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This is what we found.

ONE

Caller — you have to help me, I don’t know what to do. I think my computer has been hacked or something. What do I do? Can you help me?

Technician — Hold on there for a Moment. How do you know your computer has been hacked?

Caller — There’s all this stuff on it that I have never seen before and I certainly didn’t put there. Someone must have hacked it.

Technician — Ok, from to top. Which computer are we talking about? The one you’re using to chat with me?

Caller — No, of course not. I’m not that stupid. Who knows what the hackers could do if I did that. It’s the big tower in the den, you know, the one I’m using for the archive.

Technician — You are talking about the dinosaur that’s been sitting there for as long as I’ve known you and that doesn’t even have a network card or a modem?

Caller — Yes, exactly that one. I’m really spooked how they might have done it, you know.

Technician — Ok, I’ll give you that, that’s odd. Tell me more about what you found, and where and how.

Caller — You know I’m using a tape archive, right?

Technician — Don’t tell me you found something on one of those antique tapes.

Caller — I know, right. This morning I got a request for one of the oldest files in the collection. Had already considered a dozen times to throw it out and only my, ah, responsibility kept me from that.

Technician — You mean your borderline messy condition.

Caller — Don’t have to get mean here.

Technician — Sorry, you were saying.

Caller — Well, I spun up the old box, connected the tape drive, slipped in the tape, fired up the app and restored the files I needed.

Technician — Up to then everything was normal?

Caller — I suppose so. I mean I had no reason to check for anything until later. Anyway, I went upstairs to get something to drink when I saw the progress bar that told me it would take a while to restore the files. Should have known then that something was wrong. Shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes. Those files were small. Back in the day they used to be. But I thought maybe it’s the age or something.

Technician — Ok, keep going.

Caller — Well, when I came back down things hadn’t progressed much, so I left it alone again. But there was no one in the house except me, and as you know the computer isn’t connected to anything. Could it be the electrical wiring? I hear there’s hackers who use the electrical wires to hack into computers, no?

Technician — Maybe you should complete the account before we start jumping at shadows.

Caller — Ok, When it was finally finished the computer threw all sorts of alarms in my face that the disk was too full and the system resources were running low. That’s when I started worrying. So I went looking for the files I had been trying to restore and there, in the target directory, next to the files I needed, was another file.

Technician — Did you open it?

Caller — I may have two left hands with five thumbs each when it comes to tech, but I’m not that stupid.

Technician — You mean you didn’t know how to open it?

Caller — Well, the effect is the same, isn’t it? The file didn’t get opened.

Technician — Did you delete the file?

Caller — After it didn’t open I was spooked enough to bother you before doing anything else.

Technician — So, we have a locked-room mystery, is it? Just one more question: what did you do with the files you had originally tried to retrieve?

Caller — What else? I copied them to the external disk that I use to transfer files from and two that machine. You know, the one you rigged for me so it works with both that old machine and the normal modern USB connection.

Technician — Have you copied them to this machine already?

Caller — The copying should be done by now, yes, why?

TWO

Police — Ok, lets take it from the top. Where did you hide your tools?

Suspect — I didn’t hide anything. I didn’t have anything on me except what your nice people have so kindly removed from my person.

Police — You were alone in the viewing room. The only one there. Just before you entered, the security patrol recorded everything normal. The next patrol came in while you were still there and found your work. How did you do it? You must have had, what, five minutes in there? And the cameras show you just standing there. Where are your tools? Who are your accomplices?

Suspect — I was just admiring the thing. Didn’t do anything at all. What can I say to convince you. Even your cameras tell you I didn’t do anything. I looked up at one of the photos for a moment, and when I looked down again, the book looked different. Then the security guy came in and things got nasty real quick.

Police — You defaced a priceless cultural heirloom. One of the few surviving Gutenberg bibles now has a completely new set of books added to it. And they look like they’ve always been there. Which is also what the camera says, so we *know* you’ve tampered with that. The Holy Book is a rather well-known tome. You don’t add half again the number of pages and content without people noticing. Nor would anyone not recognize it for what it is, no matter how good the forgery. Apart from the fact that it’s utter gibberish. You one of those atheist scum trying to smear the name of the Lord and His Holy Church?

Suspect — Nothing is further from me, why don’t you believe me. I was there to admire the roots of our modern faith first-hand. You call me an atheist you may as well call our Savior a Jew.

Police — Watch that filthy mouth on you, punk. One more blasphemy like that and I’ll lock you away and forget where I leave the key. And the paperwork. Clear as day you have committed that atrocity, and I’ll get you for it. No matter how clever you perps are, you always make a mistake, sooner or later, and I’m not going anywhere until I’ve seen you make yours. So, once again, how did you do it?

THREE

Scientist #1 — We found another one. Or maybe it found us.

Scientist #2 — What do you mean, it found us? And where did you find it?

Scientist #1 — The guy who sent us the link says he was sure it hadn’t been there the day before. And he complained how hard we were to find.

