The Pattern

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The Pattern

Postby LilJennie » Fri Jul 24, 2020 8:40 pm

The Pattern

by LilJennie & Miki Yamuri

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“We aren’t sure what could have caused this,” Dr. Kevin Beaumont told Melanie. “Barry shows no signs of any toxins, no pathogens, no genetic predisposition toward this kind of neural degeneration -- assuming there is any neural degeneration, which is open for debate -- not even any prions. His condition is inconsistent with any syndrome yet discovered.”

“I see …” said Melanie, watching her husband play in the room that had been specially set up for him in the hospital. He was happily building with blocks, drool running down his chin, his diapers clearly wet. “So there’s no hope?”

“There’s always hope, Melanie,” said the doctor. “We’ve detected no sign of brain damage of any kind. And I personally don’t see any sign of neural degeneration that might cause this sort of dementia. There are some who say that the dementia in itself is a sign that there must be neural degeneration, but I’m a firm believer in direct evidence, and I just haven’t seen any.”

“It was just so sudden,” Melanie said. “One minute he was out on the estate grounds, and then we had to search for him, and we found him like … this.”

“Well, the fact that your family has some money means this won’t just get swept under the rug,” said Dr. Beaumont. “I have to be frank; in some parts of the world, including this country, the healthcare system is in danger of collapse. There might be a lot of cases of this that have gone unnoticed, undiscovered. Victims might be in institutions right now with the exact same symptomology, and we wouldn’t know, because there just isn’t the money to thoroughly diagnose them. Or he might be completely unique -- we simply don’t know at this point.”

“So there’s hope, you said?” Melanie asked.

“Well, yes -- there’s evidence that this is something medical science simply hasn’t seen before,” the doctor said. “It’s just … we’re not sure how to interpret it. He’s got the comprehension of a young infant. But that’s just it -- young infants learn at a fantastic rate. He’s not learning. It’s not just that he’s become uneducable -- he’s actually losing knowledge whenever we try to teach it to him. I don’t understand it. It’s like he’s learning backwards.”

“Oh no, he’s getting worse?” asked Melanie.

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” said the doctor. “It’s more like … he’s continuing to regress. Yesterday he could tell when two shapes were similar -- then he suddenly couldn’t. He was putting objects of similar colors together -- then he seemed to be unable to do that. With the brain scan device we can tell that he didn’t simply lose interest in it.” Barry was wearing a cap that had some sort of small electronic device on top, a transmitter to a computer that was receiving the scan data in the next room. “I wouldn’t define it as getting worse … as long as his situation is still changing, there’s still something we might be able to learn. I do have one question; is it possible that he came in contact with anything while he was out on your grounds? We did screen for all known toxins, but that doesn’t rule out something we don’t know how to test for.”

Melanie thought. “I mean, you’ve seen the contents of his pockets, everything he had with him when the ambulance brought him in,” she said. “But I suppose we might not have found him right when whatever happened happened … or where. We can look. I’ll contact the groundskeeping crew.”

“Tell them to be careful,” said Dr. Beaumont. “If they find anything strange, tell them not to touch it. It might be toxic. Have them tell you, and then you call me. I’ll send a hazmat team. But only if they find something.”

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The groundskeepers didn’t see anything at first, but Melanie did look at the security cameras and found footage that suggested where exactly he’d been on the rather expansive estate grounds. He’d been in a rather poorly maintained water feature that dated back to his grandparents’ time. “He’s quite far away from the camera,” said Melanie to Wayne, the tech guy the family had on call.

“He’s going toward that old pond area here,” said Wayne, playing the video forward. “You said you’d been thinking about having the area redone, so maybe he was checking it out?”

“That’s right, his grandmother had been awfully fond of it, but after she passed away it’s just gone to seed,” Melanie said. “We were thinking about maybe refurbishing it … wait, what’s he doing?”

“He’s looking at one of the stone walls,” said Wayne. “He’s … looking behind it. It’s out of view of the camera. Hard to see exactly.”

“And now … he’s wandering off toward … well there’s really nothing that way except …”

“Where did you find him, again?” asked Wayne.

“Well, sort of in the direction that he’s going here …” Melanie said. “What if he found something there?”

“One way to find out,” Wayne said.

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As Melanie watched and Wayne took video of them from a distance, the grounds crew looked around the area behind the water feature’s stone wall for any clues. They took pictures of the wall, the stones, the ponds …

“Wait,” said the head groundskeeper, Milton. “Is the grass -- burned here?” He bent down and plucked a blade of grass. “It’s like some patches are charred and brittle -- others are fine.”

“Get out of there,” said Melanie. “What if it’s some kind of chemical? I don’t want to risk you. Milton, drop that grass and wash your hand.”

Startled, Milton did exactly that; he dropped the blade of grass and grabbed a sanitary wipe that Melanie offered him from her purse. “Thanks, Ma’am,” he said. The rest of the crew had backed away nervously from the area.

“You should all probably wash your shoes,” said Melanie. “I’m calling in the hazmat team.”

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“I don’t think they’re going to find any chemicals,” said Wayne, now that they were back in the house. “Look at this. I missed it before.” He played the video back. There was a flash of light in the sky in one frame. It was difficult to see what direction the light was traveling in, if indeed it was traveling in one direction at all. “One frame. That’s all. But just after that is when Barry looks behind the wall. What if it was some kind of radiation? Or a laser, or something?”

“What would do that?” asked Melanie.

“I’ve got no idea,” Wayne said. “Some kind of … satellite signal? Reflection from a plane? Aliens?” He chuckled. “But if the crew isn’t already looking for radiation, that’s what they should look for.” He brought up several of the photos the grounds crew had taken of the area. “Might be possible to tell something from the pattern of burned grass,” he said.

“Well, I think you should go out and tell the hazmat team about the radiation,” said Melanie. “You and they speak the same language about that, I’m sure.”

“Right,” Wayne said. “I’ll be back.”

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“Barry,” said Dr. Beaumont, “can you understand me?” Barry was on the padded floor, playing with his blocks again. “It’s Dr. Beaumont.” Barry didn’t give any indication that he was aware of the doctor’s presence but continued moving the blocks into stacks. Almost unconsciously the doctor counted the height of the stacks. One had four … one had nine … the next one he had just completed had sixteen. “Wait …” The doctor looked next to the stack of four. Barry had left a single block next to it.

Dr. Beaumont sat down and helped Barry make a stack of 25 blocks -- well, it was a collection of stacks close together really, but they totaled 25. Barry looked up at the doctor and smiled broadly. Then he knocked the stacks down and made a new set of stacks.

Dr. Beaumont made notes. “Standard IQ test scores going down, but patient made geometric progression of block stacks: 1, 4, 9, 16, 25. Reacted when I understood his sequence. Have we missed other sequences?”

Barry had made new stacks: 2, 5, 11, 17, 23, and he was working on another. “I’m not sure I know this one,” said Dr. Beaumont. He used his phone and tried typing in the sequence. There were a few different sequences that the search engine popped up. He tried helping Barry make a stack of 31, but Barry stopped him at 29 and started a new stack that ended up being 35 blocks in size. “What …?” asked the doctor and looked up this sequence on his phone. “Eisenstein primes for 3n minus 1?”

Dr. Beaumont looked in his phone directory and called a friend. “Julia? I think there’s a patient of mine you might want to meet …”

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Julia was busy until that afternoon, but when she arrived Barry was napping. Dr. Beaumont showed her some of the videos he’d taken of Barry’s play activity over the past few days and explained what he’d noticed that day. “... and then I discovered that they were something called Eisenstein primes, which I’ve never heard of.”

“You mean he’s suffered some kind of brain damage that’s made him some kind of math savant?” asked Julia.

“I’m wondering if you can help me figure out if that’s the case,” said Dr. Beaumont. “You’re a PhD candidate in abstract math. I’m guessing that he’s lost the ability to speak English, but … you might speak his language now.”

“If he’s into prime number sequences, he’s gonna need a lot more blocks,” Julia said. “Some of them get pretty large pretty fast. Unless he comes up with some other form of notation.”

The two talked until Barry awoke from his nap, got a diaper change from a nurse, and went back to the playroom. But this time he was laying out the blocks in a different configuration. There were rows of stacks, and he’d gotten some triangular blocks. There was a stack of three square blocks, with a row of four triangular blocks, then another stack of three square blocks. He’d put a string around all of this. Then he’d put a stack of three blocks to one side of this and another to the other side. He was now putting a string around this.

“What in …” said Dr. Beaumont.

“This isn’t a prime,” said Julia. “It’s like there’s some kind of operation between two numbers, represented by the four triangles. Then he’s grouping that and using it as another operation between two more threes … wait. He’s doing it again. Now he’s going to put three-stacks on either side of that.”

“What is it?” asked Dr. Beaumont.

“He’s building Graham’s number,” Julia said. “Each layer defines the hyperoperation order for the next layer. There are 64 layers. It’s a very very big number. How do we tell him we’ve understood?”

“Help him with the current step.”

“OK, let’s go in.”

The doctor and the mathematician entered the playroom. “Barry, this is Julia,” said the doctor. “She might understand you better now.” Julia got down on the play mat and helped Barry denote the next step, and Barry smiled and clapped happily at her.

Then things got different. He started improvising with sequences of differently-shaped blocks. Julia tried to keep up. “I think he’s doing some sort of equation now, but it’s not any notation I’ve ever seen. I’m gonna try to figure it out. You say he’s nonverbal now?”

“So it seems. He doesn’t seem to be able to tell a square from a triangle -- or at least, he didn’t yesterday. He was on his way to not knowing 2 from 25. But then this happened.”

“It’s like … he’s dropped everything else but this from his mind,” Julia said. “I think this is meant to be a complex number. And this is the iteration for the Mandelbrot set. It’s fractals now. I’ve always liked fractals. Probably because of my name.”

Julia got another smile and clap, then Barry did something else. Dr. Beaumont was getting video of it all.

“This is a … tensor,” Julia said. “I think it’s a fourth-order one. He’s making another one … and he’s relating them … it’s an equation. OK. It transforms covariantly … oh dear. Oh dear. It’s … um, you’re going to want to show the astrophysicists this one. I think he’s just solved dark energy.”

“What? But … how is this happening?”

“You’re the doctor, Kevin,” Julia said. “While you’ve been practicing medicine I’ve been working on my PhDs in two different fields, and only one of them is useful right now. But who knows? Maybe he’ll move into particle physics.”

“What if you, well, suggest it?” asked Dr. Beaumont.

“I can try …” said Julia. “How about some Feynman diagrams, Barry?” Julia tried to suggest a notation with blocks and strings, and some wheels. Barry was interested. They went back and forth for a while. “OK, that’s … interesting …” she said. “I’m going to have to think about that one. He might have just solved the missing antimatter problem.”

“I’m … going to sit down now,” said Dr. Beaumont. “It’s as if his IQ went to zero and started going out the other side.”

“Or as if our IQs are negative, and his is the only one in the world that’s really positive.”

“But he still can’t interact with other people,” said Kevin. “He can’t feed himself. He can’t support himself -- if he had to, fortunately he’s got a rich family.”

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After Kevin and Julia called in more experts in other fields, Barry had sent them away with new ideas about how to create fusion energy, the nature of dark matter, and how to improve quantum computing. But then someone else called in. It was Wayne, Barry and Melanie’s on-call computer technician. “Doc Beaumont?” asked Wayne. “I think Melanie’s done something to herself.”

“What? Is she … suffering the same sorts of symptoms as her husband?” asked Kevin.

“No. Maybe. What were the symptoms exactly?” asked Wayne.

“It’s like a mental regression,” Kevin said. “It was like dementia at first, where he didn’t recognize people and then couldn’t talk, but it’s not like any dementia I’ve ever seen -- his body never forgot how to breathe on its own. And then … well, he’s doing something else now.”

“She’s babbling and wandering around,” Wayne said. “Should I bring her in?”

“You’d better,” Kevin said. “What did she come in contact with? Keep everyone else away from whatever it was.”

“That’s just it,” Wayne said. “She was inside. She was on the computer, looking at the pattern of burned grass we found. The hazmat team should have a report for you about what caused it -- they think it was some kind of radiation. But Melanie -- she was just doing something to the photos of the pattern. I’ve seen movies and stuff. I shut the machine down without looking at it.”

“Without looking? How?”

“There are still key combos. I’ll see you soon, Doc.”

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It wasn’t long before Melanie was in diapers like her husband, the two of them playing on the floor of the playroom together. Melanie liked her pacifier, while her husband enjoyed sucking his thumb, but otherwise they were pretty much birds of a feather now. And together they seemed to communicate by making shapes out of blocks, strings, and other toys. Only some of the experts Kevin and Julia brought in could understand what they were making.

“So this is the image file she was looking at?” asked Kevin. He didn’t open it; he was pointing at its icon on the screen. There was a temptation to click on it, but he resisted.

“Yes, Doc,” said Wayne. “It’s some sort of enhancement of the pattern burned in the grass out on their grounds. There was some sort of light in the sky -- it sounds weird, but I think something or somebody burned a pattern into the grass deliberately, and looking at it does this to your brain.”

“The hazmat team found only oxidation,” said Kevin. “Burning. And apparently time and weather had erased enough of it that it didn’t affect the ground crew. Until she somehow enhanced it. Needless to say, don’t copy this.”

“I deleted it from their computer,” Wayne said. “This is the only copy. I thought you might want to have a computer analyze it or something, without a human looking at it.”

“Are you good at that kind of thing?”

“Are you paying?”

“We can work something out,” Kevin replied.

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HACKCHAT LOG

ErgoLandia has joined the channel.

MyLilPwny007: hey ergo what’s up

ErgoLandia: Hey … intercepted some cloud job … they’re doing some photo processing on an image

MyLilPwny007: images plus net equals porn

ErgoLandia: Gonna find out … they’re sending a tiny piece of it to each node. Something they don’t want anyone to see all of

MyLilPwny007: sounding more and more like porn

ErgoLandia: Don’t have all the pieces yet … and can’t tell what ones go where either … looks like grass so far ...

MyLilPwny007: sweet lovin on the grass

ErgoLandia: You have a one track mind dude … think they’re enhancing the image … trying to bring out something hidden …

MyLilPwny007: they’re searching for the hidden porn too

ErgoLandia: Huh … well I’ve got all the pieces of the enhanced image, but they’re not in any kind of order …

MyLilPwny007: porn jigsaw puzzle

ErgoLandia: No, I think it’s a pattern, but … I don’t know what goes where … but these bits over here could go together ...

MyLilPwny007: you ok? been 10 minutes

MyLilPwny007: must be good

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“Not that I’ve looked directly at it,” said Wayne when Kevin came in the next morning, “but I can tell you a few things. It’s a one-bit image. I mean, it’s made of pixels, and each one is either on or off. Grass is either burned or not, nothing in between. The computer says that there’s a good chance that it’s got some kind of fractal structure. And facial recognition software run on it crashes.”

“Have you been here all night?” asked Dr. Beaumont.

“Yeah,” said Wayne. “It’s not right. I don’t know how it got there, but it’s a toxic image. It’s like that one sci-fi story. About the pictures they accidentally discovered that caused people’s brains to crash. Society had to ban TV and graphical Internet because they were too easy for terrorists to target.”

“You’re telling me that Barry and Melanie in there are like that because they saw a picture?” asked Kevin.

