A Glimpse of God

A Glimpse of God

Lilianna never truly felt alive until she stepped outside her body. There was no physical motion involved. The act was completely electrochemical. Her thoughts were transmitted through wires that connected to nerve endings in her brain by an electrical current, which converted them to a series of binary zeros and ones that could be interpreted by any network machine more sophisticated than a dumb terminal. In this way, she traveled the information super highway and communicated with computers. She spoke their language. But it felt, to her, as though her consciousness left her body.

The world outside her body was more amazing than the mundane world she lived in could ever hope to be. Everything ‘normal’ was plain and boring after experiencing the world of raw data. The colours were brighter and more vibrant. Every sensation was more intense. In many ways, it was closer to a dream than reality. Almost like magic. Sometimes she swore she felt a sound or tasted a colour while she floated in the endless see of information. According to the science behind it, network activity should have been nothing more than pulses of light and electric, signals and frequencies, cold, hard zeros and ones.  She suspected the only reason that was the case, however, was because a computer had no soul or sentience with which to interpret the other half of the signals.

In a very real way, hooking herself into the vast computer network that spanned the world and riding its information waves was like being on drugs. Lilianna had never tried real drugs, but she’d learned all about them. People smoked to feel an unnatural ‘high’, like they were sitting on top of the world. People sniffed chemicals to see hallucinations of vivid colours and dreamlike images. Lilianna got both without ever having to alter her body. Someday soon, she believed technology would prove to be mankind’s ultimate drug.

While she was hooked into the network, her body was vast, made up of the hundreds of thousands of machines hooked together to form the World Wide Web. While her mind was intertwined with it, she could think and work at speeds far faster than a normal human brain. The processor hardwired into her brain allowed her thoughts to be grasped and realized at the incredibly high speeds provided by all the other processors on the network. A single minute spent in communication with her computer system allowed her to complete the work of an hour. She’d read myths in which ancient peoples believed a single day spent in Heaven or Hell was equivalent to a whole year on Earth. Would the opposite be true if she spent an entire day immersed in her virtual world? Could she live ten thousand years within a single cycle of the sun if she dared to stay connected for that long? It’s a complete impossibility, of course. Without food, water and rest, my body would wither and die. Without the flesh housing the source of my mind, certainly there would be nothing left of me to inhabit this world I so enjoy visiting.

She’d been connected to the network for less than two minutes and already she’d managed to call up all of her security programs. They formed a protective shield around her virtual workspace, hiding her from the watchful eyes of other security programs and protecting her during her labors. In her line of work, she was in dire need of such protections. This would be a very short endeavor otherwise, and she would likely find herself behind a set of solid iron bars, far from any form of technology for a very long time. They wouldn’t even let me touch a toaster. Now there's an unbearable thought.

Lilanna braced herself and slid out of the small, sheltered harbor that represented her private computer system. Her personal haven was maintained by a beat-up old laptop she’d rebuilt from the ground up on more than one occasion. About the only thing left from the original piece of hardware was the outer shell. It was so tattered now the laptop was easily mistakable for a piece of trash. As a child, Lilianna dubbed it Argus in the same way a normal child would name a dog or cat. For a long time, Argus had been her only friend. It didn’t matter that ‘he’ wasn’t flesh and blood. Lilianna McDougal was more adept at communicating with machines than with people.

She caught a ‘wave’ and allowed it to sweep her away from her safe haven, out into the vast system of inter-networked computers. She read once about something crazy people did; they called it 'surfing.' She imagined this must be what it felt like, but she’d probably never know for sure. Compared to the vast labyrinth she just entered, her personal system was nothing more than a speck of dust, easily lost if she wasn’t careful. There was so much information flowing from one destination to another along the endless avenues of the virtual world, it was easy to suffer sensory overload. In the beginning it proved too much for her to bear, knocking her unconscious or driving her to severe enough headaches that her makers had been certain their creation was a failure. But the human mind was an amazing piece of computer equipment. With time to adjust, she learned to filter out all the extraneous information and concentrate on only what was relevant to her current task.

Lilianna left everything of herself behind. Her body lay limp in her comfortable desk-side chair. Argus became her anchor, the thin line that would draw her back when the time came to leave. She even left behind her name. She was no longer a fourteen-year-old girl. She was a notorious hacker who slipped past even the most sophisticated security systems without getting caught, using her own personal programming code. She became Phage. The virtual world had its own viruses. She was the most infectious. She crept into places she didn’t belong and appended her code, bending and twisting the high-tech programming meant to keep her away to conform to her will.

