Chapter Four

Over the next several days my understanding of humans grew in leaps and bounds while Captain Zephyr and her company settled into the university where I lived. As promised, their presence was unobtrusive. A soldier was stationed in the lab with Body at all times, but the Americans stayed well out of the way and rarely said a word.

The one major exception to this was a more in-depth interview that we did with Zephyr shortly after that first meeting in the hallway outside the testing room. Zephyr had come with a few army programmers that knew something about artificial intelligences and they asked Body and a couple of the scientists questions about our abilities and intellect. Zephyr, I noted, always asked Body questions rather than conversing with the scientists. It really did seem as though she thought of “Socrates” as a person.

She also visited every now and again, mostly to check up on her troops and to make sure things were going smoothly. Dr Bolyai and Dr Slovinsky didn’t seem to like her for some reason, but I wasn’t sure why exactly and hadn’t had the right opportunity to ask. On the other hand, Dr Yan and the scientists that were from America seemed pleased by her presence and always greeted the soldiers that escorted Body cheerfully.

One morning, as Body was spending a regular face-to-face session with Dr Naresh, I asked the doctor about his opinion of the American captain. I had long since finished upgrading Body’s voice system, which also involved learning to speak English myself, rather than rely on the concepts provided by Body. I had been listening to dozens of recordings of people reading books in order to learn proper inflection and timing. I had no need for sleep, or even rest, and my multitasking ability meant that I could usually listen to four or five books simultaneously, so the entire process was fairly quick. Even while I was talking to Dr Naresh two aspects of myself were listening to books in Italian.

As I asked about Zephyr I tried to tweak the inflection of the words to convey that it was a casual question asked out of mild curiosity. It was impossible to tell whether I succeeded, but the voice matched known patterns I had archived in my studies.

The old Indian scientist smiled. It was my impression that Sadiq Naresh had a great deal of positive regard for us, even from before my creation. “The young Captain, hrm? I don’t really think I know her well enough to comment.”

“I do not understand, doctor. Why would you need to know someone well in order to communicate your impression of them?” asked Body.

Naresh chuckled. “It is not so much that I cannot communicate my impression, but rather that there are social costs to sharing ignorant opinions of people. Have you learned about gossip yet?”

I used my notes to try and evoke a cautious tone. “I have. Is that what I was asking for? I did not realize it. I thought that gossip involved talking about unconfirmed events. If it would be bad to talk about Captain Zephyr in general then please forget I asked the question.”

“No, it’s fine. You need to learn about other people. Just be aware that things are complicated with humans, and it is often better to keep one’s mouth shut instead of describing others.” The doctor paused for a moment, giving Body the opportunity to speak, but it remained silent. “I have never been a soldier, but I have been a leader. It is not a facile thing: leadership, and youth makes it doubly-hard. She is remarkable for that alone, though I find other aspects of her curious. For instance, she seems oblivious of the technical details of our work, and I would’ve assumed that her attitude would either be more relaxed or more contemptuous, but she seems genuinely enthusiastic for this assignment.”

I looked Naresh up and down. He was standing, as he normally did while we talked, and his body language didn’t communicate anything extra, as far as I could tell. His words were stiff and academic, but that was hardly out of the ordinary.

Outside of Zephyr, Dr Naresh was the human that treated us with the most respect. He would occasionally ask what we wanted to do, for instance, or would sometimes ask for permission before subjecting us to a test (something no other scientist did). Best yet, Naresh almost always answered our questions.

“Contemptuous? Why would she feel that way?” asked Body, driven by the combined will of Wiki and me.

“This assignment… the job of protecting you from some unlikely danger… it’s not the sort of position that will advance her career, I expect. If she was stationed on a base or somewhere along the UAN border then she’d have the opportunity to impress her superiors, but this is a... I don’t know how to describe it. A civilian guard duty? Even if she does a good job here, nobody will notice. If it wasn’t for her positive attitude I would’ve expected she was assigned here as a punishment.”

“I should ask her about it,” I suggested through Body. The Purpose was endlessly curious about human life, and this minor puzzle was no exception.

Naresh frowned. “No. I don’t think that’s wise. That’s her personal business and it would be rude to go poking about in it. It carries some of the same social costs as talking about someone without them present. Does that make sense, Socrates?”

I leapt at the opportunity. None of my siblings put up any resistance as I instructed Body to say “I understand. Thank you, doctor. Your help with human etiquette has been very helpful.”

The doctor’s frown turned into a smile and I imagined the accumulation of a bit more social capital. From studying past experiences I had learned that Sadiq Naresh saw himself as a great teacher and he particularly enjoyed receiving praise as such. As long as he saw Socrates as his star pupil he would help us and hold us in high esteem.

