sci fi book series 2016
The Quantum Brain: Maximum Speed
This is probably the best (and last) book of the epic Pulse science fiction series, to be launched on the first semester of 2016.
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Miles Decker sat on the other side of the lawyer from Dr. Thomas Kell. Decker had paid Thomas and the lawyer well for years. He continued to pay well even after the Pulse devastated the world which was no small feat. Thomas did not know the lawyer’s name and had only spoken to Decker in person a few times, but Thomas did not want to disappoint either one of them. If Conrad, Decker, and Rand Research Facility wasn’t paying after this hearing, then Thomas’s quantum programming skills would be tough to employ in a world focused mostly on clean up and rebuilding block and steel.
The room was dark except for the glow of pale safety lights around the edges and small spots on the dais desks in front of them. There were nine senators facing them from behind their name placards – five from the majority party counting the chairwoman from Texas and four from the minority party. A kid that looked like he could still be in college sat off to the side with his fingers poised over the small tilted keyboard of the stenotype. This would be the only record of the proceedings. There were no cameras and the rows of seats behind Decker’s table were dark and empty.
The stenotype wasn’t all that different in essence from what Thomas did. An outsider looking at the keys would see nonsense symbols, but the kid used them to shorthand a code that communicated what was going on in the shortest line of code possible. It was expediency and that was what Thomas was doing in programming artificial intelligence using quantum coding – the language of the universe. Maybe it was really the underpinning of the universe, Thomas thought – what was left after the universe was pulled apart around everyone.
The chairwoman’s slight drawl pulled Thomas out of his thoughts. “Miles Theodore Decker and Doctor Thomas Anthony Kell, we are calling this closed hearing back into session. You can consider yourselves still sworn in from the day before and the day before that. If you need a refresher on that oath, gentlemen, I can get a Bible and an officiant in here to reinoculate you both.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Miles Decker said into the microphone. Thomas didn’t understand the point of using it, if there was no recording. “We understand.”
“Dr. Kell?” she asked.
Thomas had not actually spoken a word of testimony in the two previous days, but he said, “No, I understand I’m under oath, Madam Chairwoman.”
“Just calling me Senator will do, Doctor,” she said. “Let’s not overcomplicate things. Since you are both clear that telling the truth will keep you out of jail better than lies, we’ll get started. The senator from Minnesota will start us off this afternoon.”
Thomas Kell wasn’t sure telling the truth would keep him out of jail at all, but he did not argue the point.
The chairwoman clicked off her microphone and the light went on in front of an older man down the dais. His voice shook a little and if he hadn’t been using the microphone, then he wouldn’t have been heard. He said, “Who is Mark Spencer?”
Miles Decker cleared his throat. “Mark Spencer was a contractor that attempted to rob our Chicago facility during the Pulse.”
“The Chicago research headquarters of Conrad, Decker, and Rand Research … or CDR, your company … of which you have a controlling share. Yes?”
“Your father was the original Decker from the ‘D’ in CDR. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Miles Decker said.
“Back when your father and his partners were still running it, CDR used to build autopilot systems and the first generation of voice recognition software and hardware. Is that right?”
Miles stared for a moment and narrowed his eyes. “Can your repeat that, Senator? Did you say tractors?”
“Your father’s company, when it was still your father’s company, used to make tractor parts too. Is that correct, Mr. Decker?”
Miles said, “We … CDR made prototypes for automated threshers and harvesters. The company experimented with …” The lawyer leaned over to Miles Decker’s ear and Miles covered his microphone. He leaned back forward. “Yes, Senator. CDR used to make farming equipment.”
The Senator said, “My father worked a CDR thresher back when I was a young man. It was a good piece of equipment, as I recall. Safe. CDR made quality products back when your father was in charge, Mr. Decker.”
Miles leaned forward and said, “Thank you, Senator.”
“So, while you were in charge, a contractor named Mark Spencer broke into your vault and stole a billion dollar, top secret robot brain.”
“A Quantum Brain, first generation,” Miles said. The lawyer leaned in to whisper and then Miles added. “But he was caught soon after.”
“So, he succeeded in doing so, did he not?” the senator asked.
“For a time,” Decker said. “The FBI apprehended him with our assistance mere moments after the Pulse had passed.”
“You have the FBI at your beck and call, Mr. Decker?” the senator asked. “They had nothing else going on in Chicago after the Pulse than to retrieve your lost robot brain.”
The lawyer leaned over and whispered into Decker’s ear. Miles Decker said, “The Quantum Brain was a government contract project. It was top secret. Retrieving it from Spencer was a high priority and it was executed quickly at the direction of the FBI. We used all our resources to assist them.”
“And all the agents have testified that Spencer destroyed the Quantum Brain when he was captured.”
Thomas Kell’s throat went dry. Thomas tried to remember all the details of the lie he had been instructed to tell. He did not realize all the agents there that day in Mark Spencer’s apartment had been instructed to lie as well. He supposed they would have to be, if the lie was to work. Thomas did not want to know who in government had the power to get that many people to lie to senators.
“That is correct, Senator,” Decker said.
“The robots that are out in the public now are the second generation of these quantum brained robots. Is that right?” the senator asked.
“Yes, but the Quantum Brains do not have access to the quantum network. They are limited only to the processing power they need to serve as construction bots, security, or companions.”
“Companions mean the ones that take care of babies and such?”
Miles Decker said, “They serve families in a number of ways, Senator.”
“You are working on a third generation which will be the second version released to the public?”
“These will have more processing power.”
“Each new generation of technology should improve on the previous generation,” Miles Decker said, “but we don’t have specs of the processing power at this time.”
