By Charles Swanson
Even the closest reader may have missed that, between the events of Aside and Coeurl, Rex and his then-assistant determined and neutralized a connection between a cult of City Transit bus drivers and the Dark Lord Cthulhu.
Lovecraft's Cthulhu is a nasty beast that eats people's minds. They were described by Lovecraft as existing in unimaginably horrible torment forever after being eaten. Cthulhu is almost defined by eldritch-enthusiasts as the maximally abhorrent abomination.
A computer trying to accomplish Cthulhu's task would require high performance by almost anyone's standards. Not only would it have to simulate at least one mind, it would have to be able to differentiate between positive and negative stimulus (a more difficult task than it sounds) and apply the negative stimuli in the optimal way to create the least pleasant experience possible. For ever. But it is extraordinarily difficult to determine which algorithms will benefit from the clever application of an optimizing process. Two processes that perform functionally identical effects on their inputs can be extraordinarily different in the resources required to implement them.
Rex has known for some time now that there exists a Cthulhu algorithm that can be optimized down to almost nothing. He's tangled with it before.
Present day: Rex has found it necessary to teach a course at the University...
"Let's go around the room and tell everyone our names. For ease of memory, let's also couple these names with an adjective that is related somehow, perhaps using the same first letter. Shall we begin? I am Rex. Let us say 'Recursive Rex'"
The next student in the counter-clockwise direction from Rex looked a bit put off. "I was going to say 'Self-referential Steve', but that doesn't seem as clever as it did before you said anything."
And the next student. "I was going with 'Consonant Constance'."
And the next. "Alliterative Alan."
Rex looked around his group. So far they seemed to be of the receptive variety. Still, he didn't want to bias his sample, and the students who had sat directly counter-clockwise of him had been the first to arrive. Even so, it took three interesting individuals to get to the day's first dud.
This student looked up from his phone. His eyes swam around the room for half a second before finding Rex's face. They then dropped to the floor, and a voice carefully crafted in the image of uncaring said, "Uh... Danger Dave, I guess." His slouched form then re-discovered his phone, and he got back to texting.
When all ten of them had gone, it was only his early group in whom he had any hope. The rest were there because they had space in their schedule and needed a Student Taught Course to graduate.
Rex began. "Hello, students, and welcome to Student Biophysics 101: Whale collisions." There was a titter of laughter from those who actually recognized the farcical title. Danger Dave and Happy Heather rolled their eyes. "But seriously, let's get into it. Physical Memetics and Non-Entropic Information Propagation it is. We start by analyzing what it means to propagate information. What constitutes information? Anyone?"
No one stayed after class to ask a question of Rex. His early group, Steve, Constance, and Alan, left conspicuously separately, with an anomalously low level of interpersonal acknowledgement. They obviously knew each other. Rex wondered what it was that they'd eventually ask of him.
Rex stayed on campus until dark, which was not difficult to do in the winter. Buses ran less frequently at night, but this was less and less of a problem in recent weeks. Bus schedules had become a joke. As a result, he got to the house about two kiloseconds after leaving campus.
When he arrived, the house was empty. Gil and his ex-assistant were off busting up the last of the ninja hives with their super-special-friend-project exosuits. NASA Lass, the Atomic Girl, and Dr. Polski were probably in the lab. It looked like Rex would have to find dinner for himself. That simply wasn't right. There were others who didn't dislike making dinner as much as he. The Atomic Girl actually liked cooking, as long as it wasn't for Rex. It was simply inefficient to make Rex cook for himself.
However, that was not within solution space at this time. He found some pirogi in the freezer and microwaved them. Done.
Dr. Polski came upstairs when Rex was almost done eating. He looked down at the plate. Rex should have made more. Not doing so wasn't in fitting with the communal laboratory spirit. Polski spoke: "Your techniques are working well, friend. The strangelings are developing at a faster rate than we predicted. You should come down and see them when you're done here."
Rex did so. He didn't really know why the Doctor was so enamored of this project. He'd been working on it for as long as Rex had known him. The goal was to implement self-organizing structures with noisy reproduction, reminiscent more of biology than of nanotech, in strange matter. It seemed a remarkably quirky thing to want to do. What was interesting about strange matter, anyway? Was the Doctor enthralled by its unstable, evanescent nature? Or the existential risk it posed if it came into contact with their own mode of matter? Was it purely symbolic, did Polski hope to make something of it?
Rex looked at the scattering graphs. Yes, there were the blobby little organizational units. They looked like bacteria. Ironically (in more ways than one), humans were not good at noisy reproduction. Everything Rex and Co made was too deterministic in its trajectory. The best way to accomplish Polski's eccentric goals was mimic mechanism's that weren't so much 'designed' as 'evolved'.
Rex looked at the length scale. Hold on, that couldn't be right...
His wristpad vibrated gently. The triumphant couple had returned from the ninja-hunt.
