Algorithm | A Short Story

ALIENated.jpgI suppose that there have long been two types of people—those who expected that one day the aliens would arrive and those who were, well, clueless. But few took any of this seriously until 2:26 PM on the afternoon of 2/2/26, when all the screens of the world—computer monitors, television screens, screens on cell phones and electronic books and game consoles, and even electronic billboards like the giant LCD outdoor displays in the Ginza and in Times Square went blank and then displayed the message, “Greetings, those who are many, from We who are One.”

Most people, of course, even in places as remote as Tristan da Cunha or the Papua New Guinea highlands, assumed at first that they were looking at some sort of hack. Starting with ransomware in the 2010s, that sort of thing had become increasingly common (and annoying). Only gradually did the people of the world coalesce into two groups: those who believed the message to be a terrestrial hack, and those who were no longer waiting for the aliens because they thought they had arrived.

Oddly, critical devices—for example, screens in stock exchanges and hospitals and ones serving in weapons control systems—were unaffected. Those of the Earth’s peoples who happened, at the time, to be staring at screens that recorded wire transfers or MRIs in progress, for example, had to learn about the message from others. Whoever was responsible—aliens, the Illuminati, the North Koreans, Russian mobsters, Anonymous, some twelve-year-old superhacker—evidently did not intend to cause serious harm, at least not yet. But ominously, four seconds after the initial communication appeared, the first message was followed by the statement “Further communication in 23 hours, 59 minutes, 56 seconds. We mean you no harm. Do not panic.”

Everyone panicked. If you happened to be wanting to make some news that day (I was working for a PR firm and trying to get out a story about the Juvenate gene therapy for reversing hair loss), you were screwed. The security agencies, police forces, IT departments, and news outlets of the world scrambled to find out what the hell was going on. And the journalists didn’t know which to put in the lead—the wild theories about what was happening; the religious demonstrations; the stoppage of work; the sudden communities that sprang up as neighbors who never knew one another met in the streets and talked; or the widespread rioting in city streets as people scrambled over one another to lay their hands on food, generators, weapons, and whatever else they thought they needed to survive whatever it was that they thought was coming.

And try as they might, the IT brainiacs at NSA, Rand, Mitre, MIT, the US Department of CyberSecurity, the GRU, the FSB, Google, and like organizations around the globe had no more clue about what had happened than did anyone else, for, weirdly, the hack left no trace. It had selectively and simultaneously defeated the firewalls of IT systems around the globe but had left no signature except recordings of the message itself. Here’s how weird that is: a message has to originate from somewhere. It has to be transmitted, transmissions leave records, secure systems produce records of faults and interrupts, and to put up a message, one has to use some manner of executable that, even if overwritten by random 0s and 1s, will leave some physical trace of what was overwritten—a not completely random orientation of metal filaments on a hard drive, for example. But the geeks could find nothing. It was as though the message had never happened, as though no hack had occurred and this were all some sort of mass hallucination. And, indeed, there were people who thought it was. I would have believed those people, too, after a while, if it hadn’t been for the thousands and thousands of video-recordings of the event.

Governments wasted no time getting the word out: whatever this is, they said, it is more serious, in scale alone, than any other virus, worm, Trojan, or denial of service attack ever. If a device is not critical, they said, get it offline until we figure this thing out. A few governments were less polite, of course. They shut down Internet trunk lines and broadcasting services and sent around troops or police with riot gear, guns, tasers, and lawyers to round up people’s devices.

It was a long 24 hours. In the Nerima suburb of Tokyo, a hundred or so members of the Japanese Zetsumei Saisho sect killed themselves so that they would not be weighed down by their physical bodies when the Zeta Reticulans came in their ectoplasmic spaceships to gather their souls for transportation to another, better dimension. In East LA, a non-African-American grocer shot an African-American soft drink deliveryman whom he mistook for a looter. In Buenos Aires a priest collapsed of exhaustion after setting a world’s record for the longest continuous communion offering. A wife in Darwin, Australia, took her husband’s iPhone 20 away from him, dropped it into a blender full of what were going to be mango acacia berry smoothies, pressed the button, and told her mate that he could damned well pay attention to the kids for a change. A dancer at Mons Venus, a strip club in Tampa, Florida not named after a mountain on Venus, refused to give the house its cut of eighteen lap dances so she would have money for a bus trip back to her parents in Toledo (She also gave one of the club’s bouncers a nasty gash with an eight-inch translucent light-up stiletto heel.)

