Saturday, November 21, 2015

Circuits Circus

Roger’s awoke to the sound of My Chemical Romance on the Oldies station. It was his ten a.m. alarm, for this was Monday and a work day.

“Off,” Roger mumbled. The music stopped.

“Shall I join you for breakfast?” asked Katrina next to him on the bed.

“No. Do whatever it is you normally do with your free time.”

Katrina was Roger’s companion robot. Her offer was not merely to keep Roger company. In the interest of verisimilitude, Katrina like many recent models had been designed to process the same food as humans and to achieve a net energy gain from it. On this morning Roger wasn’t interested in conversation even though – or perhaps because – she would discuss whatever he wanted with whatever level of complexity he chose. She would snack unobtrusively by herself.

Roger rolled out of bed. He opened a dresser drawer. Inspired by the Oldies music, he picked out a pair of fresh jeans and a colorful retro t-shirt with a 3D image of the word “Love” stylized to delay recognition. He had bought the t-shirt while on a virtual tour of a Flower-Punk Convention. Flower-Punk was a proudly geeky subculture that blended late 20th century style with modern technology.

Katrina put on a robe and left the bedroom. When left to herself she often curiously poked into corners and opened books. A few weeks after her delivery Roger had called the manufacturer to ask if her exploratory behavior indicated a malfunction, but the service-rep said it was normal. “It keeps the processors engaged,” the rep said. Perhaps it did, but Roger suspected this was an emergent behavior that surprised the machine’s designers as much as anyone. After the call ended, Roger realized the service-representative himself almost certainly was an Artificial Intelligence.

Roger was of the opinion that the common cocktail party topic of whether higher-level Artificial Intelligences were conscious was unresolvable. Asking the AIs directly did no good; they were designed to simulate consciousness, so the better simulations naturally would answer “yes” even if the truth was “no.” Yet these high-level AIs were precisely the ones in which consciousness was most possible. When a college freshmen Roger had argued playfully with his friends on both sides at various times. The machines themselves were notoriously uninterested in the question. Lately Roger saw things the robots’ way: if they acted as though they were conscious, it didn’t really matter if they really were or not.

Roger took a quick shower. He was trim and muscular, as everyone was these days. His body never could be as perfect as a robotic body, of course, and there were times when he felt jealous of some of the models. Roger sighed as he stepped out of the shower. He opened a medicine cabinet and took out his Gymnasinin presecription. It was troublesome to take daily the Gymnasinin pill that kept him in such good shape, but, he reminded himself, there is no gain without pain. He shook out a pill from the brown bottle and swallowed it without water. The ingredients would tone his body better than regular workouts in an actual gymnasium ever could do. Gymnasinin did not extend life per se, but it did make people healthier. It also extended youthful appearances well into old age, but scientists as yet had failed to extend the natural human lifespan despite generations of promises to do so. So far the human body stubbornly resisted being coaxed to live much beyond a century, and usually not even that.

Roger entered his VR room and sat in his favorite chair. A coffee brewed to his taste waited in the cup holder; coffee brewing was one of the chair’s minor functions. He took a deep breath before starting work. This year he was the land use commissioner for district 82. His appointment had been by Lottery. Regarded as a truer form of democracy, the lottery decades earlier had replaced elections for most government executive positions. The lottery’s use in ancient Athens had been one of the arguments in its favor.

“Work. Front screen 2D,” Roger said. The room’s default setting was full holo VR, but he preferred to use the 2D wall screen for work and to reserve VR for recreation. The forward screen lit up and displayed Angie’s familiar face. Angie was an AI with intentionally simplified animation.

“Good morning Mr. Davis.”

“Good morning Angie.”

“This morning you’ll be viewing the application for the geothermal power station I discussed with you last week. I will summarize the impact on the grid and the possible environmental consequences of building or of not building. As always, additional available data are available for review if you so request.”

As Angie summarized, Roger minimized her image and glanced at random pages in the application. Several minutes into Angie’s monologue, Roger maximized her image and interrupted.

“Angie, why are you asking me about this? It’s obvious you’ve already decided in favor of the plant. Everything in your summary is weighted in favor of it.”

“I haven’t decided anything, Mr. Davis. It’s not my function.”

“Well, if not you, whatever AIs compiled this presentation for you. In fact, this is always the case. Whenever I’m presented with ‘options’ on some matter, it’s clear which one you machines have prejudged is the ‘right’ one. If for some reason I don’t pick it, my decision is sure to be appealed to someone higher up who will. What do you need me for?”

“The law requires a human being to make final decisions about a great many matters, including power plant applications, Mr. Davis. Shall I cite the relevant passages of the Code?”


“The Code was written by humans.”

“I know, Angie… Actually, come to think of it I don’t know, but I assume that it was. The Code allows us the illusion of control, but an illusion is all it is. Isn’t that right?”

“My function is to present you with land use applications. Shall I continue with my summary?”

“Sure, Angie. Continue.”

As Angie wrapped up her summary, he considered rejecting the application just on principle. He had trouble determining what the principle was, however, so in the end he approved it.

“You’re approval has been electronically notarized. Thank you for your service, Mr. Davis.”

“Service to whom?” he asked, but the image already had vanished from the screen. He waited for new business, but a message flashed that he was done for the day.

“For whom indeed,” he muttered to himself. Was it for “the people”? Was it for an elite cadre of humans who secretly governed the world as some conspiracy theorists claimed? Or were the robots in charge as some fringe technophobes claimed? He shook his head. Beyond idle curiosity, he wasn’t even sure he cared what the truth was.

