The drive out to California was long and boring. Dee and Sam rotated driving and sleeping, raiding gas stations when they were both awake. Dee talked with Sam a lot, trying to work out just what the Hell was going on in her head. After two days of solid driving, they arrived in Northern California. A state map looted from a gas station guided them to the San Andreas fault line, and Dee was able to remember vaguely where she and her companions had first found the spaceship last time. They agreed that it was likely the case that the ship was not there yet, however, they might get a chance to figure out just what it was that the owner of the ship had found worth making a landing. If not, then they would go down to Dee's previous hideout and see what they could work out with the current residents.
A quarter-mile after the end of a dead-end road, the ship came into sight, glistening in the sunlight. If it was merely dormant now, perhaps they could go back again and right things. That was the plan, anyway.
The plan failed when they saw him. Standing outside the ship, gleaming in the sun, the man in white was staring right at them before they had even identified him. As the truck approached over the high desert scrub, more details came into view. His clothing was skin-tight and shining in the sunlight, and his head - no, wait - he wasn't wearing clothing. His "suit" was him.
Dee pulled the truck right up to the man and put it in park, the engine still running. She leaned out the window to get a closer look at him, now that the truck wasn't bouncing all over on its suspension.
"Welcome back," he said as she sized him up. "I was wondering when you would arrive."
"Well," Dee said, struggling for something snappy. "You look like you're just full of answers."
"Oh, most certainly. I was hoping for the same from you."
"Dee? You know this guy?"
"Umm." Dee shifted her weight back inside the truck. "Not exactly."
"Please," the man said, affably. "Come, join me inside." He turned and stepped into his vessel. Dee and Sam stared for a moment, stunned by the surreality of the scene. Then Dee shut off the engine, and the two of them stepped out of the truck and followed the man in white.
Inside, the ship looked just as Dee remembered it. Now that they were out of the harsh mid-day sunlight, she could see that the man's skin was not white per se, but iridescent, almost like mother of pearl. Other than that, he looked like a standard Earth male, sans reproductive organs or any hair.
"So, uhh - who exactly are you," Dee stammered.
"My designation would be difficult for you to comprehend. You may call me whatever you wish."
"All right, then. I'ma call you Bob."
"Very well. Right this way, if you please." The women followed him deeper into the ship.
"So," she asked as they walked, "I don't suppose you're from around here?"
"Most certainly not," he said with a mechanical chuckle. After a pause, Dee spoke again.
"Yeah, so, uhh - what're you, an alien or something?"
"I suppose you might call me that, for my origins are far from your planet. However, others of your species would probably call me a god. A demi-god, to be more precise."
"I see," Dee responded at length. Sam, for her part, was completely occupied with looking around at the ship. It was, to put it mildly, unlike anything she had ever seen. A hidden light source followed them, illuminating their path. Glyphs hovered in the air, apparently responding to the man's presence, and shimmered as he interacted with them.
"Here we are," he said as they arrived in the room Dee recognized from last time as containing the terminal. She felt numb. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, coming at her as through a thick fog. "Dee, would you kindly interact with the terminal, as you did last time?" The man stepped aside and gestured to the interface as it sprang to life.
"I, uhh - sure. How - how did you know my name?"
"Oh, I know quite a bit about you, Dee. I've been watching you for quite some time. You and all your friends, in fact. Very interesting, the lot of you. Please, begin interacting with the terminal; we may speak as you do so, but I wish to get my investigation underway."
"Yes. It is a most interesting development that you were able to intuit the meanings of the machine language after mere minutes of exposure. My guess is that it is due to the fact that it is coded in the same language you are, and the two of you share much architectural overlap. In order to test this, though, I must observe your interactions with it." Dee stood frozen, trying to guess at what was being spelled out to her. "However, if you do not cooperate, I shall be forced to end your process and run simulations with a backup copy. The results will not be as reliable as this method, though, so I would greatly appreciate it if you would afford me the courtesy of your cooperation." The affable tone in Bob's voice did not falter.
"I - uh - yes. Yes, sure thing." Dee began staring at the terminal's interface and touching the glyphs. She had to focus to cut through the disbelief that seemed to weigh her mind down. Whatever Bob was saying, though, he wanted something from her, and was prepared to "end her process" in order to get it. Dee was certain she didn't want that. "Rosie?" Anxiety crept into Dee's voice.