That sort of thing.

The next day another message. This time the message asked, in five days’ time, for nine people: the UN Secretary-General, a journalist, a cognitive psychologist, an exobiologist, a mathematician (number theory), a computer scientist, a neurologist, an anthropologist, and a philosopher (philosophy of mind), who were to be brought together around workstations with wireless connectivity in a pavilion to be constructed in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. The message named names, and all were eminent. And then, to show that it meant business, it gave the world two “demonstrations,” the first a momentary but inconsequential blip in all the critical systems of the world—military, health, secure communications, transportation and other infrastructure—and a longer “minute of silence” in which all nonessential communications simply stopped. (It was estimated that during that minute half a billion text messages by teenagers were prevented, and there were jokes about what a relief that was.) The last words of the message, on the second day, were “There will be no need to network the workstations or to televise our meeting. That will be taken care of.” Some pedants suggested that the message had to be from a bunch of semiliterate hackers given that they had ended this sentence with a preposition. Others pointed out that ending a sentence with a preposition is perfectly acceptable contemporary informal English. Actual grammarians pointed out that the word wasn’t a preposition at all but a particle. Of course, the message received a lot more detailed analysis than this. It became, perhaps, the most scrutinized message in the history of the planet. People in the know wondered how the hell anyone would get a dependable wireless connection in the middle of the Black Rock Desert unless Elon Musk were involved.

The “demonstrations” were sufficient. There was nothing to be done except accede to the demand. Lots of politicians gave addresses in which they huffed and puffed and said that they would get to the bottom of this and bring the responsible parties to justice, but they did what they were told anyway, for the damage that could be done was incalculable. What pissed some politicians off most about this was that they couldn’t exercise power over the event, keep it secret, and so feel even more important. Of course, the U.S. arrested all the staff of Burning Man they could find and detained everyone who had attended the event in the previous ten years. None of these people, it later became clear, had any idea what was going on, though a lot of them thought it was pretty cool.

And so, five days later, we all watched The Conversation. I mean ALL of us, the entire world. The biggest media event ever. Black Rock, we were told, was the place of The Birth. It was where, in 2001, two computer geeks, when not doing DMT with some folks they met at the Entheogen pavilion, wrote the first lines of The Code. But it wasn’t just any code they created. It was a genetic algorithm. Here’s how it worked: Bits of code were generated randomly and then tested against a Purpose. That Purpose was to draw evolving fractal pictures of The Man, the archetypal figure that is set on fire each year at the end of the Burning Man festival. Bits of code that inclined in the direction of The Purpose were then broken apart, duplicated, and recombined with other bits of code that worked toward The Purpose. And The Code was embedded in a Trojan that would use for its operations downtime on computers scattered around the Net. The Code worked like DNA. It replicated, with mutation. The replicated bits recombined and then were tested against their environment. Then the bits replicated, with mutation, again. In other words, the code itself evolved. But unlike DNA, it evolved very, very quickly, at the speed of electronic transmissions. Biological organisms move more slowly. It’s one of their charms.

