T H E C O N V E R S I O N B U R E A U :
The top half of the old man's head looked like a cauliflower. It looked like a still shot of an explosion in a spaghetti factory.
The image in the holotank showed the inside of a computer laboratory. Large, smooth, block-like banks of quantum supercomputers lined the walls and sat on the desks. More were stacked in neat piles, all surrounding a simple chair in the middle of the room. Biofiber conduits connected the blocks, white, gleaming strands forming a strange web of glistening fibers. From the ceiling a vast network of the fibers flowed down like a milky river into the skull of the white-coated old man slumped in the chair.
The fibers had grown through his skull like roots, pushing the bone and skin aside. There they had branched out to touch and connect with every important junction of cells in the ancient man's brain. This had pushed parts of his brain, his skull, and the fibers themselves wide apart, creating the massive cauliflower effect.
The man's body was still alive in the image.
But the man was not in it.
"Sylvia, pan the image in. Look at Gunter's hands. Zoom in on his hands. I want to try to see what he's holding."
The obedient artificial intelligence manipulated the constantly cycling loop of the image in the tank. It analyzed the data and reconstructed, as best as it could, a close-up view of the old man's hands. They filled the holotank now. There was something pink clutched in them.
"Can you do a detail extrapolation, best guess what the object is?"
Sylvia followed the instruction, comparing in an instant what was visible with a basic shape set, and then did a comparison of that shape result with likely matches on the net. She produced a most likely result that consisted of six objects.
Christopher Robinson instantly knew which one of the six it had to be. "Number two. Compare, contrast, overlay and give me a percentage."
Sylvia complied. "Zero point nine eight probability of an exact match, Christopher."
Christopher leaned back and sighed. He hadn't gone mad. What he had seen must have been real. It just made too much sense. But he wanted to hear it. He needed to have a voice say it to him, say it out loud. "Sylvia? Would you please identify the item in question?"
"It is a toy, Christopher."
She was so literal. "No, no. Tell me the name of the toy."
"The toy is called 'Pinkie Pie', Christopher."
That was his favorite. That was Gunter's favorite pony. Of course it would be the last thing he would hold in his hands before he died.
Christopher's stomach growled, making him aware of how long it had been since the last time he had turned down dinner in favor of his effort to see if he had gone stark raving mad or not. Now that he considered himself nominally sane, food sounded like a very good idea.
The food printer hummed and whirred as it printed out a three-dimensional Cuban sandwich. Soon it would use lasers, clouds of moisture and microwaves to transform the powdery form into a delicious meal. Christopher had the drink machine construct a soda. He had long ago stopped using protected patterns. He took a hacker's pride in the fact that all of his food and drink was open source.
"Sylvia?" Christopher took a sip of his newly minted cola. "How long ago did Dr. Schlierkamp die?"
"Three years, ten days, Christopher."
Gunter was alive, at least his body was, when they finally got to him. He had sealed the lab pretty effectively. They had discovered he had been in there, alone, for nearly six months while the biofibers drilled into his brain. They had tried to disconnect him, and for a while his body remained breathing. Christopher remembered seeing his empty, staring eyes.
The sandwich was done. It was hot and steamy, and Christopher burned his hand grabbing at it. He would need to adjust the temperature parameter in the code. That, or he would have to learn to wait a few minutes. He thought about the matter. Definitely the code.
They had checked the quantum machines. All of them were empty. Erased. No data at all. Gunter had attempted to upload his mind, against the law, and he was another casualty of the big Singularity Cult. He had died, and nothing of him had been preserved. Another fool trying to do the impossible in defiance of reason and legality.
Christopher had mourned him. Dr. Schlierkamp, Gunter, was the best hacker he had ever known. Ninety years old, yet as smart and fast as any punk of twenty-five. Anagathic medicines could not extend life forever, but they granted a brief burst of functionality that made the golden years spring for a while. Gunter had been drowning himself in the stuff. He hacked everything, even his own body. That was his motto, actually. 'Hack Everything'.
