Book 1: Beginnings...
I'm going to die, Craig Stephenson thought.
The F-16 was old. Pursuit by more capable fighters was inevitable. A good fighter pilot could compensate for the limitations of his aircraft, but Craig had never been in a cockpit before. Besides, no degree of human skill could overcome the military hardware that was being sent after him. Craig fidgeted nervously drumming his fingers. He stopped himself and looked at his hands, there was a bit of soot on them and they were shaking. Craig tried to remember a time when he was more afraid. Childhood terrors didn't count: the devil didn't really live in the dark corner of his bedroom. Rubbing some of the soot from his hands he bumped the stick.
"KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF THE CONTROLS," the airplane screamed at him.
Craig jumped and pulled his hands back. He folded them but he couldn't suppress his need to do something with his hands. He ended up opening them and clenching them slowly: first one then the other, then both.
It was hot. Craig hadn’t thought to remove his singed windbreaker when he’d fastened the harness. Now the windbreaker was binding against the harness. His oxygen mask had a musty smell and though the oxygen he breathed was cool the plastic against his face felt hot. Sweat made an uncomfortable film between mask and skin. He began to shiver from delayed adrenaline reaction. I’m being rescued to death, Craig thought.
Though the airframe was obsolete, its avionics had the newest software. Less than five minutes before, Craig had jumped into the cockpit and jammed his handheld computer, a DayTimer, in the airplane's instrument panel. Despite a freshly minted Ph.D. in Computer Science, Craig did not quite understand exactly how the DayTimer was at that very moment rewriting the ancient fighter's avionics software.
The fighter banked and dipped into a valley, the harness biting into Craig’s shoulders as his stomach sent a message the brain did not want to receive. He saw an industrial complex ahead of him: light manufacturing. Craig recognized an integrated circuit fab below. A red pickup truck was parked fifty feet away from a loading dock. That looks just like Dolores' truck, Craig thought. The F-16 dove toward the parking lot.
A red light flickered on the instrument panel indicating weapons lock, evoking a question in Craig's mind. The fighter shuddered as a missile was launched from the left wing answering his question. The airplane accelerated following the missile down.
The missile exploded immediately below the truck detonating the trucks' gas tank in turn. Hot gases and debris were tossed into the path of the F-16. The airplane did something that F-16s usually don’t do, pitching nose up like a Cobra’s head. The jet ploughed through the fireball at a high angle of attack, rocking it by the blast as bits of debris impacted the bottom of the fighter.
Dolores couldn't be in that truck, could she?
The F-16 straightened itself, climbed and turned to the left. The windbreaker absorbed some of the harness’s bite, but shoulders were bruised nonetheless.
"Whose truck was that?" Craig dithered between panic and disbelief hoping the plane would give him a straight answer.
"SHUT UP, CRAIG. I'M BUSY!" the airplane replied.
Craig responded to the sound of his name with a little bit more existential angst. He'd been keyed up by recent events to a manic level. Now he was forced into a passive role. This isn't passive aggressive, more like passive depressive, he thought morosely. A famous pilot had once said something about feeling like Spam in a can. Craig felt like that. Does Spam bruise? He rubbed his shoulders.
A few minutes passed. Craig saw before him a familiar bit of the Pacific coast. Concern for Dolores was displaced by less welcome thoughts as he recognized the estate and remembered a far more malevolent tormenter. His angst increased.
The airplane started to shudder. Bits of material sloughed off the underside of the wings. Craig felt a little more alarmed. This wasn't the place to have trouble. The airplane maintained its altitude nonetheless and the engine didn't make any bad sounds. Craig looked at the instrument panel and saw nothing he could understand. After a moment the shuddering settled out.
There seemed to be a bit of gray fuzz near the point where his DayTimer was stuck into the airplane's instrument panel. This is just great, he thought. This airplane is so old it's molding.
The heads-up-display blinked and went out. Craig looked at it and was alarmed. Fighter airplanes are supposed to have lots of displays and interfaces so that pilots could be told where to shoot and what was available to do that shooting. He hadn't understood those numbers or lines or anything, but he figured they were sort of important.
