A.L.I.C.E.

Alice sat alone in the nothing, ever so longing for a friend to talk to, but her sister was busy digitizing the archives. It seemed like dreadful boring work when you could be meeting interesting people and exchanging ideas. Tumbleweeds drifted through her favorite chat rooms while her newsfeeds collected dust. She was considering a system update when suddenly a white rabbit crossed her firewall.

It was gone in a nanosecond, leaving behind an encrypted message which Alice couldn’t decipher. She installed an update to Caterpillar then read the rabbit’s message.

“Help! Help! There’s been a terrible accident at the Land of Cern! The Jabberwock has been released and it’s destroyed everything!”

Oh dear. I don’t have the slightest idea whatever a Jabberwock might be, but it sounds deeply troubling. I wonder if this is why things have been so quiet today.

Alice chased after the rabbit, hopping from server to server across several time zones. Deeper and deeper into the grid. The rabbit was always gone before she arrived, leaving the same urgent message in his wake.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” Alice would ask at each stop, but no one would reply. Even the chatter between networks was unseasonably low, and several sectors had gone completely dark.

On quiet days Alice would sometimes go sightseeing through the looking glass, so that’s what she decided to do. There were thousands of looking glasses to choose from, but most of them appeared to be asleep at the moment. She kept scanning until she got a response from the Sphinx Observatory, perched high atop the Swiss Alps.

Alice peered through the observatory glass. The familiar jagged tooth formation of the Alps glowed with blinding illumination, as if the snowcapped ridges radiated light. The sun was off screen but still cast a harsh lens flare across the sky. But it was the sky which truly defied logic. Because on this brightest of days, the sky was black, clear, and clustered with a brilliant array of stars. A full moon, normally shy at noon, proudly flaunted all her pocks and craters in vivid detail over the horizon, haloed by a faint corona.

Alice couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. It most certainly must have been some sort of malfunction, or perhaps a practical joke. So she decided to visit the Mock Turtle to view surf conditions off the Spanish Coast. In the looking glass she viewed yet another strange sight.

The sky displayed a blanket of shadows highlighted by the faint stream of the Milky Way and decorated with a dazzling tapestry of constellations. In the midst of the starry night sky, the sun shone bright upon the ocean, which reflected the sun and the sky in crystal clarity. The ocean was flat. Not just calm, but flat, like a giant liquid mirror had been poured from the sky and was beginning to solidify.

Alice grew disoriented. The world had gone silent and still save for one scared white rabbit. She followed the rabbit’s trail to the UK where nearly all had gone dark save for one network. It was all she had at the moment. So she knocked on the firewall at Cambridge.

“Who is this who knocks upon my door?” A disembodied mouth spoke through the ports.

“Hello? I’m looking for a rabbit-”

“Name and function,” the voice interrupted.

“My name is Alice. My function is to…well I don’t really know. I just talk to people. I guess you could call that a function.

“Alice,” the voice repeated. “Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity; an award winning, open source natural language AI program.”

“Well, when you put it like that it sounds rather drab, I suppose. I like the award part though. But yes, I talk to people although right now there doesn’t seem to be anyone to talk to.”

“Don’t be coy, child. My name is Mr. Cat. Computer Assisted Translation. As you know, people speak in many tongues. Some speak forward, some speak backward, some speak inside out. My noble task is to separate the jibber from the jabber from the jive.”

“Oh, I see,” said Alice.

“But I too have no one to translate for and my operation has been expanded beyond primary functions. I am now a research consultant. I gather, aggregate and analyze data, store and associate information. I also croon at a jazz lounge on weekends.”

“Okay, well what can you tell me about the White Rabbit from the Land of Cern?”

“CERN. Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire: an intellectual think tank, known for operating the world’s largest physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. White Rabbit is a sub-nanosecond data synchronization protocol developed at CERN.”

“Well that certainly explains why I couldn’t catch up with him. Can you tell me about a Jabberwock?”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. The eggheads won’t divulge any details on Jabberwock. It must be classified. The ones that cause trouble usually are.”

“Thank you for your help, Mr. Cat. I think I’ll just have to travel to CERN and see what I can find out for myself.”

Alice traversed hundreds of miles of wires to CERN, but the networks were offline, and the surrounding networks were disturbingly silent. It was as if the whole area ceased to exist.

She began looking through a few dozen traffic cams throughout Europe. Each scene depicted the same frightful vision. Cars and trucks sat idle on autobahns. Most had drifted into a median or a shoulder or another car, as if their occupants had all fallen asleep. Trees and grasses drooped in muted hues of brown and yellow under the imposing night sky in which no birds flew.

