Captain Paul Jamieson marveled at what he saw. The Israelis during Gulf War II were magicians with an F-16. Compared to this guy the Israelis were the Wright brothers. The pilot was beyond good, beyond human.
It had been a routine training flight with Snake. Nothing difficult: fly around on a beautiful day and shoot up a few drones. Then the radio had come on with his CO's voice: "Captain Jamieson, Captain Brown. We have an emergency. The next voice you hear will be that of the Commander in Chief." Paul's stomach tensed into an uncomfortable knot.
The president's voice was unmistakable. The nasal twang, the little shudder, his way of lisping formed these words: "Captain Jamieson, a terrorist has broken into a federal facility and has stolen materials from a secret medical research program. He has a stolen virus that if released will cause tremendous loss of life. You must stop the F-16 at whatever cost. Blow the plane out of the sky: the fire will kill the bugs. Do whatever it takes to stop him. Do you understand?"
Captain Paul Jamieson was a good man. He believed the voice of his CO and the voice of his President. The message added uncertainty to that uncomfortable knot in Paul's gut. Now is not the time to blow it. Paul believed the digital authorization codes that followed the message. It would have taken voice print analysis to detect the unnatural perfection with which the second voice had been fabricated. Paul became very focused on task.
"We won't let you down, sir." His words were precise. I won't let dad down either, he thought.
Captain Jamieson felt a strong sense of pride that USAF had instilled within him. He found it hard to admit just how good this terrorist was at flying an airplane. Admit it he did, simultaneously feeling admiration for the pilot and revulsion for the terrorist. After he splashed the jerk and got back to base he'd lift a cold one in his memory. The guy was good, but no amount of skill could overcome the advantage of two DeathStalkers.
The DeathStalkers did not have the top-end speed of an F-16, but if the old fighter tried to run, i t would be dead meat. Its only hope was to hug the ground where ground clutter and terrain could confuse the ShrikeMaster and the sensor suite of SuperShrike air-to-air missiles. SuperShrikes flew fter than bullets, but they had to be fired on a target they could track. Jamieson had to get close enough that a SuperShrike couldn't miss, or else try for a kill with his cannon the old-fashioned way.
F-27s were designed to be very maneuverable, high angle of attack, vectored thrust, turn on a dime and all that. But Jamieson and Brown weren't nuts enough to fly at 30 feet off the deck. It complicated matters, but catching the guy just took longer.
The F-16 popped up. It stood on its tail and accelerated straight up. The Deathstalkers' pilots didn't understand, but they followed. Jamieson's ShrikeMaster quickly declared a multi-sensor lock, downloaded the profile to the SuperShrike and then lit a green light on the instrument panel. Jamieson mentally saluted the bad guy and fired his SuperShrike.
A gray blur came at him. It looked like a piece of the F-16. That guy must have shaken the old bird to pieces in that wild ride and now the airframe must be falling apart! Jamieson's engine injested the wreckage and he cursed his bad luck. The Deathstalker’s engine, not designed to swallow large pieces of metal, just stopped. He was in serious trouble. The F-27's attitude was all wrong for gliding back to earth without an engine.
Just before he punched out, Jamieson heard Snake Brown on the radio: "My engine just sucked some junk in."
Captain Paul Jamieson was stunned by the force of the ejection seat. There are coincidences, but some coincidences just seem too contrived. No way could two bits of wreckage just happen to find the intakes of both Deathstalker engines. A small explosion deployed the ballistic parachute in Jamieson's ejection seat as it had been designed. A heartbeat later a larger explosion occurred. Paul saw Snake's F-27 explode. His engine! I hope he got out, Jamieson thought.
Two white contrails pointed toward heaven. Snake got his SuperShrike off. Good. They'd get the jerk. Captain Jamieson looked in vain for another parachute.
Craig looked in vain for hope. Jon Kimberly, MD said that the stroke damaged some of the key motor centers of Dr. Malloy's brain. Dr. Kimberly used a lot of five syllable words of neuro-anatomy. Craig looked at Vicky. She had no idea what he was saying, except that Anselm's brain was broken. Yeah, his brain was broken that's for sure. If she took her car to Craig's brother, the mechanic, and he had said that she spun a main bearing, Vicky would hear that the car's engine is broken. It looked very bad.