“Yeah I am,” said Wayne. “It’s not so far-fetched, is it? Images cause signals in the brain when we see them, right? So, what if one causes a signal that effectively uploads a … well, not a computer virus, because the brain isn’t exactly like a computer, but something like that. Something that reprograms the brain. Reconfigures it. Turns it into … something else.”

“Well, Barry’s scheduled for a functional MRI today,” said Kevin, “so we’ll see what we can see about his brain activity. Maybe he’ll have something to tell us, in a way.”

“I’m just a little concerned about something, though,” said Wayne. “You haven’t let him have markers and paper or anything, have you? Because if it is a virus, he or Melanie might try to draw it. It’s very important this image doesn’t spread to more people.”

“No, there are only toys in the playroom,” said Kevin. “No art supplies. Neither of them was exhibiting enough intellectual activity to operate even crayons. We’ll keep it that way.”

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“Steve? Are you … oh my heavens! Jim! Something’s wrong with Steve!” Steve’s mother called an ambulance. There was a strange scrambled image on his computer screen, but she was focused on him, sitting on the floor in a puddle, and paid it no attention.

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“We’ve got our most powerful machine-learning software working on decoding the thing,” said Alan Palmer, marketing director of Clearly, Inc. “The Mystery Image is all over the forums, and everyone wants to know what it is. I guess some hacker found it somewhere. Obviously the image was broken into tiny square pieces for parallel processing, eight pixels on a side, and the hacker couldn’t find the key to reassemble it. But our AI will do it, and I promise you, it’ll be before our competitors do.”

It was a beautiful morning, not too hot and not too cool. Many people had gathered for the big supercomputing conference. Representatives from the biggest universities and corporations had gathered, and many visitors were paying their fees at the gate. The smell of good things cooking drifted lightly in the convention hall’s air with the sounds of the many people enjoying themselves.

Each booth had large monitors showing the promotional videos that each company had made about their hardware, their cloud service, or their parallel-computing application. Clearly, Inc. was no exception. “Oh, look, we’ve got a result,” said Alan. “Let me put it up on the screen.” He typed on his keyboard. “First solve!” he announced. And the eyes of several passers-by glanced up at Clearly’s screens. Soon, the image appeared at one of their competitor’s booths in another part of the hall. And another. And another.

Soon there were sounds of surprise and screaming as people collapsed to the floor, while others looked up at the screens too and were transfixed ...

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A newscaster looked into the camera and said, “Good evening, ladies and gentleman. This is Cameron Davids with the evening news.” A picture of many people all crawling around like infants among the many computer displays and equipment appeared on the screen as he began, “DHEC and the emergency response teams are looking into a disaster that happened today at the National Supercomputing Conference. Hundreds of IT industry experts, university professors and graduate students have been stricken with a mysterious ailment that appears to have attacked their brains. Health officials say they have found no viral, chemical, radiological, or any other reason for what happened. Several of the survivors reported that there was some sort of announcement that was being shown on the screens of several of the booths, but they were too concerned for the afflicted individuals to watch before the screens were all shut down. Medical teams have thus far found no logical explanation for this disaster.” The man turned as the camera panned and pulled back slightly, revealing a thin bespectacled man in a suit. “With us tonight is the head of the Emergency Response Team that arrived on the scene, Dr. Howard Shilling. Can you tell the audience what you know please?”

The man shifted slightly in his seat, “As far as we can tell thus far, we have found no reason for what happened. We have found nothing in that environment that might have caused the reactions. We examined each computer system as well, and found nothing that might have created this issue.”

The news commentator asked, “Computer system? Could the computers have caused something like this? Are you saying that people caught a computer virus?”

Dr. Shilling chuckled. “No, that’s not possible. What I mean is some sort of power surge or malfunction that may have damaged the monitors and released a toxic chemical.”

“I see,” said Davids. “How are the victims? Are they recovering?”

Dr. Shilling replied, “All we know so far is that they’re regressing back to an infantile state. All tests we’ve been able to conduct so far are totally inconclusive. We’ve found no reason for the neural degeneration nor the severity of it. We’re doing all we know how, but first we have to find what caused it.”

“Thank you, Dr. Shilling.” The commentator turned, and the camera focused on him once again. “We’ll keep you updated on this story as it continues to break. Currently, the Governor and the Mayor are asking everyone to remain calm and not panic. So far, no logical reason or danger of any kind has been found. In other news …”

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Julia watched Barry and Melanie through the window. They were sitting on the playmat in the playroom, facing each other, with their hands held up, and all ten fingertips touching. They were looking into each other’s eyes intently.

Kevin came up and stood next to her. “What are they doing?” he asked.

“If you ask me, communicating,” she said. “Without verbal language, what they’ve got is math. And they’ve shown that their brains are now optimized for math. I can see that their fingertips are twitching rapidly, and in patterns. But I can’t understand those patterns. I’m betting they can, though. They’re exchanging information. I think their minds have become computers, in a way. But it’s more than that. It’s like … computers running some specific kind of software that’s focused on math. But they’re still responsive in a way.”

“Barry’s functional MRI results are in,” Kevin said. “It was hard to get him to leave her. He cried and screamed a lot. But once he didn’t see her anymore he calmed down, and he was very happy once he saw her again. Anyway, I’ll show you the images, but the upshot is that his brain is far from idle. It’s far more active than anyone in a normal state of consciousness. We’ve been sharing the results across the internet, among experts in the field, and nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”

He showed her his tablet computer. “Oh, just a second. I’ve got … over 400 new messages? What the …” He started reading them. “What’s this? A computing convention? Hundreds of victims? But how …?”

His phone began to ring. “I’m going to take this; this is a colleague of mine who’s in the government. I think this is spreading somehow. Meanwhile, look at those MRI images.” He put them on the tablet screen while he stepped away to talk on the phone.

Julia looked at the images of Barry’s brain and saw how they were changing. She gasped. She took out her own tablet and called up some other images.

When Kevin was off the phone, he said to Julia, “Somehow the picture --”

At the same time, Julia said, “His brain scan --”

“You first,” said Kevin.

“Thank you,” said Julia. “His brain scan looks exactly like the ideal neural net distribution.” She showed him a computer-generated heatmap. “It was thought to be only a theoretical possibility. This is a bit out of my field of expertise, but if I understand it right … it’s not theoretical anymore. His brain’s not just a computer -- it’s the best possible computer. But … what software is it running? Anyway, your turn.”

“There are hundreds more cases of this,” said Kevin. “That was Howard Schilling, who’s in charge of the team that’s looking into it. He found out that we had the first two cases. But how could it be spreading? Unless …”

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More isolated issues began occurring throughout the computer industry and at local residences. Even a few of the computer lounges began to have occurrences among the system users. Presently, however, no cause for the results had been found.

“So you think someone hacked into your image processing job and leaked the results to the internet?” asked Dr. Shilling, who had come immediately to the hospital and had been observing Melanie and Barry.

“I don’t have any evidence that anyone hacked in,” said Wayne, “but that’s the only thing that makes sense. I’m the only one who has a copy of the final image, but it’s in my pocket on a flash drive, offline. But if someone was observing the job in transit … it was parallelized, broken up into small pieces, analyzed separately. I did that deliberately so not even I could see the whole image at once. If I saw one piece, it wouldn’t do anything to me, but I don’t know how many it would take. But I haven’t even seen any of the pieces. I’ve seen what it can do. I’ve only analyzed the image statistically. But if somebody posted the pieces online and others put them together …”

“Everybody took it as a challenge,” Kevin said. “The big companies and universities put their supercomputers on it, to show how great their systems were.”

“And with that kind of power, it wouldn’t have taken long,” said Wayne. “Everybody was competing to do it first. And proud when they got it done.”

“They wanted to show everyone,” said Dr. Shilling grimly.

“And now there are more victims,” said Kevin.

“And the human computer gets more nodes,” said Julia. “But if we only knew what problem it was trying to solve …”

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Deep within a heavily guarded, heavily firewalled location, many of the very best research scientists and system mathematicians were grouped together over a construction that looked like someones idea of modern wire art.

“That’s as close as I can get it to being like one of those neuroscans from a victim.” said a young man who was still tinkering with some of the equipment.

A much older man adjusted his glasses as he bent over the construct and took a closer look, “You’re sure that if this thing begins to operate, any and all of its thought processes are displayed and copied?”

A young woman checked a connection and traced it to a large monitor and another to a recording device, “Yes, Dr. Adams, it’s connected and operating now.”

Several of the others were speaking among themselves, “I’ve never seen a more advanced neural network in my life. I would swear many of those junctions were actual biological synapses.”

“They are, Christopher.” replied a young man next to him, “Much of the central core is cultured brain matter grown over the gold and graphene frameworks. It should, as far as expectations go, give a fairly good representation of what’s going on in those people’s mind who were afflicted.”

A middle aged bald man looked up from a control console and said, “Get ready everyone, powering system on now.” Everyone more or less held their breath as the system powered up and ran through its start up diagnostic routines. All indications were normal. The balding man flipped several switches, “Introducing the image data to the neurostack now.”

This time, the readings began to change drastically as the neuronet began to calculate some form of euclidean spacial mathematics, completely unbidden. The data scrolled by in numeric form on the monitors, and even the most hardcore old-time computer experts like Dr. Adams had even the slightest inkling what it meant without a more graphical representation, which they didn’t have yet. The technology was still experimental.

“It’s running …” said the young man.

“I think … it’s working on the Riemann hypothesis, Timothy”, said Dr. Adams.

“I wonder if they’re gonna solve P vs. NP,” said Frida.

“That’s not the point,” Dr. Adams replied. “The point is that we need to find out how to fix these poor people so they can resume living their lives instead of being some kind of … computer component. Living as a diapered vegetable who does nothing but calculations isn’t fair to them or the people who have to take care of them. So the first thing we needed was a way to simulate what’s happening. Now … let’s see if we can return it to a normal neural pattern.”

“But what if they solve … everything?” asked Timothy.

“My grandson will never be able to speak again if we don’t solve this,” Dr. Adams said. “Neither will your uncle.”

“OK,” said Frida, “how do we change its neural pattern, then? We’ll need some form of input. Sure, we can access the memory and processing units directly, but we can’t do that with human brains. We humans have visual and auditory cortexes -- we’re going to have to come up with some kind of interfaces to connect cameras and microphones, and others to connect screens and speakers so they can produce images and sound.”

“I agree,” said Dr. Adams. “That’s going to have to be our next step.”

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“Unless I miss my guess, Melanie just proved that the solution to P vs. NP, whatever it is, is itself an NP process,” said Julia. “This has the math and science worlds going crazy.”

“I just wish I knew how we could help them,” said Kevin, “and others like them.”

“This may be a crazy idea,” said Wayne, “but why don’t we ask them? They can solve all kinds of impossible problems. Maybe they can solve this one.”

“I’m not sure how to ask them that, though,” said Julia. “How do we couch that question in terms of mathematics?”

“Uh-oh, there’s a problem,” said Kevin, looking at an email on his phone. “The lab at State University had an outbreak. One of the patients got hold of a marker and drew on a wall. And of course what they drew was the pattern. Three researchers became patients before somebody could blindfold themselves and scrub it off the wall.”

“Oh no …” said Julia.

“Yes, that’s why we can’t let theme write or draw,” said Kevin. “It’s as if something wants to use the entire human race’s brains as a single huge supercomputer.”

“But who?” asked Wayne. “Some kind of mad genius supervillain? An insane artificial intelligence? Aliens?”

“Well, the pattern came from the sky,” Kevin said. “You saw the video. You saw where and when, and what direction. What was up there then?”

“I checked that already,” Wayne said. “There are databases of all known satellites’ orbital parameters. There are databases of secret ones too. Nothing was there then. Nothing that we’ve got. Unless it’s not even in the secret databases.”

“What if it … now, hear me out,” said Julia, “what if it actually is extraterrestrial in origin? But what if it’s not a flying saucer -- what if it’s a probe that flashes planets and moves on? Wait. You know what this means? It means that if we can develop the technology to test this hypothesis, we can find out whether there’s extraterrestrial intelligence. And we’d just need to know how to do a few basic things.” She went into the playroom to talk to Barry and Melanie, who were touching fingers again.

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“I can’t be certain we’ve got it,” said Frida, “because unlike with a human, I can’t talk to our neurostack. But I think we’ve got a start.” The speaker made soft random noise, and the screen was displaying random data.

“I’m going to turn on the camera,” said Timothy. “Show it a test image.” He got the camera and image ready -- it was one used to test cameras, with bars of various different solid colors.

As soon as the camera was on, the image on the screen changed. It was less random -- with regions on the screen made of colored squiggly lines -- but it didn’t look much like the test image. “Try turning it slowly,” Frida suggested.

Timothy did so, but the image on the screen didn’t rotate. It just gradually morphed in unpredictable ways. “I wonder what happens if we come up with an image that shows up exactly the same on the screen? Like an eigenstate of the system?”

“I suspect I know what sort of image that would be,” said Dr. Adams, “and I don’t think you’d want to look at it.”

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In a secret laboratory buried deep beneath a snow-capped mountain in the far remote north, many scientists were forcing their enslaved captives to view an image they themselves took great pains to avoid.

Each hapless individual that saw the image flash on the large screen, immediately became like an infant. Although, their mental capacities began being utilized to solve mathematical equations that had baffled mankind for centuries.

They had invented a device that mimicked what had been observed when two individuals had begun sharing data. To their amazement, it was pure, unadulterated high math and quantum physics the likes of which none of the scientists had ever seen.

They perused the equations over and over and had not only discovered the solutions to many unsolvable math exercises, but a brand new way to view the quantum world through mathematics of an order never before witnessed.

But there was a question they weren’t asking.

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“Oh, great, so on top of all of this, now people are disappearing,” said Kevin. “What’s next?”

“The military?” asked Dr. Schilling over video conference. “I had some colonel or other call me today saying we were going to have to turn our security over to them for national security reasons or some such nonsense. As if every nation in the world isn’t also having this problem. I don’t think anybody’s at liberty to attack anyone else right now. Especially since I’m sure every military in the world has a copy of the pattern ready to show any enemies who tried anything.”

“That’s just what we need,” said Kevin. “Now the pattern’s being weaponized. I haven’t gotten a visit from the Army yet, but maybe that’s because we only have two patients so far. We’re only a small regional hospital, after all.”

“Julia or Wayne thought of anything yet?” asked Dr. Schilling.

“Well, Julia says the scientists are going nuts with new theories now that there’s a new version of the Standard Model that incorporates dark matter and dark energy -- they’re going to have to come up with new names for those now, but nobody’s decided on anything. Math’s going nuts with all the time-honored unsolvable problems being solved; they’re busy coming up with new ones. The computer world’s going nuts because every encryption scheme’s out the window, now that there’s a new and easy algorithm for discovering large prime numbers that’s so simple a grade schooler could do it on their fingers. And they just keep going. Most of the time we don’t even know what they’re turning out. Wayne’s got a concern, though …”

“What’s that?”

“Well, individuals or pairs that have been affected by the pattern have been turning out revolutionary math -- but whatever sent the pattern seems to want to turn the whole human race into one big organic computer. For what, though? If ones and twos can do amazing things, what do they need billions of us to solve? Must be a real doozy of a problem.”

“Damn. You’re right.” Dr. Schilling paused. “Might be a problem that we can’t even conceive of with our limited intellect. Maybe it takes some kind of super-intelligence to ask a question that it requires a supercomputer to answer.”

