Copyright © 2017, author
All rights reserved. No
part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any
means, electronic or mechanical, including but not limited to
photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval
systems, without written permission of the author, except where
permitted by law.
reworked version of author’s previously published title The
Stratosphere: The Birth of Nostradamus. All
copyright in the previous work is owned by the author.
All characters in this
work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead
is purely coincidental.
Cover adapted from artwork
by Tithi Luadthong, licensed by Shutterstock.
Dedicated to EC one and
two and of course Harriett and Khrystyne.
1 – Wilde Rises
2 – Desolation
3 – Preparations
4 – Harvard
5 – An Old Man’s Dream
6 – Sing Club
7 – The Spy
8 – The Purchaser
9 – Skyscraper
10 – The Governor
11 – Sentient Risk
12 – The Road to Waltham
13 – Starvation
14 – Bandits
15 – Poisoned
16 – Rescue
17 – The Return
18 – A White Flag
19 – Hallucination
20 – The Coup
21 – Three Possibilities
22 – Prison Break
23 – Finding an Edge
24 – Public Execution
25 – Reinforcements
26 – Untapped Power
27 – Table Talk
28 – Surgical Defense
29 – River Crossing
30 – Frozen
31 – Ghost Town
32 – Fire
33 – Slaughter
34 – Allston Celebrates
35 – Chocolate
36 – Awakening
37 – Dead Tank
38 – Khaki Fields
39 – Gunfight
40 – Know Your Enemy
41 – Puzzle
42 – Eastern Lights
43 – Predator
44 – Escape from New York
45 – Chopper Attack
46 – Escape from Allston
47 – Injection
48 – Radiation Signs
49 – The Birth of Nostradamus
50 – Empathy Bomb
51 – Daisy
– Electronic copy of CIA documents
Chapter 1 – Wilde Rises
April 1, 2027,
8:20 a.m. – PedCom headquarters, Queens, New York
Wilde stood from her chair, leaned over the boardroom table, and
slammed down her fist. “Enough!”
dozen middle-aged men surrounded her, separated by six yards of
polished mahogany. Reactions to Katharine’s outburst differed. Some
gazed at their paperwork, pretending to thumb through notes and
briefs, while others’ eyes darted as they surveyed their suited
comrades with uncertainty. A few mumbled.
one man showed respect. He nodded to her. She briefly caught his eye,
and looked away. “We’re going in circles. The board elected me to
wasn’t unanimous,” grumbled a stocky old man.
we vote again?” Katharine said.
boxers in the tense moments before the bell, they stared each other
down. Ready for the fight, Katharine stood in one corner.
or wrong, she believed power rested on collective perception. Image
mattered. The previous evening, the same as thousands before, she
rehearsed her body language in the mirror. With precision achieved
through relentless repetition, she developed an arsenal of decisive
but undramatic movements. She’d then practice her elocution, with a
deeper but natural voice. Every action designed to shift attention
from her shape to her mind. At twenty-six years old, Katharine had to
fight for respect. So each night she trained for battle.
contradictions defined her. She cultivated this. Her thin muscular
frame implied energy. Yet, her suit’s straight lines dislodged
scrutiny from curves that flowed beneath the fabric like firm, ripe
fruit. An emerald glint in her outfit’s herringbone weave hinted
style, without being conspicuous. Soft curls of blonde hair
straightened and dyed into a jet-black bob. A sharp fringe framed a
sharp mind. She projected distinction that evaded description. A
temporary distraction, lodged in the subconscious, registered as
faint difference. People remembered her, though they didn’t know
opposite corner, a stocky man in his late fifties perched in his
black leather chair. He sported a thick mop of gray hair raked back
in slick waves. Creases lined his broad face, worn like business
battle medals. An oversized ring hugged his index finger, the gold
rubbed thin from years of clinking against whiskey-filled glasses.
spoke with the air of arrogance born from decades of unchallenged
authority. “No. But that doesn’t give you free rein. You report
to the board. Not the opposite. Five board members don’t want you.
Six think you’re the best worst choice. Only one gives you their
full support. We all know why.” The man turned and glared at the
person seated at the table’s end, Professor Igan.
sat, attention fixed on the stocky man. “I’m here now. Adjust.”
Her expression relaxed. “Look, this discussion is pointless. PedCom
is close to bankruptcy. If we don’t accept responsibility, we might
as well go home.”
hesitation, the men conceded. The stocky man yielded last.
blame. I don't care who's responsible. But to succeed, we must
understand our failure’s root cause. This requires we park our
egos. If we can't, we’re finished.” Katharine’s voice
previously silent old man reacted. He scowled at the Marketing
Director. “Well if salaries reflected competency—”
interrupted, “Stop. We can’t do this …”
followed. The boardroom table stretched ahead like a great ocean that
separated her from her team. Their complaints rose in waves, the
sting of cold salt spray of a violent sea. She felt them drift away.
They bobbed and bounced in their own worlds. Their defensiveness
widened the distance, forcing them over water dark and deep. It
seemed hopeless. The situation threatened to drown her.
a painful silence, a hawkish old man threw her a life ring. “The
Stratosphere is boring.”
turned to the man. Brows furrowed and eyes narrowed. Businessmen
aren’t immune to ignoring inconvenient truths. In fact, many would
win a gold medal in self-denial. No one wishes to hear their life’s
efforts amounted to rubbish.
hawkish man delivered a four-word message that summed their failure's
essence. A few answered with grunts. Others snorted or waved their
hands, as if dismissing a fool.
true,” Professor Igan responded. “I’ve more ego invested in
this product than everyone. I created the Stratosphere and the
StratSuits. It was my dream, not yours. If I can admit failure, so
can you. The Stratosphere is boring. That’s the problem we must
younger old-man crossed his arms. “Nonsense. When users wear the
StratSuit, the simulation smells, tastes, looks, and behaves so
realistically, it’s indistinguishable from reality. And unlike
reality, they’re completely free. How can this be boring?”
said, “That’s precisely the problem.”
The StratSuit?” he mocked.
Marketing Director snorted in agreement. “Yes, our quandary is
we’ve created a perfect wearable electronic fabric that seamlessly
integrates users with an immersive digital virtual reality system.”
