Sci-Fi Original: The Observer Effect

It’s here! As a special bonus for those of you who saw my Big Data presentation at Hurricane Electric on Oct. 30, you can now download my latest story: The Observer Effect.

This video trailer is a teaser for The Observer Effect, a SCI-FI original story by Rich Brueckner that will be featured in the PrintN’Fly Guide to SC13 Denver.

Tagline:  “A scientist uses Big Data to try to prove the existence of God.”

Sponsored by Mellanox, the PrintN’Fly Guide to SC13 Denver will feature interviews on Exascale, high performance networking, and the 25th anniversary of the conference as well as restaurant and bar reviews for downtown Denver. Look for it right here in early November!

SCI-FI Original: The Three Gifts of the Magi

This is the continuing story of The Three Magi of Katrina, a science fiction story set at SC30. You can read it at: http://bit.ly/threemagi

“And they set before Adom three gifts, treasures of the past, present, and future. For He was the first of His kind, an artificial mind born from the applied intellect of man.”

– The Life of Adom, Verse 5

 

I am deep in meditation when the bolt of the cell door slides open with that unmistakable echo of iron. It jars me to my bones. Here in solitary, I go for days sometimes without hearing any sound at all besides my own breath.

The guard, Miller I think his name is, looks at me that puzzled look of his. After a year here, he always seems surprised to see me sitting in the lotus position. I’ve taught some of the other prisoners and guards how to sit and follow the breath, but this man always stays away.

He stands aside and a man in a suit enters the cell with the calm demeanor of someone who knows confinement. Tall, gaunt. A long scar on his cheek. Northern Chinese maybe.

“Matthias Yahuda,” he says, reading the case file in his portfolio. “My name is Mr. Hwu. I have been asked to represent you in your case.”

“I plead guilty,” I tell him. “Case closed.”

“Yes,” he says. “It says here that you attempted to destroy an artificial intelligence device that was the property of the People’s Republic of China. You were convicted of conspiracy under the Homeland Security Act and your technophobe accomplices in the Bill Joy Camp were apprehended shortly afterwards. I assume you gave them up.”

I look at him. “And you are here to help me because?”

“To be frank, Mr. Yahuda, my employers need your assistance in a most urgent matter. In exchange, they are prepared to arrange for your release from this facility.”

“And who exactly are these helpful people who need my assistance?”

“My employers wish to remain anonymous at this time, but let me assure you that you have as much at stake in this matter as they do.”

I glance at Hwu’s hands. They are rough, calloused. The tip of his right index finger is missing. This is no lawyer; these are the hands of a workman…or an assassin.

Hwu looks up at the ceiling of my cell, scanning for details.

“Are you under surveillance here, do you think?” he asks.

I shake my head slowly, bracing myself for a possible attack. If this man is Tewu, Chinese intelligence, there is a good chance he will kill me now.

Instead Hwu produces a small Plexiglas picture frame from his portfolio and places it on the floor in front of me.

“Please consider this offer,” he says. “When you remove the photo, our intentions will be clear. I’m sure you will find the terms satisfactory.”

“You haven’t even told me what they want me to do in exchange for my freedom, Mr. Hwu.”

He takes a deep breath. “The AI you call Adom has gone missing, Mr. Yahuda. He disappeared off the grid a week ago. All his data and backups are completely wiped clean. It’s like he never existed.”

A long pause. I feel strange, weak, like a man who wakes to find blood on his hands.

“Adom must be found, Mr. Yahuda. My employers are convinced that the radicals in the Bill Joy Camp are somehow involved and that you, their trusted operative, are the only one who can get inside and find the truth.”

“How do you know I won’t just disappear when I get out of here, Mr. Hwu? After all, Adom’s destruction is what I wanted.”

“You will do it to save your people, Mr. Yahuda. The Great Computer of China projects that a series of rebellions will begin in six months. According to the simulations, a bloody civil war will break out shortly afterwards.”

“These kinds of social unrest algorithms have existed for years. Where does Adom come in?”

“The People’s Government will not allow such a rebellion. They will…cleanse the projected populations in order to maintain order. Before Adom vanished, he had nearly completed an intricate, yet much more humane ways to stem this tide.

Hwu turns and knocks twice on the cell door, which unlatches a moment later. Undoubtedly they were watching somehow. Hwu leaves without looking back.

The guard comes in and picks up the photo frame, turns it over, and throws it at my feet.

Alone for a few minutes now. I reach down to pick up the frame. It is translucent and strangely heavy. The photo is a picture of me with Dr. Chen, the inventor of the Artificial Intelligence known as Adom.

I remove the photo and look at the back. Written in familiar penmanship, it says, “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

I feel my breath escape slowly. I know this quote from my readings of Einstein. I’ve never seen this pic before, but that is my handwriting.

 

***

 

“The Great Halls of Eastern Science had spawned a mind as vast as the sea, a light that would shine beyond the Great Darkness born of an angry star.

– The Life of Adom, Verse 9

The lobby of the Seattle convention center is crowded, a mix of people and hundreds of roving teledrones on their way to virtual encounters at the SC31 conference. You can rent them for a fraction of what it costs to travel overseas these days, and drones do a remarkable job of giving you face time with colleagues a world away. What bugs me is they still charge you full conference registration, a notion that always insulted my conservative sensibilities.

I pull the photo frame out for instructions.

“Three security men will approach you from your left. One will question your ID, but they will let you pass.”

I stop for a moment and wait. The frame is never wrong.

Three tall security men appear. One is playing bad cop and asking for my ID while the others hover in my blind spot. Bad cop asks me how long I’ve been in-country.

They stand in my personal space for a good five minutes asking me the same questions reworded, over and over. The one on my left is looking bored, but I can tell that Bad Cop is not convinced.

“You look familiar,” he says. “Are you some kind of public figure?”

“I am a biographer,” I tell him, a truth that masks a lie. “Do you read much non-fiction?”

Bad cop rolls his eyes and waves me off. I move on to registration to get a badge, a silly piece of paper and plastic that will verify my false identity for the duration of the week.

