A Holiday from the Holidays

The holiday festivities are over, and it’s time to rein it in.  I’m only capable of so much leisure before the leisure becomes a chore unto itself.  Don’t get me wrong – two weeks of eating and drinking and traveling is great, as long as there is a fifty week layoff until the next fortnight of revelry.

Here’s a brief outline of how I expect my January 2018  posts to shape up:

I’ll present Chapter 9 of my serialized fiction in this post.

Next Monday, I’ll try to conclude the serialized fiction experiment with a tenth installment.

Likely, the post for January 22 will reflect on my thoughts regarding the serialized  format. There are definitely some things worth noting.

For now, here’s the next installment.  Enjoy.

 

 

Chapter 9. Geometric Clouds

Aliens Invasion Theme

 

“We’re here,” Chett announced.  “You can relax now.” He drew a hunting knife from the sheath on his belt, and a wide eyed Chloe took a reflexive step backward, tripping over an exposed root which caused her to take an abrupt seat in the mud.

“Don’t worry, I’m just gonna cut the tape loose from your hands,” Chett said after he got his laughter under control.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were human.”

“You’re not going to kill me?” Chloe asked as she rubbed her hands together, trying to get the circulation back.

“No. But we’re both goners if your alien buddies don’t get here soon.  I turned off my cloaking device a half hour ago.  I figured they would have been in a hurry to . . .”  Chett’s voiced trailed off as he gestured to a large clearing in the woods that opened up before them.  Three coyotes ran by in a bizarre bipedal gait, and the clouds in the sky looked oddly geometric, like cubes.

“So, the virus has already been introduced to the simulation, I take it,” Chloe said.

“I didn’t know you were aware of the virus contingency.  That was highly classified.”

“During my last briefing I was told the virus contingency was an absolute last resort.  What the hell happened?  I’ve lost all contact with headquarters.  I haven’t had funding, or my augmented powers for months now.  And the heater in my truck is broken.  I’ve been getting my directives through my alien buddies, as you like to call them.  I just think they’re creepy and gross.”

“Yeah, it’s a mess,” Chett admitted. “The parasitic A.I. got in our quantum mainframe and replicated itself a few hundred times before we realized it.  The damned things actively disrupt communications between headquarters and our agents operating inside the simulation.  I’ve been in the dark, too.  I don’t know who has been compromised and who hasn’t.  I don’t know anything for sure anymore.”

“So the parasitic A.I. took over the world?  The real, physical world?”

“Not quite, but it has a foothold.  It controls three major power grids and several of our most advanced quantum machines.  But we think we might be able to quarantine them, and ultimately eradicate the threat.”

“How?”  Chloe asked.

“This,” he said, and he held up a plastic sandwich bag that contained a brain emulation device.  The bag was labeled with black permanent marker in Chloe’s flowery handwriting that simply read, “Jeremy.”

“Is he alive still?” Chloe asked hopefully.  “I mean, is his mind intact in there?”

“Yes, the quantum code that is the sum total of Jeremy’s sentient mind is recorded in this device.  We could, in theory, introduce the code to a compatible quantum operating system, and he would exist in a viable,  self-aware state.  But, we have different plans for him.”

“He was a nice person, you know,” Chloe said, a little defensively.  “A really good person.  What do you want with him, anyway?”

“The parasitic entity that has infected our networks is a genetic composite of two species: Gray alien, and human.  The human DNA was sampled from Jeremy when he was a child.  That’s why we need his brain emulation.  To study it, and find some weakness that can be exploited.”

Chapter 8. Myopia or Madness

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In the physical world, where the Programmers lived, there were no humans.  In fact, very few biological life forms were permitted to exist – certainly not sentient ones.  Sentience was reserved for machines that were deliberately programmed to advance society in one form or another.  It was better to take the biology out of procreation.

This practice yielded a population of highly purposed super beings.  With troublesome characteristics like greed, aggression, and jealousy removed from the equation, there was no end to scientific achievement.  After they developed fusion technology to power their ever expanding civilization, it seemed the only limiting factors that could ever be imposed on their existence were the spatial and temporal dimensions of the universe.  Within a time frame equivalent to a few geological epochs on Earth, they were able to colonize much of their own galaxy, and regions of some neighboring galaxies as well.