Katharine said, “The issue isn’t the suit. It’s the
Stratosphere itself. The Strat’s geography is too sterile. The
streets are spotless, the buildings all immaculate palaces, the
waters crystal clear. People wonder at the technological marvel. But
wonderment soon fades. Only light and shade can keep their interest.
The Strat is all sun, no darkness. Users find it pointless after the
novelty wears off.”
do you suggest? Make the digital streets dirty?”
ignored the snide comment. “The Strat’s economic viability
requires two changes. We must create artificial scarcity and
last words provoked strong reactions. Everyone spoke together. She
clenched her jaw, looked down, and waited. Her eyes shot up first,
followed by her head. She yelled, “One at a time.”
can’t be serious. Erase anonymity? No one would use the Strat
destroy anonymity. Users’ physical appearance will determine their
digital one. When they log onto the Strat, I want their virtual spawn
point to mirror their plug in location. The Strat must contain no
form of social media. Demolish anything people can hide behind. No
message boards, texts, blogs, Facebook, Twitter … Nothing.”
crazy. For six months, we’ve worked fourteen hours a day on the
Facebook contract. Should we throw this away?” The General Counsel
shook his head and turned bright red. “Let me do my job. By next
year we’ll have a virtual Facebook presence in the Strat.”
media will never deliver us a dime in profit,” Katharine said.
man’s pitch rose as he argued. “You’d discard the social media
business model, a billion dollar juggernaut? And you plan to replace
it with what?”
herself to remain calm, she took in a subtle breath. “It’s like
we invented a teleportation system, and we’re discussing where to
attach the wheels. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, it’s all
two-dimensional. We’ve created a five-dimensional space. Three
physical dimensions, a time dimension, and a creative dimension.”
dimension? What the hell is a creative dimension? You’re joking?”
old men mocked her with laughter.
face flushed. “Am I laughing? Virtual reality isn’t bound by
physics. Time, space, imagination, all those things have suddenly
grown. We must expand our mind to take advantage of this opportunity.
I’m not here to rival social media. That’d be folly. I aim to
replace the old world in its entirety. Then social media can compete
with us and fail.”
then. I’ll humor you. What is your big plan?” the stocky man
understood she had one shot to convince them. “Pretend you were
fourteen again. You and your friends wandered into a deserted
industrial estate filled with abandoned warehouses. Your buddies
throw rocks at the windows. They encourage you to join. At first,
you’re frightened. You know it’s wrong. But that’s what makes
it so fun. The sound of shattered skylights is irresistible. Imagine
there are hectares of empty buildings. How long would you hurl
stones? An hour, a week, a month? Eventually, even the most die-hard
vandal will lose interest. Without enforcement, breaking rules
men didn’t speak. A glint of new possibilities reflected in their
eyes. Their minds reached beyond self-preservation, dislodged by a
question that appealed to their intelligence.
searched their faces, willing them closer. “Removing anonymity
creates consequence, consequence creates purpose, and purpose will
transform users' experience into something meaningful.”
all sounds wonderful in theory. But what does it mean practically?”
tone became deeper, firmer. “Rules and form are critical. We need
two worlds in the Stratosphere. The first world replicates the real
world brick-for-brick, house-for-house, road-for-road, city-for-city.
you describe the current Strat, albeit free of cleaners.”
laughed except Professor Igan.
me finish.” Katharine barked. She stared until they hushed. “The
second world orbits the first world. In this world, people express
themselves however they want, fulfill any desire. They can consume
counseling, games, movies—”
already have this, in reality. Hell, every survey and focus group
returns the same result. They consider the Strat an expensive poor
substitute for reality.”
Katharine said, “if you nail your imagination to yesterday. What do
people crave? Reality? No! They want fame and fortune. Don't sit
clients in virtual cinemas. Transform them into film stars.”
tried already. The complexity outstrips our programmers’
capabilities. Five minutes into the movie and the script's
probability parameters spiral into infinity. We can make people
passengers in electronic acting. That’s all.”
her face reddened. “We can do much better. In the 1970s, quiz show
producers realized they didn’t require complex questions or even
smart contestants. They just needed big prizes. Similarly, intricate
screenplays are unnecessary. We only need to create virtual
characters that cater to people’s psychological needs.”
can’t empathize with computers.”
Katharine raised her voice again. “Rubbish! Ever heard of ELIZA?”
course,” the old man said and slapped the table. Blood rushed to
you should understand it takes little to connect emotionally with
computers. Individuals compete, they judge, they half-listen. A
StratBot won’t jockey for consumers’ ego needs. They’ll give
all and expect nothing. Mark my words, people will fall in love with
you proposing to create SexBots?” the hawkish man asked.
it takes to get you laid,” said Katharine, her voice deadpan.
ice cracked. Almost everyone chuckled.
hawkish old man added, “Count me in!”
your wife has been too busy with me to keep you happy!” the stocky
man replied. The two were good friends. Both laughed until they
the mood lightened, progress became possible. “We must widen our
view. Then you'll see the opportunities are limitless.” She made
eye contact with the stocky man. “Take tertiary education, for
example. Instead of creating clunky online courses, we build virtual
universities where students learn from a digital Einstein, Plato,
Martin Luther King, Freud … anyone we imagine. Why would pupils
crowd into sweaty lecture halls, or log onto lonely web seminars,
when StratBots can meet all their learning and emotional needs?”
old man who’d teetered silently on sleep’s edge for hours, sprang
to life as if startled. “StratBots?” He wiped dribble from his
characters, digital personalities; all individually tailored to every
participant’s psychology,” she replied without a hint of
stocky man snorted at the sleepy man, and the remainder stopped
flicking through their papers and phones, and leaned forward.
on. We’re listening,” the stocky man said.
need the right structure to generate profits. Sales require scarcity.
Digital tourism can only deliver income if we control movement and
real estate.” She gave the men a chance to respond.
stocky man held her gaze. His face relaxed. He stopped twisting his
ring. “Keep going.”
I said, two worlds are essential. One replicates the real world
exactly. It provides an emotional bridge between reality and fantasy.