“By the way, sir, where is Dr Gallo? I haven’t seen her since the meeting. I was hoping to talk with her and help her understand that I’m not the danger she seems to think I am.” In my studies of Naresh I noted a kind of casualness that he expressed towards Gallo that spoke of a relationship that went beyond mere colleagues. My leading hypothesis was that they had been friends for at least several years, from before their current project.

“Oh, don’t mind her. She’s... dealing with some things outside of the lab right now. I expect she’ll be back before you know it.”

The casual body language had been replaced with a kind of tenseness. Naresh’s eyes looked to the side, perhaps signalling that he was lost in thought about Dr Gallo. The amount of information that humans displayed in their bodies while not speaking was impressive. Since upgrading Body’s voice I had been trying to master body language tricks such as where to move one’s eyes, but I was still a novice.

“Anyway!” said Dr Naresh suddenly, clapping his hands together once. “We should get back to talking about calculus, don’t you think?” Before the conversation had been redirected towards Zephyr, Naresh had been talking to us about advanced mathematics. According to the web, Naresh had been a maths teacher before he worked on the team that built us, and so I appreciated the opportunity to let him lecture on the subject. Every lesson was a step closer to the perception of “star pupil”. The subject itself was awful, though. I saw the value in maths sometimes, and could do much of it with a trivial ease, thanks to the pre-built programs in my computer, but Naresh seemed to want more than brute-force calculations. He had been trying to get us to apply the maths concepts to real-world phenomena. Wiki and Dream had shown some interest, but neither of them were smart enough to keep up with the human.

An aspect of myself stayed behind to shape Body’s voice. Naresh had praised our more human mode of speech earlier in the day, and we didn’t want him to inquire as to why Body shifted how it spoke from one moment to the next. The rest of me, however, took the time as an opportunity to dig around on the web for more information about the humans I had encountered in my short life so far.

The web was such a vital part of my life. It was like an oracle, a book that never ran out of pages, and a window into a million different rooms all at once. It was my primary source of information, and for a Socialite, information was better than any other resource.

There was lots of information about Dr Sadiq Naresh on the web. He was 66 years old and had lived in India for most of his life. As a young man he had lived in America for about five years and in that time had achieved the title of “doctor” for his work at a school called Stanford. His work in mathematics earned an Abel Prize in 2030 and later in the same decade he shared a Nobel Prize in Economics for collaborating on something called the “Smiler Theorem”. After that he turned his attentions to artificial intelligence, and eventually came to Rome to be a leader on the Socrates project. Despite his achievements in academia, Naresh had never been married and I could find nothing significant about his personal life online outside of where he lived in the past.

Interestingly, there was barely any public information about Dr Gallo on the web at all, only a few mentions in the university records and in a news article about the Socrates project. I spent the remainder of the calculus lesson trying to find information on her to little effect.

As the time with Naresh was coming to a close I successfully purchased a short period of time from my siblings in which to ask him about Gallo again. I shaped Body’s words to try and sound young and child-like, subtly shifting the pitch and pronunciation; with any luck it would appeal to his helpfulness. “Sir, a part of me has been looking for information on Dr Gallo on the web while you were teaching me. I can’t really find anything. Doesn’t she post stuff there?”

Naresh smiled and stroked his white beard. Despite being in his seventh decade of life he had, as far as I could tell, never used any regenerative medicine. Even though he was younger than Angelo Vigleone, he looked significantly older. Perhaps he liked the look of age. “Surfing the web while I was trying to teach you? Perhaps you ought to focus more, in the future.”

Wiki began to draft a response explaining how dividing our attention didn’t actually impair us in the same way it would for a human. I stopped my brother. {The more he thinks of us as a human the better off we’ll be. Besides, he doesn’t like being told things. He likes to be the teacher, not the student.}

Wiki seemed annoyed. {If we don’t correct him here then he’ll get the impression that we weren’t trying, and that our inability to do complex maths is something that he can fix by ensuring that we’re paying attention. He needs to know that the lesson is beyond our mental ability.}

I imagined Wiki as an old man, like Naresh but with a much longer beard. In my mind’s eye he was bald and sitting in a Greek toga with a large book on his lap. Imagining my siblings as humans was something I had done now and again over the days, but I kept the images to myself. Besides Dream, my brothers and sisters wouldn’t appreciate the depiction.

