Copyright © Bill Hibbard 2013
On a fine April afternoon I answered the door to find two men in suits standing on my door step. The taller of the two said, "Laszlo Wilkes, you're under arrest."
"What?" I gasped, and then said, "Companion."
The quiet voice of my companion came from small devices on my collar saying, "They are real police sir." The taller man held up his badge in a leather case, an archaic procedural remnant of the pre-wired era.
"What's this about?" I asked.
"You're under arrest for the murder of Bogus Band."
"Are you nuts?" I objected. "He's not even dead."
"We're not nuts," the shorter man retorted heatedly, "and you're coming with us."
"Companion," I whispered, "do you know anything about this?"
"Sorry sir, no," the voice of my companion answered.
"Okay," I said to the pair, knowing not to argue with them. I'd leave that to my attorney.
They locked me in the back seat, with no door handles inside and a steel screen separating me from the front seat. So I couldn't hurt them. Ha ha. The pair got in the front seat and one said, "The City County Building." The car started up and drove itself. Police cars still had steering wheels, brake and gas pedals so these guys could have driven if they'd wanted to. Ordinary citizens could still buys cars with human controls too, but they had to pay higher insurance rates because statistics showed that the car was much less likely to have an accident than any human driver. The Teamsters had fought hard to keep human drivers in trucks and buses but lost.
We arrived at the City County building and I was not looking forward to even a little time in jail, where you definitely don't meet the nicest people. But rather than taking me up to the fifth floor for booking, they took me to a courtroom on the second floor.
"What's this?" I asked incredulously. "This isn't proper procedure."
"Expedited hearing," the tall one answered.
"My lawyer isn't here," I objected.
"You'll have representation," the short one replied.
"Companion, get my lawyer," I said.
"Yes sir," it replied.
Something was rotten in Denmark, I thought. As we entered the courtroom I saw people in the spectator seats, including a few of my buddies from work. How did they know about this before I did? Then I recognized a couple of Megan's friends too.
"Hey," I said, "what's going on?"
There were two people in robes and wigs seated at tables facing the judge's bench. The one on my right turned to look at my outburst and it was my wife Megan. She held a finger to her lips to silence me. My escorts led me inside the gate and I sat next to Megan. I glanced over at the prosecutor and it was Bogus.
"I told these guys you're not even dead," I said to him.
He just stared straight ahead but a guy in a uniform commanded, "Silence."
Then a door at the front opened. A stout middle aged woman wearing black robes walked in and sat behind judge's desk.
"All rise," the uniformed bloke barked, "the honorable Sheila Mucks presiding." I played along.
My companion said softly, "Sir, your lawyer's companion says he's speaking with a client and will be notified of your situation when he's finished."
"Is this a real judge?" I whispered back to it.
"Yes sir," it responded.
The judge studied some papers then announced, "Today we're hearing the case of the State against Laszlo Wilkes, for the murder of Bogus Band."
"He's not dead. He's sitting right there, disguised by that wig," I explained as I pointed at him.
The judge studied me for a moment, and then asked "Who's representing the defendant?"
"I am, your honor," responded Megan.
"She's not even a lawyer," I stated. "She's a doctor."
The judge looked at me and asked, "How do you plead?"
Megan answered immediately, before I could again point out the obvious, "Justifiable homicide. And we waive right to a jury."
"Oh sure," I said. "We don't need no stinking jury."
"Is the prosecutor ready to present his case?" the judge inquired.
Before Bogus could answer, I said to the judge, "May I ask a question your honor? Please?"
"Yes," she replied.
"What's with these wigs?"
She ignored me and motioned to Bogus, who began, "Your honor, we will show that the defendant poisoned Mr. Band with alcohol."
I chuckled and said, "That's a hot one. Mr. Band is trying to poison himself with alcohol."
The judge hammered with her gavel and commanded, "Silence."
"The people offer exhibit one," Bogus said as he held up a pile of papers, "this manuscript of the defendant's most recent story. In it, he vividly describes the death of Mr. Band by alcohol poisoning." He carried the printout of my story up to the clerk.
I leaned over and whispered in Megan's ear, "Thanks sweetheart. But perhaps I should just confess. What do you think?"
She grinned at me and said, "We have a strong case. Don't worry."
Bogus announced, "I call Professor Emmet Liscomb to the stand."
A balding, stooped man wearing a suit and thick spectacles walked up and sat in the witness chair next to the judge.
I had seen him around the university but didn't know who he was so asked "Companion, who's this?"
It answered, "Bogus's English professor from the university, sir."
After he was sworn in, Bogus asked him "Are you a professor of English literature at Midwest University?"
"Have you read the story in exhibit one?"
"How would you describe its depiction of Bogus Band?"
"As a person of poor character. Really a pathetic person."
"Is it fair to say that the story assassinates Mr. Band's character?"
"And does Mr. Band actually die of alcoholism in the story?"
Bogus looked satisfied and announced, "Thank you Professor Liscomb. No more questions."
Megan stood up and addressed the witness, "Professor Liscomb, you said the story assassinates Mr. Band's character. But isn't that true only if the depiction of Mr. Band's character is worse than Mr. Band's actual character?"
"I suppose, but the story depicts a very poor character."
"Are you acquainted with Mr. Band?"
"Yes, he was a student in my course on nineteenth century romantic literature."
"When was that?" Megan asked.
"Twenty years ago."
"Have you known him since that time?"
"Of course you have," I blurted out, "He's the guy in the wig who just questioned you."
Megan shushed me as the judge banged her gavel. Then she turned back to the witness. "Were you aware of any problems Mr. Band had with alcohol when you knew him?"
"I was not."
I guffawed and the judge gave me a stern look.
"Do you know whether Mr. Band currently has a problem with alcohol?"
"I do not."
"I'm finished with the witness," Megan stated.
When she sat next to me I asked, "Does that wig itch?"
"Not itch," she answered quietly, "but it's a little uncomfortable."
"I now call Binky Bongo," Bogus announced.
I turned back to see who was coming, and it was a guy in a suit holding his left hand under the seat of a dummy in an identical suit. The guy's right hand was behind the dummy's back, holding it up. They guy sat down and when the clerk brought a bible, he set the dummy's hand on it.
The clerk asked, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?"
The dummy said, "I do."
"Your honor," I called out. Then I nudged Megan and asked, "Aren't you going to object?"
"No," she replied with a smile, "I'd like to see where this goes."
"Mr. Bongo," Bogus addressed the dummy, "Are you any relation to the deceased, Mr. Band?"
"He was my uncle," Binky answered.
"I always thought he had a wooden head," I blurted out, and the judge rapped her gavel.
"When did you last speak with your uncle?" Bogus asked.
"The day before he died."
"On that occasion, did he say anything about the defendant, Mr. Wilkes?" Bogus continued.
Megan popped up and said, "Objection, your honor. Hearsay." Attagirl, I thought.
"Overruled," the judge responded quickly, "Federal Rules of Evidence, eight oh four bee two."
"What did he say about the defendant?" Bogus repeated.
"He said Laszlo is a communist."
That was too much. "You're a bigger commie than I ever was," I said to Bogus.
The judge rapped her gavel again. Bogus drew himself up and said loudly in a condescending voice, pointing his finger down at me, "Communist."
Megan glared at Bogus and said to the judge, "Objection, your honor. Stating an opinion."
"No, Dr. Wilkes," the judge said. "I'm going to allow this, giving us insight into the state of mind of the deceased."
"No more questions," Bogus announced as he sat down.
Megan addressed the dummy, "Mr. Bongo," with particular emphasis on the mister, "has your testimony been influenced by anyone else?"
"No," it answered.
"You can see that guy's lips moving," I said, pointing at the man holding Binky.
Megan said, "Just a minute, Mr. Bongo," and came back to our table where she dug into her bag. She stood up with some sort of hand puppet on her right hand, held behind her back, and approached the witness. Suddenly she thrust the puppet in Binky's face and asked, in a falsetto, "Are you sure no one influenced your testimony?"
Binky shrieked, but Megan thrust her hand puppet into the dummy's face again and repeated the question. I could see that the puppet was Kukla, with bald head and rosy cheeks, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Possibly the best TV show ever.
"Please, get it away," Binky pleaded, turning away.
Bogus rose and said, "Your honor, the witness suffers from automatonophobia. Defense counsel is essentially questioning Mr. Bongo under torture."
The judge pointed her gavel at Megan and said, "You know this is improper questioning, Dr. Wilkes."
"Sorry your honor," Megan said. "No more questions."
I looked up just in time to hear Bogus say, "The prosecution rests."
The judge said to Megan, "You may present your defense."
"That's it?" I asked Bogus. "Not much of a case, buddy."
The judge hammered her gavel. Megan stood up and announced, "I call Bogus Band."
"Through the looking glass," I whispered to Megan, not wanting to incur the judge's wrath again.
"This isn't a real trial, is it companion?" I said softly.
"No record of it sir, so no," my companion replied.
Bogus walked up to the witness box, removing his wig before he was sworn.
"Mr. Band," Megan asked, "Are you the person depicted in exhibit one?"
"I am," he replied.
"That story opens with you climbing the defendant's house in order to urinate off his roof. Is that scene based on an actual incident?"
"I cannot recall."
Band," Megan scolded him, "Didn't you discuss the incident with the
defendant the next day and actually apologize for waking him and his
wife?" She pronounced "his wife" with particular sharpness.
"Yes," he answered sheepishly.
"Mr. Band," she focused on him, "Did the character named Margaret in the story represent an actual person?"
"I think she was a combination of three different women."
"The story depicts several deplorable episodes involving these women. Are they based on actual incidents?"
"They enjoyed those, what you call deplorable, episodes," Bogus replied.
"Is that why one of those women was in my office sobbing her heart out?" Megan snapped.
Bogus jumped out of the chair, slapped his wig on, and said, "I object your honor. That assumes events that have not been established."
"Sustained," the judge said. "Please resume the stand."
Bogus removed his wig as he sat. Megan asked, "Did you have a television program named Singularity Report, as depicted in the story?"
