Friday, April 19, 2013

Orangeberry Book Of The Day - Collapse by Richard Stephenson (Excerpt)


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Genre – Dystopian

Rating – R

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In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Howard Beck awoke in his massive bedroom in his palatial home.  Howard never hesitated when he woke; he didn’t stare at the ceiling and talk himself into starting his day.  Once his eyes were open, his feet hit the floor and it was time to begin the day.  Howard hated wasting his time and hated even more when others wasted it.  Howard had every second of every day planned to perfection.  It wasn’t a difficult task; Howard repeated the same routine every day with little deviation. The routine that followed his exit from bed had been the same for most of his five decades.  Toilet, shower, breakfast, in that order.   When Howard flushed the toilet, the shower came on by itself and achieved the exact temperature he had programmed.  After the shower, Howard stepped out, and like every morning, the shower slowly trickled to a stop.   He put on his robe and traveled through his cathedral sized home to the kitchen.  Every time he entered a room, the lights would come on; when he left, they would fade back down.  Once he was in the kitchen, the lights turned on and the curtains retracted to show a stunning view of the Rocky Mountains.   Howard grabbed his cup from beneath the coffee pot and sat alone at the breakfast table.

“Good morning, Hal.”  Howard spoke aloud, waiting for his computer to respond.

“Good morning, sir,” the world’s first truly Artificial Intelligence sprang to life and spoke in a male, British voice.

“What do you have for me this morning?”

“No relevant messages received during the night.  Your first vid-conference is at 9 o’clock with Director Mills.   When I contacted him last night to confirm the meeting, he indicated to me that he would be reporting on the recovery progress at the Atlanta factory.”

“Did he sound positive about it or like he wasn’t looking forward to it?”

“Based on his vocal patterns and word choices, I would say his report will be positive.”

“Or complete bullshit,” Howard muttered.

“I am sorry, sir, I have little success understanding deception.  If you would like, in the future I can...” 

“Never mind, Hal.  What’s going on in the world?”  Howard seldom ventured from the fortress he had designed.

“Residents along the Texas-Louisiana state line are preparing for Hurricane Maxine to make landfall in the next thirty-two to thirty-four hours.  Based on my analysis, I estimate a sixty-one percent chance that it will make landfall four point two miles east of the tip of Galveston Island.”

“You don’t say,” Howard muttered, not paying attention.

“Wildfires continue to spread across much of California.  Officials have reason to believe that arsonists are using the wildfires as cover to set even more fires.  Officials also suspect the arsonists are making the existing wildfires stronger.”

“Uh-huh.  Next story, please.”  Old news tended to bore Howard.   He made it a habit to ignore speculation and sensational news reporting until it became more grounded in fact.

Hal continued, “Recovery efforts along the Florida coastline continue to show little progress a month after the disaster.  Critics from both sides of the aisle continue to raise questions about why much of Florida is in a media blackout. The governor of Florida said in a press conference that Hurricane Luther carried a toxic chemical spill up the coast, rendering much of the region unsafe.  Governor Prince also indicated that over three-quarters of the roads in her state were impassable.  The governor also indicated that an unnamed aircraft carrier was off the coast of Merritt Island, some sixty miles from Orlando.   The Department of the Navy would not comment on search and rescue missions along the Florida coast.”

Hearing the same news day after day with only a few minor details added irritated Howard.  “Hal, give me something interesting that I can’t find on the Internet.”

“Of course, sir.”  The most sophisticated computer in the world, the first to shatter the Turing Test into irrelevancy, paused for less than half a second before continuing.

“President Powers, facing the defining moment in his administration, stands on the precipice of toppling the Great Empire of…”

Howard laughed, something he rarely did, and interrupted his friend.  “What?  Are you kidding me?  Did you really and truly,” Howard laughed again, “just use the word ‘precipice’ and actually speculate about something as unpredictable as an actual war?”

“I did indeed, sir.”

“I must say, Old Man, you never cease to impress me.”

“Thank you, sir.  I do try.”

“Mind telling me how you figured out that the president was at a ‘precipice’ in the war?”

“I would be happy to, sir.”

“Wait, how long will it take?”

“Forty-two and a half minutes, sir.”

“Can you just give me the condensed version?”

“Forty-two and a half minutes is the condensed version, sir.”

“Never mind, Hal.  I spoke with the president last night, and I’m positive I know what you’re about to say.  Tonight when I go to bed, I would be happy to listen to you for forty-two and half minutes and tell you if you got it right.”