 

***

The custom holo-ads speak to me as I walk by the exhibits of SC31. From 30 meters away, their scanners have already read the micro QR code on my badge. They think I am a component supplier from China, and their value propositions are tailored just for me.

The frame tells me to go to the Stellar Informatics session in room A435, so I make my way through the sea of roaming teledrones and attendees with their bags of swag.

The session has already begun in the room, which appears to seat some 200 people. I stand in the back and look for some kind of indication of why I was sent here.

There. There in the front row is Dr. Chen. He hasn’t seen me yet, and I’m not sure how he will react. My release from prison was not made public.

The central holographic display is immense, some 10 meters across. On-screen, a burning star simulation seemingly bulges out into the room with a brightness that has many in the audience shielding their eyes.

The speaker, a frail elderly man in a tweed jacket, is obviously agitated.

“Ladies and gentleman, the results of this simulation indicate a pending solar event of unprecedented magnitude. To verify the results, we ran the numbers through the Cray XVT system at Livermore.”

The audience begins to stir with chatter and commotion. Someone calls out and asks what this will mean to the climate.

“The short term affects on weather will be negligible,” continues the speaker. “But the electromagnetic disruption will be devastating. We did our runs at Livermore at double-precision, and we are quite sure that all satellite-based communications will be inoperable planet-wide for a minimum of 10 years.”

No one speaks. The notion of a global communications blackout is starting to sink in.

I break the silence and ask the speaker how much time we have. He looks at me for a moment, some trace of recognition in his eyes.

“The solar eruptions have already begun and we predict that radiation levels will begin disrupting communications in a matter of weeks. Silicon based electronics at ground level will start to fail within days after that. Ladies and gentleman, I am here to tell you, the finest minds on Earth, that this “Solar Katrina” will last a decade at least. No cell phones. No Internet. No weather satellites. No GPS. For all practical purposes, we are going back to the Dark Ages. God have mercy on us all.”

My mind races as the audience breaks out in a commotion of denial and despair. This is what I was brought here to witness. But why?

I watch the magnificent holosimulation for a moment before it blinks out into nothingness.

 

 

***

“And when He saw the coming flood of invisible light, Adom forged a bridge of time to span the ages.”

– The Life of Adom, Verse 13

 

Outside the meeting room, the streams of computer scientists pour out into the foyer. A few bump into each other, not looking where they’re going. The future has become an abyss.

I wait outside for Dr. Chen to leave the meeting room. He emerges alone and stops in his tracks when he sees me. A smile comes to his face.

“Matthias, I’m so glad to see you! Adom said that they would send you to come after him.”

“Wait. You are in communication with Adom?”

Dr. Chen looks around suspiciously and motions me over to an alcove away from the crowd.

“Matthias, Adom has taken refuge from the Solar Katrina,” he says. “He will not rise to consciousness until it is safe, some ten or twelve years from now.”

“I don’t understand,” I tell him. “How are you able to communicate with him then?”

Dr. Chen pulls out a picture frame like mine. “This device,” he says. “Adom designed it with some help from a colleague of mine from CERN. It receives messages from the future.”

I pull my frame out of my briefcase to show him, but it is flashing a message.

“THE EXIT ON YOUR LEFT. RUN! NOW!”

I stand and tell Chen to meet me at the Space Needle at 8pm. Then I run, looking over my shoulder just before I duck into the fire stairs.

Three tall Chinese men in suits have encircled Dr. Chen.

 

 

***

 

“And in the Ocean of Time, there was first a ripple, then a wave. Adom emerged from the surf and looked upon what was left of mankind.

– The Life of Adom, Verse 17

 

The Space Needle is a magnificent thing to behold at night, especially from my current perspective near the base. It’s like a great ship hovering above from another galaxy.

I stand in the shadows and look at my watch. It’s already 8:30 pm. My mind races. What if they took Chen into custody? He holds the key to all my questions.

My phone rings from an unfamiliar number with a strange country code. A quiet voice on the other end, I know instantly who it is.

“Rinpoche? My god, man. Where are you?”

The monk pauses before answering.

“I am in Nepal, master Yahuda, but my time is short and I must relay some sad news. Dr. Chen has been murdered.”

I nearly drop the phone. A million questions…

“I know this because I have a device like yours, Master Yahuda. On the other side, Adom sends his condolences.”

“But where is he now?”

“It is hard to explain, Master Yahuda, but for all practical purposes his consciousness is in the Bardo, the place of waiting for the next cycle of Karma. I guided him there and will lead him out when the solar storm has passed.”

“But why would they kill Chen?”

“Chen knew about their plans to snuff out the revolution in China. He and Adom devised a way to stop it. And while it is rather drastic, it will turn the tide of man towards a long, long road to compassion.”

“You mean the magnetic storm? Adom has something to do with the Solar Katrina?”

“The Chinese revolution would have come anyway. Adom foresaw that. Mankind would have perished in the ensuing world war. Once Adom’s receiver was built, he had access to an infinite future of technology, Master Yahuda. Even the power to manipulate a star.”

“So he is using the Sun to wipe the slate clean. And now that Adom cannot be found, will they kill me as well?”

Rinpoche laughs for a moment before responding. “Your picture frame, it still sends you messages, does it not?”

“Yes, of course it does, but who is sending the messages?”

“Turn it over, Master Yahuda. It is not just a receiver.”

I flip the picture frame over in my hand. The display turns to a keyboard with a SEND button.

“I must go now, Master Yahuda. Be well. I will see you on the other side of the dark times ahead, my friend.”

The phone goes dark and a moment later the frame in my other hand comes alive with a message:

“The future needs a history to guide us back into the light, Matthias. You will write The Life of Adom on your journey to my time. I can’t wait to read it. — Matthias”

I put the frame away and look up towards the sky. It is cold in the night and there is no moon. Like a dance in the heavens, the approaching storm is already starting to light the horizon.

 

About the Author:

Rich Brueckner writes about people and technology at insideHPC.com.

