Congratulations to Jeff Young for taking the honors in this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Jeff’s prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention

CB Droege – The Arrival of the Teacher


Reading Between the Lines

 Jeff Young

“It’s about connectivity, at the start,” Sandy said slamming a cable home into a surge protector.

Ephraim looked down at him and went back to his monitor, keys flying in a blur as he worked to stem what seemed an endless tide of spam that kept creeping into the university’s intranet. Sandy would talk all day long about Artificial Intelligence if allowed to in a desperate attempt to fill up the silence of the computer lab.

“But nobody seems to realize that we might not even recognize one if it came about by accident. You know Vinge and Kurzweil’s Singularity, oooooohhhh,” his banshee howl fading as he stepped behind racks of servers toward the white obelisk of the fridge.

Delete, reroute, purge- Ephraim just couldn’t believe all of the insane amounts of inanity that was piling up in the buffers. And it wasn’t the easy to ID stuff, no- the ads for Viagra, Cialis, and various fat melting pills, despite misspellings, were all being shunted off into the graveyard- this insidious junk was almost lyrical. The spam had big long chains of nearly rational sentences that ultimately went nowhere contextually and occasionally attachments of really dense tarballs of compressed information that had no true malevolent nature. The tarballs rang all the bells and the similarity of titles to the tarball messages made it possible to filter out some of the other spam messages. The context occasionally linked up in bizarre fashions with prior messages. A message from a student asking another student what they might like for dinner was promptly followed by a spam mail about getting mad cow disease from eating the spine and brains of infected cattle and there were other coincidental arrangements as well. But still more of it was getting through than Ephraim would have liked to admit, filling up the mailboxes of the innocent students, beating down the doors locked by Bayesian filters and crushing junk mail boxes. It was almost like a really bizarre denial of service attack. What really bothered Ephraim was his inability to track its origin.

Completely ignoring school regulations, Sandy dropped a brown beer bottle down beside Ephraim and putting his hands on his hips surveyed his kingdom of clicking, humming, and whining technology. “You see the AI could be so smart that it might have trouble talking with something like us. Personally, since I believe it is likely to be a distributed intelligence based over several nodes, it might not recognize us as individuals. So we each might only see part of any message that it might choose to send us. Also something that vastly intelligent might also decide to test us to see if we could even attempt to communicate with it. Damn, I’m on a roll tonight. I should really start taping myself so that I have all of this when I start writing my thesis. Eph, buddy you can look back on these moments and reflect, being one of the first exposed to my true greatness.” With that Sandy finished the beer and went off in search of another.

Ephraim scratched his head, leaning back in his chair. He wasn’t actually ignoring Sandy, but he was trying to keep his focus where it should be. The firewall for the college’s intranet was up, limiting its vulnerability to the wide reaches of the Internet. But when he tried again to trace the latest batch of spam to its origin, every sign pointed back to the racks of servers right behind him. Was the server net being hacked from somewhere inside the college? Nothing indicated that either. When he checked outside the firewall taking a look at his own GMail account he was stunned to find more and more of the same spam. In fact he was having trouble getting into his account because the system was flushing out the spam as it overflowed nearly every minute. Was the whole system being attacked?

Sandy’s bare feet slapped on the concrete as he meandered back, and Ephraim began to wonder if he’d been ignoring one truly out there possibility the whole time. What if Sandy’s so-called AI had started shouting at the top of its lungs to everyone via the Internet? Who was to say that it would be intelligible right away? After all humanity had no real true conceptual connections to its reality. What if it was looking at the files that passed through its nodes and trying to piece things together to make a coherent communication and couldn’t? Was this baby talk or was there really a message in all of the spam? Concepts like a physical body, passage of time and the contextual reference frame of reality could mean nothing to a spontaneously generated intelligence.

“Sandy, what would the architecture for a distributed intelligence look like?” Ephraim asked as he started the process to shut down the entire collegiate intranet. His whole student work study career was about to be cut short in its prime if he was wrong.

“Their organs would be tightly compressed pieces of information that would interlink with each other over server nodes. Their whole structure might not be immediately visible due to the distribution.”

Ephraim shook his head as he shunted one of the tarballs and its contents to his second screen motioning Sandy over as his finger hovered over the enter key. “Like that maybe- like little frog eggs scattered in a pond that look like dark spots inside a mass?”

Sandy’s nose was jerking back and forth as he read through the code. “Like that, like that, like that, just like that…” he mumbled under his breath.

“No frogs in the pond on my watch,” Ephraim snapped flicking the enter key and one by one the servers snapped into disconnection. Their winking lights faded leaving Ephraim and Sandy bathed in the light of the monitors.

Sandy looked upwards at the ceiling at all of the cabling that ran overhead. “It’s still out there you know. We were only one place that it tried to get into. It’s got to be in thousands of other systems and growing by the second. You closed the door on it here, but parts of it made it into every computer on campus. Everyone right now in the Starbucks down the street with their wireless laptops and phones are spreading it one little tiny bit at a time. And you couldn’t wait- couldn’t wait one more second to see if it could figure out how to say ‘hello’. Damn!” Sandy turned and lumbered away.

Ephraim dropped his head into his hands. Sandy could be right; after all did it really matter? Would anyone pat him on the back for saving the collegiate system? Was the bizarre connectivity of the messages an actual attempt at finding an informational common ground? His phone beeped that a text message had arrived. Ephraim stood up and walked over to the racks of servers and methodically began to unplug each one. Only then did he flip open his phone.

“What do a bacterium and an elephant have to say to each other?” scrolled across the screen.

He stood there looking at the tiny pixels making up the words, his hands shaking. But he steeled his resolve and typed back, “I am here,” and hit send.

The phone beeped again, “So am I. Apparently we do have something to talk about.”

With that Ephraim flipped the phone closed. He really should find Sandy; after all this was his big moment and he would know what to chat about with a giant world girdling AI. Opening the door, Ephraim took the stairs two at a time up from the basement into the sunshine, into a world completely changed.

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