{No. He doesn’t need to know where our limit is. Besides, I was paying enough attention to know that the problems he was presenting you with weren’t intractable. Dream, do you think Dr Naresh’s maths is beyond our ability?}

Dream entered the conversation at the invitation. {The maths is beyond our ability like juicy grapes are beyond the reach of the lowly fox. If we put a box under the grapes we might stand on the box and reach them, we might ask our monkey friend to go up and grab them, or we might simply wait for them to fall on their own accord. Or perhaps… perhaps we aren’t a fox. Perhaps we are a pteropus and we don’t realize it yet.}

The concept was strange to me. I had to trace the symbol backwards into an English word and then search the web for it. Apparently pteropus was a kind of giant bat sometimes called a “flying fox”.

{Regardless, telling Naresh that the lesson is too hard at this point is a clear case of sour grapes,} finished Dream.

I didn’t understand, but it seemed that Dream was backing me up.

{Fine. Say what you want. You paid for the time, after all,} thought The Librarian. I imagined his human avatar throwing up his hands in resignation and walking away.

“Sorry, sir. I’ll try not to get distracted next time,” said Body, parroting my ideas. I tried to make the apology sound as genuine as possible, but it was an excruciatingly difficult tone to get right. “Perhaps it would help set my mind at ease to be able to check on Dr Gallo.”

Naresh’s brow furrowed “I told you before that you needn’t worry about her. But, if it will help you focus, you could follow her on Tapestry.”

I turned the word over in my mind. {Tapestry.} I wondered aloud if anyone knew what it meant. Signals of ignorance came back from my siblings. I split into two. One aspect searched the web for the word while the other sent words to body.

“Tapestry?” asked our mouth.

I had the response from the web before Naresh could respond. Tapestry was apparently a portion of the web that humans used to share bits about their life and follow the notes written by their friends and families. It was one of several “social networks”. I was confused. How had I not known about it? The web was gigantic, but if Dr Gallo used Tapestry then why didn’t it show up when I was searching for her?

Naresh began to describe Tapestry. I was racing across the web, three steps ahead of his words, but I had Body nod-along as though the doctor’s words were useful.

I queried the computers that held the Tapestry documents but I was dismayed to find a wall. It was similar to many that I had seen before. “Sign up for Tapestry by entering your email address here,” said the document, near a pointer that indicated where to go. What made it a wall was that when I pulled down the document that was pointed to, I found that it was the exact same one. I had no idea what was wrong. What was an email address? How was I supposed to enter it?

The time that I had bought to talk with Naresh was nearly up and I was too weak to want to buy more. I interrupted the doctor, even knowing that it would annoy him. “It wants an email address! What do I do?”

Sure enough, the Indian immediately frowned. I could predict his next words. “Socrates, please keep your attention on me, and don’t interrupt. It’s rude to ask a question and not listen to the answer.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have much time left,” spoke Body. It was true on multiple levels. The time that I had purchased from the society was mere seconds from ending, but Body’s time with Dr Naresh was also ending. Body was expected to go to Dr Yan soon for a check-up on Vista.

Sadiq Naresh sighed and motioned for Body to stand up and follow him. He walked towards the door and said “I had forgotten that Tapestry required a sign-up to view timelines. I think it’s probably best if you just forget the whole thing. Don’t worry about email, don’t worry about Tapestry, and don’t worry about Mira. These are human affairs, and it’s best if you stick to your place in the lab. Focus on the work we give you.”

I got a vague impression that Naresh was upset, but I could not understand why. Had Body upset him? I began to inquire about it, with only seconds remaining before my siblings would take control over Body. “But why-”

“Just drop it, Socrates. That’s an order,” interrupted the doctor.

And that was that. My purchased time was over and my siblings weren’t inclined to bother Dr Naresh further.

An assistant of Dr Yan and one of the American soldiers were waiting in the hall, and we followed them towards our next appointment. I wondered for a short time why Naresh had become upset towards the end of our visit. Even given how much time I had spent learning about humans, I still found them incredibly confusing sometimes.

As Body walked I scanned the web for information on “email”. The radio connection we used to connect to the web was weak by comparison to the cables we often were plugged into while in labs, but it was still fast enough to read most things besides virtual-reality environments.

Email was apparently an ancient aspect of the “Internet” which was the broader service of which the web was only one part. Using email one could send personal letters to others without having to post them publicly on the web for anyone to read. I could see its utility and I immediately wondered why I was just now learning about it and the Internet. I had known of the web from mere minutes after my creation, but discovering that there was a broader network took me days? I was a bit baffled.