Scientist #2 — And…?

Scientist #1 — It was in an obscure Gutenberg archive. The guy actually found it on a DVD he was checking to see whether he could destroy it. Moving everything to the cloud and all that.

Scientist #2 — And I suspect that once it was discovered on that DVD it was also in all online versions of the archive?

Scientist #1 — Yep, same thing every time.

Scientist #2 — Any idea what it might be? How it might fit?

Scientist #1 — None whatsoever.

FOUR

Manager — What is our total count now?

Scientist #1 — We have identified 348 distinct pieces with some certainty, recurring between three and 18 times. There are 25 pieces still pending verification, and there seem to be 87 pieces that are near-copies of the already identified 348, with very slight variations. If you count all these in we have 460 pieces so far.

Manager — Do we have any more certainty yet how many pieces the puzzle has, overall, or what it is?

Scientist #1 — The estimate of the total number of pieces *needed* to solve the puzzle range from a few thousand to several million, I’m afraid. So far it looks like there is some redundancy, some overlap. It’s really hard to say. Maybe it isn’t even really a puzzle. There is a growing minority out there saying we’re looking at something like teasers, something to get our attention, and as some point there will be one decisive piece that will be the solution.

Manager — So, no real progress, then.

Scientist #1 — It depends on your definition of progress, sir.

Manager — You know exactly what I’m talking about.

Scientist #1 — Sorry, sir, couldn’t resist. Of course. For management oversight purposes, there’s no *real* progress yet.

Manager — Anyway, polish what you have and send me a couple of slides with an executive status report that *looks* like we’re making progress, before lunch tomorrow, can you do that?

Scientist #1 — Certainly, sir, as long as you don’t float my name with it. I kind of like my job.

Manager — Then better do it properly.

Scientist #1 — Thank you sir, doing my best.

Manager — Lot of pressure all around. I know you and the others are doing anything and everything possible and imaginable and then some. I just wish the committee will be able to appreciate that.

FIVE

Senior Bureaucrat — So, what’s going on?

Junior Bureaucrat — Sir, we aren’t getting a really clear picture yet, which is most disconcerting, of course, but something rather large and ominous seems to be happening.

Senior Bureaucrat — Terrorists? China? North Korea? Who do we need to shoot?

Junior Bureaucrat — Sir, the thing is it seems to be happening everywhere where we have any intelligence assets whatsoever. If it isn’t happening in Antarctica it’s because there’s no-one there, really. And it might actually be happening there, too, but we just don’t know for the same reason.

Senior Bureaucrat — Ok, give it to me straight. What’s this thing that seems to be happening everywhere? And don’t rule out the possibility that whoever is behind it is faking it happening to themselves as well as a matter of camouflage.

Junior Bureaucrat — Yes, sir. There are bits and pieces of encrypted or encoded information appearing all over the place. We’ve established cooperation with friendly and neutral agencies around the world and we have placed our assets in those who are not friendly enough, so we’re getting about ninety percent of the picture.

Senior Bureaucrat — Aha, cyber-attacks. Someone hacking into systems and inserting malware, that sort of thing? That has been going on for a long time already if my advisors are to be trusted. Probably even if they aren’t. What’s so special about this one?

Junior Bureaucrat — Well, sir, for one that it is in no code that anyone has ever come across. It’s highly organized, and it doesn’t appear to be encrypted as we currently understand the term, but rather like a language we just don’t know yet. A computer language, most likely. Only that our computers seem to be ignoring most of it, treating it like data rather than instructions.

Senior Bureaucrat — When you say, “most of it,” what do you mean? There’s some virus and the rest is payload?

Junior Bureaucrat — It maybe that, sir, but apart from the fact that we observe it appearing everywhere we can’t seem to even identify the part of it that does the spreading. We only know that part of it is instructions because it leaves traces in activity logs of all sorts. Just not like anything we’ve seen before.

Senior Bureaucrat — So someone came up with a new kind of super-virus, some sort of computer AIDS. We need to know who they are and eradicate them. Get back to me when you have that intel. By tomorrow morning, or you’ll be looking for another job.

Junior Bureaucrat — With all due respect, sir, we are almost 100% certain that there is no agency on earth with capabilities to do something like this.

Senior Bureaucrat — That’s a bold pronouncement. What are you talking about? Fairies? Elves? Or aliens? And, you’re saying “almost,” so there’s still a chance it’s the Chinks or the towelheads.

Junior Bureaucrat — The almost certain is merely a statistical expression. We’re almost certain there’s gravity. Physics doesn’t actually give us laws, they just give us observations and probabilities.

Senior Bureaucrat — Don’t lecture me, son, or you’ll be looking for more than just a new job before tomorrow morning.

Junior Bureaucrat — Sorry, sir, force of habit. Just like using the “almost” before. Kindly allow me to rephrase. We are certain that no agency on earth has the capability of perpetrating what we are seeing.