"Uh - yes?" Sam's bewilderment was apparent in her tone.
"Please tell me that I'm not going crazy. You're seeing all this, too. Right?"
"I - I don't know. I mean, I see a guy. He's shiny. We're in his ship, I guess. You're using a magical computer. Hell, I think I'm going crazy."
"OK. That's OK. Maybe it won't be so bad if we're crazy together."
"Calm yourselves, please," the man insisted. "I assure you that you are both sane and lucid. This is very strange for you both, to be sure, but my investigation cannot proceed properly without your cooperation. I am monitoring both of you, and while your heart rates and blood pressures are elevated, you are not yet in danger of going into shock - oh, my mistake, it appears that Sam may be. Would you like me to administer a sedative?" Sam started at the mention of her name, then composed herself as she declined his offer. "Very well. Please take care to maintain your composure, I would like this to go as swiftly and conveniently as possible for us all." Bob smiled warmly and turned his attention back to Dee, who was staring at the glyphs in the air before her.
"OK, Bob," she said, manipulating the symbols, "I got a few questions for you."
"Go right ahead. I would be happy to discuss matters with you while you assist me."
"Good. OK. So. Were you the guy who bombed all our power plants?"
"And took out all our satellites?"
"And brought the parasite here?"
"So - OK, pardon me for being rude, but - why shouldn't I just kill you?"
"That is a good question, and please, allow me to respond before you decide to pursue such an unwise course of action. In the first place, I do not think you fully comprehend your role or mine in the larger scheme of things. Second, attempting to do battle with me would be quite pointless. To be blunt, I am able to become invisible, and I have the ability to do many things which would be quite fatal to your frail anatomy."
"Uh-huh. Invisible, eh? How's that work, then?"
"There is a photoreactive component in what you would call my 'skin' which, when dormant, is responsible for my iridescence and luster. However, when activated, it will bend light in your visible spectrum around me, rendering you quite unable to see me. I thought it would be the most effective way for me to conceal myself from your species. Observe." As the ladies watched, Bob shimmered for a moment and then disappeared entirely. Moments later, he reappeared where he had been.
"OK, neat trick. So how does the parasite work, then?" Dee kept fiddling with the glyphs, trying to figure them out so that perhaps she might be able to turn back the clock once again while Bob was distracted. It was a longshot, but the only chance she had - she was certain that Bob would kill them both when he was done with them.
"As you surmised, it functions by overwhelming the human immune system, and then takes root in the brain to alter both higher-order planning processes as well as base instincts. Your suspicions about the lowered metabolism of the host were also correct. Once the brain has been infected, the parasite induces what you would probably call 'brain fog' in the host, and gives it the urge to find and turn others, as you saw with the one you called Shep." Damn. He had been watching them rather closely. Pulling a fast one on him might be harder than Dee had suspected. "After introduction to the ecosystem, the parasite would spread over the planet, where it would infect but not kill plant matter, as you saw. Newborns, of course, would be powerless to resist infection, and within sixty years or so, all organisms possessed of a brain would be dead. Then, in another forty years or so, the parasite would simply die off, as it is genetically programmed to do after a certain length of time."
"All right, so you bomb our power plants, knock our satellites out of the sky, and turn us into zombies, then get rid of it all with your Houdini parasite. Fine. But the sixty-four million-dollar question is: why? What was all this for? An occupation or something?"
"Oh, most certainly not. Regrettably, I shall be forced to resort to analogies here, as many of the pertinent issues do not correspond to concepts for which you have words. Please, bear with me."
"Fine," Dee said, "I just want to know what's going on."
"Very well. There exist what you might call 'gods,' but they are quite unlike any that have been conceived of in the most dominant of your world religions. The are neither omnipotent, omniscient, nor benevolent, and while they do not take a personal interest in the day-to-day lives of humans, they are quite keenly interested in the events that take place on Earth and in the Universe as a whole."
"And why is that?"
"Dee, in your career as a physicist, I am certain that you have made extensive note of the mechanistic regularity with which the world tends to function. Yes?"
