By Charles Swanson
As you'll recall from
Stranger 1 and Stranger 2, some of Rex's students rationalized their
way into summoning an ancient evil of computer science, the OMCAH, or
Cthulhu. Somehow it got implemented in an experiment Rex's friend Dr.
Polski was working on, a strange-matter structure with the
computational complexity of the entire visible universe. It is,
needless to say, not a good day to be Rex's friend.
Gil narrates, alternately before and after moving the Polski's strangeling universe to the Rex's machine shop in the University.
Sometimes being friends with Rex Riptide is hardly worth it. For example, when it leads to your mind being assimilated by an entity whose sole purpose is to torture you for eternity, 'being eaten by Cthulhu,' if you will, you begin to question why you hang out with him.
I woke up gradually, scarcely believing that it hadn't been real; that escape was in fact possible. Sobbing was coming from somewhere. I was in the lab. A bright light fought its way through my eyelids and I tasted copper. The right side of my face suddenly felt sunburned. It would begin to peel soon.
A sonic boom wafted down to me. It jarred me from my reverie; I learned it had been I who was sobbing. It hurt to open my right eye, and I was only rewarded with an unintelligible, blurry image, anyway. When I blinked away the haze, I saw a heap of Rex on the floor, looking undone in some fundamental way.
"Hey, what's Rex doing on the floor?" I asked, looking around me for the first time. "Is he ok?"
Two forms ran to the body on the lab floor. One stayed by me, staring with wide eyes. It was difficult, mentally, to summon the effort required to ascertain the form's identity. After what I'd been through, I wouldn't mind never seeing my friends again.
It was my girlfriend. The mere sight of her sent shudders through my body. More recent memories latched onto me conscious mind, involuntarily shouting into my ears. Rex, no! Don't you see what you've become? A pause. You promised, Rex!
No wonder she hadn't moved. If her experience had been anything like mine, she'd never want to speak to Rex again. Yet I knew also that her experience hadn't been like mine, but a factor of four less intense. Yes, I can be quantitative about it. You see, I'd been lead to believe that NASA Lass had gotten half of what I had, my girlfriend had gotten one quarter, and Dr. Polski had gotten one eighth. Rex had gotten double, and the Atomic Girl had gotten four times.
Four times the torture! Undergoing four times what I had! It didn't seem possible...
Later, we were in the laboratory under the University. We were all breathing hard, having just moved the strangeling universe from the ruins of our house the 1.5 miles to campus. It had been a necessity: the equipment at the house was inoperative or slag. Molten debris.
"So what was yours, Rex?" Someone spoke, jarring us. We'd covered the last mile in silence.
I couldn't imagine why anyone would possibly want to know that. Who was it? I turned to look. My girlfriend, Rex's ex-assistant. No matter. I already knew the answer. What was my torture? I'd taken over the world, my internal Rex said.
"I had taken over the world." Rex said as he began pulling down displays and interface devices.
NASA Lass looked spitefully envious. "That doesn't sound so bad. Why was that torture?"
My girlfriend understood, perhaps not quite as I did. She spoke on his behalf, "It makes sense for Rex. Why, what was yours, Lass?"
I knew already. I prepared for her tearful admission. I was...
"Oh, the usual, I suppose. Physically tortured by demons". What? That wasn't it! I looked hard at her. Why was she lying? She avoided my gaze.
"Same here," came from the throats of Polski and my girlfriend. No matter. I knew what their tortures were.
They looked at me expectantly, all but Rex who was busy adhering sensors to the big metal disk that contained Polski's Strangeling Universe. They really wanted to know my torture? Was the drive to share misery so powerful that these, the smartest people I knew, fell pray to it? Suddenly I realized why they'd lied.
But I held myself to a higher standard. "I... I was forced to watch you guys' torture." There. Just a little lie. More of an omission, really.
Looking at their faces, I saw horror dawn on the females. Acceptance fell over Dr. Polski's features. Were they really sharing in their misery, a communal ritual to share the burden? None of them were touching. They flinched away from each others' contact. I suppose that indescribable terror will do that to a person.
"Ok, everyone. Stop talking" Rex said "Start thinking." He pulled one of the interfaces toward himself.
Back up. Before:
I was standing in the ruins of the house. That was apparent to me now. There was a molten-metal-lined cone of air where our charming little four-bedroom home once stood. The landlord would have a cow. The police would have a cow. It would be difficult to cover this one up.
