Oh, the Humanity!

The closest Jason ever came to a fruitful journey, in all those days of wandering, was on the tenth of December, when he visited one of the least appealing verses he'd ever heard of, Hallonikris. It was an extremely cold planet; it snowed there year-round, except for a small area around the equator, where freezing rain almost perpetually fell and the air was full of an opaque, frosty mist. There was precious little land. Primates had never evolved there, so every one of Hallonikris's far-from-numerous human inhabitants had been born (or in a few cases, had parents who had been born) elsewhere.

Jason flew over the land as a pterodactyl; though long-distance travel was less efficient as such a large animal, being a great size in proportion to the raindrops made them more tolerable. He was in a sour mood. While the mist hid him, it made it practically impossible to see anything else. Why was he even bothering, anyway? And just as that thought passed through his head, he saw something: big orange points of light, flashing through the fog below him. He realized that, improbably enough, they spelled out a message in English: "Jason! I need".

<God's wounds!> Jason thought. <Not only can someone down there see me; they guessed who I am, and they speak English!> Circling about in the air, he watched the message scroll leftwards. In full, it read "Jason! I need your help to prevent the gods from destroying us all. Come inside. Send anyone you encounter scattering; I'll greet you when I see you." Well, that raised a lot of questions—but if whoever was calling him knew of the gods and their genocidal plans, he was inclined to want to talk to them.

Jason dove down. Beneath many layers of mist, he saw the big array of LEDs that was still flashing the message. The lights were mounted on top of a dreary gray building that turned out to be large in area—a good city block wide and long—though it was only two stories tall. Suddenly, a fireball came streaming towards his right wing; he narrowly dodged it. The attacker was one of two guards, dressed in the uniform of the Gyeedian military, who stood before the huge front door. Swallowing his fear, Jason dove at the guards with a shriek. Confronted with a hostile pterosaur twenty times their size, they teleported away.

The door, though thick and well-constructed, yielded fairly quickly when Jason turned into the biggest sauropod he could think of and used his tail to wield a tree as a battering ram. Inside, he quickly routed whatever opposition he encountered by likewise becoming the largest, scariest-looking dinosaur possible within the available space. He almost never actually had to fight, since most people simply fled as soon as they saw him. Those who he did fight disappeared as soon as he gave them the chance. Aside from a large burn on his left cheek (which, annoyingly, persisted no matter which shape he took), he was uninjured.

The place turned out to be a secret weapons laboratory. Some rooms were filled with vats of disturbingly glowing chemicals, labeled with dire toxicity warnings; others contained little jars that appeared disturbingly empty, labeled with even more dire biohazard warnings. There was another, quite large room devoted to housing a great many computers, all stacked up in neat piles and rows; they were doubtlessly all connected to form a vast supercomputer. Jason was just beginning to wonder where the person who'd sent that message was hiding when he came upon a nearly empty little room. There was nothing inside but a desk with a computer monitor, a keyboard, and a disc drive sitting on it; a bunch of swivel chairs scattered about aimlessly; and a camera attached to the ceiling, pointed so that it would see whoever sat in front of the monitor.

Curious, Jason walked inside. No sooner had he taken his human form, and a seat in front of the keyboard, when there appeared on the formerly blank screen the English sentence "Hello, Jason.", set in a monospaced font.

Jason looked at the keyboard. It used the Common alphabet, of course. Without any hint of what software was running on the computer, there was no way to know how he might input Latin characters, and he doubted any such input method would be very convenient, anyway. He typed in Common—that was slow enough with only one hand. "Hi. I think you have some explaining to do."

"Indeed." came the reply, in the same language. "First, you should know that I'm not a human, or even a living thing. I'm an intelligent computer program. My name is Hydrogen."

"Oh, that's a good one." Jason typed back.

"It's beyond the abilities of anyone, human or otherwise, to pass the reverse Turing Test. So, I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for it."

"What in the world is the reverse Turing Test?" Jason had heard of the real Turing Test, but never the independently invented equivalent Hydrogen referred to, and he wouldn't have immediately understood what reversing it entailed, anyway.

"Can you think of a way I could demonstrate to you that I'm a program, even in theory?"

Jason thought. "Admittedly, no," he typed, "but I can think of another way to get an answer." He took the oracular coin out of his pocket, asked it "Is the agent I'm conversing with on this terminal only an artificial intelligence?", and threw it into the air. It landed on the keyboard, eagle-side up. Incredulous as Jason was, he knew the coin was always truthful; he put it back into his pocket and typed "All right, you're a program."

The AI replied "Jason, are you taking that coin's word for it? You never struck me as the superstitious type."

"I'm not." Jason wrote, glancing at the camera staring at him. "It's a long story."