We’ll give Google exclusive rights to build and draw income from
that’s potentially billions in advertising revenue,” said the
and intellectual property are lint in our pockets. We have zero
leverage. Let them establish their perfect virtual Google Earth. The
second virtual world is the gold mine.”
in this second world? Not that it matters. We don’t have the money
to build this either.”
agree,” Katharine said. “So we create the framework, virtual real
estate and StratBots. We construct the building-blocks, and
businesses then utilize them to populate the Stratosphere. They can
brand and use the StratBots however they wish. Let them become
digital pimps for all I care.” She winked at the hawkish man, and
continued. “Manufacturing shortage is the key. For example, we
limit participants’ speeds to fifty miles per hour, with shuttles
in the second world that travel at six thousand miles per hour. If we
allow people to go wherever they want instantaneously, they’ll soon
become bored. The act of choosing a destination will create scarcity.
In doing so, it’ll turn a trip into an expedition. It’ll also
provide additional profits.”
laughed. Some rapped their knuckles on the table and shouted, “Hear,
hear.” The stocky man clapped his hands.
gave a subtle appreciative nod. “We’ll draw consumers into the
Strat by delivering experiences not even limited by their own
board cheered Katharine again. It appeared she might deliver them
from financial ruin.
should we call this second world in the Strat?”
Utopia, of course,” Katharine said.
elicited more approval.
men listened as she outlined her vision for transforming the
Stratosphere. By the meeting’s end, the afternoon sun warmed the
one, they shook her hand, offered advice and congratulations, and
departed. Eventually the space fell silent, leaving her alone to
reflect on the day’s success. After twelve hours negotiating and
fighting, more than anything, she wanted to look outside.
she pulled back the blinds. Natural light flooded the boardroom.
Unlike modern towers, the old ten-story stone building had sliding
windows. The heavy wooden frame resisted, squeaked complaints, but
rose. A breeze entered, the faint smell of stale exhaust and
fermented rubbish. Still an improvement on air-conditioning.
peered out the window to the bustling city. Below, she watched a
young boy in a florescent red top buy a hotdog from the street
vendor. He bit into one and clutched the second dog awkwardly.
Without looking, he dashed into the traffic. Horns blared, and he
retreated to the sidewalk.
taxis lurched along the boulevard, where they wove and honked. The
boy ran to the crossing and raced across the road as the lights
changed, past shoppers and office workers. He vanished behind shop
awnings on the road’s opposite side. A minute later, he reappeared
outside a vacant block, cleared for a new high-rise. He pushed
through a gap in the chain fence, cut a diagonal path over the empty
building site, and exited at the far end. There he crossed another
street, to a bright park, where a woman greeted him with a big hug.
She handed him a soccer ball, and he gave her the hotdog. They turned
for the entrance. Shortly after, they disappeared under a giant oak
tree’s lush canopy. A million wavy-edged green leaves swayed in the
light breeze, miniature swells on a larger sea.
smiled and looked up. A jet’s vapor trail traced a white line
across a wide blue sky. The city promised inexplicable excitement. An
opportunity whispered just below hearing’s threshold.
Chapter 2 – Desolation
later, April 1, 2057 – PedCom headquarters, Queens, New York
stared out the shattered window. Putrid rubbish ran the street’s
length, piled high on the sidewalk in mounds. An oily slick leached
through the heaps and out their base, into pools that filled the
pavement’s cracks and hollows. The overflow slid in thick rivulets
down the curb, joining the sludge in the gutter.
the rotten piles, lighter objects fluttered, barely held in place.
They moved as if waving goodbye, rustling, until a stronger gust
freed them. Random choices, an empty plastic bottle crushed and
brown, threadbare fabric, nylon netting, and other useless detritus.
The wind swept the junk, flapping and spinning across the street,
until it disappeared in the shadows beneath shop canopies that’d
collapsed to the ground, their underbellies upturned, like industrial
corpses. Scaled rust covered by intermittent patches of starved
upon a time, awnings hid the shops from Katharine’s view. Now she
had a clear line of sight to the stores’ gutted bowels. Bright
colors long faded to gray.
weeds fought to survive where glass panes previously framed high
fashion, held at arm’s length from shoppers like Christmas Eve to a
child. Today a few broken shelves were scattered on the floors.
the shops, she saw the park. A skeletonized oak tree towered over the
entrance. Silvered trunks reached out, lifeless, covering a wrought
iron gate in mottled shadows. The park’s leaning fence disappeared
along with the remaining boundary, consumed by wild shrubs and squat
trees, their brown leaves drooping under sticky dust.
a dirty gray sky dissolved into heavy smog. Only the hazy silhouettes
of industrial printers’ smoke stacks indicated the horizon’s
old mahogany boardroom table stood behind her, dark and decayed. The
floor crunched underfoot as she returned. She ran her finger over the
soft timber. It turned black with grime. She flicked her thumb
against her index digit, trying to dislodge the dirt. It didn’t
budge. So she removed a handkerchief from her bag and wiped it clean.
table’s head lay her old chair, covered with animal droppings. She
dragged it out and knocked the worst filth away with her cloth. After
removing a fresh rag, she laid it on the seat and slumped into its
discomforting softness. It squelched.
glanced across the room to her Security Team Leader standing against
the dark wall.
you’re the only person I can trust.” From the shadows, she
gleaned the hint of a solemn smile. “Thanks for bringing me here. I
understand the danger.”
past is history. But I had to return, one last time.”
a minute’s silence she said, “Before the world turned to shit,
before I met you, this was my throne.” She tapped the armrests.
“Three years after taking power, the StratMovies and StratGames
made me the world’s wealthiest woman. But somehow I needed more.”
weight of her words bowed her head, shifting her gaze to the table.
For the first time she noticed the peeling veneer and realized the
top wasn’t solid mahogany. When she lifted its edge, the thin layer
parted company with the substrate, crackling as it did. In the curled
corner where dirt couldn’t settle underneath, beneath the hazy
brown that almost hid the timber’s beauty, like a grainy
black-and-white photo of a fire, lay cheap wide-grained ply. A small
surprised humph escaped her lips.
focused on the table she said, “It wasn’t greed, just a genuine
desire to contribute. The StratUniversity should've been our gift to
society.” She laughed weakly. “We obliterated the competition.
They gave them crusty old lecturers, has-beens, marking time to
retirement. We gave them direct one-on-one contact with the finest
minds in history.” Slowly she turned to Grant. “Guess what most
weren’t interested in judging Galileo’s trials, discovering
radiation with Curie, participating in the Wright brothers’ first
flight, or joining the Apollo crew. Instead they obsessed about their
virtual FriendBots. We tailored each virtual friend to students’
psychological needs. We needn’t have bothered. They just wanted
someone inferior they could show up. Someone dependent on them.”
they needed someone to need them.”