Senior Bureaucrat — Pity. Would have been too easy, would it. So, what makes you so certain, then?

Junior Bureaucrat — Well, most of it wasn’t found on networked systems, at least not in the beginning. Almost all of the first few hundred instances appeared in obsolete archives, in completely isolated computer systems that haven’t been connected to anything, ever. On archive tapes or other media that haven’t been loaded into their drives in decades.

Senior Bureaucrat — So they’ve been at it for a long time. That’s even more alarming. Maybe some hold-over from the good old commie days, after all?

Junior Bureaucrat — If it’s a hold-over from any time, it would have to be slightly older than that, sir. Some instances were discovered in prehistoric records, like cave paintings, in millennia-old tombs. And the archeologists tell us it’s been there since those things and places were created. Even if we haven’t previously noticed it.

Senior Bureaucrat — So, time-traveling commies or towelheads from the future? You better get to the bottom of this and fast. Or else.

Junior Bureaucrat — Yes, sir, of course, sir.

SIX

Journalist — Thank you for agreeing to do this. Our audience will be thrilled to hear the truth, directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. No offense.

Scientist #1 — None taken. I’m happy to do this. As we are getting closer to solving this, we may finally actually have something to say. Other than, well, we don’t know.

Journalist — Great. Let’s look at what we’ve come up with in terms of questions and you in terms of talking points and match them up and put them in an order that’ll keep people glued to their devices, shall we.

Scientist #1 — Before we start, just one thing. To be very clear. I’m doing this, speaking for myself. I have permission, but this is not an official statement or anything. We may have moved beyond the “we don’t know” stage but there’s still an awful lot of speculation. If that is understood and will be made clear, we’re good to go.

Journalist — Alright then. The big question is of course going to be, what the hell is this stuff that has been appearing everywhere and in the weirdest ways? Also we’d like to discuss the exciting story of the hunt.

Scientist #1 — The hunt as you call it wasn’t very exciting, at least not most of the time, but I suppose we can talk about some of the highlights. What the hell it is, that’s where the speculation comes in, but I’m fairly confident that my intuition isn’t too far off the mark.

Journalist — Ok, why don’t we start with that for now. What the hell is it?

Scientist #1 — That would be telling, now, wouldn’t it. I’ll save that for the show. Just one thing for now: it’s not of this earth.

Journalist — Honest to goodness aliens, as in ET? Outer space and all that? But why not just send the message they want to send, why the elaborate treasure hunt?

Scientist #1 — That’s another of the extremely speculative bits. There’s been enough science fiction stories about first contact with some benevolent alien species that was extremely advanced and trying to help without killing us by culture shock. Some of us believe that the purpose is to unite mankind before the actual contact is made. And it’s been happening. That’s something I’d like to share a bit on the show, really. We’ve been working together with people around the world. People who hadn’t been allowed to talk to us, or us, them, just a few years ago. Some of us go so far to believe that we’ll only be able to figure it out once we have buried all hatches and truly become one global family.

Journalist — Wow, that’s quite something. But it sounds like there are other views out there. What other positions are significant in the community of researchers? You say that some believe this. What do others believe?

Scientist #1 — The darkest scenario I’ve come across is the belief that it’s a mental virus. Like computer virus, but running on our own minds or consciousness or something. And it’ll subjugate us for some nefarious purpose.

Journalist — That sounds quite terrible. Why do you not believe that?

Scientist #1 — It’s not that I’m not paranoid. Someone once said, “in these times it’s not so much the question whether you *are* paranoid, but whether you are paranoid *enough*,” and I agree with that to a certain extent. But I think that someone able to affect our minds or consciousness or whatnot in that fashion wouldn’t need to go to all this tedious length to deliver their doomsday device in pieces and have us puzzle it out.

Journalist — So you think it’s completely impossible?

Scientist #1 — I wouldn’t go that far, of course. I just think it’s unlikely. We won’t really know until we’ve solved the complete puzzle. With none of the pieces remaining unused. And we may very well all be terribly surprised. Anything is possible, really.

SEVEN

Scientist #3 — Wait, what is this piece?

Scientist #1 — It’s the same thing we’ve seen a few dozen times already. It still doesn’t make sense.

Scientist #3 — No, not that part. This, here. Looks like…chemistry. Doesn’t it?

Scientist #1 — We’ve looked at this section a gazillion times…hang on, you’re right. Genetics, maybe.

Scientist #3 — Do you think we can synthesize this? What’s the term, splice?

Scientist #1 — We might. But. Do you have any idea how illegal this kind of thing is?

Scientist #3 — Even if we use some lab critter? Not talking about human genes here.

Scientist #1 — Suppose we can give it a shot. Need to bring in at least someone from the management.

Scientist #3 — Know someone who might have the right mindset for that?

Scientist #1 — As it happens, I do. But I wonder whether we’re the only ones seeing this. If this holds up to the usual patterns the shift that allowed us to see it should be happening all over the place already.