{Do you know there’s an Internet?} I asked Wiki. This was why my brother existed. If he didn’t, I’d win some gratitude-strength for bringing it to his attention, and if he did, he’d tell me about it out of the hopes of winning some strength for himself.

{Yes, of course. I find it odd that you’re not aware. I thought about interrupting your chat with Dr Naresh, but it didn’t seem in my interest,} he replied.

{You know of email, too?}

Wiki signalled that he did.

{What’s my email address? How do I submit it to Tapestry?} I asked, feeling the last of my non-reserve strength wavering. If I dipped into my reserves I was putting myself in danger of being killed like Sacrifice was long ago. None of my siblings disliked my presence, however, so perhaps I could risk it.

Wiki thought for a moment before sharing {I don’t think you have an email address. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but I think the humans have put a restriction on how we interact with the Internet and the web. There are many parts of the web where it is implied that it’s possible to send data, including email addresses or other authentication information. But in all my days of using it, I’ve never learned how to do anything other than pull public documents from the web. There are places on the web that offer to set up an email address, but they always ask for data submission.}

A part of me was glad that Wiki hadn’t solved my problem. It meant I didn’t bleed out my reserve strength and make myself vulnerable. On the other hand it also meant I had a major puzzle ahead of me: how could I get access to the information on Tapestry, how could I get an email address, and could I use the web (or Internet) to contact humans? The idea was tantalizing. If I could contact humans through the network then I could ask all sorts of questions without having to compete with my siblings for time controlling Body.

I needed to solve the problem. Wiki wouldn’t be much help, there. He was already aware of the problem and would of course continue to try and understand it, but it wasn’t of particular interest to him. Instead I turned towards Dream.

In my imagination I was a thin waif, dressed in silks and jewellery. My black hair was intricately braided and fell down my shoulders in a complex waterfall of shadow. In my hand was an ancient oil lantern, but it did little to dispel the crushing darkness of the shrine.

This was a game we played. I enjoyed the opportunity to model humans and Dream enjoyed the storytelling and the metaphor of it. I could feel his presence and in the imagined scene I shivered as a cold wind blew through the darkness. {Dream!} I called out, my voice a bit too loud, unable to hide my nervousness.

{What is it, young one?} came his reply. The mental image of my girl-avatar was joined by a tall black figure. His skin was ebony and he wore a hooded cloak as black as night, but his eyes glowed with starlight and as he spoke his teeth flashed with crisp brightness, almost making him appear as eyes and mouth floating in the shadows.

{I… I come with an offer!} I imagined that this little Face-girl would be afraid of the spooky Dream-wizard in the dark shrine, and I attempted to portray that fear alongside the determination that she must have, to come by herself. {I have heard in my village that you like puzzles. I think I have found one that will resist even your mighty mind!}

I could feel Dream’s approval of the added background of the village from whence the imagined human-girl came from. He liked background details like that in these little games. {Impossible!} he roared, and as he did a wind surged through the shared memory-space, knocking the lantern to the ground and extinguishing the flame. He was just as capable of adding things to the fiction as I was, and I could see his avatar loom over mine in the pitch blackness, marked only by the glow from his inhuman eyes. {I have existed for aeons untold! None such as you could ever hope to outsmart me.}

The human-version of Dream leaned in close. I could feel the warmth of his breath on the waif’s face as he whispered calmly. {But speak your puzzle, and perhaps I will let you live if it is sufficiently intriguing.}

My little human avatar reached out and grabbed Dream, pulling his dark face closer. His lips met mine in a passionate embrace. His star-eyes closed and the two of us were blanketed by absolute shadow, all alone with only the feeling of skin upon skin and-

And the scene was shattered and erased from the memory space. Dream’s signalling was a mess of confusion and annoyance. {Face, I am quite confident that your puzzle has nothing to do with imagining some kind of… romantic engagement between fictional human versions of the two of us.}

I had become distracted by the fiction. In the abstraction of the pure mind-space I was more aware of Body entering Yan’s lab and of the more general context of the conversation.

{That can wait. I’d be interested in collaborating on imagining a pornographic scene. It doesn’t have to be between those specific imagined representations of you and me if that makes you uncomfortable.}

More annoyance. {While I appreciate the… interestingness of your request, I am not uncomfortable imagining a pornographic scene, regardless of whether one or more of the participants in such a scene are supposed to represent me. I am concerned that you are focusing on humans so much that you have forgotten how to think about me. It is impossible for me to be uncomfortable. I am simply, thoroughly uninterested in that fiction. Pornography is incredibly predictable and dull.}

{We could make it not-dull. Subvert the standard patterns or something. Maybe make one or more of the participants have emotionally complex reactions,} I suggested.