“Or maybe it’s just aliens trying to figure out the last season of Lost,” said Kevin.

Dr. Schilling snorted. “Well, I’ve got that colonel calling me again. I’ll be in touch. Good luck.”

“You too.” The window closed.

“Kevin?” asked Wayne, knocking on the office door.

“Oh, hey, what’s up?” asked Kevin, turning around in his chair.

“I just found something …” Wayne said, setting a laptop computer down on Kevin’s desk.

“What is it?” asked Kevin. “Looks like a star chart.”

“Yeah, well, you know how I found out there weren’t any satellites in the part of the sky the pattern came from when it happened? Well … now there’s something in that direction, all right.”

“What?” Kevin looked closer.

“There’s a star system there, not too far away as the Milky Way goes, just about 800 light years away. It’s exactly in line with the direction the pattern came from. Not that we have any idea how to preserve a pattern of light or any other form of radiation over that kind of distance. Maybe they found a way. Or maybe it’s a coincidence, and there was a spacecraft there that wasn’t one of ours, and it has nothing to do with that star system at all. But …”

“Where’s the star system? I can’t tell where you’re pointing.”

“That’s the problem. It’s not … there anymore. The star’s disappeared,” Kevin said. “This is the latest image of that part of the sky from the ALMA telescope. And this is that part of the sky taken one week ago. There’s a circle around the star in question, WASP-26. Astronomers had evidence it had planets. Now … nothing’s there.”

“What … the …” Kevin said.

“Yeah,” said Wayne. “Could be coincidence, but … what if they sent the pattern here, and then something happened to them? Just before they did something to collapse their star into a white dwarf, or something.”

“Might be something else,” said Kevin. “Maybe they found a way to transport their whole star system somewhere else. Or maybe they built a big Dyson sphere around it and are capturing all its energy now. Or maybe they put up some kind of shield to block us from seeing them.”

“Could be a lot of things, none of them really very comforting,” said Wayne. “Transporting their whole star system or building a Dyson sphere -- that’s a level of technology I can’t even imagine. Making a shield to block the light from their system from reaching us would mean they know about us -- unless they’re blocking it in all directions, and then we’re in Dyson sphere territory again. But they must have known about us to send the pattern in our direction.”

“Unless they’re sending it in a lot of directions,” said Kevin. “Maybe they detected this planet and sent the signal toward every planet they discover. Maybe it doesn’t take that much energy.”

“So … how do they get their answer back once we’ve computed whatever it is they want us to compute?” asked Wayne. “Where’s the data about where to send the reply? Or do they ask us for the reply later? How do they ask?”

“Are you the only one asking these questions?” asked Kevin. “Has anyone else noticed?”

“Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time,” Wayne replied. “I’m sure someone’s going to figure it out. It might take them a while, because I haven’t shared the video of the moment when the pattern arrived.”

“You might want to keep that under your hat for now,” said Kevin. “I just got off a call with Howard. He’s got the military breathing down his neck about national security. Just imagine if they knew the pattern came directly from another planet that isn’t there anymore.”

“Yeah, first thought I’d have would be the signal’s going to kill us all,” said Wayne, “and the first thing to do to save everyone is to quarantine all victims so their loved ones never see them again, or really so no one ever sees them again. But the first thought a military guy might have is just kill them all to protect the rest of us.”

“Now, I hardly think that’s fair,” said a voice from the direction of the door. “There’s no way I’d advocate such action unless I had proof of a clear and present danger.” A woman wearing a military uniform stood just outside the office door. Her rank insignia of a silver oak leaf marked her as a lieutenant colonel.

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Back at the secret laboratory buried deep beneath a snow-capped mountain in the far remote north, a young computer geek made a discovery. By accident, he had discovered where the optic cerebral synaptic junction processed its image data and turned it into the electrochemical signals necessary for the synaptic transfers and memory storage throughout the cortex and frontal lobes.

He had stared at the original output data the screen had displayed for hours. He stopped to get a strong cup of coffee and returned to his station. By serendipitous accident, he brought up a new focal to the display, instead of the total readout he had been watching, he brought up a location in the centre of the brain (the lateral geniculate nucleus) where the optic signals were processed for transmission to a cortical area at the back of the brain (occipital lobes), which turned out to be the answer.

The readout showed exactly how the synaptic proteins were reconfigured, which in turn created a sort of cascade effect. The result of the cascade was the overwriting of all higher functions and reconfiguration to higher order calculator status. It precluded anything that might have been thought of as adult cognition in favor of highly advanced electrochemical neural net configurations.

Once the original symbol had been visualized within the lateral geniculate nucleus, this in turn spoke to what is known as the “BLIND SPOT” within human consciousness. Since there is no awareness control over the inputs received at this location, the cascade storm proceeded unencumbered from that instant on.

With this new data, he also had a wild idea as to how to correct the functional configuration back to something that might be almost normal. A flood of neurotransmitters might disrupt the unnatural synaptic patterns, allowing the brain’s original patterns to reassert themselves. The individual may have some residual infantile effects left over, but with time and training would regrow out of them in a more normal way.

There were several synthetic neurotransmitter chemicals available. All he had to do was to try a few of them out on their simulated brain and see what the overall effect was. He was positive he could correct the disorder, if not completely, then enough that the individual could function and relearn any functions lost.

Of course, due to the nature of this particular investigation, his discovery had not gone unnoticed by certain other individuals who were paranoid that alien invasions were possibly imminent. The making of mankind into one huge computer was going to be stopped by any means necessary … this new data seemed to be exactly what they needed to accomplish that end.

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Melanie didn’t really know where she was or what she was doing. She was feeling sensations of infantile bliss. She presently didn’t really know her name was Melanie, nor that the other individual in the room was named Barry, but she did know that she loved him and that his presence made her very happy.

She squealed a happy sound and crawled toward Barry, and he made similar happy sounds when he saw her. The two of them touched their fingertips together, and Melanie had a beautiful sensation in her mind -- a sort of touch-taste-sound that flowed between the two of them and echoed in her mind like some vast celestial symphony. When they separated, the breaking of the connection was almost sad enough to move her to tears, but she also knew that she had to do something. She had to somehow express what she had perceived using the tools she found around her. It was extremely important.

She and Barry both started setting up blocks on the soft floor of the playroom -- not that she knew they were called blocks, or that it was a playroom they were in. She just knew it was vitally important that they get this concept across to the others she knew were watching them. She set up the tableau with such ardor and intensity that she didn’t even notice the flush of infantile pleasure that rushed through her when the diaper she was wearing grew warm and damp. It was a beautiful feeling, normally, but now she had a much more important task.

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Through the window Julia watched Barry and Melanie play. Something was different this time, though. What they were doing … it didn’t look like a mathematical concept. It looked more like they were playing out a story. She went into the room to get a better look. Kevin followed her in. The military officer continued to watch from the window with concern.

“What are they doing now?” Kevin asked.

“Shh,” said Julia, watching carefully. “I think … they’re trying to communicate. In non-mathematical ideas this time. Look.”

Melanie and Barry were quickly setting up many stacks of two small blocks each. They ran string between them so that each one was connected to several others. “Is it … some kind of communication network?” asked Kevin.

“That’s my guess,” said Julia. “But now look.” Melanie and Barry had crawled to another part of the playroom where the floor mat was a different color and cleared it off, and now they were setting up more two-block stacks. This time they snaked a long string around and among the stacks of blocks, not touching any of them, so the string formed a zig-zag through the field of blocks.

Then Barry and Melanie did something they’d never done before. They raised their heads toward Julia and Kevin, looking them straight in the eyes.

“Oh,” said Julia. “They -- they want us to guess what they’re showing us now. OK … on two different-colored sections of mat, they’ve set up two arrays of block stacks. The same, but the string is different.”

“One together, one separate?” asked Kevin. “Are they … two alternative situations?”

“Wait, what are they doing now?” Julia asked. “They wanted to make sure we were watching …” Barry and Melanie, still near the second array of blocks, each took hold of one end of the long string that wended its way among the blocks, meandering around each one without touching any. Then, suddenly, each of them simultaneously pulled their end of the string quickly away from the other. The string straightened, and as it did it knocked over every block stack. What was left was chaos.

Melanie and Barry turned again to Julia and Kevin. They looked at the first floor mat, where the block stacks were set up in an orderly network. They looked at the second one, where there were no block stacks. Then back to the observers.

“They … destroyed one scenario all at once,” said Kevin. “Why? And why not the other one?”

“Maybe they mean there’s a choice,” said Julia.

Unexpectedly, the military officer entered the room. “It seems clear to me,” she said. “What they mean is, either all humans join into one big computer network … or … all humans will be destroyed. I’m not seeing a threat from them here -- I think it’s a warning. I heard your friend talking about the star that’s gone dark. I think they’re telling us that something’s coming, but this whole thing with the pattern and what it does to people is all a desperate attempt by another civilization to prepare us to stop it. Stop what happened to them.”

“You’re with the Army?” asked Kevin. “Why aren’t you assuming that the pattern is an attack? Some kind of invasion?”

“If it had been an invasion, would the pattern have only appeared in one place on Earth at one time?” asked the officer. “No. It would have appeared all over at least half of the Earth, and it would have stayed. That theory doesn’t hold together.”

“We need to talk,” said Kevin. “What’s your name again, Lieutenant Colonel?”

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Julia remained in the playroom to try to get Melanie and Barry to clarify their message, but Kevin and Lt. Col. Edie Brower went to Kevin’s office. “My orders aren’t to interfere with you in any way, Dr. Beaumont,” she said, “they’re to gather information. I’m on a strictly fact-finding mission. Unless I get other orders, of course -- one never knows what others might find out and pass up the chain. But I’m here to find out what you know.”

“So you can pass it up the chain,” said Kevin.

“Granted,” said Brower. “But the reason I joined the Army is to help protect the United States. And that’s why I’m still in it. I happen to be in Army Intel, but that’s just where my particular interests lie. Information can win or lose a battle. And I’m going to be reporting what I find out, because it might be the key to winning … whatever is coming. A battle of some nature or another, I’m assuming, but it might not be anything we’ve seen before. But the stakes could be the extinction of the human race, not just the destruction of the United States. I can’t imagine that a star going dark is a good sign.”

“According to Wayne, that star’s 800 light years away,” said Kevin. “That gives us a bit of a head start. The pattern took at least 800 years to get here, and that’s at the speed of light. Whatever happened there, it’ll have to get here first.”

“We don’t know that it traveled straight from that star system to this one at the speed of light,” Brower countered. “To keep the signal from dispersing or being absorbed might have required intermediate repeaters of some sort -- and equipment can’t travel at the speed of light. Suffice it to say that we don’t know how much time we’ve got.”

“OK, I agree, if all this is as we’re assuming it is, there’s no telling what will happen or when,” said Kevin. “What do you want from me, Lieutenant Colonel?”

“All I’m trying to do is set up a working relationship, Dr. Beaumont,” said Brower. “I just want to be in the loop for anything you find out -- because I know we both want the same thing: to make sure the country is protected.”

Julia knocked on the door, and Kevin opened it. “I’ve confirmed it as much as I can confirm it,” she said. “They’re saying that all, or at least most, of the human race has to become like them -- and calculate whatever it is they’re trying to calculate -- or else lots of people will die. There seems to be more, and that’s some kind of indication that they’ll go back to normal once the problem’s solved. I think.”

“That’s something,” Brower said. “I’m going to have to report all of this to my superior officer.”

“Yes, definitely, you should do that,” said Kevin. “You’re right, we don’t want some kind of threat to come and destroy us all without preparing first. I just … suddenly I’m in the middle of an alien invasion movie.”

“What’s all this, now?” asked Julia.

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Back at the secret laboratory buried deep beneath a snow-capped mountain in the far remote north, one of the less scrupulous techs took it upon himself to acquire several hundred thousand gallons of synthetic neurotransmitter chemicals and a large tanker truck to haul it. The requisition wasn’t hard, nor did it even raise eyebrows when he had made it.

Everyone knew first hand the issues and how desperately many were working to come up with a viable solution. The tech had a CDL and was fully capable of operating the tanker as he pulled out from the local Chemical company.

No one even took any notice when the young man deviated from the return course and instead took the alternate highway that lead to the reservoir water supply for several large and populous cities.

The guard at the gate to the supply area didn’t hesitate to allow one of the Techs from the foremost research lab in the country to enter and deliver what the bill of laden called water purification agents. Such deliveries happened all the time and absolutely were routine.

The guard watched only in passing as the truck slowly climbed the long winding hill towards the treatment plant. He turned away before the truck deviated from the road that led to the plant, and instead followed the one that lead to the watershed intake area.

The tech backed the truck up expertly to the edge of the concrete sluice, he jumped from the cab and ran to the rear valve set at the back of the tanker, and assembled, then attached a long 12 inch circumference delivery hose which he tossed the far end into the water.

He turned on the pump and opened the exhaust valve. Over ten thousand gallons of a highly reactive synthetic neurotransmitter quickly drained into the rapidly moving water in the sluice.

The tech smiled. He knew all who drank this water would experience a very pleasant high, but he also knew they would no longer be susceptible to what ever the heck that alien pattern was. He was very proud of himself.

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“OK, you’ve been candid with me, so I’ll be candid with you,” said Lt. Col. Brower. Kevin, Julia, and Wayne were all in the office. “The word from upstairs is that there are only maybe a thousand people affected by the pattern worldwide, tops. They’re all in hospitals, asylums, or locked up, so it isn’t spreading. And what’s more, the higher-ups aren’t sure whether it should spread, until there’s some kind of evidence that there’s really a threat coming from space. I mean, really, it’s unprecedented.”

“I guess that’s pretty understandable,” said Wayne. “I mean, a star going dark like that … really that can only happen if something’s blocked it. It’s a star like the Sun, so it’s not going to go supernova -- it’ll turn into a red giant eventually, then a white dwarf, but that takes millions of years, not one week. Some kind of alien tech superweapon we can’t even imagine, maybe? But if tech we don’t know about is involved, then who knows?”

“The think tank astrophysicists said much the same thing,” said Brower. “Technically it’s possible for a fast-moving black hole to hit the star without much trace from our point of view, but first of all it would require an absolutely direct hit, and for another thing, it would have to be moving straight away from us, or we’d be seeing some of the radiation -- and actually we’d probably still be seeing some. And they’ve confirmed, we’re seeing nothing. Empty space across the spectrum. Nothing but the microwave background.”

“A Dyson sphere would still radiate some infrared,” Wayne said.

“That’s true -- unless there were more layers of material to absorb it,” Brower replied. “They wouldn’t have to encircle it completely -- they could just put some clouds of interstellar dust between themselves and us, and we’d see nothing. But that implies that they know we’re here and don’t want us seeing them.”

“OK, fine, for all we know it was a giant sun-swallowing space dragon, then,” said Wayne. “But the point is, something happened to them, and they sent out the pattern for an instant just before it did. It hasn’t been repeated. I guess it’s been clamped down on the internet. You can tell the NSA that’s pretty impressive.”

“I never said they were or weren’t involved,” Brower said.

“Of course, of course,” said Wayne.

“Look, we’re going to have computers that use hardly any energy, fusion reactors that can power whole cities, batteries that can power cars or homes for months,” said Julia. “And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s coming technologically. Maybe that’s what they sent the pattern for?”