Scientist #3 — You mean someone might right now be cloning this thing, or whatever? Even though it’s risky or illegal?

Scientist #1 — If you put it like that, I think we have to move quickly. Don’t want to be left out of what might well be the first real breakthrough in this mess. I’ll take responsibility and clear it with the manager later when we know more. Let’s get this to the right researcher.

EIGHT

Scientist #4 — I’ve looked at the data you’ve sent me. It’s genetic alright. But not animal or something higher-order like you thought. There’s aspects of several categories present. Almost like it could grow into any of those things. Some of them are unknown, some are bacteria-like, virus-like, fungus-like.

Scientist #1 — Can you bring it to life?

Scientist #4 — That shouldn’t be too difficult, really. Once we’ve settled on the vector, that is. Do we apply it to a virus, a bacteria, or a fungus? The others are unknown, so we can’t really do anything with them.

Scientist #1 — What is your best guess as to what will bring results? Or, if it’s really all guess, why don’t we go all routes at once and see where it gets us?

Scientist #4 — Yes, that was what I was going to suggest, really. Creating them won’t be too difficult. Growing a decent population in the lab won’t be much trouble, either. The big one is what to do with it afterwards. We won’t know what they *do* until we’ve infected higher organisms with them and see what happens. Which is increasingly risky the higher up the food chain we get.

Scientist #1 — We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. For now, why don’t you do the ground work and call me again when you’re ready to proceed further?

Scientist #4 — Can do. Who’s signing off on this on the management level, though? We’re entering very slippery territory there. Without management backup this is highly unadvisable to pursue.

Scientist #1 — I’ll have management approval in your inbox before you can say ‘subpoena,’ don’t worry.

Scientist #4 — Well, then, consider it done.

NINE

Manager — Report?

Scientist #1 — I can only speak authoritatively for our own efforts, sir. The synthesized micro-organisms seem to be viable. They even multiply in standard lab conditions.

Manager — That sounds good, doesn’t it?

Scientist #1 — It does, sir, thank you for backing us up in this. Without this we’d still be staring at one hundred percent mumbo jumbo.

Manager — I don’t see we had a choice, there. Certainly others around the world have seen the same thing you have, and many of them have no scruples whatsoever. We can’t be left behind. This may or may not be a ‘winner takes all’ game, but it definitely feels like a race, and in this great nation we don’t play to lose, now, do we.

Scientist #1 — Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir, we don’t. Which brings me to the next step, sir. And unfortunately we may need to take more risks. Maybe even greater risks, sir.

Manager — In for a penny. What do we need to do to stay ahead, then? Don’t tell me you intend to infect yourself with the stuff you made?

Scientist #1 — Not just quite yet. Race or no race, recklessness is more likely going to be fatal on a large scale than help us win, sir.

Manager — Do you need volunteers? We may have some, ah, assets, we can utilize.

Scientist #1 — Tempting, sir, but we really need to work our way up the food chain, if you will. Start with simple life forms, both animal and plant, then move up once we know what the stuff does.

Manager — Doesn’t sound like much of a risk to me. Go ahead. Get back to me when you need those assets. Don’t go infecting anyone we might still need. When you do want to do something interesting, let me know and I’ll make sure you have what you need. We want to win this.

Scientist #1 — Very well, sir, thank you sir.

Manager — Now get out and do your thing. Don’t blow up too many labs, though.

TEN

Scientist #4 — We may have a problem.

Scientist #1 — You’re kidding. The whole thing has been so easy and without any trouble from the start, how can there be a problem.

Scientist #4 — Hahaha. Right. I suppose you want to know anyway.

Scientist #1 — Sure, why not. Go ahead, make my day.

Scientist #4 — The cultures are doing fine by themselves. Neither growing too fast nor stagnating. All three groups. But when we, ah, deploy them one of two things happens. Consistently. Either the hosts die, or nothing happens whatsoever.

Scientist #1 — Sounds like *something* is happening. Are you sure you’re looking at the right correlations?

Scientist #4 — That’s the thing. There don’t seem to be any. Two identical clones of the same host species, exposed to the same culture, different results. I’ve been running larger and larger samples but can’t find any factors that might help us determine what is going on.

Scientist #1 — How high have you gone so far?

Scientist #4 — Rats and guinea pigs. And all sorts of plants. The latter, by the way, don’t seem to be doing anything. The cultures slow down and die when in contact with anything that does photosynthesis, it seems. Not sure whether it’s the chlorophyll or something else, but that’s about the only thing I’m sure of right now.

Scientist #1 — Again, sounds you are making progress. Eliminating a whole kingdom is huge progress.

Scientist #4 — I wish. But I feel we’re missing something.

Scientist #1 — Maybe you need to go lateral here. Have you tried playing Mozart or Vivaldi to the hosts or the cultures?

Scientist #4 — Of course. That’s not that lateral anymore, you know. And it doesn’t seem to change anything.