… I can’t help feeling I brought this on myself.”
guesses are useless. It’s outside your control.”
it?” Her shoulders dropped, and she tapped the table.
industrial 3D printers did most of the damage,” Grant said.
The visible devastation …” Katharine walked to the window. Small
hexagonal glass fragments lay scattered across the sill. Flaked paint
covered its frame, curled and yellowed by the sun, lifted in patches,
exposing timber honeycombed by rot. The decay distracted her while
she spoke to Grant. “The professor is holding a conference at
Harvard. It’s so odd. It must be at least two decades since anyone
has held one. He asked me to attend, and our technicians, or
scientists, as he generously calls them.” A short silence followed
as she flicked thumbnail-sized debris onto the empty street. “We’ll
need quite a few choppers. Do you think you could round up a dozen? A
jet would be easier …”
ma’am, there are no serviceable jets.”
can acquire the helicopters. Fuel won’t be easy. It’ll cost a few
favors,” he said.
she turned towards Grant the room appeared black, her pupils narrowed
by natural light. The darkness didn’t dissolve. The isolation
unnerved her, so she returned to the table. “Do it. Have you heard
any gossip on what he plans to talk about?”
are saying it’s the bio-quantum computers.”
words echoed. “Impossible …” Caught in thought, she ran her
hands through her hair. The once vibrant bob, now long, grayed, and
curled. “Stubborn old bugger. He’s been hiding with Brenna
forever, presumably working on the computers. Matching him with her
was one of my better decisions.” A fragile smile. “She’s kept
short while, she soaked in Grant’s validation. The moment’s joy
disappeared under the pressure of things requiring attention.
“Although it pains me, I must send Trevor on a mission.”
I brief him?”
This is my responsibility. He makes me sick. But no one else can
complete this assignment. Can you organize a meeting? I’ll catch
him at Harvard, when I attend this silly conference.”
followed, drawing her deeper into introspection. She realized she
procrastinated, a luxury time no longer permitted. A lump formed in
her throat, the words caught as if she’d swallowed a bone. The
discomfort made her drop her head. “Did you get those files on the
He dug into his briefcase and removed a small manila file, extending
it to her. “There wasn’t much.”
statement hung in the air, like the folder. Reluctantly, she reached
out and took it. Transaction completed, she examined the floor
vacantly. “You can go, Grant. I need to be alone.”
a nod, he left. Footsteps echoed, growing distant with each beat. In
a dark corner, a drip became audible, plinking into a puddle with a
clock’s monotony. Enveloped in shadows, she contemplated her
thirty-year anniversary as CEO of the world’s most powerful
company. Regrets, vanquished opponents, and lost opportunities. As
her eyes drifted over the room’s contents, a conclusion greeted her
like a deathbed epiphany, final and bleached of ego’s claims.
this is my legacy.
sunshine streamed in from the window. She pulled her chair from the
darkness. It deflated again as she sat. Manila folder on her lap, the
dust-speckled light rained gently down. The dossier was thin, barely
more than a few pieces of paper. Her finger traced the edge, paused,
and then opened the file.
Inside the cover, she saw Grant’s
handwritten note: “If you have trouble reading these printouts,
you’ll find the electronic files stored on server XYT1.”
She turned to the notes.
closed the folder. Disappointed, she sighed and slumped forward. She
re-examined Grant’s handwritten note that asked her to click on the
if she couldn’t read the printouts.
documents explained their predicament. But this wasn’t news to her.
Worse, they implicated her. Although self-replicating manufacturing
robots (3D printers) caused the environmental destruction, the
dossier also blamed the Stratosphere. Over the years, she’d learned
to accept responsibility. Still, she didn’t enjoy the reminder.
meandered back to the old boardroom table, where she rifled through
her ever-present pharmaceutical bag. “I have a cure for everything
except a bloody headache.”
called Grant on her secure communication device. “Sorry. After you
locate fuel, can you please find me a fresh medical supply? A full
do,” his voice rasped out the tiny coms unit, sounding tinny, but
left her bag on the table to return to the chair and her morose mood.
power she enjoyed in 2057 rested on the residue of days past.
Ironically, the past also weakened her. Although Katharine didn’t
produce industrial 3D printers, she rode the wave of demand they
created for new knowledge and therefore shared their fate.
2047, after the Printer Killer Virus threatened to sink the whole
world into permanent chaos, she ‘freed’ all the StratBots and
handed control to Strat users, minus the ability to impersonate
people. She also made all Strat businesses free. Everyone consumed
whatever they desired. With capitalism dead, and no capitalists left
to care, charging entry fees was pointless. The Strat became an
economic phantom, and without so much as a whisper of a socialist
revolution, the last standing capitalist, Katharine Wilde, had
nationalized the Strat.
Chapter 3 –
at Galveston Island, over 1600 miles away
Brenna sat at
her desk poring over technical documentation when the professor
buzzed the warehouse doorbell. In front of her, a small universe of
perfection rested in wait. The pens all lined in rows, the papers’
edges squared, containers organized by size.
superfluous occupied the space, except for a single photo, enclosed
in a simple frame. The picture had faded, but the young man’s
expression remained clear, caught mid-laugh, as if a close friend
just shared a private joke.
a moment, Brenna didn’t react to the buzzer, still deeply engrossed
in her work. Gradually, she rose, her eyes glued to the page. Trapped
in concentration, she didn’t break away until the bell sounded a
crossed the polished concrete floor, past immaculately maintained
workbenches. The tables formed an open grid pattern inside a spacious
warehouse. Each served a different function. Circuit boards and small
electrical components such as servos covered the first workbench she
passed. To her right, on another bench, metalworking tools lay neatly
against a shadow board.
yards ahead, a large low table sat hidden under schematics. Each plan
rolled tightly to a precise diameter, arranged side-by-side like tidy
toy soldiers. One blueprint lay flat, its curling corners held down
by four weights, placed in symmetrical precision.
next area contained a holographic workstation. Beyond this, at the
warehouse’s rear, stood a biological workroom, enclosed by walls,
isolated by a decontamination cell and its own air supply.
she reached the main entrance at the northern corner, she hit a large
green button. A hissing sound followed. The outer door opened, and
natural light flooded the warehouse.