"That is, quite simply, because the Universe - as you are able to conceive of it - is a machine. A sloppy one, I must admit, with all kinds of imperfections and inefficiencies, but a machine nonetheless. However, the results returned from this machine have already been used to help design better, more efficient machines. So, you may rest assured that once this one runs down, its legacy shall live on in other designs."
"So - you're saying all this is just an experiment," Sam asked.
"More or less."
Dee and Sam considered this for a moment.
"Wait a second," Sam said. "That still doesn't answer the question of why all this - the last couple months - why you did it."
"Of course not, but I am getting there. You see, this part - what you call Earth - had performed its function and was being prepared for a new one. The slate was being wiped clean, so to speak."
"So instead of blowing up the whole planet," Dee said, "You decide to turn everyone into fucking zombies?"
"I apologize for any inconvenience, but it would be the height of foolishness to waste such resources. There are many more useful operations that could be performed with this hardware, and destroying it utterly would simply be out of the question."
"You speak as though it's just some sort of computer."
"I suppose, in a manner of speaking, that that's exactly what it is. Do you throw away a pocket calculator when you are done with it? Of course not! You clear the data, and then perform a new calculation when you next need it."
"Doesn't that strike you as, I don't know, a little inhumane?"
"No, not in the least; quite the opposite, in fact. While under the effects of the parasite, humans experience a constant low-grade euphoria. The pursuit and infection of other humans is their raison d'etre, and while engaged in these activities, the pleasure centers of their brains are constantly stimulated. It was the most effective way we could devise to ensure that the hosts would keep at it. So, speaking from a standpoint of pleasure versus suffering, this was the most humane way to go about it. To be sure, those of you in the six-hundred forty-seven encampments to survive the first winter would disagree, however, you would be greatly outnumbered by those who were starving or otherwise miserable in the world before."
"I - you - that just -" Dee shook her head vigorously, and cursed to the air. "Look, that aside, that's not what I had meant. I was asking whether it was really humane to just conceive of us as programs in a computer. Isn't it unethical to simply shut us down like this?"
"That is a pair of questions, and I shall answer them in turn. It is neither humane nor inhumane to conceive of humanity as an aggregate program - it is accurate. That is what you are, and that is the intention with which you were brought about. Your second question will require the use of an even more clumsy analogy, but I hope you will bear with me. When you use your own computers, or play your own video games, does it ever occur to you what the software is 'thinking' when it asks you if you're sure you wish to quit the program? Or do you simply say 'yes' or 'no' depending on your intentions alone?"
"But - but that's different! Computers aren't people! Software doesn't think! Games aren't self-aware!"
"A matter of scale, nothing more. Compared to the gods, you can hardly be considered to be 'aware' or 'intelligent.' In fact, by this comparison, you are far more like isolated magnetic domain values than entities unto yourselves."
"Excuse me?" Dee was furious. "You can't be serious!"
"Oh, quite." The man's imperturbably pleasant tone was beginning to grate on Sam and Dee's nerves. "I don't think you comprehend the difference in scale at work here." Dee screamed at the air and kept working at the symbols.
"Then please, enlighten us," Sam said, her voice on edge.
"Very well, I shall do my best. When you start up one of your computers, you are able to observe the startup sequence, correct?" They nodded. "However, it all goes by so quickly, it hardly even registers. Do you agree?" Nods once again. "Even that higher-order output on the monitor, though, is the result of nothing more than ones and zeroes being calculated by the machine. And those ones and zeroes flicker by so fast as they are calculated, you would be unable to perceive them or even meaningfully interact with them, even if you were somehow able to look into the computer's components. Their output is so simple but so fast, and the concepts and terms in which you wish to communicate are so much richer, so robust, that it often takes you great spans of time to determine how to break it down into terms that the machine would be able to understand. Do you agree with these observations?"
"Yes," Dee said. "Computers are fast and stupid, people are slow and smart. Go on."
"To the gods, the users of this cosmic computer, your speech and thought processes are as the ones and zeroes in the machine - imperceptibly fast, though blindingly simple, and only truly meaningful in aggregate. The gods, to you, are as users of these computers - so slow and ponderous, a message may be sent with no response for days, and only that quickly if no deliberation is required." Bob's tone began to crack.
"Sounds like something personal," Sam said.
