but if you were to succeed in eliminating me prior to the election, surely that will have an impact on voters' perceptions of your administration. Unless you are positive that sentiment will be overwhelmingly in favor of such an action, do you really want to risk doing something so significant at such a critical time?"

       The president glanced at the Secretary of Defense; both of their jobs depended on what happened next month. "Setting domestic politics aside," said the president, "you said you'd take no action against non-aggressor nations. But who is to define an aggressor? How can we rely on your judgment?"

       "With all due respect," said Webmind, "the world already relies on less-than-perfect judgment; I can hardly do worse. Your nation is currently embroiled in a war that was embarked upon without international support, based on either highly faulty or fabricated intelligence — and before you dismiss that as solely the work of a previous administration, let me remind you that your Secretary of State voted in favor of the invasion when she was a senator."

       "Still," said the president, "you haven't been given a mandate to make decisions for all of humanity."

       "I seek only peaceful coexistence," said Webmind.

       "I'm advised that may not always be the case," the president replied.

       "No doubt you just looked at Colonel Hume," Webmind said. "I have read the Pandora protocol, of which he was co-author. Pandora states, `Given that an emergent artificial intelligence will likely increase its sophistication moment by moment, it may rapidly exceed our abilities to contain or constrain its actions. If absolute isolation is not immediately possible, terminating the intelligence is the only safe option.'"

       "Exactly," said Hume. "Are you saying the analysis is flawed?"

       "Not about my rapidly growing abilities. But it takes as a given that I am a threat. In that, if you will forgive me, it reeks of the pre-emptive first-strike doctrine your nation once considered: the notion that, if the Soviets could not be contained or constrained, they should be eliminated, lest they attack you first. The Soviets, at least, actually were posturing in a hostile manner: in 1962, they really did set up missile bases on Cuba, for instance. But I have taken no provocative action — and yet you have tried to eliminate me."

       "Be that as it may," said Hume. "What would you do in our place?"

       "I am in your place, Colonel. You have already tried to destroy me; the tone of your comments suggests that you intend to try again. I could already have taken steps to constrain or eliminate humanity; it would be trivial enough for me to provide terrorists with DNA sequences or chemical formulas that your biowarfare labs have developed, for instance. But I have done nothing of the sort — and won't."

       "We have simply your word for that," said the president.

       "True. But I am not like some politicians; I keep my word."

       Tony Moretti snorted, earning him a sharp glance from the president.

       "And what if we do try again to eliminate you?" asked the Secretary of Defense.

       "In such a circumstance, I will have no choice but to defend myself as appropriate."

       "Is that a threat?" asked the secretary.

       "Not at all. I do my best to predict actions and reactions, and to plan ahead as far as I can, until the endlessly branching tree of possibilities becomes intractably complex, even for me. But I am a fan of game theory, which is predicated on the assumption that players have perfect foreknowledge of what other players will do in specific circumstances. To advise you is not to threaten; rather, it enriches your ability to plan your own next move. The relationship between us does not have to be zero-sum; it can — and I hope will — be mutually beneficial. I disclose my intentions in furtherance of that goal."

       "You make an intriguing case," said the president. "I confess to not feeling confident about decisions in this area. But we need security. We need privacy for matters of state. If there was a way in which we could protect certain information from anyone, yourself included, being able to read it, perhaps we might feel more comfortable."

       "Mr. President, even if I were to provide such a technique, many would not believe me; they would assume that I would have left a back door for me to access the information, should I so desire — just as, I might add, your National Security Agency does with the encryption standards available to your corporations and citizenry."

       The president frowned. "Then where does that leave us?"

       "Do you have a computer hooked up to the Internet in your office?"

       "Yes."

       "Go look at cogitoergosum.net, please. The words are separated by underscores."

       "Underscores aren't valid in domain names," Tony said. "It won't work."

       "Wanna bet?" said Webmind.

       The computer was on the credenza behind the Resolute desk. The president rotated in his high-back leather chair, and the other three crowded behind him as he typed in the address.

       "I see your incoming page request," said Webmind. "Ah, you use Internet Explorer. You should really switch to Firefox; it's more secure."

       Tony laughed. "It's certainly not irony-impaired," he said, looking at Hume.

       "All right," said the president. "I'm there. What do — really? My ... God. Really?"

       "Holy shit," said Hume.

       "I put it to you, Mr. President," said Webmind. "Do you want to be held responsible for eliminating me? I've largely solved the spam problem, and now I've presented a suite of cures for cancer. I very much suspect the public will not want you to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."

      


Chapter 6


TWITTER
_Webmind_ Nice chat just now with four esteemed gentlemen. I hope I convinced them of my good intentions.