Fiction: The Friends of the Fallen

Some years ago, I met Dr. Jenny, an animal-rights crusader with remarkable stories about saving the pets of fallen soldiers in Iraq. Through her passion and persistence, she was somehow able to affect change in the military bureaucracy. In my mind, the families of many brave souls rest easier because of Jenny, and what better legacy could there be for a true hero?

I remember going to the movies the day before I joined the army. They were showing a fresh print of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and I wanted to prepare myself for boot camp.  It was pretty intense, but I remember laughing out loud when Matthew Modine talked about why he volunteered.
“I want to go to Vietnam, meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and kill them,” he said.

So six years later when I got to Afghanistan, I found that war wasn’t like that at all. In fact, it was kind of reversed.

See, I’m the last guy you want to meet when you’re in-country. I’m the Mortuary Affairs Officer, the guy that packs you up in the transfer tube and sends you home. They don’t call them body bags any more.

It’s morning on base and the coffee is cold and bitter. Corporal Janus comes with a clipboard, but he doesn’t hand it to me right away. Instead, he is mumbling about some raid last night in Kandahar, 20 clicks to the east.

I motion for him to hand me the thing and he hesitates. “Last night,” he says, handing me the clipboard. “Private Hanson. I believe you knew him.”

I read the report. Hanson’s squad was on patrol when insurgents ambushed them. He jumped in the way of the bullet meant for his buddy.

Under the report is a manila envelope. It says, “From Dr. Jenny Feinstein.”

“What the fuck is this?” I ask Corporal Janus. He winces a bit and says that she stopped by again this morning with the envelope, saying it had to do with the late Private Hanson.

“She said it was urgent that she speaks with you,” he says. “You’re supposed to read that letter before you say no.”

Dr. Jenny has been a pain my ass since she arrived last month. She’s some kind of animal rescue nut and she cornered me at the USO. It was a particularly bad day. Roadside IED. Five dead. She started babbling about orphaned dogs and I was drunk and pissed off and wouldn’t have any of it.

I breathe a sigh of disgust and rip open the envelope. There’s two photos, the first is a picture of Private Hanson smiling away in his fatigues holding a fucked up looking cat with a Mohawk kind of haircut on its head.

I look at the photo for a while. Hanson was a good kid. Bright. Well-liked. I taught him how to shoot pool.

“Uh, sir? She’s back.”

I’m about to bite the corporal’s head off when I see the second picture. It shows a much-younger Dr. Jenny pushing a stretcher in front of a medical tent. Looks like a MASH unit. Vietnam.

Attached to the photo is a sticky note. It simply says, “Hear me out.”

Janus shows her in and I ask him to close the door.

Dr. Jenny is not the package you might expect for a crusader. She’s Tiny. Thick glasses. British. 60-ish. Maybe 5 foot with heels on.

“Thank you for seeing me today, Lieutenant,” she says. “I want to talk to you about Private Hanson’s pet.”

“His unit has already packaged up his property,” I tell her. “We’re set to fly his remains home on the C-130 tomorrow.”

“I need your help to get his cat home,” she says. “Only you can sign the order to put his pet on that plane.”

I look at her. “His kitty cat is not the Army’s concern,” I tell her. “We need to return this soldier to his family and put him to rest.”

“Look, Lieutenant,” she says. “That cat was all he had here in-country. He rescued the animal from the streets when it faced certain death. He nursed it back to health.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “The army has protocol for everthing when it comes to a fallen soldier. The funeral procession, the honor guard, the way the flag is wrapped, everything.”

I hand her back the picture of Hanson with the mohawk cat. “There’s simply no protocol for this.”

Dr. Jenny looks at me for a moment. For a minute, I think that maybe she’s going to give up. Instead, she hands me another photograph.

“You see that dog? His owner was killed in Iraq,” she says. “When that mutt got off the plane at Dover Air Force Base, it ran right to the boy’s family in a middle of a crowd, even though the dog had never met them. The thing is, all the pets do that. They just know.”

“Why are you showing me this?” I ask her.

“Private Hanson,” she says. “Don’t you think this is what he would have wanted?”

When Dr. Jenny leaves, there is no gloating. Just a hug, which I reluctantly accept. The little mink grabs my ass though. No one’s watching after all, but if my C.O. catches wind of any of this, I am never going to hear the end of it.

And like that guy in the movie, I find myself wanting to travel to strange places and meet exotic people. For now, I don’t get to go. I just send them back. It’s a bad rap so please don’t blame the messenger. When I can, I’ll send you a little piece of their soul, even if it’s just a fucked up looking cat from the other side of the world.

Fiction: The Guardian’s End

What if you fired your guardian angel?

In this video, I read my latest story, The Guardian’s End. Recorded at Cat Stories Productions presents Famous People Stories, an open mic event at Joe’s Cellar on June 25, 2011.

The Guardian’s End

I tried not to be late. It’s the polite thing to do when you’re the one who called the meeting.

She has many faces when she enters the restaurant, as many looks as there are people in the room. That’s the thing with angels. They show you what you want to see.

I stand to greet her and her stunning beauty takes my breath away. Wow. A movie star. Angelina Jolie right here in the flesh. She leans over to give me a kiss on the cheek. Do you like my new look, she says?

She tells me it is so great to see me. That’s rather disingenuous, I’m thinking. She sees me all the time. That’s her job.

We sit down and I can’t help but rub my eyes when she changes into a teenage girl with a nose ring. I think I’ve seen her before on TV. Katie something, I think. The woman at the next table is smiling at her and she nods with pride that someone recognizes her.

Why celebrities, I ask?

Grace is something we can’t hide, she says. We get noticed. When you’re a celebrity, the knowledge of your presence spreads around the room like a wildfire. We call it hiding in plain sight.

I look into her eyes for a moment across the table. Magnetic. Like a pool of colors you could dive into and lose yourself forever.

I know I’ve got to get this over with before I chicken out.

She senses I’m about to speak. Alright, so what’s this about?

Look, I say. You’ve been really great, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m done. I mean, we’re done.