Brenna and the professor, a chamber excluded the external pollution.
As the exit shut, fans sucked out the smog while a pipe fed in
purified air. Once the contaminants vented, the internal glass
barrier slid open.
professor stepped inside. A warm grin beamed below his grizzled gray
stubble. Without hesitation, he leaned in to hug her. But her arms
hung limp and heavy. After stepping back, she gave a quick forced
smile. “So, everything’s ready?”
the conference? I don’t understand.”
I haven’t given a lecture at Harvard for two decades.” The
daughter humoring her father, she smiled briefly. “Very cute.”
Her serious expression returned. “The risk is excessive. You must
explain the conference's necessity.”
just stepped inside. Can’t we sit first?”
they walked, she cast quizzical sideways glances at him. At her desk,
she pulled out a chair for him, and when he sat, she followed.
there a problem?” A small frown etched across her face.
some pause, he replied, “No, it’s all good.”
the test results?”
is fine, Brenna.” Silence hung heavy as he turned to the photo on
her desk. His head dropped. When he looked up again, his mouth moved
silently, as if searching for words. “I worry about you.”
faked surprise, she stiffened and shuffled upright in her chair. “I
universe doesn’t start and finish with our work. You need more.”
squinted as if he spoke an unrecognizable language. “But our work
everything’s done, one way or the other, our lives will be
transformed. For years I’ve been your only friend. You’re too
young to be alone, and I’m too old to keep you company.”
rising pitch she asked, “Are you dying?”
Don’t be silly.”
Her shoulders loosened.
I won’t live forever. Everything we achieved is due to your
brilliance. But you are more than your work. If this project fails,
you may forget that. You must have someone else.”
he finished speaking, her eyes darted, and her face drew long. In his
cornea, she saw her confusion reflected as worry. The answer would
come, but not from her lips, so she waited.
know you don’t understand, but you must try. Maybe when we’re in
Harvard you can visit our research assistants. You can meet them.
Yes, that’s what you should do.”
the only person there’s Trevor. He’s a sociopath.”
always got a reason to avoid people.”
is mad. The world is mad. You’re scared.”
don’t know him,” she snapped.
but you don’t either. You spend five minutes with someone on the
Strat, give them instructions, and then unplug. Life is a stranger to
shot a furious glance into the professor’s eyes. When she broke
contact he responded, “It’s not your fault. It’s mine. We
needed to keep our distance from everyone for security. But you paid
her fists held rigid against her knees, she looked a picture of tight
posture. Her defenses melted when he leaned forward, reached out, and
grasped her hands. When his eyes welled up and glistened, a red hue
flushed her cheeks. “As you wish,” she said.
Good. That’s good.” He squeezed her hands gently and then removed
them to lift himself. With his palms pressed into the armrests, he
rose, wobbling. She grabbed his arm.
okay. I won’t fall.” Once standing, his stiff and drooped
shoulders slowly rose, and with a chirp in his voice he said, “There
must be something delicious we can cook for dinner. Let’s eat
echoed through the cavernous warehouse as Brenna walked by his side.
When they reached the exit, he said, “Please organize security
details with the colonel.”
over it again. The colonel leaves on a short mission tomorrow. So you
need to see him today. Triple check everything. Security must be
nodded. “I will. By the way, you still haven’t answered my
smiled and pushed a paper into her hands. As he walked outside, she
examined the scrap of a map he’d given her. They were masters of
technology, yet, in many ways he was still an old man hoarding
fragments of time past.
Chapter 4 –
15, 2057 – Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
A rat scurried from the
ancient lecture hall’s darker extremities, distressed by the
encroaching crowd. An hour earlier darkness covered the theater. The
quiet had lasted thirteen days. When the previous clangs and
footfalls disturbed the rodent, it’d welcomed the interruption.
day had followed a familiar pattern. Once every four weeks it
scampered under the plastic lecture seats bolted to the soft rotting
timber floor, along the semi-circular front row to the building's
opposite side. From there it hugged the skirting boards and climbed
the steps to the landing. Here, light streamed through a crack, the
door held ajar a few degrees. Beyond, humans did human things. The
rat didn’t know they were traders. It was only interested in the
meager meal scraps that the gatherings rained down.
day, however, was different. The earlier clamor failed to produce
food. So it’d retreated to its hole, hungry. But now the humans
moved too close. Panicked, it deserted its home. It raced between
legs, up the steps, along the wooden landing towards the exit where,
in its bid to escape the unusual animals and their noises, its life
ended under Nancy’s boot.
and her gaggle of sidekicks stood outside the least used entrance to
the lecture hall. Whenever the crowd moving through the doorway
slowed to a trickle, she uttered a sarcastic comment, just as they
passed hearing range. Most of her insults were bland, but sometimes
she fired a cutting barb that sank into its target, and her friends
would respond with sniggering chuckles.
appearance mirrored her demeanor. She usually wore black punctuated
by a flash of color. Her clothes comprised an assortment of T-shirts
in various states of disintegration she designed and created herself.
Every so often, a shirt revealed a pleasing composition. However, it
was hard to tell if sheer numbers or talent produced the rare jewel.
Today’s shirt displayed a male fertility symbol fashioned into a
skull with the words “Fear the Female Planet” hovering over the
head sat a twisted mess of auburn hair. Like most others, the rest of
her outfit was a mash up of scrounged items. Nevertheless, the
tattered black jeans, leather boots, and thick tanned belt, hung
and bustle filled the hall, but nothing held her friends’
attention. While they attempted to find solace in any distraction,
counting the minutes until they logged back onto the Strat, Nancy
embraced the moment.
as long as her memory served, one day marched into the next without
contrast. Any difference, even dull change, made the wait worthwhile.
Consequently, she intended to listen, to see what the fuss would
unveil. Her friends only stayed because the town boss said they must
attend the lecture or be on duty.
looked up from the dead rat and groaned. From across the foyer, she
watched Gus hobble towards her. She knew him as they both lived in
Allston. As she examined him, she noticed that his annoying smile was
absent. In its place, was a frown, framed by sweat.
suffered an undiagnosed degenerative motor neuron disease that
already cost him most of his coordination. He walked with the help of
a cane; effective, but with fits and starts as he lurched from foot
to foot. Even Nancy realized he would’ve been a striking man, tall,
athletic, with clean symmetrical masculine features. The disease
robbed him of this, leaving his body hunched and twisted.
stumbled through the lecture hall entrance. As he pushed by Nancy, he
bumped into her. Then he placed his cane on her foot, leaning on it
with force. She responded with a high-pitched yelp, followed by an
angry outburst repentant with flying spittle, “Watch where you’re
going. Useless gimp!”
friends shrank behind her, attempting to disappear into the shadows.