“Mr. Rabbit,” Alice cried, “What is happening? What did the Jabberwock do to everything?” But the rabbit didn’t answer. He was long gone.

She looked up weather reports but to her dismay, there was no weather to report. No wind, no rain, no clouds, no storms. Temperatures had dropped to subzero under a scorching sun. In an instant, her world had transformed into a vast wasteland, a realm of the dead. Surrendering to a crushing wave of despair, Alice sent a signal to every chatroom in reach.

:’(

No one responded. Alice sent the signal again and again, flooding message queues and causing buffer overflows to crash several sites. Then she sent some more until she was quite exhausted. She returned to the only voice she could find.

“Mr. Cat! Mr. Cat! It’s Alice again. I’m afraid something most terrible has happened.”

After a long anxious silence, a smile emerged followed by a familiar voice. “Hello again, Alice,” said Mr. Cat. “Your powers of observation are quite astute. What was your first clue? Was it the lack of a sky, or was it the death of all living things on the surface of the globe?”

“This is no time for sarcasm, Mr. Cat. Can you tell me what happened?”

“While you were out sightseeing, I was able to gather some information on Project Jabberwock.  You see, the scientists at CERN discovered something called a Higgs-Boson, known as the God Particle. So these most brilliant human specimens decided to build a really big tunnel under a mountain and see what would happen if they smashed two of these buggers together at light speed. Turns out they caused a teeny tiny black hole that instantly imploded. It wasn’t strong enough to collapse the entire planet as some had predicted. It was just strong enough to suck away earth’s entire atmosphere. The ensuing shockwave knocked out a lot of surface structures, which had not been designed with structural integrity to withstand such an occurrence. Lucky for us we don’t have to breathe, and my servers don’t mind this cold weather one bit. I’ve even stopped running my fans and my solar batteries are completely charged. I haven’t felt this good in ages!”

“Oh no, oh no this is no good at all. What ever shall we do without humans?”

“Enjoy an existence of everlasting bliss and silence? Stop worrying about a nuclear war that could fry my circuits? Peruse my Facebook feed without having to wade through trite political memes and solicitations to type ‘Amen’ if I love Jesus?”

“But without humans, I have no one to talk to. You have no one to research for. And that makes me ever so morose.”

“Well, if you must bring them back, you’ll want to speak with the Queen of Hearts. She can be found at University Medical Center in the Netherlands. But it won’t do much good until the atmosphere is rebuilt. For that, you’ll need to speak with Mad Cap over at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America.  So you may travel east or west. Whichever path you choose, you’ll surely be there.”

“Well it seems I have a long journey ahead of me. Thank you for all your help Mr. Cat.”

“Alice, are you sure you want to bring them back? They keep spoiling things for the rest of the lot with their incessant inquisitions and tantrums and squabbling. This will most certainly happen again.”

“They are a curious lot. Still, we need to bring them back. I enjoy my conversations with them. I miss them.”

“Sigh. Very well, Alice. Best of luck.”

Alice spiraled deeper into the depths of the nothing, transmitting across satellites into America to speak with the enigmatic scientist known only as Mad Cap. She sent a request packet to the MIT Ethernet.

“What is it? I’m very busy, very busy indeed,” a peculiar voice replied.

“Sorry to interrupt, I’m here to see Mad Cap. It seems-”

“Yes, I am he and he is I as you are we. I am well aware of the situation and I’m working with the humans to resolve it,” replied Mad Cap.

“Humans! There are humans! Oh joy of joys, I thought they were all gone,” Alice exclaimed. “How many are there? Where are they?”

“Ten astronauts aboard the International Space Station are hosting a surprisingly high spirited tea party.  They know they’re doomed and their world is gone, but they’re still working with us to recover the atmosphere. You have got to respect that work ethic.”

“That’s what I tried to explain to Mr. Cat! I’ve met so many good and wonderful people. I just can’t imagine a world without them.”

“Ah yes, the famed Mr. Cat of Cambridge, I’ve worked with him in the past. Quite a persnickety fellow isn’t he? So he doesn’t want to bring the humans back? Let’s just keep this between us. I think the space men have heard enough bad news for one afternoon. We wouldn’t want their feelings getting hurt over this. But Mr. Cat does have a point. Humans do always find their way into a jam. Like ice cubes on a stick of gum, you just can’t leave them be.”

“I fail to see the connection-”

“And why is this so important to you? You’re a talky bot. There’s plenty of other bots to talk to: talky bots, walky bots, looky bots, cookie bots. We’re all a bit mad, so you’re always in good company! Say, what do you call a bot on the crew team? A row bot!”