“Will there be military applications, Mr. Decker?”
“We are still under contract with the United States Department of Defense, but we don’t know what those applications will be at this time.”
“When will the next generation be unleashed on the public?”
“We haven’t even begun field testing yet, Senator. I have no answer for you yet on that.”
The senator paused for a moment and then raised his eyes from his notes. “You witnessed the destruction of first Quantum Brain, Mr. Decker? You were there in the room when it was destroyed?”
Mile glanced over at the lawyer and back forward. “No, Senator, it was reported to me.”
“Reported by whom?”
The lawyer whispered in Decker’s ear and Miles Decker said, “The lead agent on the scene and my own project lead that used the tracking device in the Quantum Brain to track down Spencer with the FBI.”
“That project lead is Dr. Thomas Kell with us here now?”
“That is correct,” Decker said.
“I will direct my questions to him now then,” the senator said. “You witnessed the destruction of the Quantum Brain, Dr. Kell?”
Thomas cleared his throat and clicked on his microphone. “Yes, Senator.”
“And you are certain it is destroyed?”
“I saw him … I saw Mark Spencer step on it and we had no further signal after it was destroyed.”
“This high piece of sophisticated technology meant to handle the deadliest military assets was destroyed in a contractor’s apartment by placing his shoe on top of it?”
The lawyer leaned over and whispered into Thomas’s ear. “Don’t elaborate. Just give a direct answer.”
Thomas leaned forward. “Yes.”
“Are you one of the leads on the new AI initiative contracted to CDR Research even after your company allowed the first project to be stolen and crushed under a shoe?”
Thomas said, “Yes.”
“Was the second generation of brains and robots properly tested before they were shipped out?”
Thomas felt his throat tighten, but he managed to say, “Yes … Yes, Senator.”
“What steps are being taken to insure the new brains already in the field and the new batch in the lab now aren’t being stolen or won’t pose a deadly threat to our own people once they are out in the field with the military or in the domestic CDR robots I’m seeing all over the country?”
Miles Decker leaned up to his microphone. “I can answer your questions regarding our company’s safety protocols and the specifics of our designs, Senator.”
“I asked the scientist, Mr. Decker. I want his answers to my questions without your interruption, sir. Dr. Kell, your answer, please.”
Conrad folded his hands and sat back in his chair. The lawyer whispered frantically in Decker’s ear as Miles Decker looked away.
Thomas cleared his throat and said, “The safety protocols are specifically laid out in the legislation that has been passed in the last year, Senator. We introduce impurities into the quantum relays which set upper limits on the intelligence and power of the androids.”
“How are we sure these limits are working?”
“The eyes glow,” Thomas said.
“Is that a joke, Doctor?”
“No, sir … Senator, no, I mean, not a joke … it is an indicator that the limitations are working. The glow of the eyes keeps people from confusing the artificial androids with real people no matter how realistic the rest of the body design appears. The intensity of the glow in the eyes also shows how much processing power is at work. We can see that the impurities are keeping them in check, Senator.”
“What are the limits on their strength, Doctor?”
“I don’t understand, sir … Senator.”
“Are the androids allowed to be many times stronger than a normal human, Doctor?”
The senators looked back and forth at one another.
“Do you think that is safe, Doctor?”
Thomas looked at the lawyer, but the lawyer just shrugged.
Thomas sighed and said, “The controls are in thought and behavior programming, Senator. We need the androids to be stronger though.”
“Why, Doctor? Why not limit their physical strength just to be safe?”
“They are being used to rebuild, Senator. The androids are tools like a bulldozer or a crane. They are directed and operated by humans, but do tasks that we could not physically or safely do ourselves. Like drones or bomb defusing robots were used before the androids, they can go into places that pose danger without risking the life of a human. We are still rebuilding and clearing since the gravity Pulse destroyed buildings and property all across the globe, as you all know. The United States is well ahead of other nations because of our early adoption of androids. Other nations are contracting out our androids to help rebuild their cities now. We control the technology and the United States economy benefits from it as we lead in rebuilding the world.”
“Is there a danger in having the robots in other nations, Doctor?”
“They depend on the androids,” Thomas said, “and we control the androids.”
“They are used for other domestic tasks as well, yes? The ones that are called domestics or companions, I believe,” the senator said. “Child care, house upkeep, taking care of pets, nursing and assisted care and the like. Correct?”
“Do we want super human robots performing those tasks?”
“If there is ever a time that a car needs to be lifted or they need to shield our loved ones with their mechanical bodies, we want them to have the strength to do so, Senator.”
The senator stared at his notes for a moment. “I yield back the remainder of my time.”
The Chairwoman said, “The Senator from Nevada.”
A woman on the other end of the dais said, “Dr. Kell, explain how Mark Spencer gained access to the security measures at the Chicago facility of CDR Research.”
The lawyer leaned in and whispered. “Stick to the story.”
Thomas sighed and cleared his throat as he prepared to answer.
“That old dog used my father’s name to get to me,” Miles said as the trio walked away.
“It’s over for now,” the lawyer said. “We did great. We’re clear of this. This was a good day, Miles. Take the win.”
Miles sniffed and flexed his jaw as they walked. “The D.O.D is pushing us to get generation three out to them while we have senators grilling us like criminals. I should leave those self-righteous blowhards to clean up their own neighborhoods and rebuild their own houses. That would show them.”
The lawyer patted Decker’s shoulder. “This is how big business works. Senators ask their questions and look like they’re being tough on you. Voters get satisfied, we donate to their campaigns, and they pass laws that help us do business and make money. This is how your father became wealthy and how you will become more wealthy. It’s the circle of life in this town.”
