Blogger’s Note: The blog will be on hiatus next week, but will return April 29th.
“So, when are we gonna start this thing or what?”
It was crowded in Brian’s dorm room. About six or seven of his fellow computer science majors and a few other casual observers had been coaxed into the room with free beer and the promise of seeing “something cool”.
“Yeah, us actual computer science engineering majors have some physics tests to fail.” Brian was a computer information science major, not an engineer like the rest of them, a fact the engineers tended to remind him of frequently. Brian let it slide as he always did, knowing that the rest of them wished they had chosen the path without all the ridiculous courses that were kicking their butt.
“I think we can begin,” Brian said, taking a sip of his own beer. “The next 10 minutes took months to generate and actually bricked the desktop you see behind you.”
Everyone took a curious swivel, then turned back to Brian.
“Fortunately the hard drive wasn’t cooked or else we’d be waiting til next semester. What you’re about to see is what I believe to be the deepest dive into the Mandelbrot set ever achieved. If we consider the classic Mandelbrot “bug” we all know and love to be roughly the size of the universe, then we will be diving deeper and smaller than the quantum particles that make up matter. We will be traveling to a place deeper than our physical laws, ladies and gentlemen.”
“I hope you set this thing to some good music,” Brent, a bearded giant already on his second beer, piped in.
Indeed Brian was grateful to Sound Tribe Sector 9 and their more than 10 minute cuts which had relieved him of having to try to cut several things together.
“Let’s just watch, shall we?”
The view started with the Mandelbrot zoomed all the way out, awash in a sea of blue and purple, with fiery oranges, yellows and reds right at the border.
“We’ll be diving today into the seahorse valley, located here along the neck,” Brian said as the animation started its dive.
“I feel like this should start with ‘billions and billions of years ago’,” Brent added, chuckling loudly.
Someone in the back shushed him. The screen was filled with hundreds of tiny nodules lining the longer curved surface of the ‘neck’ of the Mandelbrot, at the end of each were several spiral bursts, and it was into one of these that the animation dived next.
“How’d you figure out where to keep going without manually adjusting,” Carol, a short girl with red hair and a high voice asked.
“The first three minutes or so is manual but the program is learning from the structures around it to get some idea of what to expect if it dives into a similar structure. As you can see, though, the Mandelbrot is unpredictable and can change radically.”
For the last few minutes they had been going from spirals, to starfish and back to spirals, all the while seeing echoes of the Mandelbrot scattered throughout the arms and swirls. Each of these Mandelbrots in turn contained a universe as complex as the one into which they were diving. It was almost like looking at the multiverse.
But now the screen resembled something out of 2001. Long bursts of color on all sides gave the effect that they were going through a tunnel, even as they were getting smaller and smaller. After about of minute of this they emerged and again their field of view widened into an interweaving spiral structure. The colors Brian had chosen gave the effect of electricity or lightning sparking from every direction as they kept going down.
At about nine minutes in the screen began to shake. The image began contracting and stretching, first slowly, then with almost distracting speed.
“What’s going on with the picture?” asked Brent.
Brian sighed, “This is where I’m reaching the limits of the floating point math generator I was using. It’s almost like the pressure we’d get from a deep sea dive, eh? We’re about to go to static in just another … ”
The screen had been violently shaking, and then it just stopped. The surrounding colors were cool and serene, and at their center…
Static colored lines, then black. The click of a hard power off indicated the abrupt shutoff of Brian’s computer. Brian resisted the instinct to power it immediately back on, but counted to ten as quickly as he could then slammed the contact down. The BIOS came up as normal, but after that all he could see was a blinking cursor.
Fortunately they were in a room full of engineers.
Within minutes the case was open and the hard drive connected to Carol’s laptop, with Brent on the ground taking a look inside the case.
“Your registry’s been erased, as well as the boot sector. Something in those last few images must have killed the system. Did you play this all the way through before showing it to us?”
“No,” Brian said, “You think that’s why the other computer kicked out as well?”
Brent nodded, “The rest of the hardware looks fine, heck there’s not even any dust build up. Carol, is there a way you can safely isolate those last few frames? Did anyone else see something weird right before it gorched?”
There were a few murmured nods, and an intense look from Carol as she scanned the drive. “There looks like something’s been hidden using a steganography algorithm.”
“You mean code hidden inside the picture?” Brian asked.
“That’s what it looks like. How well plotted is the Mandelbrot anyway?”
“It’s infinite. It’s like pi, it can never be precisely calculated and it’s infinitely complex. But a section that acts like code?”
“Hey you’re the one who’s diving deeper than anyone did before,” Carol said, “I should be able to strip out the malicious code without damaging the picture too much. Give me a minute.”
The only sounds were the whir of laptop fans, and a few more nervous sips of beer. Another engineer in the crowd, Chandra, had pulled out his laptop and was scanning the hard drive from the first computer, confirming that its registry had been wiped as well. Unlike, Carol, however he broke the connection as soon as he finished his initial scan. Re-installing an OS, and fixing a corrupted BIOS were not his idea of fun.
“Okay, I think I’ve got it, but if this bricks my machine you owe me a six pack of something better than Natty Light.”
Everyone crowded around Carol’s 13 inch screen to see…
“Is that Kevin Sorbo?” Carol asked.
Brent laughed, “Hercules, friggin Hercules is at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set. We gonna see Xena next?”
Whatever momentary awe had gripped the group had surrendered their attention, and they began to disperse back to their various dorm rooms. Even Brent left, grabbing another beer on his way out. All that was left was Carol and Brian.
“How much would the steganography have altered the image?” Brian asked tentatively.
“Difficult to say,” Carol shrugged. “It looks like it accounted for 20% of the total image size, so quite a lot.”
“So we probably didn’t see Hercules.”
Carol shook her head, “I don’t know, what did you think you saw?”
Brian took a long swig of his beer, “I don’t want to say it out loud.” He reached over to her laptop and hit the delete key. “I might end up speaking another language.”
4 responses to “Forty-Minute Story “Babel””
That was a lot of fun.
Your protagonist reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite remember who…
It’s a cool idea, though I’m not sure I understand it 100%. Sounds like you’re saying someone (God?) hacked the structure of mathematical reality to put a malicious image in the Mandelbrot Set. Is that about right? 😀
Reminds me of Contact (the Carl Sagan novel, not the movie based on it) where mathematicians discovered a bunch of ones and zeroes way out in the later digits of pi, which encoded the shape of a circle. Craziness.
As I said to Chuck, the title is significant. Hopefully it makes the last line make a little more sense. You’re most of the way there.
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