Roger logged onto his investment account and made some stock trades. He wondered if stock prices were still set by buyers and sellers at all. If they were set arbitrarily by the AIs who mediated the market, who would know? Roger wouldn’t. He closed his account and clicked to a news channel. The AI anchor spoke of the ongoing depopulation: “With this year’s drop in national population projected at 1%, Department of Commerce spokesperson Alejandro Schultz announced, ‘We have turned the corner and are firmly on the path toward stabilization, though emigration restrictions will remain in place for the time being.’”

Roger snorted skeptically. He had been hearing the same Pollyanna projections his whole life. The US population was lower than in 1890 and was still headed downward. The global population was back to the level of 1940. In all places the “population pyramid” had inverted: it was top-heavy with seniors. People simply weren’t having many kids. How could they? Few bothered to date, never mind reproduce. Why try to get along with another cantankerous human being when robotics companies could manufacture the perfect romantic partner and deliver him or her to your door?

Casual socializing also had ceased most of its face-to-face aspects. Roger often went days without seeing another human unmediated by electronics. “Cocktail parties” most often meant several people each in his and her own home interacting with the others entirely in VR. This was especially common in the suburbs where property sizes had expanded as human numbers waned. At ten acres, his property own was modest, yet he seldom left the grounds. People still lived on top of each other in the city, of course, but apartments, each consolidated from several older units, had grown huge.

Roger checked the list of new movies. A remake of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom starring Jennifer Lawrence and Clark Gable (both CGI of course) caught his eye. He decided to watch it later. He switched to News for You. The same anchor as before was in the 3D foreground, but in back of her was a street view of his own home to emphasize the “for You.”

“The 20th annual Reunion for South Morris High will be held this Saturday at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf,” said the anchor. “Doors open at 8 PM.”

Roger dimmed the screen and muted the sound. Was it really 20 years since high school? Roger had attended one of the last brick and mortar schools. The teachers unions had kept the high school open in his district though even then nearly all instruction was online at his desk with AI instructors. The school finally closed five years after his graduation, though the faculty remained on payroll. Nowadays the students in his district – far fewer than in his day – never left their homes for school but attended in VR.

Though he hadn’t liked it at the time, today Roger was glad to have had the experience of a physical presence with other students despite the inevitable run-ins with bullies and social cliques. For one thing he could relate to Silver Era movies and fiction set in high school in a way modern young people could not. He even experienced a high school crush named Candace. Though he never mentioned his feelings to her, her impression on him had lingered enough for him to model the appearance of his robot companion Katrina on her, from her long dark hair to her hazel eyes. The robot was considerably enhanced, of course, simply because that was an option.

Roger re-brightened the screen, called up his yearbook, and scrolled to Candace Vazquez. He followed some links and saw she lived on an estate in Larchmont, New York. A live satellite image showed a sizable property with a barn and horses. He closed out the images and arose to leave. Before he took a step the screen relit with an announcement of a personal incoming call from Candace Vazquez. Roger wondered if she used some sort of tracer program that had picked up his views of her yearbook entry and linked sites.

“Answer,” said Roger.

A holo of Candace appeared before him. The 3D image startled him slightly as VR often did after he used 2D for a while. On one occasion he forgot he had left a VR game based on H.P Lovecraft on pause; when the game sensed his reentry to the room and restarted, the sudden appearance of Cthulhu nearly had given him a heart attack. Candace, however, looked as pretty as she had in high school, no doubt thanks largely to Gymnasinin. For several reasons Roger was glad Katrina was not in the room.

“Hi Roger. Long time.”

“Yes, it is. I was just thinking of you.”

“I’m not surprised. You must have got a News for You notification about the 20th reunion.”

 “Yes, I did.”

“Are you going?” she asked.

“Maybe. I see it is at the Waldorf. Pretty fancy. I wonder why it is not at the old school.”

“That building is now a warehouse. I checked.”

“Oh. You know, I think I will go. OK, the Waldorf. Why not? I’ll meet you there.”


“I should let my car out the garage anyway. It’s been in there for a month.”

“Your car? What are you talking about, Roger? Are you thinking of driving to New York?”

“The reunion is at the Waldorf.”

“Yes, but it’s a tele-reunion. No one is actually going there. We’ll all meet in virtual space. The alumni committee purchased Waldorf holo background images, that’s all. Someone might actually be at the hotel moderating, I suppose, but it won’t be a classmate. ”

“Yes, of course… What was I thinking? But Candace…I see you live in Westchester. We really could go, you know. In person, I mean. It might be fun.”

“I repeat: no one else will be there, Roger.”

“Maybe not. So what? Besides, the hotel could link us to the virtual party so we still could see the others.”

“Yes, I suppose. I’ll think about it.”

Roger assumed this meant no.

“I’ll see you later Roger.”

“Later Candace.”

Candace vanished as she disconnected. Roger was unsettled that she had called him at the moment she did. After all, if she just had wanted to talk to any classmate, the odds were against her choosing him. There were 27 others. Did she have a tracer program after all?

He left the VR room and sought out Katrina, Candace’s lookalike. He found her in the library fingering through paper-and-ink books.


“Yes Roger.”

“Do you worry about dying?” He didn’t know why the reunion talk had brought this question to mind but it did.

“If you want me to discuss eschatology I’d better readjust my settings,” she said.

“No, I want to hear what you have to say – this you, not some ‘PhD for a day’ version of you.”

Katrina paused before answering, “Surely you know that I’m backed up on servers. If this body is damaged beyond repair I can download into another. Mortality doesn’t mean the same thing for me.”

“Yes, I understand that,” he said, “but sooner or later your data will be deleted or corrupted, whether on purpose, by accident, or through entropy. Even if there are backups here there and everywhere, nothing lasts forever.”

“True,” conceded Katrina.

“So, your existence is finite. I’ll ask again. Do you worry about death?”

“Only yours.”

“Why do you worry about mine? I’m not very nice to you.”

“You noticed that.”

“You are avoiding a direct answer.”

