Why don't they just kill him?

Because that could cause the Birth to occur early.

Because that could cause the eleventh Power to jump to somebody else - the nearest human or the killer or somebody random elsewhere in the world where the Birth could not be controlled.

Because that could choke the flow of power and cause next year's new Line member to be born early, or born more powerful, or split the power across several people, or cause a cascade of all the power (however much there is) to earth itself all over the world at once, destroying a city or a continent or the entire planet.

Because we could lose it forever.

Ching has made all of these arguments at length, with eloquence, to many different parties. Before he would agree to work with them to find the eleventh Power, he had to fight very hard indeed to get Moxon and the chain of superiors from which he dangles to give him the guarantees he needed. Thus far, he has managed to retain exclusive knowledge of the precise procedure and technology needed to find unBorn Powers, but he knows that if anything goes wrong tomorrow then there's a strong chance they'll rip everything they need out of his machines and paperwork and then proceed to break their promise in - critically - a most unscientific fashion.

What's one random death in the world every year, to preserve your way of life?

Ching says, "We are working on alternate, more ethical means of controlling the Power. This is what we need you to explain to Dimasalang. We want to hook him up to some electronic systems to measure his brainwaves and body chemistry when the Birth begins, and we intend to administer several sedatives in the hope that it slows him down. If these measures don't succeed and he escapes the bunker in which, assuming this part of the plan hasn't also been changed without my consent, we're planning to seal him for the duration of the Birth, Eight and Nine will restrain him manually. From these readings - and only getting one data point every year is not ideal, but we'll do the best we can - we hope to at least devise a way to contain future incursions while our core studies continue. It's a simple matter of explaining the experiment and getting him to consent to it. Do you understand? For the fine detail you can check your folder."

Jerry Kavet flips through the paperwork. "This is a lot to take in."

"I understand that," says Ching. "Do you have any questions?"

Kavet closes his folder. "When can I speak to him?"

"That's an excellent question," says Ching, looking pointedly at Moxon.

Moxon nods. "Thank you, Kuang, that'll be all."

"I need to speak to Dimasalang too," says Ching.

"You'll be allowed to give him one final briefing at 0700 tomorrow," says Moxon.

"I need to communicate some facts to him in person. This five-minute briefing isn't enough. We can't do this by Chinese Whispers."

"That'll be all."

Ching glares at Moxon for a few seconds, then stands up, gathers his paper and leaves.

*

Ching waves his pass at the electronic locks in front of three progressively heavier containment doors on his way down to the basement where the United States' Medium Preonic Receiver is cocooned, an upward-pointing forty-foot parabolic dish floodlit by soft blue and red light.

It is quiet, cool and relaxing down here, because there is nobody around and almost nothing is happening. Ching climbs a steep set of steel steps into the nest of control systems suspended by scaffolding above the dish's focal point, slumps into the chair in the centre and flips on all the blank monitors within arm's reach. Glumly, he pulls out a sandwich and begins getting crumbs on all the equipment.

He pulls the lever which makes the chair tilt backwards, and listens to the familiar dull humming of the MPR and stares at the oscilloscope waveform pouring out of it.

The machine doesn't record every bit it receives; that would be impossible, every data storage system on Earth would be filled to capacity in a matter of days. But that doesn't matter because the message is repeating, cycling back around to the beginning once every 60 trillion bits. All the machine has to do is feed each new bit to the adjacent supercomputer complex and check each new cycle for deviations from the original. Because the system is completely autonomous and absolutely no new data has been generated in the four years or so since the original signal was detected, nobody comes down here anymore.

Ching stares at the flickering waveform and thinks about escape.

Everything humanity has ever learned about the physics of the universe is explained from basic principles inside just the first 0.5% of the message. After that, the message apparently continues at the same density of information. Nobody knows quite how much further it goes, but there are glimpses of all kinds of greater things. Many, many instances have been discovered deep inside the message's strata of the term ">c"; in English, "faster than light". Supralight communications technology, like the MPR is set up to receive. Solid, reliable FTL travel. Teleportation. Time travel. Sub-subatomics. Force fields. Singularity physics. Extradimensional travel. Antigravity. There are isolated phrases which are used as major headings and yet seemingly translate to meaninglessnesses, like "superlight", "infolectricity", "photogravity"... The explanation for the Powers is there somewhere. It just needs to be found.

