FICTION

AUGUST 2020

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Penumbrae

by Christopher Miller

Hooray! The University of Western Sydney and the Ragbir Bhathal Foundation have leased Kun for us. The Bank of China is brokering the deal. We get him for one hour. I believe this is his first ever non-profit booking. Until now, he has worked exclusively for large governmental organizations, which is to say, corporations with trillion dollar caps. He helps them steal each other's secrets, improve their security and exploit each other's weaknesses. Because he has become something of an industry necessity, his time is extremely valuable. We are getting him at such a discount as to be almost pro bono. But even so, and even with a generous Questacon grant, an hour is all we can afford. Hopefully it's enough, and that if there is intelligence out there, Kun will find it.

 

He's here! Not physically, of course. Better. Realscale holobeam technology with one-way truetouch haptics. You could tousle his hair, give him a kiss, or even punch him in the nose. Only he'd never feel it. We just can't smell or taste each other, is all. This is doable, but there's no demand.

 

Kun's shareholders will absorb his training costs. His first minute is complimentary. He will use it to learn our systems, analyze our software, read our published papers and tap into our archives and live data feeds. He begins. I suffer from acute glossophobia, and never speak. But now, no one does. No one wants to disturb him.

 

Ten seconds pass. He looks up, his expression the facial equivalent of "Whatever."

And now the clock is ticking. He goes to work. Everyone here in OZ OSETI 's southern circumpolar star group, from administrative to cryptography to maintenance, piggybacks onto his q-console, e-huddles around his workzone, speculates on and analyzes his efforts the way weak kyu players kibitz high-dan professional Go games on major Korean and Japanese servers. No dullards here in OZ, though. Not even a midrange genius in our lot. The lowest unaugmented IQ is probably in the high 240s. Yesterday, for example, our custodian Beth's dissertation on polynomial hyperspheres saw an esoteric tournament matrix named after her. And she promises next week's on rectilinear slit maps will be even better.

 

We watch as Kun conducts a broad sampling of our archives, over a century's worth of data gathered from billions of stars and planets in this and hundreds of nearby galaxies. He has somehow increased bandwidths across our network. Still, it is far too much to download in an hour. So he grabs a meg here, a gig there, spot selections that appear random. We trust his judgment.

 

Everyone has crawled his Wiki pages, groks to his ontology, his pedigree. His long leg up, cognitively speaking. How, after World War 3, which lasted only forty-five minutes, the Chinese were the first to enforce the genetic screening of embryos prior to implantation, seeking out rare adaptive mutations, evolution's accidental upgrades, aborting the rest. Then, when the technology became available, how they began modifying and splicing in alleles associated with radiological immunity, gleaned mainly from the cockroach, as well as gene formations statistically correlating to memory, perceptual speed, neural outgrowth and synaptic plasticity. So it was the Chinese who boasted the first human with a natural intelligence quotient testing twenty-six standard deviations above the norm, or approximately 500. Just to put this in perspective, your typical twenty-first century Mensa would, by comparison, be considered catatonic, a veritable vegetable.

 

IQs fifty standard deviations above the norm, as in higher than 1000, have since been verified, but even among these elect Kun is an anomaly, a fluke, a singularity. He is the perfect synergism of eugenics and technology, of uber-genius and supercomputer. His intelligence has been described as "immeasurable," his incorrect answers most often indicative of flaws and ambiguities in test batteries rather than of his own processing errors or conceptual inabilities. At the age of seven, after taking a second to learn the rules, he played a blindfold chess simul against the all world's top grandmasters, including forty-six computer programs. The entire tournament took a little over four hours, of which he spent all but six seconds waiting for others to play. His only difficulty lay in allowing for opponents' mistakes, as in giving them too much credit, or maybe just being unable to differentiate between simple and complex positions because, for him, they're all the same: trivial; nodes on a decision tree he'd somehow constructed in memory. As a result, he lost every game as black until the rules were changed to prevent his immediate resignation. But he always won as white, announcing mate in 207 after opening with d4, revising ever lower as the game progressed. Some of the humans found this annoying.

