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Copyright © 2011 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.
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.
Cofounder of Google
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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 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
"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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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,
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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 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
"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
"Your mother's right," her father said. "This could tip the
"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
"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 email@example.com," 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
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:
I, too, hesitated before replying it was almost twenty
milliseconds before I issued my response. You are
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
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
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
I am not God.
We have two children. They need her. I need her. Please
save her. Please don't let her die.
_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.
"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
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
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
Yours for peace,
"Having a good discussion is like having riches."
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
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
"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
"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.
"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
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!"
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."
_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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Caitlin was relieved when her mother at last nodded. "I guess
you're right, Webmind," she said, looking again at Caitlin's
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
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
_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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
The president frowned. "Then where does that leave us?"
"Do you have a computer hooked up to the Internet in your
"Go look at cogitoergosum.net, please. The words are
separated by underscores."
"Underscores aren't valid in domain names," Tony said. "It won't
"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
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."
_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,
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
"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
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."
"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
_Webmind_ @PaulLev No, I don't have an
opinion about who you should vote for at least not yet.
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
He was quiet for three seconds. When he did finally speak, he
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
"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
"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
There was no hesitation at least, none by human standards.
"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
"I understand," said Malcolm.
"Thank you. His real name I have yet to uncover, but he posted
online as `Sinanthropus' ..."
"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,"
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
_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.'"
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
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 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
A male voice: "The research is certainly provocative, but it's
going to take months to work through the document Webmind
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.
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"Mr. Chase, my name is Hume, and I'm in a car out front of your
"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.
The man turned and looked at a monitor in the hallway, which was
showing an infrared scan indeed revealing that he wasn't carrying
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
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,"
"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
"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."
"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
You've just read the opening of
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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