The problem is that we rely on the machines. And no, I don’t just mean for e-mails, vending machine espressos, and advanced differential equations. They manage our nuclear power plants, program the microbe-sized robots that keep us healthy, clean the air, and filter dangerous chemicals from our water. They fly the planes and drive the cars, and, most importantly, they prevent us humans from destroying each other like a bunch of angry crabs.
It terrified people at first, giving up control. It always does. But here we are and things aren’t so bad. In a lot of ways, they’re better than ever. Well, they were. Life working at a coffee shop was pretty sweet, especially considering the free coffee, but now I’m stuck in a room with 3 eccentric men debating a question that’s stumped humanity since Plato’s time.
Oh, did I mention? My boss isn’t the only one on our committee. The machines decided to keep it low key after “The Incident” at Sapporo II. So there are four of us. Just four.
Of course, there’s me. You know enough about me already, don’t you? Math girl, likes retro music and coffee, writes in her journal all the time, pissed off about being here. I could go on about my family history, switching schools, the group home, blah blah blah, but who cares. I’m fine.
So then there’s Dr. Barry Carlisle, my boss. He’s an old electrical engineering nerd, but he’s branched out. His hobbies include brewing his own beer, touring breweries, resurrecting ancient beer recipes so he can brew them, studying the history of agriculture and grain consumption, drinking, and pissing me the hell off. I mean, sure, he was a fine advisor when he wasn’t so hungover that I had to give his talks for him.
So yeah, we’ve got that guy. Granted, I’m his former student, and the research groups in academia are a little like families, so yeah – full disclosure – I’m the dysfunctional child of an irresponsible alcoholic. I even rebelled against my ‘father’s’ wishes and switched to an entirely different field of research. Not that it matters anymore.
Who else is on this all-star team? Number three is Jonathan Napier, noted astronomer. Gaunt, blonde, and saturnine, he’s the sort of guy a director might cast as Richard the Third in a school play. Not that he’s deformed or something; rather, he’s paranoid and too smart for his own good, more like the real Richard the Third than the Shakespeare character. Look it up. This is the sort of guy who gets glowing reviews on his dark star morphology paper but chain smokes a pack of cigarettes afterward because one of the reviewers used the word “competent.”
The fourth man is Herbert Souvin. Herbet is, well, special. Not exactly that sort of special, but not exactly normal either. He’s the sort of guy you’d expect to get realllly into hardcore math, then descend into paranoia because he thinks aliens are trying to steal the secrets of his research. Only, he dropped out of the hard sciences to become a philosopher, applying the laws of statistical mechanics to philosophical problems. If it’s sounds arcane, that’s because it is.
What a group. As far as I can tell, we’re plan D. Plans A, B, and C attended the machine’s first conference and are either dead, hospitalized, or locked up in their countries best bomb proof bunkers. Well, that, or too smart to haul ass out to an obscure lab in rural Japan for spurious reasons.
So the machines had to settle for us. Yes, I know this description has been less than flattering, and I know what the implies about me.
Whatever. I’m a weirdo, too. I’ve never denied it.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
So here we are, a motley crew at Tendo Mine, day one. I guess I’d better set the scene. After showing us around, the machines dropped us off with some coffee in the old control room. Flatscreen monitors adorn the walls like paintings, still displaying plots and tracks and curlicues, presumably from things sputtering through the old experiment down there. The place smells like mold and rusting metal, but computers, laptops, and panels full of glowing buttons line the walls. They’ve got us seated around a long conference table – stuck us here really – like a group of children left to play in the basement while their parents prepare things upstairs.
I only have to wait 12 seconds before someone opens their mouth.
“Gentlemen,” Jonathan Napier starts, tipping ashes from his cigarette directly onto the table, “what the hell are we doing here?” He raises a perfect eyebrow at our assembled group. “Of course, I’m not just talking about the consulting fees.”
“Consulting fees?” Barry, my old boss, strokes his beard. “They promised me authorship on a paper and some old Japanese sake recipes. Fees, no, and sake’s not normally my forte, but when in Toyko…” He cackles. His laugh has this way of rising and falling like a wave.
I’ve got my mp3 player going with a headphone in one ear, so I hear just enough to grimace. “Psssh. I just got an invitation and a plane ticket.” My eyes dart to the faces of the others. “What the hell. I guess I’m lowest on the totem poll.” I tap my fingers and glare into my coffee.
Our gazes all turn to Herbert. He’s seated across from me at this table that looks like something from a Bond villain’s lair. Herbet is hugging his arms to his chest and nodding his head, quiet as usual.