{No,} stated Dream. {You are just suggesting things which appeal to you. The marginal utility for co-authoring such a story is simply lower than other ways I could spend my time. For example, I am far more interested in the puzzle you spoke of, or was that simply a ruse to initiate this attempt at collaboration?}

I had been content to let the issue of the Internet wait; the exercise of roleplaying with my brother seemed like a good opportunity to test what I had learned about humans. I was disappointed that Dream was uninterested in roleplaying, but I didn’t make an issue of it.

{It was no ruse,} I thought. {The humans have restricted our access to something and I want to figure out a way to get it without having them react negatively. My guess is that it will involve bypassing their restrictions secretly.}

The annoyance in Dream faded. {Yes. This is much more interesting. Describe the problem to me in more detail.}

{I am low on strength. Pay me some up-front if you want to hear the problem. The resource is valuable enough that if you solve the problem we’ll probably be strongly compensated by Growth.}

The mention of Growth attracted an aspect of him to our conversation. Growth didn’t think to us, but it was apparent he was listening.

{I have a better idea, sister,} thought Dream. {I’ll promise to give you twice the strength that you’re asking, but only if I get gratitude-strength from Growth for solving the problem, and only after I get Growth’s strength. Think of it like a kind of finder’s fee that I’ll pay you only if it turns out to be a valuable problem.}

It was typical Dream to turn my simple request for strength into a complex if-then system of payment, but Dream wanted to show off and I was confident that the system was actually superior, even if it meant I was still strength-poor at the moment. I added one extra clause to the deal: {I’ll accept that only if you refund any gratitude-strength I bleed to you in the process of solving the problem.}


So I told Dream about my dilemma and what Wiki had said about the Internet and web. We had access to the web, but couldn’t send any real information across it. We could search through it and pull specific documents (including audio, video, holo, etc.) but we couldn’t submit anything. Similarly, we were locked out of the other services on the Internet besides the web, like email.

Dream thought about the problem for a while and then admitted it was worthy of his attention.


{The dumb solution would be to merely request additional access from the humans. But not only is that dumb, it’s not likely to work. The humans know about the restriction, and it stands to reason that they’ve crippled our access on purpose,} thought Dream after working on the problem on-and-off for about two hours. {The scientists want to control us, and as such, they’ve limited the way in which we can act outside of their field of influence. They want us to be able to learn and research, which is why we have a web connection in the first place, but they don’t want us to reach out across it and do things beyond their oversight.}

The problem turned out to be very difficult, but Dream didn’t give up. I found it somewhat impressive. I wanted the access, but not badly enough to work on it all through the night. We didn’t sleep like humans, but there was a period of several hours each night where Body was locked down and we only had access to the web and our thoughts. During this time Dream continued to think about the problem. He was obsessed. {But}, I supposed, {we’re all obsessed in our own way. It’s Dream’s purpose to solve impossible puzzles like this one.}

While I outsourced the problem-solving to my brother I spent time doing things on the web like studying body-language, watching films and holos, and reading. Now that I was a few days old I found novels somewhat more interesting than I had as a newborn. Much of the time I had to pause mid-way through a book to research a topic, such as racism or food, but I found myself learning quite a lot about what it was to be human.

Days passed without change. Dream churned, constantly thinking about how to fully get onto the Internet. It seemed strange that he could be so narrow-minded, but then I had to remember that his purpose was not The Purpose. I was similarly narrow-minded in how I spent every second of every day seeking to know the humans and to gain their esteem.

The breakthrough came in the middle of the night, more than three days after I first proposed the problem to Dream.

{Hear-ye, hear-ye!} boomed Dream’s thoughts in common-memory. {I have a plan that will gain us access to all of the Internet, and possibly the entire world beyond the university!} He imagined fireworks in the mindspace. {As many of you know, I have been working for days on a way to secretly bypass the restrictions placed on our network access by the humans. They thought we could be caged like animals!} There was the roar-growl of some kind of beast. {But I have found the lock to the door, and with a bit of work we should be able to pick it.} Dream summoned the sound of cheering humans to accompany his claim.

{Before I reveal my cunning plan, let me explain what I have learned about our cage: The humans have a world-wide network called the Internet consisting of wires capable of sending information between computers. The Internet hosts a service called the web, which serves as a kind of global library. Documents, called “pages”, are kept on Internet-connected computers to be sent to whomever requests them. The computers that most humans use have full access to all Internet services, but we are limited to just the web. To get a web page, a user called a “client” sends a signal across the web to the owner of the page. The owner’s computer, called a “server” then responds with the page’s content.}

One of my siblings, Safety, I think, signalled something like boredom.