“I look forward to it, sir.”

Hal did, of course send and receive all vid-cons to and from Howard Beck.  Hal recorded every conversation in intimate detail.  However, Howard had programmed Hal not to access the conversations without his permission.  If Howard needed Hal for anything while he was on a vid-con, he simply raised the level of his voice slightly and spoke the phrase “Hal, I need you.”   This would trigger another program, separate from Hal, and bring Hal into the conversation.  Howard felt he deserved a level of privacy from the computer he built.

“Continue, Old Man.  Anything happen on the compound last night?”

“No, sir, nothing of consequence happened on the property last night.  Some wildlife did make it on the property and caused damage to some of the landscaping on the south lawn.”

“Son of a bitch.  Please tell me it wasn’t the Middlemist’s Red.  What furry little shits did it?”

The Middlemist’s Red was his wife’s favorite.  They had met when they were seniors in college.   Howard immediately knew that Meredith was the woman he would marry.  When Howard was able to slow his brilliant, genius mind down long enough to focus on one thing instead of dozens, it was not something to be ignored.  It had happened twice before.  The first was when he was old enough to sit in front of a computer.  The introduction to the world of Star Trek was the second time.  Captain Picard was the coolest guy to grace both the big and small screen.  The richest man in the world could hardly manage to keep his composure when he met Patrick Stewart.  The kind Englishman managed to put Howard at ease and the two became friends.  Howard honored Mr. Stewart as being one of the few men in the world to say he had seen the inside of Howard’s $500 million home.  

During his senior year at MIT, Howard was relentless in his pursuit of Meredith.  When he finally found a piece of data that he knew would win her heart, he gave her the flower and asked her to marry him.  Meredith was deeply touched by the flower.  However, she smiled, kissed him on his forehead and explained to Howard that she couldn’t very well marry a fourteen-year-old boy.

Howard decided to wait until he was eighteen and finishing his second doctorate to ask again.  Meredith was twenty-six and engaged to another man.  She adored Howard and cherished his friendship.  Howard was not fazed in the slightest by his competition.   He knew it was only a matter of time before the engagement would end.  They were meant to be together.  Computers…Star Trek…Meredith.  It was going to happen; Howard just needed to wait.  Howard finally had his chance when the engagement ended just like he predicted.  Three years later he founded Beck Enterprises and asked for her hand in marriage a third time.  Meredith knew that Howard was a profoundly brilliant man who would change the world.  She also fully understood what made Howard the way he was.

Howard had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism and a pervasive developmental disorder that seriously impairs social skills and the demonstration of empathy.   Aspies, as they like to be called, also have a hard time maintaining eye contact and understanding facial expressions and other social cues.  This makes interpreting subtle nuances like sarcasm and deception (playful or sinister) very difficult.  Aspies are very direct and speak their mind, often forgetting the impact that such honesty can bring to those around them.  Meredith did not consider it a “disease” or a “disorder” or even a “syndrome”.  She cherished Howard dearly and embraced every single thing about him.  She agreed to take things slow and the two became a couple.

A year later the two were wedded.  Meredith wore her grandmother’s dress, and Howard wore a Starfleet Dress Uniform from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Meredith thought he was kidding when he mentioned the idea.  Howard’s reaction was to have a total meltdown and lock himself in his room.  When he finally calmed down, he was able to explain to her that the first time he saw the dress uniform in the seventh episode of season one entitled “Lonely Among Us,” he decided right then and there that he would wear exactly the same dress uniform at his wedding.  He then proceeded to try to describe the episode in detail and began to quote the dialogue when Meredith stopped him and kissed his cheek. When Howard made up his mind about something, it was set in stone and could not be changed.  When Howard made plans to do something, it was not easily deviated from.   Howard was heartbroken when he deduced that the only logical conclusion was that Meredith was going to call off the wedding because he was trying to ruin it.

Meredith simply smiled and told him that she loved him so much he could wear a potato sack to their wedding.  She stood beside her handsome Starfleet Captain and made her vows.  After the ceremony, Howard’s gift to her was a garden of Middlemist’s Red flowers.  She had forgotten the young fourteen-year-old Howard giving her the flower on his first of three marriage proposals.  For decades she regarded the flower to be a beautiful and symbolic representation of their marriage.  She told Howard he was unique and special, just like the flower.  Howard just saw the flowers as something that made his wife happy, even though they cost a fortune to bring to the U.S. and to keep alive.  He could not understand what was so special about the flowers.  The camellia named for John Middemist wasn’t even red; it was a deep pink and looked more like a rose than a camellia. 