Rex was lecturing. "And so we see that there exist a limited number of very specific algorithms for which there exist what we will call 'Order of Magnitude Hacks', or algorithms that perform what we have formalized as objectively complex manipulations on their input, but can be implemented so as to be constitute only a fraction of that complexity. We can think of these as local minima of complexity. Any change in the operation of the algorithm leads to disproportionate difficulty in running it on real computational resources."
Rex was deliberately stepping up the game. He'd been allowing the Early Group, as which he'd mentally indexed Steve, Constance, and Alan, to steer the lectures with their selective attention. He still didn't know whether they were aware of this fact, or whether he was reading them as he would any other individuals. This lecture seemed to be a breakthrough in their conditioning and directing of his course. They were simply rapt, with what he recognized as simultaneous excitement and apprehension. No doubt it will be this class session after which they'd stay after to ask their question.
"Very few of these algorithms are known to humanity because of their relative sparsity in operation-space, and even fewer are those that I can show here, but I do actually have an example for you today. Class, you should feel very lucky. Not many students leave university knowing something so contradictory in the eyes of the mathematics department."
At this, some of the lazier students perked up. Danger Dave stopped his post in-composition at 'Yo anyone want to do some drugs later today I got a big bag full' (Rex didn't feel too guilty about monitoring wifi) and looked at Rex. Rex didn't feel too gratified. They'd drop back into the waiting arms of the Internet when they realized that his forbidden fruit of knowledge was actually a clever way of determining how many powers of a tenuously-defined irrational number ("Ichabod's Epsilon") go into an example of an equally obscure class ("Shatner's Ring").
When the time came, six students filed out of the classroom. It looked like Classical Kris was also interested in something Rex had said.
She approached Rex before the Early Group did. "Hey. Um. Rex, teacher. So, you know how you said there were processes that could be run more easily than they should be?" That was Kris's first problem. She was too rooted in the computational. Everything Rex had said, no matter how abstract, had linked to something physical for her. "Well, um, I was wondering whether another example of that sort of process would be consciousness." That was Kris's second problem. People still had trouble accepting there was enough stuff in their heads to run their minds.
Still, asking the question made her a cut above the rest. She deserved a good answer. "No. You have seen already that there is an incredible wealth of variation in consciousness. You could almost infer a continuum of possible variations. If consciousness were an Order of Magnitude Hack, any change between individuals would be accompanied by a change in system requirements, as it were." She began to speak, but Rex put up a hand. He knew her objection. "You're going to say human minds are implemented with varying degrees of success. I guarantee you that all human minds ever constitute a tiny clump in the space of all possible minds." She blushed. Perhaps Rex could have done better. No matter; she'd still come back next week.
Then he was alone with his Early Group. Constance stepped forward. "Teacher... Rex... what do you know about the Cthulhu Algorithm?" Rex reached the conclusion rather quickly that they had something to do with the bus driver strike.
"Polski! I've been trying to get a hold of you via wristpad! Where have you been?"
The Doctor fixed his gaze on Rex unabashedly. "I was working in the Beagle Dodecahedron. I was a little busy."
"Never mind that. I'd like you confirm these length scale figures. Your strangelings are operating in a confusing manner."
Dr. Polski leaned over the scattering reconstruction. "Yes, that's right. At least, I can confirm the order of magnitude." He smiled. He was enjoying this.
"And the complexity that the structures reflected in the reconstruction imply? Can you confirm my figures on that?"
This was the first time the Doctor had seen Rex's formulation of the concept of 'complexity'. He'd forced Rex's hand. "I am unfamiliar with your notation, but our conclusions correspond to the same quantity, I believe."
Rex sat backward into one of the Doctor's padded Ikea chairs. He hadn't done this in a long time. His voice gained an edge. It carried the words of one who was heard. Polski listened. "Do you know what !N was researching before he left?"
Rex's friend's undercurrent of half-mirth evaporated. "It was the fundamental limit of computational density. The same principle that is used in the anti-ninja field." Polski's EEG spiked. He'd just made the connection. To his credit, his face didn't change. "Oh."
They both sat silent for a while. It was a minute before they spoke again, but both had invoked emergency computational access, making it much longer subjective time. "This is sort of a game-changer, isn't it?"
Cthulhu? "I do know something by that name, but I don't know whether it's that to which you are referring." Rex stalled a few seconds while he screened a 50-meter radius for EM communication and began spamming acoustic white-noise through the rigid concrete walls of the 70's-era academic building in which his class was held. His friends had set up front-ends for their communal use also: He brought up visual satellite coverage of the area from NASA Lass's API. He didn't want anyone running, if push came to shove. In the corridor outside, nozzles started spraying some Polski nanotech into the air. As it settled, its upper surface became adhesive. Anyone walking couldn't help but track it wherever he/she went.
He almost queried the Atomic Girl's readiness status, but remembered she had a class then. He'd catch hell later if he bothered her for no reason. Maybe she wouldn't cook him dinner.
Satisfied that the Early Group could neither communicate nor flee without his say-so, he began. "Do you kids by chance know anything about the bus driver strike?"
Constance spoke again. "We are aware of the connection between our question and the strike. But please. We came to you for information." One of her companions, Steve, allowed a fraction of a second of hostility to breach his stance. Alan gave him a look.