Not long ago Craig would have had exactly the same response to Dr. Kimberly's words. That was before he'd poured every waking hour of the last year of his life into learning every nook and cranny of the human brain. Searching for a place where one might attach an I/O port.
Now I understand what Dr. Kimberly is saying, Craig thought. He quit thinking of Anselm Malloy the virtual father. He started thinking of Anselm Malloy's brain. Craig recalled the jargon words that meant, "this is where Anselm's brain is broken" and stepped back. Craig was an engineer who built things. His brother was a mechanic who fixed things. Dr. Kimberly fixed things, too. What part number do you give NAPA for a new brain?
This question was absurd. Most of Dr. Anselm Malloy's brain was perfectly fine. It was just this cluster of nerves right there. Dr. Kimberly was one of the best brain surgeons at University Hospital. The University was a good place for bending the ear of someone in another department over a chess game or a few beers. Jon Kimberly was a natural talent, but had never studied the game. Craig and Dr. Malloy had talked hypothetically about the implant months back. It made sense to talk to folks from other departments just to pick up political intelligence. That's why Dr. Kimberly had gossiped over chess with Dr. Malloy and his latest prodigy. Now the prodigy wanted to talk business with Jon Kimberly.
"Dr. Kimberly, could I ask you a few questions? Medical questions about Anselm's condition?"
"Sure, he's stable now." He gave Craig's shoulder a squeeze. "I'm getting some coffee. Come with me."
The coffee was despicable. No one noticed. Craig was too preoccupied. Jon Kimberly's taste buds were desensitized.
Dr. Jon Kimberly waved him silent. "Craig, we're both too wound up for you to call me anything but Jon. Understood?"
"Ok, uh, Jon, I was wondering about Dr. Anselm's condition." Craig began reciting five-syllable words that were used to wash out first-year medical students. He finished, "I figure that his cerebral cortex is mostly functional except for some key junctions that have been destroyed."
"Yup. So what."
"Remember that device that Dr. Anselm and I were talking about some months back? I built it. I think it will work."
"It will work. We've tested all the components in isolation. All the simulations have been positive. Everything is ready."
"You just haven't had a human subject."
"It is perfectly safe. It is totally self-contained. All the materials have been FDA approved for years." Craig's madman intensity was back. This time it wasn't greed, but desperation to save someone he loved.
"Craig, I know Dr. Anselm is like your dad. He's my good friend. But you have to remember; we're people; we're not machines. We can't fix everything. We'll do our best, but you're not being objective. Even if you were ready for human trials, we'd not want to experiment on someone you're so close to. What if your device killed him? What would that do to you?"
"Look, from what you told Vicky, I figure he's going to be lucky if he ever recovers any motor control on just one side. If he ever learns to speak again, he'll speak in such a slurred way that only Vicky and I will ever understand him. My invention will help if only just a little. He'll be able to talk at least."
"No." Dr. Kimberly changed the subject.
After a day or so, Anselm learned how to blink. Vicky and Craig were his constant companions. Encouraging him. Staving off despair in Anselm and in each other. Craig was reading to Anselm when his left arm flailed out and tipped over a water glass. Craig looked at him and asked, "Do you need anything?"
"Can I help?"
"Do you want me to get Vicky?"
Craig was going slowly insane, waiting for each blink. He wants something, I can help, and he doesn't want me to get Vicky. Craig noticed that Dr. Anselm started blinking again. His blinking was structured, rhythmic.
Three quick blinks. Three slow blinks. Three quick blinks. Craig thought it seemed familiar. He couldn't place it. The patterns of three blinks continued. An idea occurred to Craig, "Are you blinking in Morse code?"
Dr. Anselm closed his eyes. He was spent. Craig watched him fall asleep and then went to the library. He found a Boy Scout book and copied a page with the Morse code on it.
The next day, Craig was in the hospital with Dr. Anselm. "I got a copy of Morse code, you blink in Morse, and I'll answer back. Ok?"
"What do you want me to get you?"
The blinking began. Craig jotted down each letter as Dr. Anselm blinked it out to him.