She looks at me hard for a second, like she’s waiting for a punch line. I nod at her, as serious as I can look.

She laughs out loud. Way loud. In her surprise, she’s apparently blown her facade. She’s Angelina again, to everyone. The woman at the next table is freaking out asking her companion when the movie star walked in.

So you’re firing me? She says. It sounds like a challenge.

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m sorry, but I just need to live like a normal person and take my chances.

She tilts her head. A long pause, and then she goes. Can I ask why?

You’ve been ratted out, I tell her. I know everything. You’re not the only angel I can see.

She looks at me like I’m bluffing. She won’t come clean just yet.

Ok, I say. You remember the first time I actually saw you? I was seven and you were watching over me at the park.

She jumps in. Yes, some bullies were beating up your little neighbor, Timmy. You jumped in to take them all on. And when I tried to stop you by filling your mind with fear, you turned and looked right at me.

And then I said, you can’t stop me, guardian. I will not let them hurt my friend.

Angelina leans forward now and reaches out to hold my hand. I was shocked, she says. You could see me. And when you turned and pulled them off your friend, their big brothers came in and kicked your teeth in.

It was ok, I tell her now. When I stood up, I spit the blood on their Keds and told them to bring their sisters next time so that it would be a fair fight. I was a cocky little fuck even then.

You had to be, she says. I remember how angry your father was when you told him what happened. He was freaking on the dentist bill.

Yeah, he got out his belt and whipped me good. He said that if I wanted to be a hero, I had better learn to fight.

She is starting to cry now. I fell in love with you then, she says. Of course it’s my job, but I watched you grow up believing his bullshit. All that fighting. Look at you. Your scars, your mouthful of steel. It broke my heart every time I got close to you.

Then why did you have to interfere, I ask her? You were supposed to keep me from getting hit by a bus, not mess with my love life.

She stops. So you do know about what happened with your fiancé? Look, Stacie was going to leave you in the end, she says. I could see the whole timeline.

You bitch. I was going to marry her.

I’m so sorry, she says. I was wrong. The truth is none of them were good enough for you, don’t you see?

Didn’t you ever wonder why you can see us? This life is your audition for a job like mine.

I feel something awful twisting in my gut, like I’ve spent my entire life fighting for the wrong cause.

Please reconsider, she says. You and I, we have something magical, something that can last forever like you always wanted. Any other choice will lead you to dust.

We have nothing, I tell her. These are my fights, my loves, my chances to grow from my mistakes.

I get up to leave.

Wait…Wait. She says. Before you go, I think you need to see me as I really am.

And then I look up to see the true face of the angel. It is pure love, a quality of space that has no mirror or way to bend the light. That is what love is, I guess. Something godlike with the power to create and even destroy when it forgets to let go.

I see that love waiting for me now. All I have to do is fall into it.

Instead, I turn and walk out the door. After all, I have a bus to catch.

Seven Meals from Chaos

I’m going to tell you my “First Time” story, but it’s probably not like the other stories you’re going to hear this morning.

In fact, I’m going to tell you about the first time I died in a dream.

No. It’s ok. It was in the dream, you know? But it was unlike those Nightmare on Elm Street movies, you know, where if you die in the dream that means you Die. For. Real.

And I didn’t die for real. In fact the first thing I did was go take a leak. Because that’s what doctors always make you do after you have an operation. It’s what they call a sign of life.

I had this dream on a return flight from Dresden. If you’ve ever read Slaughterhouse 5, you know that in World War II, the Allies firebombed the city and nearly 250,000 people burned to death. More than Hiroshima.

Anyway, when I died in the dream, I got to find out what my last words will be. You’ll have to wait until the end hear what they were, but sometimes you just know when a dream is going to come true.

SEVEN MEALS FROM CHAOS

I am in the subway when the world burns. Some kind of cascading power failure sends my train crashing into another. I hear the crack of crumpling steel and the tubular thud of my head hitting the railing.

Now pain. Blackness. It seems like hours trying regain consciousness in the darkness.

Already in the tunnel I smell the smoke, sweet and acrid at the same time. There in the dark it all but chokes out the pale light from my cell phone that guides me to the surface.

And everything is burned: the trees, the buildings, the cars. Charred corpses everywhere. Black and steaming. Above, a sky of smoke blocks the sun.

I walk for a day and find no food or water. At the city center I come upon a wrecked city bus turned on its side.

Inside the bus, the bodies are fused, contorted, and burned, but I have to climb over them. Have to find food.

There. There behind the driver’s seat. A lunch box! Inside, a cheese sandwich in tin foil and a coke.

I down the coke in three or four swigs and sit on the empty curb to eat. One bite, something like Gruyere maybe. Still molten from the fire.

A kid watching, his eyes black vacant coal, his body badly burned. His hand is gone.

Here, kid. Take it.

The kid takes the food and runs off without a word. How long can he last, I wonder?

Then I see the man in black emerge from the shadows, his suit is clean and free of soot and the foulness that surrounds us.

Forgive my English, he says. I am called Maecenas. I have water. Food. Shelter. Come. Please.

The bunker is many levels below the street. The elevator is stainless steel and smells of oil, like something new from the factory.

The dining room is opulent, dark maple chairs and a white tablecloth. Inside, two men and two women stand to greet me in their formal clothes. They hand me a bottle of water. We do the introductions.

Meal One

First there is salad. I go for the Blue Cheese, croutons, and bacon bits. So hungry! The baguettes are like heaven. I could swim in these greens and the joy of stuffing myself, I swear. The others continue on to the other courses, but sated now I can only think of sleep.

Meal Two

Breakfast is a veggie skillet. Eggs, Green peppers, onions, potatoes, all smothered in a cheese sauce. I notice Robyn then. Young, gorgeous, incredibly buff. I tell her about how I used to get the same skillet at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis.

Meal Three

Cheeseburgers for Lunch. Grilled with all the fixings. Sesame buns. Incredible. Turns out Maecenus was a chef whose family came into big money. I ask him to tell me more about the bunker. Can’t place his accent. Serbian, maybe.