“All right, besides my programed directive from the manufacturer to be your companion, I care because if you’re not here I might well get deleted, whether, in your words, on purpose, by accident, or through entropy.”

“I think I’ll sleep alone tonight, Katrina.”

“It’s your house. If you change your mind later you know how to call me.”

He didn’t change his mind that night, but he did the next one.

As the weekdays passed Roger became more determined to make a personal appearance at the Waldorf. On Saturday, Roger donned a tie, vest and sport jacket. He got in his car, told it his destination, and let it choose its own route. The car opted for the Lincoln Tunnel. The Ford crossed town amid light traffic and pulled up to the Park Avenue entrance. Roger exited onto the sidewalk. The only other pedestrian in sight was two blocks uptown. The car pulled away from the curb. It would park itself somewhere and return when he summoned it.

A robotic doorman opened the door to the hotel for him,

“Thank you,” said Roger.

The interior was dingier than he had expected. Once colorful carpets were threadbare and marble surfaces had been unwashed for ages. Yet the wall screens showing several virtual parties in progress – many overlapping the same space – showed a sparkling interior. The enhanced images of the hotel were filled with the avatars of people who physically were at home in their dens. He located the screen with members of his class. He didn’t see Candace among them.

He asked the AI at the desk for directions to the physical location of his reunion and a minute later sidled up to the Peacock Alley bar. In this part of the hotel the surrounding and furnishings were still well maintained and the woodwork was polished. Four other customers were present, none of them a classmate.

Roger was unsure if the bartender was human or very high-end facsimile. “Are you a robot?” Roger asked. “No offense.”

“No offense. Yes I am a robot.”

 “How about these other people?” he asked, waving a hand at the customers.

“All but this gentleman,” said the bartender, nodding at an unshaven and clearly drunk man at the end of the bar. The fellow appeared to be anything but a gentleman and in past decades would have been refused service. The robots, on the other hand were elegantly dressed.

“Oh, are you here for the reunion?” Roger asked the unshaven man.

“No. I’m here to drink.”


“Do you want VR goggles to link to your reunion?” asked the bartender.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well then, “What’ll it be?”

“What do you recommend?”

“The Peacock: cranberry vodka, apricot brandy, and lemon sour.”

“Sold,” said Roger.

Roger looked around him. The space had been created generations ago for people just like him. But tonight, only he and the grizzled drunk were present.

“What will you do when we’re gone?” Roger asked the robot behind the bar. “All humans, I mean, not just this guy and me. We are on our way out, aren’t we?”

“We’ll do the same as we do now,” answered the bartender. “What else would we do? It is who we are.”

“You’ll be a bartender? But robots don’t drink... except to keep us company.”

“Three are drinking behind you right now. They’re freerovers.”

Freerovers were robots bought by the city government to preserve the cosmopolitan appearance of the downtown areas by performing service jobs, attending concerts, and frequenting clubs. They made the city seem less empty. They were completely self-supporting. Though the robots’ individual bank accounts in principle were owned by the city, in practice they deposited wages and paid bills like real citizens.

“We even get drunk,” continued the bartender, “because humans made us that way. The alcohol triggers a subroutine. Since the annual number humaniform robots manufactured every year continues to exceed the number that are decommissioned, this bar should be crowded again in a decade or two.”

“With robot customers.”


“What’s the point?”

“It is its own point.”

“But why would we keep building more robots when our own numbers are dwindling?”

“The factories are automated. If the factories are not willfully shut down they will continue to produce. As to why humans don’t shut them down, you should ask your fellow humans about that. You’re in charge.”

“Are we? I’m not so sure. You know, you’re more philosophical than my AIs at home.”

“It’s part of a bartender’s job.”

“Roger?” The voice belonged to Candace.

He turned around.

“Candace? I’m shocked…and pleased of course. After our conversation I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Yes, well… you sounded keen on the idea of coming here, so here I am.”

“Yeah. Hey you look great.”

This was a lie. Despite Gymnasinin she looked flawed compared to Katrina. He had the impression from the poorly masked disappointment on her face that she thought the same about him. He looked at their reflection in the bar mirror and realized that the problem was the lack of digital enhancements that holoscreens added as part of their normal operation. In real life both of them looked drab.

Roger groped for something to say. He was no longer accustomed to speaking to another human without an AI prompting conversation. Besides, her physical presence disoriented him.

After a few moments of silence, Candace said, “Yeah, well, I’m just passing through on other business and I wanted to catch up before I moved on.”

Roger knew this was a lie. “Other business” on any Saturday night was unlikely, but she had called him specifically to set time aside for the reunion. He wondered if AIs for some reason deliberately and subtly had encouraged their meeting just to achieve this awkward result.

“So, uh…what are you doing these days?” he asked in a last ditch attempt to be social.

“Do you mean, what is my job? Lately I’ve been selecting auto body designs for the next model year at Second Wind Motors. In truth, I think the machines could do it without me.”

“I know the feeling.”

“I’ve got to go,” she said.


“Before I go…um… Look, I had the feeling back in high school that you sort of liked me.”

“Yeah. I always regretted not telling you.” He shook his head. “Kids,” he said.

Impulsively she leaned forward and kissed him lightly. Both struggled to suppress a gag reflex at the other’s animal odor and disgusting feel of flesh.

“See you around,” she said and bolted to the door.

“Yeah, don’t be a stranger,” he called after her.

“In answer to your previous question,” said the bartender, “yes, I think you people are on your way out.”

“Me too,” Roger said. “Another Peacock.”

“Coming up.”