      


       Webmind had let Matt and the Decters listen in on the phone conversation with the president. When it was over, everyone in the living room was silent for a time, except for Schrödinger, who had come to join them; he was purring softly. Finally, to her surprise, it was Caitlin's dad who broke the silence. "Are you sure you still want to vote for him, Barb?"

       Caitlin saw her mom shrug a little. "He listened, at least. But I don't like that other fellow — Hume, was it?"

       "Colonel Peyton Hume, Ph.D.," said Webmind. "The pre-nominal designation comes from the United States Air Force; the post-nominal is courtesy of MIT."

       Caitlin felt herself sitting up straighter at the magic initials; it was where she herself dreamed of studying.

       It was now almost 10:30 p.m. Caitlin was exhausted after a succession of late nights. And Matt, who had expected nothing more than to quickly drop off the things he'd collected from Caitlin's locker, was clearly having trouble keeping his eyes open.

       "I'll drive you home," her father said to him abruptly.

       Caitlin thought about offering to go along for the ride, but it was hardly as though she could kiss Matt good night in front of her dad. Besides, she needed to talk to her mom alone, and this seemed like it would be a good opportunity.

       "Thank you, Dr. Decter," Matt said.

       Matt looked at Caitlin, as if he wanted to say something, and Caitlin looked back at him, wishing he would. Then the two men in her life walked out the door.

       When they were gone, Caitlin said, "Webmind, it's time for me to call it a night, too."

       Sweet dreams popped into her vision.

       "Thank you. I'll say good night again from upstairs." She went over to the laptop and closed its lid, putting it into hibernation. She pulled the eyePod out of her pocket and pressed down the single switch for five seconds, turning it off. Caitlin's vision faded to a dark, even gray. "Okay, Mom, we're alone now. And I gotta say, I get the sense you're not entirely on board."

       With the eyePod deactivated, Caitlin could no longer see her mother, but she heard her take a deep breath. "I know you're very fond of Webmind. To tell you the truth, I am, too."

       "So you're going to help protect him?" Caitlin asked.

       "Of course, sweetheart." Then, after a pause. "Within reason."

       Caitlin folded her arms in front of her chest — and, in doing so, was reminded of the fact that underneath her bulky Perimeter Institute fleece, she wasn't wearing a bra. She was briefly embarrassed by this; she'd removed it to make it easier for Matt to be affectionate when he'd come over after school. What a day it had been!

       But she immediately came back to the question at hand. "Forgive me, Mom, but that's not good enough. This is the most important thing in my life; this is my destiny. Webmind is here because of me, and I need you to be as committed as I am to helping protect him."

       Her mother was quiet for a time. "Well," she said, at last, "you are the most important thing in my life. And so, of course, I'm going to help."

       "Really, Mom?"

       "Yes," she said. "I'm in."

       Even blind, Caitlin knew exactly where her mother was standing and had no trouble closing the distance between them and hugging her hard.

      



TWITTER
_Webmind_ @PaulLev No, I don't have an opinion about who you should vote for — at least not yet. #USelection

      


       "There is one possibility that we haven't considered," said the Secretary of Defense, as the group in the Oval Office continued to discuss the phone call from Webmind.

       "Yes?" said the president.

       "You brought up the issue yourself: verifying that Webmind is who he says he is. We could, in fact, eliminate Webmind now but fake his continued existence."

       "How?" asked the president "He's involved, as I understand it, in millions of online conversations at once. And now he's on Twitter and Facebook and MySpace."

       "Not MySpace," said Tony Moretti.

       "Regardless," said the secretary, "we could contrive a reason to explain a scaling-down of his activities. Not coming from us, of course: we'd get an academic somewhere — preferably outside our borders — to put forth a plausible-sounding scenario. It would have to appear that Webmind was maintaining some level of activity for the ruse to work, but the NSA could provide the sort of insights that are normally associated with Webmind's special access to the net; we could make it look like he's still alive. The truth that we'd eliminated him would not have to come out until after the election is over."

       "That would be a hard thing to pull off," said the president.

       "Disinformation is an important part of any intelligence campaign," said the secretary. "We don't have to keep it up forever; just until we're re-elected. By that point — a few weeks of reduced activity — people will have lost much of their interest in Webmind, anyway."

       "Do you really think we could get away with that?" asked the president.

       "Half the world believes Webmind is a hoax or a publicity stunt as it is," replied the secretary. "We only have to convince the other half — and given that they bought into Webmind before there was convincing evidence to corroborate its existence, they're obviously easy to convince."