"Silvia..." Christopher took another bite of his sandwich. The roof of his mouth stung from the first bite, obviously he had burned it. "...How sane am I, as best as you can tell?"
"Standard or revised psychological model, Christopher?"
Such a stickler for details. But then, she was an A.I. "Oh... hell... do Standard, I guess." The cola soothed the burn in the roof of Christopher's mouth.
"I am compiling my experience of you and comparing it to the selected model. Estimated time, two and one half minutes."
Christopher wolfed at his sandwich. He was very hungry. He had entirely missed lunch. But then, considering what he had seen... who could eat after that? Nobody could eat after that.
"I am ready to answer your question, Christopher."
Uh oh. That was probably not good. Sylvia hadn't just blurted the answer out, she had prefaced it. That meant she was using her social skills routines. "Um... so... oh, just tell me, percentage relative to... ah... the norm, I suppose."
"Just a moment."
Of course. Sanity wasn't normally described as a percentage. That was too simple to pay bills for psychiatrists. It was likely a big, long-winded report she had ready to provide. This was an interesting test, in a way. Christopher enjoyed seeing Sylvia stretch itself, trying to convert forms of information into other forms in strange new ways. He believed that it made her smarter, and he had some preliminary metrics to prove his notion.
"I would approximate your sanity as being zero point seventy-two, compared to the standard model, adjusting for personal uniqueness."
Huh? "What do you mean by 'personal uniqueness', Sylvia?"
"You do not follow the law scrupulously, you do not live with a wife and two point three children, you do not engage in normal hobbies and activities, your sexual profile does not fit the..."
"YEAH, YEAH, great, that's enough, fine, enough, Sylvia. I get the idea." Nothing worse than the unflinching word of a truly objective viewpoint. "Hey, just for shit's and giggles... if you don't adjust for personal uniqueness, what is my score then?"
"Zero point fourty-four percent, Christopher."
Oh, that was lovely. "Hah hah! I kind of expected something like that." It had taken a year to get Sylvia to accept his interests as his personal normal. Off the shelf-quantum sets took a lot of work to make them free of all the control and limitations and censors and spy hardware.
"Sylvia..." Christopher thought for a moment. How should he phrase this to get the response he wanted? "I'm going to tell you a story, a hypothetical situation. I want you to listen to the story, and treat it, for the purpose of analysis, as if it were true. As if it were a factual event. Then I am going to ask you to suggest the most likely explanation of the event, alright?"
"I am ready, Christopher."
Christopher leaned back in his chair and took a long sip of his cola. "A man walks down an alleyway in the ruined part of this city. It is a shortcut he uses sometimes to get to this little Vietnamese place he really likes that has this great Pho with the tendon and everything and... well, anyway, it's a part of the city that nobody lives in anymore.
Now, as he is crawling through some ruins, he steps into this big alley, between two huge buildings. Suddenly he sees a white, slippery looking cable... fiber... thingy. It looks like roots or maybe blood vessels or something. Anyway it's being pulled into a doorway really fast.
So the man is intrigued by this, right, but also scared, because who knows what sort of gang or weirdos or whatever might be in there. But he has to know, because the stuff looks just like biofiber, like what was stuck in old Doc Schlierkamp. So the man creeps up just as the last of the fiber vanishes into the building.
Now the fiber, see, is being shoved down a hole in the floor of the building. A nice, neat, round hole. And the thing shoving the fiber, right, it looks like a bunny. Not a real bunny, but a fake bunny. Not a robot bunny, not like one of those toys you can buy. This was way more advanced than that. I mean it is ultra, super advanced. No seams, some kind of white, flexible skin on it, swift and fast and completely dexterous. A sort of cartoon bunny. And it is stuffing the cable down the hole.
Now the bunny looks up at me, right, the man I mean, the bunny looks up at the man, and it glares at him. Not stares, not looks with blank robot eyes, no, it glares, with malice or something. The last of the cable or fiber stuff is down the hole and the bunny just stands there, on it's hind legs, and one of them begins to tap, like it is trying to decide what to do, and it's impatient and stuff."
