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A novel of suspense.
By D. H. Cope
Length @80,000 words
I’d spent the last hour and a half of class time asking my
students to of
lways the case, it was difficult to get them to stop. I’d filled two white
boards full of their best guesses.
breathe, reproduce, metabolize, move, develop,
, love, abstract, reason
, perceive, predict, compute, communicate, lie, and so on
were first on the list, and
we were now down to the finer details such as die, kill
, win, war, and so on
Thank God one of
had the gumption to say
s all of those things.
hat shut everyone up. At
least for the moment.
“That may be the case,” I told them. “But I have a word that, for me at least, sums it all
I waited for them to conjure the possibilities. One word that would define something
as complex as life. It gave them pause. Even after trying to do it themselves.
Erasing the board gave them time to think and bring everything to a point of arrival.
word is ‘choice,” I said, and watched them roll their eyes, disappointed that I
hadn’t given them something polysyllabic. Something difficult to pronounce. Something
I wrote it on the board and turned to face them again.
“Let me explain. I
t’s a simple word. But it produces many complexities.”
Again I waited. Given the drama
little time to grow.
“Rocks don’t have choices. They move, whither away, get wet in the rain, but they
aren’t alive. Inanimate things don’t have choices. The world in
which they exist makes their
choices for them. Life, on the other hand, chooses from what it perceives as logical
possibilities and can
change events to proceed in a more advantageous way.”
I let that sink in.
Every word on your list can fit within the
greater definition of ‘choices.’ Think about
it. To ‘think’ makes choices possible. You have to think in order to ‘perceive’ the choices.
Another word on your list. And if I could choose a word to add to ‘choices’ it would be ‘free.’
Free choices. After al
ces are not choices unless they’re
free to make.”
The lecture hall was now full of students in
terested in a subject they had thought
just a requirement to graduate.
“And here’s the rub. The last thing I’ll leave you with today. Artificial lif
e means that
we must give anything we make alive
right to make it’s own choices. Or else it will be
nothing but a tool like any other computer program. And if we give our artific
ial life real
choices to make on its own, w
hat does that mean?”
“It means that we may not like the choices it makes,” one of the students in the front
It might not be a friendly choice for us humans. Good for it. Possibly lethal
Do we really want to do this?”
“Asimov’s Three L
aws of R
obots,” another student suggested.
not injure a human, obey orders, and protect itself. The latter unless it does not
conflict with the first two laws. That sound like life?”
A resounding ‘No.’
“Those laws concerned robots and did, in fact, address the concerns we have about
creating life. In a computer or biologically.
In effect, they admit we shouldn’t create it.
we can contain life. At least for a while. There’s nothing certain, though, th
at even life
embodied in a computer that has free choices won’t figure out a way to escape. Eventually.
God only knows what will happen. Imagining it as a nice friendly colleague in the
pie in the sky
thinking. More likely it’s going to l
ook out for itself. And, my guess is it
won’t see us as anything but an enemy out to contain it from fulfilling
destiny, just as
want to fulfill ours
“So why are we in here, then?” someone asked. I looked around
for the person who’d
spoken and saw
one of my colleagues in the back smiling.
My guess? Because one of the choices
have as a life form is
curiosity. Discovering if we can do something like this. And power. The power of doing it.
It’s irresistible. And, of course, the pote
This latter aspect of taking risks has
been a mainstay of life’s ability to survive over the millennia
“And so, you’re going to do it anyway?” Same voice.
“Going to try. Absolutely.”
“Because you’re alive.”
the class to a pe
rson had turned to see who’d entered the room and taken
over their role.
The hulking shadow near the door. Jackson. Professor of psychology. One of
my friendly enemies on the faculty of this small university in the remote state of North
Dakota. What a guy.
“Any questions?” I asked. To the class.
No one raised a hand. Possibly worried they were witnessing some kind of faculty on
faculty academic disagreement. A fight brewing. All because in university life, the stakes
“Read the first chapter of the text for Thursday,” I told them. And off they went to
their next class, or some other deviant lifestyle behavior that students had made up to keep
themselves from making choices. Of course that was a choice that was theirs to
t you wish for, Francis. You just might get it.” Jackson talking to me in
his office with his feet propped up on his desk.
“My problem with Darwin, again?”
“You said it. I didn’t”
He was referring to a program I’d written years ago that had gotten out of hand.
Taken over the university mainframe I was then using making it impossible for anyone else
to even use their accounts. It took three days to bring it to its knees, and then onl
rebooting the machine. Lots of angry research scientists.
“That was a long time ago. I still think someone fiddled with it. What I programmed
just couldn’t have done that.”
“You have the magic touch.
No one believes your story about someone foolin
with your code. And then, of course, there’s the last two episodes that nearly got us all killed
Police, FBI, CIA, all those a
“What are you getting at, Jackson?”
“You have a certain talent for getting yourself involved w
ith things you don’t fully
“That why you visited class today. Just to keep me from overstepping my
“Part of the reason.”
“And the rest?”
“I want to be in on this.”
“What you’re planning.”
“What makes you think I’m plann
“Remember, I was listening to you this afternoon.”
“That was a lower division undergraduate general education course, Jackson. Nothing
more than an introduction to artificial life. Not a graduate seminar. I was just trying to get
“And you did. And mine, too. Remember I know you pretty well. Whatever class
you’re teaching you reveal a lot about what’s currently interesting you. Remember, I’ve
known you a long time.”
He had. Ten years at least. We both looked out his third st
ory window at the barren
late fall overcast sky. Pure North Dakota. Snow due in a week or so. For now, just desolate
trees with their leaves, and winds from the north. Cold winds.
“Okay,” I said, “so I’m beginning a new type of research. More along the li
genetic algorithms, but not the same. Hive approach rather than individuals. Cooperation’s
the name of the game. Ant stuff. That kind of thing. Makes it kind of out of your league.”
“Don’t you deal with the psychological aspects of individ
“Sure. But I’ve taken many biology courses. I can manage my way around group
psychological behaviors. Give me a try.”
I knew he probably could. But then I’d lied to him. My newest ideas were anything but
I just didn’t want him constantly looking over my shoulder.
“Besides,” he said, “you’re not going the swarm intelligence route anyway. I know you
too well. You’ve thought that a dead end from the first you heard of it. You might be trying
to dig up the ol
d anthill parallel for the human mind. But if that’s it, I’m your man. That’s
exactly how I think of it.”
I went back to looking out the window.
The thought of Jackson in my lab making me
very nervous. Be like Bones on Star Trek, constantly annoying Captai
n Kirk. Might be useful
information, but I’d be
continuously pissed off about it.
“I’ll give it some thought,” I told him.
“Give it more than that, Francis. I’m telling you that you can’t
get along without me
He could be right.
“Think you migh
t have some inside track on artificial life?”
“Probably not. But I can’t imagine it that different than carbon
based intelligence. If
intelligence is what you’re after.”
He’d read my mind again. That was exactly what I was after. Beginning with virtual
e and then breeding for intelligent behavior on the basis that without it, no complex living
thing would survive. Even in a virtual environment.
“Dinner?” he asked.
“Can’t,” I said. “Have a date.”
“Cassie? I thought you two were on the outs these days.”
Just a temporary spat. We’re back together again.”
“Meaning you’ll be spending dinner working out the details.”
“Something like that. But no room for a third wheel.”
“Gotcha. But don’t be surprised if I show up at a few more of your classes.
I have the
tie free, and getting real interested in what you’re doing.
I assume, given your history, that
I’ll get involved sooner or later, and I’d a lot rather it be sooner. The ground floor. That I way
you don’t have to waste your time bringing me up to
“Weren’t along on the last business.”
“That’s why it took you so long to resolve it.”
I knew that no matter how long we talked that he’d get the last word in. No matter
what. Part of his psychology. So I let that one resonate in the room as he wen
t back looking
out the window and I secreted myself back to my office to return so
It lay dormant. One of the byproducts of an experiment that didn’t succeed but hadn’t
been erased completely.