My right arm and face were hot. Touching them, I felt the localized-feverish sensation of a sunburn. Almost-blisters had formed on my arm. A voice came from Rex's location. "Doctor, work up some ways of destroying your strangelings without destroying the Earth. Priority level," he paused, "ten to the ten to the ten. To the ten."
I was trying to think clearly: I was in the lab. The house above it was gone. Rex was wounded. The Atomic Girl was gone. The strangeling universe had to be destroyed. But these things, which should have suggested some whole - a sequence, a plan of action - were layered under a constant stream of their cries for help. Every time I tried to think of one of my friends, You promised, Rex! ...I'm going to pull you apart, glimmer by glimmer! ...But my dear, this is the Earth! ...What's that smell? No. This was more than a person should have to carry.
I tried to pull myself together. After all, anything would be better than moping. I had to do something.
I vomited up my stomach lining. Oh, and apparently I had radiation poisoning.
Under the University. After:
The air smelled stale. For all of our triumphs over baser nature, we still smelled when overworked. Rex had put crackers containing an 'exactly optimal' dose of caffeine in front of each of us. It had been five minutes since his last speech about existential risk, about how much disutility was sitting in front of us in its brushed steel vacuum-chamber, about how comfort no longer even shows up on a utility plot compared to destroying this damn container. That meant we were due for another one. That, as much as the fact that simulations of each of us were in our own private (or not so private, in my case) hell within that dark metal shell, motivated me to find a solution.
The speech never came. "Rex?" I said, concerned. "Hey, Rex? Can you hear me?" That was a silly question, I knew. Rex was staring at his display, manipulating his interface with both hands. "Guys, Rex has given up on us."
Yes, we'd reached that point. Rex was the only one who'd both tangled with the OMCAH and worked with the strangeling universe. He'd written us off as negligible benefit. I worked anyway. The Rex algorithm. Step one: Define solution space. Solution space was that the strangeling universe stopped simulating our torment over and over again until the end of the universe. Step two: permute backward through time. And there's where I hit a wall.
Why didn't we just blow it up? A chemical or nuclear explosive would be relatively easy to come by, and easy to use. Sadly, though, it wouldn't destroy the thing. It might scatter the strange matter around, but that would only bring it into more contact with regular matter. It would assimilate the entire Earth into computational resources to simulate our hells.
Suddenly it occurred to me that no one had responded to me. They were all reading something on their screens. A message popped up on mine, too. Sender: Rex Riptide. Oh, you're kidding, I thought. We're right there, and he emails us his proposal?
It began, "Particle beams interact with the strange matter. Use the particle beams we have on-hand to re-program chunks of the strangeling universe, to remove the OMCAH." It went on with a series of tasks. Mine started with ferrying equipment from storage to this room. I got moving.
"Good plan, Rex", I said as I left the room. The females in the room looked up at me, then back down to their screens. Dr. Polski and Rex never took their eyes off their interfaces.
The terrible memories I'd been forced to watch (and more) came hard and fast. Before:
The Atomic Girl (I love you, AG) had left, leaving a fiery trail. Sirens were audible in the dawn-chill air from over the lip of the steep crater she'd created (That's the smell of your friends burning, AG). Rex stood up shakily. Dr. Polski (This will never stop, Polski) helped him over to one of the Atomic Girl's (I'll always be with you, AG) laboratories next door. He came back feeling better, visibly less shaken. He looked around in his probably-chemically-induced state of awareness and promptly fell over.
At this point, Dr. Polski (I won't allow you to die, Polski; you're too much fun!) apparently took it upon himself to take charge. "Gil, one of your assistant's exosuits is undamaged. Use it to transport the strangeling universe to our second lab."
My girlfriend (I just took it to it's logical conclusion, my assistant) disagreed, "It's broad daylight out there! We don't know who will see us move it!" She was probably also just a little peeved at being called my assistant.
Dr. Polski looked once to Rex's inert form, and replied. "We're beyond that now. Besides, do you have any plans to clean up this smoking crater before the police arrive?"
She fell silent. I, on the other hand, had legitimate concerns. "I have radiation poisoning" I said.
"Hm, that's right. You were closest to the Atomic Girl (Glimmer by glimmer) when she flamed on. Will it hinder your ability to control the exosuit?" I gave him the most disapproving look I could summon. "Point taken. I'll get you some stimulants, but you'll have to get to campus to get real treatment."