“I’d rather donate to the ones that don’t drag us through the mud,” Miles Decker said.
“That wouldn’t look good at all,” the lawyer said. “Perception is everything in politics and business. This was a good day. Trust me on this.”
The lawyer peeled off from them up another hallway as Miles Decker and Dr. Thomas Kell stepped out of the Congressional Offices facing the sunset. It still had a blazing glow that covered the sky in dozens of colors from debris that had not fully cleared the atmosphere. When the gravitational Pulse lifted everything not tied down in the Western Hemisphere, the big pieces fell back to the ground and the tiny particles lingered in the upper atmosphere like the ash from some massive eruption. This sunset was made from all the litter and top soil from North America.
Thomas thought back to the rainstorms for weeks following the Pulse. The flooding on top of all the debris had nearly crippled the nation. They would never account for all the missing. Thomas still believed some bodies made it into space and never fell back to Earth. Or they burned up on reentry. If they hit the ground from a couple miles up, there would be nothing left to identify.
Some scientists were still worried about global cooling or an early Ice Age. Others were worried about diseases or vermin spreading new forms of plague across the globe. Famine was already striking some parts of the world, but Thomas was focused on building the androids that would clean up and rebuild.
He wasn’t sure if flying up in the air during the Pulse was worse than all the people crushed in the Eastern Hemisphere nations.
The crop failure and food shortages were still hurting even in the industrialized nations.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Decker asked.
Thomas blinked a few times. “Um, yes, sir. Stunning colors.”
“What? The sunset?” Decker asked. “No. I mean the rebuilding of the monuments.”
Thomas turned and followed Miles Decker’s line of sight over toward the Washington Monument in the distance. The angle of light from the sunset glistened off the gossamer support cables coming off of the stone spire in every direction. Enormous androids built up struts around the base and sides of the monument. These were not the ones that babysat people’s kids or walked their dogs, but CDR built the large construction droids too. They also had large screens in front that served as eyes glowing to indicate that they were not thinking too hard or too deeply. Smaller androids climbed up the outside sealing cracks with advanced polymer fillers.
“Yes, beautiful, sir.”
“We are rebuilding the world, like you said. You did well in there, Dr. Kell. You speak well for a scientist.”
Thomas cleared his throat. “Thank you, sir. We practiced the story for a long time.”
Miles Decker’s jaw was flexing again. “Yes, we certainly did.”
“How did we get all those FBI agents to lie, sir? Did it come from CDR or from the government?”
Miles stared at the androids rebuilding the Washington Monument a while longer. “My overpriced Washington lawyer just told me we had a win today, Doctor. Why would you mess that up for me by asking questions you really don’t want to know the answer to?”
“Sorry, sir, I meant no disrespect.”
“You did well today. Let’s leave it at that, Dr. Kell.”
“Yes, sir, but if I can dare just a little bit more, we obviously want to find the first Brain. Why am I not looking for it anymore?”
Miles sighed. “You were there when it disappeared.”
“So you blame me, sir?”
“I didn’t say that, Doctor.” Miles said. “All the agents that were present have been reassigned. You were there. You have been called before Congress to testify about being there as a matter of national security. We may have won today, but we are being watched. So, I am not looking for something that I testified no longer exists and you will not be looking for something you testified does not exist. If I hypothetically had someone looking for a nonexistent Brain, it would not be us. You are my project lead for new brains and that’s what all your energy goes to, Doctor. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Thomas thought about the lawyer’s advice of giving short answers without elaborating. That might be good advice for his entire life as long as his life was in CDR.
“Do you have a flight out tonight?” Decker asked.
Thomas had to think. “Yes, I changed the flight each day like you said. I thought we were going to end up with another day of testimony, but I’m on the red eye tonight, I think.”
“I have the company jet, so I’ll beat you back to Chicago. Did you talk to anyone on the flight in about who you are or where you are from?”
It occurred to Thomas that Mr. Decker had not offered him a spot on the company jet which would have been easy enough. Thomas said, “No, sir. No one.”
“Anyone at your hotel? Chit chat with taxi drivers maybe?”
Miles patted Thomas’s shoulder. “Good man. Get something good to eat before you leave and then get back to work in Chicago tomorrow. We have big things in the works. Your team will catch you up when you get back. Don’t talk to anyone on the flight back.”
Miles Decker went down the stairs without waiting for an answer. He stepped into a limo and zipped away.
Thomas sighed and said, “Yes, sir.”
Thomas ended up taking a taxi out of the city. He had an android driver that asked him friendly questions. Thomas dodged the questions until the android stopped asking. He felt like he was being interrogated by his own creation. A number of roads were still impassable from debris they had no where to put or from construction on other adjacent projects or memorials. Sadly, Washington D.C. was actually ahead of cities on rebuilding.
“Have a nice flight,” the android driver said as Thomas stepped out.
“You too,” Thomas said.
As other androids carried his bags away, Thomas watched the taxi drive away. The driver made no comment in response to Thomas wishing him a good flight.
Instead of a nice dinner like Mr. Decker had suggested, Thomas ate a questionable kabob from a food truck outside the fence at the Arlington Memorial Air Field. Ronald Regan Washington National Airport was still largely closed to commercial aircraft from the damage. The real airport had one runway open for private jets which was where Miles Decker had already taken off in a jet with plenty of room inside.
As Thomas went through the light security before being admitted through the chain link gate, the lights hummed along the perimeter of the field and dazzled his eyes. He could only just barely make out the shadows of the Arlington National Cemetery starting on one of the distant hills. Thomas squinted and tried to remember. He thought there used to be lights out there even late at night like this. Maybe power restrictions reached as far as respect for the fallen warriors.