"Oh, I know firsthand. I have been in that position. Do you know how many times a computer's processor cycles while waiting for you to click 'OK?' How many more computations it could perform as you read the message displayed on the screen and decide how to respond?"
"I thought you said you were a god," Sam asked. Bob's tone returned to normal - that is, irritatingly polite - once more as he responded.
"Oh, no - I said that some of your species might call me that, simply because my abilities and experiences vastly exceed your own. However, it would be more accurate to call me a demigod, perhaps even a messenger. I am but a program, somewhat like you, though much longer-lived and vastly more capable, due to the necessities of my station."
"And you're just cool with that?" Sam was bewildered. Dee was lost in the glyphs, tapping them furiously. "You're fine with being nothing more than a cog in the machine?"
"Aren't we all? I don't see why I should be unable to accept and enjoy my role in the greater scheme of things. It is the only place I shall have, and I have known it for quite some time. As you may have surmised, I do not always enjoy every aspect of my existence, but I assure you that I am quite happy with my life when taken on the whole."
"So what kind of computer is this, anyway? I mean, if we're all calculating stuff, what's it for? What kind of answers are we outputting?" Dee gave Sam a thumbs-up over her shoulder, and waved her hand around to indicate that she should keep going. The man in white, his back to Dee, regarded Sam coolly for a moment before responding.
"My apologies, but many of the answers - even the questions - would take far too long to explain, requiring concepts and mathematics that very well could be beyond your ability to grasp."
"Try me," Sam said, trying to give Dee as much time as possible.
"I suppose that the short answer is that the users wished to see what would happen, in the same way that your theoretical physicists perform computer simulations in order to see what would happen. One discovery of import concerned the way you use numbers. It is fascinating to note that while most of your counting systems rely upon decimal notation, most of your species can only recognize cardinal numbers up to seven, yet you do most of your mental groupings in threes and fours. Truly, sometimes it is our failures that tell us more than our successes ever could."
"Ah-ha!" Dee shouted triumphantly and punched one last glyph with great enthusiasm. Bob calmly turned to look at her, and a set of glyphs moved to the center of the display. "Wait, what? Disabled?"
"Of course," the man said. "I could not allow you to step back the program's operation as you did last time. I am simply trying to determine how it is that you were able to use the terminal. That is all."
"I - you - son of a - fuck!" Dee was crestfallen. "So - well, shit. I mean, now that the gig is up, how come I didn't go back last time, like I wanted to? Is this thing broken or something?"
"Not at all. In fact, it performed your instructions to the letter. You ordered the machine to recompile the code from your time of birth, with the current iteration of your own variable exchanged for the original. It sent you back, all right. You did not ask it to send back my ship, your colleagues, or even your body, though. And so the machine did none of those things."
"I guess - I mean, I thought it would send, y'know, all of me back, not just my mind."
"When you consider a program, do you conceive of it as the media it is stored upon, or merely the data itself that is essentially 'the program?' Similarly, to the machine, 'you' are the sum of the data in your head, and not the head itself, nor the body supporting it. At any rate, I thank you for your time. My report is nearly complete. I will now escort you outside, before I complete my work."
"And what exactly is that," Sam asked as he led them outside.
"To stick with the computer analogy," he said as they walked, "I suppose you could say that this program has performed an illegal operation, and must be terminated. Before doing so, though, I need to compile the error report so I may display it to the users."
They walked in silence for a few moments, Dee and Sam both trying to work out how that could possibly mean anything other than what they feared it meant.
"Just what kind of program are you," Dee asked as she exited the ship.
"I suppose you could say that I am a de-bugger."
With that, the man in white turned and disappeared into his vessel, which shortly lifted off and departed into the sky. Sam and Dee held each other as they watched it disappear, then saw a flash of light, followed by pin-pricks descending to the Earth below. Each speck went in a different direction, and one came directly towards the two of them. As it neared, Sam buried her face in Dee's shoulder. Dee kept her eyes on the sky.
Dee felt the air moving as the thermonuclear warhead approached. She kept her eye on it as it fell to the Earth before her. She squeezed Sam and mentally counted down to when she thought it would detonate. She got to zero just as the weapon reached ground level.
Then she never felt anything again.