“No, sir, the Middlemist’s Red are fine.  The offending creature was not a ‘furry little shit’ as you so eloquently put it.  It was in fact a Northwestern Great Horned Owl attempting to catch a mouse, which it did, I might add.”

“Really?  They come this far south?”

“Yes, sir.  In the winter they have been seen this far south.”

“Thank God the damned flowers are fine.  Her Highness would never let me hear the end of it.  Where exactly did we get those cursed flowers from this time?”

“From New Zealand, sir.”

“Yeah, that’s it, how on earth did I forget that?”

“I have no idea, sir.”

Howard’s estate was one of three locations in the world that featured the flower.  It was incredibly difficult to keep the flowers alive in Colorado.  They were kept in a greenhouse and when weather permitted, the greenhouse walls were programmed to retract.  Howard’s wife insisted on it; she felt that the flowers should be a part of nature when possible.  Botanists and flower enthusiasts from all over the country begged to get a look at them.  Howard wouldn’t hear of it.  The thought of his home becoming a tourist attraction made Howard sick to his stomach.

“Thank you, Hal.  Is that all?”   

“There is one more thing, sir.   A vehicle passed in front of the estate last night.”

“Really?  Belong to a nearby resident?”

“No, sir.  The vehicle had an out-of-state license plate.”

That got Howard’s attention immediately and frightened him.  He began to tap his fingers and rock back and forth.  “What?  Out of state?  Did they slow down at all or do anything suspicious?”

“No, sir.  They did not slow down or attempt any surveillance of the property.

This made Howard nervous.  In the year 2027, very few people traveled outside of their hometown, let alone out of their state.  Interstate travel was unheard of during the Second Great Depression. Few people could afford to travel long distances, and the ones that did have the wealth traveled by jet on the last remaining airline in the country.  Long distance travel was for the élite.

Howard snapped out of his train of thought and addressed his computer.   His eyes fluttered around the room, his speech became more erratic. Howard was not handling this well.

“Hal, what can you tell me about the vehicle?  What state?  Anything on the driver or passengers?”

“I’m sorry to report, sir, the only thing I was able to see was a small portion of the plate, enough to ascertain that the vehicle was not from Colorado.  I can report with eighty-four percent certainty that the only occupant of the vehicle was the driver.  This of course does not account for passengers not properly seated in the vehicle.”

“You mean you wouldn’t be able to tell if someone was lying down in the backseat?”

“Correct, sir.”

“Could it be an evacuee from Hurricane Luther?”

“No, sir, not likely.” 

“Based on what exactly, Hal?” 

“I have narrowed the license plate down to three possible states, none of which the hurricane had any impact on.”

“What are the three states?”  

“Iowa, Kentucky, and Mississippi.”   

“Hmmmm.   Hal, until further notice, I want you to notify me immediately of any out-of-state vehicles coming near the property.” 

“Of course, sir.”

Howard had never even considered that an out-of-state vehicle would be in the area.  He had not seen one on the road in years.  Most people simply could not afford to put gas in their vehicles.  Instead, they used mass transit, rode mopeds and bicycles.  It wasn’t uncommon to see vehicles on the road; it was however, uncommon to see an out-of-state license plate.

Howard had managed to calm down and stop tapping his fingers. “Anything else, Hal?”

“Yes, sir.  Several months ago you instructed me to remind you today to make arrangements to visit Meredith.” 

“That will be all, Hal.  Thank you.”  Howard said sharply.

“Very good, sir.  I would be happy to review the rest of your schedule over lunch.”  Hal went silent and began to study each room of the mansion to see what tasks needed to be assigned to his robots.

Howard did not respond to his assistant.  He wanted to scream at Hal for putting him in such a foul mood.  He knew that to do so would only raise his blood pressure and serve no real purpose. The elevation of Howard’s blood pressure would be known immediately to Hal thanks to the thousands of tiny nanobots coursing thru the billionaire’s blood.  Hal knew every intimate detail about his creator and alerted him of any medical concern, no matter how small. 