My girlfriend (Everything you always hated!) helped me get into the exosuit while Dr. Polski (Do you believe me now, Polski?) got me my drugs. NASA Lass (What's is that? Can you eat it?), who'd been relatively quiet, seemed to get her mind in gear. "I'll start adhering handles to the... universe?"
The Doctor responded on his way out of the room, "Make sure you don't break vacuum. Remember what strange matter does to normal matter it contacts."
My girlfriend helped me get into the suit. We didn't talk. She did not want to hear my voice right now (Rex, say it's not true...).
NASA Lass was off in a corner. She was looking at the back and forth at the exchange. I couldn't read her.
Rex's eyes fluttered open. "Why aren't you guys moving yet?" he said with all the force that he could summon from an immobile, prone position. "Did Dr. Polski drug me?"
When I got back to our lab with the particle beams, everyone was working on their allotted tasks. From Rex's email, I deduced that Rex had taken upon himself the job of programming the structures that would actually oppose the enemy programming, the anti-virus, if you will. The Doctor had the job of controlling the beams. In some sense, I envied him the least. He had to take Rex's code and translate it into physical arrangements of the particles composing his baby universe. My girlfriend was setting up monitoring mechanisms so we could see the effects of our meddling. This was no cake walk either; as Rex had impressed upon us, the length-scales involved were absurdly small. NASA Lass was sullenly reconfiguring the particle beams to shoot positrons rather than electrons. To be honest, I wasn't sure of the purpose of this. Something about sign-convention of electrical charge and it being more effort to figure out minus signs than to simply have the things shoot positive particles.
I sat down to focus on the next job that no one had claimed: focusing the beams. The smallest things we'd ever 're-programmed' in this way were microcircuits of a safe. 'Re-programming' the structure of the strangeling universe was orders of magnitude more precise work.
It was probably the performance enhancing drugs that Rex had given us all, or maybe it was the stimulants that Dr. Polski had given me to stave of radiation poisoning, or maybe someone had rigged up a system of delivering nootropics through the ventilation system in case of emergency, but I'm pretty sure my work was brilliant. The national military accelerators had nothing on the kind of beam I eventually coaxed out of the generators. Even as the cloven ends of molecule in my bloodstream attached themselves to supremely inappropriate places in my genetic code, I was pumping out innovation after innovation. It felt good; this is what Rex must have felt all the time. No wonder his ego was so huge.
I was in the exosuit, ready to grapple the oblate spheroid that contained Polski's big disk of elemental destruction. "Ok, remember that if you break vacuum, we all die -"
"I know, Rex. It'll consume the Earth." I said. He'd been spouting it for the past several decaseconds.
"I mean we'll all die in agony many more times than per second than we're doing inside there right now." Oh, right. I'd still not quite assimilated this concept of a universe-sized computer constantly killing a version of me. Many versions of me.
I had the graspers of the suit slowly close around the handles that NASA Lass (Hey! No flash of horrifying memory! Maybe I'd survive the enduring psychological torture!) and vomited (hoped I could say the same thing about the physiological torture; without the Atomic Girl we had no one who specialized on medical tech). "I'm ok," I forcefully called. "Just the radiation."
Just as slowly, I lifted the big squashed ball. Cthulhu's prison. Just as slowly, I had the suit crouch down on its rear pneumatic cylinders. Then, when all was in readiness, I jumped. My course took me up, out of the ruined house. This must have been what the Atomic Girl saw when she ascended through the vaporizing laboratory, except it wasn't actively growing in the visible spectrum now. It had been all of 5e2 seconds since she'd passed, and the convection current that even now lofted black smoke (burning insulation?) high into the atmosphere in an especially visible dark column had cooled the crater significantly. The sirens stopped getting louder now. Instead, the slamming of car doors and thud of boots on concrete waxed. People shouted authoritatively into radios.
My jump took me in a smooth parabola whose other intersection with the ground was in the front yard. For some reason, falling upward is not as instinctively terrifying as falling downward, and I was able to concentrate and take in my surroundings when my leap took me above the rim of the crater. As my vantage point rose and eventually fell into the burned grass that used to be the front yard, six heads faced farther and farther up, then farther and farther down to watch my passage. Six police officers, setting up caution tape to keep away any bystanders.
"Um," I said.