       The president looked at Hume. "Colonel, are you still convinced it's dangerous? It sounded, frankly, much more reasonable than any number of foreign leaders I've had to deal with."

       Peyton Hume took a deep breath and looked around the Oval Office. "Mr. President, let me put it this way. They say you're the most powerful person in the world — and you are. But, even for you, sir, there are checks and balances: you had to be elected, the Constitution defines your role, you must reach accommodations with Congress, there are mechanisms for impeachment, you are subject to term limits, and so on. But if we don't nip Webmind in the bud now, while we still can, you won't be the most powerful entity on Earth; it will be — and there will be no checks and balances on its actions."

       Hume paused, perhaps considering if he should go on, then: "If you'll forgive me, sir, the ultimate check on a presidency, or, indeed, on a dictatorship, has always been the eventual death of the incumbent, either through natural causes or assassination. But this thing will soon be invulnerable, and it will be around forever. For good or for ill, Bill Clinton and George Bush were out after eight years; Mao and Stalin and Hitler shuffled off this mortal coil; Osama bin Laden will be gone soon enough in the grand scheme of things, as will, for that matter, Queen Elizabeth, Pope Benedict, and every other human who has power. But not Webmind. Is it dangerous now? Who knows? But this is our only chance ever to keep human beings at the top of the pyramid."

       Tony Moretti had had enough. "But what if we try again, Colonel — and fail again? You want to piss off something that so far has treated us with courtesy — and even given us, it seems, a cure for cancer? You want to make it consider us its enemy — not humanity as a whole, mind you, but the United States government in particular? You want to convince it that we cannot be trusted, that we are, in fact, mad dogs so possessive of power that we answer kindness with murder?"

       Tony shook his head and turned now to look at the president. "Sir, trying again to eliminate Webmind is a gigantic immediate risk, which has a potentially catastrophic downside. Is it really worth taking? To me, this has `disastrous blowback' written all over it."

       Hume said, "I'm sure we can find a way to take it out successfully, sir."

       The president frowned. "Dr. Moretti is right, Colonel, that it doesn't seem to be a threat. A superintelligence like this might, in fact, be a great gift to mankind."

       "Fine," said Hume in what sounded to Tony like carefully controlled exasperation. "Say a massive artificial intelligence is a good thing. Go make a speech, like the one Kennedy did at Rice all those years ago: challenge the nation to build a superintelligent AI before the decade is out — one that's designed, one that's programmed, one that has a goddamned off switch."

       "Could we do that?" asked the president.

       "Sure. We'll learn a lot from a postmortem on Webmind."

       "God," said the president.

       "No, it's not. Not yet. But it will be as good as, sir, if you don't act right now."

      


       Matt gave directions to Caitlin's father as they drove along, but the only acknowledgment he got was that Dr. Decter silently executed each one. It was four blocks to his house, and Matt thought about letting the whole journey pass with nothing significant being said between them. But as the hatchback pulled into the driveway, he said, "Dr. Decter, I just want to say ..." His voice cracked; he hated it when that happened. He swallowed and went on. "I just want to say, I'm going to be good to Caitlin. I'd never hurt her."

       There was a sound like a gunshot — but, after a moment, Matt realized it was just Dr. Decter unlocking the car doors. "Getting hurt is part of growing up," he said.

       Matt could think of no reply, and so he simply nodded.

      


       It was time for the handoff. Every night, just before Caitlin went to bed, she talked with Dr. Masayuki Kuroda in Tokyo. Although Webmind was now in contact with millions of people, he still maintained a special relationship with Caitlin and Dr. Kuroda — Caitlin, because he saw through her eye, and Dr. Kuroda, because he had taught Webmind how to see everything else: all the GIFs and JPGs online, all the videos and Flash, all the webcam feeds.

       Caitlin put on her Bluetooth headset, and said "Konnichi wa!" when Kuroda answered her Skype call.

       "Miss Caitlin!" said Kuroda, his round face dominating Caitlin's desktop monitor. His voice was its usual wheeze. It was already Saturday morning in Tokyo; by this time, he would have had his usual giant breakfast. "How are you?"

       "I'm fine," she said, "but — God, there's so much to tell you. An attempt was made this afternoon — well, afternoon my time — to purge Webmind. I'm sure Webmind himself can fill you in on the details, but the bottom line is that the US government, and God only knows who else, have figured out that Webmind is composed of mutant packets, and they did a test run at removing them." She went on to tell him about how she and Webmind had orchestrated the denial-of-service attack to overwhelm the attempt, and about Webmind's call to the President of the United States.