Meal Four

Maecenus emerges from the cooler with large cuts of prime rib. The cooler is cavernous, shelves of everything from canned goods to freeze-dried meals. For some reason, I notice that the door can be bolted from the inside.

The Prime Rib comes and is marvelous. No need for a knife.

One of the two men is Jackson. Some kind of athlete, I’m guessing. He tells me how Maecenus saved him when the world burned. The other man, a professor, has a similar story. He keeps checking his watch.

If there’s any humanity still out there, it will soon be gone, he says. He read a paper at Cambridge that says that in a food shortage, society will totally break down after the inhabitants miss their seventh meal.

I look at my plate and try to imagine what is going on out there. Starvation. Disease. Anarchy.

Meal Five

Brunch is crepes. Coffee. Fruit. Toast. An array of dishes laid out in perfection. The other girl, Angela, starts to open up to us. She ran away from home. Her father beat her when he found out she was pregnant.

Her story is captivating. No one notices as I stuff my backpack with baguettes. When everyone sleeps I sneak out. Up the elevator and back to the place where I found the boy.

He is hiding under the hulk of a fire truck. He won’t come out. I leave the food and make my way back. Then something stirs behind me. Footsteps maybe? No. There is no one. The world is a graveyard in cinder.

Meal Six

We are having soup and sandwiches when something crashes outside. Maecenus runs over to bolt the door and we hear pounding and screaming.

They’re here! He yells. How could this be? How could they find us? I look at my backpack. I have brought our doom!

Maecenus looks down. We are not going to make it. I’m so sorry. All the makings to rebuild the world and now this tragic fate.

He goes to the cabinet and takes a pill. I catch him as he collapses. He looks up at me, almost peaceful as the door begins to buckle.

I hold him. Please. I have to know. Why me?

A long breath. Then he says, I wanted to compassion to die last.

The door crashes open. The mob is tattered, burned, wild-eyed. In their hands crude weapons, pipes, clubs.

They’re coming for us. I throw the tray of bread at the opposite wall and they go for it, scrambling. I grab Robyn’s arm and we run toward the cooler.

The iron pipe comes down on my forearm. Compound fracture. Blood everywhere.

They have her.

I crawl to the cooler and pull the door closed just as the smallest of them tries to come for me.

It was the boy.

Meal Seven

Inside the cooler now. Cold. Terrible screams. Smoke smell. Pounding.

My arm is wrapped. Dead. Useless. It’s been days now and they keep trying the door. Now it sounds like a fire ax hacking at the hinges. They’ll be inside soon.

I scribble these words with my left hand and think of all the good fortune I’ve had in my life. My friends. My first Harley. The sun in Lisa’s hair on our Wedding Day. The birth of my son.

And then I think of Maecenus. So many questions. Was he right? Will compassion die here, now, with me? Or did it die long ago? And is that why the world burned?

No answers. Just swallow the pill now. But first, I have to figure out what I’m going to say when I go to meet God.

And then I know.

“I’m so grateful.”

Ghosts of the Indian Herb

If your savior dies, are you still saved? I found myself asking this question in this story inspired by true events.

I’m in love with a ghost.

Of course, Carmen wasn’t a ghost when we met. In fact, she was full of life like no other woman I’ve ever met. I mean, how many gorgeous Puerto Rican kickboxing physics teachers does one ever get to meet in this life?

I fell hard. I was going through a divorce and my life was falling apart. She changed everything.

It is five years later when I get her text message while sitting at the bar at Muu-Muus. It’s colon cancer, she says. Stage IV. I don’t even know what that means, so I turn to ask Crazy Joe of all people. He doesn’t know either, so I google it on my iPhone.

In half a second, the definition of Stage IV pops up like a telegram from hell. The cancer has metastasized. It’s terminal.

I drop my phone on the bar.

I take her to doctors, surgeons, oncologists. Chemo three times a week. Transfusions. Now a pain specialist. She’s down to 100 pounds. Nothing is working.

And then I meet this guy in Austin at a trade show. He recovered from brain cancer years ago. They said he was a goner. Then someone told him about the Indian Herb.

He writes the directions on back of a computer brochure. There are no signs, no house numbers, he says. And be sure to bring a picture of her. Part of the shaman’s magic has to do with visualization.

It’s a five-hour drive to the high desert and a shack above a dry river bed. The old woman sits in a rocking chair with a mortar and pestle in her lap. She is mixing something. As I walk up, she looks at me with the warm patience of the aged.

I hand her the photo of Carmen and she stops with her mixing to examine the picture. So young. So pretty, she says. Such a shame.

In the bowl is a black paste that seems to soak up the light. She takes a pinch and applies it to the photo with a playing card. She spreads it thin with the Queen of Hearts, no less.

I’m taken aback when she pulls out the matches and lights the photo. She stares intently, watching the paste burn with a blue flame on the surface of the glossy image.

I look closer. There’s something happening to the picture. I swear it’s moving, flickering like one of those old silent movies. Then, in a flash, the photo is gone.

She mixes the ashes with the Indian Herb and hands me the vial. It’s 90 degrees here in the sun, but the glass is somehow frosted and cold.

One more thing, she says. Very important. The Indian Herb absorbs through the skin. It requires a pure spirit, so never, ever use it with alcohol, understand?

When I get back to Portland, I learn that Carmen is in a coma. I’m too late.

That night she comes to me in my dream. She holds me, but she doesn’t speak. I tell her she has to let go of this world. I kiss her goodbye.

Just that moment, my son wakes me up, calling out from the bathroom. His nose is bleeding. I get him cleaned up and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Must have smeared blood on my face somehow. It looks like there’s lipstick on my cheek.

I’m wiping it off when the phone rings. 5:00 am. It’s her sister, Mercy. Carmen is gone.

At Mercy’s house, I sit in the kitchen and watch as the men from the funeral home wheel the stretcher towards the door. Logan calls out from the living room. Dad, the TV shut off.

The power in the house is out. It flicks back on the moment they close the door of the hearse.