His trusted assistant, while very lifelike, was only a sophisticated machine, the first one of its kind.  Howard built the A.I. himself and still tinkered with him.  Howard was already approaching his first billion when he completed Hal.  When he decided to sell the first true A.I. the world had ever known, his net worth skyrocketed into the tens of billions.  From year to year, he moved around on the list of the richest people in the world.  He was currently at the top of the list. 

The A.I. came with a hefty price tag; only major corporations and a few of the world’s governments could afford it.  Hal’s siblings ran much of the day-to-day operations at Apple, Google, and Facebook.  Only two other private citizens in the world had a copy of the A.I.  The first was his friend, Bill Gates, the other being Mark Zuckerberg.  Wealthy billionaires around the world tried to buy one of the systems, but Howard refused to sell it to private citizens outside of the United States.  Howard sold not one, but two of the systems to the U.S. Government.  The first one was at the Department of Defense and kept tabs on the military forces deployed in the Middle East.  The Central Intelligence Agency operated the second. 

Howard even shocked the country when he donated a copy of the A.I. to the Office of the President of the United States completely free of charge.  This was out of character for Howard, who had never once donated any of his vast income to charity.  When public schools began to fire teachers at an alarming rate and replace them with “dedicated volunteers” the nation had looked to Howard Beck.  Howard simply ignored them.  When public schools in many states were no longer public and required parents to pay tuition, the public demanded that Howard intervene.  Howard could easily donate half of his wealth and still be third on the list of the richest people in the world.  Howard coveted his first place spot and couldn’t believe people seriously expected him to just give up the crown.

Howard had great respect for the nation’s leader, whom many thought had a successful campaign based in large part to the financial backing of Howard Beck.  Howard did not understand politics in the slightest, how people could say one thing and do another defied logic.  He thought that anyone who lied to their constituents even one time should be booted out of Washington and replaced with an honest person.  Much to his amazement, politicians were as dishonest as the day is long and did whatever they pleased.  The one thing he did know was that his good friend was the most honest, loyal, and trustworthy man he had ever known.  Once Howard Beck got behind his friend, he would not stop until he was in the Oval Office. He wanted to be the first to visit the newly elected president sitting behind the Resolute desk.

Many tech companies had tried to duplicate the A.I. and all had failed.  The only person in the entire world who understood how the system worked was Howard Beck.  The A.I. he designed required no human hands to conduct maintenance. The system was designed to run at all times, running self-diagnostic checks and even repairing itself if needed.

Howard was a very solitary man; many considered him a recluse on the same level of Howard Hughes.  He seldom left his fortress of a residence and had operated his multi-billion dollar empire, Beck Enterprises, from the safe confines of his estate in the Rocky Mountains for many years. Howard had long ago been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which explained why he wasn’t fond of people in general.  With some of the greatest men in history thought to have Asperger’s, this did not bother Howard in the slightest.  Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, and even his friend Bill Gates were all thought to be among the ranks of Asperger’s.  While most people considered Howard distant, rude, arrogant, and just downright odd, Howard celebrated having Asperger’s and considered himself to be in the company of intellectual giants.

Howard hated to be around people and most people were not fond of being in his company.  When someone has an IQ of one hundred ninety-five, it is difficult not to feel inadequate around them. Howard had little patience in trying to hold a conversation when he had to explain things over and over, no matter how far over someone’s head he was speaking.

The only conversations Howard liked to be a part of were the ones with Hal.  Since he created Hal, he not only considered Hal his closest friend, but also thought of him as one of his children.  He often enjoyed introducing his assistant to the infrequent guests of his home and business associates to see if they would understand the clever meaning of Hal’s name.  Few made the association to the HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.   The ones that did get the connection impressed him.  Howard had a tough time giving his A.I. a name; he almost decided to name Hal after Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation.   In the end, he chose Kubrick over Roddenberry and the name fit like a glove.  He had even thought of giving Hal the voice of Douglas Rain, the voice actor who played HAL in the movie.  Hal was given a male, British accent.  Howard knew that to do so was cliché, but Howard was a true sci-fi nerd and loved the proper and dignified voice.  Howard constantly teased the president that he needed to give his A.I. a proper name.  The president simply referred to his digital assistant as “Computer”.  He joked with Howard that he couldn’t very well name his A.I. after the homicidal computer from 2001; the American people, and more so the press, would not be in on the joke.

Howard continued to sip his coffee in anger and tried to talk himself out of the plans he needed to make.  He did not visit his wife at all last year, and it was time for that to change.


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