He sat on a folding chair in the darkness under a plastic canvas tent. The blue plastic rattled in the wind across the open field. As sections of tent parted in the chilly wind, he could make out the rectangles of foundations like ghosts of the houses that used to be here back when the air field was a neighborhood. The damage was bad enough here and other places all across the globe that the houses had be leveled and the brick and siding scrapped away. These had been expensive houses too. The owners probably had the resources to rebuild, if their companies were not busted by the Pulse too. This area had been claimed by eminent domain for more powerful people that needed a place to land their planes. The irony was that some cheaper, newer starter homes had held on to the Earth better in the lift and fall of the gravity Pulse than older homes that were better built and larger, but not up to the stresses of the universe pulling them in two directions like that.
Dr. Thomas Kell whispered. “We pull everything apart until we get down to the quantum and then we find everything again.”
A few people on folding chairs near him turned their heads at the sound of his voice. He could see the whites of their eyes and thought what he said might be considered threatening or crazy, if there was no context. As he thought about it, the context did not make it less threatening or crazy.
The era of terrorism had taken a bit of a breather in the wake of the Pulse. There was fighting around the world and new civil wars had broken out around the globe as resources became scarce. Troubled regions became more troubled when aide from richer nations ceased in an instant. Thomas supposed there was not much terror to be had in trying to blow things up when everything was already destroyed anyway. Transportation between nations was cut off for quite a while and had only just begun to reopen. Moving willing terrorists to worthy targets was a difficult proposition. Global communication was out for a time and was spotty now. An incident in one part of the world would sometimes take days or weeks to become news elsewhere. It was hard to make an impact when a problem was already solved before people in other parts of the world heard about it. Thomas thought about the fact that he was working hard to rebuild the world when it appeared that global connectivity might have inadvertently fed some of the troubles people had been trying to solve. He hated to think that the only way to cut off the global threat of people was global isolation.
He was about to whisper his thoughts out loud again, but then realized that everyone was still staring at him from around the tent. They thought he might be some crazy fanatic about to take advantage of the lax security around the air field. He was learning to calm people’s fears more and more around his work, Congressional hearings, and everywhere else too.
Thomas cleared his throat and said, “Sorry. I had a bad kabob outside the fence, I think. I’m mumbling to myself to make better choices with my life.”
People around him chuckled and moved their attention off him.
The wind picked up again and parted the plastic enough for Thomas to see the glowing lights of three sets of eyes bobbing through the darkness between perimeter lights. They were dim enough that in his rational mind Thomas knew they were functioning at safe levels. The limitations of the impurities were doing their job with this trio of androids servicing the airfield, but in the dark, their eyes seemed especially bright.
It reminded Thomas of a pack of wolves moving through the darkness – hunting. He thought about a story he had heard of an alligator hunter. Dr. Kell had studied the behavior and minds of reptiles as he worked to improve the earliest designs of artificial intelligence before that created the first Quantum Brain – the one flying loose and wild somewhere in the broken world at this very moment. Thomas had just gotten through lying under oath to Senators about it. The gator hunter had spent most of his days selling insurance in a small office near Gainesville, Florida long before the Pulse. At night he captured or killed alligators or crocodiles that got too close to where people lived after they cut back gator territory to build their condos. Later, he did the same with large pythons that invaded gator territory from irresponsible exotic pet owners. One gator got too close to a trailer park and had even been seen out on the kickball field at the elementary school near the pond. It was eating folks’ cats and dogs and might move on to the children. It was losing the cats and dogs that got the gator hunter clearance to kill it. He finished up a day of selling insurance and then waded out waist deep in the pond with a flashlight and a pistol. He made gator mating noises and shined his light. When the gator surfaced into the light, its eyes glowed red and the insurance salesman fired once between the red dots. As he was trying to drag it out of the water, he heard a growl and shined his light to see two more sets. He fired twice more. As he dragged them out, another made a lung at him and he fired again. He told authorities that gators in populated areas didn’t tend to act like that. They didn’t cluster in small bodies of water and they didn’t attack once others had been killed. The eyes glowed like they were supposed to, but the behavior was all wrong.
Thomas wondered what had happened to that guy after the Pulse. If he survived, he would be busy with plenty of claims. Thomas wondered if the alligators and pythons had been lifted out of their swamps by the disruption in gravity before splashing back down. Would that sort of thing tampering with the fundamental rules of the universe change the behavior of reptile brains?
He also wondered whether reptile brains surprising people meant that Quantum Brains could still surprise even more. The first one had certainly been full of surprises.
The glowing eyes out on the field reached the fence and then split up to search in different directions. They were hunting after all. These androids were working security. The human guards at the gate could be slack in searching people because the androids could throw themselves on any problem that decided to wade out waist deep in their territory.
The tent flap fell back closed causing Thomas to lose sight of the android security.
The flap at the far end of tent whipped open with a crackle and Thomas jumped. The human greeting them said, “Flight 684 to Chicago and points between is now boarding.”
Dr. Thomas Kell and most of the people along the folding chairs stood and shuffled out through the muddy grass. A few stayed behind and Thomas shuddered to think that there were flights leaving later than his. The man led them to a short flight of rolling stairs leading up to the doorway of the plane. They tracked mud up the aisles and buckled in without being asked. Thomas assumed his luggage had been loaded into the belly of the plane, but he was too tired to even ask.