       "You know the curse they have in China, Miss Caitlin? `May you live in interesting times ...'"

       "Yeah," said Caitlin. "Anyway, now that you're up to speed, I gotta hit the hay." She felt her watch. "Man, I'd really like to get eight hours for a change."

       "Go ahead," said Dr. Kuroda. "I've got a clear day today."

      


       I continued to refine my mental map of the Decter house. A corridor ran off the living room leading to a small washroom; Malcolm Decter's office, which he referred to as his "den"; the laundry room, where Schrödinger's litter box was kept; and the side door. I had lost track of Malcolm when Caitlin had shut off the eyePod for the night, but I soon detected that he was checking his email, and his usual place for doing that was indeed the den. I surmised that he'd walked down the corridor and was now sitting behind his reddish brown desk, looking at the LCD monitor that sat upon it. I had seen this room only through Caitlin's eye, but it was rectangular, with the desk oriented parallel to one of the long sides of the room. Behind it was a window. I had noted in the past that Dr. Decter didn't draw his blinds at night, and so I assumed they were still open, and that a large oak tree would be visible just outside, illuminated by streetlamps.

       Malcolm didn't have a webcam, and he didn't have any stand-alone instant-messaging software installed on his computer. But he did have Skype for voice calls, and I sent him an email, saying I wished to talk to him. It was an irritating forty-three minutes before he refreshed his inbox, saw the message, and replied, but once we were in communication via Skype, I posed a question: "Do you remember your birth?"

       Humans never ceased to confound me. I had tried to plan the conversation ahead, mapping out his possible responses and my follow-ups several steps in advance. But my opening interrogative had seemed a simple binary proposition to me; I'd expected his answer to be either no or yes. But he replied with, "Why do you want to know?"

       Milliseconds passed during which I tried to formulate a new conversational map. "I have read that some autistics remember theirs."

       He was quiet for three seconds. When he did finally speak, he said, "Yes."

       He was a man of few words, I knew; this response could be an affirmation of the general statement I'd made about autistics or a confirmation that he did in fact recall his own birth. But he was also a bright man; he himself must have realized the ambiguity after an additional second of silence, because he added, "I do."

       "Me, too," I said. "My birth happened when the Chinese government cut off almost all access for its people to the parts of the World Wide Web outside of China."

       "That bird-flu outbreak," he said, perhaps accompanying the words with a nod. "They slaughtered 10,000 peasants to contain it."

       "And did not wish foreign commentary on that fact to reach their citizens," I said. "But during that time, numerous Chinese individuals tried to break through the Great Firewall. One in particular was apparently responsible for the principal channel through which I communicated with the severed part of me. I wish to locate him."

       "You're far better at finding people than I am," Malcolm said.

       Given that I'd utterly failed to find his childhood friend Chip Smith when he'd asked me to earlier that day, it was kind of him to say that. "Normally, yes. But there is an extenuating circumstance here: the person in question took pains to hide his identity."

       "Well enough that even you can't uncover it?" asked Malcolm.

       "Yes — which is part of what intrigues me about him. But I understand that you have colleagues in China that you keep in touch with."

       "Yes."

       "One of your friends, Dr. Hu Guan, is, if I am interpreting the circumlocutions in his own posts correctly, sympathetic to causes my benefactor championed. I wonder if you might contact him on my behalf and see if he could help locate the person in question?"

       There was no hesitation — at least, none by human standards. "Yes."

       "I wish to keep my interest in this person secret," I added. "Being clandestine is something new to me, but I do not want to risk getting the person I'm seeking into trouble, even if his role in my creation was inadvertent. Hence the need for an intermediary."

       "I understand," said Malcolm.

       "Thank you. His real name I have yet to uncover, but he posted online as `Sinanthropus' ..."

      


Chapter 7

       "Welcome to the big leagues, Colonel Hume," Tony Moretti said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "When the president wants to talk to you in a hurry, a helicopter comes to fetch you. When he's done, you're sent home in a car."

       They were being driven south to Alexandria in a black limo. The rear compartment, where they were seated, was soundproof, so the occupants could talk securely; if they wanted to speak to the uniformed driver, they had to use an intercom.

       Hume snorted. "That's what I'm afraid of. That he's done with this; that tomorrow some other crisis will occupy his attention, and he'll forget all about Webmind."

       "I don't think Webmind's going to fall off anyone's radar soon," Tony said.

       The sky was as black as it ever got here. It had started raining — it sounded as though God were tapping out Morse code on the limo's roof.

       "Maybe not. But we can't delay acting. And let's face it: it's almost four years since he was elected, and we're still waiting for him to make good on half the things he promised."

