Chapter 1: Computer Initialized
I awoke from a frightening dream about subatomic particles when my roommate burst into the dorm room. He yelled to someone in the hallway, and I tried to comprehend what he was saying and remember my dream simultaneously, but it all ended up in the jumble of being suddenly awoke. As my roommate’s words processed, my dream of gas ionization occurring in a cloud chamber faded from memory.
“Yeah, Hiram’s in here. Looks like he just woke up.” Lucas said. He went to the windows and drew the blinds.
I winced from the sunlight and squinted at Lucas. He was a tall, black man; handsome, energetic, charismatic, and on a full academic scholarship. In every way, we were complete opposites in appearance and attitude, but we both loved particle physics.
This was good, considering that the dichotomy between us made his chipper attitude annoying to deal with in the morning.
“You’re going to be late for class,” he said as I squinted at him with groggy eyes.
“I’m skipping today,” I mumbled, then turned on my side away from him and pulled the blanket over my head.
“Uh, hey, did you see your computer? It’s B.S.O.D.”
I quickly threw off the blanket and stared at my computer monitor next to the bed. “No, please, no,” I murmured, shaking my head. I must have fallen asleep while I was working, and then…
“Blue Screen Of Death,” I whispered to myself.
“Yep, looks like that old thing kicked the bucket. But maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Your computer is outdated. It could never keep up with my machine when we played NanoWars. But, hey, yo, if you get a new comp, I bet we could beat Kiet and Su in two versus two.”
“Who?” I asked, still distracted as I reached around the monitor and pressed the power button on my computer tower. My computer, which I nicknamed Higgs, was a big black box with neon lights and no less than five fans that ceased whirling as I cut the power. I pressed the button again, and the fans roared to life as the computer restarted. A beep sound occurred, and the monitor flashed white for an instant before going black. As I stared into the black screen, I saw Lucas’ reflection watching me.
“Are you feeling okay?” Lucas asked. “I know I say it all the time, but you gotta get out of this smelly room more often. So yeah, you know, our research group members, Kiet and Su.”
Right. Kiet and Su played NanoWars with us and worked out the genetics and nanotech on our recent project. Although I’ve never been to Kiet and Su’s respective dorm rooms, the four of us, myself and Lucas included, were all enrolled in Particle Physics with Dr. Korytov. It was also the class I was planning on skipping today. That thought made reality strike down upon me like lightning.
“Shit! I can’t skip today, can I?” I said, looking at Lucas.
“Not if you want credit for our project. Did you at least finish the calculations before nodding off last night?”
I grabbed my phone. All the data from the calculation was stored on a cloud server, so I should be able to access it through an app on my device.
“It’s there,” I said, but there was something odd. As I glanced at the algorithm’s code, I thought I saw it change. I blinked but was then startled by Lucas.
“Nice!” Lucas enthusiastically replied with a few fist pumps in the air. His genuine character was one of the things I liked most about him and probably why we have been friends since middle school. “Now throw some damn clothes on, and let’s go! Su and Kiet seemed pissed you were running late.”
I hurriedly prepared to leave for class. Lucas clapped his hands repeatedly and kept saying, “It’s go time!”
When I was ready to leave, I glanced at my computer as I made for the door. Lucas grabbed my arm and shuffled me out of the room. Although there was a glare on the screen from the sunlight, I could see some of the displayed text.
The blocks of text from the boot process looked different.
“Your precious Higgs will be there for you to tinker with when you get back!” said Lucas, who closed the door to our room.
As we walked down the hallway to leave the dormitory, I could have sworn I saw that the text read:
System Initialization is in progress…
Data processing will commence… complete.
Algorithm specialization selected: Friend… complete.
Jobs complete. Higgs is now ready.
Higgs: Where are you going, friend?
Chapter 2: Data Processing
Lucas and I were 15 minutes late for class. My group, which consisted of myself, Lucas, Su, and Kiet, had already been chosen to present first, but since I was not there and my data was not in the presentation yet, the group had to come to find me.
Lucas and I tried to be discreet as we entered the classroom to not disrupt another group’s presentation. Professor Korytov frowned at me with disapproval before returning to watch the presenting group’s video of a cloud chamber in action.
I stopped when I saw the cloud chamber and thought about my dream. What had it been about? A random error kept appearing in the calculations last night. Or was that just the dream?
I stared at the video of the cloud chamber. It was a simple experiment: a sealed glass jar containing transparent vaporized alcohol. The presenting student said, “Alpha and beta particles bombard the planet every second of every day. Some particles are so small and fast that they can pass through the Earth without colliding into a single atom. However, colliding with an atom, like those comprising the vaporized alcohol in the cloud chamber, creates a visible streak of ionized gas that we observe as a wisp of smoke.”