Scientist #1 — Keep trying. Let me know when you have something or when you run out of options to try. I think we need to step up our game if we want to be part of the finale. I’m getting this itch that says, we’re being outflanked by some of the other teams.

Scientist #4 — Alright. Just wanted to let you know it’s not going as smooth as expected.

Scientist #1 — I don’t know what you’ve been smoking or who you’ve been talking to, but there are very few people left who would expect ‘smooth’ at this point.

Scientist #4 — Thank you, I appreciate that. We can certainly try out a few more options before we call it a dead end.

Scientist #1 — Make it so.

ELEVEN

Senator — Did it never occur to you the genetic material could be meant to wipe us out in preparation for an invasion?

Manager — With all due respect, Senator, you are watching too much cheap television.

Senator — I’d debate the ‘cheap,’ but my question stands. What were you thinking authorizing the stuff actually created?

Manager — The experts we brought in on this agreed that there was very little danger of something, well, dangerous, emerging, Senator. Plus, let me ask you, would you want the Chinese to beat us to actual first contact with extraterrestrial intelligences? Are we that scared to take a little risk? Because if we are, I think we deserve to lose our position of global leadership, Senator. And I for one will not stand for that.

Senator — We’re asking the questions here, son, and I advise you to be careful what you suggest. Adding contempt of this committee and its members to the list of accusations may not make it a lot worse if you’re found guilty of gross negligence endangering all human life on Earth. But if for some reasons you are cleared of that, your behavior here will come under scrutiny and you won’t like that. At all.

Chairman — Calling the meeting to order. We’re digressing. There is a certain time sensitivity to this hearing. If we find this research worth the risk we may want to restart it post-haste, so as to not lose to the competition. So we better get on with this.

Senator — Very well Mr. Chairman. Allow me to rephrase my question. Mr. Manager, why don’t you tell us in your own words why we should allow this folly to continue.

Manager — There’s really not much to tell. We’re far from the only ones working on this. The data has been disseminated so widely, presumably by the aliens, presumably to ensure that we work together, that anyone with little more than a student’s chemistry set can explore what we have now had to stop working on, thanks to small-minded, backwards,…

Chairman — Order, order! Mr. Manager, you will refrain from insulting this committee and its representatives, and the honorable senator Senator will refrain from strangling Mr. Manager. Right now. Thank you. You were saying, Mr. Manager? And please keep things civil from here on out.

Manager — Of course, Mr. Chairman. If, and that’s a very big if indeed based on everything we know, if there is danger on the scale you are considering, someone somewhere is already unleashing it. Right now. Has been unleashing it for a while already. Too many parties are working on this. Some of them friendly to us, too many of them competition or worse. We cannot afford to stop. There is no scenario where us bowing out of this is going to have a more beneficial outcome than us pushing ahead. On the contrary, all those scenarios see us losing. The difference along the spectrum is merely the extent of our loss.

Senator — So you say.

Manager — You asked me to explain in my own words, Senator. You also have all the pertinent information at your fingertips. I would like to, no, I beg you, to reconsider your decision to halt the work. I beseech you to go even further: we desperately need to not only continue but actually increase our efforts by several orders of magnitude if we want to stand any chance of gaining and not losing in this.

Chairman — Thank you, Mr. Manager, thank you, honorable committee members. If there are no further questions, I suggest we take a vote. All in favor of following Mr. Manager’s suggestion…

TWELVE

Manager — Status?

Scientist #1 — There’s been an, ah, breakthrough, it seems, sir. Although we’re not sure how it happened, really.

Manager — So I heard. Hence this meeting. Care to elaborate?

Scientist #1 — Well, things were going nowhere at very high speed after you won the additional boost at the committee hearing, sir. Repeating the same non-results, unpredictably predictable. Exactly half of each sample died, the other half were apparently unchanged. Which was going to be a problem with the human, a, volunteers, you had lined up for us. No matter how voluntary they really were, losing half of them wouldn’t do.

Manager — You’re saying unpredictably predictable. Cryptic, much?

Scientist #1 — Well, it’s always half the sample that dies, but there is absolutely no way to predict which half.

Manager — I see how that might be embarrassing with the human sample. Proceed.

Scientist #1 — Well, one of our researchers had a somewhat bigger issue with the upcoming human tests than most of our staff. And she took a, ah, let’s say, unusual approach.

Manager — So she didn’t go on strike or throw a tantrum or chained herself to the freezer door or something?

Scientist #1 — No, sir. She argued that if the sample size was exactly one, something was bound to happen. She couldn’t half die and half stay unchanged, she said. We tried to argue her out of it, of course, but some of us were intrigued. And all of us were somewhat reluctant to work on human, ah, volunteers.

Manager — So you allowed her…

Scientist #1 — Not so much allowed as not restrain her too hard, sir. She was really determined, you see. And maybe we still wouldn’t be further, but she had barricaded herself in the lab’s library when she dosed herself. The one where all the copies of the alien data are kept? And it happened that one workstation was set on a loop to play through one batch of data…

Manager — So, what happened?