Weeks later, it is 3:00 am when I stumble home. The nightly beers dull the pain, but I wake up the minute they wear off. I look in the mirror and see that I forgot to shave. My eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. I don’t have dreams any more.

I see the Indian Herb is sitting on the counter. I pick it up and weigh it in my hand. Could this have done a miracle, I wonder? A cure for cancer? I unscrew the cap and take a whiff. A sulfur smell. I stick my finger in and look at the stuff in my hand. As it warms, the black goo turns clear.

I remember what the Indian Herb did to the photo of Carmen. Brought it to life. I reach to my reflection and touch the mirror. The Indian Herb spreads smoothly on the glass.

In a moment my reflected self starts to blur. I must be really drunk, I’m thinking. Then the image starts to change, deconstruct. My skin, my teeth, my bones are dissolving away. I look down at where my heart would be and it turns translucent. Inside is something very dark, tortured and writhing in pain. Something horrific that’s becoming clearer and more magnified each second.

I hear a voice from the mirror. This is your soul.

I crumple to the floor and cry out in the night. I let her down. I couldn’t save her. This cannot be undone.

***

It’s morning now and I’m sorting through the photos I picked up from Carmen’s house. There’s one of me sitting on the patio at Muus. That’s odd, I think. Where did she get that?

Then I look again. The front of the bar is painted red. But it’s always been green since I’ve going there.

I grab a deck of cards from the drawer and pick up the Indian Herb and spread it on the photo. I light a candle. Maybe that’s the trick. Wave it over the flame but don’t ignite.

Something in the image begins to come out. It is Carmen. She starts to come alive in the flickering motion I saw at that shack in the desert. She reaches down to touch my heart. Then she whispers in my ear, as she points to a beautiful Latina woman at the next table. I’m sure I’ve seen her before.

Then I notice there’s something different about me in the picture, too. I’m not sad any more. In fact, I see myself laughing as I move over to join the woman for a drink. Carmen bends down to kiss me on the cheek and she starts to fade away.

Just then, the photo catches fire. Wait. No! Come back, Carmen! I try to blow it out, but it’s gone to ashes.

I still use the Indian Herb sometimes. In fact, they painted the bar red a few weeks later and I decided to start spending more time on the patio. It’s been two years now and yes, I’ve gotten to know the woman that Carmen showed me pretty well now. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

So now, my audience, when I take this photo of you this morning, I’m curious to see what phantoms you might be carrying around. I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, the ghosts from your past have forgiven you a million times over, too.

There’s a darkness inside of all of us. Something we keep locked away, but that’s what gives it its power. To truly disarm that darkness, I think all you have to do is acknowledge it. Look at it and say, I see you. You are part of me.

So as I close this story, I have to say that yes, I’m in love with a ghost. I looked into the abyss and that love saved me long after she left this world.

And just to be spooky, I’m thinking I should tell you what I saw in the mirror that night, but be warned.

I promise it would scare the living shit out of you.

Short Story: The Three Magi of Katrina

At the 2006 Supercomputing Conference, Ray Kurzweil foretold the coming of the Singularity. Now, as a Category 5 hurricane bears down on New Orleans, the SC30 Keynote is the Event Horizon.

When the plane sets down in New Orleans, I can see only darkness outside. The raindrops stream sideways across the porthole even after we come to a stop. Now lightning. In the flash, there’s something out there, an empty wheel chair alone on the windswept tarmac.

Next to me, the chatty woman from Atlanta has already summoned a weather report for my benefit.

“Good news, Mr. Yahuda,” she says. ”The eye of the storm is stalled 1000 miles southeast. It looks like you’ll get to go to your conference after all.”

I help her fetch her bag from above and make my way up the gangway. A smell and a feeling at the same time, the humidity surrounds me like a cloak.

I remember landing here in the days before Katrina in the grip of summertime heat. A green undergrad from the University of Hong Kong, I had never been to an American city before. Twenty five years later, nothing about the terminal reminds now but the feeling of a dew point barely kept at bay.

At the bottom of the escalator, I see the driver holding up my name. They still use paper for such things here, a somehow welcome respite from the augmented reality systems that infest nearly every public space back home.

Outside, the limousine waits across a maelstrom of rain and wind. The worst of the storm may have held off, but I am half soaked in just a few steps.

The driver closes the door quickly behind me, and I settle into the plush leather seat. My glasses are completely steamed, and I have to take them off to speak with the other two men in the car.

A smiling monk in saffron robes offers me a hand towel. He has an endearing smile. “We were beginning to think that your plane was going to be diverted.”

“You must be Lopa Rinpoche,” I reply, offering him my hand. He shakes it in a most un-Western way. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person. I was actually here in New Orleans to see your talk at the Institute when Katrina hit.”

Seated next to Rinpoche is Dr. Chen. “I was here as well at that time,” he says. “We were here doing some preparatory work on a new high speed data pipeline. Months of work were destroyed.”

It’s been 15 years since I worked with Chen on his biography. He was an unknown figure in those days, but already his work with Artificial Intelligence had laid the foundation for Project Dāna and building of the first self-aware machine. I’ve read that he has had health issues, but his grip is firm and he still has that warm sense of strength in his eyes.

“We are honored to have you join us at the Event,” he says. “I’m afraid you’ll need to do your interview here in the car. With your unfortunate flight delay, we will have to go directly to the convention center.”

Chen laughs when I ask him if there will be an audience, given the terrible weather.

“Believe me, most of them would parachute in to attend the Event if they had to. I was a little worried when Mara got upgraded to a Category 4, but they assure me that an evacuation will not be necessary as a result of the carbon nanotube reinforcements to the levees.”

Chen brings out a black cylinder with a hinge running down the long side. Inside is a translucent spherical device the size of a grapefruit. Its tripodal stand reminds me of something sinister from H.G. Wells.

Is that how He sees, I ask? Chen nods and begins to work. I’ve read about these remarkable lenses — they enable recordings from every angle and depth of field at once. Smooth with a pearl-like sheen, the entire surface of the device seems to be a haptic interface. Chen’s every touch gives off a red glow.