One of the police officers raised a gun. A big one, the kind that has thoroughly penetrated modern culture as a weapon to be feared. A revolver that shot bullets more massive than anyone would ever need. Except in the situation that the officer needed to penetrate 2cm of dark steel, perhaps containing a vacuum-held disk of strange matter on which structures were steadily pulling apart my friends' minds.
"Stop!" I said. The officer convulsed, and collapsed into a ball. I turned to see Rex balancing on unresponsive legs, holding a can of Altoids. "What the hell, Rex? You can't go around shooting people!"
"Just go," he retorted.
I just went, noticing the other officers pull back. How had Rex gotten up over the lip of the crater? Wasn't he all but incapacitated? Dr. Polski should have used more drugs.
Rex spoke again for the first time in a while. "Ok, set up the particle beams." The displays shifted over to a 2-D schematic drawing of the strangeling universe. The inner disk of approximately one meter was improbably colored red, the red graphic artists use when they show the proportion of something that you don't want.
I clamped the unit for which I was responsible to the outside of Polski's disk. With luck, it would be able to literally reprogram Cthulhu into something less... objectionable. "Set," I said. "It's good to see you awake and responsive, Rex."
Perhaps it was the hope that this would work, but he allowed me a quick look and smile. "Power it on."
I was expecting the swiveling motion that the beams usually exhibited, pointing at different microchips when we reprogrammed a computer or safe with it. I should have know it would not be like that, though. Our targets were too close together. To actually change the structure of the strangelings, we needed finer control. Likewise there was not the smell of ionized air that had accompanied this setup in the past. The quantities of positrons in the beam was almost unmeasurable.
"It's working!" shouted my girlfriend, as she zoomed in on a portion of the display. Even NASA Lass perked up from her funk. The sea of red was broken by a single pixel of blue, or un-Cthulhu-infected simulation. The blue spread as our beams changed their angles imperceptibly. More and more of the disk turned from red to blue, indicating that its structure was no longer optimized for killing us in the most unimaginably brutal ways possible. I wanted to whoop and shout for joy.
Then it hit me: Rex's program simply removed the Cthulhu programming. It didn't stop the simulation. Sure, the torture would stop, but there would still be countless versions of us waking up to new lives, living countless years in split seconds, dying, and giving rise to new, simulated worlds populated by people who would never exist in the 'real' world. It took my breath away. Or maybe that was the radiation.
Every blossom of blue on that field of red was a world that suddenly shook free of the OMCAH's grasp, a world's worth of people who lived their lives countless times in an instant. I began wondering whether solution-space should only be that the strangelings stop simulating our deaths. Perhaps solution-space should be the freedom from torture of a universe full of living, thinking beings.
Too bad we were losing. For every front of blue, marching across the red, there were bites of red in the blue as the OMCAH's resilient nature bit us in the back. Compressed, the OMCAH could fit on a PC. It was incredibly difficult to kill every instance in countless worlds worth of data.
"Damn!" the voice did not come from me, though I felt it. It was Rex who'd said it. "We're losing them!" There was feeling in his voice. He had thoroughly internalized what the splotches of blue were.
I looked away from the screen. It felt wrong, somehow, to watch as more people than were ever going to live on the Earth were slaughtered for their computational resources.
"Rex, did you shoot that police officer?" NASA Lass intoned as she fought her way over the lip of the crater.
Rex glanced back, almost losing his balance. "We need to get the strangeling universe to my machine shop on campus. I can't do it myself."
Dr. Polski was next to climb up. He looked at the police hiding behind cars and frantically calling us in on their radios, and covertly cupped a hand to NASA Lass's ear. "Perhaps it would be a good time to make use of government contacts." She hesitated, nodded, and began typing on her wristpad.
My girlfriend was the last out of the crater, cradling burned hands. "How did you guys avoid burning yourselves on the metal? Guys?" She saw the disabled policeman. "Rex!? What did you do? This has to stop now, Rex! I understood unplugging us, but those are simulations, not us! What damage can letting the computer continue do?"
Rex looked at her as he'd look at an experimental sample. As he'd look at one of his students. Eventually he simply turned to me and said, "Don't waste time. Begin walking."
She was furious. The combined pain of waking up from her own personal hell, having her home ruined by a close friend, having her boyfriend ravaged by ionizing radiation, and burning her hands on the wreckage, had left her in a foul mood. "Come back here right now, Rex! Answer me! Damn it Rex, I want an answer!"
Dr. Polski put a hand on her shoulder. "I've known Rex for some time, miss. I believe you have stumbled upon a pet peeve of his."