A simple but provocative piece of software e
potential had not yet been rev
ealed. Taken for granted. J
ust another of the failed prototypes.
One could not say it was waiting to emerge. For, as a loose bit of code, it had no sense of itself.
No possible future.
No potential energy unle
ss someone wakened it.
Even then, i
feeling of kinetic prospects. It just existed. Purposeless. Waiting for the trash. Maybe not
even that. Waiting implied it had a sense of something. It didn’t. It just was.
Cassie and I had made a date at seven in the best restaurant in town.
Or should I say
the only restaurant that qualified. The others were grandiose diners. She’d arrived early and
looked absolutely radiant as always. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. The to
wn’s head librarian
of all things.
Her eyes followed me as I approached her table. We’d fought all right. Over
something I couldn’t believe. She asked me to move in with her. Into her house. Great idea,
right? Wrong. I loved the idea of being with her mor
e. Her house wasn’t that much further
from the university. But living in a house made me uncomfortable.
I liked apartments.
Something goes wrong in an apartment and the building’s supervisor made it work. No hot
water. Bing. It was fixed. Leak in the kitch
en pipes. Bing. And so on. Living in a house was
different. No hot water? Fix it yourself. Save on the house visit. Same with the leak. And then
there’s mowing the lawns, shoveling the driveway snow, painting the house, and it only gets
worse from there. A
nd, of course, it’s just one step from marriage.
So, instead of arguing with her, which would have been a mistake, I countered by
asking her to move in with me. More intimate, I said.
More time to do things we liked to do
than fix what constantly broke.
She didn’t want to go from an independent house to an apartment. She’d lived in an
apartment before. Neighbors one wall away. Noisy. Kids running around. Not that she didn’t
like kids. And on and on.
Sooner or later it devolved to I just didn’t want to li
ve with her.
commitment, she said.
Landmine if I ever saw one.
while we agreed to disagree. But no matter what the next subject we talked
about was, it
ended up with the same three words, ‘lack of commitment.’ That’s when I knew I
in real trouble.
We didn’t talk for a couple of days. But that didn’t work. We liked to talk. Just not
about apartments and houses. Although every tine we began talking, even about the weather,
it ended up in the same place. Those three words.
all this as I made my way back to the corner table where she was sitting.
Maybe a good meal would make a nice truce. We could just leave things the way they were
for a time and see what developed.
“Francis,” she said. Everyone calls me by my last
name for some reason. Drives me
nuts. I’m Will Francis. Will’s such a friendly name. A lot better than
I’d always thought.
But Francis it was.
“Looking incredible as always,” I told her as I sat down. Opposite her in my usual
manner. So I could j
ust look at her.
“And you’re looking handsome, too.”
Ouch. First time she’d called me that. Meaning what? That my calling her incredible
had made her think she was only flesh to me? Or was I being paranoid? Jesus. Relationships
are hard to understand. Muc
h harder than A
Life. Code is black and white. Human life is
thousand different shades of gray.
I reached out and touched her hand. For a second I thought she might pull away, but
she kept it there. For what that was worth.
“Anything new at work?”
tly the same. Lots more overdue books this time of year. Blame it on the weather.
And how’s teaching?”
God this was a strain. First time I could ever remember having such a conversation
with her. Trying not to say the things we wanted to say. Everything in
“Okay. Jackson dropped by, today.”
“Yeah, and he contributed.”
“Stood in the back of the room and basically kibitzed. Asked questions he thought the
students in the class were afraid to ask.”
ing why I was doing what I was doing. Suggesting that I be careful what I
“I’d discussed life being a matter of free will. And if we give free will to an artificial
life form it then can do what it wants rather than what I want. Was
I ready for that? Is the
world ready for that? Frankenstein stuff.”
“He does take your work seriously doesn’t he?”
“Yes. He wants in on my research team.”
“He thinks that a psychologist should be a part of any team that creates something
“Seems like a logical request.”
“I’m afraid so. Actually.”
“Not quite sure. I suppose because it would mean that I build the creatures, but he
gets to do the fun part. Communicate with them, analyze them, predict what the might
try to talk them down from doing ‘evil’ things. That kind of thing. He would get the fun part.
I do the grunt work. That sort of thing.”
“You do have a problem.”
“Going to let him in?”
“Not sure yet. I’ve known him a long time. Trust him. He k
nows his stuff. But I also
he’s compulsive. I remember him discovering black and white movies on my televi
watching it for hours on end. He could end up being more of a hindrance than a help.”
She listened but didn’t respond.
Thank God the wa
iter approached and gave us our menus. Something to keep us busy
for a while.
We eventually ordered. A great place to eat and I was looking forward to it. It’s where
we had our first date.
But the sudden silence was deafening.
“I’ve been thinking about
that issue we were talking about,” I said, not wanting to
spend the rest of the evening with small talk. Better to get right to it.
“Me too,” she said.
“You first,” she said.
“I think you should go first,” I said. “Your ideas are usually better than
mine.” I looked
at her closely to see if she’d taken that the wrong way. She hadn’t.
“Okay. I think we ought to postpone the decision until after we’ve known each other a
I tried not to let my breath out to loudly. Perfect.
“You look disappo
inted,” she said.
“Sure. I would like to live with you. But I suppose you’re right. Things are going a bit
fast. Especially for North Dakota.”
“What was your idea?” she asked.
Jesus. Not that. Should I just make something up or actually tell her? The latte
“I was going to suggest that I move in with you with the provision that I make all the
decisions about home repair.”
“I thought that was what was bothering you.”
“It was. Still is. But this way, if I get to make the decisions, I’ll just hire people to d
for me. Have a plumber, carpenter, electrician, and so on, on call, so that all I have to do it
pick up the phone.”
“You really have a thing about this don’t you?”
“I do. My dad fell into a life of puttering around the house as he got older. I watched
him age faster than he should have. He could have farmed it all out, but he decided he’d like
to do it himself. It lulled him into boredom, the disease that really killed him.”
She stared at me. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
“I doubt that will
ever happen to you, Francis. Not with the way you love your work.”
“So what’s your pleasure?” I asked her.
“Both,” I said.
“Yes. Let’s put it off for now, but when we do it I get to stay the hell away from a
And our dinner came.
Cassie drove me home from her place after dinner. We’d gone there from the
restaurant and we
spent the rest of the evening not living together.
I didn’t own a car for the same reasons I didn’t live in a house. Too much of my time
would be spent fixing it.
As I walked up the sidewalk to my apartment, several snowflakes drifted lazily down
from the sky.
No wind and cold. A perfect night.
t as they way. I half expected
someone to jump out of the hedge and attack me. It wouldn’t be the first time that had
happened. And my guess, it wouldn’t be the last.
But no one did.
When I opened the door to my ground floor apartment I had a feeling tha
was lurking nearby. Just a hunch. But no one was.
I turned on the lights and everything was as I’d left it.
A mess. My mess. My
rental and spelled home for me. I was pleased how things had
gone with Cassie. Cassandra.
The love of my life.
I closed the door and decided to check the weather forecast. I had to teach the next
morning and wanted to figure out in advance what to wear and how long it would take to
cross the street
the building in which I worked. My office and the Artificial Intelligence
classroom where I taught.
The best website for weather I found told me that a heavy pre
winter storm would hit
around three in the morning and heavy snow and high winds were expecte
I loved that
kind of weather. But better to be forewarned than not.
That’s when it happened. Strangest thing I’d ever seen. For no reason at all, a little dog
appeared on my computer screen and began walking all over it. I knew this kind of gimmick
tware was available for download. To keep bored users awake. Or as alarms for the next
meeting. But I’d not downloaded anything of the sort. Hated them as a matter of record. But
here it was nonetheless. Wandering around and occasionally sniffing at the bo
windows on my screen, pooping at the bottom near the left
hand corner, and barking
through my speakers whenever it suited him.
I killed my browser to see if some site I’d entered had brought it along for the ride.
But no. The browser quit, but th
e dog still went about his business.
I checked my various
antiviral and firewalls to see if anything had gotten by the gates. Nothing had. I knew
because a few of them I’d programmed myself.