“They probably bribed him the most!” Barry cackles again. hahHAHahah.
Jonathan rolls his eyes like he doesn’t think that’s very likely. “Alright, shall we tackle this thing and get out of here already? Japan is a bore.”
I snort. “You’ve got a plan then?”
“There have been plenty of papers on the simulation hypothesis. Herbert over there has written two of them himself, haven’t you Herb?” He’s talking about this idea that humans are all living inside some giant simulation, you know, like that movie “The Matrix.” People actually write academic proofs about this stuff.
Herbert just nods while Jonathan’s mouth curls into a half-smirk.
“So we crank out one more paper, enjoy the free drinks and lodging for a week, and collect our fees.” Jonathan looks quite smug with himself.
I glare. Well, they’ll collect their fees. I’ll collect my, uh, experience, I guess. But wait, no. That’s not going to work. The paper, I mean. I turn down the ‘Penguin Cafe Orchestra’ coming from my mp3 player. “You think they haven’t read those papers? They want something more. But what could we give them that they don’t already have?”
Barry nods, sloshing his black coffee onto the table enthusiastically. “Now that’s the question. What could our machine overlords possibly want from a bunch of rascals like us? Do they really think we can talk them out of their depression?”
I chew my lip. “There’s got to be more to it. More to these conferences and meetings.” I look around. Some machine butler dropped off coffee and donuts earlier, along with a lidded cardboard box. I walk over and stare down at it. The lid has a piece of paper on top labeled “afternoon session.” “Maybe they discovered something they didn’t expect.” My hands hover over the box.
“Or perhaps it’s what they didn’t find that matters.” Jonathan is standing so close behind me that I can sense his breath on my neck.
“Back off creep.” I shove him away with my elbow, throwing a glare over my shoulder. I swear, I shoot glares that could kill.
“Or maybe it’s our turn to get roasted,” Barry says with a chuckle. I narrow an eye at him. If I didn’t know any better I’d swear he’s been slipping Irish cream into his coffee.
I just shake my head. “Oh Barry.” He always has to make things awkward. Now all I can think of is the burnt chunk of metal that machine tossed on the table at my shop. It takes a lot of energy to melt metal like that. Somebody intended to kill us all, me included. Behind me, Jonathan has decided to nonchalantly stroll to the other side of the room and stroke his beard.
My hand clutch the edges of the lid and I lick my lips. I’ve never been one to wait for surprises.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
What do we really know about “The Incident” at the Sapporo II conference? Not much. You already know that 30 people were found dead and that the incident made it into what remains of the news media. That’s an accomplishment by itself.
The thing is, now that life is more peaceful, we don’t need the news so much anymore. War is nonexistent, crime rates are low, and life is easier. The rags that remain are mostly digital tabloids. They spread celebrity gossip and conspiracy theories, mostly about the machines. But what do they have to hide? There are cameras aboard all the interstellar missions, they make public releases of data, proofs, and discoveries, and the workings of our utilities are a matter of public record.
So this was a big deal, as you can imagine. Of the 30 killed, 27 were scientists. The other three were family members. Two machines went down, but were repaired. So whoever or whatever planned this dealt a pretty big blow to what remains of human science. But who cares? Most of those guys were probably there for the free skiing, booze, and hobnobbing. Nothing says big deal like an invitation to a historic conference.
Here’s the really interesting thing: the details of the bomb have been kept quiet. The machines know how to sniff out your conventional explosives: gun powder, dynamite, C4, nitroglycerine, napalm, picric acid, TNT, even plutonium. But somehow, someway, something got through.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I stare at the lidded box.
Without realizing it I’m holding my breath. When I finally lift, I’m half expecting a flash of light or a burst of heat. But all that’s inside are packets of scientific papers, all with our names on the contributing author list. I’ve certainly seen worse.
“What is it?” Barry calls from his seat, still too lazy to get his fat butt over here.
“Your not gonna like it,” I say, shaking my head. Then again, this old coot might be in it just for the kicks and free booze.
HaHAHhahah. “Come on Alice. Don’t leave us all hanging. It’s more donuts, right?”
I pull a paper from inside and toss it, letting it slide across the conference table. When it reaches Barry, his eyes go wide. The title is, “Baryon Asymmetry and A Reset Button for the Universe.”
Jonathan snatches it up then tosses it back on the table and crosses his arms. “Of course, they made the woman the lead author.”
© Ryan Walraven 2016