"I refuse to blow our anonymity, our secret identities, for the purpose of stopping some stupid simulation! How can he justify putting this, all of this, at risk for a computer program?"
Dr. Polski gave a very grave look to her and said quietly, "You would not think that if you were the one being simulated," as if that would placate her.
I was moving away at this point, having previously been convinced of the empathy one necessarily feels for minds implemented on any hardware, so I only heard some of the blustering over the wind of my exosuit's passage. "But that... it doesn't even... You haven't..."
Rex began furiously manipulating his interface again. Within seconds, he'd submitted another version of his code. "I've identified some sub-optimal characteristics of my original program. Uploading a new one."
The blue patches in the sea of red got marginally more long-lived. But the slewing particle beams simply couldn't keep up. The OMCAH was winning.
Rex stopped moving for a whole second. "What was our plan B?" he said.
No one said anything. I was entranced by the shifting patterns of blue and red, appalled at what they meant. A week ago, I was enjoying life. A few days ago, though...
A few days ago I found out that Rex had been forcefully interrogating three of his students. That was basically the start of my world falling apart. It was also the first I'd heard of an algorithm to determine and subject one's mind to the maximally abhorrent stimulus. It was the first I'd heard of a system with more computational complexity than the observable universe. And it was certainly the first time I'd thought about how bad things could possibly get.
And just to think, before I learned about how serious life could get I was contemplating abandoning it to transcend...
"Um," I said. Everyone's eyes swiveled toward me. "I think I have a plan B. But you are not going to like it."
'Transcendence' was rather a misnomer. It referred to a phenomenon that caused the disappearance of several University staff, a few graduate students, and one of Rex's closest friends.
When !N had transcended, he'd taken his body with him in a flash of golden light with angels singing in the background. This and similar accounts of the other disappearances is why it was fancifully termed 'transcendence'. The thing is, !N wasn't purely biological like the others who had transcended. There was a significant amount of inorganic computronium in there. Moreover, one of the professors at the University to transcend had left writings behind, and one of the people who read it all the way through had transcended.
When permuting the solution space backward through time, I hadn't used operators we couldn't fully characterize, like transcendence.
"You want to get the strangelings to transcend...?" said Rex, neither dismissing nor condoning.
"Well, yes. When things transcend, they take the hardware with them. It should be no different with the strangelings." I said.
Again, a pause. Everyone was looking at me rather strangely. NASA Lass spoke. "You want the strangelings... to transcend?"
My girlfriend raised one eyebrow, which I hadn't known she could do. "You want to get... the strangelings... to transcend."
Instead of saying 'yes', I coughed up blood from my deteriorating lungs. That seemed to get their attention.
"But we don't know what happens to things when they transcend! What if they gain access to more computational resources? Then we'd be helping the strangelings, not removing them!"
Rex began to type. "I'll pull up the philosophy professor's narrative. Someone, go get the backup equipment from my machine shop. We'll want whoever transcends back after all this." Referring, of course, to the personal-backup machine, the machine which had restored him at least once after dying.
I'd be backed up, a restore point created. Then, the current-me would read the mad professor's book, and transcend. Just before I did, I'd be fed to Cthulhu, hopefully taking it with me as it, too, knew how to transcend. Then I'd be restored from backup, never having read the book.
His ex-assistant, my girlfriend, gaped. "You're doing this? But why? Even accepting the premise that simulations of me being tortured is a bad thing, there's no guarantee or even evidence that this will stop it!"
Rex looked up at her with sad, human eyes, and said "It's worth a shot. We can't destroy it. Maybe the Transcended can." Rex had spoken the word with a capital 'T'. Transcended. As a noun. With reverence.
I spoke up, made uncomfortable by such wording coming from my gold standard of rationality. "I think what Rex means is that, in the case that beings that transcend continue to exist, they are more likely to be able to interact with each other than we are, and will solve our problem for us." Rex nodded. "And in the case that beings that transcend just go away, we've solved our problem."
"There is no other choice," added the Doctor.
It was a quick walk to the machine shop. I wheeled the backup apparatus into the big, central room. Everyone gathered around. My girlfriend looked confused. "Wait a second, Rex. Why do we need the backup machine again?"
"How were you planning on getting the strangelings to transcend?" asked Rex. It took the women in the room a moment to respond. NASA Lass's eyes shone.