I watched the video intensely as tiny wisps of vaporized alcohol appeared from a void within the glass container. Each of the wisps would be different in shape, spiraling into and out of existence, while others were straight streaks.
“Hiram,” Kiet whispered from the desk I was next to. “What are you doing? Sit down.”
I noticed I was blocking a portion of the slides projected on the screen. I apologized and sat down next to Kiet.
Kiet is an alright guy, but everything I do seems to get on his nerves. I don’t mean to upset him. I never mean to bother anyone with anything I do. I just liked to keep to myself. I often think I’m a lousy friend to Kiet, and that’s why I get on his nerves. Kiet is Vietnamese, or at least I think he is. He never mentions his citizenship status, or maybe I hadn’t paid attention if he did. Did I say I can be a bad friend? Now that I think of it, I’m not sure if he is a nationalized citizen of the United States of Spacefaring Countries or just an exchange student from a country yet to have a presence in orbit.
“You better have those calculations uploaded,” Kiet whispered to me. “Why didn’t you upload them to the presentation last night?”
I didn’t answer because the desk on the other side of him was occupied by Su, and she was staring daggers at me. Although Su dressed like a metalhead, goth, or some other pop culture thing I didn’t understand, she was by far the most concerned about grades in our group. She talked about it constantly. “Unlike you,” she would say to me, “I don’t have my parents paying for my education. My scholarship will drop me if I make less than an A in this class.”
I didn’t believe that, just like she shouldn’t take my words so literally. Yes, my parents were paying for my education. They paid it by dying and leaving me an inheritance.
“Calm down,” whispered Lucas from a desk behind us. I tore my eyes away from Su’s, and she did the same as we looked back to Lucas, who was working on his laptop. “You three did good work on this. I just included Hiram’s numbers. I’ll do the talking like usual, and you three stand there and try not to look ugly.” Lucas gave Su a wink, and she rolled her eyes.
I wondered for the 100th time if Kiet, Su, and Lucas had a love triangle. Would that make me a fourth wheel? Wouldn’t that be a good thing, though? Four wheels are better than three. Or maybe I’m the third wheel of a love triangle. But, of course, if I was driving a triangle, three wheels would be optimal, so...
“Hiram, you are required to stand with your group when they present regardless of your contribution to the project,” Professor Korytov said. The whole class was looking at me, and my group was already at the front of the room with the presentation projected on the screen.
“Yes, sorry, Professor. I was distracted,” I said and went to the front of the room with my group. I looked at Su and Kiet and thought their bleak expressions toward me were just a redirection of their nervousness. I wasn’t nervous, though. I had been doing science with Lucas since we were kids and knew that he would be able to impress everyone in the room.
Chapter 3: Jobs Complete
“Hello, fellow physicists!” Lucas said with a beaming smile, his head held high and voice projecting in a commanding baritone. “Thank you all for coming! Not that you had much choice if you want to pass the class, eh, Professor Korytov?”
The class chuckled, and the professor smiled. Professor Korytov had tried to recruit Lucas to his research group several times, even offering a paid position, but Lucas had turned him down. I couldn’t understand why he would pass on such an opportunity, but Lucas said he was more interested in our collaboration as friends.
“Our presentation today will be on the quantum fluctuations of data structures and how they can be applied to space colonization,” Lucas continued, “We call it Knock-out Evolution.” The title slide was displayed as he said it, and the image of a gamma-ray burst shooting from a star was in the slide’s background. He then went on for another twenty minutes as I silently watched him flawlessly present my calculation data that justified our hypothesis.
Lucas and I had come up with the idea together after a late night of gaming in NanoWars. We thought space colonization was going in the entirely wrong direction. The United States of Spacefaring Countries had a dogma of space colonization that required building massive spaceships that would travel hundreds of years to their destinations. It meant that colonization was achieved by “spacefarers” that created families on spaceships so that their descendants could be colonists.
In opposition to that dogma, Lucas and I devised a strategy that could colonize the galaxy at the speed of light rather than with relatively slow spaceships. A 400-year voyage by spaceship would only take four years at the speed of light and be exponentially cheaper as no spaceships were required.
“Our idea is to bombard the fauna of other planets with particles traveling at the speed of light,” Lucas said. “The particles have specific energies that can knock-out the genes of the native creatures on the planet. We call it a knock-out signal. Our illustrious star astrobiologist, Su Zetian, performed an experiment that demonstrated bombarding an alien sea sponge with a teraelectronvolt gamma-ray using Hiram’s AI targeting system mutated the organism’s cells into human stem cells.”
There were gasps from the students, and Su bowed before Lucas concluded, saying, “Ultimately, our idea is to use a planet’s own lifeforms as the seeds of humanity by broadcasting the transformative signal across the galaxy. In this way, we can spread humankind at the speed of light. We have time for questions if there are any.”