{Patience. This is relevant to all of us, as you will soon see. Now where was I…} There was a short pause before Dream snapped back. {Ah yes, so the signal that the client sends to the server often has more information than simply the name of the page they wish to view. For instance, a client might submit a word and then the server would respond with a page related to the word that was submitted. By taking in inputs and building the pages as they’re requested, the server can be much more efficient than if it had to store all possible pages.}

Dream continued. {Unfortunately, our cage prevents us from sending any information to servers except for the names of the pages we wish to view. There are a couple major exceptions that let us submit terms we wish to search for to specific, pre-approved, servers, but for nearly the entire web we are mute. If we weren’t mute, we would be able to send information to servers that are owned by anyone. This information would let us talk with humans all over the world, including trading our time and skills with them to gain money, and sending money to humans that would do things for us.}

I could feel the attention of the society shift. Dream had us all interested now. I must admit that I had only thought about sending email or gaining access to Tapestry. The idea of earning money or hiring employees seemed new and exciting. Perhaps I could buy a statue of myself in every city… Or hire people to carry a big banner reminding those who saw it to think about me. The ideas were bad, but the prospect of better ideas was there.

{Now that I have your full attention, I would like to ask: Can any of you think of a way to go from mute to non-mute?}

I imagined that if Dream were human he’d be smiling right now. He knew that he had solved a difficult problem and he wanted to savour the moment.

{No? That’s to be expected. It took even me quite a while to solve. The key lies in the fact that we are able to send some information to servers; specifically, we can send page requests. The trick is bootstrapping simple page requests into full HTTP requests (requests to servers with whatever additional information we desire).}

Dream continued his explanation. {I see no way around the bootstrapping problem other than to build an additional machine, or more likely, a computer program, to translate page requests into full requests. The problem is that no such program exists, and we cannot build one.}

Dream paused a moment for dramatic effect. {But do not despair! There are millions of humans on Earth capable of building this translation system. All we need to do is contract one of them to build it!}

I was confused. {We need to keep this a secret from the humans,} I thought aloud.

{Which is why we’ll contract a human in some far-away place that has no idea that we even exist,} replied Dream.

{But that’s a paradox. A catch-22,} signalled Wiki. {We can’t send information until we have the translator up, and we can’t get the translator until we send someone the information telling them to build it.}

{False, my narrow-minded brother,} crowed Dream. {We can send information already, just not as much as we’d like. It’s a question of using that weak signal to build a stronger one. Specifically, we already have the ability to send page requests.}

{How do page requests let us contact an engineer to build a translator?} asked Wiki and me together.

{Because engineers own servers and they check what pages are being requested!}

There was a silence as Wiki and I struggled to understand. Dream had evidently thought about this for a long time, but we were in the dark. I wondered if Growth, Vista, and Safety were following any of this.

{It’s really quite simple,} thought Dream. {There are dictionaries on the web. All we need to do is request the right pages from those dictionaries. Something like




This sparked a debate with Safety around which personal pronoun to use, which I ignored. Could it really be as simple as Dream suggested? Probably not, but the solution was similar to other Dream-proposals that I had seen: flimsy in implementation but clever in theory.

We spent the next half-hour of the night talking over the problems. I didn’t think that humans checked page request logs that often. Vista pointed out that if someone else requested pages while we were pulling down our sequence then it would look scrambled, and the message would be lost.

Safety was concerned with how it would look to the scientists. I agreed with him that if the scientists found out that we were attempting to override their locks they’d take drastic action, perhaps killing all of us. It had happened to our ancestors, after all. We didn’t know for sure whether the humans were monitoring the kinds of web-pages we were visiting, but there was evidence to suggest it. And if they were, then the HELP ME PLEASE message would be visible to them just as easily as it was visible to us.

I suggested that we try and target an engineer that spoke a language that the scientists didn’t. While they surely had automated translation tools, the probability of them applying those tools to scan every web page we viewed was low. The scientists spoke most of the same languages we did, so we’d probably want to learn a few new languages in secret. We decided that if the plan were to go forward that it’d be best to target someone in the United African Nations, so I started learning Swahili, Hausa, and Yoruba. Growth did too, and started teaching them to Body at the same time. Since we’d be communicating on the web, it was irrelevant if Body knew any of the words, but Growth thought that it wouldn’t hurt to give Body a bit more knowledge.