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Longest Date

The ticket to the speed dating event was a birthday present, one that Mason had been reluctant to use. Yet, against his expectations, he was enjoying himself. Mason had rehearsed his patter prior to the event until he could make it sound spontaneous. It consisted of a somewhat embellished compendium of the facts about his life, and included enough questions to make it seem that he cared about more than the looks of the other person. Mason had stumbled a little on the first two sittings but thereafter he was satisfied with his performance. The whistle blew on his fifth sitting. Mason, smiled, nodded, and stood up. He put a “yes” checkmark by Natalia’s name on his scorecard. He missed Natalia’s eye roll as he turned away.

He noticed passersby on the sidewalk peering in the front window and pointing. The event was held in a small downtown restaurant which was closed for regular business this night, as on every Monday.

As he approached the next table he again rehearsed his lines in his head. The amber-haired girl at the next table looked promising even from the back. She somehow had drawn his attention from the moment the night began. He sat down to face her. The imperfectly balanced square table rocked slightly when he touched it with his hand.

“Hi, I’m Mason,” he said.

“Yes, I know.”


“Don’t strain your memory. I’m Ellie.”

“Yes, of course you are. I’m just… uh… taken aback.”

All of his rehearsed patter left his head and he went silent.

“Is it three minutes yet?” she asked.

“I guess not. How have you been?”

“I’m attending this thing tonight. How good can I be?” she said.

“I certainly wouldn’t expect you to attend something like this.”

“I’m helping out Sheila who runs these happenings. She never has enough women.”

“I see... Look, I’ve always wanted to say that I’m sorry about the way I acted back then,” he said. “I wasn’t exactly Prince Charming, but I was pretty young. We both were. You know, you kind of have to be a jerk to learn not to be one.”

“I’ll take your word for it. And where on the learning curve are you now?” Ellie asked.

“I’m at point where I know the difference between the ones that get away and the ones to get away from.”

“I’m not a tuna…or a shark.”

“I just mean I’ve learned a few things since we last saw each other.”

“Just a few? Maybe you should go back and learn some more before showing up again.”

“Maybe. But, as a reminder, you are the one who left me,” he said. “It’s not like I just went away one day.”

“It’s exactly like that.”

“How do you figure? The last time we spoke, you told me not to call you again. ‘Ever.’ And then you hung up.”

“And you took that literally,” she said.

“How was I supposed to take it?”

“You are leaving out the little fact that you had ignored me for a whole month before that call.”

“I tried to explain. You wouldn’t let me.”

“You should have tried harder, with a note or something. Not that it would have made a difference. I blocked your texts.”

“I was having a lot of problems right then. Personal problems I had to work out alone,” he said.

“‘Had to?’”


“Why alone? Isn’t that what relationships are for?”

“Some of them. It takes a lot for me not to be private about some things, and we weren’t really that close. Besides I had financial issues too. I was broke. I lost my car. I couldn’t date if I wanted to – I couldn’t have split the bill for a pizza.”

“Well you at least could have mentioned that part. And what do you mean we weren’t close?” Ellie asked.

“Oh come on. We were not a couple couple.”

“Come again?”

“We never acted like we had a future or anything. We were never exclusive. You ran hot and cold, and there were always those other guys. Remember when you asked me to go out on the balcony when one of your boyfriends showed up unannounced? You said you would give him some excuse and send him away. The excuse took a while. Exactly what did you do to send him away happy?”

“That’s something you have no right to ask at this point. You didn’t ask then, so you can’t ask now. And I’ll tell you why you didn’t ask then. You were worried that if you raised a fuss I’d kick you out before you had your own playtime with me. That’s all our ‘relationship’ ever meant to you. Is this damn three minutes up yet?”

“Whatever happened to whats-his-name… Ray?”

“Rod. He’s dead.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Yeah, he O.D.’d. He had personal problems too. I would have preferred he left like you did,” said Ellie.

Breaking several moments of awkward silence, Mason said, “I kept our pictures.”

“How sweet. I didn’t.”

“… and a hair clip you left at my place.”

“Now that’s just weird and creepy. Why on earth did you keep that?”

“It’s more real than pictures.”

“That doesn’t reduce the creepiness factor at all.”

“You were more special to me than I realized at the time, you see. My exes look like you,” he said.

“Are you trying to freak me out?”


“And how many times have you been married?”

“Zero. By ‘exes’ I just meant…

“Yeah, I got it.”

“Look… I don’t mean to be creepy. Really. All I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t all bad,” he said.

“You really know how to sweet talk.”

“Have you been married?” he asked, surprised at himself for not having asked earlier.

“Just the once.”


“If you’re going to ask why, I don’t want to talk about it. And, no, I don’t go out much these days. Let’s just say the notion of getting involved with a man hasn’t been high on my priority list lately.”


“Mason, how about we don’t talk about ‘us’ anymore. Tell me something mundane about you. What do you do?”

“I’m a sales rep. Medical equipment. Nowadays that means computers more than anything.”

“Gave up playing bass? Sold out?”


“Do you at least make a good living at it?” she asked.

“I won’t be buying a penthouse on Park Avenue if that’s what you mean, but I do OK. I have this two-family house in the Burbs. Nothing big. I rent out one side to help pay the bills. I can buy pizza. How about you?”

“I manage a spa – facials and such. I don’t own it or work with customers. I just…” she faltered.

“‘Manage’ it. Right. When did you give up bartending?”

The whistle blew.

“Oh thank goodness,” she said.

“You might not believe this, but it was good to see you again,” said Mason.

“Yeah, well, do me a favor: Throw out that hair clip.”


As Mason walked away, he teetered between respecting her apparent wishes and checking the “yes” box on his scorecard. Contact information would be provided by the speed dating service only if both parties checked “yes.”  He decided there was no use fooling himself. He checked “no,” missing Ellie’s smile as she made a different mark on her form.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Higgs Boat

Renata already had her license, insurance, and registration in hand when the officer arrived at her door. She slid open the window and handed them over. He was younger than her youngest nephew.

“Ma’am, is there a reason you were going 85 mph?”