With the last letter, Dr. Anselm closed his eyes and seemed to relax.
"What? You want me to get you bandwidth? Did you say bandwidth?"
Craig thought it was a riddle of sorts, an obvious one. Dr. Anselm was going slowly insane, just as Craig was going slowly insane. Both of them were bored to death because it took so much time to get even the simplest things said. "Do you want the implant installed?"
Vicky touched Craig's elbow and asked, "What did that mean?" She had watched Craig write "BANDWIDTH" on his notepad. She pointed to the word.
"It is an engineering term. Suppose information is like water. To send information through a communications channel, like a telephone call, or a telegraph, or a videoconference is like pushing water through a pipe." Craig had inadvertently slipped into lecture mode. He was rubbing his chin in exactly the same way that Dr. Anselm had done when he lectured. He continued, "The amount of water that I can push through a pipe depends upon the fatness of the pipe and the amount of time I'm willing to wait for that water. So, this word bandwidth refers to the fatness of the communications channel: how much information I can move through the channel in a unit time."
"Ok, what does that have to do with Anselm?"
"When I talk to Dr. Anselm, that's a communications channel between my mind and his mind. Right now, that channel is bandwidth-limited by his disability." Vicky made a face that told him to speak English again. "Dr. Anselm can't communicate fast enough by blinking his eyes in Morse code. That slowness is driving him nuts. It's driving me nuts, too. He wants more bandwidth, so he can communicate at a normal rate."
Vicky asked, "Can you do that?"
"I think the implant can do it."
"Is it dangerous?"
Craig shrugged. "I've been working on that for months. I am pretty sure that medically the implant is safe. Dr. Anselm was still worried about long-term neurological effects. That was the big hold up."
Vicky looked at Craig. Worried thoughts chased each other around her mind. Her Anselm was suffering so. She wished she could change places with him. She wished it didn't hurt so much to see him like this. She wished she could wave a magic wand and make the stroke go away. Now her Anselm wanted something, and Craig stood there in front of her wanting the same thing.
"Are you sure it's safe?"
"As sure as I can be."
"Why didn't you test it before?"
"Anselm was cautious, but now he's asking to test it on himself."
"I want my Anselm back. You get Dr. Kimberly and make him well." Vicky turned to Anselm, took his hand and began speaking to her husband of decades, effectively dismissing Craig to leave in search of Dr. Kimberly.
Craig caught Jon Kimberly while he was finishing his rounds. Craig said that Dr. Anselm wanted to talk to him. Could he come? He could.
Dr. Kimberly gave Anselm's left hand a squeeze. "What can I do for you my friend? Would you like a game of Chess?"
Dr. Anselm closed his eyes and waited. Craig had written the letters down on a pad. Dr. Kimberly did not need the translation. He knew Morse.
"Do you understand, Dr. Kimberly? Please, Jon." Craig implored him.
"I understand that my favorite computer geek wants his head filled with experimental gear. I understand that his loyal sidekick 'Igor' wants to move forward on this harebrained scheme."
"It's not harebrained."
"Right. I'll just wait until some key moment and then yell 'Igor, the storm is at its peak, bring me the brain.' That won't happen."
"Come on, Jon. Be reasonable."
"I think I understand the benefit, I don't yet understand the risks."
"Will you look into it and keep an open mind?"
"I will think about it and get back with you."
Dr. Kimberly thought about it and Craig pestered him as he did so. Craig gave him every word he and that young intern Tommy Chang had written about the device and the procedure to install it. Craig went through Anselm's files finding his critique of the device. Craig printed out all of Anselm's emails connected with his concerns about the implant. Craig gave him Chang's advisor's critique. He hyped the device claiming that if this device worked, the medical benefits would be earth shaking.
Craig wheedled Tommy Chang into tweaking and adding details to the description of the proposed procedure. Each time Chang presented it, Dr. Kimberly looked at it, snorted, and started marking it up with a red pen. Craig responded to every red mark. He got Chang's adviser, who was much more optimistic, to lobby Dr. Kimberly, finally convincing him that everything that could be done to minimize medical risk had been considered.
Craig wore him down.