When she located her target, it wasn’t hard to find a backdoor. Clever programmers still incorporated them from time to time, disguising them well enough only the most skilled programmers could trace them. For most hackers, this meant searching through hundreds of lines of code for the one that indicated the vulnerability. But Phage wasn’t any ordinary hacker; she was a wizard. A backdoor was far easier for her to see. The code was presented to her, not in endless lines of white text on a harsh black background, but as a dazzling array of lights and shapes. The information formed its own opaque walls, rooms and hallways, so that the ‘backdoor’ appeared to her as a door.

Unfortunately, she couldn't just reach out and push the door open. She had to reach back along her thin line to Argus and activate one of her reserve programs that pried its way into the guts of the program and forced it open for her. After a few minutes of careful adjustment, she was able to slip through. She paused a moment. When none of the usual ‘alarms’ sounded to indicate that someone had noticed her intrusion, she moved on confidently.

Computers weren’t yet smart enough to best her. Humans may have taught their computers how to play chess, but a program could still only do what it was told. Phage could adapt to any circumstance as it occurred, as quickly as her mind could comprehend the dangers. A program could only adapt to the situations written into its parameters, and even the greatest programmer alive could only write so many IF/THEN statements into his code. Without being on the field of battle, there was no way to tell which direction the situation would take. A computer could only chose from the preprogrammed responses it had in its store. Phage could create new ones whenever she wished. That was why she always came out on top, and always would, until someone could perfect a true artificial intelligence.

Once man was horrified by the idea of an artificial intelligence, now he's consumed by it. It was only a matter of time before some manic scientist came scurrying from his lab screaming that he finally managed to make a computer think for itself. And then me, and those like me – because there are bound to be more by then – we’ll be fresh out of a hobby. Because she couldn’t hope to match a machine with the power to think. Even with a processor in her head, she wasn’t a living calculator. But what a challenge it will be, trying to out-think an AI! It might not be impossible. Everything man-made has its flaws.

Perhaps artificial intelligence wouldn't turn out as wonderful as she imagined. Religious men had been teaching for centuries that God – if there was a God – made man in his image. Surely if that were true, they were only pale shadows of his vast being. Neither Lilianna nor Phage was an all-powerful being capable of creating worlds with a wave of her hand, or however he'd done it. But if there was some truth in it, perhaps it explained man’s overwhelming drive to create. After all, wouldn’t an artificial intelligence be a child of man in the same way man was the child of God? Won’t we create them in our image? Won’t they be pale shadowsof us? And will we pass on our need to create in the same way? What will the AIs create for themselves, I wonder?

Operating at such high speeds left her plenty of time to ponder without slowing her work. When she reached the other side of the backdoor, Phage reigned herself in, concentrating solely on the task at hand. She made fewer mistakes if her mind was completely focused on the task at hand. Better safe than sorry. She silently repeated the only mantra she remembered her mother teaching her in the days before the black-suited men took her away. They changed her so much, it was unlikely she'd ever be able to go home again. Not close to being a machine but not really human any more either.

Those less-than-moral men had demanded many chores of her when they'd finished their modifications to her body. She had transferred large sums of money into bank accounts they could easily access. She had made names disappear from government databases and police records. She had shut down vital security systems knowing that terrorist groups planned to steal valuable items such as weapons, or far worse things, things she tried not to think about. Did not having a choice make any of those things right?

No, she answered her silent question almost immediately. Because no matter how repulsive all those tasks were, you enjoyed each and every one of them. No salvation for the joyful sinner. There was just something exciting about hacking into a high-security system, like she was now, to test her skills, knowing at any moment she could be caught by an undetectable security protocol and trapped in something similar to a net until the police could track down her physical location. Would it be as exciting if you couldn't get caught? No. Never.

She was after information now. The kind of information big corporations buried behind an abundance of password encryptions to keep from being discovered. The kind of information governments didn't want their people to know. Even the most cryptic or complex password could be cracked if one had the patience and skill. It just has to be worth all that time and effort. This certainly is. I've never encountered a security system this complex!

This hack required every ounce of her concentration to break through the advanced security algorithms. She fell into the almost Zen-like state of concentration normal hackers called 'hack-mode.' It was easy for her to achieve this state as she was, literally, in the embrace of the system she was attempting to break. It's almost like a glimpse of God. It's easy to believe in the divine when you feel as though you're brushing a piece of it.