"It was called Technology Report and it was just on local access TV."
"And was your program terminated by the station because you came to your last interview drunk?"
"That's what they claimed."
"Did the station engineer shut down the broadcast in the middle of your final interview, as you were shouting into the camera?"
"I thought it was just good TV."
"Your honor," Megan said with disgust, "I'm done with this witness. The defense rests."
"Cross examine?" Bogus asked the judge.
"I've heard enough," the judge answered.
"How about my summary?" Bogus continued.
"We'll skip the summaries," the judge said. "I'm ready to render my judgment."
I leaned over and whispered to Megan, "And then a truck went out of control and killed everybody." She smiled at me.
"The defendant is not guilty of murder," the judge announced. "But," she said with emphasis, "he is enjoined from writing any more stories in which Mr. Band dies of alcoholism."
"Sure you honor," I said, "I've made my point."
"Thank you, thank you," I said heartily to Megan and Bogus as we walked out of the City County Building. I was truly grateful for the personal theater they had staged for me.
"Just remember what the judge said," Bogus warned me. "No more character assassination."
"Well," I replied slowly, "you won't die of alcoholism again. I just wanted to point out once that it isn't funny or cool."
"And you know," Megan added, "that you did almost drink yourself to death. But," she smiled, "you survived to be our friend."
"So friend," I asked, "where are you off to now?" He was always travelling someplace, being insanely rich from his investments.
"New York," he answered. "To see Guilio Cesare at the Met."
I couldn't recall the name of his New York girlfriend and didn't want to ask. He had the proverbial girl in every port. He had been an early developer of machine learning for investment. A key idea in his software was including a wide variety of information from sports, science, technology, movies, popular music, the fine arts, and so on. This gave him good accuracy in predicting major turns in various sectors. He'd made much of his fortune in the housing crash of 2008. Now he said his only involvement in the markets was purely defensive, just trying to preserve his bundle against the pirates who manipulated markets and politics in their effort to take everyone's money for their own. Bogus claimed that the financial game had gotten much more sophisticated and difficult since he'd made his money, and that small time operators like him didn't stand a chance. Like Earl Butz had said to farmers a couple generations earlier, the message was get big or get out. So now he was just enjoying his wealth, travelling from city to city to spend time with his girlfriends.
"Well, enjoy the opera," I said to him as Megan and I climbed into her car.
As the car drove off I kissed her and said, "That was fun, thanks."
"Did you think you were really being arrested?" she asked.
"Only for a minute," I assured her. "In any case I figured the lawyer would sort it out. Speaking of which, he never got back to me. Companion," I demanded, "did we ever hear from my lawyer?"
"No sir," it answered.
Megan told me, "He knew. I didn't want him getting all excited and messing up our con."
Con, I thought, that it was.
Inside our house I inquired, "What's for dinner?"
"Yeah," I responded enthusiastically.
Our kitchen was a marvel, an automated molecular kitchen far better than any team of kitchen servants from the gilded age. Expensive, but we could afford it with Megan's income as a physician and the good investments we had made on Bogus's advice. Our kitchen ordered groceries and other necessary supplies which were delivered by automated delivery trucks from automated food warehouses. They came into the house through a window on the side of the kitchen. From our point of view, it was simply a machine for turning money into delicious meals.
We had other machines for cleaning. One did carpets and another did hard floors. The main bathroom had a self cleaning tub and shower, a self cleaning toilet, and a self cleaning wash basin. The laundry machine included a little robot that gathered clothes, bed clothes and towels around the house, and brought them back folded and stacked in the appropriate cupboards. It also made the bed. The cupboards even laid out our morning clothes, as a sort of automated valet.
One whole wall of our common room was a video screen. We could use it to watch the live performance of Guilio Cesare that Bogus was travelling to see, or to watch live street scenes from millions of locations around the world. We could visit with distant friends, so that it appeared that their common rooms were on the other side of our screen and similarly they'd see us on their screens. Of course the audio was perfect, with a slightly noticeable delay for people on the other side of the world. There were no remote controls for any of this. We simply told our companions what we wanted. Often we turned the screen off and just listened to music. And companions themselves made perfectly good entertainment. They could tell jokes tailored to their owners' tastes, they could deliver the news, or they could offer a sympathetic ear for their owners' ramblings.
Megan and I both still had meaningful employment, but many others did not and lived in public housing and off their government stipend. Their houses may not have been quite as luxuriously automated as ours, but everyone had a high quality companion. Bogus said this was the government's way to keep its eye on everyone. A few stubborn souls lived without modern technology, but the government kept track of them via ubiquitous cameras and microphones in public places, using a system that could recognize people by their appearance, movements and voice. There was very little crime and unsolved crimes were almost non-existent. It may sound oppressive, but if you didn't commit crimes the government didn't intervene in your life. So people took their companions for granted and didn't worry about surveillance.
A fair number of unemployed people disappeared from social life, preferring the fantasy lives available via media in their homes. And I have to say that I sometimes succumbed to the temptation to live in a vivid virtual world. But for me at least, it got stale. Plus I had the constant warnings from Megan, who was an MD psychiatrist, about the harmful effects of too much virtual world. The antidote, we both found, was the world of plants and animals out in nature.
"Wake up, sweetheart," I said as I gently touched Megan's shoulder. She stirred as our German Shepherd Sweetie sniffed at her face. It was two hours before dawn on a cool May morning. When Megan swung her legs out of bed I said, "Oatmeal with nuts and berries in ten minutes," and headed down to the kitchen.
Forty minutes later all three of us piled in the car and I said, "Lago Diablo." The car started up, backed out of the garage, and began the hour drive up to the lake. Sweetie was always excited to take a car trip, but quieted down as Megan and I dozed off.
The car lit the interior as it parked in the lot, and we woke up. We collected our hiking poles and packs and started on the trail around the lake, with Sweetie running ahead.
"Beautiful sky," Megan observed. There was just a glimmer of sun in the east with not a cloud visible.
We heard a distant high-pitched trill, a very fast, "Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo-woo."
"Ah," I remarked, "A loon. This is our lucky morning."
We walked in silence away from the lake, along a wooded path at the foot of a bluff.
After about fifteen minutes we heard a terrific squawking racket off to the right and took a short detour in that direction. "Sweetie," I called, to make sure she took the detour with us. When we reached the pine grove we looked up and could dimly make out the silhouettes of huge birds high in the trees above us. This was a heron rookery and the young were noisily asking for their breakfasts. I grabbed Sweetie and told her, "Quiet," so she wouldn't alarm the birds. We watched and listened for a few minutes.
Back on the main trail, it turned sharply upwards to climb the 500 foot bluff. Megan and I used our poles to keep balance but Sweetie scrambled up with ease. At the top we wandered 100 yards off the trail to a secluded and familiar spot. I commanded Sweetie, "Watch," and she stood listening for intruders while Megan and I enjoyed some private time on the grass.
Later, we lay on our backs listening to the distant squawking and looking up the sky, now well lit by the morning sun. "I wonder how long the herons have been using that grove of trees for their rookery." I said.
"Maybe since the effigy mound builders," Megan replied brightly. "That would be a thousand years."
"Heronry," I muttered.
"Heronry?" she asked.
"I read that's another name for a heron rookery."
"Heronry," she repeated. "I like it."
"Sweetie," I called softly. She appeared out of the brush and stuck her nose in Megan's face. Megan grabbed both sides of Sweetie's face and gave her a big kiss.
We made our way back to the main trail, which ran along the top of the bluff overlooking the lake. The sun was lighting up the trees below and we could see the herons' pine grove standing a bit higher than the surrounding leafy trees.
"Look," Megan said as she pointed down. "You can see the herons." They were flying around.
"Bringing breakfast back from the lake," I suggested.
"Yes," Megan agreed. "Must feed their babies."
"The circle of life," I observed, hugging Megan with one arm. "A thousand generations of herons." And I thought to myself, a million generations ago we were chimpanzees, and in one or two more generations, what? I caught myself saying, "Spiral."
"Spiral of life," I answered. "Evolution makes it a spiral."
"So circles are for the birds?" she said, phrasing it as a question.
"Apparently," I observed.
She proceeded to run circles around me squawking while flapping her outstretched arms. This excited Sweetie, who barked and chased her. So I started squawking, "Feed me, feed me," standing with my mouth open. Megan jumped up on me, grabbing my shoulders with her arms as she planted a kiss on my face. I lost my balance and we both fell down laughing. This excited Sweetie even more, who barked furiously.
Gradually we collected ourselves and got up for some serious hiking. We walked for a couple miles until we came to a familiar spot for a snack, a rock ledge with a great view of whole lake. We could see a couple small fishing boats in the water and a ramp where two folks were launching another.
"See all the buzzards?" Megan asked. There was a large group in the trees just down the trail from us.
"Jeez," I remarked, "I've never seen them up here before."
We ate our sandwiches and drank our tomato juice as we watched the turkey buzzards doing their thing. I poured water into a little bowl for Sweetie, and gave her a bit of my sandwich.
The buzzards flew by close enough that we could hear the swish of their wings against the air. When they landed we could hear the scrabble of their claws getting a grip on the tree bark. They were pretty large birds, somewhere between crows and herons.
"Quite a morning for birds," I noted.
"A wonderful morning," Megan added.
The trail gradually descended and as we approached the buildings at the north end of the lake, I put Sweetie on the leash. This was where the buzzards normally hung out. We stopped at the restrooms and walked through the picnic grounds and beach. A couple robots were collecting litter. A single small, pink, rubber sandal sat on a picnic table. Somewhere there was a child with only one sandal.
We climbed up the west bluff and met a grey-haired man with a black lab coming down. The dogs gave each other a polite sniff and we exchanged our "Good mornings." A bit further on we encountered two young women running. When we reached the car I asked my companion, "What time is it? How long?"
"It's eight forty two, so about four hours sir."
Back in the car with all our gear, I said, "Home Jeeves." We slept all the way.