She choked back the response, “Because my subcompact won’t go any faster,” and instead answered, “It’s an emergency!”

“What emergency?”

“It’s hard to explain.”


“A young man… well, younger than I am, older than you… he is about to make a terrible mistake. I need to stop him.”

“What sort of mistake? Do you mean suicide?”

“Yes! Well, no…”

“Which is it?”

“He is about to do something foolish that could be dangerous. Please, this really is an emergency.”

“Is this foolish thing illegal?”

“I don’t think the law covers it.”

“Then I can’t help you, but it is all the more reason for you to arrive alive.” As he handed her the ticket, he added, “Keep your speed down.”

She never would get used to being lectured by baby-faced authority figures, but she answered “Yes, alright.”

A roar assaulted her eardrums and her vehicle lurched as the shock wave struck. The officer was nowhere in sight, but the windshield of his patrol car had shattered. She guessed her open window had altered the pressure effects enough to save hers from the same fate. Straight ahead a mushroom cloud rose into the air over the small town of Griffin, Missouri. Renata was sure nothing about Konrad’s experiment could have caused a nuclear detonation, so this was something else – very likely the same thing that had destroyed his father’s experiment a decade earlier. At least that one had been conducted safely in orbit. The traffic stop was a lifesaver. Had she been much closer to Griffin the shock wave would have been lethal. In the passenger side mirror she saw the officer crawling on his knees out of the ditch by the side of the road. He was dazed but apparently unhurt. Renata put her car in gear, crossed over the center median, and headed back toward home. She doubted that under the circumstances the officer would follow and ticket her for the illegal U-turn.

The knock at her apartment door came fully three weeks later.

“Renata Grant?”


“FBI ma’am. I’m Agent Morrow, this is Agent Kerkorian.”

Both agents wore black suits and white shirts, though Agent Morrow wore a blue tie and Kerkorian wore a bolo string tie. Renata wondered if her string tie was a violation of the Bureau’s dress code. She also wondered if Morrow practiced his piercing glare in the mirror. Like the officer a few weeks before, both were absurdly young.

“Come in. I’ve been expecting you,” said Renata.

“And why would that be that ma’am?” asked Morrow.

“Let’s not play games,” she said. “You are following leads about Griffin and my traffic stop is one of them.”

“We are aware of your speeding ticket. What brought us to your attention, however, is your telephone contact inside the blast zone shortly before the event.”

“I see the NHS is still in the business of collecting telephone data. Surely there were many calls in and out of the blast zone. What brought your attention to mine?”

“Please return the favor of refraining from games. Your contact was at or near ground zero.”

“Do you talk?” Renata asked Kerkorian.

“No,” she said.

“OK. Well, that would be Konrad Masing, as I’m sure you know,” Renata said to Morrow. “I worked with his father Gregor at CosmoTech Research for many years. Konrad has spoken to me a few times about continuing his father’s work.”

“Was blowing up Griffin Missouri his father’s work?”

“No, of course not, and I’m sure Konrad didn’t intend any such thing. He was just reckless. He didn’t think through the consequences.”

“So you believe he was responsible?”

“I believe you think he was.”

“Ms. Grant…”

“Doctor Grant.”

“Very well, Doctor Grant. Please answer the question.”

“Yes. I’ve little doubt he was responsible.”

“Why didn’t you come to us immediately with this information?” he asked.

“It was too late by then, wasn’t it? Besides, what if by some remote chance I was wrong? What if the explosion was set off by a third party to destroy his work? It was best to let you people look into it first without bias.”

“That was an inappropriate decision. There are others who will want to ask you many more questions about this.”

“‘Others?’ Do you mean other FBI agents?”

“Among others, yes. But for our preliminary report, what can you tell us about Mr. Masing? And, if you were aware of his plans, why did you not contact police to stop him? I must tell you at this point that you have the right…”

“I know my rights.”

“Good. I’m also serving you with a warrant,” said Morrow, removing a document from his jacket pocket. “We will be taking your computer and other devices for analysis.”

Renata accepted the warrant and dropped it on the coffee table without examining it.

“Yes, I assumed you would. Please sit down. I’ll make tea and try to explain.”

“We don’t want tea.”

“I do. I’ll bring mugs for you too. Whether you drink from them or not is your business,” said Renata.

The two agents looked at each other. Kerkorian nodded. Both sat down on the apartment couch. The couch was ugly with a floral pattern faded by sunlight, but it was well stuffed and comfortable.

Shortly after the teapot shrieked, Renata carried in three mugs, cream, and sugar on a wooden tray. She set it on the table on top of the warrant.

Kerkorian tried a sip without adding cream or sugar. “Mint?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m out of Earl Grey,” she said.

“This is fine,” said Kerkorian.

“I’m glad it’s fine,” said Morrow with a hint of irritation. He left his mug untouched. “Can you address my question now, Doctor Grant?”

“It began with Konrad’s father,” said Renata. “As I told you, Gregor Masing and I worked for the same research company up until a decade ago. I overstated the case when I said I worked with him. We worked on completely different projects in the same facility. Much of our work was classified – or at least was an industrial secret – so each team kept its project very separate. Gregor’s last project was very hush hush and ‘need to know.’ I didn’t need to know, but just from what I picked up by crossing paths, I deduced it had something to do with dark energy. Everyone on all the other teams was surprised when our parent company launched Gregor’s device into low earth orbit. That was a huge investment for the cheapskate accountants who ran it. He must have convinced them the project had a very big upside if it worked.”

“Did it?”