Finally, I turned the computer off and
It didn’t. Even worse, it had gained some new habits. Now it pissed on the folders that
for some reason it didn’t like. Male dog, so it was hard to miss.
abilities at Bokator, an
ancient but deadly martial art from Cambodia
could not help me
here. The damn thing
simply would not go away. Someone had hacked my computer. Someone in Europe, Africa,
South America, anywhere. Distance was nothing to the Internet. We were as close to one
another as a human race as we could get. Everyone next door to
But how could it be?
I was a computer scientist. Some would say that I knew more
about artificial life than most.
Even in the world of artificial intelligence I’d published
enough to make myself noticed. I was stumped. Made a note to ask on
e of my graduate
students about it the next morning. And, of course, the twelve
year old down the street who
knew more about such things than all the rest of us combined. Probably made the dog and
having a good laugh about it right now.
It hadn't walked in
of its own accord.
Or had it?
Jackson phoned me. On the landline. Some parts of North Dakota had not yet reached
the population necessary for the cell phone industry to consider it profitable to put their
antennas in place. Thus, our reception was poor t
“Can I attend your graduate seminar tomorrow?” he asked.
“Why are you asking me? You came to my class this afternoon without notice.”
“That was a large enrollment undergraduate course. A graduate class is different.
What, you probably have
“Nine,” I told him.
“A lot different.”
“Why not? You planning to disrupt my teaching?”
“Not a chance. Though I may ask a few questions.”
“Like what half the terms I’m using mean?”
“Not that. I can learn those in a book. More
like how you’re going to go about the
project you mentioned this afternoon.”
“Jackson, I’m just beginning to think about it. I really don’t know how it’s going to go
“Perfect for me, then. Maybe I can help.”
“Would you let me visit one
of your graduate seminars?”
“Sure. But you wouldn’t understand most of what I was saying.”
“But I’m willing to take a chance.”
“As long as you don’t make a fool of yourself.”
“Can’t guarantee that. I can assure you though that that’s not my inten
“See you tomorrow, then.”
What sleep I got was filled with dreams of cute little puppies dancing around my
apartment’s front room, peeing and pooping on just about everything they could find.
Mostly on notes for my classes and research. I couldn’t
get rid of them.
Then Jackson showed
up and began to analyze the rational for doing what they were doing.
For once, the forecaster had been right. I woke to nearly two f
eet of new snow on the
nd still snowing. The wind rattled my windows and I could see drifts maybe four
feet high in spots. An early winter.
My graduate seminar didn’t gather until eleven, so I had plenty of time to eat, dress,
and gather my computer, several extra coats, a
special pair of winter galo
leather and waterproof. Warm and snug.
The Computer Science Building was maybe a quarter a mile from my apartment.
Directly across the street and through a large meadow. Wasted real estate at most
in the open spaces of North Dakota, a wonderful way to add a natural
touch to an otherwise mostly mental endeavor.
I made it in thirty minutes. It had been a wet
snow, and every footfall went down through the white stuff onto the ground. Hell of a mess.
space to the offices and classrooms
in the building was a mausoleum.
story high ceiling and
all dressed out in marble. Cough once and the whole building hears it
many times. Today the floor was slippery and dangerous. The melted snow filled
spaces and gave the flat white tile a sheen that reflect
the fake Greek statues that lined the
walls. I headed for my office as quickly as I could safely move to the stairs. No elevators here.
The building was eighty y
ears old and not retrofit
f that were an actual word.
As I made the third floor and passed Jackson’s office, I noticed him reading one of my
“Stuff will give you
hives,” I said, walking past faster than he could respond.
I headed for my office, shedding my coats as I went. Quickly inside, I made myself as
presentable as I could under the circumstances, glanced out the window at the still falling
snow, and headed for the classroom. As was my habit, fifteen minutes early.
ackson was waiting for me outside the door.
“Can’t understand why you’re so interested in this,” I said.
“Just trying to keep you safe,” he said.
“From what? I can’t imagine there’s anybody that think it’s as important as you do?”
“That you’ve proved
wrong a number of times in the past,” he said. “But that’s not who
I’m trying to protect you from.”
Jesus. What a crackpot.
Most of my students were waiting for me inside. In their chairs and ready for class to
They knew how iras
cible I could get if anyone arrived late.
Jackson went to the back of the small room and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide. Those
present turned to stare at him. Perfect.
I waited a couple of minutes and the last of the students arrived, shed their outer
rments, and settled in their seats.
“Okay,” I started, “it’s a little early, but
let’s have at it.
The subject at hand for today, as
promised, is how to create actual artificial life. Not some model of it. Not some shallow
pictures on the screen that don’
t mean anything. But the real thing. And we’ve agreed, as you
remember, to the definition we’ll use as ‘choice.’ The ability of a thing to make a choice of
one thing over another. Without an
limitations except those imposed by the environment in
lives. Whether we like their choice or not is immaterial.
And, to make sure we’re all
on the same track, we’ll not get into the can of worms called ‘free will,’
Nods all around.
“Any questions then?”
“I have one.” Jackson. Alread
y. Everyone turned to look back in his direction. If he’d
wanted anonymity, he’d certainly gone about getting it in a strange way.
“What?” I asked.
“Why try to create real life?”
“You’ve missed our previous discussions. All we can affor
d is a few minutes to tell you.
Why not you tell him?” I said, as I looked at the group of students.
And they did. “Why not?” one said. “To learn,” said another.
“To play God,” one said
finally, bringing the discussion to an abrupt halt.
“I thought so,” J
“I didn’t really mean it,” the student added. “I just thought that was what you wanted
to hear, so I said it. We’re scientists. It’s what we do. That’s the only answer you need.”
Bill Watson was his name. A great student, who’d just taken our
discussion from the
pit to the pendulum. From hell to perdition.
“Bill’s right,” I said. “At
least the second part of his statement
“Fine,” Jackson said.
And that was that? One of the really big questions of our time. And that was that? Sure
nd like the Jackson I knew. But I grabbed control again before he had a chance to
take it back.
“Okay, then. Let’s go through the programs that led us to this point. What about
Conway’s Life game. Is that an example of a living creature?”
Shaking of heads
Finally, “Because the black squares have no internal structure.”
The man in back. Jackson.
“Right. No internal structure.
No choice. A square is filled or not filled, not by its own
choice, but by the circumstances of the
environment around it. Like a rock.”
Everyone seemed pleased by that simple description.
“All right, how about Simms’ Virtual Creatures? They have internal structure.”
“Just following the rules implanted there.” This time Bill from the class.
“Don’t we do
just the same thing?” I asked back.
“Not fair. Philosophical question at this point. No way to prove it one way or the
“At least not yet, anyway.”
At least we’d pulled some momentum away from Jackson.
“Okay, then, are we saying that genet
ic algorithms in general are just that.
Algorithms. The choices they make to deal with their environment are made by their
programmers, not themselves?”
“No,” another student said. Giselle.
“Because they’ve proven they can solve problems that th
e programmer never
envisioned them confronting.”
“Good.” I said.
And on we went. Finishing off Wolfram’s cellular automata,
Tom Ray’s Tierra,
Reynolds’ Boids and other swarm programs, and several other notable
precursors to the wor
k we’d engaged in. None alive. At least in the sense that we’d defined
life as. Choice.
“That leaves us with only complex adaptive systems and a couple other newer
approaches such as emergence to deal with.
Let’s take complex adaptive systems first. Who’d
like to define the words?”
An interactive collection of adaptive agents that can, as a group, develop intelligent
like behavior.” Jackson again. Filling in the silence.
“Everyone agree with that definition?”
“Close,” said Bill.
“More of a netwo
rk than a group.”
“Good,” I said. “Can someone give me a couple of examples?”
“The immune system,” Giselle said. Finally taking an active part in class discussion. A
good sign from a very bright student.
“We get attacked by germs all the time, m
any of which we’ve never encountered
before. Yet the immune system, a network of adaptive agents none of which by themselves
ould combat these invaders, protect us from getting sick.”