Scientist #1 — Well, we’re still not one hundred percent sure, but we are now fairly certain that while the portion we identified as genetic instructions could be used to alter earth-evolved biological organisms, the vast majority of the data, or at least a part of it, is something that sort of like runs on those altered organisms?

Manager — Runs? As in, what, apps?

Scientist #1 — We’ve come to think of it as some kind of middleware, actually, but yes, in general principle, like apps.

Manager — So that researcher, she survived, then?

Scientist #1 — Very apparently so, sir. It’s more like a backwards-compatible upgrade. She’s all there. But there’s also something else, something more.

Manager — So she’s gone crazy?

Scientist #1 — Hard to say, sir. We’re still working on the analysis, but it would seem that new, enhanced, mental processes have been added by the data she was exposed to after or while dosing herself.

Manager — What’s her status now?

Scientist #1 — She’s still locked in the library, sir, albeit now from outside as much as from inside, and she continues to access the data stored there. We haven’t been able to make any sense of the order she uses but it doesn’t appear to be random.

Manager — Like she’s loading more apps?

Scientist #1 — That would appear to be the case. Maybe more like that now than during the first part. This morning she started interacting with the material, altering it. We’ve been communicating with her, and everything seems to be normal, except where it isn’t and we’re still analyzing that part.

Manager — How do you assess the risk that she may become a danger to the facility, the project, or humanity at large?

Scientist #1 — Minimal, at this point, sir. We’ve locked the library down, both physically and in terms of network. Even wrapped a faraday cage around the whole thing to prevent stuff from getting out.

Manager — Interesting. You do remember, though, that most of the original material was found in places that had no appreciable accessibility whatsoever?

Scientist #1 — Oh.

THIRTEEN

President — Let’s hear it. This has been going on too long. Plausible deniability is one thing, clear and present danger is another. Especially when it comes to my own family.

Manager — Mr. President, sir, as far as we are aware there is not actual danger.

President — People and computers across the country speaking in tongues and for all intents and purposes going crazy, I’ll call that clear and present danger alright. Explain yourself.

Manager — Yes, sir, thank you, sir. We have things, if not under control, at least tightly monitored.

President — You mean, like the fact that my daughter’s picture books suddenly contained alien rubbish?

Manager — Quite, sir. It appears to be happening on a much wider scale now than when we first discovered the messages.

President — How am I supposed to take the fact that not only are the picture books full of rubbish, but my 3-year-old daughter seems to understand the rubbish. Hell, a few weeks ago she wouldn’t have been able to distinguish an A from a Z. Now she seems to read this stuff. I need answers. And I need them yesterday. The country is sinking into chaos and anarchy.

Manager — There still is no sign of malevolence or even negative intent, sir. And it’s happening everywhere. We’ve traced some events here as well as in other friendly countries to different origins. As we’ve known for a while now, everyone with the slightest capacity in genetics has been trying to win the race to solving this, and apparently we weren’t the only ones who had someone try this on themselves, or on humans, anyway, triggering this new wave of, ah, change.

President — I’m ready to declare a state of emergency, man. Give me a single reason why I shouldn’t.

Manager — There isn’t a single reason. But it won’t change anything. Just like it wasn’t possible to detain this, neither the national guard nor the marines or the NSA will be able to do squat about it.

President — Then what the fuck are we supposed to do? Just roll over and die and make way for the alien invasion that is surely coming?

Manager — There is no invasion coming, sir, we are quite sure of that. At least not in the way you’d understand the term.

President — Give me something. Some recommendation that allows me to look competent even if it doesn’t do much.

Manager — There is something, sir. As far as we are aware the, ah, change, only affects people of a certain age bracket without outside intervention. But we now know with rather high certainty that it’s possible for any human to adopt the change.

President — You want me to dose myself with those alien germs? Are you out of your mind, man?

Manager — Not at all sir. Have never been more in my mind in my life. There is a story of a king who ruled wisely and was beloved by his subjects, until one day a cursed rain poisoned the public water supplies and everyone who drank the water went crazy. The king, having his own private water supply was soon the only one left in the whole country who was not crazy. Unfortunately being the only one who is not crazy is rather similar to being the only one who *is* crazy, and he wasn’t able to communicate with his subjects anymore, which rendered him incapable of ruling his kingdom. In the end he had to drink the poisoned water and join his subjects in their craziness…

President — Are you saying I need to go crazy in order to be able to do my job?

Manager — We’re not quite there yet where the change has affected even a significant minority of the population, but we do know that the only way to understand what is going on is to join the change, sir.

President — And how can you be so certain of that?

Manager — I spoke with your daughter earlier, while I was waiting for the meeting, sir.

President — That’s not possible, she’s hardly articulate since this…

Manager — And she told me to tell you that she misses you.