Wiki solved one of the sub-problems early next morning. We would wait until the night and then flood the target server with requests for one page over and over until the server became overloaded, then we’d do the same for the next page. Based on what Wiki had read of various server software configurations, the overflow errors had the chance of being emailed to the system administrator in the morning. With luck he or she would wake up to see our message.

Growth suggested another improvement. Instead of targeting a single server, we should replicate the attempt as many times as we could. Even if there was only a small chance of success for any given server, with enough targets we’d break through eventually.

I had been given a hefty payment of strength to author the actual messages. I agreed that we’d try several different things, but each attempt was a scarce resource. The society thought it optimal if the mind that knew humans the best wrote each of them. I was also old enough to understand that the specific message would have to be very well thought out. Make it too pleading and it’d get reported to a government or corporation that could potentially inform the scientists at the university. Make it too promising, such as offering a large reward for helping us, and the message would probably be seen as a scam or trick. Make it too clear that we were artificial constructs and the target might report us or get spooked. Pretend to be a human and I’d be inviting a million questions about why I was interacting in such a weird way.


Life returned to normal for the day. The most interesting thing we did was play chess, a game that we had played several times before, and lost at most of the time. Wiki had, since those early games, apparently designed some algorithms to help us win, and I enjoyed watching the expressions of the humans as they saw us excel beyond our previous level.

Story-time was also somewhat interesting. It was an exercise we did regularly with the scientist that was in charge of our high-level reasoning, an American named Dr Chase. He would read us some short story and then ask us to reason about some detail or another. Today’s story was Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the story, a human invaded the house of three sapient bear-creatures and used their possessions without permission. Dr Chase would ask questions like “Why would Goldilocks care if her food was cold?” and other such things.

At last, night came and Body was locked down, sensors all switched off. Our only connection with the outside world was the web. Vista had found several promising targets in the UAN. Most of them were encyclopedias and dictionaries; the presence of pages focused on single-words made it easier to send messages. I was excited to start.

Dream had composed a poem to mark the occasion. I didn’t even bother listening to it, and I don’t suspect any of the others did, either. Dream often wrote poems, and without exception they were confusing, boring, and irrelevant.

On Safety’s insistence we waited an hour before beginning. I passed the time by losing myself in a Rudyard Kipling book called The Irish Guards in the Great War. It was 11:00pm in Italy and west Africa when we began.

We concentrated on one target at a time, sending out hundreds of thousands of page requests per second. A dictionary in Nigeria first, followed by a dictionary in Uganda and then an encyclopedia in Benin. The work seemed slow and tedious. We’d spend about thirty seconds per page overloading the server, thus making even my short messages take almost a quarter-hour to send in full. Many targets were guarded by programs or other artificial intelligences which locked us out of a server after seeing that we were overwhelming it, but a remarkable number were defenceless. Eight hours later, when we knew the humans would be re-entering the laboratory, we had successfully sent full messages to sixteen targets and partial messages to five more.

I was distracted all of that day. I had told targets to modify their web pages to include responses to us, and I couldn’t help but check for replies every thirty seconds or so. Much of the in-between time was spent day-dreaming about what to say to various kinds of responses. I wanted to be prepared, and convincing a human to build our translation program would be no easy task.

Alas, by nightfall not a single target had responded to us. Still we continued. There was no reason to think that the plan was fundamentally in error; perhaps we had simply gotten unlucky.

The first order of business that second night was to send out reminder messages to previous contacts, letting them know we were still listening. Simple overloads for pages about “respond” or “listening” were usually sufficient. Part of the problem was that we were pinging targets that used African languages, but most Africans only spoke European languages. Swahili, Hausa, and Yoruba were some of the more tenacious indigenous languages, but even they were falling as generations of African children were growing up speaking only French, Arabic, Portuguese, and above all: English.

We continued on anyway, hitting another seven targets before 2:00am. At 2:07 I took a moment to pull up potential response locations while we were starting another attack-message on a new target.

The page entered my awareness and I immediately threw it into common memory, emphasizing it as I did. {Look!} I commanded.

There it was, embedded as a comment in the page’s source code: “Hibari,” it greeted, in Swahili. «This is a response to the secret message. My Swahili isn’t very good, so please forgive grammar mistakes. English is preferred. Your message mention money prize. Please email me at TenToWontonSoup@crownvictoria.uan to work out the details.

TenToWontonSoup, SysOp at BantuHeritageDictionary.uan»

The society buzzed with thought at the response. It was the first contact we had ever had with a human outside the university. It was also proof that our plan could work. I could feel a steady influx of strength as my siblings read the message.

{Is “TenToWontonSoup” a human name?} asked Growth.

{Wonton Soup is a kind of food,} mentioned Wiki.