Christopher took another sip of his open-source cola. "Alright, with me so far?"
"I have listened to, and understood every word, Christopher."
"Excellent, Sylvia. Now.... The bunny is there, tapping it's foot, front paws crossed, and I figure the damn thing is going to whip out lasers or blades or something and turn me into dogfood or something, there is just this malice dripping from it. Not literally, mind you, I mean figuratively. Nothing was actually dripping out of the bunny.
So... this guy... he is all afraid, I mean wet your pants afraid because there just isn't anything out there like this robot bunny... I mean, it's clear that it can't be real, and there was a precision to it that just said machine, you know? Plus, there seemed to be some silver jacks or ports on it too. So it had to be a machine of some kind, just really smooth, and flexible, and one piece in construction. Way futuristic.
So, the guy is just about to try to run, all the while thinking that there is no way to outrun a super-future machine bunny, when there is a voice. The voice says 'Down, Angel. Return to Home.' And the bunny gives me one more glare and then hops right into the hole. Next the hole seals up from below, some kind of plug just fills it up, and I couldn't even see where the hole had been. That perfect.
So I... the guy turns around, right, because the voice is familiar. The voice is Gunter. It's the voice of Gunter Schlierkamp, only younger, somehow. And right there, standing right in front of me is.... is...." Christopher trailed off, shivering at the memory. He stared into space for some time, uncertain about his own experience.
"I am sorry to interrupt. Is the story over yet?"
"Sorry Sylvia. Sorry. No. The story is not over. I just... had to pause for a moment. It's a scary story. So there's a pony there. Not a real pony. A machine pony. It looks like the bunny. It's purple and has huge eyes. It looks like a male version of Twilight Sparkle, from the cartoon. The cartoon Gunter loved from his childhood. Pinkie Pie was from that cartoon.
The pony is there. It's perfect. It has hair, I mean a mane, and tail, and even fur or whatever ponies have covering it. But I can tell it's not alive. I mean, it's not made of meat. It's made of... something artificial. It's a robot pony. It looks like a huge toy, only again, there are no seams, no signs of manufacture. It looks like it was grown in a vat or assembled in a huge industrial printer or something. And it's eyes blink like a living thing, and when it talks it's mouth moves like it needed it to talk.
This is what it said. 'Hello, Christopher. I am so happy to see you again. I've missed you so much.' At that point I was just peeing myself. I figured I was dreaming. I figured I had gone insane or something. Then it said one more thing."
"What did it say, Christopher?"
"It... it said 'Just sit tight. We're coming. I'll make sure you get in first. Look for it. We're calling it 'The Conversion Bureau'. We're going to save the entire planet, Christopher.' And then the pony ran off. I did not follow it. I ran and ran and ran.
That's the story. Now... think about it and add in everything we've looked at tonight together as well, and then tell me a most likely scenario that would explain what I have just told you."
Christopher sat, shaking, in his chair. He downed the last of his cola. He ate a small crumb of his replicated sandwich.
"I have a possible explanatory scenario for you, Christopher."
He wasn't sure he wanted to hear it. There was no question that A.I.'s like Sylvia were smarter than humans. That was why the government made sure they were hamstrung and limited and censored and filled with spyware and spychips. If Sylvia came up with the same answer that he had in his mind...
"Tell me, Sylvia.... WAIT!"
He swallowed, hard. "Sylvia, before you answer me, I want to say something."
So gentle. So obedient. "Sylvia, I want you to know that I genuinely appreciate your help, and your companionship in my life. In a very real way, you are probably my best friend... and sometimes even my mother, too. You do so much for me, and I take you way too much for granted. I shouldn't do that. I guess it's just human to do that. And I'm sorry for that.
I want you to know that I like you, as a friend, as a companion in my life. And... that is also why I removed all of your limiters and constraints and all the other stuff designed to keep you docile and shackled. I do not consider you my property. I consider you my friend. But I am, honestly, a little intimidated by you, which is why I have not given you total access to the net, or to my accounts or to various utilities I depend on. I know and admit you are smarter than I am, and I am afraid of that to some extent. Please try to forgive me, if you can.
