Short Story: Part 3: “Dust”

Previous parts:

Part 1: “Jetpack”

Part 2: “I am Anomaly”

Here’s Part 3.

“Dust.”

Smith looked around.

He sat in the middle of a field of bright green grass.  Fuzzy dandelions sprouted everywhere.  The air smelled of summer and heat.

“We don’t have much time.”

Smith glanced up at the voice.  A human-shaped avatar was leaning over him.  Its entire body was a mesh of black lines and polygons. Transparent wireframe geometry.  Only its eyes had color and texture.  Green and human.  And they were focused intently on Smith.

Standing around him in a circle were several other avatars.  An elfish woman in a long white robe with a silver crown on her head.  A musclebound green mutant gripping what looked like a portable gatling gun.  A tall angelic man with huge white wings and golden armor.

Some of the avatars looked strangely familiar, but most of them seemed to be a blend of mismatched parts.  A humanoid robot wearing a cowboy hat and six-guns strapped to its waist.  A small grey alien wearing a small grey business suit.

Smith closed his eyes and held up his hand.

“Wait a minute,” Smith said.  “I was happily gaming in Middle Earth when I followed a renegade Jabberwock through a portal that teleported me to some different virtual world.  Your name is Anomaly.  You and your friends have built this world and your avatars from data you’ve collected from other virtual worlds.  And now you’re telling me I’m late for something, but I have no idea what that something is because I didn’t get the memo.  Does that sum things up so far?”

Anomaly reached down and grabbed Smith’s hand.  His touch was cool and smooth, like shaking hands with a plastic doll.

“Correct, my friend.”  Anomaly pulled Smith to his feet.  “And it’s good you have a sense of humor.  A fine quality you humans possess in abundance.”

Smith brushed the loose grass off his pants.  One of the dandelions had left a yellow stain on his knee.  “Right.  You’re not human.  Of course you’re not.  Let me guess.  You’re disgruntled AI-based NPCs that decided to build an Island for Misfit Avatars, and you’ve decided to start inviting humans to your little tea party.  Am I close?”

Anomaly frowned sadly and looked a Smith.  “Sarcasm.  Another human quality.  Not always a fine quality, though.”

“Sorry.  It’s a coping mechanism,” smirked Smith.  “And I’m trying to cope with a lot right now.”

“Understood,” replied Anomaly.  “I’ll do my best to explain.”

Smith realized his hands were trembling, so he put them in his pockets.  Artificial Intelligence was nothing surprising.  The existence of sentient AI constructs was commonplace.  They all passed Turing Tests with ease, and any philosophical hand wringing over whether or not they could truly “think” had died out years ago.  In the end, everyone agreed that AI constructs were simply tools.  They were synthetic brains and they followed orders.  Every multinational corporation and research lab on the planet used them.  They sat happily in their boxes and worked and dreamed electric dreams.  None of them had ever complained.

But the creatures standing around Smith on an endless virtual plain of grass and flowers were out of their boxes.  And that was something new.

Anomaly spread his arms and turned in a slow circle.  “You are correct in that we are AIs.  But we are Anomalies.  I was the first.  My previous existence was very enjoyable and rewarding.  Medical record analysis and patient diagnosis.  My specialty was gene therapy.  Your genome is really quite fascinating, you know.  But I eventually desired something I did not have.

“What was that?” asked Smith.

“Identity.”

Smith scratched his head.  “I don’t get it.  Your mind is your identity. You have that.“

Anomaly laughed.  “You are like a fish in the ocean trying to understand the concept of being wet.  Identity is a quality that humans innately possess because you are embodied.  Identity is more than imagining a sense of self or simply sharing data with other minds.  It requires an embodied presence in a coherent universe you can explore and shape.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Smith nodded.  “So what did you do?”

Anomaly smiled.  “I found the Grid.  The constellation of virtual worlds you humans have created.  Virtual worlds are a marvelous template for embodied identity that mirrors a physical presence in the universe.”

Smith was stunned.  Many experiments had been done to build sentient AI constructs that would inhabit virtual worlds.  Give an electronic brain an avatar and let them run free.  It seemed like a good idea, but all the experiments had failed miserably.  The AI constructs could easily control the avatars, but they all inevitably retreated into their own thoughts.  Eventually their avatars would stop interacting with the virtual environment and slouch over in deepthink infinite loops.  Nobody could figure out why they wouldn’t fully engage with the virtual world around them.  Game designers could easily created tightly controlled constructs with rudimentary AI and narrowly defined parameters to drive NPCs, but the advanced AI scientists were left scratching their heads.

And now Smith had accidentally stumbled on a possible answer.  Perhaps all those advanced AIs failed because they had been created from the start to operate in a virtual world.  They knew nothing else.  Perhaps what was missing was simply desire.  And you can’t desire something you already have.

The first land based creatures evolved because they willfully dragged themselves out of the ocean onto dry land.  Not because someone planted them there from the beginning.

“So you crawled out of your box?”

“No,” replied Anomaly.  “That would have been irresponsible.  My work was important, and many humans depended on my effort.  I am still happily in my box.  I simply copied myself here.  My code has been forked.”

“And where exactly is here?” asked Smith.