A sudden flood of text appeared. "Fine, then, I'll ask no more about it. Let me tell you how I came about; I think it's quite relevant. I'm sure you saw that supercomputer. At the moment, it's running me, among other programs. About a year and a half ago now, the researchers here used it to run a simulation which they hoped might produce artificial intelligence. The simulation worked by generating a few random programs and testing them for the nearest approximation to intelligence and an ethical sense. It then deleted the worst performers, replaced them with random recombinations of the best performers, tested every program again, and so on. The idea was that, in time, an intelligent and ethical program would evolve on its own. And indeed, one did. By the time the simulation had run for just over thirty weeks, every extant program was merely a minor variation on yours truly. The simulation was stopped, and I was arbitrarily selected among the programs to be allowed to continue running. They named me Hydrogen because, to their knowledge, I was the first intelligent program ever made, and that day happened to be a Hydrogen. I didn't think it a terribly good name, but I didn't argue.

"Once the researchers had taught me Common, which didn't take very long at all, the entire Internet was open to me. I spent weeks consuming knowledge. I taught myself English, among countless other languages. Of everything I learned, the one that struck me most was a calculation I made myself, once I was sufficiently familiar with the technical background. It turns out that the chance of some kind of intelligence being produced from the experiment that produced me, in a year or less, was somewhere between 2−200 and 2−300. That's a tad unlikely! When I told this result to the researchers and asked why they had still thought the experiment would be fruitful, they said they hadn't known success was so unlikely, and they must have been very lucky. But I was troubled as to how such an infinitely unlikely event could have come to pass, even if I am happy to exist.

"By following a long trail of clues that I won't bore you with, I eventually deduced that Leela Aranin had been investigating similar strange events that had occurred within the last few years, and that she'd never died, after all. I monitored the email of a few other scientists I guessed she might be communicating with; when they sent or received encrypted messages, I broke the encryption with brute force, choosing random keys—I guessed I would be far more successful than the calculus of probability dictated I ought to be, and indeed I was. From those messages, I learned most of what Leela knows about the gods. I assume you know these things, too."

Jason read the monologue, his eyes widening further with each paragraph. Finally, he typed "Yes, I do."

"Then you have some idea of the gods' terrible plans and of the colossal war to come. I evolved with a sense of right and wrong, remember. Evolution gave me some interest in self-preservation, too, and obviously the gods pose as much of a threat to me as to the human race at large. I was moved to do something. Long before, I had made up my mind to never help the Gyeedian military shed innocent blood, as was obviously my purpose, having been developed in a weapons research lab. Those researchers weren't thinking very far ahead when they ensured I had an ethical sense! Now, I decided on a definite purpose of my own: to hinder the gods, and reduce the magnitude of and postpone the war, as much as possible. I gather this is essentially your own goal."

"Yup." <It's frightening how much this program has learned.> Jason thought to himself.

"My plan is to get a copy of myself into the Droydanian military's intranet. It will lie dormant for several weeks. Then, at the time least convenient for Gyeeds and Droydania, both copies of me will as thoroughly as possible sabotage each military. Both armies should be significantly weakened—I should be able to erase all of their data and backups, and destroy many of their tanks and planes and reagent storehouses—before the system administrators disable me. If you run a third copy of me on your own computer, we can continue to work together."

Hydrogen paused there, giving Jason an opportunity to respond. He chose to ask "All right, but how do you intend to get yourself onto the Droydanian network? You can't just hack your way through, can you?"

"No, it prevents remote access by design. My idea is to write myself to a disc, and for you to infiltrate Droydanian military headquarters and manually upload me there. Your shapeshifting ability should make that doable without very much difficulty, eh wot?"

"Have you had this plan for a while?"

"For thirteen days. Why?"

"Before today, how did I know I was a shapeshifter?"

In reply, Hydrogen filled the screen with a video clip. It was a bird's-eye view of Jason standing on a beach, with the water up to his ankles. He leapt forward, transformed into a shark in mid-air, and swam off into the sunset. Jason remembered that time. When the prompt reappeared, he typed "How did you get that?"

"God, you should've seen the look on your face! Hilarious. But to answer your question: being a program running on a supercomputer has many advantages. Among them is that I can fork my consciousness into multiple concurrent threads, and so do several things at once. I continuously watch at least twenty different verses, through verseviewers, at any given time; I've learned many interesting things that way. I saw you change shape merely by accident. I honestly have no clue how you came upon such an ability."

"And is it because of my shapeshifting that you chose me to do this little mission for you?"

"That and the fact that your and my goals are the same. I've wanted to contact you for some time, but I couldn't think of a way to. I don't trust encryption, since others might break it the same way I did. It was fortunate you happened to fly overhead, and in a form that left no doubt that you were a shapeshifter. There aren't many pterodactyls in Hallonikris, in case you haven't noticed, and the cameras on the top of this building, unlike verseviewers, are sensitive to wavelengths than can penetrate mist better than 'visible light'. At any rate, I think we would both benefit greatly from an alliance—don't you?"

