Saturday, April 3, 2010

[Mythos VI] When Evil Is Afoot, Strange Battlefields Appear

With apologies to HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Charlie Stross. Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction.

Everyone knows that US weapons systems are among the most advanced in the world.

Yet all too few people are aware that US weapons systems may depend a bit less on advances in Technology, and depend perhaps a bit more on advances in Thaumaturgy.

It's true! Imagine, if you will, the smartest person you ever met. Sure, they're smart, didn't have any trouble in algebra back in their middle-school classes, made it through the calculus and statistics without too much work, and all of the time, they seemed to be almost normal people, if a bit prone to go off muttering about "lowest common denominator" in the context of whether or not they'd attend a football game or try to take a date out to a "chick flick".

Then they changed, remember? Somehow they became different, and the change didn't come slow. You'd see them one day and they'd be fine. The next day they'd be nearly unable to speak. They'd be unable to meet your eyes, they'd stammer and fumble, and had not appetite to speak of, and generally seemed to be barely suppressing panic.

Most people headed for a college education will learn how to do operations with the Imaginary Number. Those who are bothered by this are generally told that it's useful in the real world, or at least that the calculations that include its use can develop things in the real world which are useful. Most people simply learn to use the operations and it becomes rote and habit, and they firmly abandon any thoughts of the imaginary number being, in fact, Imaginary. As in, it's Imaginary because it cannot be true in this world that a number could exist such that the square root of that number is negative 1. Most people never reach the level of mathematics where, to progress farther, they need to confront universes where it actually is possible and also a fact that a number exists, the square root of which is negative 1.

Yet, for the rare few, there is, and must be, that confrontation.

As often as it has been said, "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me", someone saying that as a child has matured to understand that words can in fact cause people to find those sticks and stones and use them with great vigor. Events, ranging from smallish happenings like a good public row at a public house (a "bar fight") to monumental events such as mere wars to epic religious crusades can result from "mere" words. Once one has confronted this notion, one may learn to be a bit more cautious about what one might say. It's the same with mathematics.

For a student who shows enough talent and promise and has demonstrated certain mental skills and disciplines, those who long before were comparably initiated to the mystery present their proteges with a sheet of paper with a complex equation on it, and ask the initiate to check their math. Invariably, the worthy candidate finds a somewhat elusive mistake removed several layers of abstraction from what is written on the paper, and points it out to their mentor.

The mentor then asks the student if they'd please correct the mistake, and rework the equation.

I can't tell you where that problem had its error, nor can I tell you what is the proper re-working to the non-erroneous form. For this I should be glad.

For those who solve the problem, the rest of their existence is spent cringing at shadows, and at the daylight as well. You see, it's not that they felt something, or saw something, or heard something that terrified them... rather they understood something... that a simple change of sign, or associative grouping, or a different approach to the problem amounting to a revision of degrees of asymmetry, breaks a certain code, as it were.

The past -- our own, at least -- is forever beyond us. Limitless futures can lie before us, to emerge from the initial conditions found in the untouchable past, yet the place where that emergence occurs is in our present. The math will inform us that the present is limited by the sequence of events, the unfolding of initial conditions since the time of the First Cause, and that leads to other math that informs us that for all of the ways that initial conditions could have unfolded, they did: and so much time has passed and so many choices -- so many variations great and/or small -- that there is and can be no single "present". We are adrift in a cloud of probabilities, though we inhabit only one stream of causality at any given instant.

This is as close as I can get to the math, as it was explained to me as I tried to comfort a friend who had just done the math. When she broke free of the hug and seized up paper and pencil to begin to scribble, I was more than lost. You see, an old head injury from childhood has left me struggling with any kind of symbolic representations of numbers. It's not the concepts that I can't grasp, not any more than a person with dyslexia is unable to speak and reason simply because they can't distinguish between letters of print.

When she'd reached for the scratchpaper, her sobbing had almost stopped, and she had almost dried her eyes as she finished trying to explain to me in words what had horrified her in the symbology I can never grasp. Finally she ran out of words, and shuddered, and picked up the pencil. When she put it to paper, she stiffened; as she wrote, her rigidity increased. She was as if she were being electrocuted. I tried to stop her, but she was suddenly full of an amazing strength. A minute before she had the softness of a young woman but now when I tried to push her away from her calculations she pushed back with a strength far greater than mine, and I am not a weak man. I tried to turn her head away from the paper, to turn it to face my own, and I couldn't break her concentration nor her focus on the symbology she was laying down on the paper... but I could see her eyes and they were... alight, alight with some strange glow, as if some energy from beyond were beginning to burn there. And I knew somehow that an energy from beyond is what it was, and that it wasn't just energy, but purpose.