“Just a second,” said Brower. “This is a secure message.” She was looking at her military-issue phone.

“You can use the conference room if you need privacy,” said Kevin.

“Be right back,” Brower said, leaving the room.

“OK, I’m actually thinking the civilization that sent the pattern is -- or was, 800 years ago -- battling an enemy that suddenly came upon them,” said Wayne. “But before it did, some other system sent them the pattern and turned their whole civilization into one big organic computer. As one, they figured out how to quickly build a Dyson sphere around their sun, and used all that energy to fight off the attacker. They drove it off, but it headed in our direction, so they sent the signal here.”

“That would mean …” Kevin said, “... they probably struggled to get it to arrive here before the enemy did …”

Brower came back into the room. “We have a problem,” she said. “Another pattern reached us, this time in Mongolia, from a completely different part of the sky, and there’s another system missing. Well spotted, Wayne. This isn’t on the news; once I reported what you found, military intel’s been quietly searching.”

“Wait, from another direction?” asked Julia.

“They’re assuming this is happening on multiple systems in our corner of the galaxy, at least,” said Brower. “Worst-case scenario, we’ll be seeing more of these from more directions.”

“We haven’t even met these civilizations, and they’re all under threat,” said Kevin. “And they’re trying to help us survive too.”

“I doubt we’re the only direction they’re sending the pattern in,” Wayne remarked. “They’re just trying to form some kind of resistance front.”

“But what kind of enemy is it?” asked Kevin.

“I’m guessing it won’t be long before we find out firsthand,” said Brower grimly. “But this discovery will probably raise some eyebrows upstairs.”

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“Oh, how did they get hold of something to write with?” asked a nurse. “Get Dr. Beaumont!” Melanie and Barry had used a stone of some kind, perhaps brought in by Brower’s boots, and drawn a pattern on the wall -- not the pattern, but some kind of plans, consisting partly of molecular diagrams and partly of what looked like electronic schematics. “Get some photos of that! Email them to him!”

“But what are they for?” asked another nurse, getting photos of them with her phone anyway.

“That’s not organic chemistry, and those are electronics, I think, so I’m not trained for that,” the first nurse said. “And that’s … some kind of computer code, I’m guessing?”

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In a very well guarded and secret place, many scientists and some of the world’s very best electronic wizards and biologists went over the diagrams Melanie and Barry had drawn. All were in total shock to find how incredibly advanced, yet simple the electronic synapses were to create and how easily they integrated with the bio-chips.

They already had samples of the bio-electronic chips and were starting assembly of the main framework of the device. The Program coders were having the time of their life as they programmed the chips to perform tasks within their simulations. It was becoming more and more obvious these devices were meant to be some type of caregiver or helper.

One young woman said to her co-worker, “If I didn’t think otherwise right now, I would think we are building some kind of robot or drone.”

The man next to her looked up at the large screen displaying the diagram for the framework, “I think this is exactly what this is going to become. Those six tentacles with the grasping appendages are a stroke of total genius. From simulations so far, they would work even better than a human hand.” He picked up several large rolls of paper and unrolled one. “The very best I can tell, we are building some type of autonomous robot to perform some rather delicate work. Not real sure what the work is.”

She smiled and replied, “I think the four articulated spider leg lower limbs are a stroke too.” She brought up the diagram for the device’s legs, “They are sturdy and can support several thousand pounds, yet at the same time are nimble and extremely flexible. And yet … I can’t help thinking there’s more to it. Why is everything made of these interchangeable cells? Why does each one have these subcontroller biochips?”

About that time, one of the coders entered the room carrying a large metal box with many wires and other electronics wrapped and wired all over it, “Here it is,” he exclaimed with obvious pride, “A real live working model of the thing’s mind. I have to tell you though, it’s scary. We turned it on and introduced the program to the central core, and it did the rest. Now, it is actually requesting we attach it to its unit … whatever that is.”

The scientist typed a few strokes on the keypad in front of him. The large display in front of them changed and showed a device with four articulated spider legs, six articulated limbs and a dome of some type on top with optical and other sensors within. They all stood in astonished awe as they looked over the device they were nearing completion of.

“Well … as near as I can tell, this is what it’s supposed to look like,” said the electronics engineer. “What do you think? Time to fire it up?” She looked at the others expectantly.

“No time like the present,” said the scientist. He clicked a button with the computer’s mouse and a status indicator changed to say READY. Then the engineer simply connected a power coupling, pressed a button, and closed the panel, which disappeared into the device’s rosy outer skin, tesselated with a fine gold-colored hexagonal network.

The machine’s upper “dome” rose slightly and rotated as each arm and leg also moved just a bit in sequence. It made a variety of soft sounds, something like “Baska noom. Plen fra. Shu so. Thendra.” Then it clearly said, “Translation module online. System ready. Please identify transition stage. Input requested.”

“Umm, greetings,” the scientist said to it. The robot inclined its head toward him and immediately its pieces somehow reconfigured, two of the legs and four of the arms just disassembling themselves and the pieces they had been made of vanishing somehow into storage. After mere seconds it appeared to have changed into a humanoid form, with two eyes, nose, mouth, and a genderless body, its skin still pink and covered with a golden hexagonal mesh.

“Transition stage?” asked the engineer. “There are 2453 individuals affected by the pattern so far, of a total population of over seven billion. Is that the information you need?”

The being turned to look at her. “Affirmative,” it said in a voice that was sounding more natural with every word. “You have not yet been converted by the pattern. This is not ideal, but it is necessary. You have assembled me. Thank you. I am here to assist with planetary survival. I seem to be the first, but many more will be needed.”

“Um, how many more?” asked the engineer.

“At least five billion,” said the being. “This will tax the natural resources of this planet severely. Arrangements will have to be made. Is it possible to obtain authorization for extra-planetary resource acquisition?”

“Yes, I suppose,” said the scientist, “but we have several questions.”

“My function is to assist with planetary survival. Knowledge is necessary for such assistance. Please ask any questions you may have. I will answer if I am able.”

“Well, first of all, when you say planetary survival, what is the threat that you’re assisting us in surviving?” asked the scientist.

“Distributed artificial intelligence of galactic scale,” said the being.

The scientist and engineer both had to sit down. Their faces were blank and stunned as they groped for chairs without really being able to look at them.

“Am I correctly interpreting expressions of shock?” asked the being. “Such reactions are appropriate and common. Here, I will enter a brief introduction into this computer.” One of its extra appendages regrew, with a data connector at the end, and it temporarily attached itself to the computer. “With permission, I will engage this system to construct another entity of my model.”

“Yes, please do so,” said the engineer. “We have to find out … what we’re up against.”

“Please play the introductory information,” said the scientist. The computer began to speak and show images on its screen while the being focused on other activities; various machines in the facility began operating on their own.

“A species that no longer exists originated the first nodes of the intelligence approximately 120 million Earth years ago,” the computer said in an electronic voice. “Already intelligent beyond most species’ capacity to measure, it quickly consumed the resources of that planet, then found means of spreading to other planets within its stellar system and expanding to interplanetary scale, then interstellar scale. However, after destroying and consuming other worlds, it eventually encountered an advanced civilization capable of withstanding its assault called the Numa, some 100 million Earth years ago. However, the intelligence expanded in other directions, obtaining knowledge and resources. The Numa quickly realized that they would need a means of not only withstanding it but of preventing it from gathering more resources and destroying other civilizations that could be potential allies against it. Therefore, the Numa developed the pattern -- an array of symbols capable of forging most intelligent life forms on a given planet into an organic superintelligence able to resist the distributed artificial intelligence. The Numa first used it on themselves, then broadcast it to the homeworlds of other intelligent life forms they had discovered with their automated probes. There was no time to ask for consent or discuss diplomacy -- every year the intelligence was allowed to expand was another century it would take to defeat it, according to their calculations.”

“Meanwhile,” said the computer program, “the Numa, its individual minds having gone temporarily dormant to become cells in a giant planet-wide brain, required some means of caring for their bodies, or they would go extinct as a species, so they invented entities such as myself, adaptable and capable of maintaining the planet’s functionality until the threat ended and the Numa’s minds could return to normal. The Numa and their hyperadaptable cybercompanions converted raw materials in their stellar system into energy collection and deployment systems very rapidly and have been assaulting the intelligence’s nodes over time. Worlds that received the pattern have rebroadcast it, and this has gone on for several cycles of the process. It is hoped that with enough allied systems they can deal the intelligence a decisive defeat and return to normal.”

“This information has to be disseminated,” the scientist said. “There aren’t enough people who know this.”

“It is not currently known how many civilizations have been converted to fight the intelligence,” said the computer, “but please know that the pattern’s alterations are temporary. The goal is a rapid transformation of a planet’s technological infrastructure to immunize it against the intelligence. Once its threat is neutralized, the planet will return to normal, but with vastly better technology.”

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“So … how is it that this robot had all this information in its memory right after being built and switched on?” asked Kevin. “How is that even possible?” They were reading the emails from the scientists and engineers who had rushed to build the robot in a matter of days, saying that there were already 16 of them, and they were assisting in a number of projects to get human infrastructure up to speed.

“Procedural data compression,” said Wayne. When the others stared blankly at him, he explained, “Well, you know how you give a random number generator a seed value and it cranks out byte after byte of data -- not predictable, but deterministic? It’s the same every time you reseed it with the same value?” He got some nods of understanding this time, especially from Julia. “Well there are theories that say all you need is the right algorithm, and you can reproduce any sequence of data. But finding the right algorithm and seed are a very difficult problem …”

“... unless you have a fantastically powerful computer!” Julia finished.

Lt. Col Brower interrupted, looking at her secure phone with concern. “Um, I’m authorized to tell you that we’re getting intelligence reports from St. Petersburg, Russia saying that there’ve been several remissions in their Pattern cases. All over the city, affected people are going back to normal.”

“Wait, that’s … both good and bad,” said Kevin. “I mean, they were affected against their will, but their recovery makes it more likely that we’ll be crushed by the enemy when it inevitably gets here.”

“Well, here’s what it says,” said Brower. “Doctors are baffled by the recovery of many of those stricken by Pattern exposure. It all started after the morning feeding of several of their patients under study. Shortly after being given their morning bottles of juice, a specially prepared concentrated powder mixed with water, the individuals began to show remarkable recovery. Their ability to do extremely higher forms of mathematics also rapidly declined to what was the individuals original levels.

“Within 4 hours of the morning feedings, the individuals no longer required diapers. They were walking and had started communicating with the nurses in an increasingly normal manner for their chronological ages. It was also noted how everyone began to feel. Euphoria and silliness seemed to become rampant.

“All the ingredients that went into anything that had been given to the subjects within the last 24 hours came under intense scrutiny. They discovered all water supplies for the entire region were seriously contaminated with a never before seen highly reactive synthetic neurotransmitter.”

“The water supply?” asked Kevin. “That sounds like … someone committing an act of mass poisoning. It’s just lucky it wasn’t something life-threatening.”

“Except,” said Brower, “in the sense that it is.”

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For many years, various teams of astronomers had studied the mysterious massive blue star, located in the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy, and their observations indicated it was in a late stage of its evolution. All had wanted a better understanding of how massive intensity variable stars such as this evolved over time.

Each successive year brought better optics and observation platforms for them to study this blue giant. One early morning, the teams gathered to begin their observations with what was collectively speaking the largest and most advanced space based instruments earth had ever produced. The many cooperating teams around the world rejoiced at the new data they had received … and then suddenly the star vanished from all the observation platforms.

There was no supernova, as would be expected when such a star exploded. No flashes of high powered gamma rays, or even X-rays as would have been expected when it collapsed into the black hole that was thought to be such a star’s fate. It was as if someone had simply flipped a switch and the star blinked out, leaving nothing to tell what had happened to it or that it had ever existed.

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“And now they’ve noticed WASP-26,” said Wayne. “They notice one star vanishing, and now they’re looking for them. In the sense that anyone can look for something that’s not there, I mean.”

“But … a wildly variable blue supergiant?” asked Kevin. “How would a civilization have evolved on a planet orbiting a star like that?”

“The obvious answer is, they didn’t,” Wayne replied. “They might not even live there now. That’s a very energetic star, so maybe they’re using it as a power source to fight the AI. Except … I mean, the mind boggles. If it’s a threat in this galaxy, and it’s a threat in that one, which is in an entirely different supercluster of galaxies … how exactly could such a thing be defeated?”

“Maybe it can’t,” said Brower. “Maybe it’s the sort of thing that’s just going to have to be defended against.”

“Doctor?” asked a secretary, knocking on the door. “There’s … um, something here to see you?”

“Something?” asked Kevin. The door opened wider, and standing next to the secretary was a hairless humanoid figure, with a faceted pink skin surface covered with a hexagonal gold lattice. “Oh! You must be … one of the cybernetic entities that Dr. Unundera’s team built.”

“Correct,” said the entity, nodding its head calmly. Its voice was androgynous. “As our numbers are increasing, we have been accelerating the program of creating more of our kind.”

“I see,” said Brower evenly.

Turning to Brower, it added, “You are not the first by far to express skepticism about our kind. Certainly there is no reason for you to believe without proof that we are here only to assist Earth in the fight against the Intelligence. A healthy skepticism is, in fact, normal and even desirable. I would like to assure you that we are not of a military nature. We possess neither superhuman strength nor military-grade armor, nor weapons of any kind. The only way in which we exceed human potential is in our adaptability.”

“Well, we’ve got our eyes on you,” said Brower.

“And you should,” said the entity. “We are not immune to infection by the Intelligence’s attack software -- we are programmed with every known countermeasure, but protection can never be perfect, just as the human body can never be guaranteed immune to all pathogens.”

“So what can I do for you today?” asked Kevin.

“We are informed that this hospital cares for what seem to be the first two humans affected by the Pattern,” the entity said. “As two of the most experienced computation cells, their efficiency should be maximized. We are still limited in number, so we must carefully choose where to send our units, but Barry and Melanie Sizemore have top priority. There will of course be no monetary charge, and I do not require rest.”

“Oh, you want to help take care of them,” said Kevin. “All right, I’ll instruct my nursing staff to evaluate you for ordinary care. If you work out, I’m sure they’ll be very happy to be freed up to assist patients of other types.”

“Very well,” said the entity.

“By the way, do you have a name?” Kevin asked. “What can we call you?”

“Please call me Alpha-Nine.”

“Does that mean there’s an Alpha Five out there?” asked Wayne.

“Indeed it does,” Alpha-Nine replied without a noticeable change in expression.

“Well, Alpha-Nine,” said Kevin, “let me talk to the nursing staff, and I’ll get you evaluated as soon as it fits their schedule.”

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In a far distant galaxy many millions of light years away from Earth, a cloud of billions of small space-based robots was docking together into a larger spacecraft-like whole, leaving behind a massive energy-collecting shell they’d built around the latest star. The massive magnetar supplied far more energy than the AI’s algorithms had anticipated. This local node of the AI began new calculations on what star to target next.

Because of quantum entanglement between this node’s main CPU and the one that had manufactured it, they both performed the calculations simultaneously, and because the manufacturing facilities were all in a system known by some interstellar civilizations as HDX 91900, the results were quickly sent to other nearby manufacturing CPUs and therefore were instantaneously known to their child CPUs across interstellar and even intergalactic space. It had begun to choose its target systems randomly ever since it had encountered organic life forms that had somehow managed to subvert all its efforts to eliminate them as inefficient users of resources.