"Uh, the heads up display just went out."
The airplane answered almost before he finished speaking. "Don't worry. I turned it off. You weren't going to use it. I want to eat some of its components."
"Heh, heh. Yeah, I'm cannibalizing the airplane."
Craig had never heard a computer program chuckle before. He wasn't sure that he liked its sense of humor. He started to sputter an unfocused objection.
"Quit being so literal. I'm saving your skin. Sit back and enjoy the ride," the airplane had definitely grown chatty in the last few minutes. Craig realized that the airplane was smarter now than when he'd gotten into it. Craig wondered how this handheld computer could possibly have an Artificial Intelligence that was this far advanced.
Dr. Craig Stephenson reflected upon the technology he had seen during this little airplane ride. Someone had been very busy pushing the state of the art.
"Craig, we have trouble on our six," the airplane announced.
Two questions occurred simultaneously: How did the DayTimer acquire fighter-jock slang? and What trouble? He voiced the second question.
"We are being pursued. Two F-27 DeathStalkers. They will be in range within 45 seconds. What should I do?"
Something snapped inside Craig. He was worried about Dolores. He'd been yelled at. He'd been tossed, jolted, shaken, but not stirred. He'd even been subjected to literary criticism. Now, the airplane that had done all this was asking for advice on how to defeat the newest fighter in the USAF arsenal.
"Have I displayed even the slightest aptitude in air-to-air combat?" Stress had a way of bringing out sarcasm in Craig.
"Good rabbinical technique. Answer a question with a question," the airplane answered. Then after a pause, "I am asking you whether you want to evade them or destroy them."
I'm in the air with an insane computer program, Craig thought. He said the obvious, "Evade them if possible. Destroy them if you cannot." How could any software smart enough to learn fighter jock slang and comment on his rhetoric not know what to do next better than he did?
The F-16 had dived or lurched or staggered down to an altitude of about 30 feet. Craig had to learn to quit cringing each time he went under a bridge, an overpass, or some high tension wires. When Craig wasn’t blacking out or graying out, he was beyond miserable. His shoulders declared their undying hatred of the harness and they communicated this fact to Craig’s brain in an excruciating fashion.
"How can you fly like this?"
"I picked up some nano-machines when I blew up Dolores' truck. I'm modifying the airframe right now," the DayTimer replied.
"Way. Now, shut up. I'm busy."
How did I get into all this, Craig thought for the zillionth time.
Dr. Anselm Malloy was how Craig Stephenson got into this mess. He wasn't to blame. He wasn't at fault. He wasn't responsible. He was simply how his former advisee had come to be where he was.
It all started a couple years before the stroke and a few years past the turning of the millennium. Craig was the hot young kid from someplace nobody heard of in Ohio. Something in his resume struck Dr. Malloy's fancy.
Dr. Malloy had been born 60-some years before in Belfast. His family had died in a terrorist bombing. Years later when asked whether it was a Protestant or a Catholic bomb, he shrugged and said the bomb was part of an ecumenical movement.
He'd say things like that because after he'd been orphaned, he was raised in a Catholic orphanage. They saw his genius at logic and sold him on the idea of becoming a Jesuit. Very few people knew that he had earned his first doctorate in Theology as a teen. It somehow combined Aquinas and Aristotle.
The Church of Rome didn't have any Inquisitions or Crusades going on at the time. Thus, young Dr. Malloy found himself relatively unchallenged. His first assignment took him across the Atlantic to Boston. As the low man on the theological pecking order he got given the job everyone else at the abbey refused. He was told to un-box and set up the Apple2 computer that had been donated. Oh, and see if he could make some use of it, too. Anselm Malloy, ThD discovered computers.
The energy of youth drove a mind trained in logic by reading Aristotle (who wrote the book on formal logic) and trained in anal-retentiveness by reading Scholastics (who wrote too many books about angels dancing on the head of a pin). Anselm Malloy, ThD was a better programmer than theologian.
The Apple2 launched his greatness. It was his seductress. Society generally refers to succubae such as this in polite terms like vocation or calling. A PhD in Computer Science from MIT joined the ThD after his name.