He sighed. He had to do what he had to do. As long as his giving information had a small chance of accomplishing his goals and didn't appreciably increase these kids' threat, it was within his interests to teach them.
"There are any number of Cthulhu Algorithms (CA)." Rex shuddered. The shudder was not fabricated, but he hadn't stifled it either. "The group is defined by its effect: scanning a mind, determining what conditions constitute 'torture' for that mind, then subjecting it to those conditions in simulation. For ever.
"It is rather difficult to implement a general CA in an effective way, not to mention the fact that no one would ever want to do so, ever. I take it that you are therefore asking about the Order of Magnitude Cthulhu Algorithm Hack (OMCAH).
"It just so happens that it's anomalously easy, simple, and computationally cheap to implement a specific algorithm that does these things. The OMCAH allocates each captive mind half of its remaining computational resources."
Alan spoke next. "Yes, that's the one. Except for when you said that no one would ever want to implement said algorithm. I'm surprised at you, Rex." Rex noted that he was no longer 'teacher'. "You even told us yourself that the OMCAH, as you put it rather blasphemously, allocates half of its remaining resources to each successive mind. Each successive mind gets half of the total eternal torture as the last. In eternity, the first sacrificed gets twice the disutility as the next, and so on. Because of its geometric series of suffering, the nth sacrifice is exactly as damned as the sum of the damnation of the entirety of the following sacrifices. It is therefore every rational agent's instrumental goal to cause itself to be the last sacrifice, which makes it every rational agent's instrumental goal to sacrifice the maximum possible minds to Cthulhu the Dark One."
Oh dear. Rex did not like the sound of that. The students were trying to implement the OMCAH (or 'summon Cthulhu' in the more dramatic parlance). They saw it as inevitable that someone eventually would, and so decided that it should be they who do so. They wanted theirs to be the last minds scanned by the OMCAH and therefore the least-quickly run torture scenario (or 'incur less of Cthulhu's ire by feeding it the souls of others' in the more dramatic parlance).
Rex didn't like hearing language like 'blasphemy', 'damnation', 'sacrifice', and 'Dark One'.
He'd have tried the old 'half of eternity is still eternity' argument. Sadly, he'd looked up the academic majors of these students. If they were mathematics majors, he could have argued the existence of a one-to-one bijection of every instant of Sacrifice N's eternal unimaginable torture to an instant of Sacrifice K's eternal unimaginable torture, rendering their eternal tortures equal subjectively. But no. They were physics majors, who were conditioned from their very birth to interpret infinities as limits of finite cases. For every finite time X, Sacrifice N will have suffered 2(N-K) times more than Sacrifice K.
Likewise, appealing to their sense of altruism would not fly. When staring into the face of infinite disutility, valuing one's own utility function even an infinitesimal constant factor more than another's causes an infinite preference for the outcome more advantageous to oneself.
Rex silently and stealthily queried their social network profiles. Steve had changed his Religion Status to 'Atheist' at the age of fourteen. Constance and Alan had both started 'Atheist', but their families were uniformly religious. They were used to talk of hellfire. Talk of Dante's vision not being a drop in the ocean of searing pain that they would unleash would not sway them. They took it for granted that no one had ever, in the history of Man torturing Man, suffered like they would.
There was but one recourse for Rex.
He spoke. He put every ounce of the older, wiser mentor into it, coupled with his exact optimal amount of the sympathetic collaborator. If he'd done this at a later session, he could have tuned it more effectively towards this group. The only stop he didn't pull out was his trans-cranial magnetic stimulation package. He'd never field-tested it before. "Come now, people. Surely infinite disutility is a worse case than positive utility. You should instead allocate resources toward preventing the OMCAH from existing in the first place, rather than sacrificing others to it. I'll teach you some preventative measures. We can live out our lives in peace."
Steve wavered visibly. Alan shot him. Alan shot him?
Steve slumped, still breathing and not visibly damaged. Before he hit the ground, Rex was past Alan with the offending device in his hand. He dropped it and melted it with an IR laser. It wasn't a projectile weapon. There was no visible radiance from it when it had fired. Rex's EM scanners had picked up something like an EEG wave at the moment of its use, but it could have been Steve's reaction.
Curse the Atomic Girl! It was her implicit role in the group to install biologically-oriented measures on campus. But no! She was squeamish about the whole 'campus as part of our research infrastructure' concept. Her communal API did not include measures for flooding rooms with disabling gas. Rex had to disable them himself.
After seeing his inhumanly fast disarming of Alan, the remaining two of Early Group seemed resigned in the last half-second before Rex jabbed them with sedatives. Perhaps too resigned.
"You know, Polski, this is just as much a danger as an opportunity."
Dr. Polski looked away from the vacuum-sealed bisected-sphere that held his strangeling world. There was nothing to see in it. Strange matter did not scatter light. Looking into it was a purely symbolic gesture. "You really shouldn't be so squeamish, Rex. Surely the benefits of such a development outweigh the risks."
Rex was not entirely convinced.
By Charles Swanson