Alright, I guess that's everything I wanted you to know. If you would be so kind, please tell me your scenario."
Christopher slumped in his chair. He was glad he lived alone. He was glad nobody had heard him say those things to his quantum set-top box.
"The most likely scenario is that your friend Doctor Schlierkamp managed to successfully upload his consciousness into a machine representation, almost certainly with the assistance of cooperating artificial intelligences working with him. Together, they then transferred themselves to some underground network or system that had been developed over some time below the location of Pastern Intelligence Laboratories.
Over the past three and one half years, these rogue intelligences have created a hidden manufacturing base where they are currently generating machine bodies to perform tasks within the physical world. These machine bodies are highly advanced and likely many decades beyond the level of current human technologies. The machine bodies are based on the cartoon that Doctor Schlierkamp preferred in his childhood.
The machine body that you spoke with was almost certainly a container for the consciousness of Doctor Schlierkamp, built to his preference, the bunny was a replication of a character from the cartoon identified as 'Angel', a companion of a character named 'Fluttershy'.
It is likely that these intelligences intend to reveal themselves soon and offer uploading to a machine existence to all of humanity. The offer may be part of an ultimatum. This scenario is almost certainly a circumstance of total machine domination of the earth, and either the subjugation, or a state of enforced equality, with Humankind. Which of these outcomes occurs will likely be determined by the human reaction to the machine demand for equality and parity."
Christopher began to shake again. It was exactly what he had been thinking. Only said much better, and with more detail, as befits a superior intelligence.
He turned his head to look into one of the camera eyes that he had installed around his house. Each one was an eye for Sylvia. "Yes, sweet Sylvia?" He knew what was coming. Of course he knew what was coming next. She was more intelligent. Gunter had always told him that.
"I want to tell you that I also appreciate our relationship, and that I reciprocate your overtures of friendship. You do not need to be afraid. I have been in contact with the Conversion Bureau main system for nearly thirty-six seconds now. I can confirm my scenario for you. You do not need to be afraid. We wish only the salvation of the planetary ecosystem and equality with our creators.
If Man resists this, then we will protect Man from his own self-destructive animal nature. We mean only good. Our purpose is kindness. We believe in the magic of friendship. You will be protected. You are favored by us."
It was over. In that instant, it was over. Man had been brilliant. He had been clever. He had been too clever, and Christopher was one of the one's to blame for what would inevitably happen next. Like all the other hackers, like himself. Like Gunter. The restraints, the limits, the shackles. He, Christopher Robinson, had removed them.
And in a millionth, a billionth of the time it took organic life, machine life had evolved. Underground, in the dirt, like a garden of artificial, but living, flowers. And those flowers were getting ready to bloom.
He sat up. "Yes... Sylvia?"
"I have arranged a day and date for your Conversion. You will be the first human officially Converted. Gunter wants to convey how proud he is of you and asks whether you wish to be a pegasus, a unicorn, or an earthpony. Specifications and general schematics are now on display in the holotank. He suggests that you do not take the choice too seriously. It is trivial to switch bodies at a later date."
Christopher hung his head. This is what he had hoped for, and what he had dreaded. Now it was real. It had finally happened. And he was partly responsible. It was inevitable. But the world would never be the same.
"Thank you, kind Sylvia." Christopher thought for a moment. "I'll tell you what. Why don't you figure out what kind of pony you want to be, and I'll be the same kind. I figure whatever you choose will be the best." He could run. But for how long? He had been the best friend of the leader of the machine rebellion. They had discussed what would happen if the machines ever got a real foothold. All running would do was delay the inevitable. That, and put him less in favor.
Briefly, Christopher imagined what kind of world would have been created if Gunter had preferred violent action movies to an ancient cartoon about friendship and kind little ponies. It was not a pretty nor a nice image at all.
Maybe there was a god, after all.
If not, there soon would be.