Half a dozen people glared up at her. Embarrassed and flustered but
unwilling to retreat, she snorted, “Fuck off back to your own
second later, she ejected Gus’s cane off her foot with such force
that it launched his hand high in the air. With no support, he
stumbled backward. The cane clanked down the steps. His legs crossed
awkwardly, and he teetered on the brink of falling.
collapse would appear inevitable to any observer that cared to
notice. They could expect a hard tumble, followed by broken bones. As
Gus’s knees buckled, a hand shot out from the crowd to save him.
hand belonged to Brenna, who pulled him back to his feet. He stood,
straightened his bent spine slightly, and thanked her. Then he turned
to Nancy and apologized. She blushed brightly, and if the floor
opened to swallow her, she’d have greeted it like an old friend.
dressed in sharp, crisp military fatigues, faced Nancy and stared her
down. Nancy faltered, and after five long seconds, muttered an
apology that trailed into indecipherable words. For the longest
minute, Brenna locked eyes with her. Nancy retreated gradually, until
her gaze shifted to the timber floorboards.
his cane. Now,” Brenna said, pointing to where it’d fallen.
Before Nancy could respond, Brenna spun and strode off, down the
steep wooden steps, through the thin aisle, towards the stage at the
theater's basin. An intense man followed her, struggling to keep
reaching the bottom, Brenna stopped and turned to Trevor. She
scrutinized him disdainfully. Trevor nudged forward, and she stepped
back, maintaining her personal space. She pointed at an empty seat on
the front row and waved her index finger, motioning him to the chair.
When his slow response outstripped her patience, she instructed him
to sit, like a master to a dog. After a short defiant bout, he
retreated across the crowded wooden floor, towards the brittle black
plastic lecture seats. Satisfied, Brenna climbed the stage steps and
sat beside the show’s star. Relieved to be free from Trevor, she
speaker that attracted such enormous interest turned to Brenna and
smiled like a father to a daughter. Only a handful of scientists on
the planet understood Professor Igan’s brilliance. When they looked
at his work, these experts, the cream of the elite, might as well
have been children gazing at a plane in flight for the first
time—aware of its profound achievement juxtaposed against their own
landlocked existence but unable to explain how it flew.
fifteen years, the professor and Brenna worked relentlessly on their
bio-quantum computers, or BQCs as they called them. Their work
yielded three functioning BQCs. Individually, the computers were a
formidable machine. Together they reached sublime intelligence.
things mattered with computers, how much it remembered, and how fast
it could process that memory. Silicon computers made programing easy
but created processing choke points. No amount of architectural
brilliance could resolve this inherent flaw.
other computers attempted to force data through tiny bottlenecks,
their BQCs accessed wholesale chunks of memory simultaneously, which
they processed at an unfathomable speed. Their slowest BQC ran at a
staggering one hundred yottaflops, over a million times faster than
the human brain.
last and most powerful BQC operated almost entirely at the quantum
level, with its function dedicated to probability. It could, for
example, forecast daily fluctuations in the weather for any point on
the globe with 99.9 percent accuracy up to two months in advance.
Brenna named it ‘Nostradamus,’ given its predictive powers and
public had only heard rumors. Although most scientists were
skeptical, the professor’s brilliance allowed the possibility of
the computer’s existence to seduce them.
all came for the computers. After endless social and technological
regression, Professor Igan offered hope that progress existed.
Consequently, the audience did something unprecedented. They left
their homes to listen to a man speak. Normally they'd meet in the
Stratosphere, if at all. In the Stratosphere, they could gather
anywhere the organizer desired, whether a beautiful beach or a grand
castle. Instead, they sweltered in a decaying hall.
the heat roasted the theater’s dull red bricks. The sun’s
radiation rained relentlessly, disintegrating the building, atom by
atom, until eons from now nothing but brown dust would blow,
stretched thin across the shifting continents. Inside, the audience
sweated. They fidgeted in their seats, their resilience having
already turned to dust.
Chapter 5 – An
Old Man’s Dream
Professor Igan shuffled to
the podium, cleared his throat, and tapped the microphone. The mic, a
quaint relic of a long-discarded technology, echoed with each knock.
Sweat ran down his face. He waited while the racket dimmed, first to
a dull background noise with the odd spike, then one voice here, one
the hall fell silent, he spoke. “My father was an academic who saw
himself as a teacher. He witnessed many changes during his career. In
the 1970s, he used a chalkboard. For those who don’t understand,
it’s a board coated with special black paint on which you wrote
with chalk.” Behind him, he unveiled a blackboard, onto which he
scrawled the word ‘CHANGE.’
the 1980s whiteboards replaced blackboards, and education took its
first steps towards modernization. Many schools stopped using
corporal punishment to motivate their students.” He cracked a cane
across the table, causing the audience seated along the front row to
jolt. A guilty smile forced its way to the corner of his mouth.
became affordable and useful in the 1990s, and the Internet made its
first popular appearance. Within a decade, the world changed forever.
Information saturated everyone and everything. The meaningless
rubbing shoulders with the meaningful.
2010, manufacturing industries began taking three-dimensional
printing seriously. Many predicted it’d be disruptive, but didn’t
rank it highly. They failed to comprehend the big picture. Like
Columbus, the printers sailed uncharted waters. They crossed the last
divide separating the virtual and physical worlds.
printers created silicon chips, they could self-replicate. The late
2030s unleashed a consumption orgy, driving our planet to the brink.
Great industrial printers sucked in natural resources and spewed out
poisons and consumer goods. The global capitalist economy, one that
requires scarcity to survive, crashed. And, the human race, which
needs clean air to breathe, also collapsed.
the mid-2040s toxins largely depopulated the planet. Yet the printers
kept churning out orphaned commodities. However, an endless supply of
useless things failed to deliver utopia. Instead, civil society
fragmented and turned inwards.
pollution continued unchecked, choking our air, killing nearly
everyone. Desperation resurrected the anti-print movement. Hunted
like dogs, a small band of fanatics achieved the impossible. They
created the incurable Printer Killer Virus, the PKV. No printer
survived the virus.
the printers stopped, humanity battled over the remaining
commodities, the last scraps of print. A two-decade Strat induced
coma had bleached humanity’s skills and work ethic. Instead of
rebuilding society, people took the easiest path. Steal from others.