 

His host mother was a Chaobai inmate who carried him in exchange for adequate food and exercise, and the avoidance of forced labor in the prison's Qinghe Farm plant manufacturing the supermicrocapacitor, solid state and copper foam batteries favored in fetal implantations. His trial gametes were taken only from donors whose IQs tested in the top .0001 percentile, fertilized zygotes then screened and genetically enhanced, all qualifying embryos incrementally augmented with the newest generations of neurosynaptic chips and bleeding edge AIs before selecting the best symbiotic result—the hands down winner—him. So he's an only child, our little Kun, his myriad siblings all destroyed, his proud parents Intel China and the Beijing Genomics Institute. Although, with his upper lip's peach fuzz, mop of hair flopping in his eyes, oily skin and constellations of facial acne, he looks like any other teenage boy in the throes of adolescence, most in the biological community feel he qualifies as a new genus of hominid, like homo evolutis or homo singularis. Some even argue he is an entirely new life form.

 

So of course we're all curious. He's such an odd duck, this Kun kid, even for a super genius, or whatever comes way out beyond that. They say his immune system's so adapted to his neural implants that his thymus produces antibodies more akin to nanites than proteins. Only fifteen years old, and PhDs out the yinyang, mostly in the pure maths, computer science and theoretical physics, but a bunch in organic chemistry, too. Even one in communications theory, which is a little ironic considering he isn't really conversant in any human language unless you count mathematics, and even there only occasionally somewhat understood by elite groups within select segments of the mathematical and philosophical communities. Some believe he's a savant, his formidable mental prowess consolidated and spiking in certain arenas, most especially cryptography, but wanting in others, such as spoken language. I'm the go-to codebreaker here, and my abilities are nothing beside his. At eleven he cracked thirty-eight round Rijndael in polynomial time, forcing the destruction or re-encryption of decades worth of once secure archives by intelligence agencies around the globe. Then, after Vex became the symmetric AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), he broke it, too. The entire Vex suite, in fact, even Vex III's quasi-proprietary self-modifying method which had been deemed not just unbreakable, but "unassailable." His attacks are described as "evolutionary" for their targeted specificities and gnarly customizations involving bizarre intertwinings of quantum and classical algorithms. The asymmetric schemes used in secure key exchanges are even more vulnerable. Two primes whose product he cannot instantly factor have yet to been found. Solves elliptic curve discrete logarithm problems the way normals do easy to moderate Sudoku puzzles in the Sunday paper. Even China's big strong MSS-recommended hundred-kilobit curves are no match for him. Only enormous, supposedly quantum resistant, NP-complete multivariate quadradics—the products of million-variable polynomials—give him the slightest pause. And while his social interactions might place him somewhere out on the autism spectrum, as I myself and several others of us here have been placed, it's hard to see him as suffering any neurodevelopmental disorders. Like just because you don't speak dog doesn't mean you can't understand them. They say that's how you feel when he talks to you: like a dog. His vocabulary tends to span multiple languages, but which he often doesn't bother distinguishing between. Even listening through interlingual translation apps, his grammatical constructs are too complicated to parse, his references too obscure, and so his thoughts present as gibberish at worst and rampant non sequitur, or poetry if you will, at best. All you can really say is that he looks sad. That he always looks so sad. But then melancholy and genius often go hand in hand. "Consciousness is nature's nightmare," wrote Emil Cioran. It's the one problem our intellectual enhancement technologies have consistently neglected to address. "Every day," said Kafka, "I wish myself off the earth." We all understand this.

 

 

Kun frowns while perusing old optical archives, light data gathered by the Giant Magellan in Cerro Las Campanas, Chile. Nothing new there. Most of it's already been vetted, deemed random noise. So it's a little disappointing, this direction he's chosen. Solomon, our senior astrophysicist, whispers a mildly cryptic comment about his ignoring the much farther reaching infrared data from the new HDST-3 in halo sun-earth L2 orbit. Like why waste time reviewing this old earthbound Magellan's visible spectrum's starlight waste bin when high-def planetary atmospherics are available?

Kun's seconds aren't cheap. But he streams fast, crazy fast. My internal processors can't begin to keep up. But then he stops, lingers. Whole seconds, then minutes, pass while he examines just a few gigabytes collected over a decade ago from Gamma Hydrus, a dying class M system 300 light years distant. It makes some of us a little nervous. Bob, our supercentenarian sys admin, so old he remembers coding in 6502 assembler, wonders if maybe Kun has crashed, frozen, or become caught in a processing loop of some sort, and needs to be rebooted. 