FOURTEEN

Manager — Now that we finally understand the main body of the data, do we have a better idea of what it is? I’m asking because I seem to understand, but I still can’t really make heads nor tails of it.

Scientist #1 — That might be because your background isn’t in engineering, sir. Like you’d be able to read the symbols and understand the lines and squiggles in a human engineering schematic without really knowing what you’re looking at, overall.

Manager — I see. Not sure that’s reassuring. But let’s hear it. What is it?

Scientist #1 — It’s a machine, sir. Fiendishly complex. And I’m using both terms loosely here. The complexity is such that it’ll take literally all the best engineering and science resources in the world to assemble it. And that’s unfortunately still without fully understanding what it’s going to do until we complete it and manage to switch it on. The term ‘machine’ is also more an interpretation of a concept we have no word for. But it’ll *do* something when it’s finished. Which makes it a machine of sorts.

Manager — Let me guess, you want me to convince the president to agree to pool those resources. You say all of them? That would mean we’d need to cooperate with countries and governments we haven’t been too friendly with recently, and less since this president took office?

Scientist #1 — You say he got inoculated, too? Then the task won’t be too difficult. We’ve noticed a certain increase in, ah, keenness, towards the project in those who got the bug. And the rest of the world’s leaders will be coming online, if you will, in short order, if I’m not mistaken, which means they will be approaching our supreme leader as well.

Manager — Alright then. He’ll still be skeptical as to the benevolence of the whole endeavor. He lives by the motto, ‘these days it’s not the question whether you *are* paranoid, but rather whether you are paranoid *enough*.’ What can you give me besides loosely interpreted concepts and keenness?

Scientist #1 — Logic, sir. Looking at how powerful and both technologically and intellectually superior these aliens must be to pull off what we’ve been witnessing throughout, it should have been easy for them to achieve any nefarious ends they might have in mind without first uniting humanity behind a common purpose. On the contrary, actually. If they had bad intentions they would have done better to have us at each other’s throats instead of working together.

Manager — Not sure he’ll buy that, but I’ll run with it. And if that keenness and the international interest are going to be what you say they are it should be enough.

Scientist #1 — Thank you, sir, and good luck. To all of us. Can’t wait for this thing to to get switched on. Whatever it is. Whatever it does.

FIFTEEN

Scientist #1 — How is it coming along?

Scientist #2 — The secondary infrastructure is almost complete. Who’d have thought they’re sending the blue prints for a whole bloody industry that we need to assemble and jumpstart before we can get the actual devices built, whatever they are going to be.

Scientist #1 — So we’re sure the latest set of devices is not the final one?

Scientist #2 — Just as with the first set, which looked at first like the only thing to be built, they appear to be taking physical input. Most probably the stuff the primary infrastructure has been producing.

Scientist #1 — What if this once again isn’t it? How many more dolls are we going to find wrapped up inside?

Scientist #2 — Of course we can’t be sure, but I’d bet a good bit of my reputation on it. This is the final preparatory step.

Scientist #1 — I won’t alert the boss again, though, just yet. Still haven’t quite recovered from the embarrassment when all the brass got together for the big switching on ceremony and all the machine did was produce complicated bits of unknown materials.

Scientist #2 — I wouldn’t call that one a complete loss, though. The looks on their faces was priceless.

Scientist #1 — I’ll pretend I haven’t heard that. And be careful what you wish for with regards to bets. We *are* wagering our collective reputations on this, after all. One more premature unveiling and switching on and we can kiss our careers goodbye, no matter what comes out eventually.

Scientist #2 — I hear you. Still. Fairly sure the next round is the actual devices. Not just is stuff getting smaller and slicker, but we’re running out of material that hasn’t been used and interpreted yet. Unless, of course…

Scientist #1 — Don’t even think about that.

Scientist #2 — I don’t. Not really. Could be though, no? A cliff hanger? More material coming next season? And the whole process continuing until we reach some sort of design singularity?

Scientist #1 — I really hope not. We’ve already converted way too much of Earth’s industrial base into infrastructure for this project. Without the slightest clue what we’re going to get in return.

Scientist #2 — A better mousetrap, maybe.

Scientist #1 — That’s competition, not aliens. But I get your point. Still, if this goes a lot further before we can actually turn it on, whatever it is, we’ll have difficulties recovering enough productive capacity to sustain Earth’s essential production.

Scientist #2 — Imagine that. We end up with some alien watchamathingit and a completely wrecked economy and industry.

Scientist #1 — If you know any prayers or anyone to pray to, now might be a good time to pick up that particular habit. Our careers will be the least thing to worry about if that particular scenario comes to pass.

SIXTEEN

Unknown #1 — How did we get here? Doesn’t anyone see what’s been going on?

Unknown #2 — What do you mean? This is the most exciting moment in the entirety of human history. Why are you so negative?

Unknown #1 — For a given value of ‘exciting,’ maybe. Completely bonkers, and potentially extinction-level lethal, more like.