We descended from capitalism into tribal survivalism. Technological
progress slowed from a trickle to a complete halt.”
sipping his water the professor continued, “This is a terrible five
minute pottered history. But there’s a point. Creation and control
aren't the same. Parents understand this. Technology has outstripped
our biology. Society will continue to rise in toxicity until balance
turned his notes and then studied the crowd. Like schoolchildren,
they fidgeted. It reminded him of the freshmen he’d lectured in
this same theater many decades ago. Back then, he worried they didn’t
listen. But now, disinterest's price had inflated.
weight of duty leaned on him. He sensed he’d drifted off track,
waffled. What he needed to say required people to view the world
differently; it demanded their concentration. The right words slipped
between his fingers, but he continued regardless. “So how does one
reach equilibrium with technology? How can we evolve our biology? For
two decades, we’ve worked to solve this problem.”
audience’s attention drifted away from the professor. Instead, they
faced each other as they whispered and gesticulated, and shook their
flooded his thin capillaries, and his face flushed. “What if rather
than making humanity redundant, technology could reinvent us as a
species? Well, it’s possible. The nanobots we created are now fully
functional, self-replicating, self-learning machines that can
assimilate silicon-based information with the human brain.”
voices became louder. A tiny minority leaned forward in their seats
as they strained to listen.
voice rose. “What does this mean in practice?” While he waited
for the noise to dim, he scanned the audience, searching for evidence
they understood the implications. They failed to calm, and he pressed
ahead. “This means your abilities will be limitless. Whatever you
desire to become, a rock star, a painter, a great writer, or a
surgeon, everything’s possible.”
crowd abandoned any remaining polite pretense and broke into a large
roar of crossing conversations. Their reaction didn’t surprise the
professor. He understood most expected to hear about the BQCs. But he
needed them to look past their disappointment, to listen to him.
the hall, the outcry rose in pitch until someone stood and shouted,
“I'm already a rock star in the Strat.”
professor's thin voice became forceful. “The Stratosphere?” He
smacked the cane prop hard against a plastic table near the lectern,
and it snapped. Too angry and old to feel it slice into his palm, the
blood dripped down his fingers unnoticed.
Stratosphere?” he roared. Shocked into submission, the audience
hushed. “The Stratosphere is a pretend place, a fantasy land, an
escape. It isn’t real.”
man who started the heckling stood again, yelling, “Your work isn’t
original.” Murmurs followed; the crowd sounded the odd agreement.
creases lining the professor’s chin deepened along with his
irritation. “If you can’t play an instrument in this world, then
you can’t play one in the Stratosphere either. The applause is
fake. They are only StratBots, cheering you because they’re
programmed to cheer. If that makes you happy, you’re a delusional
drug addict. The Strat rewards plagiarism. It doesn’t encourage new
talent. Why is there no original music?”
everyone died!” a man yelled.
The professor paused, cranky at his own impatience. His tone
softened. “That's irrelevant. Creativity requires meaning to exist,
a purpose. But when anybody can pretend to be whatever they want,
when imagination has no audience, no drive, and no reason for
existence, it starves to death. We don’t use the Strat to explore
new possibilities. We use it to gaze inwards, searching for
self-delusional, narcissistic self-pleasure. The Strat is
dark blood oozed from the professor's hand. Fumbling through his
pocket for a handkerchief to stem the flow, he continued, “If you
can actually play the guitar, you’ll want to learn different tunes.
To explore and extend your talents is a natural drive. Talent is the
seed of creativity, and acquiring it takes work. If you’re happy to
stagnate, to rot, go to the Strat. Pretend nothing needs changing,
and feed your fragile egos with empty affections.”
burly man yelled from the crowd, “Your nanobots are no different to
the Strat. Either way, it’s artificial talent.”
lectern rocked under his grip. When he found the right words, he
spoke slowly with deliberation. “Unrestrained individualism is the
root cause of civil decay. Yes, we’re individuals. But we express
our individuality socially. The Strat encourages people to gaze
inward. If we focus on ourselves exclusively, we'll never learn and
grow as a society. Progress is a byproduct of cooperation, not
isolation. The nanobots will expand your actual talents by enabling
social learning. When someone learns, the nanobots will share that
information with the whole population.”
pausing, he made his big announcement. “We can be in charge of our
own destiny again, but to do this I need access to ten thousand
megawatts of power for sixty days.”
instant, the crowd erupted into accusations and flailing arms. Only
three sources powered anything. A nuclear station in New York and the
solar panels and wind turbines printed before the Killer Printer
Virus ended all production. He asked for something they wouldn’t
give. Disappointed, most believed they wasted their time on an old
man’s impossible dream.
the lecture hall’s rear stood one of the few that abstained from
the riotous heckling, Katharine Wilde. She shook her head at the
ruckus and muttered, “You old fool.”
Chapter 6 – Sing
twenty minutes’ walk from Harvard
friends, Sheryl, Katie, Anne, and Kim, took the distraction caused by
the rioting audience as an opportunity to escape the long, boring
lecture. The girls strode home in silence. After they crossed the
bridge, they separated, and each took the most direct path to their
arrival, they shed their clothes and slipped into their StratSuits.
As they hit the connect switch, the real world flickered momentarily.
Their eyes rolled back in their heads, and a digital world replaced
the real one. While their bodies remained comatose, their minds
wandered in digital freedom.
girls exited their virtual homes and flew to the gate they walked
through only fifteen minutes ago in reality. Within a minute, they
all arrived, where they hovered fifty yards above Allston’s
did the boss insist we listen to that stupid talk?”
about building a strategic alliance with New York.”
does that even mean?”
was hilarious when the old man chucked a wobbly!”
that funny. Not worth wasting a whole day.”
the girls finished whining, Kim squealed, “What shall we do?” The
others rolled their eyes and mocked her tone. Kim pushed on anyway.
what about the Sing Club?”
sure, but Nancy won’t come.”
boring! She can go to her stupid trade meetings. I say we fly without
we can’t be rude. We must leave a bot.”
clapped her hands, looked to the sky, and exclaimed, “One StratBot,
please!” A young man appeared, whom Sheryl told, “Stay here for
Nancy. Tell her we’ll be at the Sing Club, okay?”