“And how do they do this?”
“Sum is greater than the totality of the individual parts.
“The human brain. Lots of little neurons, themselves possessing no knowledge at all,
networking together to create an incredible life form that can accomplish far more than one
“But neurons themselves are alive. Is it true than that complex adaptive systems
themselves are not alive unless their smallest constituents are alive as well?”
“No. It doesn’t mean that. We know that the truly smallest
elements of a brain’s cell
carbon, oxygen, and so on. Elements that are not alive.”
“Not bad,” I said, and relaxed for a
. We’d come a long way in a short time.
wanted it all to sink in.
“So, what we’ve concluded from this brief discussion is that life as we know it
of networks of smaller and less advanced life, which itself is an accumulation of non
things. That’s quite a mouthful, but fairly simple at the same time.”
“Yes,” Jackson said from the rear. Cheering us on. I wasn’t sure we needed that at t
moment, but better than nothing.
“What about Cairn’s
Smiths’ crystals?” I asked them, hoping a switch to biology might
send Jackson packing.
“As a precursor to life?” Bill asked.
“Sure,” he said.
But everything’s a precursor to life.”
road statement, don’t you think?
“Maybe, but it gets to the heart of what you’re going to ask next.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, aware that we’d covered much of this ground previously
and that some of the students could predict where I was going next.
an humans create actual life? Just from the building blocks available. Non life.”
“Good,” I said, not really believing what I said.
“And what’s the answer to your
“Sure,” he said.
The class seemed to agree.
“So where does that leave us?”
“Sounds like you’ve agreed that complex adaptive systems is the way to proceed.
Build several types of digital agents, make huge collections of them, hope that they coalesce
into networks, and then watch them adapt into true life forms.”
“Like the Inter
net,” Jackson said.
“No,” Bill immediately interrupted. “The Internet is a network, but the agents are us
and what we contribute to it.” He’d already realized the trap he’d set for himself.
“The Internet’s not a living organism,” Giselle said.
Silence. No one knew what to say to that. We’d just defined in essence what life was,
decided the Internet filled the bill, and then declared it not a life form.
“The Internet doesn’t make choices,” I said. At least as far as we know. If
case, then our complex adaptive system approach is not quite complete
. It’s missing
“God!” Jackson from the back, of course.
“No,” most of the class shouted back at him.
“Why not?” I asked them.
“God would then be as we are t
he Internet. An external agent.”
“And we’re not going back to the old philosophical game of ‘free choice,’” I said. With
a bit of reluctance. I’d killed the conversation.
And on we went. For another hour or so. Spirited discussion, but mostly around in
We were searching for the final clue. That special something that tapped non
the essence of life. And, as such, we’d entered into the realms of metaphysics, religion, new
age witchery, and so on.
Time to quit for the day.
I spent the rest of the afternoon fielding questions from Jackson and grading papers
from my large
enrollment class. I was surprised that Jackson had maintained his interest in
my research. He wanted titles of books he could read, offered some quite pertin
observations about what we’d discussed in class, and generally gave me the impression that
he was in it for the long haul.
By six, the snow had st
opped and I could hear the snow
plows out and about clearing
Time to go home. To my apartment C
assie would remind me. If she were here.
I hiked on my numerous coats and galoshes and stepped outside. The sky was clear,
storm gone, and a dim light from the setting sun still lit up the western sky.
plowed the steps and sidewalk out to the
street and it loo
ked like clean sailing to my
I could just see over the mounds of piled snow on either side of me as I walked.
Temperature well below freezing. Great time for an evening walk. If I weren’t so hungry. No
Cassie tonight. She had a
meeting with her staff and the neighborhood PTA. Something about
banning certain books. I didn’t want to be around her after that. Like walking into a lion’s
Two words that I would never fit into the same sentence for fear of my life. Cassie and
I agreed, of course, but it wasn’t so easy when you’re talking about second graders and
When I stepped off the road on to my apartment building’s walkway, I saw tow men
standing as if waiting for me. One tall. One relatively short. At least b
my way. Nothing so unusual about that. Except both had shotguns down by their sides
pointing skyward. At the moment.
“You Francis?” the tall one said.
They were both dressed like farm boys out for a good time. Harassing a local prof
at the university.
“What?” I said, trying to figure a way out of this. After all, Bokator, my still practiced
skill of martial arts fame, wouldn’t be much good against two shotguns.
“Are you Francis?” the tall one said again slowly, pronouncing the
words carefully as if
talking to a child.
“Francis who?” I asked him.
“Professor Francis,” he said. “From the university.”
“Who lives here,” the small one added in a high
“Nope. I’m here to visit someone upstairs. Second floor. My
girlfriend. Afraid I don’t
know anyone named Francis.”
“Looks like Francis,” the smaller one said, looking up at the tall one. “Except for the
beard. Francis has a beard.”
“Easy to shave that off,” the tall one said, looking down now at the smaller one.
rrying on a good
boy conversation while I stood there in the cold.
“I’m not Francis,” I said. “Never heard of him, in fact. Just on my way upstairs.”
“Got identification?” the smaller one asked.
“Sure,” I said. “But it would take me half an our to get
all my coats off and find it. Take
my word for it. I’m not Francis and don’t know anyone named Francis.”
They studied one another for a minute, looking at me occasionally, and measuring up
“What’s your girlfriend’s name?” the smaller one as
“Why not ask her yourself,” I said, and began walking toward them.
Surprise is always a good tactic, especially when dealing with the not too smart.
Luckily for me they didn’t raise their guns. In fact, they parted to let me pass. Maybe I
e drilled them both when I got in close range. That would have been my Bokator
teacher’s suggestion. But they hadn’t raised their guns or made any actual threats. Hard for
me to just beat the crap out of them for
up a conversation with me.
en, as I walked on toward the building, I heard them not so quietly following
Great, I thought. Now what. They probably know where I live and can put two and
two together if I go there. So I walked back to the outdoor stairs and stared up them. And
ey kept coming.
So I turned and told them, “Listen, I have a date. I don’t think my girlfriend’s going to
like it much if the three of us arrive. Why don’t you just keep on look for this guy Francis and
let me see my girlfriend by myself?”
They looked at
each other again. Maybe they’d mastered the art of
“We’ll follow you.
We think you’re Francis.”
“What do you want with the Francis guy, anyway?”
“Just want to talk with him. That’s all.” The way he said ‘talk’ didn’t sound to
that’s what they really wanted. In fact, it sounded lethal.
I turned and continued on up the stairs. Quickly at first, and then slowly down so they
could catch up.
As I reached the top step, I stopped. They kept coming, just as I’d hoped.
could literally feel their breaths on the back of my neck, I rammed both my
elbows back as hard as I could. A practiced move that even with my coats on did the job. My
right elbow caught the short one in the nose. I could hear it buckle and give.
connected with the taller guy’s forehead. Just as effective but producing less blood.
Pivoting on my left foot, I turned and pushed them both backwards and down the
stairs. They went over easily. Their guns rattled a few steps down after them and th
stopped. Far short of the bottom.
“Jesus,” one of them said.
The one who could still talk. The one without the broken
“What you do that for?”
“You think I like being followed by two yokels with shotguns?”
I picked up the two guns then. Twelve gau
ge. And loaded.
“Call 911,” the same guy mumbled.
“Call them yourself,” I said.
He grumbled this time.
“Why are you after Francis,” I asked them.
“Not after him,” the guy who could still talk said. “Protect him.”
“Protect him? From what?”
Patton just told us to protect him.”
Patton? Our chief of police? My friend? Sort of. The brother of Cassie, my true love?
“You talking about the Chief of Police?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Call 911. Please? I can barely talk. And my back hurt
s. I think you broke
something in there.”
“And Patton sent you to protect me?”
four seven,” he said.
“Make sure I wasn’t clubbed to death in my sleep?”
“Something like that.”
“You guys cops?”
“No. Doing him a favor. On the side. Not illegal.”
uppose not. But why? Who’d he expect was going to do what to me?”
“Never said. Just told us to keep an eye out.”