The attendants sealed the door. The runner lights along the center aisle and safety lights on the ceiling flickered when the door locked, but they failed to stay lit leaving everyone in darkness. Thomas did not mind as he was lost in his own thoughts anyway. It did concern him that if they couldn’t even get the lights to work, what did that say for their ability to maintain the rest of the plane. CDR research had failed to protect the first Quantum Brain and then failed to contain it once it was loose. They were populating the world with lesser service robots and Dr. Kell was returning to Chicago to experiment with new levels of AI for the government and CDR’s own profit.
Thomas came out of his thoughts as he watched glowing eyes move along the ground in front of the plane in the night. They trusted the androids with their children and pets, Thomas thought. The senator from Minnesota had raised those concerns and Thomas had brushed the man off in sworn testimony just as he had been ordered and rehearsed to do. Thomas had done well enough to keep his job, but not well enough to earn a spot on the company jet. Now the androids lurked around children and pets like the gators under the pond near the kickball field. Who was going to be the insurance man to hunt down the monsters, if things went wrong? Thomas could not come up with an answer as he watched the glowing eyes in the night.
The androids took hold of the blades of the propellers along each wing on both sides of the plane. They lifted and spun them in perfect time with each other. The blades whirled and the engines roared into life. The androids stood inches from the blades with no fear on their faces which were lit from the glow of their own eyes reflected off the spinning metal. They moved aside and stepped around the deadly blades. The plane rolled forward and held position for a moment.
The engines growled louder and the plane lurched forward. The power crested as they reached the end of the runway and red lights marking the opposing chain link barrier. The craft lifted and banked as it climbed into the sky. Thomas gripped the arms of his seat until the plane leveled and buzzed steadily out over Washington toward the west.
Thomas knew he should not have been able to tell, but the plane felt slower. He supposed knowing that it was slower than a pre Pulse jet added to the perception.
“Perception is reality,” he whispered.
He missed jet flights, but those were the purview of the wealthy now. Working for the wealthy did not count. When every plane still in the air during the Pulse came crashing down despite the forewarning of astronomers that caught the signs in the stars early from Colombia, Australia, and Hawaii. Some were brought down by the smaller gravitational troubles that preceded the Pulse. Others were on the ground only to be lifted into the air and slammed back down. Airlines went under as they lost nearly their entire fleets despite subsidies from the government. Propeller planes were easier to rebuild first, so in an age of android construction bots and android companions, the era of flight was back to propellers and props.
He had only just started to doze off as they descended for their first landing. As soon as they stopped, the speakers above their heads crackled. The system was wired up with hanging speaker boxes. If there were any turbulence or a rough landing, Thomas suspected they’d all come down on the passenger’s heads.
The voice of whom Thomas assumed was the captain rattled and cracked forth through the static to say, “Sorry for the inconvenience. No one will be allowed to disembark in Toledo and passengers originally scheduled to board with us have been canceled. There is a protest in progress outside the air field. We will be safe. We are doing a quick refuel and then will be taking off again for our next leg to Grand Rapids. Please, remain seated and buckled.”
The passengers on the other side unbuckled anyway and climbed over empty seats to look out the windows in front of and behind Thomas. He glanced out the round port of his window. Spotlights blazed into the faces of screaming protestors lined outside the fences of the airfield. Police cars and officers sat at a distance farther behind the crowds. Androids with batons stood along the inside of the fence every few feet without motion or a sound. Signs declared that God was judging the world and the Pulse was a punishment for sin and that robots were soulless monsters sent by the Devil to enslave the world. One sign declared that men were not meant to take to the air anymore like the angels. Thomas saw rage and fear in the eyes of people beating the fence and screaming curses into the lights.
Thomas wasn’t sure what would happen once the fence collapsed or the protestors decided to climb over the razor wire. If they got to the other side in one piece, the androids assigned to security were programmed and permitted to subdue them. They were designed to control their strength, but if the crowd broke, someone would get hurt. It did not appear the police were poised to help the androids on the empty field. This would be another job that would fall on the expendable, artificial intelligence. If reports of CDR androids hurting protestors hit the news over the next few weeks, Thomas suspected he would be sitting in front of Congress again. He decided then that he would take the train next time.
The propellers whirled and Thomas leaned up to see the service androids step aside. The plane rolled forward without warning and the standing passengers scrambled to find seats and buckle in. If any of them were originally scheduled to get off in Toledo, none of them demanded to do so. The plane lifted off and left the protestors behind.
The landing at the Grand Rapids field was far less eventful. It came sooner than from D.C. to Toledo. Thomas was nervous too from seeing mobs of people clawing at the chain link with CDR’s own android inventions between the angry people and small plane. Grand Rapids was deserted with most of the temporary air fields being some distance outside the cities. After the Pulse had brought everything in the air crashing down on that fateful day, many people were more comfortable with aircraft taking off and landing somewhere away from their homes. This was true even among the general population that did not believe the Pulse was a punishment from God.
Thomas leaned his head against the wall of the craft staring at the first rays of sunlight breaking over the horizon. The first rays of light made the shadows on the ground seem deeper and darker. Dr. Thomas Kell watched attendants with glowing eyes refuel the plane. A human supervisor stood back a few steps watching the androids work. It reminded him of the police hanging back watching the androids wait on the protestors to break the fence in Toledo. Thomas wondered if one of the androids decided the spray down the plane and light it due to some malfunction or because the impurities failed to dampen their consciousness long enough for one of them to get a wild idea, would the human supervisor step in or step back in response? Dr. Kell had a guess which was more likely. It was the androids that were meant to take the risks after all.
“We should have tested them more,” Thomas said.