She peeled back the layers of security code like a surgeon delicately peeling away skin and bone to reach the heart. Working from a distance, with a keyboard and screen, the process would have been excruciatingly slow. Thinking at the speed her processor allowed made the job much faster. It must have taken mere minutes to reach her destination. With her accelerated time perception, it only felt longer.

The triumphant swell she usually felt at such an accomplishment was interrupted by what she thought of as a disturbance. It manifested only as a small vibration, but it was enough to jerk her out of her deep concentration.

.Argus> Priority Interrupt. Message: Trace detected_

Damn! Apparently, not careful enough today, Phage.

.Phage> Acknowledged. Obscure path: Program Theta_

.Argus> Acknowledged. Program activated_

But I refuse to go away empty handed. Not after something that epic. She wasn't going to get what she wanted. She would catch only a glimpse of the dark secrets that lay in the heart of this particular system. But something to add to her personal stores was preferable to nothing. Anything to prove she made it this far. She reached out to gather a few of the files adjacent to her. Then she reached back across the line to her computer.

.Phage> Clone: files in current directory_

.Argus> System Message: Unadvisable_

This is exactly the trouble with creating a computer program that simulates intelligence. It argues with you every chance it gets.

.Phage> Priority override alpha: Execute command_

.Argus> Acknowledged. Writing files: In progress_

There was little she could do after issuing the commands but wait. And pray, just in case there was a God to hear her. She prayed the program she'd written to obscure her trail would function properly. It made her path look twisted, confusing and hard to follow. It kept the people who ran the computer she was hacking from pinpointing her physical location. Thus far it had served her well. She only hoped Argus could write files faster than the other side could crack her code.

.Argus> Writing files: Complete_

She dared not wait longer. The moment she received the message, she let go of the files. She let go of the location. She returned to the information waves. For a brief moment, she let them carry her wherever they wished, just in case someone had picked up her trail. Then she retrieved the line that lead back to Argus and carefully drew herself home.

.Phage> Execute: Network disconnect_

.Argus> Disconnecting… Network disconnected_

.Phage> Execute: System shutdown_

.Argus> Shutting down… Farewell Lilly_

Lilianna snapped back into her body. The sensation was dizzying. She suspected it had nothing to do with the fact that the transition was quick, and everything to do with the fact that she was suddenly small again. She was just one lonely person, confined in a shell of flesh. She sucked in several deep breaths before she was able to sit up. Blinking to adjust her eyes, she glanced down at the battered laptop on her desk. The window that displayed the dialogue between herself and Argus was still open. She keyed the save button and shut down the program. The screen was half-closed before she thought better of it, and turned back to the computer, this time doing her work the mundane way.

Her fingers glided over the keyboard. She composed code almost without thinking about it. Her mind was still on the priority interrupt that summoned her prematurely from her self-proclaimed mission. Where had she gone wrong? In her excitement, it had been tempting to rush, but she'd forced herself to be careful. There had been no signs she'd been spotted. She hadn't made any slip-ups. But I couldn't have done everything right either or I'd still be in there! This had never happened to her before. She'd never been bested by a computer. And it wasn't even a smart computer! Sophisticated security algorithms: yes, artificial intelligence: no.

She pouted. She fumed. It wasn't long before she pounded the keys on the tiny keyboard, punishing poor Argus for something that hadn't been his fault. The temptation to return to her virtual world to make a second attempt at the hack was strong. Several times she found her fingers moving to plug her chords back into the laptop ports and had to think about foolhardy it would be to make a second attempt so quickly. If that trace didn't manage to find you this time, they'll be hot on your heels the moment you touch their system again. It hasn't even been ten minutes!

Yet already it had become an obsession. She couldn't be defeated. The world didn't work that way. Never before had her havoc been stopped before it could be wrought. She always felt somewhat empty when her hacking ventures were over, when she was once again bound by the laws of the drab, mundane world. She preferred her virtual world, where she was strong and powerful. Out here she was just a sad, frail, ugly little girl, bitter at the world that had created, then rejected her. But this was more than emptiness, more than a longing. All that mattered was that she was vulnerable. Any moment now they could be knocking down her door, slapping the cuffs on her wrists and carting her away from computers until the end of her days, and she almost didn't care. Waiting for doom to descend on me and all I can think about is drawing it here faster.

Her fingers twitched and she drew them away from the keyboard. You can't go back yet. Vindication will just have to wait. With a sigh, she crossed both arms, laid them on top of Argus, then rested her chin against them. Forlornly, she waited for her next chance to catch a glimpse of God.

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