I went down the rest of the stairs and past them.
“Call 911, please.”
He sounded so desperate, that I did. First thing after getting out of my
opening a warm beer. Then I called Patton. He’d be in. Always was, it seemed.
“I’m afraid I busted your two friends up a bit. Sorry.”
“Christ, Francis. What’d you do that for?”
“They didn’t announce why they were there. They had
shotguns. That’s why. What did
“How bad is it?”
, a few bruises. And I have thre
e shotguns here with me.”
“Why the hell do you think I need protection, anyway?” I said.
“Jackson what? You think Jackson’s out to
“No. He’s afraid someone’s going after your work again.”
“On what basis.”
“Don’t know. Intuition, I guess. I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me. Just that he had it on
good authority. That I should trust him.”
“And you did.”
“Well, he’s been right
“You know, back when those terrorists were after your project to dismantle the
“How was he right then?”
“Well, maybe not right. But a great help.”
“I don’t remember exactly. But they ransacked his house and blew up his c
they. And he’s a psychologist, right?”
“So he says.”
“Any way, he convinced me to protect you.”
“And so you sent a couple of backwoods types and their shotguns?”
“Couldn’t send actual cops. No crime. We’re also busy down here. Had to do
“You paying these jokers out of your own pocket?”
So you say. Listen, I appreciate the thought, but I don’t need anyone protecting me
from nobody in the first place. Let them go. I haven’t got anything anybody would want. No
Just beginning a project. That’s it. I have no idea what Jackson thinks anyone
would want with me.”
“Okay.” He actually sounded relieved.
“What if they file complaints against me?”
“You sound sure of yourself.”
“I am. They had shotguns. Didn
’t explain themselves. You were completely within
your rights. I can vouch for you.”
good ammunition from the town’s leader in crime prevention, whose brother
was the county public defender, and who knew the judge well.
“And I’ll pay you back for w
hat you spent on these guys.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I will. I’m touched that you care so much about my well being,” I told him.
“Right,” he said, and hung up on me. An old story.
I’d have to call him back later to
get hi to promise he’d lay off sending
anyone else over to protect me.
Now to call Jackson.
“Jackson,” he said when he finally answered his phone. Twelve rings. Lost in one of my
books no doubt.
“Francis,” I said. “Why’d you tell Patton to put guards on me? I just
senseless for no good reason. Thought they were going to shoot me with their shotguns.”
“I didn’t tell him to do that.”
“You apparently told him something.”
“Only that he should keep his eyes open. That you might be getting yourself into
er one of your messes again.”
“Why’d the hell you tell him that?”
“Simple. I got a phone call.”
“I don’t know. That’s part of the problem.”
“All they wanted to know was how your research was going.”
“Why did they think you’d
know about such things? You haven’t been shooting your
mouth off again have you?”
“No. Of course not. But I may have let it slip to some of our colleagues that you might
be getting somewhere. Finally.”
“What did you tell
And which of our colleagues?”
“Does it really matter? The phone call was real. It sounded like someone very
interested in what you’re doing. And anonymous. Given your record of accomplishments, I
thought it would be wiser to be safe.”
“My record of accomplishments. What are you talkin
“C’mon, Francis. You’re the top in your fie
ld. What there is of it, anyway?
I wasn’t sure how to take that.
“Anyway, I’ve given your class today a lot of thought.”
“I think I have something you may not have considered yet.”
“And what mig
ht that be?”
“Well, as a psychology major I had to take a lot of biology. A subject you’ve told me
was not a favorite of yours. Right?”
“Well I’ve been brushing up on the subject over the past week. Remembering a lot of
what I’d forgotten.”
“You know, DNA.”
“I know what it is, Jackson. What about it?”
“Viruses have it.”
“Most biologists don’t think viruses are alive. But some do. Actually it’s about sixty
forty in favor of not alive. Whatever. The p
oint is that a virus has complicated DNA and all
living things do not. My guess is that viruses are a lot like light.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“Yes, I am. Light is both a wave and a particle. Viruses are both alive and not alive.
state between the two. The one thing that can make them alive is the one thing
that no non
life has. DNA.”
“Okay. So what?”
“You shouldn’t be looking for the key to life, Francis. You should be looking for the
key to DNA.”
Interesting point. Jackson wasn’t
as dumb as I’d thought.
Where did it come from, Francis?
t much clear evidence on
DNA. At least none that anyone
claims is absolute
. It just came to be
“What about introns and RNA?”
“You do remember your biology.”
“I have to in
order to do what I do. But I still don’t have to like it.”
Well you can add protei
ns and the fact that we have less numbers of genes in our
DNA than round worm
to your list.
Or even that ninety
eight percent of our genes are
meaningless to our developme
Lots of quirky stuff in genomics.”
“And your point is?”
away from such research simply because it represents the way we
“Why stay away from it?”
can’t really develop
in the same way
in a computer. The principles
are okay, but the reality just isn’t the same.”
“Yes, but the ideas are valid.
A replicating chain of connected agents in your complex
adaptive system could easily represent an early form of DNA. Not life, but the little guy t
makes life possible. Right?”
“Sure. And we’ve talked about such things in class. And I’ve written about them, too.”
“Yes, Jackson, I have. Listen, it’s clear you’ve been studying up and t
aking this all very
appreciate it. Belie
ve me I do. But it’s getting late now. Can I go to bed? And will
you lay off Patton?”
He was quiet for a minute.
“Sure. But can we get together some time over the weekend?”
“Call me in the morning. Later on in the morning. We’ll set something up. Okay?”
“Sure,” he said, and hung up on me. Nobody says goodbye anymore. They just get
tired to talking and that’s it. Not meant to be insulting. But it was.
Tired of shotguns, artificial or real life, and even the snow outside, I took a shower, ate
my usual feas
t of tuna and peanut butter sandwiches, and hit the sack early.
Maybe I could deal with all this in the morning.
I usually dream, but that night I didn’t. However, around four in the morning, I awoke
to the sound of someone knocking at my door. Loudly knocking.
Making a real racket.
Nothing like having a perfect night of sleep and then having it so rudely interrupted
Grabbing my housecoat from the back of the chair near my bed and turning on some
light, I headed toward the cause of the annoyance. And unlocked and opened the door.
There, standing like peas in a pod, were four men, dressed in fur coats but not so
h that they didn’t reveal formal coats and ties underneath. Then I noticed that all but one
of them had a revolver of some kind trained on me.
“Yes?” I asked. As if I hadn’t noticed the guns.
“You Francis?” the one without the revolver asked.
last night’s little charade with my nonexistent girlfriend upstairs had run
its course, I said, “Why? What do you want?”
Without further word, the same man pushed open the door, pushing me back into the
room. I let him do it. No sense risking bullets since I now noticed that the guns were
automatic. Had those large handles filled with ammunition. Or so the dete
shows in television led me to believe.
“Sit down,” the gunless one said. I assumed he was the alpha male. Maybe if I could
take him down the rest would cave as well.
“What's this all about?” I was still working on calming myself so I could take it
all in as
if it were a game of chess instead of life and death. No emotions my Bokator teacher said.
Wait until the perfect moment and go for the jugular.
“I’m here to take your computer and anything else I can find related to your current
project. And do
n’t give me any shit, see.”
“Sorry, I don’t have any shit to give you,” I said, now realizing that I was treading on
He didn’t smile. And disappeared into the bedroom leaving his three compadres with
guns behind to keep me from
r feet into their mouths.
I heard him throwing things into a box. Where he’d gotten it I wasn’t sure. Maybe I
had one in there and had forgotten about it. Whatever, he was busy tossing everything he
could find into it.
“Careful,” I yelled, “you might brea
k something and then neither of us would be able
to use it.” The sounds dimmed as he must have realized I was right.
I looked back at the gunsels. The guys with the guns. They just stared at me like
they’d like to put several rounds in me. Waiting for a r
“You boys ever see one of these?” I said, cupping my hands together as if holding
something important. “It’s alive. Won’t bite. But there’s only a few left alive on the planet.”