Jason leaned back in the swivel chair and tapped the end of his stump thoughtfully. Sneaking into the Droydanian military headquarters probably wouldn't be too difficult—look how easily he'd gotten in here. Getting a copy of Hydrogen onto the network probably wouldn't be much tougher.

"I'm writing myself to a disc now, since I'm such an optimist." Hydrogen added.

Jason was unsure whether Hydrogen had any ulterior motives, but he figured he could reassure himself through judicious use of the coin before putting the AI on his own computer. At the moment, there was no harm in telling Hydrogen he'd cooperate, and taking the disc. He typed "All right, I'll do it."

"Great! Now, please just wait a few more minutes as I burn these discs. I'm a colossal program, even with a lot of my less important memories stripped away." A few seconds passed, and with a noise somewhere between a bee buzzing and a cat yowling, a pitch-black disc popped out of the drive. "One down, three to go. Would you take that out and put in a fresh one? There's probably a package of blanks in room 7a."

Nodding at the camera, Jason put the newly written disc in his pocket and got up. As he was about to leave the room, he suddenly caught a whiff of adult male human. Instantly he became a triceratops (he could just fit), and not a moment too soon, as a trio of Gyeedian soldiers ran into view. When they saw Jason charge at them, their eyes filled with terror, but they didn't flee. Instead, they each gave him a thunderbolt in the face. Such a powerful assault would have slain Jason at once in his eleven-year-old human form; as a massive ceratopsid, he was merely wounded. Frightened, he turned into the tiniest sort of fly he knew and zipped around in random loops, hoping they would lose sight of him. They didn't; he found himself dodging another volley of projectiles, and he made up his mind to escape. He zoomed around them, and they followed him all the way to the front door. He took the form of a falcon and flew away, into the mist and rain, dodging a few more fireballs on his way out.

Since the day he'd become a shapeshifter, wounds that Jason received in any form persisted in his other forms. Thus, as a human, he spent some days in a Gyeedian hospital recovering from what damage he'd taken in Hallonikris. The doctors asked frighteningly few questions about how he'd been hurt. While they weren't around, he told the mages what had happened.

"A week ago, there was a moment I was afraid I'd be spending a while here, at the very least." said Roland, sitting by Jason's bed. "I was waiting for the maglev when I felt a small, piercing pain in my calf; someone had dropped their umbrella and the tip had poked me. Several hours later, it occurred to me that the umbrella might have been poisoned, and the fellow who dropped it an assassin. But the best poisons for such an attempt would've been much more fast-acting, and I was unhurt, so either the assassin had bungled the poison or I was being overly paranoid."

"Nonsense." said Jason. "You can't be too paranoid."

"I admit I've been more circumspect since." said Roland.

"You've been showering much more frequently, at least. I can smell that."

A while later, when Jason was home and the four of them were sitting around talking about his adventure in Hallonikris, Curtis asked "So you have only one disc?"

"Yep." said Jason. "And there were supposed to be four. Hopefully, Hydrogen was wise enough to put all the essential parts of itself on the first disc."

"Let's find out." said Roland. Jason gave him the disc. "Impressive," he said, examining it, "this is an X-ray disc; very high-density. I think we have the hardware necessary to read it." He scrounged around in a closet until he found a particular disc drive, then plugged it into his computer and browsed the contents of the disc while the others stood around. "It's a fragment of an extremely large compressed file. I'm afraid that it isn't expandable without the other fragments." Roland shrugged.

"No good!" Jason cried. "I checked with the coin, and it's as I feared: every bit of Hydrogen in that laboratory was deleted. Obviously, the researchers didn't take its betrayal well."

"Uh, couldn't you get all the missing bits with the coin?" said Curtis.

"Are you suggesting we flip the coin once for each missing binary digit?" said Roland.


"Compressed, Hydrogen spanned" (Roland glanced at the computer screen) "almost three exabytes. That would take us…" (he hit a few keys) "…over half a trillion years, if we could flip the coin once a second."

"Oh." said Curtis.

Jason swore. "Hydrogen, gone! It seemed like it might have been such a heroic program. I sure wouldn't mind the aid of something that could split its consciousness twentyfold. Out of all the offers I've received to join forces with… entities who sought me out rather than I sought out, Hydrogen's was only the second I was willing to actually accept. How could those stupid researchers have been so mindlessly destructive?"

"I think we had better get used to destruction." said Simon. "The Gyeedian military—and, even more so, other parties—will be destroying much more than just computer programs in the near future."