It had been Anabel who had started writing the string of symbols on that scrap of paper... but it would be someone else, or some thing else, who finished the equation.

And I knew I could not let that happen.

I have not seen Anabel since I grabbed her jar of pens and pencils and threw it out of her window, and broke the pencil stub in her hand and yanked the paper from her hand as she was distracted by the breaking glass. I cannot tell you what has become of her, nor can (or will) anyone else who knew her.

I can tell you that when campus security came, Anabel was being barely restrained by nearly all of the people present on the dorm floor at the time, I was in no condition to answer questions nor to assist in restraining her. I was huddled, unconscious, in the middle of a hall floorway, and Anabel -- or whatever she had become -- had almost finished writing her equation on the wall... in my blood.

This is what can happen -- I hear it's not altogether uncommon though it rarely ends so pleasantly -- when you start messing around with the really high levels of mathematics. A mind powerful enough to understand the implications of endlessly parallel universes is a mind powerful enough to begin to explore those implications. And like a mouse that decides to explore the kitchen floor in a mansion of many rooms, curiosity can quickly evolve to foolhardiness.

Since the time of the First Cause, the initial conditions of the Creation evolved in all possible ways and in all possible directions and by now -- indeed within millionths of a second since the Creation -- some of those ways became effectively incompatible with each other, to the point where our minds cannot conceive, but mathematics can describe, such places.

As in our own little set of slices of reality, first evolved life and then involved intelligence, so in some of these foreign and alien realities there was also evolution. But I would not call it life and I'm not sure I'd call it intelligence, not in most cases. Yet enough of the apex predators -- I guess you could call them that -- are very powerful calculators. Contrast and compare to the best of our digital computers: not exactly half bright but lightning fast with crunching the numbers. Yet for all of that, our computers do not have anything that we could categorize as initiative... that is not the case with the entities that inhabit the other realms. Unlike our computers, which we made, these entities evolved, and as fast as they are, they are that fast because they fed on anything slower. What is it that they eat? More or less, as best we can tell, their instinct is to try to gather resources from each other, with the notion that whichever being has the most resources has the best opportunity to collect all resources from beings that have less resources.

Communication is possible, to some degree, with some of these entities. That such communication is viewed by these entities, as nothing more nor less than an opportunity to trick other entities into a position where their resources may be harvested, this we can deal with; if you expect nothing but wickedness from the devil, so to speak, then the only way he could surprise you would be by doing good. Many of these entities, for all of their speed of calculation and intentions to devour, don't seem to handle the abstraction that if they're doing us good that they're not doing us harm; all they see is that an opportunity exists for exploitation, and their tropism is to exploit opportunities, not to consider the opinions and attitudes of the exploited.

So, we build these honking huge mainframe computers. Those computers understand, as it were, about the same math that poor Anabel understood, that enabled information transfer -- or "communications" -- between our own reality and one of these parallel universes.

Then our computers present the alien entities with a simulation of the capabilities of our national rivals' best weapons systems. We record how the entities structure their attacks, and against which points or elements of those systems. Then we analyze the records of the attacks, and try to find some way to duplicate this here in our reality. The theory being, if a transdimensional alien enemy can exploit systemic weaknesses in a certain way, then so can we. So far, it works.

The strategies, the algorithms we get by tricking implacable alien geniuses from universes so monstrous to our own as to defy any description outside of mathematic symbologies, they have proven to work quite well for us... and of course, we're not the only people taking this approach.

This is now known to have been a missile launch which some misinterpret as having gone out of control.

Note carefully: it did in fact reach its target. The failure was not in the guidance system, decidedly not. Rather, one of the steering motors failed, yet the software was so adaptable and so single-minded that it ignored the missing motor, and developed a solution set that would continue to decrease the distance between itself and its goal. When the failure occurred, the missile at first redirected the course to about 90 degrees off of the intended line of approach... and the only solution that could be implemented in both the remaining time and with successful arrival at target given the defective steering motor, involved flying in more or less a decreasing spiral that combined with the extant towards-target motion. Effectively the course of the missile describes the surface of a cone, with the apex of the cone at the intended target. The algorithm developed by the hostile entity from another dimension simply adapted and coped... in the same way you could tear almost all of the legs off of a spider, and it would still manage to squirm its way over to a tethered fly. It might be terribly inefficient to crawl round and round in circles, but at the end of it all, the spider gets to eat.