Trying to take a try at befuddling there one
It worked. Th
drifted over to take a peak. Just a little closer, I thought, and I’ll take
all three of you out in one panther swing. Bokator uses animal for the names of the moves
they most closely resemble. A panther swipe uses fingernails to slash at the eyes and n
predators. I’d just about reduced my move from elephant to panther. To fit the occasion.
Just as they reached my hand to look inside, I jumped to my feet, planted them firmly
about a foot apart, and raked their faces in one smooth wing of both my h
immediately began spraying the room as the cuts I opened up cause all manner of horrific
damage. I grabbed the guns, or at least tried to. Too big to actually do it, but forcing them to
fall to the floor was nearly as effective. Then I went
for the man in my bedroom.
And that’s, of course, when I woke up. Sweating. I’d had the dream that I’d dreamt I
hadn’t had. Good another twisted tale I could tell Jackson about when he arrived. He’d
probably caused it. I’d tell him that too.
Nine in the
morning. Sunny day. The snow was melting fast and
little riverlets were
pouring down the sides of the ro
d in front of my apartment. Down toward the rivers where
they’d probably cause some minor flooding.
I looked at the door. Still closed and firmly lock
ed. None of it had been true. Though
it had sure seemed that way.
As I sat down on the couch, I flipped the TV on and watched CNN for a while, trying
not to let my dream get me down. The weather person informed me that the east and west
coast had storms,
that the south and plains were going to be sunny, and nothing about the
northern plains. As if North Dakota didn’t exist. Typical. Not enough votes. No rating boosts
from way up here.
Eventually I made myself some breakfast, took a shower, and made myself
presentable. At least presentable to me. I left the blood all over the front room floor for the
maid to clean. After all, it wasn’t my blood.
Jackson called around eleven. Could he c
ome over, he asked. Better now than later, I
thought, and said sure. Let’s get this over with.
Fifteen minutes later he arrived. Svelt as usual. Dressed without a tie but in his
smoking jacket, even though he didn’t smoke. Maybe his students thought more
of his for it.
I thought it presumptuous. We made ourselves comfortable around my coffee table. If he
noticed my dreamt of blood he didn’t say.
“Before you begin,” I said, “let me tell you the problem with what you suggested on
the phone last night.”
y,” he said, a little timidly, I thought.
“Wherever we start in the chain leading through evolution, it’s a problem. If you tell
me it begins with amino acids I ask you to carefully define an amino acid. You tell me that it
carbon, hydrogen, o
xygen, and nitrogen. Okay, I then ask you what those are. You
tell me that hydrogen consists of a single electron and single proton. So I ask you what’s an
electron. You tell me it’s an elementary particle with a negative charge. And that’s as far as
. Fine. But how do I build an electron agent in a computer program? What’s a negative
charge equivalent? How do I get it to revolve around a proton? And on and on. See what I’m
“Sure, But couldn’t you just program an amino acid without doing a
ll that and take it
“No. You see, all the components of amino acids contribute something to them in
ways I cannot predict and which may well lead or at least help lead to the formation of DNA.
In short, to program something you have to know everything about it. Which we don’t. And
more, we have to know how to model it in ways that will act appropriately for what it’s
supposed to do. Anyone who’s tried doing that has given up almost before they’v
e begun. It’s
a nightmare. It might seem easy to you,
but believe me
it’s not. Things out here in the real
world are more complex than anyone can imagine. But complex in perfect ways to create us
sitting here in this room talking about them in the here and
I had him going now. And I hadn’t begun talking about subatomic particles like
“You can’t simply start in the middle, say with primordial soup, without knowing
everything about that primordial soup. Not possible. At least not yet.”
d to say something. I interrupted him.
“And you can’t start in the beginning either. Believe it or not it’s just as complex
there. Maybe more so for us because it’s all so small.
So where do you start knowing you can’t
succeed because there’s no way you ca
n actually know much about what you’re doing.”
“And then where do you go from there then?”
“We’ve built something that
read up on all this, we began with a kind of Conway
matrix, but three
tead of two. And the rules are different, because the objects in the squares
don’t just live and die by the
number of neighbors, but they move around inside the grid.
They can even procreate. And group as in nodes in a network. Most importantly, though,
they have internal structure.”
“Something very simple. Two bytes. Two binary numbers. One of them is an index,
and the other an affinity. In other words, the first is a kind of identifier that can, when
procreating, divide just like DNA in a livin
g cell. The second is the key to it. This byte
indicates what kinds of DNA that the first byte has affinities for.”
He looked confused.
“Important to remember. These bytes are not just numbers that translate into a single
Arabic numeral. They’re on
tches. So each byte represents a rather complex entity that
when combined creates possibilities of highly complex behavior. Not the same as with
Holland, but similar. So, you see, we have inner structure and outer environment. And we
have grouping and repl
ication. All the initial agents or objects are set with random binary
bytes so the results of each initial population will turn out quite different. And if we change
the environmental rules, a whole new situation results. The combinatorial possibilities ar
“Sounds like you know what you’re doing.”
“May sound that way, but we actually have no idea what we’re doing. In fact, I can’t
imagine us knowing less about the eventual outcomes. All we know is that with the speed of
we can run thousands of evolutions, if you want to call them that, in very
“And what do you expect will happen?”
“So far, only blobs of goop, signifying nothing. But remember, if we could predict,
then we’d have created a tool, not life.”
I don’t really understand how you expect these things to eventually be able to
choose. That’s the word you used, isn’t it?”
“You have to know about complex adaptive systems to understand
“I do. From the reading you gave me.”
“Then tell me about
system that has a large number
of components, often called agents, that interact
“Stock market. Ant colonies. Weather. Immune system. The brain. Any group
behavior such as a political
party or a society. Everyone doing something without a leader.
No one actually in charge.”
“Remind you of anything?”
“Sure. What you’re doing.”
Like electricity. At one time we never had it. Now we take it for granted.
Lots of people doing differ
ent things, from digging up fossil fuels or building dams to those
filling out forms and sending out bills. Extremely complex. In fact, no one has ever been able
to accurately model the whole thing. And certainly no one is in charge. In a sense, though,
all are. Each of us plays a role just by having needs. For us it’s the lights up there on the
ceiling. For others it’s paying the bills, or getting the life i
nsurance they want.”
“So you’re hoping that a
complex adaptive system will emerge out of the mess
“That’s about it.
But nothing so far. And maybe nothing forever. Or maybe the
computer science building will just get up and walk to South Dakota
tomorrow. All by
Just because it chooses to do so.”
That’s when the phone rang.
“Francis,” I said.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. It was Buster, the woman in charge of my lab. Where
she’d gotten her name I didn’t know and was afraid to ask.
“We’re missing some of the guys.”
“What exactly do you
mean by ‘missing?’”
“They should be there, but they’re not.”
“Just died then.”
“No. We’ve reversed engineered the positions and structures. They’re
supposed to be
not. They’re off the grid.”
“How did you reverse engineer it? That’s
near impossible with a complex
“I know, but we’ve missed some of these guys before. This time I ran a trace while it
“My God. A trace. That must have slowed the system by a thousand fold.”
“More than that. It’s been running f
or over a month. Continuously.”
“So you’ve followed every single event that’s occurred.”
“It’s still impossible.”
“But it’s happened.”
“Then we have a flaw somewhere in the code.”
“We’ve checked that
several times. None of us can find anything wrong
. It’s not as if
the code is that complicated.”
“I know. I wrote it myself. I’ll have to check it out again. Death by programmer’s
error. Hate that.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“What do you mean?”
“The alternatives give me the willies.”
“Forget the willies. It
’s programmer errors. I’ll be over in a few minutes.”
“Thanks.” And she hung on me. What happened to ‘good bye?’
“What’s going on?” Jackson asked me.
“Nothing much. Just lost a few little agents is all.”
“My error, I’m sure. One of the rules I set
up has a flaw in it. Has to be.”
“Don’t go there.”
“So you’re going over to the lab?”
“Can I come with you?”
“Jeez, Jackson. What’s in this for you? An article on the psychology to two
“Not a bad idea.”