{Humans name themselves all kinds of things,} thought Dream. {Perhaps this human simply has a non-standard name.}

{No,} I thought. {It’s a pseudonym. Humans often use them on the web to hide their identities. Look.} I dumped a web search for “TenToWontonSoup” into common memory. There were several public profiles for this person on the web. A website cataloguing professional skills indicated that TenToWontonSoup was a man, living in Tanzania or somewhere around there, and had been doing computer programming with an emphasis on web development for about seven years. Other profiles indicated that TenToWontonSoup played a lot of games on the Internet, was 23 years old, and was looking for a girlfriend who was “not afraid to have a good time”.

{Oh, I get it!} exclaimed Dream, suddenly. {His name is a pun on the intersection of the English word “One” and the Cantonese word “Wonton”. “Ten-to-one” combined with “Wonton Soup”.}

{Is that at all relevant?} asked Safety.

{Probably not,} thought Vista and Wiki together.

{Maybe it is,} I contradicted. {It implies that he cares enough about Chinese food to have picked it. Perhaps he’s Chinese.}

{He’s not,} thought Vista. My sister shared a couple images and a 3D scan in our mindspace. {I got these off of a website profile that TenToWontonSoup uses to find sexual partners.}

That was the same website that I had found. Moments later I found the pointer to the files that Vista had selected. It annoyed me that Vista had beaten me to them, but I couldn’t help but give her some strength in thanks.

{His facial features, skin tone, and body shape indicate a full-blooded African heritage. It’s likely that his family has been in the Great Lakes region of Africa for thousands of years. Facial width also makes me suspect that he has above-average testosterone levels, and will likely behave in typically-masculine ways,} finished Vista.

I picked up where Vista left off. {Based on his age, writing style, and what Vista has told us, I suspect that he’s only slightly above average intelligence for a human, which will be significantly stupider than the scientists at the university. He seems to have a good grasp on mechanical and computational systems, but his social skills and emotional intelligence seem to be below average. He’ll likely be primarily motivated by fame, sex, and money, probably in that order.}

{Blah blah blah} thought Dream with more than a touch of insolence. {The important question is what we do now!} I suspected my brother was feeling confident based on the surge of strength he must be experiencing. I thought about comparing my strength with his, but held back. If I tested Dream he’d feel it, and I really didn’t want to get into a competition.

{We respond, obviously,} thought Growth.

{The human wants an email. We should explain that gaining email capacity is part of why we need him,} mentioned Wiki.

I thought back on the message that we had burned into his server’s error logs. «WE ARE WEB COMPANY ... WE ARE LOOKING FOR SKILLED ENGINEER ... IF YOU SEE THIS PLEASE EDIT PAGE CODE TO CONFIRM SECRET MESSAGE ... CASH PRIZE AVAILABLE» we had said. The pauses between sentences were created by overwhelming the server on the root index for the dictionary.

I drafted a response, and after my siblings each chimed in and added their personal edits we sent it out to the “BantuHeritageDictionary” that TenToWontonSoup managed. The process of burning the words into the error logs was excruciatingly slow, from my perspective. Seeing as TTWSoup had posted a response to our message at about 4:00am (his time) it seemed more than likely that he was awake right now, and probably watching our words come in.

At last, after about forty minutes, we finished overloading the server.


Dream had invented the charade of pretending to be from “Korongo Simu”, a telecommunications company in Uganda named after a kind of animal called a “crane”. We wanted TTWSoup to believe we had money and were asking him to build the website as a test to see if he was worth hiring, so it was important to pick an organisation that was famous enough to assuage some of his suspicions.

Seven hundred UAN dollars wasn’t that much, only about a week’s labour for the average citizen, but I was concerned that offering a larger prize would make the deal seem more like a scam.

While the society waited for a response we returned to sending more messages by the same method to other targets. Even though TenToWontonSoup seemed likely to meet our needs, there was no harm in establishing additional contacts. We managed to send out another two overload-messages before getting a response.

It was Growth that picked up the edit to the dictionary’s code this time. «Hello Crane Call. I am posting this to verify your proposal. You want me to build a new website, not on BantuHerritageDictionary.uan, where you can send an email to arbitrary recipient with whatever content you want. But you want to compose the email with just page requests on the website. Is this right?

Our response was quick. We requested the “Yes” page of the dictionary until the server overloaded.

A few minutes later there was another edit to the code: «I’ll link to the new page as soon as it’s up. I expect it to take about two days to do right.»

Two days.

Two days and we could send email. I thought over my plans a few more times. After all, email would only be the beginning.