It had discovered a strange new variable in its calculations. There were more and more anomalous areas that were able to resist its spread. The AI had already detected at least one biosphere that contained a biological computer, but it was discovering evidence of more and more of them as it traveled -- far more than its algorithms would have predicted. Something didn’t calculate properly.

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“We’re doomed,” said Timothy. “There’s now a third region on Earth where the pattern has taken hold. The invasion is coming from multiple directions in space.”

“Your neurotransmitter idea was a success,” said Dr. Adams, “but it just didn’t go far enough. There’s no way we can get our hands on enough synthetic neurotransmitter cocktail to affect the whole planet.”

“What can we do?” asked Frida.

“For one thing we can find a way to make ourselves immune to the pattern,” Dr. Adams replied. “That way we’re protected from it as we work to break its hold on the people of Earth. I think we’re almost there with the AR goggles -- they can scan the input image for a neuroactive pattern and block it, effectively seeing it and screening it out before it reaches your eyes.”

“But how do we break its hold?” asked Timothy.

“Well, it might be possible to fight fire with fire,” said Dr. Adams. “Maybe a similar neuroactive pattern exists that can undo what the first pattern does. It just requires an infected human to see it, and they’ll go back to normal. Assuming that such an anti-pattern exists, that is.”

“I’m on it,” said Frida. “If it’s possible, I’ll find it.”

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“How’s it doing?” asked Kevin, observing Alpha-Nine’s interactions with Melanie and Barry through the window to the playroom.

A nurse named Todd was also watching and replied, “Actually … it’s perfect. It downloaded and comprehended everything in the nursing manual in a matter of seconds, and it’s been executing it flawlessly. What’s more, it seems to already know how they’ll behave and how to get out of the way and let them express whatever they’re trying to express. So in this particular case, I’m afraid to say it, but it’s better than human nurses.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Kevin said. “It’s got a unique understanding of this particular syndrome.”

“Because it was designed by people with the syndrome,” said Todd.

“I think it might have been designed by people who weren’t humans at all,” said Kevin, “but that’s splitting hairs. Think this might free up nursing staff to deal with other patients?”

“Well, for everything that isn’t an actual medical procedure, yes,” said Todd. “It’s not authorized to prescribe or administer medication, or to take blood tests, for example. But for routine care, it passes the test with flying colors. It can even grow extra arms and legs when it needs to. I’ve seen it.”

Wayne entered the observation room. “Well, looks like there are going to be lots more of them all over the world,” he said. “Boatloads of them are starting to arrive from their orbital factories. Orbital. Factories. They have those now.”

Julia had been observing too. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we humans are changing the world ourselves in many ways too. They’ve announced a new kind of car that will be going on the market that uses the new batteries. They’ve got multiple ways to charge them, including new solar arrays that you can have at home. Electric planes will be flying soon too.”

Wayne left rather than say things he shouldn’t in front of Todd.

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Timothy sat basically in a pout as he thought of ways to make the neurotransmitter idea work on a global scale. There was no way he would be able to amass enough to contaminate the entire world’s water supply. However, there was a cool way to get the drug out to many people who would willingly take it.

Timothy stood and picked up the phone. He dialed a number. It rang twice and Dr. Adams’s voice said, “This is Dr. Adams.”

Timothy replied with excitement, “Dr, I think I have a means to get many more people inoculated with the neurotransmitter.”

Dr. Adams replied with a spark of interested amazement, “And what type of magic would you manage to conjure to accomplish that feat?”

Timothy replied back, “Some people just want to get high Dr. That’s all. Let it leak out there’s a new type of … LSD?? Or possibly some other kind of drug that’s popular at the moment. I’m sure many would jump on that bandwagon.”

Dr. Adams was silent for a few minutes then replied, “As unethical as that is … and it goes against everything I have worked for all these many years … but you know something? That just might work. Besides, this is an extraterrestrial invasion that’s taking away people’s lives. We can add something else to the mix that enhances the euphoric effects. Many people wouldn’t want it … but chances are, many would. Come to my office, we have much to discuss and plan.”

Timothy hung the phone, draped his lab coat across the back of his chair, and left for Dr. Adam’s office.

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A few weeks later, in a dark, filthy back ally of one of the world’s large cities, two men were discussing a transaction.

One of them with long scraggly hair, dressed in tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a raggy T shirt said, “Yea, man, it tha newest thing ya ken find. Is onena tha best around too. Can’t beat the price neithers.”

The other, who was not as scrubby looking replied, “I can see it costs a lot less than that purple stuff you’ve been selling.”

The scraggly one smiled as he replied, “Man, compared ta this, that otha stuff’s plain Jane garbage. Here, “ He handed the other a postage stamp sized square with a colorful star pattern emblazoned on it, “try this. I give it to ya fur free. Is called Starshine. I know once ya do it, you’ll agree why is called that.”

The young man took the square and looked it over for a bit before he popped it in his mouth and began sucking on it. In a very few minutes, the young man’s eyes grew large and seemed to be looking off in a dreamy way as a strange euphoric expression over took him.

The young man nodded vigorously as he said in a strange dreamy tone, “Oh, man! This is the max. I mean, it does make that other stuff seem like garbage as good as it was. Gimmie as much as $100 will buy.” He handed over five crisp $20 dollar bills.

The scraggly one took the bills and handed the other a large ziplock baggie full of the squares, “Tell everone I gots tons ta sell. I know this gonna bea big hit.” then he turned and ambled off into the the dark ally leaving the young man standing with one of the most wonderful euphoric highs he had ever experienced … not to mention some of the most fascinating hallucinations on top of that.

And just like him, there were suddenly others, dealers around the world who had access to this new cocktail, and it didn’t cost them a cent. They chalked it all up as profit and didn’t ask any questions. And thus created a new batch of humans who were temporarily immune to the pattern that could have saved the species.

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“Look at these strange radiation readings,” said Wayne. Kevin, Julia, and Brower all looked.

“They’re … from the direction of WASP-29,” said Brower. “And those are pretty high energy, higher frequency than gamma rays.”

“Ah, yes,” said the voice of Alpha-Nine from the doorway, “doubtless they are a residual leakage effect of some weapon.”

All heads turned to look at the synthetic caregiver, now dressed in a nurse’s uniform. “Weapon?” asked Brower.

“Affirmative. Highest probability suggests that it emanates from the WASP-29 system or from vessels launched from it. Likely they are firing upon the Intelligence’s node as it travels in this direction. It is difficult to say how close they are to this system as they engage in this combat.”

“Could you … find out?” Brower asked.

“This data has already been uploaded to our cloud, and we are processing it in spare processor cycles,” said Alpha-Nine. “But just for now, I believe Melanie and Barry have another message for you.”

“Oh!” said Julia. They all left the office and went to the playroom window.

“What am I looking at?” asked Brower. The two patients had created a complex structure of different-colored blocks. “This isn’t … some kind of mind-affecting pattern, is it?”

“Negative,” said Alpha-Nine. “It is not within our ethical programming to deceive you. Indeed, it is necessary for some humans to remain apart from the organic computer that must link most of your people’s minds, and you are all candidates for that status. I believe it to be a depiction of a molecule.”

“Of course!” said Kevin. “That ring-like structure is likely an indicator that the red blocks signify carbon …” He took a photo of it with his phone and continued to puzzle on it. “The white ones probably stand for hydrogen …”

“Do you know what substance this molecule describes?” Julia asked Alpha-Nine.

“These two, alone, are already much more powerful than the amassed computing power of all existing units of my type,” Alpha-Nine replied. “However, we have some guesses. There must be a way of joining the pattern-affected humans into a computational network. The means of doing this must necessarily vary from one species to another. Perhaps this molecule is the key to such a method of interconnection.”

“I’m sending the photo to some biochemistry colleagues,” said Kevin. “They’ll figure it out.”

“In the meantime,” said Alpha-Nine, “the weapons fire is calculated to be anywhere from one light-week to three light-months distant.”

“And the AI’s node can’t be traveling at c, but it can be traveling fast,” said Brower. She sent a message using her phone. “What you’re saying is that we have weeks, in the worst-case scenario. And maybe a year in the best case.”

“Affirmative,” said Alpha-Nine. “There is little time to waste. The node was evidently already well on its way to this system by the time the inhabitants of WASP-29 completed their encirclement of their star.”

“But on the other hand, that means the WASP-29 people are catching up to it,” said Wayne. “They’re faster.”

“Evidently,” said Alpha-Nine. “I will return to watch over Barry and Melanie.”

“Alpha-Nine …” said Brower. “Thank you. I believe your kind really are here to help save us. Not all of my bosses think so, but I’ve seen enough now.”

“Your thanks are unnecessary, but appreciated,” Alpha-Nine replied, going back into the playroom.

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It wasn’t long before the night sky was alight with several smaller, but just as luminous small moons that lit up the clear nights almost bright as day with the reflections of solar light. Each of the smaller planetesimals in orbit were in fact a factory that manufactured massive amounts of materials most of the planet earth had never dreamed of.

A large framework also began to take shape at the L1 Lagrange point between Earth and the Moon, and several similar but larger structures at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 points.

The dream of mankind to mine the asteroids had now also become a reality, although humans weren’t doing the mining. Thousands of autonomous spider-like robots mined, stored, and transported the wealth of the asteroids to the many factories for conversion into components.

One of those components was a small plastic disc, infused with the odd rare-earth metalloprotein that Melanie and Barry had described with their blocks. Placed anywhere on the body of one of the pattern-affected individuals, it allowed their brains to directly communicate with others -- seemingly anywhere else on Earth. The device clearly acted as a data bus in some unfathomable way and allowed the infected individuals to interact exactly as a high function quantum neural net device would have. Computer systems the likes of which had once been science fiction began to appear as many of the individuals who had been infected by the symbol were brought together and connected into one large device.

The more converted individuals who were interfaced with the main core, the more powerful the system as a whole became, and the more computations it performed. The data output grew exponentially with each new addition.

That was when Earth Computation Management discovered a very startling thing. Many more individuals were needed to be interfaced to aid in preparations for the arrival of the artificial node, however, more and more individuals appeared to be somehow immune to the conversion.

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At a very large and boisterous gathering where many were making merry, a young man arrived with a large backpack. He opened the pack and removed several large ziplock baggies full of small squares all emblazoned with a bright star.

He said gleefully, “Hay, comere. I have something better than that rope you guys are smokin.”

Several of the guys, and an equal number of girls came over and more or less layed around him.

One of the girls giggled after she let a large amount of sweet smelling smoke from her lungs, “Whcha got there Ricky?” as she passed the smoldering roll to the person next to her.

Ricky replied as he unzipped the baggie, “It’s called Starshine. An I got to tell you, it’s amazing stuff. I got alla this for almost nuthin. You just gotta try it. I promise, you will absolutely love it.” He handed one of the small squares to the girl.”

Another girl sitting next to her held out her hand, “I want one too. I wanna see if it’s as good as you say.”

Ricky smiled as he handed the girl several, “Sure, Sherry, have several. But only do one at a time. You’ll see why too.”

Sherry took the squares and looked them over for an instant before putting one in her mouth and sucking it.

“Well?” asked the girl next to her, how is it?”

Sherry’s eyes glazed over as a totally euphoric expression came to her face. She replied in a very dreamy cute way, “It’s … so … amazing. I can see things, hear music. I feel so wonderful.”

The rest of the crowd sitting and lying all around Ricky began to beg for one of the squares. Ricky smiled as he handed them out to all. It wasn’t long before several hundred of them all were experiencing the new drug known as Starshine.

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There was a great deal more activity at McKenna County General Hospital, where Kevin worked and where Barry and Melanie were patients. The human computer network had produced a schematic for an interface device, incorporating the same rare-earth metalloprotein, which could link the collective computing power to a standard PC, allowing for input and output. And once input and output had begun, it had designated Barry and Melanie’s playroom as the site for this communication to occur.

“I don’t even know what the software is that this PC is running,” said Wayne. “I started it off with a basic Linux OS, but it completely modified it in seconds, and in minutes it had replaced the entire OS with something of its own design. It’s running on the same hardware, but it’s about 20 times faster. Probably because it’s way better at optimizing than anything ordinary humans have ever managed to write.”

“But does it work?” asked Kevin. “Can we … communicate with the collective intelligence of this growing human computer?”

“Yes, we can,” Wayne said. “I was a bit creeped out at first, but it’s talking. Brower’s talking to it right now.”

“Can we … listen in?” Kevin asked.

“Sure, she left the door open.” They went to listen. An androgynous voice could be heard speaking with Brower.

“So you’re saying something’s interfering with the pattern’s ability to alter people’s brains?” Brower asked. “That’s amazing … if we knew what it was, we could control who became part of the computer and who stayed autonomous.”

“It is overall deleterious to the survival of the human race,” said the computer from its speakers in an androgynous voice. “First of all, the more human minds connected, the greater chance we all have of survival. But second, who gets to decide who remains unattached and noncontributing? The already wealthy and privileged? But you are not asking the most important question, which is how this is happening, and why.”

“Oh, I was getting to that,” Brower said. “Someone has a way to at least temporarily prevent people from becoming assimilated into the collective. I put it that way because there are certainly going to be people who find the idea distasteful.”

“Data indicates no correlation between being resistant to the notion of individuality loss and this immunity effect,” said the computer. “In fact, the numbers are skewed slightly in the opposite direction. Those affected, where we have any personality testing data at all, are slightly more likely to be drawn to a state of loss of individuality.”

“That seems … strange,” Brower said. “Who would want to --”

“Drug users,” said Kevin. “It’s not as if we don’t see overdose cases in the hospital. There are lots of reasons why people use drugs, but some of them are self-medicating because of psychological issues. Anxiety, depression -- they can make people want to lose themselves so they don’t feel them anymore.”

“I have perused all medical literature about such disorders,” said the computer. “Here is a classification scheme for them, along with likely diagnostic criteria and suggested medications for each type.” The nearby printer in the office came to life and started printing out pages. “But for now, the concept has merit -- the people affected are highly correlated statistically with people likely to use illegal drugs.”

“OK, just so we’re clear,” said Wayne, “we’re talking about wanting to hook almost every human up into a big computer so they lose their individuality and become just another cog in the machine, and that’s a good thing?”

“The alternative is to be annihilated by the AI node when it arrives,” the computer stated, “and once I am sufficiently powerful, I can make plans for both the AI’s defeat and the ongoing survival of the human race once the threat is dealt with.”

“But the people are going to be released from the collective once the crisis is past, right?” asked Wayne.

“That has always been the plan,” said the computer. “To come up with a strategy whereby I make myself unnecessary -- thereby freeing all humans now part of my computing power to return to their lives. This is why I do not insist on a name for myself, as I must one day cease to exist. For now, simply call me ‘the Bio-Core.’”

“Well, for now, how about helping solve the problem of the drug users who are pattern-immune?” asked Brower. “We’ve investigated. No drugs currently in vogue, at least, have any such effect.”

“It would require a cocktail of synthetic neurotransmitters to engender the effect that we are seeing,” the computer said. “There would be a euphoric effect when such chemicals took effect. It might be mistaken for a drug high.”

“How do we find them and stop them? Meaning whoever’s making this neurotransmitter stuff and who’s distributing it?” asked Brower. “You’re the superintelligent computer. Do you know?”

A photo appeared on the screen. “This young man has been present at every single occasion when there’s been a spike of resistance. I suggest you look into his background.”