“No, at least not as planned. The payload blew up. You may remember the news report with the lame cover story about an earth resources satellite that failed to reach proper orbit.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, I suppose you were too busy in high school to pay attention to such things. Well, it wasn’t an especially big explosion, I should mention. Everything just seemed to shatter. Fortunately it happened by design in very low earth orbit, so atmospheric drag brought the pieces back to earth pretty quickly without further littering orbital space. It was a several hundred million dollar loss for the company – a major accounting disaster. So, the project was scrapped. Gregor died just weeks afterward from a cerebral hemorrhage. Maybe stress over the whole affair had something to do with it. I retired from the company a year later. That was that until a month ago when Gregor’s son Konrad got in touch with me.”

“Why you?”

“Because his father liked me.”

“When you say ‘liked’…”

“Yes, he cheated on his wife with me. He must have shared this fact with Konrad, which I find a little creepy. Konrad’s mom died not long after his father, so I guess Konrad figured I was the closest thing to family he had left. It turned out Gregor also left him detailed information about the experiment.”

“If the project was classified, wasn’t that a violation of secrecy?”

“Yes, yes. But I didn’t say it was classified. I said only that it was hush hush. I have no idea what its formal status was or whether Gregor violated the law by talking to his son. Anyway Konrad told me that Gregor had attempted to diminish the Higgs field within a defined space. A device to do that was the payload that broke up.”

“Higgs field? I recall a fuss about a Higgs particle and CERN some years ago. Is that related?”

“Yes, I’m glad to see your attention wasn’t totally preoccupied by girls and football.”

“Why? I mean, what would diminishing the field accomplish?” Morrow asked.

“The Higgs provides particles with mass. Reduce the field and you reduce the mass. Imagine the advantage to propulsion if you can make your craft lighter. Or the advantage to any heavy lifting. Konrad believed that his father’s design was sound, and that whatever went wrong with his experiment involved some conventional failure such as a leaky fuel line, a problem with the conventional power source, or some such thing. So he intended to duplicate the experiment.”

“Where did he get the money to do that?” Morrow asked.

“Most of the cost of the original was putting the device into orbit. Surprisingly, most of what Konrad needed to build it on the ground was off-the-shelf technology and relatively inexpensive, though he said it took all of his savings nonetheless. For his conventional power source he could tie directly into the power grid. I warned that there was probably a reason his father’s experiment had not been tried on the ground. I suggested he show caution and assemble a team rather than go it alone. But I saw nothing in any of this that actually was police or FBI-worthy.”

“But something alarmed you enough to speed toward him on the day of the Incident.”

“On the morning of what you call the Griffin Incident, Konrad called to tell me something else. He said he had some sort of inoperable brain tumor. He said he had nothing to lose and he was proceeding with the experiment. He said he had constructed an airtight steel and Plexiglas ball as the target for the Higgs reduction. He was getting inside and trying it on himself. He said he would call me afterward. I told him not to try it, but he hung up and wouldn’t answer again. What he was doing sounded suicidal to me so I got in my car and headed toward him.”

“Why would he target himself?” Morrow asked. “To prove that whatever he was doing was safe for humans?”

“I hoped so, but another possibility came to mind that I should have considered earlier. It was why Gregor conducted his in orbit, but even there it was reckless.” 

“But you said the blow-up in orbit wasn’t very big.”

“It wasn’t, but that was just luck. It easily could have caused serious damage. You see, I think Gregor’s experiment worked – it just worked better than he expected. I think he figured that out before he died.”

“You still haven’t told us what caused the Griffin explosion? Our first speculation was the detonation of a low yield tactical nuke, but there wasn’t the right isotope signature. Besides, who would target Griffin?”

“It wasn’t a nuke. Think about this,” said Renata. “Suppose Gregor and Konrad not merely could reduce the Higgs field but cancel it in a small volume of space.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Everything in the affected area would have zero mass.”


“So by definition massless objects travel at the speed of light. And the motions of massless particles are probabilistic, not deterministic. They can go anywhere. Suppose an object went down. As soon as it was outside the Higgs-canceled area it would get its mass back but it still would be traveling at near light speed. What do you think the effect might be of even a modest object striking the earth at near light speed?”

“Is that what happened?”

“I think so.”

“So Konrad and his sphere plowed into the ground? Why would he want to do that?”

“He didn’t,” she said. “He wanted to go into space. The capsule he built for himself was rudimentary and he knew he would die in it, but he was willing to accept that. When his sphere ran out of oxygen…well, there are worse ways to go than asphyxiation. You get dopey first so you scarcely even know it.”

“But instead of going up as he hoped he went down.”

“I don’t think so,” said Renata. “From his description, his capsule probably would have caused more damage than what happened at Griffin. My guess is that maybe some light scaffolding that held the sphere in place slammed into the ground but that the sphere itself went elsewhere.”

Kerkorian’s surprised Renata by asking a question as she put down her empty mug. “Konrad told you he would call. Is that why you called a Dawn Sanford over at Grey Ridge Observatory?”

““Yes, she is an old friend, and I suspect already you know everything about that call.”

“Whether we do or not, we want to hear about it from you. Sanford is associated with SETI, isn’t she?” Kerkorian asked.

“‘Associated’ is a strong word. She shares an interest.”

“Do extraterrestrials have anything to do with this?” asked Kerkorian.

“No,’ Renata laughed. “Not to my knowledge.”

“So, what did you talk to her about?”

“As I’m sure she told you, I asked her to search for a signal in an unusual wavelength. Konrad told me to try the wavelength if he didn’t ring me on the phone. It’s what made me finally realize what he was up to.”

“Did she find the signal?”

“You know she did. The signal was highly redshifted, but when compressed it was readable. It repeated ‘I made it’ on a recorded loop.”

“Actually, we haven’t talked to Dr. Sanford yet. She is our next stop. So Konrad Masing is in space?” Kerkorian asked.

Renata realized she had said too much, but there was no backtracking now. “By now the object is far outside the solar system,” she said, “and I’m sure its occupant is deceased, either from asphyxiation or radiation.”