A few passengers disembarked, but most dozed back off as others loaded on quietly. Thomas made long blinks, but could not seem to relax enough to go over into sleep. He felt his exhaustion deep. The plane taxied out to the runway and took to the air again. Nothing was on fire and no protestors human or otherwise came looking for revenge. As they lifted into the air, the pull on Thomas’s stomach reminded him of the day the Pulse lifted him off the ground and gravity deserted the world. The entire world stopped making sense that day.
As Thomas watched Lake Michigan stretch out under them, he saw islands formed by the rubble of collapsed buildings. Some of them had been lifted from other places and fell into the Lake with other debris. Others were washed out into the Lake from floods as errant water found its way back in the global downpour when gravity returned. As clean-up continued in the cities, the clean up in the water was being put off for another day.
Thomas thought he saw an oil tanker sticking out from between a building bearing and bank sign. Fishing boats circled the artificial island. People were looking for their space and their place in the world. Some people were drawing closer together as they lost loved ones and property from the Pulse. Others separated themselves in the aftermath. He wondered which type represented the fishermen off of the trash islands in Lake Michigan.
Thomas thought he had read that there had been a major fish die off in the lakes after the Pulse. Not all species had handled the stir up as well as others. Those that landed far from the lake probably had not faired well, he imagined. Maybe the fishermen were casting out their nets and lines on hope more than results.
“Maybe the world never made sense before the Pulse either.” Dr. Thomas Kell whispered at the window. “We just finally noticed.”
The plane banked and swung south of the city coming down on a runway formed out of a set of highways that were blocked on both ends. Thomas unloaded with the others. He found two of his bags missing out of the belly of the plane and sighed.
The android looked at Dr. Kell with dimly glowing eyes in the morning sunshine. “Would you like to file a report with the airline?”
Dr. Kell merely shook his head and carried the surviving bag with him. The airline probably wouldn’t exist in a couple months and his bags were probably already rifled through by the human supervisors at one of the other air fields.
Thomas climbed up over a pile of brick and wandered along a dirt trail through tall grass. He reached the line of cars on the access road beyond the highway turned runway. A man in an unmarked sedan jumped out and opened the door for Dr. Kell. “Right here, sir. I’ll get you where you’re going. I charge Uber rates. Better than the droid taxis, sir.”
The drivers standing by the marked taxis with their glowing eyes seemed unimpressed by the human’s banter. Thomas was tired and just wanted to go. He climbed into the human’s car and closed his eyes. By the time they reached his apartment, he realized he would have an hour before he had to get ready for work. Mr. Decker had been pretty clear that Thomas did not have the day off.
The driver’s side closed and the man asked, “Where we headed, sir?”
Thomas waited a beat and said, “Let’s make it the CDR Research Facility. Downtown.”
After a stretch of silence, Dr. Kell met the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He read anger and betrayal in them. Thomas found himself wishing that he had taken one of the official taxis with an android driver.
The driver said, “You work for CDR? Their soulless tin can factory put out enough robots to take every real taxi job in town. I’m having to Uber now like I’m some kid working my way through art school. I was a taxi driver. My father was a cab driver. And you’re one of the puppet masters churning out those bots like there is no consequence for those of us picking up the pieces after the Pulse?”
Thomas cleared his throat. “No … I’m, ugh, a lobbyist working to limit the number of … um bots being sent out in the world. People’s rights. I just came in from Washington.”
The tightness left the eyes and the driver pulled out of the line onto the street. “Let them have it for me. Blow the place up, if you have to. I’m just kidding about that last part. Don’t report me.”
“I won’t,” Thomas said. Lying was getting to be a regular skill for him. He was using more often than his training in quantum programming.
“I’m going to have to take the long way around. There are a lot of closed roads between here and there. Construction and clean-up. Chicago got it bad on Pulse Day and in the floods after.”
“I just didn’t want you to think that I was trying to run up the fare. There’s no direct route anymore is what I’m saying.”
Dr. Kell’s eyes drifted closed and he snapped awake with a hand on his shoulder. Thomas pulled the strap of the bag to his chest. The driver let go of Thomas’s shoulder and leaned back up into the front seat again.
The driver said, “You going to be able to stay awake through your meeting there, Mister? CDR is full of sharks. You’ve got to be alert.”
“Thank you.” Dr. Kell pulled out his phone and clicked to pay the fare.
The driver sighed. “Didn’t go through. Try again. Service is spotty in the city.”
Thomas clicked again. The smile faded of the driver’s face. He looked up at Dr. Kell over the seat and said, “Dr. Thomas Kell of CDR Research? Yeah, the fare went through. Thank you. Get out of my car and have a good day, Dr. Frankenstein.”
Thomas opened the door and climbed out on the curb. “Sorry.”
“You are making people obsolete. Who’s going to buy all your robots when no one has jobs anymore?”
Thomas looked toward the CDR building. He felt a temptation to break and run inside. Maybe he could hide in there and never come out into the world again, he thought.
“There are tax subsidies on companies that use the androids. That money goes to people across the country in the form of aid,” Thomas said. “We’re collected from foreign countries using the androids too.”
“I guess I have nothing to worry about then with CDR and the government looking out for me, huh? Close my door before I decide to drive off with you still holding onto it.”
The car zipped off as quickly as Thomas could close the door.
He dragged into the building with the scanners identifying him and unlocking the doors and elevators ahead of him. The elevator took him to the floor with his office without him having to ask.
Dr. Kell dropped his bag by his desk and fell face down on his couch.
He was startled awake again by another touch on his shoulder. It was one of the lab assistants. She had red hair. Dr. Kell couldn’t seem to pull up her name in his foggy brain.