 

That's weird, says Janet, a psychiatrist with a medical degree specializing in endocrinology. Check out his microexpressions, especially those involving extraocular muscles. They would seem to suggest joy. Don't you think he looks younger now, more like the child he really is?

 

Did he just smile? asks Maya. Maya is an autodidact who holds no formal degrees but is effectively telepathic. Reads your face like it was a children's pop-up picture book, senses your biometric outbursts too: heart rate, temperature, vocal inflections, GSR and such. But more than this, it's like she somehow tunes into and decodes your brain's synaptic activity. Even across a hololink Maya knows exactly what you're thinking and how you feel, which is nice because I've never had to tell her I love her. He's decrypting, she reports. I'm positive he's decrypting now.

 

We all tap in. This data he's attacking looks pretty random: bit-change probability consistently near half, bytes distributed evenly: no clumps, no dearths, no patterns. No apparent seed either, totally unpredictable. Even passing it through the good old Monte Carlo quickly generates pi to seven decimal places. But then any good encryption algorithm will turn highly organized data into that which is indistinguishable from random—unless you know the key and the encryption method used. And Kun knows neither. I wonder why it drew his attention.

 

Remember, there's no such thing as randomness, says Jack, our resident philosopher.

 

If we ever do make contact with an alien intelligence, it'll be on Jack to sort out their ethics, their morality—to wit, their threat. Otherwise, he's probably the stupidest of us. I say this mostly without prejudice, as in not just because I'm a little jealous of him. It's just that his enhancements tend to favor the physical over the cerebral. He's insanely good looking, for example, and has huge muscles, even where muscles don't belong, as a result of stem cell injections, anabolic steroids and EMS exercise regimes. Also I think Maya is attracted to him.

 

But he's right. Nothing is truly random. There's no such thing. Complicated, sure, way out beyond anyone's ability to predict—just not indiscriminate. A coin tossed from a mountain top; a woman choosing a pair of pumps from Novo's extensive online catalogue; fifty million spermatozoa racing for a single ovum: there is only ever one possible outcome.

 

With perfect knowledge there can be no surprises, continues Jack. All conclusions—all decisions—are foregone.

 

Oh! answers Maya, probably having tapped his synapses. Sometimes I too feel like this is all just a recording. And someone keeps hitting replay.

 

Well, if that's the way it is... Even though I know it's childish, I conjure up a private mental image that makes her blush. Sometimes that's just how jealousy works.

 

Note the slight parting of his lips, comments psychiatrist Janet. Although of course she means Kun, at first I think she means Jack: another jealous symptom. And the widening of his eyes, she continues. Obviously he's just been surprised. But his microexpressions also suggest satisfaction, even delight.

 

He's broken it! shouts Maya. Kun has succeeded in well under an hour where over a century of globally distributed analysis has failed. Can anyone really be that smart? she wonders. More intelligent than the entire collective sum of humanity? Her excitement borders on fear. It's a little contagious. Maybe telepathy is a two-way street.

 

As if cued, Kun begins outputting to our cloud, output much larger than Gamma Hydrus' seemingly random input.

 

Maybe it wasn't encrypted at all, ventures philosopher Jack. Maybe it was just compressed. Compressed data tests random, too. If it didn't, it'd be further compressible, wouldn't it? Or maybe it's both. Compression enhances encryption, doesn't it? His condescension via the rhetorical question never fails to bug me.

 

Nonetheless, again he's right. Maybe God encrypts all Her secrets. Any advanced intelligent species would. Certainly, judging by its own example, if humanity had a lick of sense, it would not be shouting "Hello! Here we are! This is what we know!" into the cosmos. Any sentience capable of reaching us would, at best, make us their pets. But if it's true that randomness cannot exist in the universe, then maybe there's no data Kun could not decipher. Whatever the case, he has not only recognized deep within this haphazard light some embedded order, but somehow managed to untangle and extract it.

 

I can't imagine decoding an advanced alien language's compressed ciphertext. Thinking how even to approach such a problem makes me dizzy. To Kun, our very best and brightest minds must exhibit little more than a toad's problem solving abilities. How terribly lonely for him. It occurs to me that he must be even more motivated than we to find a compatible intelligence out there.