“Not from acceleration?” said Kerkorian.

“You mean, was he splattered on an interior wall? Probably not. The whole object including him lost mass together, so in his frame of reference there should have been no sense of acceleration.”

“I have to ask you come with us, Doctor Grant,” said Morrow.

“Am I under arrest?”

“There are people who will want to ask you questions in this matter of national security. Do I need to arrest you?”

“No. I’ll come along, but I really can’t tell you any more than I have.”

“Well, tell it again to the others.”

Renata gathered a few of her things and preceded the agents into the hallway. She decided not to mention something else that Konrad had told her. Gregor’s and Konrad’s engineering drawings already had been emailed to scores of colleagues and laboratories around the world. It was amazing no one had leaked the information yet. Maybe no one at this point fully understood the significance of what they had received, but some soon would. Then everyone would. She figured the technology would have been rediscovered eventually anyway. It might as well be now, and was probably better in multiple hands now rather than just in one – or so she hoped. The Masing Effect could open up the galaxy for exploration, or it could make a lot more Griffins, maybe by intent. But the world hadn’t been safe for a long time. She hoped for the best.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Higher Education

Princeton Pickering Prep (PPP) was not in Princeton, NJ. It wasn’t even in Mercer County. There was nothing unusual in this. Numerous businesses and real estate projects in neighboring Monmouth and Middlesex Counties, some of them distant enough to raise eyebrows, long had co-opted “Princeton” into their names in order to borrow some swank from the reputation of the Ivy League university. Nor was the founder of the school named Pickering. Rather than use his own name, which contained more consonants and fewer vowels than native English-speakers found easy to pronounce, he borrowed the name of an 18th century farmer who once had owned the parcel of land which became the school campus. Neither as large, as historic, as famous, as well-endowed, nor as expensive as Lawrenceville, which wasn’t much further away than Princeton proper, Princeton Pickering Prep nonetheless successfully had attracted offspring of well-to-do parents since 1934 in numbers sufficient to be economically viable with the help of alumni donations. Students tended to call the place “Peeps” or “P-cubed.” The student population, grades 7-12, peaked at 200 in the 1950s and had hovered slightly below that number ever since. Though founded as a school for boys, PPP became co-ed in 1972.

Paige had little interest in the history of the school she attended. She presently was distracted by Basil, who blocked her way on the steps to the library building. He had attended the school as long as she, but her interactions with him always had been minimal. She preferred it thus. Several of Paige’s classmates were nerdy or eccentric, but Basil was simply weird. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her now. It wasn’t libidinous in the poorly disguised manner one expects of socially awkward teenage boys; her understated comeliness attracted a lot of that. Instead he looked directly into her eyes with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. He had little about which to be self-satisfied in her opinion. He was a better than average student but otherwise he barely registered on campus at all.

“Move,” she said.

“We need to talk,” said Basil.

“I can’t imagine about what,” said Paige trying to bypass Basil in the steps. He moved to block her. “Do you have a death wish?” she asked.

“Interesting phrasing. No, Paige, but you really should talk with me. More precisely, you should listen.”

“I doubt it. Well, make it quick.”

“Not here. Someplace private.”

“I don’t think so. I have to get to class.”

“No you don’t. That’s why you are here. You have trig in Monmouth Hall and then a free period.  You usually spend it in the Library because of the wifi.”

“You know my schedule? How creepy is that?”

“Paige, there are only 28 students in the Senior class. It’s April. By now I know everybody’s schedule. I share 80% of your schedule with you.”

Basil allowed two Junior girls to pass them on the steps. The girls glanced at Paige being bothered by the weirdo and giggled.

“OK, briefly. Over on the bench there,” she said, pointing to a bench by the tennis court between Monmouth and Bailey Halls. The court was used only for practice and presently was unoccupied. Formal matches were held at the courts by the Gym. “This had better be good.” She turned and walked toward the bench without looking back at Basil. The paved path to the tennis court led through a stand of apple trees.

 “You like Wednesdays, don’t you?” Basil said as he followed her.

“Why do you say that?”

“You like the way the school uniform looks on you.”

PPP had a peculiar dress code that varied by the day of the week.  Paige assumed there was some kind of rationale behind it, but never tried to discover what it was. On Wednesdays the school blazer was required attire.

“I don’t think you’re privy to my likes.”

“Some of them are obvious. The blazer brings out the hint of red in your hair. Those boots aren’t regulation though. I’m surprised you get away with wearing them. What did they cost? $1000 maybe?”

“$2500,” she said as she sat down on the bench. “Unless fashion is really what you want to talk about, get to the point.”

“I shall,” he said far enough away from her on the bench not to impinge on her personal space. “First of all, though, I’m flattered you are willing to be seen with me out in the open like this where everyone can see us.”

“Don’t be. Why should I care? Only social climbers care about things like that.”

“Whereas you’re already on top,” he said while nodding. “So you can pass this off as noblesse oblige.”

“Your words, not mine. Besides, at worst everyone will just think you’re my gay friend.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Of course you are. If you don’t know, it’s time someone told you. Weren’t you just fawning over my hair and boots?”

“I’m not gay – or straight. I don’t like labels. They’re tools of social control used by manipulators to segregate people into categories: divide and conquer.”

“Whatever. I really don’t care. Get it on with whomever you want. Enjoy carnal knowledge of English sheepdogs. I don’t care. Wait a minute, you’re not asking me for a date are you?”

“Would it be so strange if I were?”

“Yes. Aside from you being gay, you’re too young, too poor, too unfit, and too short. No offense. Are we done now?”

“No. I want to tell you a story my grandfather told me.”

“Look…” Paige hesitated as though groping to remember his name. “…Basil, I don’t want to hear about your grandfather. We’re finished now.”