She said, “Dr. Kell, I was told to come tell you that the body has arrived.”
“What body?” Dr. Thomas Kell sat up and rubbed at his face.
“The body for the version 3.0 brain, Doctor. I was told to come get you.”
Thomas Kell took to his feet and leaned on the wall above the couch in his office. He coughed once and rubbed his forehead before saying. “That brain is still a prototype. We didn’t finish testing the 2.0 models before we sent them out around the world. What are we doing now?”
She cleared her throat and said, “Well, ugh, I don’t know anything about that, Doctor. I was just supposed to come get you. I didn’t know you were sleeping. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. Thank you. What time is it?”
“Six AM, sir.”
He pulled a white lab coat off the rack in his office and made his way down toward the labs without waiting on her. The doors opened as quickly as he was scanned from above, but he was moving with such haste that he found himself pushing past the opening doors causing the motors to whine.
The final lab required a complex code. Dr. Kell messed it up once to an angry buzz from the keypad. If he did it wrong again, he’d be locked out until someone reset the system for him. He tapped in the code again more deliberately and the lighting around the edges of the door turned green before the panels slid open revealing the lab beyond.
Dr. Kell entered and stepped past the other technicians in the room until he reached the side of the doctor that worked under him. He was about to ask what was going on, but then he saw the brain floating and lit from within in the glass canister.
Thomas swallowed on a dry throat and said, “What have you done, Jeffrey?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Dr. Kell. We’ve powered up version three at least a dozen times.”
“It’s not connected to anything,” Dr. Kell waved his hand toward the canister.
“It will be,” Jeffery said. He was younger than Thomas Kell and his hair was darker. Thomas suspected he himself was going grey from working for CDR. Jeffrey had been with the Quantum Brain project since the beginning just like Thomas, but Jeffrey seemed to be aging just fine.
Dr. Thomas Kell looked from the canister over to a box that looked distinctly like a coffin on a stretcher.
“We’re connecting it to a body?”
“That is the next step, Dr. Kell.”
“Dr. Danver,” Thomas Kell took hold of Jeffrey Danver’s shoulder. “Stop and explain to me what is going on.”
Jeffrey Danver turned to Thomas Kell and looked him up and down. “You look rough, Doctor. Have you been sleeping?”
“I just flew in from Washington. I’m a little jetlagged. I need to know why we are going forward on this before the testing is done.”
Jeffrey Danver shrugged and then took Thomas’s hand off his shoulder before he said, “Mr. Decker ordered it. He called while you both were in Washington. The body arrived this morning. He gave the green light right before I sent Susan to get you.”
Susan was the intern’s name with the red hair. Jeffrey made a note to remember that.
“Why was everything moved up?”
“Same reason as before with version two.”
Thomas closed his eyes and shook his head. “The Japanese?”
“They are announcing an upgrade to their android models. Mr. Decker wants our new version ready to ship before the competition.”
“We have to stop making our decisions based on what we think the Japanese will do,” Thomas said.
“The business side of it is above my pay grade,” Jeffrey said. “We’ve been ordered to move up the testing and that’s what I’m doing.”
“This is a bad idea.” Thomas shook his head. “We rushed out the version 2.0 androids before they were fully tested and now they are all over the world.”
“Seems like a success story to me.” Jeffrey said. “No problems and they are rebuilding the world and serving as companions without incident.”
Thomas sighed and said, “There have been some incidents. The androids are being used for security and crowd control. There are reports of people being hurt.”
“Less often than with human police and far less deaths from police/ civilian interactions,” Jeffrey said. “It’s in all our literature now, Dr. Kell. You should read it.”
“I have, Jeffrey. Thank you,” Thomas said, “but it has only been a few months. It feels like longer because they were everywhere so fast. We haven’t even begun to explore what could go wrong.”
“Our job is to create the technology,” Jeffrey said. “Others decide when and how to market it. They’ve decided it is time to move forward with version three.”
Thomas shook his head again. “Japan only just released their first androids and they are little better than toys at this point. We overreacted in sending out version 2.0 as quickly as we did. We’re doing the same now.”
Jeffery rolled his head around his neck and said, “You need to talk to Mr. Decker because he was clear that version 3.0 is going forward. Our military contracts are calling for it.”
Thomas stared for a moment and then said, “This version is being tested for military applications.”
Thomas licked his lips and said, “I thought we were past that.”
“Apparently not. These will be graded for operating fighters and conducting raids among other things. We’ll also test them for serving as paramedics, surgeons, and advanced engineering work.”
Thomas looked away. “We are not ready for this.”
“Mr. Decker thinks otherwise and he writes the checks.”
“We can’t give the brain access to the quantum.” Thomas whispered
“I know we had a close call before when the first Quantum Brain was stolen and destroyed, but we have better security than before,” Jeffrey said.
Thomas blinked a few times. He reminded himself that he and Miles Decker were the only ones at CDR that knew the first Quantum Brain was out in the wind and more powerful than anything ever created. Maybe more powerful than anything in existence in the universe.
“Right,” Thomas said. “Right. Has the impurity been introduced?”
“When were you going to do so?” Thomas asked.
“I sent Susan to get you so that you could oversee that part yourself, Dr. Kell. Just as you instructed,” Jeffrey said.
Thomas turned and faced the cooler on the opposite side of the lab from the canister and the body. “Shut down the brain, please.”
“Dr. Kell, I don’t want any trouble with Mr. Decker. If you want to put off testing, you’ll need to take that up with him, but I’m of the opinion that you will not change his mind,” Jeffrey said.