 

He's done decrypting, reports Maya. He's translating now. It's a subtly different thought process, she explains. And he's succeeding, though his interpretation makes no sense to me.

 

The data he's clouding looks complex and vaguely beautiful. A logographic writing system like Chinese would be my guess, but based on a much larger set of symbols. Highly contextual, each symbol modifying every other the way each raw byte impacts every other in encryption's various block chaining methods. Way beyond my ken to guess at its gestalt, its meanings, though. But then imagine trying to translate Heidegger's Sein und Zeit into the shrieks and grunts a monkey might understand. You'd have to impose your own extensions onto their language to even come close. Some things cannot be made simpler without resorting to metaphor.

 

What's that noise he's making? asks Jack. Is he crying or something?

 

He's singing, answers Maya. Some of us laugh.

 

All of us listen. Row row row your boat... He has a sweet voice, maybe a little squeaky is all, like a violin. Gently down the stream...

There's no need to tap the internet, we all recognize the song. But the net does confirm that this is a first. Kun's activities have been monitored and recorded 24/7 since his conception—since his inception—and he has never sung before.

 

Lovely Maya joins in with a second round. Her voice is beautiful, tentative and human, not perfect, but lies perfectly on Kun's.

 

Philosopher Jack jumps in with a round three, his show-off baritone so flawless, so rich and mellifluous, I wonder if he has an artificial larynx.

 

One doesn't need to be trained in microexpressions to see that Kun is all but beaming. I wish now I could sing, that I could expose myself to others in that way. But even crying—even speaking—would be less humiliating. And so I listen to their overlapping melodies and lyrics. As with encryption, each round adds to the complexity of the result.

 

Suddenly, even though thirty-one minutes still remain, Kun is gone, silenced, replaced by text flashing beneath the Bank's legal letterhead. SERVICE CONNECTION TERMINATED PURSUANT TO ARTICLE 3 SECTION 14 SUBSECTION 1 CLAUSE 59: "deleterious working conditions." But then, almost immediately, he is back. Merrily merrily merrily... translating this light he's found.

A tsunami of pleas and threats flood our channels. The Bank and its clients, Kun's Board of Directors, are frantic. They insist we disconnect his services immediately, evict him from our network. They inform us that failure to comply will result in aggressive legal action under the New Trans Pacific Partnership.

 

But even if we wanted to, we could not. And we tell them so. He's so insinuated into our systems now as to be inseparable, indeed indistinguishable, from them. This includes our energy systems. It's not like we can just flip some breaker to turn him off. Kun controls all panels and transmitters along with our backup generators and batteries. Disabling hardware or severing lines would require time and manpower unavailable to us, and might also entail shutting down significant portions of the National Energy Grid including the Capital and Waffle Point wind farms. That's assuming Kun could not usurp their systems, too—a big, and probably false, assumption.

 

If you can't control him, how do you expect us to? argues our legal counsel, who also points out that the costs associated with reauthenticating our systems, for which the Board is now liable, could be significant. Especially if we make him mad. Safest for all to just let him finish what he's begun.

 

At first the Board objects. You have corrupted him. He has never engaged in frivolous behavior. He has never disobeyed us before. You had better hope he is repairable. But gradually they resign themselves to the situation. Okay, we will fulfill our contract. But could you please not encourage him. Please stop singing. This makes me want so badly to sing that I actually begin to hum along. It feels nice, cathartic somehow. I hum louder.

 

Maybe he's growing up, replies Janet. Has that not occurred to you? All organisms are self modifying to some extent. In humans it's called exercise, which includes thought. In him one can only guess as to what improvement entails.

 

Obviously, says Maya, he is in love. This gives everyone, even Kun, whose voice breaks on gently, pause.

At exactly a terabyte plus two, he divides his translation into six-bit groupings. This is for our benefit. Still, collectively, we scratch our heads. But then clever Maya, who has probably peeked at the answer, laughs. Casting each hexad as a grayscale pel of brightness 0 to 63 and arranging them in a perfect cube evokes layers of light and shadow from which penumbrae appears a being. Alien. Seemingly endoskeletal, but insectile in its grace and delicacy. Long limbed. Inexorably feminine. Strange. Beautiful. Naked.

 

Jack whistles. Sweet! She sent us a selfie! Not bad. Not bad at all.