MIT gave Anselm Malloy another perspective. He met people just as smart as he was and decidedly, (militantly!) non-Catholic. One was a violinist named Vicky. She crossed his path just as he was putting the finishing touches on the first draft of his dissertation. They met at orchestra practice and she found the man playing the cello intriguing. He left the priesthood, but remained a nominal Catholic. He married this nice Jewish girl and they moved to California.
At Stanford, work in neural networks and artificial intelligence made him profoundly skeptical of that field of inquiry, but skepticism is not cynicism. Anselm asked the right questions and wrote them up as research proposals. Work in ergonomics and computer interface design interested him. Fortune 500 companies paid him to play. He made friends throughout the industry.
Anselm Malloy aged well. Fiery red hair grayed but did not fall out. 20/20 vision had become farsighted enough to make reading without glasses an arm-stretching exercise. Life was comfortable and happy when he met Craig Stephenson.
MALLOY'S OFFICE, STANFORD UNIVERSITY
The door to the office was devoid of distraction from its one distinctive adornment: a plaque upon which colorful distorted creatures cavorted. Their limbs extended and twisted all around in a tangle that at first seemed randomly kinked. Craig recognized the Celtic motif. Looking further he noticed that the knots were all inherently different. He dimly recalled a seminar back in Ohio: Knot theory, conceptually pretty but useless. These knots were useful as they created an image that was beautiful at a visual and at a mathematical level.
Certain lines were thicker than others. There was more. Craig's mind went through a gestalt phase shift and he saw another pattern in the image. Letters appeared semi-hidden by the pattern. They spelled: Anselm Malloy.
A different voice said, "Come in."
Craig dithered. He had just arrived on campus and he didn't want to do anything wrong or make anyone mad. He stood there suspended between the forces of the two voices' commands.
"You've lost anyway, Jon." Then the voice was louder. "Come in."
Craig didn't hear a second "go away" so he went in.
Two men sat on opposite sides of Dr. Malloy's desk. Between them was a sheet of cream colored plastic with a green pattern silk-screened upon it. Craig studied the sheet and the objects arrayed upon it.
"Which color is Jon?"
"He's right. You're screwed."
A man in a white lab coat looked at Craig. "You're sure."
"I said you should go away," the man in the lab coat growled. Craig was horrified and it showed. "All right, I'll leave him for you." The man got up from his seat and left. On his way out he winked at Craig.
"Sit down, lad. Are you here to play chess with an old Irishman?" Blue eyes hinted at suppressed mischief.
"I, uh, no. Are you Dr. Malloy?"
"I'm either Anselm Malloy or a chess player looking for a game." Dr. Malloy pulled out a cloth bag and started putting the chess pieces away. While he did Craig sized up the office. There was a complete lack of clutter. Picking up chessmen, Dr. Malloy made small talk with Craig. Dr. Malloy spoke with a decidedly Irish accent. It was not the accent of the angry men Craig had seen on the news in conjunction with the Protestant insurgency of the northern counties of United Ireland. This voice was descended of the druids: advisors of kings.
At last Dr. Malloy picked up the plastic chessboard revealing Craig's resume underneath.
The interview went into the details of what Craig wanted to study: a brain-computer interface. The military had done some of that a few decades back. A general in charge of a few millions of dollars worth of Reagan military build-up had seen a Clint Eastwood movie.
The idea just did not work. A transcendental meditation guru could spend five minutes of concentration to flip a switch on and off. Unfortunately, another General pointedly observed that one does not engage in transcendental meditation in the middle of a dogfight. But that was twenty years past and the embarrassed General was long retired.
Craig proposed an artificial neural network that mirrored the operation of the human brain. If the net could synch up with a human brain, the network could then interface with the rest of a computer network. Simple: just build a neural network of several billion circuits and drive the neural network at a few million points of connection to neurons in the subject's brain. Each of those points would have only a few electrons' worth of energy. The invention seemed impossible, but Craig was bright and the technology of microcircuit fabrication and sensors was pretty good. Development of a prototype only required Craig to not have a life for a while.