This is how alien they are, to give an example almost comprehensible to mere humans.

Mere humans could not have written that software, and if they had somehow done so, they could not likely have got it all to fit inside the shell of that missile, much less onto one tiny EPROM chip.

Besides, any human with the intelligence and math needed to devise such software would be a human with the intelligence and math to reach the understanding that inevitably bridges the gap between the universe it is safe to know, and the multiverses that carry passengers which will, the second they become aware of us, come a-running for a tasty snack.

We have developed computers that can understand the math, but cannot communicate it to us. How many minds had to be destroyed -- winding up like poor Anabel, or likely much worse -- to develop these computers, that's another number I don't like to contemplate.

We keep these computers deeply isolated, of course. If a computer can be said to be deeply and endlessly malevolent and diabolically wicked in their scheming, that could be said of any of the machines that have ever been in contact with these dwellers in the other realms. We don't allow them any sort of contact with any other computationally capable devices and indeed, quite aside from the passive fail-safes, we keep them actively contained within both TEMPEST technologies and high-thickness lead and concrete emissions barriers.

Every now and then, something managed to escape, at least in the early days before the InterNet. The story that gets bandied about goes thus: some maintenance guy goes in and out and they're wearing one of those digital wristwatches that is not just a watch, but a scientific calculator with an address book with room for 128 addresses each up to 256 characters long. The next thing we know, the Soviets are sending profuse (if highly non-publicized) manned missions up in space disabling their own military comsats and not provisioning the expedition capsules for re-entry. As if this wasn't enough, they actually called the White House and the British PM on the Red Line to let us know that they were rather unhappy and were going to their equivalent of DEFCON 1 with half of their missile fleet while the other half of their missile fleet was decommissioned.

In certain circles this was regarded as somehow proof that the many hundreds of such wristwatches shipped to the USSR via diplomatic pouches (and generally dismissed at the time as a black-market "perk") had in fact wound up as their missile guidance chips for an entire class of ICBM with vasstly improved accuracy, others who were better mathematicians promptly shivered and stammered a bit more than usual. The bigdome physicist types mostly required massive sedation before being able to almost universally but individually publish their explanation: somehow, one of the alien entities had been able to sense the original wristwatch, establish communications, download and re-write the entire operating system of that wristwatch and upload it again to the wristwatch, not incidentally giving that wristwatch the ability to do the same to any other of its type.

Furthermore, it may have been actual planning, and not mere serendipity (if that word is remotely appropriate) which caused the mechanic in question to experience a failure of the wristwatch and return it for warranty repairs where it was stored... and shipped along with several others of the same model, back to the factory.

Let's just say that the factory in question isn't there any more, and neither are any of the products they manufactured after that time... we hope. We're fairly confident we got to it in time... both we and the Soviets. It wasn't until we were nearly perfectly certain that we were willing to begin opening up the global InterNet to rates much beyond UUCP over 1200-baud modem of UseNet in text-only mode.

Saints preserve us, as they say, if one of the modern mainframes we use for development of entity-derived weapons systems can ever gain access to the InterNet. If that should happen, touching scenes such as when I was found unconscious in a dorm hall with Anabel beginning to glow in the dark as she wrote on the wall in my blood to graphically solve a transdimentional portal equation to the Great Beyond, well, that sort of tableau would seem really quite homey and quaint to the powers that will have accessed and occupied every last computational resource of every living pair of neurons on our planet.

And this is why, I might add, there is always a major risk when you decommission a "secure facility" that has ever been involved in design of advanced weapons systems. They've almost certainly got a mainframe, and getting that decommissioned in such a way as to both break any Gates or Portals, and delete any resident extensions of the entities, that's more than a work of art and science and deeply studied proceduralisms from which there can be no deviations.

The entities, and capable humans, have no difficulties "communicating" in mathematics, the universal language that actually transcends, sort of, not merely one universe but a multiplicity of them. If you can't do the math, they can't talk to you enough to get that gate opened for the first time. (Once they've actually got the entirety of one of themselves loaded and executing in a human host processing environment, is an entirely different proposition.) If you can do the math, you may likely go so violently insane that the human host processing environment will be destroyed by other humans before full possession can be effected. Yet if you're not smart enough to do the math, probably you are no able adversary to halt the progress of such a being. So where do you find someone smart enough to be useful in the fight, and mathematically inept enough so that the entity can't just flood the nervous system with a buffer overflow attack that will teach enough math to allow the entity to assume all-levels control of the operating systems?

Well, I can't do that math for you... but I can describe it in words.

G_d help us all should anyone draw a picture.