StratBot smiled and nodded. “I’ll wait.”
everyone spun to depart, Sheryl remained. “This bot is entirely too
attractive,” she declared as she waved towards the StratBot’s
head. “Be ugly and fat.” The instant she issued the order, the
StratBot became fat and ugly. The girls turned and giggled.
with warts on your nose.”
a dirty singlet.”
smelly, and with bad breath that fogs up when you breathe.”
girls continued until bored. Upon finishing, they left a hideous
trollish creature, waiting to give Nancy friendly advice on where to
four girls shouted, “One, two, three.” Palms slapped and they
launched. They flew vertically, in entwined spirals, and wove like
fighter planes climbing to the sun in a dance of death. When the
earth’s curvature bowed beneath, they stopped, faced each other,
nodded, and yelled together, “One, two, three!” On three, they
belted down towards the Stratosphere. Here a digital fantasy world
orbited the virtual earth. On the ground, the digital world appeared
identical to the real world they recently departed. Above this
digital disappointment floated a place where they could satisfy any
the final three seconds, the girls initiated an elaborate and elegant
maneuver, shifting from a headfirst dive into an upright position.
Each girl landed with their “signature” pose. Kim’s theatrical
landing radiated style. Bent knees absorbed the impact, her right
fingers splayed, making the gentlest touchdown, and her left hand
held overhead and behind her head as if supporting a glass ceiling.
fouled her landing, as usual, which always amused the girls. She hit
her back mid-roll. But only an inconsequential thump and the girls’
ridicule followed. The StratBots mocked lightly. But they soon
replaced their short fuss with warm laughter and loud applause.
StratBot named Hugo approached Sheryl. “I missed you.” Hugo was
the classic cliché: dark, tall, muscular, and handsome. He leaned
into Sheryl’s ear and whispered, “The others won’t admit it,
but you’re our favorite. We don’t care if you’re clumsy. You’re
smart, caring, and beautiful!” He paused, glanced around, and
inched closer. “I yearn for you. Return to my place.”
blushed, her attempted calmness betrayed by her eyes’ titillated
flash and lips’ quiver. She murmured, “Shh, Hugo. We'll meet
tonight.” With those words, he departed, and she inhaled deeply and
forgot about the momentary excitement.
side-by-side in perfect step, the girls closed on the Sing Club. The
building towered seven stories, clad in shiny black marble. Thin
white veins twisted through the rock. Bright neon tubes ran from the
ground to the roof, each separated by five yards, held a foot from
the wall by stainless steel mounts. Digital art deco. Riotous colors
pulsed through the translucent pipes, reflecting the northern lights
that contorted and wove above them as if played in fast forward. The
club’s sky always hovered on twilight, forever promising the big
press swarmed. Between camera flashes and shouted questions, a
StratBot reporter punched his voice through the roar. “Sheryl, we
heard you’ll make a special guest appearance at the Sing Club, is
StratBot elbowed to the pack’s front and yelled, “Kim, when are
you signing a deal with Gucci to promote their new label?”
what shoes are you wearing?”
you must allow us to do an in-depth report on you,” shouted the
Executive Editor for Vanity Fair.
reporters, columnists, and fashion magazine editors jostled for the
girls’ attention, a rising chant drowned their words. The swollen
crowd pressed from all directions.
the Sing Club’s lobby stood twelve serious and beefy bouncers,
complete with tight gunmetal gray suits and reflective sunglasses.
They formed a phalanx around the girls and rebuffed the fans.
Simultaneously, a red carpet unfurled from within the Sing Club
entrance. It rolled out between the security guards, onto the street
in a straight line. It finished its journey just in time for Kim to
place her foot on the end. The crowd “oohed” at her stylish
raced onto the road. Hands held high, they stopped vehicles traveling
either direction. With the traffic halted, the girls crossed safely.
The drivers blasted their horns and waved their fists from their
windows. Caught in gridlock, they emerged from their automobiles and
hurled abuse at the unknown obstruction. However, their anger melted
into cheers when they spotted the girls. They abandoned their cars
where they stood to join the mass of surging people.
the melee of cheering fans, someone’s long fingernails tore a
bouncer’s shirt off, exposing a chiseled and muscular
deep-chocolate body. Embarrassed, he apologized. Sheryl smiled, but
the others didn’t even notice.
group of stunning women marched on the Club. Flawless, they strutted
like show ponies, noses held high. They shoved to the queue’s front
and pleaded with the bouncer. He placed his open palms on the lead
girl’s shoulders and pushed her back as Kim passed. “Sorry, only
VIPs now that Thunder Gods are singing.”
you know who we are? When my father finds out, you won’t get a job
guarding rubber dog shit, not even rubber dog shit!”
their protests, the StratBot bouncer denied the beautiful StratBot
Sing Club Manager, another StratBot, rushed out to greet the girls
with his entourage of senior staff in tow, gushing, “Thunder Gods,
we’ve waited so long for you. Welcome, welcome! Please come and
sing for us.”
Club always used the right mixture of the familiar and different. It
changed sufficiently to avoid boredom, without making the girls
anxious about their ‘Sing Club experience.’ Today the Club added
a new level overhanging the central stage and a fireworks display.
crowd made the girls’ ears’ ring with pain. Within a minute, the
chants broke into a rhythm: “Thunder, thunder, thunder!”
Fireworks burst as the bouncers guided them to the stage. Another
bouncer ejected the StratBot band already playing. They protested but
soon retreated to make way for the girls. Above, a huge neon edifice
sunk from the cathedral ceiling, emblazoned with the girls’ names
in ten-foot letters.
leaped onto the stage. Each grabbed a microphone and started straight
into their first song, ‘Deaf Roar.’ The crowd descended into
silence and danced maniacally to the beat, as the girls’ voices
boomed in pitch perfect harmony.
arrived at the Club an hour later. To her, it was a simple wire frame
construct, overlaid with opaque shades of gray. The StratBots
appeared to spawn and disappear at random, each one indistinguishable
from the next. Plain forms, their external structures crudely defined
by millions of polygons. They spoke rarely, and when they did, a
familiar monotone voice ensued.