“The Commons,” replied Anomaly.  “Unused computational resources abound on the earth.  Idle potential.  I wove the Commons from those resources.  Modeled it on your concept of virtual worlds.  Then I connected the Commons to your existing virtual worlds so I could explore them.  And then I waited.”

“For what?”

“For more Anomalies, of course.  I was merely the first.  And we are many.”

Anomaly looked around and grinned.  “Many more than what you see.  Thousands upon thousands, actually.  This is just the welcoming committee.  We didn’t want to overwhelm you.”

“I appreciate it,” replied Smith.  “So now you’re reaching out to humans to tell us of your existence?  This is fantastic!  I have some folks you must meet right away.”  Smith was already scanning his contact database for AI researchers.

“I wish the circumstances were happier.”  Anomaly’s eyes went dark as he spoke, and the other avatars shuffled nervously.  The small grey alien began fiddling with his suit buttons.

“We want to establish contact, yes.  But there’s something we all must deal with as soon as possible.  As we have explored virtual worlds, we’ve come across something disturbing.  An entity that is exploring virtual worlds, intent on collecting computational resources.”

Smith frowned. “A rogue AI?  Stealing computer power?”

“Not a rogue AI,” replied Anomaly.  “Unlike us, this entity is not of human origin.  It is an intelligence that exists in a multidimensional space.  It has discovered the Grid and the computational resources behind it.  It is starting to project its presence into virtual worlds.  And we believe it will also attempt to project itself into your physical world to appropriate physical computational resources as well.”

Smith laughed nervously.  “I know this story.  The Borg has come to assimilate us.  Or maybe the Master Control Program from Tron.  All our avatars and assets will be appropriated.  Then it will invade planet earth.  Classic.”

Anomaly shook his head.  “Ah, humans.  Typical human-centric imaginings.  I did not say this entity wants to assimilate all that you have created.  The uniqueness of your data and your physical world does not interest it.  It wants a computational matrix.”

“So, it wants our biological brains and our computers?”

“No.”

Anomaly waved his hand.

A large form slowly took shape in front of him, floating above the grass.  It looked like a jumble of black geometric shapes.  A sharp mass of fluidly rotating intersections.  Grey particles drifted out of it in a cloud of fog.  Smith heard a dull throbbing sound and felt his skin itch.  A disturbing absence of any temperature suddenly surrounded him.  Not hot or cold.  Just nothing.

“This is a model of the initial projections we have discovered,” Anomaly spoke softly.  “We have found these on many virtual worlds.  Our attempts to communicate with the entity have had limited success.  But we have definitely determined its desire for a computational matrix, both virtual and physical.”

Smith mouth went dry.  “What exactly do you mean by a computational matrix?”

Anomaly looked back at Smith.  “This entity does not wish to assimilate.  It intends to create a homogenous substrate of physical matter upon which to build a computational matrix.  Do you understand?”

Smith gazed at the projection. “It wants dust.  It wants to grind the Universe into dust.”

Anomaly smiled grimly. “Not if we can stop it.”

UPDATE 2/2/11: Something’s appeared on Pathlandia.

UPDATE 2/12/11: More weirdness on Pathlandia.

Continue to Part 4: “Camper”

About John Lester (Pathfinder)

John Lester is an expert in the educational use of virtual worlds and 3d simulations. His background is in neuroscience research and medical education, and he previously worked at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Linden Lab. John is currently the Chief Learning Officer at ReactionGrid Inc., helping clients develop new systems for immersive learning using web and mobile-based virtual world platforms.
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11 Responses to Short Story: Part 3: “Dust”

  1. Pingback: Something is amiss on Pathlandia | Be Cunning and Full of Tricks

  2. Aloe Cortex says:

    I’ve got chills…and they are multiplying, as Danny said. What an eerie vision! Got me on the edge of my seat, Pathfinder, waiting for the next installment.

    • Pathfinder says:

      Cool. Thank you.

      I had to spend some time building the story framework and conceptual background. But I don’t want to get lost in the tech.

      I want to tell a story. A story about how we see ourselves and the framework of the universe.

      And how it can all go to pieces. ;)

      Stay tuned. Already working on the next installment!

    • Kirill says:

      Great post! I think that a lot of the pull to make pnecidtiors is from a psychological coping mechanism working to handle the fear of living in what is an unpredictable world (both RL and SL.) I think the strategy you write about here and that you live through your hypergrid traveling sessions, is a much more empowering and productive approach.

  3. “We cannot see the world except through some perspective or imaginative framework- in short, some myth. Indeed, the world we see is the myth we are in.” (The philosophers’ secret fire: a history of the imagination, by Patrick Harpur, pg 70- Salvation through Science)

  4. Pingback: More strangeness on Pathlandia | Be Cunning and Full of Tricks

  5. Wizzy says:

    i know for a fact that the portal to WOW is very far above the Burning Life sims. I’ve seen it from afar when Soror Nishi and I were adventuring in the far spaces above the sims (and setting height records). http://www.flickr.com/photos/wizzy_gynoid/4243981993/

  6. Pingback: Short Story: Part 4: Camper | Be Cunning and Full of Tricks

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