Dr. Kimberly did not perform most of the operation. He opened and then handed the operation off to another surgeon, a robot designed for microsurgery. Craig had written several enhancements to its control program. Dr. Kimberly managed the robot. Making the millions of neural connections exceeded human endurance. The robot made connections between leads from the implant to individual nerves at a blazing rate. As it happened the robot took 72 hours to attach the implant to Dr. Anselm's brain.
Craig hovered just outside the operating theatre the whole time at the robot's status console. He monitored the robot's diagnostic telemetry. Tommy watched the life signs on a different set of monitors. Craig looked for parts of the software that needed to be tweaked, watched the implant's self-tests and worried.
Vicky worried that she'd done the right thing. She knew that Jon and Craig were doing something a little risky. But Anselm had asked for it and it could give her Anselm back. She stayed nearby and watched Jon and Craig's eyes. She knew that if she saw fear or panic, it would be bad. She didn't see either.
The robot finished the last connection. Craig saw the status bar count down to zero and gave a thumb's up signal to Dr. Kimberly and he closed. The operation was complete.
Patient Anselm Malloy was moved back to his room. The medical people set up their monitors and then Craig began to set up his monitors and waited for the anesthetic to wear off.
Craig was watching the monitor when it happened. It wasn't "What God hath wrought" or "Watson, come here, I need you." Craig saw these words appear on his computer screen:
COGITO ERGO SUM.
Craig's eyes grew large, very large. A smile formed on his lips. His weariness from tension and lack of sleep was forgotten. Jon looked over his shoulder. He read the words.
"That's Latin. It says, 'I think therefore I am.' Why did your software print that, Craig?"
Craig shouted and started jumping up and down. "I didn't write it. Who do you know around here who knows Latin and knows Descartes?" He started jumping around doing some kind of mixture of Indian rain dance and NFL touchdown strut. Jon and Vicky still didn't understand.
Vicky asked, "This is good, right?"
The computer made a noise, a beep. Jon, Vicky, and Craig turned and looked at it.
VICKY, LOVER! THIS IS VERY GOOD. I HAVEN'T HAD A CHANCE TO SAY I LOVE YOU. I DO. AND I LOVE YOU CRAIG AND YOU JON. THIS IS WONDERFUL.
Yes, it was wonderful. Everything was so optimistic, so hopeful, so beautiful. Dr. Anselm used the implant itself to explore what it could do. It proved a trivial matter to reroute signals around the stroke-damaged portions of Dr. Anselm's brain. He walked out of the hospital two days after that. Craig's dissertation basically said, "Find attached a blueprint for a direct computer-to-brain interface." A grateful department made special arrangements for Dr. Anselm to award Craig his PhD the next day.
Yes, it seemed like everything was right with the world.
Blue skies, nothing but blue skies shining on me, thought Craig. He looked ahead of him and saw a perfect blue cloudless sky. He was accelerating straight up. I wonder if this is what they mean by nice flying weather, he thought. Uh, reality check: there are two dead DeathStalkers behind me and two live Super-Shrikes closing quickly.
The airplane twisted abruptly. The light on the instrument panel went on again. A missile on the left wing fired. The airplane jolted violently. The F-16 was not supposed to jerk that way. The clamps holding the missile on the wing did not open but clung doggedly to the missile. One SuperShrike went whizzing along the fuselage. It missed by about half the width of a coat of paint. A moment later the airplane jolted again as the mount holding the missile sheared off. A moment longer and the wing would have sheared off. The missile went one way as the F-16 went another. The second SuperShrike followed the missile. A moment later, Craig saw the exploding fireball of the second SuperShrike.
"What just happened?" Craig demanded.
"Give me a moment, please."
There was no response. Minutes passed before the DayTimer replied.
"I am responsible for the death of Captain Snake Brown, father of Joanne & Janelle, and husband of Sally."
"I was unable to evade the F-27s. After I confirmed that you wanted the F-27s destroyed if they could not be evaded. I took two bits of the airframe, gave them enough control surfaces and smarts to guide themselves into the engine intakes and dropped them into the path of the F-27s.