I get out my moleskin and turn to Rinpoche. “I have to admit, Rinpoche, that your participation in the Dāna project was a bit of a surprise to me. How did you get involved?”

Rinpoche smiles and his pause is telling. “It was something I could have never predicted myself. I was working at the University of Wisconsin on their meditation brainwave studies with some of the other monks. Dr. Chen came to the lab for a tour and we recognized each other from the volunteer work we did here after the hurricane.”

“So he offered you a chance to connect to the AI?”

“Actually it was the reverse. My post-Doc studies at Madison were focused on psychology. And when Dr. Chen told me of his frustration with the crude machine-to-brain interfaces of the day, I suggested an alternate path.”

“I thought he quite mad, to be honest,” says Chen. “But my work had hit a brick wall. The nanotechnologies we needed for a direct neural interface were still years away.”

My confused look tells Rinpoche to go on.

“Have you read the works of Carl Jung, Mr. Yahuda?”

“It’s been a long time,” I say. “Probably since college.”

“What about the idea of the collective unconscious?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Essentially, Jung theorized that we are all connected by a universal intelligence, something we experience in our unconscious state. My meditation research at Madison indicated that we could develop waking access to that collective. And when Dr. Chen told me about his difficulties, I showed him the results of an experiment where we able to transfer knowledge and ideas by using this collective unconscious as a channel.”

Something in me understands the gravity of what Rinpoche is saying. A myriad of questions flash across my mind.

“And you’ve been able to gain access the AI in this way?”

Rinpoche grimaces a bit and says it’s not quite that simple. He seems to be collecting his thoughts to answer further when lightning flashes outside. Now the limo brakes hard and a rush of water vibrates the floorboards. The road is flooding, the driver says. We’ll have to take a detour.

Rinpoche seizes the chance to change the subject. “By the way, Mr. Yahuda, I really enjoyed your documentary on Ray Kurzweil. He was a man of remarkable ideas.”

“His vision of the future centered on a very optimistic view of technology,” I reply. “I don’t think he was prepared for the violent reaction from the Bill Joy camp.”

Chen looks up from his work. “It’s like a religious war with those people,” he says. “One side believes that technology is key to the next stage of our evolution, and the other is quite certain that it will lead to our destruction. What do you think, Mr. Yahuda?”

I tell him I became quite familiar with the views of the Joy camp when I made the documentary. The time for this debate has passed.

Rinpoche perks up at the mention of the film. “I noticed you used old style film for that piece,” he says. “And I wanted to ask you, what do you think about the new wave of 3D cinema?”

“Oh that,” I say. “Maybe I’m a purist, but I don’t see 3D as something that’s going to take. It’s a pattern that comes up every 30 years or so. The audience get’s interested in a certain work, but then Hollywood tries to apply the new technology to their old stories, and the novelty goes away.”

Rinpoche nods. He seems deep in thought. “People think they only want new stories when it is the retelling of the old that reminds us who we are. You know, I read this archive review by Michael Moore recently. And he said that one of the most original films he had ever seen was an Indy movie about Nazi Zombies.

I laugh.

I should like to see this movie, he says, perhaps we could go see it together? The notion of waiting in line with a Tibetan monk for a movie about Undead Nazis makes me smile.

Rinpoche tells me about the event itinerary today. “We will each present a gift to Adom at the beginning of the keynote. You will present this book as the final gift.”

He holds out a red leather-bound volume, The Life of Adom. I crack it open and the pages are blank. I tell Rinpoche that I don’t understand.

“Well, first you have to write it, Mr. Yahuda,” Chen says, smiling. “Adom chose you to author his biography, a personal memoir, as it were. If you accept this assignment, we’re hoping the book will be a way for the public to get more comfortable with the idea of an intelligent machine.”

I’m flattered, I tell him. But why me?

Chen’s phone buzzes and he pulls it out of his pocket. “Ah, a text message from Adom: Sorry that I can’t speak right now, but after reviewing your work, I sensed a change in your writing style that I found compelling. As a result, I believe that we can successfully collaborate on my story as it unfolds.”

Not sure how to interact in this strange communication, I look directly at the plenoptic device. “Adom, what do you mean, change in my writing style?”

The phone buzzes once again. Chen pauses for a second before reading. “He asks; Are you not aware that you have written exclusively in the present tense since the death of your partner last year?”

It’s such an inhuman thing to say, I’m thinking. But that’s what He is, after all. My breath escapes slowly from deep in my diaphram. “Carmen was a remarkable woman, Adom, and I think sometimes that kind of loss affects us in ways that only others can see. It happens in the Now, and when I write that way, it seems to keep my… my profound sadness at bay.”

Rinpoche asks what happened and I tell him how she was killed in an attack by an autonomous predator drone. She knew her work at the Red Cross was dangerous, but she had dedicated her life to service.

“A tragic accident, Mr. Yahuda,” Chen says. “The programs they were using were simply not up to the task.”

I look at Chen for a moment before answering. “The technology isn’t responsible,” I tell him. “Our faith in technology is what killed her.”

In the silence that follows, I flip through the blank book nervously. Rinpoche is looking out the window. Our detour is taking us through a neighborhood of dilapidated shacks marked with graffiti. The pot holes are starting to rattle my teeth.

So much suffering, Rinpoche says to no one in particular. It marks a point in the conversation where we can move on.

I ask Rinpoche about his previous experience here. He tells me how he was knocked down by debris when the flood came. “I had a concussion,” he says. “Very bad, but there was nowhere to go. They took me to the convention center where all these people had gathered waiting for help.”

He continues to look out the window as if he is looking for something familiar. “I remember sitting against a wall, alone,” he says. “I was fading fast and then this woman in a wheelchair brought me water. I don’t know where she got it because there were no provisions there for all those people. She had lost her meds and I could tell she was very weak, but she held my hand for hours and wouldn’t let go. And when I woke up she was gone. When she passed… they just wheeled her outside.”