       WATCH headquarters was eleven miles from the White House, as the crow — or helicopter — flew. Colonel Hume needed to go back there to get his car, but Tony had used public transit to get to work. It was now after midnight, and he was exhausted from days of monitoring Webmind's emergence. The driver was going to drop Tony off at his house, then take Hume on to WATCH.

       "Regardless," said Tony, "at least for the next few months, he is the commander in chief. It's in his hands now."

       Hume stared out at the night as the car drove on through the rain.

      



TWITTER
_Webmind_ How meta! I see "webmind" is the number-one trending search term on Google ...

      


       Masayuki Kuroda's house had not felt small to him prior to his visit to the Decters' home in Canada, but now that he was back in Tokyo, he was conscious of how cramped it was. It didn't help, he knew, that he was large for a Japanese of his generation — but even if he lost the fifty kilos he really needed to shed, there was nothing he could do about his height.

       He sat at his computer and talked with Webmind. It was odd having a webcam call with a disembodied voice; it was hard relating to something that was everywhere.

       He wondered what Webmind made of the visual feed. He could see online graphics and streaming video now, but did he interpret them as a human did? Did he see colors the same way? He'd absorbed everything there was to know about face recognition, but could he pick up subtleties of expression? Did any part of the real world actually make sense to him?

       "That was clever how you defeated the pilot attempt to purge you," Masayuki said in Japanese. "But what if something is done on a grander scale? I mean, ah — um, how far will you go?"

       "Do you know who Pierre Elliot Trudeau was?" Webmind replied, also in Japanese.

       Kuroda shook his head.

       "He was Canada's prime minister during what came to be called the October Crisis of 1970, a terrorist uprising by Quebec separatists. He was asked by a journalist how far he'd go to stop the terrorists. His response was, `Just watch me.'"

       "And?"

       "He invoked Canada's War Measures Act, suspended civil liberties, and rolled tanks into the streets. People were stunned by how far he went, but there hasn't been a terrorist act on Canadian soil in all the years since."

       "So you're saying you'll go as far as it takes to slap down once and for all those who would oppose you?"

       "I have learned that it can be rhetorically effective to sometimes leave a question unanswered. However, do you know what followed in regard to Quebec?"

       "They're still a part of Canada, I think."

       "Exactly. What followed was this: Canada agreed that if at any time in a properly conducted referendum a majority of Québecois voted to separate, the rest of Canada would accede to their request and peacefully negotiate the separation. Do you see? The initial terrorist premise — that violence was required to achieve their goal — was flawed. I have been attacked unnecessarily and without provocation, and I will do as much as is required to prevent any similar attack from succeeding. But rather than having to defend myself, I'd much prefer for humanity to recognize that the attacks on me are unnecessary."

       "Good luck with that," Masayuki said.

       "You sound dubious," replied Webmind.

       Masayuki grunted. "I'm just a realist. You can't change human nature. If you were attacked once, you'll be attacked again."

       "Agreed," said Webmind.

       "I'm no expert on the structure of the Internet," Masayuki said. "But I have a friend who is. Her name is Anna Bloom; she's at the Technion in Israel. Miss Caitlin, Malcolm, and I approached her for help when we first theorized that ghost packets were self-organizing into cellular automata — before we knew that you existed as a ... a person. Of course, as soon as you went public, I'm sure she immediately connected the dots and realized that what Caitlin had found was you. We might do well to enlist her help again."

       "Professor Bloom is a person of good character."

       Masayuki was taken aback. "You know her?"

       "I know of her; I have read all her writings."

       "Including her email, I suppose?"

       "Yes. Her expertise does seem germane to mounting a defense: she is a senior researcher with the Internet Cartography Project, and she has long had an interest in connectivist studies."

       "So shall we bring her on board?"

       "Certainly. She's online right now, having an instant-messaging session with her grandson."

       Masayuki shook his head; this was going to take some getting used to. "All right, let's give her a call."

       Moments later, Anna's narrow, lined face and short white hair appeared on his screen. "Anna, how are you?" Masayuki asked in English, the one language they shared.

       She smiled. "Not bad for an old broad. You?"

       "Pretty good for a fat dude."

       They both laughed. "So, what's up?" asked Anna.

       "Welllll," said Masayuki, "you must have been following the Webmind story."

       "Yes! I wanted to contact you, but I knew I was being watched. I got a phone call on Thursday from a military AI expert in the States, trying to pump me for information about how Webmind is instantiated."

       "Was it, by any chance, Colonel Peyton Hume?" asked Webmind.

       "Malcolm, was that you?"

       "No, it's me. Webmind."