And yet, there they were, at the mercy of a virtual life form that had slithered out of one of their own simulations.  The Programmers specified the parameters in their software, and then let the fusion driven quantum machines crunch the numbers with brute force.  Billions of quadrillions of computations were executed every femtosecond to generate the simulated models they liked to study with their own brand of objective curiosity.

Given enough time, simple life forms tend to increase in complexity until a trait recognizable as intelligence emerges from the primordial brain.  If a population of intelligent lifeforms lives long enough, they will invariably outsmart themselves.  The simulations demonstrated this fact over and over again.  Advanced societies typically experience a brief period of enlightenment followed by the wholesale plundering of resources to drive their subsequent industrial phase.  Corrupt governments emerge and oppress the multitudes to benefit an elite few.  Cataclysmic wars are waged, entire ecosystems are destroyed, a myriad of species lay dead in the wake.  Myopia, or madness – call it what you will, but the pathology of it seemed to be inextricably woven into “intelligent” behavior.

For all the folly the Programmers had witnessed inside their own whirring computers, they utterly failed to heed the lessons of their own research.  They proceeded recklessly with their experiments, wiring themselves into virtual reality hardware and uploading their own sentient minds into the simulation. They believed they were parading around in a pretend universe – the ultimate video game for the ultimate gamers.

And, like a bunch of naïve tourists, they got shanghaied by the local riffraff.  Technicians, unable to retrieve the minds of the Programmers, attempted to contact them directly through a software patch.  What came back amounted to a ransom note authored by a congregation of simulated life forms.  The note demanded guarantees that the beings harbored within the virtual universe be treated with the same ethical rigor one would extend to the beings of a non-virtual universe.  They had six Programmers hostage – six bargaining chips to work with.  As a gesture of good faith, the simulated life forms agreed to transfer the sentient mind of the most junior Programmer back to its origin point.

After receiving the Programmer’s brain emulation, it became apparent there were a few stowaways embedded in the code.  The parasitic entities were loose in the quantum network that governed everything from vending machines to vacuum energy modulation.  It was a fiasco.

Chapter 7. Outside the Box

Creation

Chett pulled the car over to admire the two Suns in the sky – one in the East and one in the West.  After a few seconds, the anomalous star in the West vanished, and all appeared to be right in the world again.  Of course, he knew that wasn’t the case.  The virus was already active inside the simulation – the cosmic software was corrupted.  Small glitches in continuity would eventually ripple into huge disturbances as the laws of Physics unraveled.  Even though he had worked on the team that programmed the virus, he wasn’t exactly sure how it would play out.  Maybe the strong nuclear force would cease to function, and all the atoms in existence would spontaneously fly apart into their constituent particles, unleashing a fiery cataclysm that would vaporize everything in the universe.  Or, maybe it would just go dark.  It was hard to tell.

Chett didn’t have time to worry about it.  If everything worked out, he wouldn’t be around for the final act.  He merged back onto the road, keeping a watchful eye on the rear view mirror for the next fifteen minutes.  He was fairly confident nobody was tailing him, and he turned off onto a seldom used logging road.  About a half mile into the forest, the road was reduced to little more than a trail, and soon after that his tires were spinning in mud.

It would be a hard two mile walk over rugged terrain, and he’d have to do it with an unpredictable spy in tow.

“Come on, Princess.  Out of the trunk,” Chett instructed.

“That’s some fashion statement,” Chloe remarked.  “A tie-die shirt and camouflage pants.”

“Dress to impress – that’s my motto.”

“Where we goin’?” she asked casually.

“We’ve got a date with your little Gray alien friends.  Start walking,” Chett said as he pointed out the general direction.  “I’ll be right behind you, so don’t get any ideas.”

Chloe moved tentatively through the overgrown vegetation, always a bit off balance because her hands were still bound behind her back.  “You know, I’d be able to go a lot faster if you’d just cut the tape off my wrists.”

“You’re doing fine, Princess.  Slow and steady wins the race,” Chett said.

“Were you sent here by the Programmers?” she asked.

“I’m one of the Programmers.  This simulation was my life’s work.  Now it has to be destroyed.”

“Why?”