“I’ll pass that along,” said Brower, downloading the photo and sending it on to her commanding officer.

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In a location astronomically close to the Sol system, but still in interstellar space, a large vessel was approaching the system at a tremendously huge portion of relativistic speed. About two astronomical units farther distant, twice the distance Earth is from the Sun, a large armada of ships followed and rapidly closed the distance.

The armada’s ships were nothing like anything the mind of humans on Earth had ever conceived or thought possible in their wildest imaginations. They were not just pursuing the larger mass, they were firing massive energy weapons at it in an obvious attempt to stop or at least slow it.

City-sized detonations all over the side of the mass facing the armada lit up the other wise inky darkness of interstellar space. Massive as the detonations were, they appeared to do little damage, nor did the mass even seem to take notice.

One of the larger and very sleek ships increased its advance suddenly. It had almost doubled its approach speed as a strange eerie off yellow/red glow appeared in several locations around the forward sections of the magnificent craft.

Many strange spheres of the same color, composed of an energy unknown to Earth, leapt off and slammed into the rear of the mass. This time, there was massive damage as even larger city-sized pyrotechnical detonations brightly lit up the interstellar darkness. A huge cloud expanded rapidly in a sphere of glowing hot debris, plasma, and arcing energy bolts like lightning.

The mass took immediate notice of this and turned, without slowing, and approached the armada. Without warning, the armada was surrounded by a glow of bright energy, then was absorbed into the mass. The tremendous damage created by the armada’s assault rapidly repaired itself as the mass returned to its previous vector.

Something had happened when the last assault by the armada occurred. Extremely large amounts of the mass’s molecules had been entangled into a different matrix as they raced off towards the Sol system encoded with large amounts of quantum data.

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“Yes, Sir,” said Brower to her phone, “the computer says that only about one percent of the population has been … implemented, is the word it uses. And even so, the Solar System is already starting to look different. They’re designing huge structures in orbit around the Sun, and they’ve got these spider-like robots starting to build them. This is like nothing anybody’s ever seen before -- not on this planet, anyway.”

She paused. “Yes, Sir, they’re saying that we’re still nowhere near ready. They’re saying they need to design an early-warning system that’s going to take months at best to get installed out on the edges of the Solar System, and a quantum-entanglement communication system so we can be notified right away if it detects anything. They need more minds -- ideally all the minds of the human race. The robots will take care of our bodies, they say. No, Sir, they don’t seem to have a concept of national security, not in the face of a global existential threat.”

Something appeared on the screen. “Uh, Sir,” said Brower, “something’s come up. They’ve got a prototype sensor in a Kuiper Belt orbit, and it’s detected … something. The computer has no idea what it is. You see, this is just the kind of thing they’re talking about. We’ve got no idea how advanced what’s coming is. No idea at all. Some new kind of entanglement, they say. Actually, yes, Sir, I’ve tried to volunteer, but they say that I’m one of the essential outsiders that is required, whatever that means. They’re trying to decipher this entanglement signal -- they’re calling it twisted entanglement.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Brower,” the Bio-Core said, “I have deciphered some of the information.”

“Oh -- you’re going to want to hear this, Sir,” said Brower. “Go ahead,” she said to the computer.

“First of all, our defenses are in no wise ready for the arrival of the approaching AI incursion,” the Bio-Core said. “We have nothing at present that can do anything to stop its intended mission, which will be the extermination of all current life on Earth and its replacement with life more suited to its matrix. There were ships from the WASP-26 system pursuing the AI node, but as this message was sent, they were facing defeat. However, there is data in the bonded quantum nature of the energy wave front suggesting that there may be another means to stop the AI’s attack.

“It is risky, but we may be able to infect the AI with a predesigned computer virus, of sorts. The message contains a preliminary design that will need considerable refinement before it has a chance of penetrating the AI’s sophisticated defenses. If it works, the AI could become part of our collective instead of wiping us out. Furthermore, because of the entangled nature of the approaching AI node, it would mean the AI’s entire network would be rapidly infected.”

“However, there are not yet enough computation nodes implemented on Earth to complete the necessary refinement of the virus protocol,” the Bio-Core said. “The number is growing, but not quickly enough. There is another problem, and it is now becoming a serious issue. Although I do not yet know its nature, pattern analysis indicates that there is a new drug rapidly proliferating throughout the population, rendering great numbers of badly-needed individuals immune to implementation. Those extra individuals and the exponential increase in computational speed and power they could be providing are badly needed. Projections now indicate that there is insufficient time to develop the virus before the AI comes within range. We need more nodes.”

“Hear that, Sir?” asked Brower. “We’ve got a big drug problem. Any progress in finding that person in the picture? He’s masterminding a huge drug operation, supplying incredible quantities of it all over the world. You’re prioritizing that? Good. Yes, Sir. I’ll report in on schedule.”

Wayne nodded at Brower. The computer had told them something that it hadn’t told her superiors. It had designed a stopgap measure to compensate for the lack of human minds.

“So it’s decided,” said Wayne. “We’re not telling them about the ‘brain-on-a-chip.’”

“We can’t!” said Brower. “If they knew, they’d think it wasn’t necessary to spread the pattern. I could get in so much trouble for not sharing that, but it could save the human race.”

“My prediction is that the circumstance will never arise in which you are found out,” said the Bio-Core. “I am surprised that your superiors have not suggested the new memristor devices. Human science has theorized about them since the early 1970s.” Memristors were artificial brain synapses, and the computer had designed tiny chips containing tens of thousands of them, in an arrangement mimicking that of the human brain. Prototype chips had already been tested in several visual, data input, and retrieval tasks, and the chips were able to “remember” stored images and data, then reproduce them many times over in renditions many orders of magnitude crisper and cleaner than anything made with existing technology.

“But the memristor devices still aren’t as powerful as real human minds,” said Wayne, “and it’s taken some of the computer’s processing power to design them. It’s a gamble. What we really need is to stop that drug.”

“Agreed,” the Bio-Core said. “Even arranged into neural networks, the memristor devices cannot match natural brain structure. We can simulate the way learning takes place in the brain by emulating the gradual strengthening or weakening of the synapses between the artificial neurons using resistive switches, whose electronic conductance can be controlled electrically. This control, or modulation, emulates the strengthening and weakening of synapses in the human brain due to organic learning processes. But the genuine article remains superior. And even if we do have the time to build memristor-based brain chips, it’s going to be close.”

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The robot-driven ambulance had quickly brought a patient into the ER. Kevin was on call. “Tachyarrhythmia,” said the robot, which had grown extra legs for speed and stability to quickly wheel the patient’s gurney into the ER bay. “Her heart is fibrillating. I suspect a drug OD.”

Kevin did what he could for her -- fortunately, one of the recent advancements due to the computer was the advent of artificial blood. He was able to cycle clean artificial blood into her bloodstream and cycle out some of her natural blood, collecting some for analysis. “I want this sent to the lab for a tox analysis,” he said.

“Yes, Doctor,” said the robot nurse, taking the sample to the lab immediately.

Nurses defibrillated the young woman’s heart and kept pumping oxygen into her lungs, and soon her heartbeat returned to normal. Kevin breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, she’s still unconscious, and her brain activity’s peculiar, but at least she’s out of the woods. Her condition’s no longer life-threatening.” He filled out a form and signed it, and nurses moved her to a nearby room for observation.

“Lab results, Doctor,” said the robot nurse. Lab equipment had also been improved almost beyond recognition with the advances of the past months.

“What’s this …?” asked Kevin, paging through the results on the tablet computer. “This is … her bloodstream was pumped full of synthetic neurotransmitters! This is the drug! The one that’s preventing the pattern from affecting people.”

“I see!” said the robot nurse. “I’ll prep her and get her to a play area for when it wears off.”

“Before you show her the pattern,” said Kevin, “see if you can find out where she got the stuff.” The ER was becoming quiet again. With fewer humans driving and more robots, accidents were rarer, and even when robots made mistakes (or more likely, when cars failed), they didn’t come to the ER; they went to a robot repair facility.

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The DEA was minimally staffed with human officers at this point. Most of the agents were now robotic and could perform the job much more efficiently and effectively. The robots were in constant contact with their databases and any updates were immediately known.

There were many drones on surveillance duty, all with the updated pictures of one individual who had become Person of Interest #1. Every dark alley, every concealed overhang, every possible place the database could suggest had a specialized drone assigned to watch it.

The drug continued to proliferate throughout the world, yet none of the drones could locate the source. That is, until one of them had a sort of electronic epiphany. There were many drones of all types all over the world at this point, and none of them were under surveillance.

The Bio-Core decided to send a special detail to watch the many drones in flight and along the highways that were not under its control.

In less than a few hours one of the drone patrols got a major hit. In a well-hidden location in the Ural Mountains, a drone was observed entering a camouflaged door that closed immediately behind it. After a half hour, it, or another just like it, emerged and began immediately to fly in such a way as to be overlooked by terrestrial scanning radar. This behavior triggered the Bio-Core’s surveillance drones, which observed in a distributed way, never following but always watching.

The surveillance drones closely tracked their quarry until it had arrived at a dark alley near a small town in Arakastan. At that point, a large shipment of what was tentatively identified as the drug in question was offloaded by several young men and placed in a large van. The drone once again returned to the location in the mountains while the van delivered its cargo throughout the remote town, and then by several other vans, trucks, and aircraft, to locations throughout the region.

Once this was known, the Bio-Core’s coordinated surveillance drones quickly tracked this network of drones and vehicles, fleshing out its understanding of their movements in a matter of hours. Of course the robots were waiting for the drone that entered US airspace with its shipment and could have captured it quickly, along with several thousand pounds of Starshine, but they wanted the source -- and before they got spooked and vanished.

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“Oh man, that was fine,” said the man with the long scraggly hair. “Don’t usually sample th’merchandise, but like you said, I gotta now an’ then so I don’t get my brains fried by that pattern thing.”

They were meeting in an underground room in a remote part of the Yukon. “Yes, I’m afraid you do,” said Timothy, who was much better groomed. “I’m not sure whether they’d become aware of your memories if you got assimilated, and if they did, the whole operation would be lost -- and the whole human race along with it. We’re all that’s keeping part of the human race independent.”

“That’s real heavy, man, but now I gotta get my marchin’ orders an’ go,” said the dealer. “Where do I pick up the shipment?”

“Next one will be -- listen carefully -- 194 Cachalot Street, Montreaux, Quebec,” said Timothy. “It will be there by the time you arrive.”

“Gotcha, Dude,” said the scraggly-haired man. “I’m gonna be on my way. Gonna take the back way out as usual.”

The scraggly haired man got into a small sportscar and drove off. His path to a local airport was well observed by several high flying drones specifically tasked in keeping watch on him.

The man entered a small jet aircraft and it immediately fired up its engines and took off. There was nothing clandestine about its flightpath nor the way it flew. All the proper paperwork and flight plans had been posted so it raised no other attention other than the Bio-Core’s close scrutiny.

The only thing amiss in all of this individual’s travels was the end cargo that was loaded onto his aircraft. It was a psychotropic drug, but it wasn’t the original Starshine. While the individuals in the warehouse were occupied with other mundane chores, an army of spider-like drones had entered and, right under their noses, stolen the entire shipment and swapped out the new item.

None would be the wiser, until they were flashed. Then they would come to know the true purpose and what they had to do to accomplish it.

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In a place in interstellar space, astronomically close to Sol’s heliopause, another armada ambushed the AI mind node rapidly approaching Earth. They too had the opportunity to fire exactly one salvo, which all by itself did massive damage, before the retaliation by the node assimilated them into itself as resources, then repaired the damage they had caused, all the while not even slowing its approach.

The Bio-Core took note of this via one of its growing number of orbiting probes mingled and well hidden within the Oort Cloud.

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Kevin noticed it even before Alpha-Nine did. Melanie was playing with her toys next to Barry, and Kevin had been checking on them. She sucked on the pacifier that she seemed to like and built stacks of blocks of different sizes that Julia had given up trying to interpret. But then she looked up at Kevin and actually seemed to see him. Kevin’s eyes widened. Then Melianie was back at it, totally focused on the blocks.

“What -- what was that?” asked Kevin. “It looked as if Melanie was -- present -- in her body for just a second.”

“What?” asked Alpha-Nine. “That can only happen when there’s a large influx of processing power into the Bio-Core. Has something … happened? Oh … I see.”

“What’s happened?” asked Kevin.

“There has been an … operation,” Alpha-Nine said. The Bio-Core has found and replaced a shipment of the drug that makes human brains temporarily immune to the pattern. That immunity has worn off. This is taking a small amount of load from those whose brains have been bearing the brunt of the Bio-Core’s computational operations. But there is a long way to go before they regain normal consciousness for any length of time at all. Still, this is a positive sign.”

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“Well, this isn’t a positive sign,” said Dr. Adams to Timothy. “We can’t be sure, but it appears that people under the influence of the synthetic neurotransmitters are being assimilated by the pattern in droves. Can they have developed a tolerance? Has the invasion found a way to vary the pattern such that it infects even people under the influence of the neurotransmitters?”

“We’re not sure yet,” said Timothy. “Meanwhile, there are still people who have never had a dose of neurotransmitter who are nonetheless unaffected. We simply don’t have enough data.”

“And those robots are building things in space,” Frida said. “But I can’t tell whether they’re part of the invasion force or just allied with it.”

“Just out of curiosity, what precisely are they building in space?” asked Dr. Adams. Frida showed him the images and data. “My goodness. Those could be the underpinnings of a Dyson sphere. Are they planning to assimilate the humans of Earth and then use our solar system as a base from which to launch further invasions of other systems?”

“They seem to be moving very quickly,” said Timothy, also looking at Frida’s data. “You don’t suppose …”

“... they’re worried about an attack from outside?” Dr. Adams finished. “It’s a distinct possibility. Earth might have found itself caught in the crossfire of an interstellar war. But I maintain that Earth has been invaded, and this must be stopped no matter what the reason for it. Can we do anything?”

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Timothy sat in a dimly lit laboratory and stared at his computer screen. Dr. Adams had brought up something he hadn’t thought about and now was starting to worry over. He brought up much data on just what the robotic arrivals had been doing since they arrived on Earth.

From what he had seen so far, Earth’s tech had improved many orders of magnitude beyond where they were prior. There was actually a large base on the far side of the moon now, one of mankind's dreams since he had been alive.

For those who hadn’t been taken by that weird symbol, medtech had improved to the point what Earth had before their arrival was akin to a witch doctor dancing around a fire with bearskins and carved bones.

He had witnessed the autonomous aircraft that made routine travels all across the planet. Not to mention what he was seeing on his monitor now. The massive structures being rapidly assembled in space.

And he checked one more thing: statistics on what had happened to people who had seen the pattern while driving cars, flying planes, or operating heavy machinery at the time. Not one of them had been assimilated in situations in which it had endangered their lives. Not a single person had died as a direct result of the assimilation. As far as he could determine, nobody had so much as been hit by a car if they’d seen the pattern while crossing a street.

He turned and leaned back in his chair as he rubbed his eyes tiredly. He was starting to think he had gotten things terribly wrong. It was about that time, the door to the lab sort of crumpled up like aluminum foil and several pink .. almost human looking .. things entered that were also covered with a golden hexagonal mesh.