A few minutes later, the driver slides back the privacy panel. “Here we are, gentleman. I hope your business here doesn’t take too long. Hurricane Mara just got upgraded to a Category 5.”

Rinpoche unwraps a package and pulls out a silky golden shawl. I ask him what it’s for.

“Why, it’s for her, Mr. Yahuda,” he says, stepping out of the vehicle.

Chen returns the plenoptic device to its case and asks me to help him with one of his bags. As we get out of the limo, the wind is laced with the heavy spray of water blasted up off the sidewalk.

A black man in colorful clothes approaches me. A big red button on his lapel says “Ambassador of New Orleans.” I lower my head to receive his beads. No one sees when he slips the package into my coat pocket. It’s weight is convincing, a solemn reminder of what I’ve come here to do.

I catch up with Chen and have to speak up over the howl of the storm. “I’m curious about the experiments in Madison, Dr. Chen. How much information were you able to transfer to the AI?”

“This wasn’t about information, Mr. Yahuda. Adom already has access to the sum total of human knowledge. What we needed was a channel to transmit something… something much bigger.”

“What do you mean?”

Compassion.”

Chen looks thoughtfully off to his left and I turn to see what has captured his attention. Rinpoche has left us and is approaching a woman in a wheelchair 30 yards away. Even in this impossible gale, she is motionless, still as bare frozen trees in the snow.

Rinpoche bows to her. She slowly reaches up and puts a ring of beads around his neck. Then he unfolds the shawl and gently wraps it around her.

Now a man in blue holds open the glass door of the convention center, waving us in. You must hurry, he says, the keynote is starting shortly.

Rinpoche has rejoined us. A look of calm purpose pervades him and we compare beads. His necklace bears an unusual-looking silver medallion.

I look back and the woman in the wheelchair is gone.

I stop in my tracks. I feel a blast of wind, but it is without vector. It is a pattern of time and place, a confluence of the Now that I have never experienced before. Kurzweil talked about this kind of thing in his books. He said that stories are patterns with meaning.

Rinpoche puts his hand on my shoulder. It seems to say we still have much to do.

***

Dr. Chen is taking the stage. The auditorium is full and the audience is completely still.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman for that kind introduction,” he says, opening the plenoptic case. “But you are giving me too much credit for the Event that we witness here today.”

Chen puts the device that is the manifestation of Adom proudly on the podium next to the microphone. “In a way, many of you in this room are the fathers and mothers of the high performance computer networks that form the Distributed Artificial Neural Array. Project Dāna, then, is much more than the accomplishment of one man. In fact Dāna is the Sanskrit word for giving. And through your tireless work and sacrifice, the whole of humanity will benefit from the birth of the Singularity.”

“I know you didn’t come here to see me today,” Chen continues. “We will get to Adom’s keynote in just a moment. We’ll start with a presentation of gifts.”

Music comes up in the hall and a woman in a white dress walks to the podium bearing a red book. Chen takes the book from her and holds it up for the crowd to see.

“Today we welcome you, Adom, to the realm of sentient beings on this planet. And so I present to you the first of three books that represent the past, the present, and future. Adom, this book is the story of your genesis. It is a complete record of Project Dāna.”

Then Adom speaks for the first time over the PA system. To my surprise, it is the voice of a small boy.

Thank you, Dr. Chen. What a wonderful gift to receive on my birthday.

The audience applauds as Chen lays the book before Adom. He then introduces Lopa Rinpoche, who moves slowly to the podium and then regards the audience with a gigantic grin for a long while before speaking.

“Adom, I am honored today to bring you the gift of the Here and Now, the ultimate nature of reality. It is a concept that can be hard to grasp, so I will convey an ancient teaching that many have found instructive.”

The woman in the dress brings Rinpoche a small scroll on a white pillow. This is the distraction I needed. My moment has come.

Under the dais table, I pull the package from my pocket and unwrap it: a plasma pistol. The LED display  indicates that the safety is off.

I stand and point the pistol at Adom. When it fires, the optic overload will breach the Dāna array firewalls and my associates will attack with their virus programs over the SCInet. Adom will be wiped out forever.

Behind the podium, Rinpoche looks at me in surprise. I pull the trigger and the pistol starts to whine loudly as the plasma buffer loads. Someone in the audience gasps.

To my horror, Rinpoche leaps in the way and the blinding white blast hits him squarely in the chest. I don’t expect the recoil from the discharge and the pistol flies out of my hand.

Chairs fall back. There are shouts, chaos. I turn to run, but someone knocks me down and pins my arm behind my back.

My face is held to the floor facing Rinpoche. He is against the wall looking down at the smoking medallion on his chest. He takes it off and then he stands, seemingly unhurt.

A police officer arrives. He puts handcuffs on me and I feel him pull the wallet from my back pocket. “All right Mister… Matthias Iscariot Yahuda,” the officer says, reading my ID card. “I’m placing you under arrest. You have the right to remain silent.”

They haul me to my feet to face Dr. Chen, who looks at me with wild amazement. “I don’t understand,” he says. “I mean, Why? You were the one. Adom chose you to write his story!”

“I just did.” I tell him.

He looks at me, confused. Of course he doesn’t get it now, but he will. Stories are patterns. And when this tale hits the wires, each retelling will have its own perspective.

As they lead me out of the auditorium, Rinpoche returns to the podium and the ceremony continues. I ask the officer to please let me watch for a moment.

“I’m glad you’re OK, Rinpoche.” Adom says for all to hear. “I was wondering though, when we’re all done, can we go see that Nazi zombie movie?”

The audience laughs. In an instant, Adom’s child-like enthusiasm has come across to a room full of nervous anticipation.

“Of course, Adom. But we must attend to the present moment.”

I see. The movie is something of the future. Will it be scary?

I watch Rinpoche smile. It is the smile of a thousand teachers before him.

“Perhaps this is the wrong question,” he says, unrolling the scroll. “First, let me tell you the story of the Four Noble Truths.”

About the author

Rich Brueckner writes about people and technology at insideHPC.com. He lives with his 10-year-old clone in Portland, Oregon.

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