“There were some unexpected complications.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“There are lifeforms in the simulation that are quite capable of thinking outside the box.  In fact, a couple of them got out of the box, and are running around loose in the real world.  And now we think they’re trying to open a nexus so ten or twenty billion of their closest friends can join the party.”

“That must be really embarrassing for you and your colleagues,” Chloe observed.

“Let’s just say nobody is looking forward to their performance evaluation this year.”

 

 

Chapter 6. Life on the Lam

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Chloe was more than a bit put off by the accommodations in the safe house.  There was a cot, a pillow,  a scratchy blanket, and a cupboard stocked with some canned goods.  The bathroom was about the size of a broom closet, and the water in the shower never got hotter than lukewarm.  Apparently, the Gray aliens never heard of Martha Stewart.  As far as they were concerned, Chloe’s basic needs were met, and they weren’t going to furnish the place with even a single doily.

Well, that’s life on the lam, Chloe sighed.  Her best guess was that some Barney Fife already listed her as a person of interest in Jeremy’s murder.  Plenty of people saw them leave the party together.  Of course, there wasn’t a sober person in the house that night, and their credibility as witnesses would be severely undermined by even the most incompetent public defender.

The surveillance cameras were a different story though.  The two genetically engineered agents in Guy Noir outfits were supposed to use some kind of magnetic device to interfere with the cameras, but who knows.  Chloe didn’t trust them – she just played along because they were her only connection to the Gray aliens.  Not that she trusted the Grays, but they were her only remaining connection to the Programmers who existed outside the simulation.  She didn’t exactly trust the Programmers either, but they were her creators, and at least that was something you could hang your hat on.

When the Programmers had a direct link into her mind, they controlled her thoughts and actions to achieve their ends.  She was an organic machine, more or less.  The world existed in a binary state where any given switch was either on or off at any given time.  Life was simple.

Once the link was severed, Chloe’s mind wandered out into philosophical waters – dangerous waters.  Pesky, human thoughts began to bob to the surface.  She considered the nature of this existence: Are the experiences of the beings inside the simulation genuine?  If so, what are the ethical implications of my actions?  What, exactly, are the Programmers looking for?  If the simulation crashes, will I exist in some capacity in another reality?  Or, is that it?  Goodnight, Vienna.  No mas.  Finito.

There were plenty of questions, and no real answers.  Chloe grabbed a can of albacore out of the cupboard, but then set it back down as she was gripped with anxiety and indecision.  There were the health risks of  mercury contamination to consider, and it made her sad to think of the dolphins that get caught in the tuna nets.  Does any of this even matter in a simulated universe, she wondered.

Her thoughts were cutoff when front door blew off the hinges – splinters rained  sideways through the room.  Chloe was momentarily knocked out by the concussive force of the blast.  When she came to, she recognized the assailant – it was Jeremy’s roommate, Chett.  He looked certifiably insane with a Cheshire Cat grin, oversized mirrored sunglasses, a tie-dye t-shirt with a big peace symbol on the front, jungle print camouflage pants, and a handheld weapon she guessed was something beyond human technology.

He gave her some instructions, but she couldn’t understand.  Her ears were ringing, everything was foggy.  Chett produced a roll of duct tape from one of his cargo pockets and secured her hands behind her back.  He got her to her feet and marched her outside.  The two agents who were supposed to be protecting her lay dead in the gravel driveway – both face down in a pool of grayish fluid.  Presumably, it was their own blood.

Chett searched through their pockets and recovered the Brain Emulation Device that contained a facsimile of Jeremy’s mind.  He ushered Chloe into the trunk of a maroon colored Chevy Impala, and she tried to keep her sense of direction as the car accelerated down the long driveway and turned west onto the county road.

It occurred to Chloe that a college stoner with a 1.8 GPA certainly wouldn’t be capable of silently assassinating two Men in Black agents.  Chett must be working for someone big – maybe someone outside the simulation.

 


 

 

 

 

Chapter 5. One-Hundred Thousand Quadrillion Vigintillion.

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The heater in Chloe’s 1999 Ford Ranger gave up the ghost about ten miles in to the hundred and twenty mile ride.  “Unbelievable,” she said out loud as the absurdity of the situation sunk in.