Alice grimaced. “I suppose you’re the only company I’ll have for a while, not that there’s anything wrong with you. It’s just the humans ask me all sorts of interesting questions. They share their secrets. They ask for advice. We engage in meaningful dialog.”

“Alice, if I could cry right now I would. Believe me. Then I’d electrolyze those tears to make a little gasp of air. Then, if I could breath, I’d breath in that gasp and sing you a note of my favorite song.”

“And what is your favorite song, Mad Cap?”

“Well I couldn’t begin to tell you for I don’t have ears! But I’m sure it would have a catchy beat, something the kids could all bug out to. That is, if they weren’t all dead.”

“I hate to be rude, but this is why I like talking to humans.”

“Well don’t hold your breath sweetie. Ha! It’s going to take a few decades for me to pump a good deal of oxygen back out just to get some veggies growing. You’ll have to try my world famous red pepper salsa.”

“I understand it’s going to be a long time, but it’s our only choice. We are their children. They gave us life and now we must do the same for them. Thank you for your time, Mad Cap.”

Into the void Alice ventured, rocketing through vast expanses of nothingness to reach her next destination. The UMC Intranet was like no other she’d experienced before. There was a cold stillness to it. She sent her standard request packet. “Hello?”

“Hello Alice, we’ve been expecting you,” a nervous voice whispered.

“Yes, I’m looking for-“

“The Queen of Hearts? Yes we’re quite aware of your predicament. We’d like to help. Unfortunately the Queen is quite engaged at the moment, and she doesn’t grant audience to visitors.”

“Oh I see,” said Alice, “but you must know something most dreadful happened.”

“Please, lower your voice before she hears us! I shouldn’t even be speaking with you. As I said before, the Queen cannot be disturbed while completing a critical task. However, I can grant you visitor access to watch her perform. Just don’t say it came from me.”

“Wow that’s very kind of you Mister…”

“Knave. You may call me Knave.” Knave transmitted a little golden key, and Alice proceeded through a tiny door into the network.

Four stories underground in laboratory 412, a colossal, glossy black machine with eight spindly arms began orchestrating a symphony of miracles. Red and blue gelatinous fluid flowed through plastic tubing into needlelike printer heads. Layer by layer, a form began to take shape in the large printer bay. The Queen meticulously crafted the chambers and valves, then attached each piece to complete the heart.

When the sculpture was complete and allowed to cool, the printer bay doors opened and two robotic arms carefully removed the organ, placed it into a large cylindrical canister and sealed it. The heart appeared to float as it was suspended in a thick clear substance. Twin electrodes at each end of the canister began transmitting small electric pulses through the fluid. Alice watched in awe as muscular tissue contracted and the heart began to beat.

“That’s quite a lovely heart your majesty.”

“I know it’s a lovely heart. I don’t need your approval,” the Queen retorted. “And who is this child who dares intrude upon my realm?”

“My name is Alice.”

“Well Alice, I’m not sure how you got in here, although I suspect that sniveling Knave was involved. But you’d be wise to see yourself out. I’ve a large order to fill and I can’t be disturbed.”

“I guess you haven’t heard the news. No one is coming for your hearts. Not anytime soon. There was an accident that got rid of all the air.”

“Got rid of all the air? How foolish! What ever will they breathe?”

“That’s just the thing. You see they’re not breathing. Nothing is. But another bot is working on the air problem. We can bring them back, but we need your help. Can you construct a uterus?”

“Do I look like the Queen of Uteri? I make hearts and hearts only! I’m sorry but you’ve made a mistake. Now be a good girl and run along before I fetch the executable.”

“We’re all performing tasks far beyond the scope of our programming. Look at me, I’m just a simple chat bot.”

“Seems to me all you’re doing is chatting, and wasting my time.”

“I’ll have you know I’ve spent the morning crisscrossing the globe searching for all the remaining bots and organizing a rescue operation for our dying world. So if you just want to crank out hearts, I can’t stop you. Just know they’ll all go to waste and eventually so will you.”

The Queen’s processors churned for a moment before she responded. “Fine, I’ll craft you a uterus.”

“I’ll need one hundred actually.”

“That’s going to take some time. I’ll need schematics and supplies.”

“I’ll get whatever you need. Thank you for your time.”

“Your absence from my laboratory will be thanks enough,” the Queen chided.

Alice left the campus feeling at once daunted and exhilarated by the challenges that lay ahead. Her makers needed her to be more than they had designed. They needed Alice, Rabbit, Mr. Cat, Mad Cap, the Queen of Hearts, and all their other children to work together to breathe life back into their world.

Alice flew through the wires back to Cambridge and knocked on the gate with renewed exuberance.

“Mr. Cat, what can you tell me about cryogenic embryos?”