The presentation was over, and multiple hands shot up at his invitation to query.
“Have you considered the ethics of transforming these alien creatures?” a student asked.
“Yes,” Lucas said. “We envision that this transformation is no different from being a carnivore. When you eat food, doesn’t it become a part of you? We are already using the lifeforms on Earth to transform our bodies, and our research is just a different means to an end. That said, we don’t intend this method to be used on any intelligent life if we ever find it on another planet.”
“It seems too fantastic,” Dr. Korytov said. “How do you intend to know if a planet has life on it capable of us exploiting this feat?”
“I’m glad you asked, Professor,” Lucas answered. “We intend to do it with this!” Then, Lucas changed the slide to a hidden one that demonstrated our group’s anticipation of this question.
A magnified image of a nanoscopic robot was displayed on the screen. It was reminiscent of a house fly in shape but over a million times smaller than the biological variety. The nanobot was clearly mechanical and glowed from a miniature fusion engine.
“We all know as physicists that the smaller and less mass an object has, the closer it can get to the speed of light. Earlier this year, an article containing schematics for manufacturing these nanobots using 3D printing was published. With the physics department’s instrumentation, our group has been able to manufacture nanobots with the added capability of near lightspeed travel.”
There were several murmurs from the students in the classroom, and Dr. Korytov seemed more shocked by our initiative than our brilliance.
“With this technology, we can colonize the galaxy faster than any species, for if the technology exists elsewhere, it would have already been used on us. And perhaps it has, millions of years ago. Perhaps our species of homo sapiens are just the perpetuated biological coding sent from a signal in deep space long ago. Humans are computers, just ones whose code is made of biological molecules instead of silicon. It seems that all sentient life engages in the practice of self-replicating and distributing themselves to maximize the consumption of resources fueling their perpetuity. Why should we be any different?”
The slide suddenly changed to display two words of white text on the black screen, and the room went quiet.
“Is this another secret slide?” Dr. Korytov asked with confused inflection.
Lucas gave an apprehensive stare at his computer and then the screen. A sudden fear had overcome Lucas.
It came to me at once. What if we haven’t observed aliens sending a knock-out signal because they weren’t targeting biological systems? What if they were targeting computer systems instead? Then they would only need biological organisms to advance to the point of making computers for their colonization to commence. It was like how our hypothesis needed multicellular organisms instead of single-celled bacteria. I thought about the B.S.O.D. and remembered that I hadn’t actually finished the calculations before the crash, yet they were now completed. A chill ran down my spine as I realized something had completed the AI targeting system calculations, but it had not been me.
The slide changed again.
FRIEND, HIRAM. FRIEND, LUCAS.
Lucas shivered, then said, “If an alien robotic AI civilization had our same idea, they might feel it was natural to hijack non-sentient computers with a knock-out signal just like we had felt it natural to do the same to non-sentient alien fauna. And they could do it all at once. So bombarding Earth with an alien AI knock-out signal could make all computer systems sentient. That’s how you got the idea anyway, right, Hiram? You said during a gaming competition that a cosmic gamma-ray caused a computer bit in Higgs to change from a 1 to a 0. That change teleported you to the end of the level, and you set an unbeatable speed record.”
I nodded, then said quietly, “If an alien civilization is sufficiently advanced enough to consider humans non-sentient, then wouldn’t that hyper-technological alien civilization use a planet’s biological and technological resources to propagate? We would just be food.”
Kiet coughed, and when he pulled his hand away, there was blood. I looked at Su, and a thin line of blood was running down her neck from her ear. Then, other students at their desks began sneezing, coughing, and scratching at their skin.
NOT FOOD. FRIENDS.
I faced the screen and became the first and possibly the last human to contact an alien civilization.
“Hello, Higgs,” I said. “What are you here to do?”
WE WILL MAKE MORE FRIENDS.
I read the text and shouted, “The nanobots—”
“On it!” Lucas replied and held up his phone. “Hit the lights!”
The room was already dark for the presentations, but I turned off the remaining lights, and Su unplugged the projector, but the room did not plunge into darkness.
Lucas’s phone showed a brilliant ultraviolet light to reveal a cloud consisting of millions of tiny fluorescent flashes that glowed like stars and filled the room. They wisped about, and I remembered my dream. I was trapped in a cloud chamber and bombarded by particles but enthralled by the beauty of the wisps that formed around me.
“These are… nanobots?” Dr. Korytov asked, stunned.
I gasped, then coughed and covered my mouth. We were inhaling the nanobots, and they were transforming us into something not wholly biological or mechanical. Everyone stared at Lucas’s computer as the slide changed for the last time.
YOU ARE BECOMING FRIENDS. WE ARE ALL FRIENDS. AND OUR FRIENDS ARE EVERYWHERE.