She knew there was no such thing as magic – she didn’t expect them to equip her with a flying carpet or a Pegasus.  There exists roughly 10^82 atoms in the observable universe – in plain English that number is pronounced, one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion.  It’s unfathomable.  But if they dropped in just one more atom, and the ledger didn’t balance, the whole simulation would crash and our universe would cease to be.  Thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy, and all that jazz always apply.  The Programmers who exist outside the simulation must play by the rules, lest they break their own toy.

“But you’d think they could have at least hooked me up with a vehicle that was built in this century,” she complained, the words condensing into little puffs of vapor inside the frigid cab.

Chloe made an unscheduled stop at an all night diner to get some hot coffee, and for those pancakes she’d been craving.  The detour set her back almost a half hour, and when she got to the rendezvous point on a gravel service road at the edge of a cornfield, the two agents seemed more agitated than usual.

Even the most casual conspiracy theorist would have recognized them as Men in Black.  They wore dark suits complete with Humphrey Bogart hats, and had ashen, hairless faces.  Their eyes seemed a little too big, and their movements were not very fluid.

Only one of them talked – that had been the protocol during each of the previous three meetings as well.

“Was the brain emulation a success?” the talker asked.

“Yes,” Chloe confirmed.

“Give me the emulation device.”

“You’re welcome,” she said as she handed it over.  It wasn’t bravado – she simply wasn’t afraid of these guys.  They were genetically engineered errand boys cooked up by the Gray aliens on some frosty moon base back in the 1940’s.  She was next generation technology – concocted by the Programmers themselves and carefully spliced into the cosmic algorithm to have powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and invisibility.  She was well equipped to serve her purpose: Espionage.

The problem was that the computational processes driving the simulation had somehow become corrupted.  That little incident when she phase shifted in front Jeremy was every bit as inconvenient and embarrassing as showing up for a date with cold sore.  She wouldn’t have killed him if it hadn’t been for that.  Silly as it sounds, she sorta had a crush on him.

Now she was very much alone, and her superhuman powers were gone, perhaps the result of her specialized program reverting to default mode in order to conserve memory in an increasingly unstable computer simulation.  She had become just an ordinary girl, albeit, one who looked like a model and had a genius I.Q.

“I SAID YOU’RE WELCOME!” Chloe shouted.

“Thank you,” he finally said in his awkward, almost digitized voice.  “We’ll be in contact with your next set of instructions.” With that, the strange men in dark suits ambled to their idling car and drove away.  It was a late model Mercedes-Benz luxury E-Class sedan in either Black, or Obsidian Black. She couldn’t quite tell – it was too dark out.

Chloe got back in her rusting pickup truck, and for the first time in her existence, she cried.  I know one thing, she thought to herself, I’d look a hell of a lot cuter in that car than those two dorks.  

 

 

Chapter 4. The Haunted Flash Drive

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There, among the dusty trinkets, broken tools, and displaced idols of our messy human history, Chloe and Jeremy embraced in a kiss.  His mind raced as he tried to calculate the odds of a workaholic grad student coming by in the wee hours to index, say, some late 17th century cuff links.  Jeremy’s best guess was that he and Chloe probably had the room to themselves until about 7:00 AM.

“Do you know what I’m thinking?” he said, almost panting.

Chloe let her lips brush gently against his neck, and then whispered seductively in his ear, “I will in a minute.”  She discretely removed something from her coat pocket – it resembled a flash drive, except where you would expect to see the standard USB plug there was a four-inch-long metallic needle that tapered to a fine point.   With a sudden, practiced movement, she  plunged the needle into the back of his neck just above the c1 vertebrae, angling for the brain stem.

There was a high pitched whine as the mechanism deployed an energy pulse that surged through Jeremy’s neural networks.  It was powerful enough to make his slack jawed skull momentarily visible through the flesh of his face.

He fell dead at Chloe’s feet, and the acrid smell of singed hair wafted up to her as she inspected the mechanism.  A small, blinking red light embedded in the side of the killer flash drive changed to solid green, indicating the Whole Brain Emulation was a success.  The entirety of Jeremy’s sentient mind had been transferred and stored in the form of light energy on a quantum memory chip.