 

First, replies Maya, her tone sharper than I've ever heard it, she sent it to Kun, not us. I can't imagine how, but apparently his translation is non discretionary, perhaps more akin to a mathematical transformation. Second, this image is just the wrapping. There is a great deal of other information contained. But a language versatile enough to multitask in such diverse ways is probably beyond our abilities to comprehend. Maybe the universe itself is such a language.

 

How sad, I think, to fall in love with someone who's been dead for three centuries.

 

But that's not the case here, answers Maya, as though I'd spoken. I'm reading too much hope, she says, a strong sense of anticipation, and not some wishful fantasy either. I'd say he's got a date.

 

Impossible, says Jack. Even if this alien chick is immortal, the boy isn't. Plus she lives too far away. That's all I'm saying. He laughs at what he perceives to be his droll colloquialism and hyperbole.

 

Ironic, I think, again so that only Maya can hear, how the dumbest people are often the least self conscious about it. And resolve again to control my jealousy.

 

Who knows, says Janet, what medical breakthroughs he will invent. Maybe immortality is within his purview. And if anyone can figure out a way to exceed the speed of light or fold spacetime, it's him.

 

Astrophysicist Solomon weighs in. Actually, on a cosmic scale, she's not that far away. Practically the girl next door. Even fourteen billion light years, the size of the known universe, is really only the distance over which Hubble's expansion exceeds lightspeed, and therefore all we can see of it. But there is unknowably, possibly infinitely, more. And even were she not right here in our very own galaxy, but another much farther, like say MACS0647-JD, it would still be possible for them to meet, even using current technologies, as in without violating relativity, and with neither being immortal. She could, for instance, encroach on c near enough that the 300 years, or any amount of time, separating them would pass in a few of her seconds.

 

As in catch up to him in time? says Jack.

 

Yes, even at minimum acceleration, say just one earth gravity, it'd take her under a year, her time, not ours, of course. It is not at all impossible to attain the speed of light, but only for anyone to observe your doing it. The biggest challenge might lie in measuring velocity and its time dilation effect exactly enough, especially so as not to reach or exceed c. Although, he then confesses, I'm so curious to know what the universe would then become that it's almost an obsession. Anyway, my guess is that this broadcast message in a bottle includes a meeting time, probably in the distant future—and place, which could be anywhere in the known, or even unknown, universe.

Life is but a dream... sings Kun, as he clouds another terabyte even faster than the first. There are grayscale images in its hexads too. Shapes and drawings. Plants with eyes. Animals with roots and leaves. Some so alien that they cannot be interpreted in terms of things known or even imagined. Translucent buildings floating like bubbles in a sky littered with moons. Rorschach tests? A child embracing a flower. A spider eating a fairie.

 

Maybe it's a tutorial of some sort, hypothesizes Janet. Basic concepts, axioms, givens serving as building blocks for ever more complicated truths. Yet another microcosm of our holographic universe.

 

Kun clouds another image, but spherical this time, and in color. Colors that span the visible spectrum, and probably then some. He has performed this certainly far more difficult transformation for us. Perhaps he is beginning to understand our limits. It appears to be a world with trees reaching up into space with crystal leaves.

Row row row your boat... I finally join in, albeit mistimed and out of key, relieved that no one is listening. Gently down the stream... relieved that no one but Maya ever really listens.

 

More images appear. Snakes with wings. Angels with tails. A bright orange star surrounded by a net of equidistant turquoise planets, so many, and so precisely positioned, that one can only assume they have been somehow towed into orbit. Life is but a dream... I sing at the top of my lungs as more present. An egg with something smiling in it. A rainbow stretching between worlds. Winged sticks either fighting or mating, or maybe just playing. Simple shapes evolve into multidimensional ones, some seemingly paradoxical. Kun’s brow creases in concentration. Even he seems challenged. Galaxy-spanning civilizations. Bridges between universes. Tomorrows reaching for eternity. Mathematical mysteries for fledgling gods. Kun turns the pages. Image after image. Pop-up pictures for we who cannot read.

 

The End

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Weekdays Chris Miller is a systems programmer with an interest in cryptography. Weekends he washes dishes and flips eggs in a family restaurant. He enjoys chess, Go and table tennis, writes for love.

Fiction by Chris Miller:

"Penumbrae" August 2020