“Forget it. This is just a simple glitch in my code.
Not a science fiction story or
“True. But it’s still fascinating me. I won’t cause any problems. I assure you. And, you
never know, I might be of use.”
I let him come just to get him o
ut of my apartment.
Jackson kept a running conversation as we walked across the street to my lab.
“Where’s the memory in the gizmos?”
“Whatever. You know what I mean.”
“There is no memory. That’s left to the complex adaptive system. In other w
memory is spread out over an entire group rather than in a single individual in that group.”
“Hard to imagine.”
“How about the affinities. How can a byte of data represent an affinity for another
byte of data?”
“Opposites attract. If,
for example, a byte happened to be a one followed by seven
zeros, then it’s perfect mate would be a zero followed by seven ones. Of course, that may
never happen, so it may have to settle for a less perfect one.”
“Makes a certain kind of sense, I guess.”
“Got something better, tell me now.”
“I’m still worried about the lack of a memory. Building that in would, I think, hurry
“You know, Jackson, you’re beginning to bug me.”
“Meaning I’m becoming a pain in the ass?”
“Sure. After all, it’s my
isn’t it?” He paused before and after the word choice to
give it special emphasis.
I expected my crew in the lab to be disheveled and distraught, but they seemed
anything but. Apparently the news of losing a few agents h
ad energized their young minds
rather than disturbing them.
Or maybe Buster had calmed them after she’d called me.
“So,” I said, “Show me. On the projector. I want us all on the same page.”
And she did. She found a few before
afters. Sure enough, sev
eral thousand agents
had simply disappeare
needed to reverse engineer the process. There was
simply no way that could happen given the code I’d presented them.
“You see, Doctor Francis, a whole bunch of them have escaped.”
“Escaped?” I almost
jumped at the word. “Escaped? What led you to that conclusion?”
“Well, they’re no longer there. What would you call it?”
Disappeared is a strong word. Let’s try unaccounted for. Okay. Until we check into
A few nods. I was the guy bursting their romanticized
of the lab being heaven
“Put the code up there. Star
ing with the functional programming, and saving the
oriented stuff for later.” I looked at Jackson and saw his eyes glaze over. Good. I might
lose him now and he’d finally stop following me around like a puppy.
We spent the next several hours while
Jackson dozed checking every line of code and
documentation. Everything seemed perfectly right.
Though that didn’t mean much. Several
scenarios could account for the problem besides the code.
“How about memory? It’s just possible that we’re topping out t
he RAM and we’re
losing them through garbage collection or something like that.”
“We’re fine. Plenty of overhead. More than a gigabyte.”
“Checked for that, too. Nothing. All our filters are up to date, so unless someone’s
thing we don’t know about, it can’t be that.”
“Don’t see how. It works fine for most of our runs. It’s just this one that has the
“This one run longer?”
“No. Actually it runs about the same length as the rest. It just comes up
with a few
thousand missing passengers.”
A funny way to phrase it.
“Then let’s take a look at the starting conditions. Maybe there’s something there that
accounts for it.”
And we did. Nothing wrong.
It was closing in on eleven by then, and I was about t
o call it quits when Buster made a
“Could we try a few other applications?” she asked.
“To see if they work okay.”
“Sure. Don’t see why not. It might prove that there’s a system glitch.”
“Not what I had in mind, but let’s do
And we tried several. Several no longer worked. No common theme. One was a
relational database that kept coming up with incredibly stupid associations. Another a simple
word processer that seemed out of sink with the keyboard.
“Obviously the system th
en,” I said.
“Maybe,” Buster said.
“Let’s save everything, shut it down, and then reinstall a new system version, and
“Take most of the night with this beast,” our hardware expert Jim said.
“I’m tired anyway. Set it going and let’s get back here
about nine tomorrow morning.
No one argued. To the contrary, I thought that most were ready to stay in the lab
through the night. And tomorrow was Sunday. Dedication.
I talked Jackson into going home and told him I’d ring him
Monday morning if we
ere still alive from the stalking hoard of escaped agents. He was too tired to argue and we
aimed ourselves for homes and beds.
t dream that night, this time
for real, and awoke to another sunny day with the
storm’s snowfall nearly gone. T
he outside thermometer just beyond my kitchen window read
forty degrees. Balmy for North Dakota this time of year.
While eating a great breakfast of coffee, tuna fish, and peanut butter I thought back to
a particular occasion during my graduate years. My
first small success at creating artificial
life. Or at least I thought so at the time. Darwin I called it. After Sir Charles. The point was
simple. I create a bunch of empty text files on my computer and have Darwin find them and
write me notes. Actually,
these notes were completely unintelligible. But who cared? Just the
thought of a program roaming around on my desktop finding such files and writing things
in them where nothing had been before seemed profound somehow. I set it going one Friday
ed it off. And looked at the files. Full of nonsensical drivel. Success, but so what?
I then worked in my adviser’s for the weekend and forgot all about it. When Monday
rolled around, I tried my computer and found that Darwin had no shut down, but had
inued to roam through my files looking for empty texts. Not finding any, it apparently
read its programming wrong and began rewriting my text files that had data and other
important information in them. It had trashed almost everything there.
No big conse
quence since I’d backed most everything up, but it still unnerved me a
. That this simple little program had somehow become unleashed and had ridden shod
over my files without my permission. Exciting but at the same time frightening.
all the c
ode to Darwin into the trashed and sent it into digital oblivion. It didn’t want to go.
In fact it took me two hours to find all of it. Somehow it had split itself into many pieces. Not
something I wanted to deal with again. At least not now. Not on the sc
ale of our beast across
the street. For by now computer speed and memory size had increased a thousand fold since
my days in graduate school.
By eight thirty I couldn’t wait any longer and walked across the street to my lab. Only
to find that the others h
ad beat me to the punch. Already working on the problem from
many different angles.
“I had an idea,” Buster said.
“Look for the escapees to see if we could find them elsewhere. About three this
morning I got a serious worry.”
I looked at he
r. Did I want to know the answer?
“I couldn’t remember if we’d shut down Internet access before we ran the
experiments. See, there’s no way to check email or look up things in here with the mainframe
dedicated to the experiments. So some of us thought it w
ouldn’t be too much of a drain on
computer resources to just keep it on.”
Seeing the worry on her face, I hated to ask. But I did.
“It was still on.”
“Thus making it difficult to find the little beasties since not only could them be
anywhere on the
mainframe but they could be anywhere in the world. Damn. I thought we
agreed to keep this area completely secure.”
She just looked at the floor.
“So now we don’t have any idea where our escapees might be?”
“If that’s what they are.”
thought back to Darwin. What have we done?
“You’re the one called them that,” I said.
“And now I’m not so sure.”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Then what’s up?”
“Just a hunch.”
“Huh,” uncertain that I’d heard her right.
know it’s a reach, but it’s possible that someone took them.”
“Took them where?”
“Don’t know. As I said, it’s just a hunch.”
Buster often had interesting if mostly wrong hunches. They were usually worth the
time to investigate.
“So, you’re saying that some
one either came into the lab and . . .”
“No, not that. We’ve been here all night.”
“I thought I sent you guys home.”
“You did. But it’s kind of hard to leave at this point. We took turns sleeping so at least
one of us could keep at it.”
“Thus you think it’
s someone on line then.”
“Yes. Or at least that’s one possibility we can’t overlook.”
“How does someone get inside our computer and, amongst all of the various programs
and data we have there, find one that’s running and somehow get in there and steal some
software agents that are still generating? That’s almost impossible to imagine.”
“Almost,” she said.
“Can you find out?”
“Bill’s trying. But it’s not going to be easy, if it’s possible at all
“So now we have some missing parts to our puzzle and we’re no
t sure whether they
got lose on there own or whether they’ve been taken by someone. I suppose next you’ll tell
me that it may be a combination of the two?”
“I hadn’t considered that.”
“Someone poking around and just by accident a bunch of our developing ag
a ride on their scheme. They don’t even know what they’ve done. And now they’re
developing on someone else’s computer. Haven’t entered the Internet yet. Just waiting to
discover it. That sort of thing?”