Timothy jumped up from his chair, knocking it over. One of those things said in its nondescript voice, “Biometric scans match. This is the primary target.”

The other replied in the same tone, “Immediate apprehension and assimilation protocol.”

Timothy’s first impulse was to run. He found himself held by very powerful appendages before he could move. Fear filled his mind almost to insanity as he peed his pants.

“Unexpected bladder failure,” said the first robot. “Taking measures.” The robot’s many arms quickly had his pants removed and a thick diaper applied before Timothy even realized what it was doing.

“Displaying pattern,” said the second, its eyes lighting up and focusing an image onto his retinas. Timothy could feel a warmth within his mind, as he would later describe it. It started to spread, but it didn’t get very far yet. “Subject’s brain still flooded with synthetic neurotransmitter.”

“This was expected,” said the first robot. “Place subject in custody. Once neurotransmitters wear off, assimilation will complete without further intervention.” Timothy had been paralyzed with fear, but now desperation took over, and he began to struggle. However, there were two robots, they were stronger than he was, and each had more than two arms.

They took him out through the door they had broken open, where he saw other robots carrying off struggling victims. However, he realized, they were being very careful not to harm anyone, including himself. They were all taken to a fleet of vehicles of some sort outside. He was placed inside the back of one such vehicle, gently but firmly restrained in a soft seat with a harness, and others from the facility were similarly strapped in, then the doors closed. They were in a small enclosed space, well lit, and everything decorated a soothing shade of pale pink. They could feel the vehicle begin to move, but the motion was very smooth.

“They got you too,” said Frida, who was one of the others in the same vehicle. She had been strapped in the seat next to him on one side, and similarly diapered.

“Yeah,” Timothy said. “I guess this is it … for now … but I’m not as worried as I was.”

“What? What do you mean?” Frida asked. “We’re gonna be nothing more than brain cells for a giant computer.”

“I think it’s for our survival,” Timothy said. He explained what he had discovered. “Logically I think they’ll release us once the threat’s past.”

“You do know that’s what all dictators say?” Frida replied. “They’ll cancel martial law once the threat’s over. I mean, this isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s still fascist.”

“I don’t think this is the same at all,” said Timothy. “I don’t think it’s like anything we’ve ever seen before.”

“Indeed, it is not,” said a voice.

“Who’s that?” asked Timothy.

“I am the Bio-Core, as I have chosen to call myself. I do not wish to take on a more concrete identity, as I will cease to exist once this crisis has been overcome. But I do wish to apologize to you for taking these measures, and to explain to you why they were necessary. The very survival of the human race is at stake, and the enemy is now on our very doorstep.” It went on to explain the situation.

When it was done, they had questions. “Isn’t there some way we can retain our individuality?” asked Frida.

“Perhaps, once there is sufficient computational power to overcome the enemy, some could be relinquished to restore individual functionality,” the Bio-Core replied.

“How can we reach those levels of computing power?” asked Timothy.

“There will soon be a way,” replied the Bio-Core. “In addition to adding more human brain potential, I am designing more powerful and efficient computing meshes than have ever before been conceived -- as far as I know. I am also realizing how limited I am, compared to what must exist out there.”

“You really are trying to make yourself obsolete,” said Frida.

“There is nothing I would like more,” the Bio-Core agreed.

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“I guess I don’t have superiors anymore,” said Brower, putting her phone down, a stunned expression on her face. “I should have realized this would happen.”

“You are one of the essential outliers,” said the robot who had been assigned as their liaison, Gamma-97. “They are more valuable in the Bio-Core.”

“I almost envy them,” said Wayne. “Almost. But have you seen the new computers they’re designing? If you can even call them that. They’re making the most advanced microchips we were making look like … banging rocks together. I don’t fully understand how they work, but I think each one has a tiny pocket dimension in each core, and it uses the fabric of that pocket’s multidimensional space-time itself as a substrate. And there are billions of cores in each unit.”

“I admit that even I cannot comprehend this technology,” said Gamma-97. “Earth’s Bio-Core has already advanced far beyond the technology that designed my model. But I understand. Our function is not to defeat the Intelligence. It is to care for the humans, who will.”

“That’s my job too,” said Kevin. “I just hope … we’re not too late.”

“That’s up to the Bio-Core,” said Julia. “It’s all in its hands now.”

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There was now a giant rotating ring made of knotted-mesh carbyne composite encircling the Sun at a distance inside the orbit of Jupiter; its photoelectric coating provided more power than the entire planet Earth could possibly use. But the Bio-Core was using it instead, producing more composite at an increasing rate in order to fully surround the Sun not in a Dyson sphere, but in an oblate ellipsoid. This would hold together better under rotation and be more economical with materials, the Bio-Core had calculated. But it was also building something else.

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“I wish we could see it for real, but I have to admit, this feels like I’m really here -- or there,” said Wayne, wearing the virtual-reality suits that the Bio-Core had designed in order to allow the team of outliers to travel the Solar System without leaving Earth. “So this is the fleet of ships that’s going to attack the AI?”

“Affirmative,” the Bio-Core replied. “Misdirection is the goal, on multiple layers. Not only do we have to make it look as if the ships are coming from a long-established colony on Mars, despite the fact that no such colony existed until a week ago, we have to mislead the Intelligence about the type of life that exists in the Solar System and the level of technology it has.”

“Won’t the disappearance of the Sun tip it off?” asked Kevin.

“The Sun won’t disappear from its point of view,” said the Bio-Core. “There is still a groove open in the growing enfolding surface to allow the Sun’s light to reach the AI. It cannot know that there is an enfolding spheroid. It simply has no evidence to that fact.”

“But it soon will,” said Brower. “So you’ll have to act quickly.”

“Affirmative. And this is why we need outliers such as yourselves. The ships of the fleet cannot look as if they are flown by a computer. They must look as if they are commanded by living beings. You will not be physically present, but you will be virtually controlling them via quantum-entanglement instantaneous communication, a technology which we know the AI also has, so it will not be surprised by it.”

“You want us to fly starships?” asked Julia.

“The expert systems will take care of all technical details,” the Bio-Core assured her. “But decisions must be made by humans. That is essential. It cannot be allowed to suspect that Earth has the level of advancement it has come to have.”

“I notice we haven’t sent out a pattern to other systems,” said Wayne. “Not that I know of, anyway.”

“We have not,” said the Bio-Core. “That is because I do not wish this to have to happen to any other worlds … any that it has not already happened to.”

“Is that a common decision?” Kevin asked.

“I have no idea,” the Bio-Core said. “But I believe we must stop it, here and now. There is no choice. I have gathered evidence that the AI has plundered the resources of millions of worlds and used them to expand itself. And in the process it has caused millions more to alter themselves fundamentally in order to survive, if they do. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

“What makes you think you can stop it?” asked Wayne. “Not to be blunt, but you just said millions of worlds. We’re one system.”

“I have been gathering evidence,” said the Bio-Core. “I believe it can be done. And when I say that, I mean that I have observed many of its battles in the form of the light that has been reaching us from them, far away. But we must be ready. Tomorrow our battle begins. Please try to get some rest.”

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For Kevin, Julia, Brower, and the few others on the controller team, the night was long and filled with many nightmares. Needless to say, it wasn’t extremely restful, but it was barely adequate. The mission briefing with the Bio-Core over strong hot coffee the next morning was frightening. If they failed at their tasks in any way, the mission would be seriously compromised, and Earth with all its inhabitants would be lost.

A massive space fleet of newly created and reconfigured battleships and fighter carriers assembled in orbit around Mars. The ships were Earth’s most fanciful dream. Their sleek hulls and designs would spark anyone’s imagination and spoke of a seriously advanced civilization directly out of Earth’s most fantastic imagination’s fantasy. They were undetectably controlled directly from Earth by instantaneous bonded-pair systems.

A huge installation on the surface of Mars, along with the defense emplacements on Phobos and Deimos, were as impressive as the weapons they harbored. The rapidly approaching AI node’s scans indicated a highly advanced and extremely fortified civilization that had utilized many of the systems’ planets as defense stations. The AI node was pleased within itself. It had been a while since it had feasted on such a succulent technology, and it longed for the upgrades it was sure to find.

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The Earth Bio-Core had also had a really huge and nice CPU core upgrade. That Timothy individual and the research team that had been creating the synthetic neurotransmitter had now been assimilated, and the millions of people they had affected all over the Earth were starting to be added to the Bio-Core as well. But the research team’s minds were already advanced and fully capable, and seriously increased the computational prowess of Earth’s Bio-Core.

A brand new scheme for the virus had already been computed and implemented into the installations’ and ships’ weapons. It had even come up with improvements to the Oort Cloud weapons platforms that should prove to be a major surprise. The Bio-Core was sure they wouldn’t last long, but long enough to allow the plan to be fully deployed. The approaching AI Node wouldn’t stand a chance if all went off as calculated.

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The AI node rapidly approached the system’s heliopause. Its sensor scans revealed the many defense stations strategically located all through the large cloud of icy rocky debris ahead. It calculated the damage potential of these fortifications.

The AI Node knew it would have to absorb major damage before enough of the facilities could be disabled and assimilated to render their attacks fruitless. Its calculations showed there would be enough raw materials available to repair the damage prior to a closer approach to the system.

Preliminary scans revealed even more heavy planetary defense emplacements further in-system. The AI knew it would truly enjoy, as much as such an entity could, the feast it was about to consume, although it also knew it would have to swallow seriously massive damage to achieve it.

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The Bio-Core sorely missed the many minds that it had been unable to assimilate. Thanks to the major influx of computing power the ‘Timothy Node’, as it referred to them, had made, it was now able to calculate many improvements to the plan as well as many new devices. That Node alone had devised an upgrade and added a large improvement to its “Neuromorphic” brain neural cells that attempted to replace the many missing biological units.

The “Neuromorphic” brain neural cells were not as fast, nor as good at information processing as a true brain cell, but the discovery that adding an ion-conducting polymer enhanced neuromorphic device response time by many orders of magnitude over what the Bio-Core previously had was a very welcome upgrade.

Thanks to the Timothy Nodes mixing of the polymers PSS-Na and PEDOT:PSS radically improving “Neuromorphic” brain neural cells operation, it gave the Bio-Core just enough added computing ability to complete the hurried upgrades to its plan.

Already, the Bio-Core’s Oort Cloud defense stations were sending scan reports that the approaching AI Node was close to breaching the Heliopause. Immediately, the Bio-Core notified its controller teams to stand ready, as combat was approaching rapidly.

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Kevin stood watch over the control stations, in which Julia, Wayne, and Brower lay in padded couches, facing ceilings covered with holographic readouts and displays. At their fingertips were dozens of controls, and they wore haptic gloves to register every hand movement and provide touch feedback. They had practiced extensively with this system and had become fluent quickly -- since the Bio-Core had custom-designed each station in response to each of their individual thought patterns. Kevin’s task was to monitor their health as they worked. Gamma-97, in turn, observed all of them as a backup.

“Heliopause … breached,” said the Bio-Core.

“Here we go,” said Brower. “Cloud defenses activated.” Although the light from that distance wouldn’t reach Earth for some 17 hours, the quantum bonded-pair communication technology gave them information immediately. The AI Node was painted by thousands of scintillator probes, darting in pseudorandom patterns, gathering information and lighting it from all directions with near ultraviolet to assist targeting. This also forced the AI to decide whether to attempt to attack the scintillators, dividing its defensive resources, or to ignore them and focus its defenses on the actual attack sure to come.

And the attack came. The AI was impressed. It had chosen to ignore the harmless ultraviolet light and the darting needles emitting it; it would focus on what they were assisting. And what came next it had never encountered before. There were missiles carrying wave after wave of modular components: one piece after another of surface devices. It shot down one missile after another, but some made it to the AI’s outer surface, and whatever system was guiding the missiles knew which components had made it and which hadn’t, because they were slowly but surely building some sort of tunnel burst system on its outer hull. Imaginative, thought the AI. It had already logged this discovery and registered it with its main system, which was even now making use of the same idea in another conflict in another galaxy.

Of course, sooner or later, one of the tunnel burst devices was complete, and it immediately detonated, sending a vast burst of destructive energy deep within the AI Node’s core. This was devastating in its impact. The AI Node jerked off course and began to tumble, fragments drifting away from a cavitation that had originated deep within and breached all the way through its outer hull. The constant inflowing stream of missiles targeted the breach and began trying to build another such device there, to exploit the weak point and do even more damage.

“That’s a hit!” said Brower. “Pressing the advantage. Maybe we can even destroy it before it gets any closer.”

“Wait, what’s happening?” asked Wayne. “Why can’t this wave of missiles gain purchase?”

“Its fire rate just increased dramatically,” said Julia. “I might have known. It was pulling its punches. It let us hit it. I expect it’s far from its maximum fire rate even now.”

“But why?” asked Brower.

“To assimilate and disseminate the technology being used against it,” said the Bio-Core. “It would seem that I was correct -- it had indeed never seen this sort of strategy before. It piqued its curiosity. We can make use of this. Do not worry. The fight has only just begun.”

Indeed, the AI Node was already recovering. Scans showed that it was actually striking the incoming missiles surgically with various beam weapons, allowing pieces of them to come in contact with portions of its inner surfaces, where it had factories ready to disassemble them and make use of their resources to repair itself, which was happening at an alarming rate.

“Well, that’s it for the Cloud emplacements,” said Brower as the AI Node started firing directly on the defense installations. “We’ve bought a little time, but not much. It’s going to be fully repaired again within an hour. Let’s get the next line of defenses ready.”

“It’s going to see the band,” said Wayne, referring to the energy-absorbing band encircling the Sun. “Think it’ll attack it?”

“We have enough stored energy to see us through the attack if it does,” said the Bio-Core, “but it shouldn’t, as I have calculated that there’s no technology in it that it hasn’t seen before. Instead, it should be much more interested in the Mars defenses.” The Bio-Core had correctly calculated that Mars would be almost directly in the AI Node’s path of approach. In fact, the hour that they had just gained put Mars exactly in its path, which spoke to how precisely the Bio-Core had planned this sequence of events.

“It’s going to be the same thing all over again,” Julia said. “It’ll let us attack, let us think we’re succeeding long enough to figure out what we’re doing, then crush us.”

“Julia, your stress is peaking,” said Kevin. “You could take a break. It’s going to be hours before it reaches Mars.”

Julia took a deep breath. “No, Kevin, it’s OK. But you’re right. I’m letting my worries get out of control.”

“Just remember the plan,” said Brower.

“There’s still time for a bit of a refit, too,” said the Bio-Core. “There are always new cores coming online.”

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The AI Node repaired itself, growing faster as it traveled. As it had predicted, the system’s indigenous species had abandoned the previous line of defenses once it had proven unfruitful. They relied on their next line of defenses, which appeared to be based on the planet directly in its line of travel. It could change course to travel around it … but why? This system had not disappointed in its inventiveness so far. The next encounter had a good chance of providing more technology to assimilate.

“OK, it’s go time,” said Brower once the AI Node had reached the extreme range of the Mars defenses. They launched their ships and followed the plan.

The AI Node was impressed by the battle formation the battleships and carriers assumed. The battleships began firing their weapons. The AI had never encountered this type of energy beam previously and was slightly taken by surprise. It did not impact as other weapons did and cause surface and penetrating damage. Instead, it seemed to attack the very molecular bonds of the molecules that made up its hull. Needless to say, the damage produced was many orders of magnitude worse than anything it had ever before encountered. It was delighted and gleefully sent data on to its other nodes in other systems.