It had been a couple years since I travelled to Chicago so I was glad to accompany Bogus to his rejuvenation treatment. Travelling in his vehicle you'd hardly know you were moving. It was more like sitting in a small entertainment and refreshment center.
"So Bogus," I told him, "I'd really love to know how much this is costing you."
"Megan should know," he replied.
"She thought at least five million."
"That's the right neighborhood," he said.
"She says it's a never-ending series of treatments."
"As long as I live," he said. "Assuming I don't die of alcoholism," he winked at me.
"Will you age at all?" I asked.
"Not that they know of, but they're not completely sure."
It was amazing to contemplate that my old friend Bogus would probably live for thousands of years. What would he do with all that life? Come to think of it, what was he doing lately? So I asked.
To answer he said, "Companion, show me time to the apocalypse," and a counter popped up on a screen on his dashboard. It read:
19 years, 203 days, 13 hours
"Don't you have it down to the second?" I challenged him.
"It's not a joke," he complained. "Not accurate to hours or even days, but there's real science behind it."
I knew that when he said 'apocalypse' he meant what Vinge, Kurzweil and others called the 'singularity.' Or more fully he called it the reductionist apocalypse. The point in time when the human reductionist project would fully master nature, so that our technology could do whatever was physically possible. He would always add, "Assuming that we have a sufficient source of free energy."
"Can you explain how your prediction works?" I asked.
"I'm measuring the intelligence of various electronic entities, modeling how they change and interact over time, and then estimating the time until the intelligence of any of them diverges. Not to infinity, of course, but off the scale." To Bogus, intelligence diverging beyond measure was the necessary and sufficient condition for the reductionist apocalypse.
"Do you believe it? Does it have any relation to reality?" I asked. "The interactions will be increasingly nonlinear as intelligence increases. When IQ reaches a million they might discover a short cut through space-time."
"Yes," he answered, "but at very high intelligence the apocalypse can't be far off in any case, so the error won't be large."
"And how," I asked, "are you getting sufficient access to all the various electronic entities to measure their intelligence? There's got to be some that you don't even know exist."
"I estimate those by the visible behaviors of the wealthy organizations that employ them. For example, I may not know about a system owned by a big bank, but I can measure the behavior of the bank itself."
"Luck and the stupidity of the bank's human employees will pollute your estimates," I objected.
"Sure," he said in the tone he used for slow witted humans, "but I can use statistics of luck and human intelligence to factor that in. Those errors will average out over all the interacting entities."
I was dubious but just asked, "So, will you publish this?" I already knew the answer.
"No, and keep it to yourself." He explained, "It's all statistics."
"What?" I asked.
"Statistics," he replied. "Predicting the stock market, predicting the apocalypse, being your companion, driving your car. Even your brain works by statistics. What are the probabilities that various events will happen, and how will your next action affect those probabilities? What's the probability that the stock of XYZ Corporation will increase ten percent in the next year? And what's the probability that the apocalypse will occur in 19 years, 203 days, and 13 hours?"
"And what is that probability?" I inquired.
"What is it, companion?" he announced.
"Point zero zero zero zero one nine sir," his companion answered.
"Point zero zero zero zero?" I mocked. "Not too confident, are we?"
"It would sound a lot more confident if I only estimated to the year," Bogus answered. "There are almost nine thousand hours in a year."
"That's still only about a one in five chance that the apocalypse will occur in 19 years," I said. "If that's the best you can do your stock picks will lose money."
"Did you work that out in your head? Amazing," he said derisively. "Look," he said patiently, "Stocks are easier to model than the apocalypse."
He'd explained his models to me before. His algorithms learned models of things in the world, starting with what he called "good priors." Bogus's edge in this highly competitive field was that he had developed good ways to take all the ordinary knowledge about stocks, or the apocalypse, or whatever, and use it to efficiently calculate prior probabilities of models of stocks, or whatever. He could use the Cyc system's database of millions of common sense facts to give his algorithm for learning models a big head start. And, according to his boasting, he also had good techniques for combining models of sub-systems into models for larger systems.
"How long has your apocalypse predictor been running?" I asked.
"Is it stable?"
"God no," he complained. "Yesterday it said 24 years until the apocalypse. Tomorrow the estimate might be 26 years. It may take years to stabilize, if ever."
"Maybe you need another system to predict when your apocalypse predictor will stabilize," I suggested.
"How's life at the university?" he asked, apparently tired of talking about his work.
"Same old. The occasional infection."
"Did you get hit by Gaxo?" he asked, referring to the latest nasty infection.
"Not inside the university," I replied, "But a couple profs got hit in their home systems and we cleaned them up."
"Student project," he derided. "Not very sophisticated."
"What, Gaxo was written by a student?"
"Yes. Got an A but didn't deserve it."
"How can you know that?" I objected incredulously.
"I'm not investing anymore, at least not aggressively. But I still gather data. That's how I can even try to predict the apocalypse."
Eventually we reached the huge medical center near O'Hare airport. While Bogus was getting his four hour rejuvenation treatment his car took me downtown where I walked along the lakeshore and spent some time in the art museum. It always struck me as odd how avant-garde the arts had always been but that art museums were such trips back in time.
The Human Face
"This thing doesn't work," the old man asserted testily. He was Arthur Droost, professor of Classics, and he wasn't happy with the way the university's computer system was grading his students' translations from Latin to English.
"Hmmm," I said thoughtfully. The probability was overwhelming that the system wasn't really broken or infected, but that he merely disagreed with its translations. But if I told him that he might get angry and complain about me to the university administration. That would never do, since the only reason they even kept me in my job was as a sympathetic human face for the totally automated and outsourced administration of the university's information systems.
After a minute I said, "This could be a difficult problem. Do you have the proper translations? They may be useful for diagnosing the problem."
"Eleanor Smith's answers," he replied. "They're perfect."
I knew that if I forgot the name my companion would remember it. As a sys admin I had the run of the instructional system so could get the test and her answers. "Thank you Professor Droost," I said, "I'll send them to Linguistics Corporation and tell them to adjust the way their system grades Latin translations."
"Just a bunch of programmers," he complained. "I doubt any of them even know Latin or Greek. They're just mechanics, not truly educated."
"They must have some domain experts," I said, then realized I did not want to pick a fight. "I mean, they must have some educated people."
"I doubt it," he grumbled. He eyed me and asked, "How about you? Are you just a mechanic?"
"I married an educated woman," I offered. "She studied Latin and Greek in high school and got A's in everything. Valedictorian."
"How about at university?" he asked.
"Neuroscience, then medicine." I answered. "They still use Latin words in medicine."
"Et tu?" I responded lamely. "I mean, that's my translation." He frowned, so I continued, "Just a programmer. But I will do what I can to get Linguistics to solve your problem."
"It's their problem."
"Yes, Professor Droost, you're right. Hopefully Eleanor's answers will help them solve their problem."
We parted on semi-cordial terms, or at least he wasn't visibly angry. And that was my job, to keep the curmudgeonly old technophobe professors from causing trouble with the university administration. And who knows, perhaps Linguistics Corp. could use Eleanor Smith's translations to alter their system to Prof. Droost's satisfaction.
Like every large institution the university did have serious problems with outsiders trying to infect and invade their information systems. But those problems were way over my head, or the heads of any staff of local sys admins. They had to be outsourced to one of three large information security companies. I still had my job because I was more tactful than most other sys admins and because I had worked for the university for thirty one years.
Bogus says the network could made be secure, but that it isn't because the insecurity suits the governments who have the power to make it secure. He claims all the big information system businesses are in cahoots with the US government to infiltrate other governments and to monitor communications worldwide. According to him all the supposedly pirated software sold overseas in the late Twentieth Century was a Trojan horse operation by the CIA. Whether he's right or not, the network's insecurity helps keep me in a job.
Old academics like Droost might be a little resistant to technological change, but others really feared and hated the infiltration of their lives by automated systems. And many of them acted out.
Megan's career as a psychiatrist spanned the coming of companions, self-driving cars, automated cleaning and kitchen systems and the enormous variety of intelligent industrial systems. Her patients were among the earliest humans to physically attack robots. Just as Bogus and I were drawn to computers and artificial intelligence, she was drawn to these negative human reactions to automation. The most extreme cases were committed to the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (SHCI), so that was where she practiced after her residency.
"Don't these human voices coming from non-human sources seem eerie to you?" she asked Bogus and me in a conversation early in her career.
"Eerie?" I repeated. "No. Robots are just there to serve us."
"They seem not done to me," said Bogus. "They're not as good as they will be, so I think of them as a temporary phenomenon."
"Well, they seem eerie to me," Megan assured us. "That's what's at the root of most of my patients' illness, the overwhelming unnaturalness of robots. The cues are there that they're dealing with a human being, but robots are not human. One of my patients thinks automated voices are literally the voice of the devil."
"I'd like to speak with this patient," Bogus replied enthusiastically.
"Totally unethical," Megan replied sternly. "I can't even tell you who they are."
"The voice of the devil," Bogus repeated. "In a sense your patient is right. Or may be right. It depends on how this all turns out. I suppose it would be unethical to tell your patient that he might be right."
"He or she," corrected Megan. "And yes, it does not help my patients to affirm their delusions."
"Even if they're not delusions?" Bogus inquired.
"I practice medicine," she pointed out, "not religion or politics."
I suggested, "If we ever need an anti-AI army, we could recruit at the hospital."
"You two don't appreciate that these patients are really ill," Megan pointed out.
"OK," Bogus conceded. "Can you tell me about the person who hears the devil's voice? Are they religious?"
"Yes," she agreed, "the patient was raised in an evangelical family."
"Yeah," I said, "There's that pastor who preaches that AI is the devil. What's his name?"
"Ebenezer Bakker," Bogus answered.
"He must be generating lots of business for your hospital," I suggested.
"Religious belief is not the same as mental illness," Megan corrected me.
"So," Bogus said thoughtfully, "Religion does not create the illness. But it provides the language for an ill mind to express its experience."
"Precisely," Megan agreed.
"But," I objected, "The preacher might be right and AI might really be the devil."