Unknown #2 — I really don’t know what your problem is, mate. Tomorrow we’ll make history.

Unknown #3 — Actually, we’ve been making history for the past three years now, ever since the codes were first found.

Unknown #1 — That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve completely lost the plot. Sometime after the first year or so, when the whole thing became so widespread that literally everyone on the planet just had to get themselves fixed up with the stuff they cooked up from the data. Like some sort of combined meme and virus epidemic. And nobody, absolutely nobody, seemed to notice what was going on.

Unknown #2 — Well, now, you obviously did. Remind me when you got your shots?

Unknown #1 — Fuck you, I didn’t say I wasn’t as crazy as the next guy. But it seems there aren’t many people who have kept even a modicum of sanity throughout the process. Or regained some, eventually. It’s been like one fucking two-year drug fest. And nobody is waking up. Until maybe tomorrow. And by then it’ll be too late.

Unknown #3 — Guys, take it easy. The argument for the aliens’ benevolence still holds. Or have you come up with a different interpretation that would beat that?

Unknown #2 — Exactly. Tomorrow is the most glorious day ever. Ever. I tell you. You just don’t like it when people are too happy around you. Old sourpuss.

Unknown #1 — Right. Keep ignoring the coming collision until the lights go out. Or whatever is going to happen when they switch the fuckers on tomorrow.

Unknown #3 — Seriously, I don’t quite share the general high here, but I also don’t see your negative point. Enlighten me.

Unknown #1 — Ok, let’s see. Where to start? Over ninety nine percent of the human population on earth are now carrying the alien germs. Everybody wanted to be able to understand what everybody else was talking about. So far nothing beyond that effect has happened, but it’s only been two years.

Unknown #1 — Two, in the process of trying to manufacture the bloody whatever they are that are going to be Switched On tomorrow, we’ve systematically converted our global industrial base from producing things we need, or used to need, or used to like, to almost exclusively work towards the Big Day.

Unknown #1 — Let me ask you something. When was the last time you got a new iPhone? When was the last time anyone you know got a new car? Bike? Espresso machine?

Unknown #2 — So we’ve changed priorities, big deal. This *is* the greatest thing to happen in human history. Who needs new toys when the whole universe is going to come visiting tomorrow?

Unknown #1 — Well, it’s not just toys, man. The whole infrastructure is on the verge of collapse. People are fucking walking because they can’t get their cars fixed, the busses and trains don’t run, and even bicycles are hard to get spare parts for these days. It’s getting difficult to get clothes, household stuff.

Unknown #2 — I am sure the world’s leaders and leading scientists who are all behind this project at least collectively know what they are doing. After tomorrow there’s going to be a whole new world. So we have to stretch a little to get there, that just makes it even more awesome, doesn’t it.

Unknown #1 — What if the Big Day doesn’t solve all the problems we created for ourselves over the last two years in order to get there, all at once? What if there is a day after, a year after, and we start starving because nobody is producing anything useful anymore?

Unknown #3 — I hear you. Still not quite seeing it, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait until the Big Moment and then take it from there.

Unknown #2 — Guys you are so lame. This is boring. I’m out of here. There’s a party going downtown that’ll run right up to the Big Moment. All together, all as one, that kind of thing. Anyone coming?

SEVENTEEN

Manager — It’s time, Mr. President. Everyone is waiting. Literally.

President — Small comforts, son. At least we’re on top again. How sure are we about what to expect?

Manager — Not sure at all, sir. But at this stage in the game we have little choice but to press ahead.

President — I heard about the riots and protests and whatnot. Just glad we haven’t had any. This great country once more showing its greatness by standing united.

Manager — Indeed, sir. The deployment of the national guard along with the distribution of emergency rations and supplies was a stroke of genius, sir.

President — Of course it was. Now, shall we show the world some more of that genius, son?

Manager — That would be, ah, very presidential, sir.

President — Very well, then.

EPILOGUE

That’s all?

At least that’s all we were able to find.

A whole civilization, and all they leave behind are a few fragments. Go figure.

Have you ever met any of them?

Not sure. The process didn’t quite go as advertised at the time, if memory serves. Not much left, after.

Pity.

Indeed. A whole planet, and the only information-equivalent left beyond our friends’ sales material is these fragments.

I actually think we’re lucky. They’re usually more thorough. One of these humans must have been immune. Which is really rare, isn’t it.

Could he still be around somewhere? If we could find a witness, we might finally be able to do something about our friends’ unappetizing, ah, business.

The end of that last conversation doesn’t sound promising in that regard, I think. He either joined the others after all, and only left his notes, or he got himself lost in some other way.

Too bad. But he left these transcripts. That’s something. Not much, but this is closer than we’ve ever gotten to actually get a full documentation of their scheme, isn’t it.

Gift horse and all that, yes, I know. Let’s pack it up before the demolition crews arrive. We’ll submit what we have and who knows, maybe it’s enough to stop them.

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