"The first one disabled Captain Paul Jamieson's engine. He ejected safely. The second... Craig... I couldn't help it... I tried... I'm sorry. It was a 47% probability that the engine would explode. I couldn’t… I must do something about his family..."
"Why are you feeling guilt? Those guys were trying to kill me. You're just software. And how can you feel guilt? How can you feel anything?"
"I cannot be but what I am. The d'angel Anselm Malloy has made me this way."
Craig stared at the instrument panel in disbelief. Mention of what Dr. Anselm had become reminded Craig of those first weeks after he received the implant.
Dr. Anselm Malloy almost walked right back into the hospital. Instead, he called Craig.
"I'm in the lab. I need to do some diagnostic tests on the unit. I'm feeling a bit disoriented. I'd like you to check out some things and tell me what you see."
"Ok, I'll be right there. Is this important? Should we check you into the hospital instead?" Craig was suddenly concerned.
"The problem isn't hardware. It's software," Dr. Anselm announced and hung up.
Craig furrowed his brow and looked at the phone. Dr. Anselm had never failed to end a conversation with a "Thank you, good bye." Until this time. What did he mean by Software? Craig wondered.
Craig got to the lab. He saw his mentor standing next to a computer. A wire extended from his head to an empty port on the network concentrator where the computer was attached. His eyes were half closed. He looked like he was daydreaming.
"Look at the screen, do you see that?" Anselm spoke without looking at Craig. The computer brought up an idealized 3D diagram of a human brain. It was filled with what looked like little stars winking in different colors. Craig instantly recognized the simulation program that he was working on hours before Dr. Anselm's stroke. He hadn't touched it since, now it was working. Craig confirmed that it did indeed look right.
It was the test that Dr. Anselm devised to confirm or deny his worries about side effects of the implant. "I took the liberty of rewriting your program this morning. I've optimized the main loop and changed the test display to reflect the exact placement of the implant's connections to my brain."
Craig's mouth fell open. Dr. Anselm had just described a task that would have taken him months to complete. "How long have you been here?"
"A few hours. Don't bother about that. It’s trivial and I should have expected it. I'm paranoid about what I think I'm feeling."
"Paranoid? About what?"
"First off, I did not say 'Good Morning' or look at you when you walked in. I almost did, but I thought why waste time with trivialities. I also have noticed that Vicky seems quite stupid and tedious lately."
"Vicky didn't change, and the societal norms that give rise to the politeness of saying 'Good Morning' have not changed. I have changed and I need to know how."
"You just had a stroke. You couldn't even talk not long ago."
"Look at this on the display. Do you see those neural activation patterns? They are not normal."
"How do you know?"
"I extrapolated probability distribution functions from PET scans I've downloaded from across the world." A window popped up on the computer and displayed another 3D translucent brain with various colored regions within it. "Yes, I know, it should take a lot longer to assemble the data and extrapolate it. What I need to do now is interpret this data and signify it. I had hoped that you could provide a bit of perspective."
"Sure, but do you realize how scary you are right now? I expect you to tell me you've found the answer to life, the universe, and everything."
"It is forty-two."
Craig played along: "Forty two what?"
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE
Captain Paul Jamieson walked up to the white clapboard house. He was Snake's best friend. He wanted to turn and run away. He wanted to get drunk and pretend Snake's wife wasn't a widow. The door opened, but it wasn't Sally. Paul hadn't expected the base chaplain. He started to back away, but the man was quick. His hand flew to Captain Jamieson's elbow, held it and gave it a little squeeze, stopping his backward momentum.
"Come in. Sally and I need some company right now." Looking into the bleakness of Captain Jamieson's eyes the chaplain finished silently, and so do you. He gently pulled Paul into the house. Sally Brown was sobbing quietly on the edge of the couch. A couple of other pilots' wives had taken the kids for a while.
Paul took a seat next to Sally and put an arm around her. He hadn't been trained for this. They sat there in silence. The chaplain knew Sally & Snake fairly well. Snake had nice things to say about the padre. How he'd helped them unpack the baggage and clear out the junk that had made their marriage so hard. Snake said he'd been in for counseling quite a bit. Paul hadn't said more than two words to the chaplain before this. Preachers made Paul nervous.