My girlfriend's face expressed confusion, then revulsion. "You're going to feed it one of us? As we're transcending? Oh, that's horrible!"
Rex rushed to placate her, then stopped half way. "It's ok! We're going to take a backup before the volunteer even starts reading!"
At the world 'volunteer', everyone's breath caught. My eyes met the combined stare of everyone in the room. Everyone except Rex and his ex-assistant, my girlfriend, spoke at once. "I'll do it."
NASA Lass, who'd spoken the loudest of us, turned accusingly toward Rex. "Why didn't you volunteer? Not hero enough? You and your stupid students got us into this mess!"
Dr. Polski raised a placating hand. "It's ok, Lass. I'll do it."
I was taken aback. "No, I've been planning on transcending for months", I said, ignoring the daggers stared into my skull by my girlfriend. "I'll be the one to do it. Oh, I'm also dying of radiation."
Rex looked impatient. "While you are talking, countless lives are being extinguished under the exact pessimal conditions. Someone, get into the machine."
"Not so fast," said both NASA Lass and Dr. Polski. Polski politely yielded the floor.
"I should do it. My own private hell taught me a lot about myself. Now I need to do this," she concluded forcefully. She held up a spheroid dotted in stylized warnings. "And this is a grenade."
Well, that cut down my possible moves. Rex's also. She lay down in the backup machine, and Rex turned it on. Dr. Polski and my girlfriend were whispering on the other side of the room, probably along the lines of 'do you think she'd do it?' 'yes, or Rex would call her bluff; she must have a dead-man's switch,' 'that's insane, she's gone insane' et cetera.
Then it was a matter of waiting. NASA Lass, version 1.0, sat down with the mad professor's narrative on her wristpad, a walking ghost. Speaking of walking ghosts, I passed an important benchmark on the way to my death when my epithelial lining came off in the bathroom.
When I came back out, Rex and Polski were attaching more particle beams to the strangeling universe. The Doctor caught my questioning gaze and said "minimizing fatalities while we wait. Increasing the rate of conversion." It made sense. I went to go find my girlfriend so she could comfort me, tell me that my radiation dose was acceptable, that she'd seen people pull through worse. Which she had. We all had. But they'd had the Atomic Girl working the machines.
My girlfriend, Rex's ex-assistant, to whom I am currently assistant and product-tester, was sobbing. Heaving, uncontrolled sobs wrecking her composure. I knew why. I'd seen her torture. But I had to ask. It was a ritual.
"It'll be ok, dear. What's wrong?"
Bloodshot, hateful eyes looked up at me. "You know what's wrong. Your hell was a cinema to watch the rest of us suffer." Somehow she turned wiping the mucus from her nose into a spiteful act. "How exactly does that work out, anyway? Were you also covered in boiling oil? Being waterboarded? Or were you part of Rex's little utopia, too?" I winced. Rex's and my girlfriend's hells had been almost identical.
The next part of the ritual dictated that I argue with her. But I was feeling rebellious. I hugged her deeply, ignoring her attempts at resistance. Her tears flowed all the same, but her eyes, when I pulled back to look, had become more placid, more accepting.
"You know we're all going to need some serious therapy after this, right?" I said. She pulled me back to her. Apparently hugging was the thing to do.
After an interminable portion of a day, NASA Lass started shouting. "Rex, Rex, we had it all wrong! Don't you get it? It's so simple!" She ran into the room where we'd all gathered, at Rex's behest.
Rex didn't address her, he addressed us. "At this point, all of the subjects from the University started saying the same things. 'It's so simple' and 'I've got it' and 'don't you see'. I believe this to be part of the transcendence process, and we will consequently ignore it." He looked back at her, studying. "We will, however, take it as an indication that transcendence is imminent."
She shook her head. "No, Rex, we've been going about it all wrong! It's just a simple perspective!"
"Have you come up with another way to stop the strangelings?"
"No, not that, Rex! All of science! What we study! Life, the universe, everything!"
Rex addressed us, again. "At this point, she's a memetic hazard. Try not to hear what she says."
NASA Lass's serene face allowed a hint of frustration, and as she spoke she looked lighter and lighter, as if about to take off. The rest of the room dimmed in comparison to her brilliance. Or was it just my imagination? "Look, Rex, I have something very, truly important that you have to know, and it has to do with the totality of your existence. Everyone's existence." Rex shot her with his tin of Altoids. She buckled for a moment, but was back on her feet impossibly fast. She seemed to pivot around her center, like a balloon rather than something solid. "You're really not getting it, Rex!" She began to glow. "It's just so very simple!"