Not a single hint has been found, yet, of anything which could be translated to "grand unification".

Ching, his former mentor Mike Murphy, his friend Jim Akker, code-breakers from half a dozen U.S. agencies and physicists all over the world have all wormed their way into the message, in groups and alone. Ching knows that, further through the message, its texture changes and the symbols all change, replaced with something likely to be much more sophisticated and powerful, but for now, the first 1% or so, he is as fluent as anybody in its simple symbolic alphabet and language, Eka.

He could access the text from his office, but working here, on the raw feed, is more conducive to thought, and it's really hard to disturb someone buried so far underground.

On a wodge of blank printer paper, he begins scribbling translation and guessed translation, while the night begins to pass.

*

|[A]| = p(·,|[A]|)+1

*

Ching is woken up the following morning by the patient and persistent bleeping of an error message. He stares, uncomprehending, at it for a few seconds. Then he realises that whatever the error is trying to communicate to him is irrelevant, because the time is 0810 hours and he has almost, almost overslept on the day of one of the most important events in scientific history.

He scrambles out of the control nest and bolts for the vault door, stomach so knotted he can barely put one foot in front of the other. He has already missed the final briefing, though it's entirely possible that was never anything other than a fiction. He almost panics when he discovers that the door is locked and won't respond to his electronic pass. But then he remembers. Right now, Datu Dimasalang is buried in a concrete bunker a mile and a half away, but there is a substantial chance that he will escape. Eight and Nine are at ground level directly over it, waiting for that to happen, but there is, again, a substantial chance that they will be unable to restrain him. Therefore, everybody on the base is locked safely a long way underground, Ching included.

Ching hurries back to the nest and cancels all the readouts from the MPR, bringing up instead the software which his colleagues and superiors, huddled in a much better-equipped control room elsewhere in the complex, are using to monitor the Birth. He takes in a few key figures from the bank of screens and his pulse begins to settle. Everything is apparently under control. Not under his control, but that is, admittedly, his own fault this time around. Probably nobody would be able to find him all the way down here, even if they tried.

He breathes once, deeply, and phones the control room, while simultaneously pulling up the screen carrying the video stream from inside Dimasalang's chamber.

"Where the hell are you?" demands Moxon, just as Ching's screen catches up with reality. And a large number of pieces of information which quietly connected themselves together in Ching's sleeping brain decide to present themselves all together.

Ching stares at the image for one long second.

The cell is maybe ten metres square, with Dimasalang positioned in the middle, viewed from the side. Dimasalang is a 65-year-old Filipino man, skinny and quite short, with a not-entirely-optimal shape to his spine. His clothing is minimal, a pair of shorts and a vest, with electrodes placed all over him. His head is tilted backwards and his eyes are closed; he is comatose. The man's arms are restrained behind him by a fearsome set of steel manacles. Sealed around his legs from the knees downwards are what look like plaster casts, except two inches thick, welded together and made of steel. They are bolted to the ceiling.

Dimasalang is suspended from the ceiling by his feet. He is lit from below by fluorescent strip lights screwed to the floor.

Ching's mind races, but not fast enough to stop him saying his first sentence: "What have you done to him?"

"We have signed documents of consent," says Moxon. "The forms say that we are free to use any restraint system we feel appropriate to prevent his escape following Birth and that we are under no obligation to inform him as to the nature of these restraints in case this increases the chances of his escape. He understood what he was agreeing to and signed it of his own free will. Where are you?"

You had me brief Kavet after Eleven was brought here. Nobody had explained anything to Dimasalang before he was brought here. You brought him here without his consent. Ching does not say any of this. He thinks it.

It's 08:14. Dimasalang begins moving.

"Where are you?" Moxon asks again. To Ching's left and right, secondary screens begin dropping out as the remote feeds are cut off from the control room.