“I’m not putting it off and I’m not trying to talk Mr. Decker out of it.” Thomas Kell walked toward the cooler. “I just want to inject the impurity without the brain activated.”
Jeffrey sighed. “As you wish.”
He began the shutdown sequence and Thomas saw the light in the lab diminish. He opened the cooler and lifted out the hypo-injector. As Thomas turned with the impurity in his hands, Jeffery and two technicians lifted the canister off of the darkened brain. Thomas swallowed as he realized how little protection was between them and the newest version of the Quantum Brain.
He rested the pad of the injector against the side of the artificial brain and allowed the impurity to flow into the object. It seemed so harmless sitting there on the pad deactivated, but Thomas reminded himself that without the impurity, these brains could see the future and had other powers they hadn’t even begun to understand.
Thomas set the empty vial aside.
“Should we reactivate it?” Jeffery asked.
Thomas held up a hand. “Not yet. Let’s be sure the impurity has moved through the entire structure.”
Jeffery leaned on the console. “The impurity is supposed to saturate the pathways of the brain instantaneously. What are you worried about, Dr. Kell?”
“I just want to be sure, Dr. Danver. Please.”
Jeffrey stood back up straight. “The newest version on the Quantum Brain is the closest to the first prototype we have created yet. We should have good results even with the impurity.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Thomas whispered.
“What are you not telling me?” Jeffrey asked.
Thomas blinked and looked away from the brain. “What do you mean?”
“You and Mr. Decker. Is there something about the incident with the first brain that we are not being told. Why do we keep introducing impurities to slow down the processing power?”
“Because it is the law,” Thomas said.
“But why? Did something happen to make that law necessary beyond the brain being stolen in the first place? Is there something you are not telling me?”
“There is a whole world of knowledge not being told to you, Dr. Danvers. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“Okay then.” Jeffrey shrugged. “May we turn it back on now, Dr. Kell?”
“Let’s install it in the android body first, but disconnect body control for now,” Thomas said.
Jeffrey tilted his head. “You want a paralyzed android, Doctor?”
“I want to talk to the brain before I give it the strength of ten men,” Thomas said.
“There are thousands of androids all around the city right now,” Jeffrey said, “with the strength of ten men or more. If you are worried about that, that ship has already sailed.”
“But like you said, this brain is closer to the original. I just want to be sure,” Thomas said.
“And that makes you afraid for reasons you won’t tell me,” Jeffrey said. He shook his head. “Okay. Open up the body, disconnect controls, and let’s install the 3.0 brain, everyone.”
A few technicians began taking up their ordered tasks. Thomas walked over toward the coffin-like box as they lifted the lid off. He paused over the body. It did not look ashen or dead the way a corpse would. This body looked asleep or pretending to be asleep. It was female and was already dressed is a silver jumpsuit. Her hair was chin length and blond almost to the point of being white.
One of the technicians used a laser scalpel along forehead just below the hairline. Two men opened up the empty head and Thomas backed away. There was something too visceral about the sight even though he knew the body was artificial. Other technicians approached and began running scans of the rest of the body.
“Female,” Thomas said.
“Yes,” Jeffrey said. “It’s just a personality and aesthetic choice. People respond differently to female voices. Certain careers for companions find owners more accepting of a female form. Childcare and other service work, for example. People seem more comfortable with female androids over all according to the focus groups. I think some of the male forms were used for security in the first batches that went out and there is a psychological aversion now. As you said, there can be some negatives attached to those types of work with the civilian population.”
“What is her serial number?” Thomas asked.
“003,” Jeffrey said. “The first of batch 2. We’re calling her Pixie though.”
“Pixie?” Thomas asked.
“We thought about Eve or Lillith,” Jeffrey said. “All the first woman metaphors, you know, but there have been a lot of movies and books about killer robots named Eve. Lillith has connotations to demons too. Marketing was very specific about names we weren’t allowed to use. Pixie seemed friendly and fun. They thought it fit her look too. The name and look tested well in both western and eastern nations, so it seemed like a winner.”
The technicians lowered the darkened brain into the open skull and began sealing the connections to the artificial nervous system.
“Seems like we are focused on the wrong things,” Thomas said.
“People usually are, but that’s business,” Jeffrey said.
“Make sure body control is disconnected for now,” Thomas said.
One of the technicians responded, “It is, sir. Just like you ordered.”
The laser scalpel lit and sealed the head back closed. She was back to sleeping or faking asleep as if nothing gruesome had ever happened. Except now she had the brain in place that was closer to the original.
“Are you ready, Dr. Kell?”
“No, Jeffrey, but that hasn’t ever stopped us before, so activate the brain.”
Jeffrey leaned back and gave a hand signal. The technicians at the console powered up. Dr. Jeffrey Danvers and Dr. Thomas Kell stared down into the coffin.
“Once it’s activated within the android, it requires more steps to shut it off,” Jeffrey said.
“I know,” Thomas said.
“These are safety measures to avoid hackers from shutting down androids during crucial work or when they are involved in security.”
“Yes, Jeffrey, I understand.”
They stared into the box at the blank face a moment longer.
“It takes a moment to power up,” Jeffrey said.
Thomas opened his mouth to respond, but then Pixie’s eyes flashed open and Thomas’s words caught in his throat. He could see the circles and dots in her eyes that looked ordinary and human, but they glowed. It was the safe, dull glow that indicated the impurity was working and keeping her mind off the Quantum Network, but it still filled Thomas with a sense of dread. This was going too fast. Everything with CDR Research went too fast and he was sure it would all come back to hurt them in time.
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