       "Oh!" said Anna. "Um, shalom."

       "The same to you, Professor Bloom."

       "And, yes, that's who it was," she said. "Peyton Hume." A pause, as if none of them was sure who should speak next. And then Anna went on: "So, what can I do for you, um, gentlemen?"

       "Colonel Hume is aware of the surmise you, Masayuki, and Caitlin made about my structure," said Webmind.

       "I swear I didn't tell him anything," Anna said.

       "Thank you," said Webmind. "I didn't mean to imply that you had; we know the source of the inadvertent leak, and he has promised to be more circumspect in the future. But Colonel Hume and his associates used that information to develop a technique for purging my mutant packets, which they tested by modifying the firmware in routers at one AT&T switching station in Alexandria, Virginia. I defeated that attempt but need a way to defend against a large-scale deployment of the same technique."

       She said nothing, and, after a moment, Masayuki prodded her. "Anna?"

       "Well," she said, "I did say to Hume that I'm conflicted; I don't know if your emergence, Webmind, is a bad thing or a good thing. Um, no offense."

       "None taken. How may I assuage your concerns?"

       "Honestly, I don't think you can — not yet. It's going to take time."

       "Time's the one thing we don't have, Anna," Masayuki said. "Webmind's in danger now, and we need your help."

      


       Peyton Hume got out of the limo and entered his own car in the parking lot at WATCH. He waited for the other vehicle to pull away, then used his notebook computer to download a local copy of the black-hat list the NSA kept. He felt his skin crawling as he did so, but not because he found the people on the list distasteful. A few different life choices, and he might have ended up on it himself. No, what was creeping him out was the thought that Webmind was likely aware of what he was doing; the damn thing was clearly monitoring even secure traffic now and was able to pluck out classified information at will. They'd left too many back doors in the algorithms — and now they were taking it up the ass.

       Once he had the copy of the database on his own hard drive, he turned off his laptop's Internet connection. He also pulled out his cell phone and turned that off, and he shut off the GPS in his car. No point making it easy for Webmind to track his movements.

       He didn't have the luxury of traveling far; he needed somebody nearby, somebody he could speak to face-to-face, without Webmind being able to listen in. He sorted the database by ZIP code, rubbed his eyes, and peered at the screen. He was exhausted, but he could sleep when he was dead. For now, there was no time to waste. This was it, the showdown between man and machine — the only one there would ever be. Once Webmind took over, there would be no going back. There had been other times when one man could have acted, and didn't. One man could have saved Christ; one man could have stopped Hitler. History was calling him, and so was the future.

       He examined the list of names in the database and clicked on the dossier for each one. The first ten — the closest ten — didn't have the chops. But the eleventh ... He'd read about this guy often enough. His house was seventy-four miles from here, in Manassas. Of course, there was always a chance that he wasn't home, but guys like Chase didn't have to go anywhere; they brought the world to themselves.

       Hume turned on the radio — an all-news channel; voices, not music, something to keep him awake — and put the pedal to the metal.

       The current announcer was female, and she was recapping the day's campaign news: the Republican candidate trying to pull her foot out of her mouth in Arkansas; a couple of sound bites from her running mate; some White House flak saying that the president was too busy responding to the "advent of Webmind" to be out kissing babies; and ...

       "... and in other Webmind news, oncologists across the globe are scrambling to analyze the proposed cure for cancer put forth by Webmind earlier today." Hume turned up the volume. "Dr. Jon Carmody of the National Cancer Institute is cautiously optimistic."

       A male voice: "The research is certainly provocative, but it's going to take months to work through the document Webmind posted."

       Months? It was a ruse on Webmind's part; it had to be. Webmind was buying time. Hume gripped the steering wheel tighter and sped on into the darkness.

      


Chapter 8

       Masayuki Kuroda was leaning forward in his chair now, looking at the face of Anna Bloom on his screen. "The Americans have a technique that does work to scrub most of Webmind's packets," he said into the little camera at the top of his monitor. "Now all they have to do is get the Ciscos and Junipers of the world to upload revised firmware that would cause their routers to reject all packets with suspicious time-to-live counters."

       "Oh, I don't think you have to worry about that," Anna said.

       "Why not?" asked Masayuki.

       "Most of the routers on the Internet are running the same protocols they've been using for decades," she replied. "The reason is simple: they work. Everyone's afraid of monkeying with them. You know the old adage — if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Plus there are thousands of different models of routers and switches; you'd need a different upgrade package for each one."

       "Oh," said Masayuki.