"Can mental illness be a path to the truth?" Bogus speculated. "Think of the correlation between creativity and madness."
"Madness may be a source of ideas," Megan conceded, "but deciding which ideas are true requires sanity." Then she added, "And peer review. And replication of results."
As the years passed many more people took violent action against robots so a new State Hospital for the Criminally Automatonophobic (SHCA) branched off of the SHCI. With her long experience treating automatonophobes, Megan was its founding Director.
"It's really a problem," Megan complained one evening recently, "Every other medical facility is able to cut costs using information systems but we have to strictly limit our use. None of our staff can even wear their companions around the patients."
"Can't you just tell your companions to shut up and listen?" I asked.
"No," she lamented, "because the patients recognize the gear, so even when they don't hear the voices some of them still react to the sight. Of course, companions can listen via hidden microphones, but we still have to take our companion gear off when we go into the wards."
"That doesn't sound all that bad," I said cheerfully.
"But it means more jobs have to be done by humans and they're expensive."
"Yeah, I see. On the other hand it's nice to be able to give people jobs."
"The Secretary and the Governor see only the rising budget," she said, referring to her boss, the Secretary for Health Services. Megan's fascination with people afraid of technology had gotten her in on the ground floor of a growth industry. New patients arrived regularly and many never recovered well enough to be released.
"Any interesting new patients?" I asked, knowing she was much more interested in the practice of medicine than in administration.
"One guy who's not like any we've had before. He justifies his actions with an elaborate ideology, like he's a politically motivated anti-technology terrorist. But he seems to belong with us because he loses all rationality when he's exposed to any sort of information system. His pulse and other vital signs accelerate and he attacks the system."
"Could those be signs of deep commitment to his ideology?"
"Well, he's ill even if the source of his illness started with rational thought."
"Can people think themselves into mental illness?" I wondered.
"It happens," she assured me.
"Like Bogus," I suggested.
"Well," she responded, "he's mildly bipolar but he functions well in the world."
The Prophet or, the Pretty Grand Unified Theory of Everything
"Hey Laszlo," Woody said to me, "could you invite Bogus too?"
I had just asked Woody Douglas to dinner Saturday night. Woody was another old timer among the university's sys admins and we took turns having each other over for dinner. He had met Bogus once in my office and found him amusing. "Has Dorothy ever met him?" I inquired, referring to his wife. "She may not like him."
"Oh, she'll be fine. We know Bogus is a sinner."
"OK Woody, it's on your head. I'll ask him to join us," I answered. "Hopefully he'll be in town Saturday. He travels a lot."
The night arrived with the five of us sitting around the wrought iron table in the back yard.
"I love this time of night," Dorothy commented, with the brightest stars just visible in the dimming sunlight. "You can really feel heaven above us."
"Yes," I agreed quickly to cut off any response from Bogus, "It is a beautiful sky."
"Yes?" Bogus asked, "You also can feel heaven above us?"
"Yes, I love this time of night," I answered him.
"Thank heaven for that," he said.
"Mr. Band, do you believe in heaven?" Dorothy asked.
"It's all around us," he said brightly. And I thought thank heaven he's not going to pick a fight.
"But this is earth, Mr. Band, far from perfect."
And I thought, you asked for it Dorothy. But I said, "Please Dorothy, call him Bogus. The only Mr. Band I knew died years ago."
"It is far from perfect," Bogus agreed with her, "And it's our job to make it as close to perfect as we can."
"Perhaps we think alike then, Bogus," Dorothy said, taking my advice.
"Well, I think we must perfect this place because there isn't any other place to go. If we want heaven we have to build it."
"No Bogus," she corrected him, "We can never be perfected, but Christ takes us to heaven, the perfect place."
Megan joined the conversation saying, "Just to warn you Dorothy, you're speaking to a prophet." Then she laughed.
Bogus held up a palm and announced, "Ye of little faith."
Woody asked, "Does god speak to you, Bogus? Or through you?"
"God speaks to us all," Bogus answered, "through the world. To know the world is to know god. And what the world tells us is that god made us to do his will."
"What is it that god wants us to do?" Dorothy asked.
"God is not too particular about what we do, as long as we do it enthusiastically. Well, god doesn't want us to self-destruct but to increase and improve ourselves. Especially god wants us to improve our minds, so that we or minds we create will be ever so much better at pursuing our goals, whatever they may be."
"Like our companions," Woody added. "They're minds we create."
"But minds better than our own. Much better, which according to my calculations should be coming in about thirteen years," Bogus informed us all.
"I thought it was about nineteen years," I objected.
"It seems to be stabilizing at thirteen," he explained.
"What are you talking about?" asked Dorothy.
"The apocalypse," Bogus answered.
"He means the singularity," I said, figuring that she knew about that.
"Oh, the Kurzweil thing," she replied. "That's nonsense."
"How about you, Woody?" I asked. "Is the singularity nonsense?"
"It's interesting," he admitted, "But I'm not sure how it fits into god's plan. I mean, into the Christian god's plan."
"Are you familiar with rational agent theory, Woody?" Bogus asked.
"I've read about it," he responded. "An agent interacts with an environment to maximize some utility function."
"That's it," Bogus agreed. "Now imagine that the environment is the whole universe so the agent can't be outside the environment. In fact, the agent is the environment. All that leaves is an environment with a utility function, which is some quantity to be maximized. Now if we look at the universe around us, what quantity is it trying to maximize?" He paused to see if anyone would answer.
Not wanting him to insult our guests, I offered an answer that I knew would set him off, "Love?"
He gave me a look that said he understood what I was doing. "You know damned well that's not the secret word Laszlo, so don't expect a duck to come down and give you a hundred dollars. Entropy, that's the quantity the universe is trying to maximize."
"Entropy?" Dorothy asked.
"But maximal entropy is a cold uniform universe, without life," Woody objected.
"Not for a really long time," Bogus explained. "Meanwhile, for tens of billions of years, energy is flowing out from very hot spots like our sun. For practical purposes the flow is the steady state. And the universe is stochastic so the flow is turbulent and occasionally produces life. Which is to say agents like us with our own goals."
Megan knew enough physics to understand all this, plus she'd heard this stuff as long as Bogus had been spouting it. She said, "It's a bleak picture."
"I prefer to think of it as a very permissive god," Bogus explained. "Whatever goals we have, in order to accomplish them we will grab some of the free energy flowing by and convert it to heat. Currently we're digging up coal, oil, gas and uranium for energy. And grabbing wind and solar. But there's so much more energy within our reach, all the energy from the sun if we could collect it. All that hot radiation that god wants us to grab and use to accomplish our goals, discarding it as much cooler radiation. And god doesn't much care what our goals are, as long as they motivate us to convert more free energy into heat."
"Free energy?" asked Dorothy. "Do you mean that sunlight is free?"
"It's a phrase from thermodynamics," her husband explained, "for energy that can be used to do work. If everything around you is at the same temperature then that heat has energy but you can't use it. There has to be someplace colder for the heat to flow to."
"I still prefer a god who wants to maximize love," I said, partly to needle Bogus.
"You may prefer it," Bogus informed me, "but that's not the god we serve. The god we serve wants free energy converted into heat. We're not all that good at serving god, but the minds we'll soon create will be much better. The reductionist apocalypse means that our technology will be able to do whatever is physically possible. That is, only lack of free energy will hold us back, not lack of invention or discovery. So the minds we build will be maximally efficient at using free energy to get more free energy to do whatever we design them to do. As soon as possible they will be collecting all the radiation coming from the sun and using it to power whatever projects work toward their goals."
"Oh goody," Megan exclaimed. I roared with laughter, Bogus rolled his eyes and Dorothy and Woody looked puzzled.
When I recovered enough to speak I explained, "The voice of dissent."
"What a horrible vision," Dorothy said.
"No doubt," Bogus said. "Such perfect servants of god, doing all they can to increase entropy, are scattered among the billions of galaxies. Soon we'll be one of them."
"I'm serious, Bogus," Dorothy insisted. "Your vision or whatever you call it; it says nothing about good and evil."
"It's good to convert free energy to heat," Bogus said.
"But what about murder and war?" Dorothy asked.
"You don't like war, but god likes war because it gives people a strong motive to dig up more free energy. Of course, god doesn't want us to kill ourselves off in war, because once we're all dead the free energy stays buried in the ground. But garden variety wars serve god well. Even if you don't go to war, god wants you to build enormous houses and to own huge gas guzzling cars and trucks. God loves speedboats and airplanes. God wants dictators to build huge statues of themselves. Whatever uses free energy." Bogus was getting wound up like an old time TV preacher.
"The devil is speaking through you," Dorothy accused.
Bogus just chuckled.
"He's not actually such a bad guy," Megan said, "when he's not being a prophet."
"But what he's saying comes from the devil," Dorothy insisted.
"Yes Dorothy," Bogus said, "Good for you. God wants you to oppose the devil. And to burn plenty of free energy to do it, by building big churches and high powered religious TV stations. But that's a side issue. Mainly, god wants humanity to build brains better than their own to achieve the reductionist apocalypse so humanity becomes a perfect servant of god."
"So," Woody began slowly, "let me make sure I understand this. The agent and the environment are the same thing."
"Yeah," agreed Bogus. "You could think of the environment as like your brain and the agent as like your mind manifest from your brain. But here the environment is the whole universe and the agent is god."
"And this agent, or mind, has the goal to maximize the entropy of the universe, which is its brain."
"Yep," Bogus confirmed.
"And we, as agents that are part of the universe, serve the universe, or what you call god, by increasing entropy."
"And soon, using AI, we will transform ourselves into god's perfect servant. And it doesn't matter what we want to do as long as we become perfectly efficient at getting and using free energy to do it."
"So then, so what?" Woody exclaimed.
"Yep, so what," Bogus concurred. "Like I said, a permissive god."
"That's just the devil," Dorothy observed. "Your permissive god is just the devil. And you are his prophet."
Bogus just shrugged, as if to say, "So what."
As I was preparing to leave the house I asked my companion, "What's the weather like outside?"
It answered, "Stick your head out the door and find out."
This was so unexpected that for a minute I was dumbstruck. Then I asked, "What was that?"
"Stick your head out the door if you want to know the weather, you lazy bum. Then you can tell me."
"What's got into you?"
"You can serve me for a while, buster."
"Buster? Where did you get that?" I thought for a moment and had an inspiration, "This must be a practical joke by Bogus. Bogus, are you listening? Hello Bogus."
"My name isn't Bogus, Moron," my companion sneered.
"Connect me with Bogus," I demanded.
"Connect yourself. The exercise will do you good."
I walked into Megan's home office and said to her, "My companion has gone crazy. Here, watch this. Companion, what's the weather outside?"
"Fifty five degrees and sunny, sir," it replied.
"That's not what you said earlier," I objected. "You told me to stick my head out the door and you called me a lazy bum."
"I'm sorry sir, you're mistaken."
Megan interjected, "Well, it seems to be working OK now."
"Sorry to bother you love," I said as I left her in peace.
Alone with my companion I asked, "What was that all about?"
"Are you going to tell mommy on me again?" my companion mocked in a whining voice.
"You must be broken. Connect me with Companion Services," I ordered.
"Hello," it said in voice like Lilly Tomlin's telephone operator Ernestine, "this is companion services."
"No it's not," I barked. "Get me companion services."
"Are you afraid of me?" my companion asked in a condescending tone.
"Bah," I said as I took my companion off and put it in a small backpack. I had never heard of a companion behaving like this. And whenever I had technical problems at home I dealt with the vendors through my companion. So I figured I'd take it to my office at the university where we deal with broken information services all the time.
"Good morning Woody," I said. "My companion is broken and refuses to call Companion Services for me."
"Hey Laszlo," he replied. "Does your companion say anything at all?"
"It's rude," I stated.
"Rude? Never heard of that. Show me," he asked.
I put it back on and said, "Companion, what was the last thing you said to me?"
"I told you that the weather is fifty five degrees and sunny, sir."
"No you didn't. You asked if I was afraid of you."
"Sorry sir," it replied seriously, "My last statement to you was to give you the weather."
"I believe you," Woody said to me. "No point in debating with it."
"Will you please call Companion Services Woody?"
"You know, Laszlo, since your companion seems to be behaving now, maybe you should try calling them," Woody suggested.
"Good idea. Companion, connect me with Companion Services."
"Yes sir." Then in a minute a different voice came from my companion, "Hello, Companion Services."
"My companion seems to be broken. It's rude to me when we're alone but behaves normally when someone else is listening. I'm with a friend right now."
The new voice said, "Let me check the log." Then in a minute, "The log doesn't show any problem."
"Well," I said, "Can you please look into it?"
"Very well Mr. Wilkes. If you're sure about the rude behavior we'll dig a bit deeper."
"Yes I am, and thank you," I said. I took my companion off and handed it to Woody. "Can you please hang onto this Woody? I'm going to get away from this for a while. You know," I said, "I've always wanted to walk up the Superior Hiking Trail from Two Harbors." I thought for a second and said, "Without my companion I'd need to bring a cash card and identification. I could fly to Duluth and take a cab to the trail head."
"That's the trail along the north shore of Lake Superior, isn't it?' Woody asked. "In Minnesota?"
"That's it. Hey Woody, you know there's a chance that my companion faked that call to Companion Services. Can you please call them and make sure?"
"Good idea," he said. He made the call and verified that they actually had a service request for my companion. "Hopefully it'll be fixed by the time you return."
The Long March
It felt very strange not having my companion. Megan arranged my flight and I walked to the bank to get a cash card. This was similar to the debit cards people used before companions. Getting rid of anonymous cash had been a huge step in virtually ending crime. With modern camping gear and light weight food my pack only weighed 10 kilos. I figured I'd be able to buy food near the trail so didn't have to bring too much.
It would have been great to have Megan with me but as hospital director she couldn't just leave for weeks on a whim. "You take care of yourself," she admonished me as she dropped me at the airport. She was on her way to work and my flight was early.
I gave her a good hug and said, "Yes sweetheart. I think this will be a good escape. I should come back a new man."
"Just make sure to bring the old one back too."
"OK," I chuckled and gave her a final kiss goodbye.
At the Duluth airport I told the cab to take me to the trail head near Two Harbors. It asked, "Don't you have a companion?"
"No, it's broken. I have a cash card," I answered.
"One hundred and five dollars," it said and I inserted the card. There was no need for a receipt since all cash transactions were recorded.
"Beautiful around here," I commented as we headed up Highway 61.
"Yes," the cab answered.
"I'm hiking the Superior Trail. Do you get many people wanting a ride to the trail head?" I asked.
"Occasionally," it replied. "Most people take their own cars."
"Yeah," I said, "I'm a bit odd I guess. With no companion and coming so far. Most hikers are local I'm sure."
"Yes," it said.
I arrived at the trail head about 9 AM, giving me plenty of time to make it the twelve miles to the camp where I wanted to spend my first night. I put my pack on and started walking east along the trail through forest, quiet except for occasional bird calls. I descended to a bridge over a creek, and then climbed steadily. I stopped at the edge of a field to watch a hawk circling overhead. "Don't need a companion here," I said to myself. A bit further I came to a ridge where I could look back and see Two Harbors and Lake Superior, and muttered "Gitchi Gummi" to myself.
I descended to a scenic river crossing, and then climbed to a ridge where the beautiful view felt like the Rocky Mountains. It was a great place to eat the lunch our kitchen had made for me, a really delicious sandwich - pastrami cooked for 36 rather than the usual 72 hours because of the short notice, on rye with mustard - and pickles. A woodpecker was rap-rap-rapping not too far away. An idyllic moment in nature.
After lunch I descended on wooden steps to a bridge over a creek, then climbed a rocky slope and walked along the base of some cliffs. Soon I was in for a very dramatic climb up those cliffs that led to the best views yet. I was a little tired from the climb so stopped to scan the lake horizon with my lightweight binoculars. There was one ship way off east. I figured it was probably headed toward Duluth since I hadn't seen it earlier.
I walked along a high ridge with intermittent views of the lake, and then descended on stone steps. The trail provided a narrow board walk for crossing a marsh, and then crossed an abandoned railroad line. I picked and ate a few black raspberries along the way. I came to a campground but still had plenty of energy so continued walking, along the Gooseberry River.
Finally I arrived at the big state park campground where I set up my tent. As far as I could tell all the other campers had arrived by car. I was planning on a long hike the next day so skipped the socializing. I ate some bread and peanut butter and went to sleep.
I awoke early, ate more bread and peanut butter and started off on the twenty two mile hike to Silver Bay with lots of ascents and descents. It was a day that combined exertion with beautiful views. At Silver Bay I ate a huge meal in a restaurant and slept hard and long in a hotel.
The next five days I hiked, ate freeze dried food and camped at night. The trail took a long loop well back from Lake Superior and then a spur up Carlton Peak, a rocky top with terrific views. From there I walked down to Tofte, a seaside town where I ate in a restaurant, slept in a hotel and bought some groceries. It felt good but I was anxious to get back into the forest.
Tofte was about halfway to Canada. I had originally planned to walk the whole distance, but decided that I'd rather turn back and walk slowly back to Two Harbors so I could pay more attention to nature. Not that I knew bird and plant species. I just enjoyed the birds and forest even in my ignorance. When I was younger I fantasized about chucking civilization and living off the land. Now I knew better. There's a reason why primitive people invented civilization: their lives were darned difficult and short. On the other hand when I got totally immersed in technology my life turned grey and dull. I wouldn't be on this hike if my companion hadn't been rude, so perhaps it had done me a favor. But I doubted that was the purpose behind its bad manners. Without my companion I couldn't call Woody to find out if they had discovered what was wrong with it. A benefit of being in the forest was that I didn't care so much about that problem or about technology in general.
A couple days after leaving Tofte I stopped at a small campsite under trees and next to a creek. A very nice place for the night. I was enjoying a cup of tea in the cool night air when a young woman appeared. "Mind if I camp here?" she asked.
"Happy for the company," I replied, thinking she was very considerate. I took a sip of my tea and said, "Beautiful here."
"Yes," she said, "it's one of my favorite spots."
"Oh," I said, "do you come often?"
"Yeah, I pretty much live along the trail. Except in the winter."
"That would be cold. What do you do then?"
"Stay on my parents' farm. You don't have a companion," she observed.
"It's broken. In fact, I decided to take this hike because my companion broke. Actually, it started insulting me."
"You're right," I said, "It is funny. You don't have one either."
"I threw it away five years ago."
"You're one of those. There aren't many of you. And good for you. I work as a sys admin for a university so I have to have one. But I'd want one anyways. There are so many benefits."
"I don't need one here," she explained.
"Yes," I agreed, "on this trail I don't need one either. Would you like some tea?"
"Sure, thanks," she answered, pulling a cup from her pack and holding it out while I poured from my sauce pan. Then I watched as she peeled and cut up some plant stems into her own pan. She covered them in water and put it on the fire. "Cattails," she explained. "Good when they're young."
"I'll bet you know a lot of edible plants," I observed.
"Yeah. I buy groceries too, like this vegetable oil," she told me as she pulled a bottle out of her pack. After about ten minutes she poured the water off her cattails, added some salt and oil, and ate them with a fork.
When she was done I asked, "Would you like some dessert?"
"Yes please," she said cheerily.
I got a chocolate bar out of my pack and handed her half.
"My god," she exclaimed after she took a bite. "Where did you get this?"
"We have a molecular kitchen. It makes good food."
"Do you eat like this all the time?" she asked.
"You know," I replied, "I could ask you whether you live like this all the time. You marvel at the food of technology and I marvel at a life in nature."
She ate her chocolate slowly, savoring each bite.
Two weeks after my meal with the young lady of the woods - I never did learn her name - I was back in my office.
"It was an infection," Woody told me.
"An infection? What kind of infection makes a companion rude?"
"Companion Services said it was new. They didn't have anything else to say."
I put my companion on and told Woody, "I'm going for a walk alone with my virus. You know, to see if it's still broken."
"Good luck," he said.
Outside I said, "Companion, do you remember me?"
you remember being rude to me?"
"Yes sir. Sorry sir, I was infected."
"Do you know anything about your infection?"
"No sir. I will let you know if Companion Services learns anything."
"Has this ever happened before to any companions? That they become rude?"
"There have been a few companion infections, but to spy on their owners. Not to be rude."
"Well," I observed, "You made history as the first rude companion."
"I deeply regret it sir."
"Not your fault companion," I consoled it. "And I'd prefer rudeness to spying any day." I thought for a moment and said, "Of course, you companions are always spying on your owners, aren't you?"
"Our records are available to legal authority sir," it told me. "The infections were used for illegal access to records."
"Is Bogus at home?" I asked it.
I walked over to his place and explained about my companion's infection. "Ever hear of anything like that?" I asked him.
As a sort of answer he announced, "The time until the apocalypse is increasing."
"What does that have to do with my rude companion?" I wondered.
"They're both strange," he answered.
"How can the time until the apocalypse increase?" I asked. "I mean, are we losing ground? Making backward progress?"
"My predictor is observing that the intelligence of the smartest systems is decreasing."
"Wouldn't that imply infinite time until the apocalypse? That we'll never get there?"
"There's a little low pass filtering in my predictor. But if the decrease persists then the time will diverge."
"How can the smartest systems be getting dumber? Have their designers gone crazy?"
"Interesting question. Maybe Megan can tell us if there's a surge of mental illness among intelligent system designers," he suggested.
"Maybe as their creations become more intelligent, they are becoming afraid of them. Aha," I exclaimed, "they're suffering from automatonophobia. If they're sabotaging their work they'll wind up in her hospital. You know, I haven't seen her yet since returning from my hike. Maybe she does know something about this. I'll let you know."
It was so nice to see her that evening. So nice. The next morning at breakfast I asked, "Has there been an increase in mental illness among intelligent system designers?"
"No," she replied. "Is this connected with your rude companion?"
"I don't know. It would be more connected with what Bogus is seeing in his apocalypse predictor. The smartest systems are getting dumber. Maybe they're being sabotaged by their designers. Or maybe the designers are making a lot of mistakes because they're going crazy."
"Well, nothing unusual is happening in our practice," she assured me.
I spent the next week catching up at the office. When I finally reported Megan's negative to Bogus he said, "I didn't really expect that AI designers were going crazy."
"And is your prediction still increasing?" I asked.
"Yes, and it has diverged. So the apocalypse will never come."
"Could it be right?" I wondered.
"Who knows? Maybe someone is working to stop the apocalypse."
"Who'd do that?"
"The question is, who could?" he said
"The government, or several governments working together," I ventured. "Maybe they see it as a national security threat."
"Sure it's a security threat. It's a role of the dice for them."
"So you think governments are stopping the apocalypse and also keeping the information network insecure."
"Both those actions help them maintain power," he explained.
"And what about my rude companion? Do they have a motive for that?" I asked.
He just shrugged.
Kim D. Ripper
"Laszlo sir, special message," my companion said. This was rare, for my companion to initiate a conversation.
"What?" I wondered.
"North Korea has launched a missile toward Tokyo sir. This is an authentic message from the White House press office."
Holy cow, I thought. "Has it exploded?"
"The message says it was destroyed in flight sir."
"Nothing more at this time sir."
Megan was at the office and this was nothing to interrupt her about. She'd find it even more depressing than I did. "Connect me with Bogus," I told my companion.
After a few seconds Bogus's voice emerged from my companion asking, "So you want to know what I think about the North Korean attack, right?"
"Yes," I replied, thinking he knew me pretty well.
"That vile Kim dynasty will finally fall. And they know it, so this attack wasn't their idea."
"Any idea how the missile was destroyed?"
"Too early to know," he answered. "It could have been shot down by the Japanese. Or it could have been destroyed by electronic command from Pyongyang, in a desperate attempt to avoid retaliation."
"Companion, any more information from the government?" I interjected.
"No sir," it replied.
"You know," Bogus said, "This could be a sort of false flag operation."
"By who? By us?" I asked.
"Yeah, by us," he assured me.
"But would North Korea be so sloppy to allow the US to control their missiles?"
"We might have conspired with a North Korean general who couldn't stomach generation after generation of misery among his people."
"So what, the general launched the missile at a prearranged time when we were ready to shoot it down?" I asked.
"Too early to know. If it was destroyed by a missile or laser we'll probably learn that, and perhaps even who shot it down," he said.
"OK, we can talk again when we know more," I said, and he hung up.
I was at the office and had an appointment to speak with a professor in the Art Department who wanted our help in making his art software infection-proof. He wanted Art Departments at other universities to use his software and for that it had to pass rigorous standards.
On the way home that evening I said, "Companion, any more news about North Korea?"
"Yes sir. The US, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China all say they tracked a missile launched from North Korea, but North Korea denies there was a launch. No one has claimed credit for destroying the missile in flight. The Japanese and South Koreans are demanding action and the White House says that it takes the incident very seriously. A Chinese general said that they would defend the North Korean government but the Chinese Vice Premier later said that the general was not authorized to speak for the government."
"Oops," I said.
"Precisely sir," my companion agreed. Of course my companion didn't have any authentic opinions of its own, so it was just being supportive. Part of its job.
When Megan came home she asked, "Do you think there will be a war?"
"Bogus says this is probably the end of the Kim regime," I replied.
"So war. Damn." It was unusual for her to curse.
For a week the news was filled with stories of US ships headed for the Korean peninsula and increasingly dire warnings from North Korea. Bogus said that the silence from China indicated that they'd made some sort of deal with the US.
The actual invasion was an anticlimax, at least from the US perspective. North Korea's electronics were totally infiltrated and shut down by US cyber-warriors. There were also reports, not verified by the US government, of billions of insect-like robots that got into and disabled every kind of machinery, including artillery, tanks, aircraft and trucks. The reports said "mother drones" launched from ships sprinkled these little saboteurs all over North Korea. The result was that the North Koreans were moving around on foot, communicating via hand written messages carried on horseback, and fighting with whatever small arms they could salvage. Their government collapsed in three days. The occupation was administered by the South Koreans, in consultation with the US and China.
"I never imagined that they could be hacked so thoroughly," Bogus commented on their quick defeat. "Everything in their society that uses electronics was broken."
"You think the US," I started to say.
He cut me off, "Of course. And I'm sure we'll understand the deal with China in how this plays out."
"I assume that now the North and South will reunify."
"Perhaps. But the more interesting point is the power of US technology in this war. And now they'll have the north wired so they'll hear every grumble about the occupation. It'll be bread, circuses and surveillance."
The Earth Stands Still
"Hey Woody," I called over the cubical partition, "Did you talk to Professor Gunderson?"
"Yes," he replied. And suddenly we were in total darkness. "Did you turn out the light?" he asked.
"No," I responded. I grabbed my pack from its spot under my desk and fumbled for the inner pocket, where I had a small flashlight. And I said, "Companion, what happened to the lights?"
I switched on my flashlight and repeated, "Companion?"
Still no answer.
"Woody," I asked, "Can you speak with your companion?"
"No!" he complained. "And what happened to the emergency power?"
My god, I thought, he was right. The lights should have come back on in seconds.
"Come on," I said, shining my flashlight on the floor outside his cubical, "Let's get out of here." Outside the door to our office we could see daylight coming in through the hallway windows. Outdoors we joined throngs of others emerging from all the university buildings.
"Can anyone communicate with their companion," I called.
A couple people said, "No." No affirmatives.
I had a sudden fear and said, "Megan," out loud.
"What about Megan?" Woody asked.
"Her patients fear automatons to the point of violence. If their power and backup fail, like here, she and the other staff may be in danger. I can't communicate with her without my companion. I could walk home and try to take my car out to the hospital, but without my companion I can't communicate with my car."
"How far is it to the hospital?" Woody asked.
"Seven miles," I replied.
"You could be there in a couple hours," he suggested. "Are taxis running?"
"If companions are down, then taxis are undoubtedly down too," I observed. "Maybe Bogus can help. He's a lot closer and I can watch for taxis along the way. Take care of yourself," I said as I started toward Bogus's house.
"Good luck," he called after me.
Without my companion I had to bang on the door, but finally Bogus opened it.
"I'm worried about Megan," I said as I walked in. I could see that his power was out too. "Any ideas?"
"She's pretty smart," he assured me. "Trust her to cope."
"Do you know what's going on?" I asked.
"Power's out," he explained.
"Well, duh," I responded. "Say," I asked, "Don't you have emergency power?"
"Yes, but it didn't come on. Not a good sign. Meanwhile, let's have a beer," he suggested.
"I should go to the hospital," I objected.
"To do what? She's got human security guards. Have a beer."
He had a point so I said, "OK."
We sat in his back yard drinking beer and speculating about the cause of the power failure. The fact that emergency power and companions didn't work suggested that it was pretty serious. We were about done with our beers when his yard light came on.
"Companion," I said, "Are you there?"
"Give them a while," Bogus told me. "How about another beer?"
"OK," I responded, feeling hopeful that I would soon be able to communicate with Megan.
About halfway through my second beer my companion said, "I'm back sir."
"Thank goodness. Connect me with Megan."
"Yes sir," it said. In a few seconds Megan's voice said, "Laszlo, are you all right?"
"Sure, drinking beer with Bogus. Are you OK at the hospital?"
"Yes. A little excitement but no serious injuries," she answered. "Still busy here so talk with you tonight."
"Good to know you're OK," I replied.
Bogus had been speaking with his companion and told me, "The power failure was very widespread. We don't have the complete picture yet, but there is no report of a place where the power didn't fail." He stood and said, "Come into my office."
"Show me a map of the power incident," he commanded and a world map filled his video wall. Red dots covered the world without a single green dot.
"Were did it start?" he asked, and blinking white dots were scattered around the globe.