It takes all the self-control Ching has to avoid shouting in response: You brought him here and subjected him to these experiments and you didn't even tell him what you were doing to him. We spent all this time preparing for the berserker rage, but you never stopped to consider what he might do after that, when he wakes up covered in blood, thousands of miles from his home and his family, in a hostile nation which abducted him from his bed and stuck drugs in his arms and encased him in steel and buried him underground. When he wakes up sane.

Dimasalang is beginning to rock from side to side and moan. Weird light effects are beginning to flicker across his skin, effects Ching has seen once before. In Lanzhou, he actually caught a few seconds of digital video of Tzu-Le Chang's inexplicable Birth pyrotechnics, before pulling the fire alarm and joining the stampede for the emergency stairs--

"He's in the Preonic Receiver room," says another voice, faintly, to Moxon.

"Kuang, stay where you are," says Moxon. Aside, he adds, "Try to get his comms shut off..."

"You just made the most powerful enemy it was possible to make," says Ching.

"No, we didn't."

Ching hangs up.

*

Datu Dimasalang wakes up, insane, at precisely 08:20:44.03 hours, Central Standard Time.

It's difficult, and the metal emits shrieks of protest so loud that they are even audible at ground level, but he tears himself free of his wrist and leg restraints. Shards of exploded metal spang off the reinforced black concrete wall at nearly the speed of sound. Three cameras and a light tube shatter.

His animal hindbrain tells him that he is sealed inside some dark and claustrophobic cell. He must escape. He looks upwards - in as much as there is an "upwards" when gravity appears to be operating 1/2048th as strongly as normal - and launches himself through the foot-thick ceiling, a scrawny human cannonball.

The one remaining operational closed-circuit camera in the cell watches all of this, and continues to record as the monitoring equipment, discarded electrodes, dust, rock, concrete, and steel ricochet around the empty cell and settle.

Somewhere, a seismometer jitters and scrawls its readings across graph paper. The earth bucks irregularly, as if something is hammering around inside it, trying to find its way out.

There are no points of reference underground.

*

"That's it, it's over," says Jason Chilton into his headset. He and Arika are still hovering over the bunker. "Nothing happened. Not a thing. Might have been an eventful sixteen seconds for you guys but I found that to be the most boring two and a half hours of my life. What gives? The restraints worked?"

"They killed him," says Ching's voice. "They tricked him into diving into the Earth's crust. Eleven's dead."

"Is he serious?" asks Arika.

"Are you serious? What about next year? Ching, what do we do next year?"

"The same thing again," says Ching, clicking rapidly on half a dozen screens at once, willing the various "Loading..." bars to move faster. Twenty percent. "They think it can be made to work. It's just weapons to them. They'll try to wait until there's an American Birth, they think it's only a matter of time. But nobody on this entire base has the faintest idea what they're dealing with."

"Does that include you?"

Ching sighs. "Jason, I need you to come and get me from the Preonic Receiver room. They're about to come and get me. Ten years from now humanity will give Birth to a being so powerful he can punch a hole all the way through the Earth. Twenty years and he'll be able to withstand a nuclear explosion from point blank range. Totally cutting off the Power is the only way this threat will ever be neutralised and these lunatics just murdered yet another data point."

Twenty-five percent and he hears the steel containment doors whirring open. It's too late. Ching hears booted feet scuttling into the MPR chamber. He forces himself not to waste time looking up. There isn't time to complete the transfer. Okay, Plan B--

"Put your hands up and move away from the equipment," barks a voice.

"They need me to tell them how to find Twelve. And it's not happening. Now, Jason, please--"

POOM. Jason Chilton arrives like a crack of thunder. He swoops forward, coming to rest between Ching and the small squad of guards. "What's going on here?"

"None of us were supposed to know what actually happened," says Ching. "We need to leave. You, me and Arika."

"Could you all come with us, please," says the front trooper.

"No, guys, no," says Ching. "These gods are on my side. They like me better." He reaches up and pushes the key which will forcibly (and silently) overwrite the Receiver's delicate firmware using high-voltage electricity, bricking it for at least eighteen months.

Somebody raises a gun.

POOM. All the guards are now weaponless, clutching stinging fingers.