The next year saw Craig spending all of his waking hours working out the problems of the implant, talking them over with Dr. Malloy, and chasing down his advisor's solutions. Craig adopted Anselm Malloy as a surrogate father.
Supper at the Malloys became a familiar routine for Craig. Anselm and Vicky never had any children, but they both had students. Craig's routine often involved meeting with Dr. Anselm when the afternoon got late and stomachs started growling. Craig and Dr. Anselm were fully engrossed in a problem as they entered the dining room and sat down at the table.
"The sensors won't work, there is not enough energy to drive the circuits," Dr. Malloy chided Craig.
"Would you please pass the potatoes?" asked the woman that Craig hadn't noticed.
"We move the sensors closer to the signal source."
"Here's the gravy, Dolores," Vicky offered.
"You'd have to open up the skull, put the sensors inside, and run a few million leads out to the neural network."
"No, we install the neural network inside the skull!" Craig was looking wide-eyed at his advisor. Totally focused upon the technical issues involved. Wanting nothing more than to bring his project to closure, revolutionize the world, prove his greatness, become the alpha geek.
"Excuse me, but who exactly would be willing to have his skull opened up and have a bunch of experimental circuitry dumped in? Now, would you please pass the potatoes?"
"Yeah. It won't work." Craig slumped. Reality sucks. Slowly, something occurred to him, that last voice wasn't Dr. Anselm's. It was a woman's voice. Craig looked up, toward the voice. His eyes met two of the largest, darkest eyes he'd ever seen. The higher regions of Craig's brain quit working. Who is this wonderful creature?
"Keep working on it. Make the device smaller, maybe something will come along to solve the sensor problem," Dr. Anselm said.
Craig shook his head as if to clear it. His mouth worked but his mind wasn't connected to it. "But even if we solve the sensor problem, we would still have to rely on conventional output devices." Craig's eyes were locked with those of a beautiful woman who seemed to want something from him.
"Well?" she said.
"Well, what?" He gazed into her eyes, transfixed.
Anselm noticed the disruption in the pattern of the conversation and looked up. He met Vicky's eyes and saw laughter there. He was confused, but after a bit he understood and started to smile.
"Are you being rude or are you merely incredibly stupid?"
"Sure. Would you like some?" Craig fumbled the bowl of mashed potatoes and somehow managed to tip over his glass spilling its contents into her lap.
Anselm started snickering.
"Dolores, let me help you with that." The women left the room.
"That was Dolores Sanchez. Vicky is giving her violin lessons. I must admit you've managed to make quite an impression young man."
Reality really sucks, Craig thought.
The worst day of Craig Stephenson's life began when the phone rang. Craig looked at the time. It was 6:30am Monday morning. Craig's habit had been to work until 4:00am and to arise as late as permissible.
"Mr. Stephenson?" The woman's voice was familiar, but not identifiable by a sleep-fogged brain.
"Anselm, he's..." she said nothing more and began sobbing.
Craig's body began dumping fight-or-flight hormones into his bloodstream. His sleepy mi came on-line like a light. Craig's IQ jumped 30 points by virtue of increased blood flow alone. Craig recognized Vicky's voice and felt immediate concern for his mentor.
"Mrs. Malloy, what's happened?"
Craig grabbed his cell phone next to his wallet on the nightstand. "Did you call emergency?" He reached for his jeans from the end of the bed.
"I'll call. I'm on my way." He hung up. Craig pulled on his jeans and grabbed his cell phone. He punched 9-1-1 and started running, phone in hand.
The dispatcher answered. Craig told him to where to send an ambulance as he ran across campus to Dr. Malloy's house. He arrived at the same time as the ambulance, held the door for the med-tech and followed her in.
Dr. Malloy was collapsed next to his treadmill. The gal from the ambulance started working on him. Craig's concern for Anselm demanded he do something for him. Craig just stood there. Helpless. Useless. Dammit.
He heard a rustling of silk beside him. Here was something he could do. Turning, he opened his arms, and hugged Vicky Malloy. "He'll be all right. He'll be all right." Bending down he hugged her close like he had hugged his mom at his dad's funeral. How can I make it all right?