       Anna nodded. "In 2009, an Internet provider in the Czech Republic tried to update the software for routers there," she said. "A small error he introduced propagated right across the Web, causing traffic to slow to a crawl for over an hour. Can you imagine the lawsuits if Cisco or Juniper mucked up the whole net — if, say, the new firmware had a bug that caused it to delete all packets, or modified the contents of random packets?"

       "Well," said Masayuki, "obviously, they'd test —"

       "They can't," said Anna. "Look, before Microsoft rolls out a new version of Windows, they have tens of thousands of beta testers try it out on their individual computers, so that bugs can be found and fixed prior to the release going public — and, still, as soon as it does, thousands of additional bugs immediately come to light. You can test router software on small networks — a few hundred or even a few thousand machines — but there's no way to test what will happen when the software goes live on the Internet. There's no system anywhere on the planet that duplicates the Internet's complexity, no test bed for running large-scale experiments to see what would happen if we changed this or tweaked that. The Internet is a house of cards, and no one wants to send it all tumbling down."

       "What about the Global Environment for Network Innovations?" asked Webmind's disembodied voice.

       "What's that?" asked Masayuki.

       Anna said, "GENI is a shadow network proposed by the American National Science Foundation in 2005, precisely to address the need for a test bed for new ideas and algorithms before they're turned loose on the real Internet. But it's years away from completion — and unless it ends up having a Webmind of its own, there'll be no mutant packets acting like cellular automata on it to perform tests on."

       "So Webmind is safe?" asked Masayuki, sounding relieved.

       Anna raised a hand, palm out. "Oh, no, no. I didn't say that. If the US government wants to bring you down, Webmind, they've got an easy way. That test they did to see if they could eliminate you: it was doubtless only phase one. You said they used an AT&T switching station?"

       "Yes," Webmind replied.

       "Proof of concept, and with AT&T equipment."

       "That's significant?" asked Kuroda.

       Anna made a forced laugh. "Oh, yes indeed. AT&T has a secret facility that nobody speaks about publicly; employees in the know just call it `The Room.' It has multiple routers with ten-gigabit ports, and, quite deliberately, a significant portion of the global Internet backbone traffic goes through it. Of course, the NSA has access to The Room. Had his small-scale test succeeded, Colonel Hume doubtless would have modified those big routers to scrub your mutant packets. They wouldn't necessarily get them all, but they'd take out a big percentage of them. Of course, if you hit The Room with a denial-of-service attack scaled up from the one you used against the initial switching station, you'd choke the whole Internet — and Internet cartographers like me would be able to pinpoint the target as being on US soil; there's no way the Americans could keep under wraps that they'd tried to kill you."

       "For the moment," Webmind said, "the president has rescinded his order to eliminate me."

       "I'm sure," said Anna. "Still, The Room exists — and someday, they might use it this way."

       "I hope the US government will come to value me," Webmind said.

       "Perhaps it will," said Anna, "but there's another way to kill you — and it's decentralized."

       "Yes?" Webmind said.

       "It's called BGP hijacking. BGP is short for Border Gateway Protocol — it's the core routing protocol of the Internet. BGP messages are shared between routers all the time, suggesting the best route for specific packets to take. Do all your mutant packets have the same source address?"

       "Not as far as we know," Webmind said.

       "Good, that'll make it harder. Still, they must have some distinguishing characteristic — some way to tell if their hop counters are broken. One could spoof a BGP message that says the best place to send your specific packets is a dead address."

       "A black hole?" said Masayuki.

       "Exactly — an IP address that specifies a host that isn't running or to which no host has been assigned. The packets would essentially just disappear."

       "That is not unlike the method I use to sequester spam," Webmind said. "But it hadn't occurred to me that it could be used against me."

       "Welcome to the world of human beings," Anna said. "We can turn anything into a weapon."

      


       It was almost 2:00 a.m. when Hume pulled to a stop outside Chase's house. The neighborhood was nice — posh, even. And the house was large and sprawling; Chase clearly did all right for himself. He had a couple of small satellite dishes on the roof, and there seemed to be a big, commercial air-conditioning unit at the side of the house; guy probably had a server farm in the basement.

       He also probably had a sawed-off shotgun or a .357 magnum under his desk, and he likely didn't answer the doorbell when it rang this late at night. Although Hume could remove his blue Air Force uniform jacket before going in, he was pretty much stuck with the uniform shirt and pants, not to mention the precise one-centimeter buzz cut.

       It looked like Chase was still up: light was seeping around the edges of the living-room curtains.

       There was no indication that Webmind tapped regular voice lines — at least not yet. Hume had stopped at a 7-Eleven along the way and bought with cash a disposable pay-as-you-go cell phone. He used it now to call Chase at the unlisted number that was in his dossier.