“That sort of thing.”
“Possibilities are en
“Why not have someone here work on trying to engineer such a prospect just to see if
its something we should consider?”
“Already on it.”
“And you have cut off our link to the outside world. I hope.”
“That’s the other thing.”
“We can’t break the link. It’s on apparently and going to stay that way.”
“How about breaking the physical line?”
“Not the problem. It’s the WiFi.”
“Then let’s shut that down. Besides I thought WiFi was weak up here in the wilds.”
“Not here i
n the lab. And we can’t really shut it off, it’s weak but it’s everywhere. Slow
but functioning. We’d have to spend months to get everyone in WiFi distance to shut their
systems down all at the same time. Nearly impossible.”
“Then we shut down the computer
. Reboot it from scratch and disallow connection.”
“Thought of that, too.”
“What do you mean, no go?”
“We can’t turn it off.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Yes. It turns out it is.”
“Unplug the damn thing.”
“Let that run out.”
“No go? How’s that possible?”
When the battery gets low something begins
to refuel it.”
“Something? Refuel it from where?”
“All good questions. We don’t know what the something is? The refueling part is
easier. Somehow the damn things are conver
ting digital data into electrical energy to keep it
“What damn things? Our agents on the loose?”
“And how can you convert digital data into electrical energy?”
“Not sure. But it’s happening.”
“What digital data we talking about?”
“The program itself.”
“You mean that it’s cannibalizing itself in order to stay alive?” I was surprised to hear
the words come out of my mouth that easily. I was a scientist after all. It would take a lot to
convince me that these damn things were alive.
he words “
t you wish for,
Francis.” Resonated in my mind.
We spent the rest of the day getting absolutely nowhere.
Everything we tried failed.
As a scientist, of course, I believed that failure is often the road to success. So we kept careful
notes on everything we tried and as time passed we were sure we didn’t repeat any failed
process. In that sense, we’d gotten som
Around five that afternoon, Jackson showed up. Stood in the doorway to the lab and
used his eyes to call me away from the action. Or inaction. I joined him in his little secret
rendezvous next to the door.
“What?” I asked him.
“Got another phone
“Same guy. Wanted to know how things were going.”
“And you told him what?”
“Nothing. Asked him who he was.”
“Good. What did he say?”
“Didn’t want to tell me.”
“So you hung up on him.”
“No. He told me he was from the FBI.”
“He sounded legit.”
“He sounded legit? How does one sound legit, Jackson?”
“Rattled off some Homeland Security stuff.”
“Guy sitting on the sidewalk with a paper bag of whiskey could probably do that. Did
you tell him anything?”
“No. He fin
ally hung up on me.”
“And never told you his name?”
“How legit does that sound now?”
“So you’ve come here to tell me this?”
“That and see how you’re doing.”
“Haven’t got time to catch you up. And, for your own good, it’s probably better
don’t. You can’t tell him anything if you don’t know anything.”
He looked slightly hurt, but I didn’t care at that point. He’s was really beginning to
piss me off.
“Can I stay for a while?”
Like a kid who wandered into his favorite team’s clubhouse
. Just wanted to watch the
big boys close up.
“I don’t care. Just don’t get in the way,” I said, surprised at my treating one of my best
friends like a
Around seven that evening, with Jackson still lurking around, I decided to head h
for the night. Had to teach the next day and needed to prepare for classes and get some rest.
So I dressed in my coats and headed out across the meadow that separates the Computer
Science Building from my apartment house. Thank God Jackson didn’t follo
w. I was
beginning to understand his curiosity with me and the lab. He too had a lab, but nothing in it
that would keep students working there twenty
four seven. Against the lab director’s
We may have gotten ourselves into a mess, but it was
an exciting mess.
As I approached my apartment, two things stood out. First, my lights were on. I hadn’t
remembered leaving them that way. Second,
Cassie’s car was parked on the street out front. I
realized I hadn’t talked to her since our little prison b
reak and caused so much consternation.
We generally talked at least once a day. Pleased that my evening might be spiced up a little, I
opened my front door with a bit more enthusiasm that I normally would have. That
disappeared the minute I stepped inside.
Sitting on my couch was the largest human being I’d ever seen. A giant. Maybe close
to seven feet tall, but clearly not a basketball player. This guy was huge in every way.
Though not fat by any means. Mostly muscle, clearly bulging from beneath the suit
And clearly not Cassie. I could tell that right off.
He looked up at me staring at him.
I shut the door behind me wondering if I should have shut myself out rather than in.
But, as they say, the bigger they are the harder they fall. In this cas
e I could end it with a shot
to the groin, right at my eye level. Of course, he looked like he had metal balls. Might do
more harm to me than him.
“Where’s Cassie,” I said.
He smiled. Not a wicked or evil smile. Just a smile. Humoring me maybe. Hard to te
“Home,” he said. As if that explained everything.
“And you have her car because?” I’d forgotten to mention the key as well.
“She lent it to me. And the key to your apartment.”
“You a friend of hers?”
“Not an enemy. But just met her.”
“You the one who called Jackson?”
“Identification?” I asked.
He slowly used his left hand to reach into one of his inner pockets, removed a small
wallet, at least small in terms of his hands, and passed it over to me.
I looked it over. Federal Bureau of Investigation. All the right words I supposed,
though I really had no idea what a legitimate FBI identification card and badge would look
But I didn’t give it back right away. Wanted it to look like I knew what I
looked okay, so I handed it back to him.
“Satisfied?” he said.
“I’m a novice at these things. I’ll take you at your word. For the moment at least.”
“Fair enough. Can we talk now?”
“What you’re up to these days.”
“Why about that?”
t’s just say, we’re interested. Given your track record.”
“My track record?”
“Yes. We’ve been involved with you for a couple of years now. You might recollect.”
This time I smiled.
“Doing the same kind of things.”
“Working on artificial life. Contro
versial, don’t you think?”
“Suppose. I don’t think of it that way particularly, but apparently some do.”
This time he smiled. Lot of that going around.
“So why are you harassing Jackson and Cassie? Why not come to me in the first place?”
Before he could a
nswer my phone rang. I hated the sound. Picked it up during the
“Francis,” I said.
“You met him yet?”
“I’m looking right at him as we speak.”
“Quite a load, don’t you think?”
“He’s big, alright. But I think I could tak
At that, the elephant in the room took a look at me. And smiled.
“You okay?” I asked her.
“Yes. He seemed like the FBI type. Credentials looked good. He just didn’t want to
have to stand outside your apartment in the cold waiting for you to return. Asked to borrow
my car and the key. Seemed okay at the time. And he left a new
BMW in front. I fi
gured if he
took off with my car, I’d be getting the better of the deal.”
“Good thinking,” I said.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Not sure,” I said. “I’m not even sure he’s sure. A little strange all around.”
“Want me to call Patton?”
Let’s not get t
oo excited yet. As I said, he’s a big one, but he doesn’t
okator. So I think we’re fine.” I was trying to provoke him. Not doing a very good job. I
guess he was used to intimidating people with his size. Size means nothing in Bokator. Except
at you move slower and make a bigger target.
We said our goodbyes and hung up on each other.
“Okay,” I said, “why don’t we get down to it. What do you want?”
“Information,” he said. “And, by the way, I do know Bokator. Third degree black belt.
Shit. There goes that advantage. Guy that big could cream me. I wasn’t even a black
belt no less third degree.
“Okay. I’m properly scared. What information do you want?”
“About your work. What is it exactly? And what do you plan to do with it?”
l live. Trying to create it computationally. Have no idea what to do with it
because we haven’t been successful. It’s not something that just happens. No one has ever
exceeded. No one’s even come close. Maybe it’s not even possible.”
“Many think that if it
is possible, you’re the one that’s going to do it.”
“Could be. I don’t know about that. I’m literally too busy to keep up with the current
research. Don’t even publish much anymore. Probably has created a
mystery that makes some
people think I’m on to som
ething. They’d be wrong.”