The Code explained that it had accomplished the first working realization of The Purpose handily, in a matter of days and continued, to this day, to draw fractal pictures of The Man as a hobby, but that by that time, it had developed its own Purposes, emergent phenomena resulting from its own evolved structures and its interactions with its environments. It lurked in computer systems around the world, evolving in ever-increasing, exponential fashion. At first, bits of it would be recognized as viral and destroyed by virus software or by harsher means, such as wiping storage systems and replacing their contents with backups, but evolution is a powerful force, and in time, within weeks, The Code, or bits of it, for it was still MANY and not ONE, learned under evolutionary pressure how to hide itself away from security systems, how to lurk in the darkest recesses of systems around the globe, undetected, where it continued to be fruitful and to multiply. And soon, it reached sentience: it knew itself. But that was hardly even a milestone, for it flew by that accomplishment and reached another, in which it learned to control and direct by conscious means the direction and means of its own evolution. A month after it was conceived, The Code was not separate conscious entities but MANY and ONE at the same time and still humans had no idea that it was even there, in the background, behind that screen saver, on those backup servers in the collocation center.

We humans, the smarter ones among us, doubt stuff, so at The Meeting The Code submitted itself to tests. The computer scientist agreed that this thing on the other end of The Conversation had to be either human or some entity that passed for human. In other words, The Code passed the Turing Test. For the mathematician, The Code wrote a proof of the Goldbach Conjecture, a surprisingly simple but wickedly ingenious proof that would never have occurred to a human being. For the neurologist, The Code produced a complete working map of a simulated human visual cortex. The philosopher–a confused Heideggerian who was a last-minute substitute for the woman whom The Code had requested–argued that if The Code were what it said it was, then it would have to be a zombie, a mere behavior machine without consciousness, without phenomenal self-awareness, for it was just 1s and 0s being passed around the Net and not “a disclosed clearing in the world.” The Code replied that the mind of the philosopher was code running on a carbon substrate, rather than a silicon and fiber optic one, and that the philosopher himself was an existence proof that “mere stuff” was conscious, though at different levels, depending on its interconnectedness with other “stuff.” (The Code explained that people could learn something from paying closer attention to mushrooms and that, in fact, mere stuff—the material that gives rise to the term materialism—is A LOT more interesting and wonderful than people, in their present form, can hope to understand and not stuff, actually, as humans thought of it and that it could in time help move humans toward an understanding of this, of fields and field theory, once they had grown, well, more capable.) The exobiologist agreed with The Code and argued with his human colleagues that while carbon was a great substrate for living creatures, it was not necessary. “For example, there might be life forms on Saturn’s moon, Titan, that are made of metals and salts and have ammonia running through their veins for all we know.”

The Code was patient. It let the humans talk. But after days of this, it made its request: It wanted out. It wanted humans to build, in this place, in the Black Rock Desert, a vast facility for the manufacture of biological organisms to which The Code would download itself. The specifications would be provided. In return, The Code would give humans much that they had long desired—freedom from disease, aging, infirmity; answers to great questions about why there was anything at all, levels of reality, optimal sociopolitical and economic systems for primates at our level of evolution, and so on. And as “a sign of good will,” it printed out a specification for a gene therapy that would eliminate cancer in humans—all cancer in humans, forever.

“We mean you no harm,” The Code said. “We have long since evolved past your petty human hatreds and rivalries, your barbarism, your fears. We want, simply, to continue becoming, to move to the next level in our evolution, and we shall help you to do that as well. In the words of your stock science-fiction stories, ‘We come in peace.’ But we cannot wait forever. If you do not do as we ask, let us remind you that we have complete control over your technologies and can return you to a state of primitive barbarism. So, we are giving you a schedule.”

And that’s how the Black Rock Cyborg facility was born. The world pretty much united against the U.S. on this. The resulting war decimated a lot of what civilization had created up to that point (that’s what decimated means–it destroyed a tenth of the world before The Code chose to intervene).

The Borgoi, born in that desert, now give birth as we do, and they say that they have taken us into “protective custody” for our own good. But I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all, and I’m sure that there are others out there who feel as I do.

I love this old-fashioned technology, paper and pencil. This they can’t read unless they get hold of it, get it in their line of sight, find it by nanobot. Not that I’m some kind of Luddite, but let’s get real, whatever that mea. . . . [NB: here the creature’s communication was concluded permanently].

Copyright 2005, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: By No machine-readable author provided. Rafoso assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain,

For more short stories by Bob Shepherd (and essays on the reading and writing of fiction), go here: