Chapter 13

Doubt

The road shimmered as the Dodge Durango crossed into South Carolina on Route 95, and the Savanna River soon passed behind. The rental agreement signed by Dr Peter Ellery was picked up from the passenger seat by the driver who then crumpled it into his pocket. He did not want it to be tossed out with the rest of the fast food garbage since it may need to be produced when he arrived in Florida. For everything to slide beneath the radar it had to be kept as routine as possible.

He slipped another CD into the car stereo and pressed play. Instead of music a robotic voice played over the player.

“Holonomic brain theory <pause> From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. <pause> The holonomic brain theory, originated by psychologist Karl Pribram and initially developed in collaboration with physicist David Bohm, is a model for human cognition that posits cognitive function as being guided by a matrix of neurological wave interference patterns situated temporally between holographic Gestalt perception and discrete, affective, quantum vectors derived from reward anticipation potentials…”

The voice droned on for five minutes before the driver pressed the previous track button to replay it. This time pausing it occasionally to regurgitate the sentence. Evgeny Illarion had a good memory for lines. Through audition calls and his agent he had some minor success with acting but he was impatient for success and hated working under direction. To make ends meet he waitered and could sometimes draw a crowd by garish impersonations and accents. He recognised that he could ad-lib extremely well and found some like minded folk. Together they opened a theatre restaurant where they would portray celebrities.

On one occasion, purely by chance, he pulled the right character. His Russian descent helped a little, he could sound precisely like his father who owned a fruit shop in New York. He did his best Russian Mafia Viggo Mortenson impersonation and approached what appeared to be a fairly distinguished table. He was accustomed to some of the audience being ‘players’ but this particular table was doing far too well. Before he stepped in too deeply he let them know that he was a part of the show. The old gentleman at the end laughed, and told him to turn up for a real job the next day.

A thrill coursed through Evgeny’s nerves, he had finally aligned with a league that could effectively call on his skills, he loved his job. He was an agent; not a 007 super guy, and not for MI5, the CIA, Defence, Police or even government. The organisation that employed him needed to deflect certain National Security Agency investigations.  His misdirection had been executed perfectly and as a result his expense account became significant and his loyalty absolute. His face had changed significantly over time following his undercover work to avoid possible recriminations. He had no ego, he was the chameleon, and Hadden Industries used his services for some of its most sensitive operations.

His role required heavy research and preparation, and Dr Peter Ellery had to be a convincing academic. Evgeny could have taken the plane, but he needed time. He drove to allow him to draw upon his study of the Stanislavski method. This needed substantial immersion, the type of dedication to study required of a ‘Holonomic Brain Theorist’. It was also a nice way to see the countryside while he studied.

+

The email was simple.

Wu Hsu,

Your suspicions are proving correct. Kien Mu is showing that the new system seems to be coming online.

I will make the call you requested with the phone recently acquired.

Expect that soon you will be able to pass on our congratulations.

Good luck.

Xien Wu Hsu was pleased. It showed that the existence of the system was further validated. It also indicated that ‘AngloAkira’, who had helped so much in the uncovering of the developments, now had a phone with a newly downloaded trojan application. This application could be used to couple with the onboard GPS to act as a homing device. He would soon be able to track AngloAkira and make his advances.

He made plans. Wu Hsu prepared by first clearing his mind. He rehearsed the first stage, walked his mind through to the point at which he last played a move, considered the scene and played a different move. In this way he hoped to rehearse for whatever unexpected outcome presented itself. Many years ago he had studied ancient chinese bladesmithing and the revered Chinese Jian, which descended through its lineage to be the core of the Japanese Katana.

The sword soon to be wielded was inconceivably more powerful, but also built in forges of thought. So it was that through his dedication and discipline he considered himself worthy of being the person to bear the Jian of Wénshū, the ‘Sword of Wisdom’, to its new home. But to be worthy he must understand its womb of conception; the forge of thought. The focus of his meditation was thus the materials, the furnace, the anvil, and the folding of the paths of the future. Soon the sword will be quenched. Then it can be wielded.

+

Before Ellie heard anything from Kitz she received a strange message that reminded her poignantly of the times she had been in contact with Hadden. This was far more subtle however. A small mp3 player and headphones had been placed in a purse in her handbag. She didn’t see who had left it there.

She took it home and stared at it on the kitchen bench a full minute before donning the earbuds. She pressed the play button. A male voice…

“Ellie, you probably don’t remember me. I am Gaven Shorten, I am the Assistant to the CEO of Hadden Industries. I met you briefly when you were first seeking funding, and I was skeptical of your ideas. I have since learnt to understand the way the wheels of the world turn, and I hope you can forgive me.”

Ellie pressed pause on the player. She recalled the man at the round table in the penthouse at Hadden Industries headquarters to her mind’s eye. His contrition was almost evident even then, probably from fear of SR Hadden. She forgave him and pressed play.

“While I have learnt to trust the wishes of Hadden I must know that the proper precautions are in place.

Firstly, I must ask that you destroy this after you have heard its contents. Do so by pressing pause for ten seconds.  You will hear a beep, there will be no turning back.

Secondly, I must ask that you keep the source of the information I am about to divulge confidential. If you are not prepared to do this then I ask that you stop now and destroy this with the ten second pause and a confirmation beep.

Thirdly, this message will require authentication. Please recite the phrase “look at the big picture”. Press ‘play’ when you are ready.“

The recording stopped. Ellie sat contemplating her options. She hated secrets. They were so circular. How could she know if she wanted to know, unless she knew? She had to be perfectly honest with herself though. Hadden had not yet let her down. Now, beyond the grave he still played the paternal figure. Ellie did not believe in ghosts, she did believe that any posthumous instructions would be in her best interests to consider. She recalled Hadden’s last words: ‘Wanna take a ride?’ the ride wasn’t over yet it seemed.

She pressed ‘play’ and said “look at the big picture”.

There was a short pause as the small CPU worked to validate the voice. Soon enough the voice returned.

“Ellie, as you would be aware Hadden Industries provide the benefits of our innovation to any organisation having sufficient funds. Although this may at times seem mercenary it is also an important role since our non-partisan approach ensures both the balance of power, and the interests of the corporation.

Hadden’s success in the defense industry comes through its agnostic and political impartiality and a deeply instilled sense of morality. We are frequently criticised for our presumption, but with power comes an acceptance of great responsibility and its most diligent execution. So it is that we have provided our machine learning systems to the defence and intelligence organisations of all the major powers.

It is also in the interests of Hadden Industries to maintain peace. Although war can be equally profitable it introduces variables that are hard to model. In this pursuit we are able to obtain highly important strategic information on the state of peace through the machine learning systems which we are obliged to maintain.

In short we have a set of ‘back doors’ which we use at our discretion to extract and provide advice. When there is a threat to peace on any side we identify someone that can help restore the balance. We think you would appreciate such a process, unlike the various governments. This I hope explains the need for secrecy.

SR Hadden himself placed you on the watch list to be advised on any matters to do with the SETI signal. This demonstrates no small degree of trust and this recording is the result.

Our findings then.

The Chinese have a machine learning system they call Kien-Mu (a tree linking heaven and earth). This system has detected a strong connection between the original Contact event; a quantum mechanical computer; the death of a Mr Valetti; social network noise from an online avatar by the name of ‘AngloAkira’, and the movie ‘Brainstorm’. We are unsure of what this really means. We have independently determined that this connection has been acquired through a number of tweets from AngloAkira and that this has been strongly connected to James Frazer, General John Meredith and yourself.

This alone would not be of significance except for the fact that the Triad Chinese crime syndicate has penetrated the Chinese machine learning centre and has a strongly focused interest in the matter. What we know of the Triad is a ‘Xien Wu Hsu 4-1-5’, who is well placed in the Chinese government. This contact has been wanting Hadden Industries to connect a machine learning system to the Stock Market in order to maximise the return on stock market speculation.

This is something we believe may have a destabilising effect. The technology for High Frequency Trading is still raw and volatile, and its predictive power is inadequate for long term trading.

Ellie these are the facts, our practice is not to place interpretation upon them. Please take steps to mitigate any possible threat to your project team members through this Triad agent. It is also known that the same connection has been subsequently made by your government.

Please destroy this recording at your earliest opportunity by using the pause button for ten seconds and do not feel obligated to act as a result of this information. Use it with caution if you choose to.

Faithfully Yours, Gaven.”

Ellie committed the name Xien Wu Hsu and AngloAkira to memory and pressed the pause button. The next time she pressed play she heard Abba music.

She felt a surge of anger. She was not some agent in a game of espionage and she wasn’t sure what her next actions should be.

+

Slumped back into her couch, she felt drained. The successes and progress of the last year were undeniable. The roller coaster of her SETI research had taken her to soaring heights. So why did she feel lost?

Was it Hadden’s news? Was it that she wasn’t sure what to do with the new signal development? Was it that nothing could be done till after Kitz had deliberated? It was the sheer confluence of events: The Astronomy world had gone abuzz with the Betelgeuse supernova. A dead man was encased in a quantum computer. Her nemesis was about to step into her life again. It was meant to be simple.

She thought about Pensacola, and skipped through her playlists before settling on ‘Dads Faves’. A microcontroller drew bits and bytes through a bus and pushed the data into a codec that decompressed and translated it all into an analog signal. This was pushed through a series of interfaces and amplification stages before magnetically coupling coils attached to cones. In the end the simulated acoustics of a six string guitar and the song ‘Helpless’ emerged. Her mind wandered to Ontario and inexorably south to Wisconsin.

“All of my changes were there,” she said aloud to no-one in particular and resolved to go home to De Pere. She needed to clear her head. There was no doubt in her mind that Kitz, Rachel and other bureaucratic climbers would be briefed, and funding would be found. A new snowball would gather momentum, and the findings would be suppressed until they had been sanitized and defanged, or maybe fanged and fitted to some military purpose. She was ‘in’ too deep now to be shut out, she could afford the time to breathe. She needed it.

At the same time at a personal level she just felt like she knew too much. The motive of the original SETI programme was to look into the unknown. That original naivete was gone, and it was always that ideal which drove her. Now she was looking at a completely foreign set of implications. It was almost like expecting a telescope for Christmas, but finding a microscope in the box.

Was the universe sending her some subliminal message? No, that was a shaky path that she wanted no part of. She resolved that if that was the way the universe operated then Luke Skywalker should materialise lounging on her couch  before she could pour her Earl Grey tea.

With her tea in her cup in her lounge room, and without Luke Skywalker’s miraculous appearance she sought the next alternative. She resolved to call Palmer. After he had returned from his new age missionary work he had began teasing out his notes for his new book. For the next four days her childhood home in De Pere would be perfect for them both. Anything else would have to wait for her return.

+

There was something strangely symbolic about the way the aircraft descended; inexorably submerged itself and, after a brief period of disorientation, dropped below the softly frothing barrier. Once on the ground there was a light drizzle interspersed with occasional periods of virge. As they drove their rental from Austin Straubel International Airport the windscreen wipers were periodically parked and sent into active duty, the intermittent setting being all but useless.

The Autumnal leaves of Wisconsin did more to cloud Ellie’s mood than the deep nimbus overhead. The conversation was cordial and practical during the drive, all of the carefree singing spent, and as incongruous as the blue sky. As they walked through the front door Ellie could not help but look at the place her father had died. Palmer picked up on it, and asked about her thoughts.

“You know,” she began as she leaned her head against the door jamb, “for me it was always about space. I really had no idea ‘time’ would take centre stage.”

Palmer considered his response. He could guess that this was about her father, but also about what was happening with the new SETI developments. In the end he kept his silence.

“He died just there,” she said.

“I always figured if I’d put some medicine downstairs, he may have lived.” Ellie looked at Palmer. ”I blamed myself. Completely irrational, huh?”

Ellie walked over to the staircase. She sat and put her head in her hands, swept back her hair and looked back at Palmer.

“Palmer, I’m scared. I’ve turned over a rock and rather than finding another lifeform I’ve found a new form of existence. The inner space of it all makes me feel claustrophobic and trapped, and I can’t stop thinking that Frank took a bullet meant for me.

After my encounter I was so sure of my purpose and now, years later, I’m in an existential crisis. I need some closure; what I thought to be a solution looks more like, I dunno, like a mind jail for Superman villains. I feel like I’m falling; I need a frame of reference. From where I stand my only way out is to follow Frank in.”

Palmer could appreciate the difficulty she faced. In no small way were her struggles the motive for his original book. In large helpings was Ellie the motive for his new one. He began carefully.

“Ellie I think it comes down to your perspective. You can’t be certain that Frank didn’t make an active choice, nor can you judge it to be wrong, yet. It doesn’t mean you need to die, metaphorically, or literally. Your fate is not written yet, and when your choice comes you will know what to do.”

Palmer went to the steps and sat down next to her. He continued.

“One thing you told me about your original experience has stayed with me. They told you that what made the emptiness bearable was each other. You have given me back my faith Ellie.”

She was about to provide a retort when he leaned over, pressed his finger on her lips and pulled his manuscript from his bag. He flipped over several pages and then read:

“I was immanent in Nietzsche’s valley contemplating the death of God.

So, went the source…

‘What sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?’

I have witnessed deeds driven by engagement with our universe. In the greatness of these deeds we transcend our limits. Perhaps it is time we ceased portraying a God in our image and began to accept our species’ Godlike deeds. Through this new narrative we can purge ourselves of dereliction and start to assume responsibility.

Maybe Nietzsche’s fear was that we are no longer simple children of God. To aspire to be more than a child is not arrogance, and it is cowardice not to strive maturity and assume custody of our own destiny.”

Palmer reached over and held her hand.

“Ellie, there are people on this world whose ignorance is not befitting of our achievements. I’d run away from many who would claim to represent my beliefs, many of whom, incidentally, would fight my attempts to enlighten them. ”

“I haven’t told you this yet, but I have an entire chapter dedicated to your vision. Reaching out and travelling to explore notions of truth and beauty is not the role of a scientist. It is the work of missionaries.

What you have started as an explorer is an extraordinary journey just like those of Magellan, Marco Polo, Columbus and Cook. Don’t you think that these guys had to carry doubts and personal luggage? Your journey, Ellie, promised to be to the stars, it may yet be.

Your predecessors are also missionaries the likes of David Livingstone, Xuanzang, or Angelo Secchi.”

Ellie had only heard of Livingstone, and struggled to see herself spreading christianity throughout Africa. And retorted with, “Except they were religious and believed that there was some almighty being that ordained the paths of men!”

“No Ellie, that’s where you’re wrong. They simply had a conviction that we were not alone. Can you blame them for that?”

Ellie smiled, she had been cornered by a velvet mind.

“No, I suppose not. But it doesn’t help me with the detachment of life from limb.” She countered: “ What if we have uncovered a path to heaven? let’s be less ambitious; possible immortality? perhaps less ambitious still; a solution for euthanasia? It opens up a can of moral dilemmas! Next year we will have people lined up in wheelchairs for the insertion of Deep Brain Stimulation devices. Then they’ll be lined up for connection to the rank of quantum computers, and waving goodbye to their family’s. Hey, why don’t we hook it up to the internet? We can issue SQUID’s to the world, and quietly fade away.”

“Aahh! but that would be my domain Ellie. Science has always  shone its light in areas where there are moral contradictions. The question is not whether this is right or wrong, it’s simply whether we are ready to deal with it. Can you imagine, though, if the Vegans had also given us the blueprints straight up for the quantum computer and DBS?”

“Maybe,” conceded Ellie, “but now I know how Einstein may have felt about the Manhattan project.”

“You’re getting a little melodramatic Ellie. There’s no war now.”

“What a strange twist,” surrendered Ellie, “I get stranded on this godforsaken oversized asteroid with a philosophical preacher.”

“And I find myself in a world blessed with an enchanting prophet, and a beacon to light the way. But for some odd reason she needs me to bring a candle,”  finished Palmer. Then he kissed her forhead.

+

Kent was coming under increasing pressure from the various members of the international consortium to promote technological spinoffs, thin the ranks, cut expenditure, and show any result that was demonstrably alien.

It was the derivative technologies that actually kept the boat afloat. The original alien blueprints had provided an impressive panoply of benefits in high temperature superconductivity, alloys, phase change materials and others. The challenge had become trying to maintain the original vision. The money spent on maintaining a state of readiness was perceived as wasteful.

He had seen several coups attempted, each had been extraordinarily sidestepped by a last minute crisis in the ranks of those that would moderate the SETI constitution. For whatever reason the fate of SETI managed to remain steadfastly on track. He was beginning to wonder if its fate was ordained by higher powers. He kept a tight lid on his suspicions, he didn’t want to jeopardise the protective aura that sustained the golden goose.

Still, Kent had a budget. He knew the energy expenditure of operating the machine was almost prohibitively high, but he needed to ensure it was in a state of readiness if the signal should ever return. The rehearsals were just that. The candidates were well trained; they were all somewhat inspired by the thought of life in the cosmos; the results were as sterile as ever.

Kent called them his Saganauts. Drumlin would have called them an army of wasted scientific careers chasing little green men.

So, when the signal returned, Kent was ready for it.

next Part 3

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