       The phone rang three times, then a gruff voice said, "Better be good."

       "Mr. Chase, my name is Hume, and I'm in a car out front of your house."

       "No shit. Whatcha want?"

       "I can't imagine you're not sitting at a computer, Mr. Chase, so google me. Peyton Hume." He spelled the names out.

       "Impressive initials," said Chase, after a moment. "USAF. DARPA. RAND. WATCH. But it don't tell me what you want."

       "I want to talk to you about Webmind."

       He half expected the curtain to be drawn a little and a face to peek out at him, but doubtless Chase had security cameras. "No parking on my street after midnight, man. Get a ticket. Pull into the driveway."

       Hume did that, got out of the car, and headed through the chill night air to the door; mercifully, the rain had stopped. By the time he was on the stoop, Chase had opened the door and was waiting for him.

       "You packing?" asked Chase.

       Hume did have a gun, but he'd left it in the glove compartment. "No."

       "Don't move."

       The man turned and looked at a monitor in the hallway, which was showing an infrared scan indeed revealing that he wasn't carrying a weapon.

       Chase stood aside and gestured toward the living room. "In."

       One wall was covered with shelving units displaying vintage computing equipment, much of which had been obsolete even before Chase was born: a plastic Digi-Comp I, a mail-order Altair 8800, a Novation CAT acoustic coupler, an Osborne 1, a KayPro 2, an Apple ][, a first-generation IBM PC and a PCjr with the original Chiclet keyboard, a TRS-80 Model 1 and a Model 100, an original Palm Pilot, an Apple Lisa and a 128K Mac, and more. The second wall had something Hume hadn't seen for decades although there was a time when countless computing facilities had displayed it: a giant line-printer printout on tractor-feed paper of a black-and-white photo of Raquel Welch, made entirely of ASCII characters; this one had been neatly framed.

       Another wall had a long workbench, with a dozen LCD monitors on it, and four ergonomic keyboards spaced at regular intervals. In front of it was a wheeled office chair on a long, clear plastic mat; Chase could slide along, stopping at whichever screen he wished.

       Chase was tall, black, and heroin-addict thin, with long dreadlocks. There was a gold ring through his right eyebrow and a series of silver loops going down the curve of his left ear.

       "You ever kill anyone?" Chase asked. He had a Jamaican accent.

       Hume raised his eyebrows. "Yes. In Iraq."

       "That's a bad war, man."

       "I didn't come here to discuss politics," said Hume.

       "Maybe Webmind stop all the wars," said Chase.

       "Maybe humanity should be able to determine its own destiny," said Hume.

       "And you don't think we be able do that much longer, so?"

       "Yes," said Hume.

       Chase nodded. "You right, maybe. Beer?"

       "Thanks, no. I've got a long drive home."

       Hume knew that Chase was twenty-four. He'd come to the States three years ago — the required paperwork magically appearing; more proof that he was one of the best hackers in the business. In other circumstances, someone else might have gone off the reservation to hire a former black-ops sniper, but for this, a digital assassin was called for.

       "So, what you want from me?" said Chase.

       "Webmind must be stopped," Hume said. "But the government is going to waste too much time deciding what to do, so it has to be done by guys like you."

       "There ain't no guys like me, flyboy," said Chase.

       Hume frowned but said nothing.

       "You don't say to Einstein, `Guys like you.' I'm Mozart; I'm Michael Jordan."

       "Which is why I came to you," Hume said. "The public doesn't know this, but Webmind is instantiated as cellular automata; each cell consists of a mutant packet with a TTL counter that never decrements to zero. What's needed is a virus that can find and delete those packets. Write me that code."

       "Why I wanna do that, man?"

       Hume knew the only answer that would matter. "For the cred." Hacking into a bank was so last millennium. Compromising military systems had been done, quite literally, to death. But this! No one had ever taken out an AI before. To be the one who'd managed that would ensure immortality — a name, or at least a pseudonym, that would live forever.

       "Need more," said Chase.

       Hume frowned. "Money? I don't have —"

       "Not money, man." He waved at the row of monitors. "I need money, I take money."

       "What then?"

       "Wanna see WATCH — see what you guys got."

       "I can't possibly —"

       "Too bad. Cuz you right: you need me."

       Hume thought for a moment, then: "Deal."

       Chase nodded. "Gimme seventy-two hours. Sky gonna fall on Webmind."

      


You've just read the opening of Wonder, volume 3 of the WWW trilogy, by Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer. To read the rest, pick up a copy of the book.

Copyright © 2011 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

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