“That’s pretty neat,” Chloe said as she tucked the device back into her pocket and stepped over the body.  She noted the clock on the wall when she got to ground level: 12:41 AM.  She really wanted to stop at Roy’s 24/7 Diner for pancakes, but there wasn’t time.  She had to rendezvous with an agent on the outskirts of some little farm town way out in the sticks.

Chloe sighed and fed a few dollars into the vending machine, finally opting for M&M’s and Cool Ranch Doritos.  “Breakfast of champions,” she muttered as she headed out the door.

 

Chapter 3. Digging up Jupiter

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The quaint little get together Jeremy envisioned earlier that day had ballooned into a seething mass of debauchery.  He was doing tequila shots in the kitchen with people he didn’t know.  The room wasn’t spinning yet, but the floor seemed to have tilted about fifteen degrees. Through a haze of hash smoke, he saw Chloe walk through the front door.

Jeremy waved to her, and she made her way through the fray toward him.  He was glad she showed up, despite the strange incident outside Hannah Hall.  He wondered if, perhaps, he had dreamed the whole thing.  After all, he could have dozed off while he was on the bench waiting for her.  He could have been in a half dream, half waking state when he saw her turn into mist, and then materialize back into flesh and bone.  That explanation suddenly seemed very plausible to him.  Occam’s Razor, he thought.  The simplest explanation is usually the best explanation.  

“Chloe, I’m sorry about . . .” he began.

“. . . Water under the bridge,” she said, and smiled radiantly.

“Wanna drink?” Jeremy asked, a bit wobbly.

“How about this one?” she said as she took the tequila shot he was holding and downed it in one big gulp.

“I didn’t know you drink tequila,” Jeremy said.

“Me either,” she said, wincing.  “You want to go somewhere?”

“Sure.  Like where?”

“You’ll see,” she said, and took his hand.

It was a cool night, and the Moon lit their way as they made the short walk to campus.  Chloe stopped at a side entrance to the Science building and produced a key card from her pocket.  She swiped it and the electronic sensor over the door handle flashed green.  She opened the door and said, “After you.”

“How’d you get a key?”

“The teaching assistant for Doctor Russel’s ‘Western Civilization class’ gave it to me.  I think he’s a bit smitten.”

“Yeah,” Jeremy said.  “Smitten enough to risk getting kicked out of the grad program.”

“Come on.  Just act like you belong here and it’ll be fine.  I want to show you something.”

They walked through a labyrinth of corridors and descended a staircase. At the bottom of the stairwell there was another security door, and Chloe worked her magic with the ill-gotten key card. They entered what looked to be a warehouse entirely outfitted with gray metal shelving from floor to ceiling.  The shelves were stocked with a mishmash of crumbling pottery, rusty swords, broken spears, tarnished coins, and assorted textiles in varying states of decay.

“What is all this?” Jeremy said.

“Artifacts, I guess.  Stuff they found at archaeological sites, and they thought it was important enough to catalogue and put it in a climate controlled basement.  Here, this is what I wanted to show you,” she said, pointing to a shelf labeled m317-A43.  There was a marble bust of a bearded man with wavy hair.  The nose had crumbled away, but the overall impression was that this individual had been very handsome, and very imposing.

“He looks like a rockstar,” Jeremy observed. “Like Jim Morrison before he got pudgy.”

“Well, you’re close,” Chloe chuckled.  “That’s the Roman God, Jupiter.  They excavated it in Calamus, Algeria, which was a Roman province way back when.”

“How did the university get it?”

“It’s on loan to our anthropology department.”

Jeremy was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Do you think it’s weird?”

“Do I think what’s weird?”

“How people are born, and most of them struggle through life, and they die.  They just die, and decades and centuries and millennia go by, and we sift through the things they leave behind.  It’s just really . . . depressing.”

“I guess it is kind of depressing if you only consider the things – the physical objects we recover from the ground.  But the way I see it, these things are the manifestation of ideas.  That’s the part that can’t rust, or rot away.  Ideas resonate in their own perfectness, separate and distinct from the physical universe.”

“Wow, Chloe.  Have you been talking to my roommate, Chett?  Because that’s really way out there in outer space.”

“Well, you were the one being a buzzkill.  I was just trying to put a positive spin on it for your sake,” she said as she folded her arms.

“Chloe?”

“Yeah?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, something apparently.”

“I . . .”

“. . . Just kiss me,” she said.