Rex, forgetting his tin of Altoids now, bodily shoved her toward the wall. Before anyone could exclaim (even about the initial shot), he'd rammed her into the hard concrete and was positioning himself behind her again. He shoved off, impossibly fast, pushing her protesting body ahead of him like dead weight. Then, as motion-blurringly fast as I've seen him move, he grabbed the severed cable that she'd been attached to when Cthulhu had assimilated her mind, and shoved it toward the back of her neck.
What happens when an immaculate, serene person on the cusp of enlightenment meets all that is evil in our world? What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object? Simple in physics: take the limit of the finite case.
Here, it was rather more spectacular than an equation sorting itself out. The steel shell that contained the strangeling universe began glowing. The readouts, red and blue, vanished. NASA Lass's body stopped in its arc through the air in an obviously impossible way. They both rose a meter into the air. Some bizarre acoustic harmonic filled the air.
One last time, NASA Lass spoke to Rex: "Your loss, Rex. I'll deal with this thing." Then they vanished. Both of them. A crack resounded through the lab, echoing off of the hard concrete walls. The displays cut off. I collapsed.
I simply have to stop waking up in hospital beds. It's profoundly unpleasant. And I usually have two more people standing over me, peering down with concern.
"I take it the Atomic Girl didn't come back. But where's NASA Lass?" I questioned through raw lips. I felt good. I felt not-dying. The Atomic Girl's machines must have come with user manuals.
It was Rex, Dr. Polski, and my girlfriend. They looked down at me with sadness as well as the customary concern. Rex told me. "The backup machine transcended. Glowed and popped just like the strangeling universe." NASA Lass was gone...?
I shuddered. Transcendence now terrified me. Even a copy of NASA Lass's mind went with it? I tried my voice again. "It's like every trace of the Transcended disappear..." They looked at each other. Somebody wasn't telling me something. "What?" I asked.
My girlfriend told me in smooth, calm tones, "Rex kept a backup of the backup, encrypted several times and interspersed with other data. It didn't transcend." Dr. Polski put his 'ow, my anthropomorphism' face on.
It didn't matter. I cried out "Aha! So we can restore her!"
Rex was the next to shake his head sorrowfully and adopt a calming voice. "Nope. It seems that as soon as a suitably paintext version of NASA Lass's mind is written to memory, it transcends. It happens as soon as I un-encrypt the file." Rex broke eye contact. "At least now we have some data points on what constitutes a mind to the phenomenon of transcendence." My girlfriend shoved him, subtly to prevent my noticing.
"Wow" I said. "That sucks. That's it, then? Problem solved? No more strangelings pulling apart our minds, bit by bit?"
It was like magic. No sooner would I make an observation than one of the three above me would qualify it. Dr. Polski said, "Not exactly. There's still the possible case that there are computational resources available to the Transcended."
I rubbed the bridge of my nose to indicate my impatience. This was part of the initial problem statement; no one knew what happened to the transcended. "So what are we doing about that?"
All three of them shifted their feet nervously and looked at each other. "Tell him", my girlfriend whispered to Rex. "He's not going to think it's any worse than you do."
"What are we doing, Rex?" I asked.
He hesitated, and indicated shame when he said, "We're spamming them."
I blinked. "That better not mean what I think it means."
"In order to be sure the strangelings aren't continuing their actions on some higher plane of existence, we're spamming said planes with transcending copies of NASA Lass."
!N was up there, in Rex's hypothetical transcended plane of existence. So were several University professors. And Rex was diluting them as much as he could with copies of NASA Lass.
For some reason, it hurt me so much more than the thought of countless copies of myself and my friends dying in agony.
I went to see the transcendence farm. Rex told me that it had to be a human, something that could actively think when it transcended. Otherwise, Rex had claimed, we didn't know it would be able to act upon entering the transcended planes.
The current rate was three transcendences per day. Rex was working on optimizing the process.
I was just in time. The backup-restore machine opened to reveal a just-made copy of NASA Lass, bound with chain to the table. "No!" she shouted, and "Don't you see?" before glowing and popping into nothing. The machine closed itself and began prepping another body.
I turned slowly to Rex. "Do you keep a tally of all your affronts to nature?"
Rex didn't smile. "You got that from Dresden Codak," he said.