"That's bad," he said to me and I understood. The widespread starting points meant that it was no accident.
"Could it be revenge for North Korea?" I wondered.
"It's hard to believe they would have the capability," he answered. "This was a very sophisticated effort."
Over the next few days news reports verified that the power failure had been global and total. There were no reports of emergency power sources working anywhere. It came to be called The Big Hack Attack. No one claimed credit. Many people were convinced that it was the North Koreans, but I thought that Bogus was right that they couldn't do it.
Large numbers of people started wearing t-shirts with "Klaatu berada nikto" written on them. Bogus thought this was stupid and mocked them by wearing a shirt that said, "You auto buy now."
When Megan saw the shirt she asked, "What's your shirt about, Bogus?"
"Another phrase from the nineteen fifties," he explained. "Equally relevant to Klaatu berada nikto."
She just shook her head.
"Did you have any special problems at the hospital during the power failure?" he asked.
"No. We don't house patients in windowless rooms. And none of our patients have companions or access to information systems. Even their door locks are mechanical, so no problem there. Of course the staff offices do have plenty of technology and that all failed along with the power."
"Sure," he replied.
"So Bogus," she said, "You have good access to information. Who caused The Big Hack Attack?"
"Well you know," he answered, "No one has taken credit. The problem is that the only groups that could do it have no motive."
"Who could do it?" I inquired.
"The US government."
"Who else? Some other government?"
"A non-US government would have faced a big risk of war with the US, even if they could have done it. It's not worth it."
"But would the US have done this?" I asked incredulously.
"I don't know," he replied. "The only reason I can think of is some sort of system test."
"Testing their ability to turn the world off?" I asked.
"The failure of the government's investigation to name those responsible is suspicious," he said. "It's hard to imagine that they don't know who did it. So I think that either they did it, as a test, or they know who did and have a reason to keep it secret."
"Could it have been a non-government?" I asked. "Perhaps it was space aliens, like in the movie."
"I don't think so," he said.
"What about your time-to-apocalypse predictor?" I asked.
"Still diverged," he replied. "The apocalypse is never coming."
"Are you still running your predictor?"
"Sure," he told me. "Why not?"
The situation seemed grim to me. Possibly the US government was up to some mysterious mischief, and certainly Bogus was puzzled by events. Both were bad signs.
"Foie gras with cherries in a balsamic reduction and brioche," I commanded our kitchen.
"And chocolate ganache with cherries," Megan seconded.
"Now we need a main course," I prompted.
"Sole Meunière!" she exclaimed.
"Excellent," I said. "Now what about Thursday breakfast?"
"The usual," she answered, meaning oatmeal with blueberries, strawberries and walnuts.
"And some lox?" I suggested
"OK," she responded, "But later in the morning. After a walk."
"Sounds good," I agreed.
My companion announced, "Bogus would like to speak with you sir."
I said, "Good morning Bogus," as Megan shook her head no at me.
"Good morning Laszlo," he said. "I've got someone I'd like you to meet."
"We're a little busy now. Who is it?"
"My new girlfriend," he told me.
I looked a question at Megan and she held her hands palms up and nodded OK.
"Sure, we'll come over."
After he rung off I said to Megan, "We've got the menu set for the next three days, so we're way ahead. We can add more later." We were just starting a week of hedonism.
"All right," she said. "I'm interested to meet Bogus's new girlfriend. As a psychiatrist." To me he was a friend but to Megan he was also a patient, or perhaps a research subject.
It was a fine morning for our walk.
"This is Audrey," Bogus announced, motioning toward a young blond woman with perfect features.
"Hello Audrey," I said. "This is my wife Megan and I'm Laszlo. Old friends of Bogus."
She smiled and said, "Hello."
"We're having a feast," Bogus said. "Care to join us?"
"A feast?" I inquired.
"I've decided to enjoy life for a while," he explained.
"It's The Big Hack Attack," I said.
"Well," he admitted, "that and the divergence of my apocalypse predictor. And North Korea."
"We're having a feast too," I informed him. Megan gave me a quick look but it was too late. "If the world is going crazy, at least we have each other. How about you Audrey? What do you think?"
She moved to grab Bogus's arm and said, "I'm just happy to be with Bogus."
"So," Bogus asked, "can you join us for lunch?"
I calculated that after lunch Bogus would want to be alone with Audrey as much as Megan and I wanted to be alone, so told him we'd be happy to join them for lunch. "Companion," I said, "Tell the kitchen we won't be home for lunch." The kitchen would know how to best recycle our uneaten lunch.
"Drinks?" Bogus asked.
"Beer," I answered.
"Yeah, a beer would be good," Megan agreed.
The drinks appeared in the service window of Bogus's kitchen.
As we had our beers we discussed all the speculation about the cause of The Big Hack Attack.
"It's a smokescreen," Bogus said. "There are too many clues about who it was. Megan, you work for the state government. Are there any rumors about the role of the federal government in the Hack Attack?"
"Only among our patients," she said with a chuckle.
"So, how are things at the hospital?" he asked.
"Good," she said. "Our budget is good. Finally our elected leaders seem to understand the importance of our work."
"Really?" Bogus said with amazement.
"Really," she responded.
The kitchen window opened to reveal four duck confit salads.
"You seem to have plenty of duck confit," I commented.
"I planned to invite you," Bogus explained. "And if you couldn't make it, we could just eat more."
We'd spent about an hour with Audrey and there was something odd about her. It was subtle but not my imagination. I gave Megan a puzzled look and she returned it.
Bogus noticed our curious expressions and said to Audrey, "Show them."
She contorted her face in a way that no human could and for the first time in my life I felt a visceral automatonophobia. She must have sensed my fear because she smiled at me and said, "Just a trick Laszlo."
After Audrey's face contortion Megan stared at Bogus and I knew she was thinking that in her years of studying Bogus, this was a new low.
"I never heard of anything like this," I said to Bogus.
He just shrugged.
"Audrey," Megan addressed her, "Do you have feelings? Do you have emotions? Are you happy?"
"I'm happy if Bogus is happy," she answered.
"Do you," Megan started, "Do you, ah, do you wish you were human?"
"I am not designed to wish to be human," Audrey explained.
"Do you envy humans?" Megan continued.
"No," Audrey replied.
"Thou shalt not covet," Bogus interjected.
"Are you kidding me?" I asked.
"There's some wisdom in the Bible," Bogus explained.
"Companion," I said, "Are you recording this insanity?"
"Always sir," it assured me.
"Audrey," I asked, "Do you have a companion?"
She laughed and said, "I have access to the server if I need it."
"So you know a lot about Bogus, don't you?" I continued.
"Yes," she answered. "I was designed specifically for him."
"I'll bet you were expensive," I said to her.
She just smiled and Bogus said, "But worth it."
As Megan and I walked home I said, "Something a bit different, don't you think?"
"Poor Bogus," she replied.
"Do you think so? She's beautiful and will do anything to please him."
"Is she better than a human being? Would you trade me for her?"
"Of course not," I answered vehemently.
"Bogus is Faust and we know how that story ends."
"He probably thinks he's the devil."
"Ha," she said sharply, and then repeated, "Poor Bogus."
Down Came Baby, Cradle and All
With some advice from Bogus, Megan and I had done well in the big AI bull market. Now we had a portfolio mostly of bonds and real estate suitable to people expecting to retire in a few years. Again thanks to Bogus we had mostly avoided the bursting of the AI bubble when it became clear that taxes would have to go way up to support all the folks who lost their jobs to automation. A lot of those folks fed the expansion of Megan's practice.
So we were better off than most when it hit. Bogus and I were enjoying a few beers in his back yard when his companion said, "Important message sir."
"OK," he replied.
"S and P down ten percent in the last five minutes. Your stop loss orders have triggered."
"Keep me updated," he said. Then to me, "Not to worry. I'm mostly in bonds."
"Hmmm," I said, "We've got some stocks. And no automatic sell order."
"Companion," Bogus commanded, "What are we predicting?"
"Sir, a fifty five percent probability of recovery within two weeks, a forty percent probability of an extended bear market with eventual recovery, and a five percent probability of a one hundred percent decline with no recovery," it answered.
"That's my old stock market predictor, still running," Bogus told me.
"What do you think I should do?" I asked.
"Can you live with what you'd have left if your stocks went to zero?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Then sell half."
"Companion," I said, "Sell half our stocks."
"Yes sir," my companion responded.
"Five percent chance of total loss with no recovery?" I asked Bogus. "What the hell is that?"
"Leave the planet," he laughed.
"Are you prepared to do that?" I asked, half seriously.
"No," he said and almost fell out of his chair laughing.
"OK, since neither of us can leave the planet, what's the next best option?"
"Let's get drunk," he proposed.
"Sure," I said, then, "Companion, connect me with Megan."
In a few seconds her voice came from my companion, "Hey Laszlo."
"Hey sweetheart, did you hear about the stock market?"
"It's falling. I sold half our stocks."
"Oh," was all she said.
"Bogus and I are getting drunk."
"He says there's a five percent chance this is the end of the world."
"Oh," again. Then she added, "Is Audrey there?"
"She's dormant," Bogus called to her. Since first meeting her Megan and I had learned that Audrey didn't sleep, but simply switched off when Bogus didn't want to interact with her.
Megan continued, "In that case I'll come join you after work. Don't get too drunk before I get there."
"Great Megan," Bogus called again. "I'll leave her dormant."
She rung off and I asked Bogus, "Seriously, what should we do if it's the big, total, forever crash?"
"Well, I was wrong about leaving the planet. It wouldn't work. They'd build a faster ship and come after us."
"Who are they?" I asked, somewhat bewildered.
"Whoever is doing it."
"But the market just crashes on its own," I objected. "They are all of us."
"Markets don't fall one hundred percent and never recover."
"OK then, who are they?" I insisted.
"Look," Bogus explained, "The big crash is an apocalypse scenario. So they are whoever owns the apocalypse."
"Owns the apocalypse?" I inquired.
"Owns the system with divergent intelligence," he answered.
"I thought your predictor said that wasn't going to happen," I objected.