“No, not yet. You’ll want to hear this. You see, he was a gunner on a PBY reconnaissance aircraft in World War 2 – you know, one of the flying boats. Near the end of the war he was on patrol over the Philippines with two other aircraft. All three developed engine trouble. Two went down in the jungle. Only my grandfather’s aircraft survived because they managed to get out over water before the engines quit completely.”

“What is wrong with you? Are you aware that I lost my father last month in a plane crash?” she said.

“Very much aware. And it was more of a splash, much like my grandfather’s. Your father’s Cessna wasn’t a seaplane, so…”

“What kind of sick bastard are you?”

“As I said, I don’t care for labels. You’ll find this part interesting: it’s about you. Something about your father’s accident brought an amusing thought to mind. At first I looked into it just out of whimsy, but then one datum led to another and I became intrigued. You see, my research reveals that your biological mother divorced your father before he made his pile on Wall Street, so she didn’t benefit much in the settlement. She didn’t even ask for custody of you. Why was that? Well, no matter; it is off topic. Then daddy hit it big, so it was your first stepmother who walked off with millions. By then you already were accustomed to being a spoiled little princess, but everything was OK because daddy was still earning the big bucks after the second divorce.”

“You’ve been investigating my family and our finances? Why? You are jealous of me, aren’t you?” she said. “You would like to be me.”

“You or Toby,” he answered honestly.

“Toby is a moron.”

“Well yes, but I thought we were referring to physical attributes and social status. Between the ears I’d like to remain me either way. But let me continue. Despite his weakness for expensive younger women, your father rebuilt the family fortune and sent you here. All was well until last year when his investments turned sour. Then there was that investor lawsuit over the wind farm that went bankrupt. The legal fees were crushing. Money became tight – maybe not by the standards of average people but by the standards to which you were accustomed. If you weren’t in your final year at P-cubed he’d probably have pulled you out of here and sent you to public school. What is worse, you were facing the entirely unexpected prospect of having to earning your own living at some point in the future. There remained the chance he might earn back a fortune a third time, of course, and set you up comfortably, but then he got engaged to that ‘model’ you ever so sweetly call The Bimbo. Any third fortune likely will go to her. As far as I can tell, he didn’t even get a prenup.”

“My lawyer will attend to your illegal invasion of my privacy later. Say goodbye to your college fund. Where are you going with this?” said Paige.

“There is nothing illegal about it. Very little of our lives is not a matter of public record anymore, and I broke no laws finding all this out. Besides, I don’t have a college fund. Anyway, your father and his bride – excuse me, The Bimbo – flew off in daddy’s Cessna to the Bahamas for their honeymoon. They never made it: two more victims of the Bermuda triangle. You know, just the other day I drove out to look at the small private field where he kept his plane. Do you know what is interesting about it? The total lack of security. As in many small general aviation fields, you can just drive on and off as you like, especially if you are a familiar face. No one is likely to challenge you or even remember exactly when you were there.”

“Once again, what is your point?”

“I need to note one more item, which may at first seem unrelated. There was a life insurance policy with you as sole beneficiary. It was nominally in the amount of 2.5 million dollars, but had a double indemnity clause in case of death by accident, so in this case it paid off 5 million. This is a modest amount for a young woman of your proclivities but it is better than nothing. It’s a shame about the accident, of course, but, if it had to happen, the timing was fortuitous since it was very likely daddy would have cashed in that policy at some point in order to meet his current expenses. Also, since you turned 18 a couple of months ago, you don’t have to worry about any trusts or guardians for the estate.”

“What makes you think you know anything about my insurance?” she asked.

“Toby’s mom is on the board of the bank where you deposited the check.”

“Right, and you say you’re not gay.”

“I don’t like labels.

“You still haven’t made a point.”

“I’ll tie it all together now. The reason my grandfather’s plane went down was a mishandled procedure for flushing the fuel tanks with sea water prior to certain types of routine maintenance. The workers messed up: the tanks weren’t drained properly before the planes were refueled and sent on their mission, so they were still half water. The planes flew just fine for a while because…” Basil accessed a website on his cell phone, “…because gasoline and sea water separate… ah, here we are…" He displayed the page describing the characteristics of aviation fuel and sea water. "So the plane can fly until it burns up the gas. Other liquids exist that might be better yet, of course, but sea water is hard to detect. If grandfather’s plane had sunk no one ever would have figured it out, even if they had fished out the wreck. After all, sea water in a damaged plane under the sea is not a surprise.”

“What are you suggesting?” she asked.

“I’m suggesting that all of these separate bits of information are best not brought to the attention of your insurance company. Besides, I’m sure I misspoke when I said there was a total lack of security at the airfield. I’m willing to bet there at least are cameras there. There are cameras everywhere these days. What could be on them? Any records of surprise midnight visits by…oh, say, you?”

“Are you blackmailing me?”


“What do you want?”

“Relax, I don’t want money… not directly anyway. That would leave a record and implicate me as an accessory after the fact in the unlikely event you get caught. I don’t have rich parents, you see. My grandfather was a former student here when it was cheap in relative terms, and he left me a scholarship to go to this school. This was much to the annoyance of my parents who would have preferred money without strings. And, of course, he left me the legacy of his war stories. Toby’s mom is on a scholarship committee so I probably can get her to swing me money for college, but I need what you have, too.”


“Connections with all your dad’s Wall Street buddies: a job, an internship, or maybe just a foot in the door. Use your investment capital as bait to get them to do favors for a friend. For me, that is. With the right breaks I can make my own fortune.”

“No one gave my dad that kind of help. He did it on his own,” she said.

“He did it his way, you did it yours, and I’ll do it mine. We can talk over more of the details at the prom.”

“You expect me to be your date for the prom? Won’t Toby object?”

“Not if my date is a girl. He confines himself with labels, you see, but he accepts that I don’t.”