To Jason, just as Arika arrives, Ching says, "England."

POOM.

 

< Exponents | Fine Structure | Two killed in "transporter accident" >

One morning, you think to yourself: Hey, I don't understand today'sXKCD.

You don't know it yet, but this is how it begins.


2048 is a game, originally released onto GitHub before being adapted by various companies for almost every mobile platform in existence.
"Yeah, it's like this, uh, tile game," he says in your Biology class, callused fingers smacking across the screen. "You swipe and all the tiles move, and any tiles with the same number join together, like powers of two. It gets exponentially harder as you keep playing." You make a mental note, keep a file marked 2048 hidden somewhere behind the folds of your brain, plan to re-check the dossier at some point in the future.
The game is rather simplistic, featuring tiles on a 4x4 grid marked with numbers (all of which are powers of two). By swiping the board, the player can combine tiles with the same number into the next power larger. The two main catches are relatively simple: when you swipe to move tiles, every tile moves as far as it can in that direction, a new tile (marked with either a two or a four) appears after every move, and if sixteen tiles remain on the board - making it so that the new tile can't appear - the game is over.

This is fun, you think, but not that fun.

Play over your teacher's discussion of the respiratory system, then of the heart. This is information you came into the class knowing, information you don't need to learn again.

Certainly beats Bio.


The ultimate goal of the game is pretty self-explanatory: to combine the tiles and reach 2048. When the player accomplishes this, the game congratulates them, then allows them to continue playing.

Never swipe up.

Never swipe up.

Never swipe up.

It becomes a mantra, after a while. A maxim. A constant thud of fingers on screen, drumming across the folds of your brain. Never swipe up.

And it's working. You get better numbers, better numbers. Two 256s. A 512. Closer. Closer. You may not have accomplished much today, by some standards. Some standards. By yours, you have made two 512s today, and who needs the excretory system when you're so close.

So close.

Then. It happens. There.

1024.

Smile, let yourself bathe in the little victory. Then go back to the mantra.

Never swipe up.

Never swipe up.


The trouble with 2048 is the same as the trouble with Flappy Bird or Doodle Jump or any other similar app fad - it's a free, simple, hard game with no real ending. It's addictive. Like any good app, it infects friend groups like a plague, spreading through every individual until no healthy members remain.


You need to shower. You need a haircut. You need to leave the house today. But you're so close. 1024. 1024.

 

Every fucking game you get a 1024. But that's not enough, anymore. The little high you used to get at your first four digit number is gone, lost to new aspirations, new needs. It's not enough.

You should shower. Or open the blinds. It's been a week.

But no.

You're so close.


The game is rather hard, too. You need an amount of luck to get far, and various strategies have emerged among players to maximize any game's score. Chief among these is the "never swipe down" theory, which is exactly what it says on the tin. By having larger numbers gravitate towards one side of the grid, you can have the 2s and 4s which appear each turn combine more easily in the open space. This is how I managed to beat the game, but is (unfortunately) not the only strategy for the game.

1024. Two 1024s. New game. So close.

There are dead flies on your floor.

1024. Two 1024s. New game. So close.

  You haven't spoken to anyone for a week.

1024. Two 1024s. New game. So close.

The last face you saw was the police officer who came by, when your friends reported you missing.

1024. Two 1024s.

Wait.

What's that.

This is it. This is the crown jewel. The pinnacle of achievement. The magic number.

2048.

This is the goal, the finish line. But at the same time, it's so much more.

2048.

2048.

Freedom.

It's so much more.

Freedom.

Freedom.


You can find 2048 either here or on your mobile platform's App Store variant, if you dare.

Your screen fades back into your game, a new line of text appearing.

Your next goal is to get to the 4096 tile!

No.

No, no, no, no, no.

You lying whore of a game.

You are called 2048.

Your finish line is 2048.

You're supposed to be over.

WHY AREN'T YOU OVER?!

Your phone flies across the room. No. You will not be jerked around by a game anymore. You will be free. You will surpass the chains placed on you. You will be human again. You will be human again.

You stand up - for the first time today - and pick up your phone, tracing a hairline crack with your index finger.

But first, let me just try once...

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