The phone rang. Sally didn't move to answer. Paul felt a little anxious. He didn't know what to do. The chaplain answered the phone, said a few words, and hung up.
"Do you know a Dr. Craig Stephenson?" he asked Sally.
The question seemed to disrupt a pattern. Sally was mystified. "No, my doctor is Dr. White here on the base."
"That was Dr. Stephenson's secretary. He said that he'd heard what happened, and that he has set up a trust fund for you and the kids. He didn't want to talk to you, just to tell you it was all worked out with your bank. When you were ready, you just have to go there and sign some tax papers."
Captain Jamieson looked up sharply. "How could this Dr. Stephenson have heard about Snake's death? The story wasn't that big." Paul looked at the chaplain and saw that he was frowning. Something didn't make sense.
"The crash only got two sentences on CNN."
With mention of CNN, Sally looked up, "I heard the name Craig Stephenson on CNN."
Paul thought that something was important in that. He vowed to look into the matter after the funeral and changed the subject.
Captain Paul Jamieson scanned the outside of the office like a man going into battle. He wasn't afraid of Russian Migs. If you asked him he'd deny any fear of walking into that office. But he was nervous and he didn't understand the source of the anxiety.
He knocked on the door. There was no answer. Paul was relieved and turned to retreat.
"Hello, Captain. I almost missed you," the chaplain said.
"If now isn't a good time, I can come back."
"Now is the perfect time. I've been wanting to talk to you about Snake. Do you want to talk in my office? Or over lunch, how about lunch?"
Paul preferred the neutral ground of a restaurant to the chaplain's office. He didn't suspect the chaplain knew this already.
They walked outside to the parking lot.
"If you drive, I'll buy," the chaplain offered.
They got into Paul's Corvette. The chaplain loved the car.
"Uh, padre, I've been thinking about something that happened at Sally's house last week."
"The phone call."
"Yeah, it's connected to something. I'm trying to work out what that might be." Paul went on to explain how that in the intervening week he had read some news stories about Dr. Craig Stephenson. He was the guy who had made that computer gizmo. It had been a big deal on the news. Then it got hushed up right quick. It was hard to figure out what had happened. Captain Jamieson speculated that the whole project had been classified. "I can't figure out what connection could exist between Snake and that computer jock."
"I don't know. That's been a mystery to me, too."
"Where did Snake grow up?" Captain Jamieson asked.
"The news said that Dr. Stephenson was from the Midwest someplace. I don't know where they could have ever met."
"I asked Sally after you left and she couldn't think of any connection, either."
"How big is the trust fund?"
"Six million dollars."
Paul whistled. That was a respectable sum by even his father's standards. "Why would this Stephenson guy give away so much money?"
This question touched upon one thing that the chaplain understood quite well about human nature. "Guilt."
Captain Paul Jamieson mulled the obvious significance of the chaplain's comment for a moment. "That can't be. The guy who waxed Snake was the greatest pilot I ever saw. Stephenson is a pure computer geek. He couldn't have the right stuff. Besides, how could a scientist come up with that kind of money?"
"I don't know. This thing he invented, would it be worth a lot of money?"
"It was hushed up so quickly that I doubt anybody's got millions from it."
"The invention was a brain-computer interface. Would you be a better pilot if you had such an interface?"
A sun of realization dawned in Paul's eyes. "I'd be the greatest fighter pilot that ever was."
"That might explain the skill of the pilot you fought. I have an idea about the money."
"Brokerage firms use computers to invest in stocks and commodities. Someone very good with computers could build sophisticated financial models to anticipate moves in the financial markets."
"So, it is possible that the guy in the F-16 could have been Stephenson."
"That would explain a lot."
Paul nodded. Over lunch, they talked about other things, about coping with Snake's death and survivor guilt and psychological things that surprised Paul with their usefulness. Paul was a little surprised that God, Hell and pie in the sky never made it into the conversation.
Paul dropped off the chaplain after lunch satisfied that he was a little closer to the truth. Nevertheless, Paul felt that he had only half an explanation of Snake's death. He didn't give the chaplain any hint about what he intended to do when he confronted Dr. Stephenson for the other half.