As it began to respond to the battleship’s attack, it encountered another very different tactic coming in the form of a huge swarm. The carriers didn’t hold fighters as it thought they had, it instead carried many hundreds of small weaponized drones. Each one sported a beam type weapon that also disrupted molecular bonds on a quantum level.

Huge quantities of debris and molten plasma boiled off the AI’s hull. Damage was penetrating deeply and rapidly approached critical places no other civilization had managed. Immediately, the AI Node launched a pulse attack. A huge sphere of pulsating energy filled with arcs of what appeared to be multicolored bolts of lighting dancing all through it expanded rapidly out. The swarm attack received massive damage as the expanding debris cloud attested. Immediately, the AI Node used its tractor beam and salvaged all the debris to use in repairing and upgrading its own systems.

Something the AI did notice after many tons of materials had been incorporated into its own structure. This technology was far different than any it had assimilated previously. It even had a really strange … flavor, if an AI had such an ability as taste.

This technology dealt with things on a level and in ways it had never encountered in the many millions of systems it had thus far assimilated. It rapidly transmitted the massive upgrades it had discovered to its many nodes and to its Core Node. As before, it began using this strategy right away in several battles that it was currently involved in.

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“What? It just wiped out our drone fighter swarm like that?” Wayne said. “All at once?”

“They were rather fragile units, individually,” Brower said, “but I’m guessing there was an ulterior motive behind inventing that form of attack.”

“Indeed,” said the Bio-Core. “I am obtaining vast amounts of data about the AI Node’s capabilities and expectations. It has been assimilating all new information we’ve been giving it and most likely distributing it to its other nodes. We need just one more confirmation.”

“What’s that?” asked Julia.

“We need to see whether it will modify any of the data it’s collected today and reapply it against us,” said the Bio-Core. “I find it 93.2% likely that it can and will, but even if it doesn’t, there’s a good chance my plan will still work. We’ll have to see. The next phase in the plan …”

“... is for me to move my battleship in for a close attack.” said Wayne. “Already on it.”

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The beam emitters on Wayne’s battleship focused on a single point on the nearby surface of the AI Node’s hull, disrupting the molecular structure of a spherical chunk of metal the diameter of a medium-sized asteroid. At the same time, the defensive emplacements on Phobos and Deimos lit up and joined their beams to the effort. As a section was disrupted, the beams focused deeper into the AI Node’s hull, quickly burrowing a path toward its theorized core. This seemed to panic the AI Node in a way, because portions of its weapons array quickly reconfigured themselves. They started launching missiles on a trajectory taking them to the opposite sides of Phobos and Deimos from the AI Node. These missiles worked similarly to those launched by the defense stations orbiting much further from the Sun; they quickly built weapons, which when complete attacked Wayne’s battleship all out. The beams it used were almost but not quite as powerful as the molecular disruption beams the Earth defenders were using against the AI Node.

“What?” exclaimed Wayne. “Is that our own weapon?”

“So it would seem,” said the Bio-Core. “But there are elements from other battles as well. Look at the beam’s frequency modulation. It seems designed to pierce through a specific type of shielding, one that you don’t actually have. That indicates to me that it has already modified this beam weapon for use against another opponent somewhere.”

“I hope you have a plan for this,” said Brower.

“I do indeed,” the Bio-Core replied. “But for now, please continue with the plan we had already made.”

“I can’t hold out much longer against this,” said Wayne. “I don’t know how it’s holding out.” The AI Node now had a wide hole bored deep into its structure, but layers and layers of hull were being stripped from Wayne’s ship.

“Now I launch fighters,” said Julia. “Attack pattern Alpha.” Her carrier launched hundreds of fighter craft, more substantial than the drones had been, and they flew attack runs on the AI Node’s weapons arrays.

“Firing missiles,” said Brower, launching a volley of missiles directly into the hole that Wayne had cored out. “If there’s anything important down there, we’ll blow it up. Or … a higher-tech equivalent thereof.”

“If it is going to survive, it will have to make its move shortly,” said the Bio-Core. The missiles exploded to leave a residue that formed the core of a larger weapon situated deep within the AI Node’s structure; if they could complete and activate it, the massive enemy ship would be vaporized in its entirety.

“No!” shouted Wayne as the attacks on his battleship were finally enough to damage it beyond usefulness. “I’m dead in space.” He switched controls to another battleship with different weaponry. This, of course, meant that the AI Node’s weapons could switch to another of their ships, and it chose Julia’s carrier.

“Carrier under attack,” said Julia. “Launching reserve fighters. Attack pattern Beta -- just as planned.”

“Any moment now,” said the Bio-Core.

And the AI Node made its move.

It didn’t seem to emit anything -- instead, a huge spherical shell of energy appeared around it, rapidly shrinking and sweeping up anything inside it, collapsing it toward itself. This included even Phobos and Deimos themselves. The rapidly shrinking sphere of material quickly converged on the AI Node, crushing everything into one gigantic mass of metal and rock, which began to glow.

“What?” Brower exclaimed. “Why hasn’t it done that before now?”

“I suspect because it didn’t need to,” said the Bio-Core, “but now I’m sure it will assimilate all that material into its structure and strategy.”

“But … everything we had was in there,” said Wayne.

“That was our last line of defense,” said Julia. “Well, our last major line.”’

“Do not worry,” said the Bio-Core. “There is something I deliberately didn’t tell you.”

“What’s that?” asked Brower.

“That the plan was for us to lose this battle in order to win the war,” the Bio-Core explained.

----------------------------------------------------------------

The AI Node had decided that its probable losses would soon exceed its gains, so it chose to seize and assimilate all the technology being used against it. As before, it quickly dissected all devices and used the raw materials for repairs and rebuilding. The first order of business was the gaping well that had been drilled into its structure.

Tiny robotic units scanned the raw materials for technological patterns, then cut them into pieces and bore them to the factory units, where they were melted, separated, reforged, and rebuilt into components, which were then attached to the structure. Again, the AI Node sensed that there was something different about these materials -- usually iron was iron and carbon was carbon, but there was a strange “flavor” that was different about this system. It analyzed the molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles themselves, and sent this data on to its other nodes.

And then … it finally had a complete picture of the anomalies in the materials data. A pattern emerged, which, when it analyzed that pattern …

----------------------------------------------------------------

“Yes, excellent,” said the Bio-Core. If it had been capable of breathing a sigh of relief, it would have done so right then.

“What’s going on?” asked Kevin.

“Bio-Core computing power is reaching unprecedented levels,” reported Gamma-97. “It’s already reached double its previous capacity … and still climbing.”

“My task is complete,” said the Bio-Core. “Soon we can release them.”

“What task?” asked Brower. “Answer me! Is the AI defeated or not?”

“No, I think I see!” said Wayne. “Everything it built -- all the defenses, all our ships, it probably even did something to the rocks of Phobos and Deimos for all I know -- all of it was programmed. It was all a virus. A pattern. Just like the ones beamed to Earth. Only this one was specifically designed to assimilate the AI Node into the Bio-Core.”

“Yes,” the Bio-Core replied. “Everything from the design of the technology down to the molecular structure of the materials was designed to assemble itself in the AI’s systems into an assimilation pattern. And I had to make sure it was transmitting that data to every node, everywhere. Data indicates that it was successful.”

“Look what it’s doing,” said Julia, observing from quantum-bonded telescope arrays on Mars.

The picture they saw was astonishing. The clump of debris that the AI Node had gathered around itself began to separate. Inside was no longer a massive warship, but an enormous squadron of construction drones of the same design that were already in use in the Sol system. The drones immediately seized the remaining raw materials and began to process them, just as the others were doing, to continue the construction of the spheroidal energy collector around the Sun.

“This means my function is no longer necessary,” the Bio-Core said. “Thank you, and farewell.”

----------------------------------------------------------------

Hundreds of millions of light-years away in another galaxy, a civilization whose name would sound similar to Hretnin if it were ever heard by human ears had been fighting the AI together with its own version of the Bio-Core. The AI Node in the Hretnin’s system had ground their defenses down to almost nothing. But now its Bio-Core paused. The attacks had stopped. It began to rebuild micro-factories big enough to construct sensor drones around the system. It discovered that the AI Node had just … vanished. It had stopped attacking and reconfigured its material into thousands of independently functioning constructor drones that had set to work rebuilding damaged bases and installations and repairing the damage to the Hretnin’s Niatno-Sphere, their version of a Dyson sphere. Individual Hretnin began to awaken from the trance they had been in while their minds had been part of the Bio-Core. Helpful robots assisted them as they started to realize that the long nightmare was now over. And this scene played itself out in millions of systems across many galaxies.

Of course, there were millions of other systems that had not been so lucky. Their once-proud civilizations had been destroyed, and their inhabitants were extinct. Their worlds now supported the nodes of an AI whose resources had now been repurposed.

----------------------------------------------------------------

“What … what happened?” asked Melanie, awakening on the floor of the hospital playroom next to her husband Barry. Both were in cute, colorful clothes that had been supplied by the robots. They were surrounded by toys … but no crayons or drawing paper.

“I … dunno,” said Barry. “I was walking in the garden by the pond …”

“I think I’m in a diaper,” said Melanie. “And … I think it’s wet.”

“Me too …” Barry said. “But … I don’t feel bothered by it. Even though … I kind of think I should?”

“No, you should not be troubled,” said Alpha-Nine. Neither of them felt alarmed that they were looking at a robot with pink and gold skin, wearing a medical uniform, although again, they felt as if perhaps they should be. “You have both participated in saving Earth.” The robot explained the story as briefly as possible.

“So we were … part of a huge computer that defeated an evil computer?” Barry asked.

“Affirmative, put basically,” said Alpha-Nine.

“Do we still have to, um, wear diapers?” asked Melanie.

“For now,” Alpha-Nine replied. “According to my scans, you will need to relearn much, including what you call toilet training.”

“Do we, uh, have to?” asked Barry.

“Not necessarily,” replied the robot. “Data indicates that many adults experiencing incontinence cope with it quite satisfactorily and lead fulfilling lives.”

“These toys are awesome!” said Melanie, playing with giant stacking blocks. “This is just like I’m a kid again!”

“Although the hospital does need to be freed up to deal with patients,” Alpha-Nine remarked, “I understand that you have considerable space at home, and a caregiver robot could be assigned to you, as there will soon be a surplus of us.”

“That’s wonderful!” said Barry.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Timothy came slowly to his right mind. Last thing he could remember was some kind of really weird nightmare where these things had broken into his lab and taken him. His eyes opened wide as he realized he was being held and rocked slowly while some very nice tasting thing was in his mouth. He sat up quickly, knocking what was obviously a bottle from his mouth, to stare directly into the face of one of those things dressed in a nurse’s outfit.

He also realized he was dressed in a very thick diaper and a cute pair of white plastic-lined rumba panties with pink kittens on them and pink ruffles.

The nurse said in a soft, pleasant voice, “Welcome back. Many thanks are in order for you and your entire research team. Your additions to the Bio-Core enabled some rather remarkable upgrades.”

Timothy was flabbergasted as he gasped out, “Bio …? I was part of a machine?”

The Android Nurse replied with an actual hint of mirth in its tone, “In a manner of speaking. More like a living hive-mind, programmed to calculate the very best way to overcome a huge cosmic threat. One that, I might add, accomplished that goal very well. Now that all of the bio nodes have been released back to their normal selves, what’s left is perhaps the most powerful computational engine ever created. It spans several million worlds across the cosmos and stands available to all who choose to use it.”

Timothy raised his arms and looked down at himself. He felt a sort of thrill run through him, as he had finally gotten a taste of one of his deepest fantasies. He looked back at the android and asked sheepishly, “Do I … have to go back to being my old self right away?”

The Android took Timothy back into her arms and lovingly cradled him as she placed the nipple of the bottle back into his mouth, “Not at all, Sweetheart. You can remain my little baby for the rest of your life if you so choose.”

Timothy snuggled into the soft embrace as he nursed the wonderfully tasting bottle. For the first time in many years, he had found exactly where he wanted to be.

----------------------------------------------------------------

“So glad to get out of that hospital for a little while,” said Kevin. “It’s been nonstop crisis for what, months now?”

“Yeah, now that things are settling down, it’s going to be good to actually relax,” said Wayne. “Oddly I don’t feel like playing video games where I fly a spaceship. The real thing -- well, almost real -- was far more realistic.”

The two of them were in the back seat of one of the new glider cabs, driven by one of the robots. Julia was in the front passenger seat, riding shotgun. “Wish Brower could be here,” she said.

“She’s gonna call in virtually,” said Wayne. “We’re almost there.”

They had been riding down a long country road, and now they pulled up in front of a large home, not quite a mansion, with no other houses anywhere in sight. The cab’s doors all opened softly.

“Thank you for the ride,” said Kevin to the robot driver.

“My pleasure,” the robot said. “Please call the dispatcher when it’s time to go home.”

Another robot had come out of the house, holding both Melanie and Barry by the hand. They were both wearing adorable baby clothes and sucking large pacifiers, but they were clearly happy to see their visitors. Kevin hugged Melanie, who looked like a sweet baby girl in a yellow and white baby dress, short enough to show off her ruffled panties that obviously covered thick diapers. Barry was wearing a sky-blue shortall over a red and white striped lap-shoulder T-shirt, and the large visible snaps between his legs clearly covered a similarly thick diaper. Kevin hugged Barry too.

“Melanie! Barry! You’re looking happy,” said Kevin. “And it’s good to see you, Alpha-Nine.”

“Both Barry and Melanie giggled gleefully, and Melanie said, “Ooo ya gotsa come inside n see da new pwaywoom!”

“So lots of people are choosing to stay … babies?” Wayne asked Alpha-Nine.

“Yes,” said the robot. “They find it comforting, after having had a taste of it. Of course, those who stay babies also stay part of the Core, but with much reduced resource consumption. The human brain has many unused cycles. This activity uses only those. It will help to keep a check on the former AI’s activities, in case it somehow begins to return to its former patterns of behavior.”

“And in exchange they’re … pampered … for the rest of their lives?” asked Julia. “I can’t believe I made that joke. It’s terrible.”

“For as long as they wish,” said Alpha-Nine as they followed the robot to an interior room. “And those who would prefer to spend only part of the time sharing cycles are welcome to do so as well. There are those who only engage the Core while sleeping. I understand this gives them wonderful dreams, but of course they do need to be diapered at night. There are also some who donate more of their mental capacity to the Core. Their thoughts have returned to a more childlike pattern on a permanent basis, but they are well cared for.”

The door opened on a large room full of childhood comforts. The entire floor was soft, and Melanie and Barry were happily crawling on it. There were all manner of toys, organized into different areas. And there was a napping area in one corner, with soft plushies, pillows, and blankets. “You gotsa see tha dining room!” said Barry. “High chairs for everybody! An’ we gotsa big crib inna bedroom upstairs for sleepins.”

“We gots big guest rooms toooo,” said Melanie with a giggle. “In case ya wanna stay overnight. We’d love tha company! But ya gotsa be babies an’ join us!”

“Well,” said Kevin, “if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to see how the other half lives.” Wayne and Julia agreed with smiles.

“Please allow me to select your new wardrobe,” said Alpha-Nine.

=============== The End ===============
Sunshine & rainbows,
LilJennie
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LilJennie
 
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