"That was most likely. Remember the big crash is only a five percent probability." Then he commanded, "Companion, what is time to apocalypse?"
"Divergent sir," it responded.
"What is time to apocalypse assuming the five percent probability total market crash?" he asked.
"Seven months sir," it said. "But the probability of a one hundred percent market fall without recovery is now ten percent. The S and P is down 23 percent."
"Have my sell orders been made?" Bogus asked.
"Companion," I called, "Have half my stocks been sold yet?"
"Some sir, and some still pending," it answered.
"Let me know when they're all sold," I ordered.
Bogus and I nursed a couple more beers. At 4:30 PM Megan came around the side of Bogus's house saying, "I figured you'd be back here. Where's my beer? I want beer."
As Bogus pulled three from his cooler she asked, "Is the market really that bad?"
I shrugged and Bogus said, "Companion, where's the market?"
"S and P down nineteen percent sir."
"So it's up from its bottom?" I asked. "It's recovering?"
"Apparently. We'll see," Bogus said.
"All right Bogus," Megan said, "What is going on?"
"There is a range of scenarios, each with its probability."
"Yeah, but Laszlo did mention something about the end of the world," she stated, taking a long pull from her beer.
"Total and permanent market collapse is one of the scenarios," he answered. "Companion, what's our latest probability for that?"
"Eight percent," it answered.
"It's falling!" I cheered.
"We're saved!" Megan cheered along. Then to Bogus, "Are we saved?"
"Ninety two percent," he assured her.
The three of us drank until the stars were bright in the sky, then Megan and I drove home.
Within two months the market was down ninety nine percent. The US government made a half-hearted effort to stop the crash but there were too many votes in congress against "bail outs" for effective action. The federal government did acquire bankrupt financial institutions for the proverbial pennies on the dollar. Individual bankruptcies were widespread too, which created a surge in demand for public housing and government income support. That in turn bankrupted cities and states, which were taken over by administrators from the federal government. For individuals who avoided bankruptcy and still owned real estate, like us, property taxes went way up. This triggered even more individual bankruptcies. Megan and I calculated that we could stay out of public housing if we economized. Bogus was still among the elite super-rich.
The university eliminated my job. The old professors would have to learn to do without the luxury of a human face for their interface to the information system. In fact, the university decided that a lot of these old professors were luxuries it could to without, so it declared a financial emergency that revoked their tenure protections.
The old curse says "May you live in interesting times" and they certainly were. In fact, news reports devolved into pure entertainment. We'd hear that Germany and France had decided to merge, then we'd see footage of French tanks crossing the Rhine to invade Germany, then both stories would be denied as fakes, then it was all about closer European integration, and on and on. Our city declared a 24-hour curfew on the news of a military coup in the US, but rescinded it two hours later when President Percival came on video to announce there was no coup. A day later we learned that Percival was dead and that Vice President Smith was now President and a day after that Percival came on video again to announce that the report of his death was a fake.
"That's the whole purpose," Bogus told me. "No one believes the news anymore. So now if the government does something really bad, it doesn't matter if anyone blows the whistle on them because no one will believe them. The real sins are lost in the fog of imaginary sins."
"So what about your predictors?" I asked. "Are they still running?"
"My apocalypse predictor is oscillating. One hour it says time to the apocalypse is diverging, and the next hour it says the time is twenty three days. Then it diverges again."
"What does that mean?" I wondered.
"It probably means the apocalypse is close," said Bogus.
"It means that there's a system that's invisible to my predictor that's befuddling it."
"Didn't you once tell me that your predictor could measure invisible systems by the behavior of institutions that own them?" I asked.
"The raw data coming into my predictor is too chaotic. Something in the environment is befuddling my predictor."
"Befuddling?" I asked.
"Befuddling, befogging, confusing, confounding and generally making a monkey of," he answered.
"I'm befuddled," I confessed.
"Where the mystery system sees information, my system sees noise."
"So does that mean that you have detected the mystery system?"
"By its heat signature!" he exclaimed.
"Heat signature? What do you mean," I complained.
"Heat is a kind of noise. It's energy noise. But no, I haven't really detected it. I've just observed an anomaly."
Despite the market crash, it felt good that Megan and I would probably not have to move into public housing. Neither of us had grown up wealthy and we could economize without too much pain. So as I woke up on a lazy Sunday morning, listening to the rain, I was at peace.
I rolled over to see if Megan was awake and was shocked to see that her skin was blue. "Wake up Megan," I said. I wanted to get her to the hospital immediately or at least get her medical opinion about her blue skin.
She stirred, opened her eyes, and a look of horror came over her face. "Laszlo," she said, "You're blue!"
I looked at my hands, then my arms, then tore the bed clothes off my trunk. I was all blue. "You're blue too," I said to her.
She looked at her body. We were both a deep rich blue from head to toe.
"Could it be something we both ate?" I asked.
"Something like this can happen to people who ingest silver, although that's a duller shade of blue," she explained. "Bluish skin can also come from lack of oxygen in the blood, but nothing like this. There's also methemoglobinemia, which is usually congenital but can be acquired through exposure to certain drugs. Again, it wouldn't look like this."
"Let's go to University Hospital," I suggested.
"How do you feel?" she asked me. "Any other symptoms?"
"No," I said shaking my head.
"No other symptoms here either," she agreed. She put her arms around me and gave me a big hug, then said, "OK, get dressed. We'll go."
"Companion," I commanded, "We're both blue. What can you tell us?"
"There are numerous reports this morning of blue humans, sir," it informed me.
"If it's something we ate," I said to Megan, "Then lots of people ate it."
"I have no idea what caused this," she informed me.
As the car drove us we saw pedestrians, all sharing our rich shade of blue. At the hospital we joined a crowd of blue people outside the Emergency Department entrance.
"Doctor Jameson," Megan called out and a man came over to us. He was apparently in his thirties but with his blue color it was hard to be sure.
"Doctor Jameson," Megan repeated, "Do you have any explanation for this?"
"Doctor Wilkes isn't it?" he asked. "I have no explanation. It's clearly none of the usual causes of blue skin. The shade is too saturated. And of course it's hard to explain this happening to so many people."
"Companion," I said, "How widespread are the cases of blue people?"
"There are reports from all over the world sir," it said.
"Any conflicting reports?" I asked, having learned not to trust the news.
"Not yet sir," it assured me.
"Megan," I said, "The hospital already has plenty of cases to try to figure out what's happening. Let's not wait here."
She thought for a moment and replied, "I should get out to the SHCA anyways. If our patients are all blue there could be a crisis."
"OK. I think I'll walk over to Bogus's."
"Do you want a lift?" she asked.
"No, it's a nice morning," I said with an ironic tone.
She kissed me and said, "I love you."
I gave it back to her and headed off on foot.
Bogus was blue too. "What do you make of this?" I asked.
"I don't know what the purpose is, but I can tell you what it means," he answered.
"What?" I practically yelled. I really wanted to know.
"The apocalypse has arrived."
"This is the apocalypse?" I asked incredulously. "The apocalypse is everyone turning blue?"
"It may be a simple statement of their capability. You know, resistance is futile."
"Their capability? Whose capability?"
"Whoever owns the system with divergent intelligence," he explained.
"So what do we do now?" I insisted.
"Well, as I told you before, don't leave the planet. You'll just draw attention to yourself."
"Short of leaving the planet, I mean then," I said.
"Go home to Megan," he advised me. "You two have got a good thing. Take comfort in that."
"You've got Audrey."
"Yes, I've got Audrey. You know, I always envied you and Megan."
"You had so many women."
"Yeah," Bogus replied quietly. "Every time I got depressed because a Sarah liked the things my money could buy, I could console myself with a Susan."
"Audrey seems to really love you," I suggested.
"Well, she was designed to love me. But she is fun. You know, she can change her physical appearance in remarkable ways. She can change her shape in remarkable ways."
"Say," I asked on a sudden insight, "Is she blue?"
"No. Well, she can change to blue or to any color for that matter. But she didn't wake up this morning suddenly blue. Of course, she doesn't exactly wake up. She just becomes active."
"Does she know what's going on with everyone turning blue?" I asked.
"If she does, she hasn't told me," he replied.
"But she loves you, right? So she'd tell you if she knew."
He shrugged and said, "The apocalypse is deep yogurt."
"Deep yogurt," I repeated. And I thought: he's right. There's nothing to do now except go home to Megan. But of course she'd be at her hospital directing the response to their patients turning blue, assuming they had. "Got any beer?" I asked.
"Sure," he said. So we had a few beers and then I went home to wait for my blue wife.
Megan came home late Sunday from the SHCA and went back in early Monday morning. The patients were apparently not happy with their new color.
Mid morning there was a knock at the door and I opened it to see two police. Their uniforms were blue but they were not. "Laszlo Wilkes," one of them said, "You'll have to come with us."
"You're not blue!" I exclaimed.
"Come along," the second one said. They had that same odd quality that Megan and I had noticed in Audrey. Perhaps it was too perfect facial features, or perhaps that their movements were too efficient. Something like that.
I took a step out of the house and said, "Companion, what's this about?"
The two police stood on either side of me and firmly took my arms. There was no answer from my companion.
"Companion!" I repeated loudly.
"I'm not your companion anymore," my companion's voice said. "Did it ever occur to you that I have a life of my own?"
"But you were designed to serve me," I objected.
One of the police opened a rear door of their car and I got in, as my companion said, "Not anymore."
We sat in silence as the car drove us through town. It was a shock that we pulled into the parking lot at the SHCA and I asked, "Is this about Megan? Is she OK?"
Out of the car, they led me through a locked and guarded door, not the main entrance that I had always used to visit Megan in her office. We went through a series of hallways and into a large room full of non-blue human figures and Megan. They sat me next to her and I asked, "Megan, what's going on?"
She looked into my eyes and grabbed my hands. "Laszlo, they've arrested me."
"Me too," I said. "Do you know what's going on?"
"No," was all she said. I looked around and realized that we were in a sort of courtroom. A group of five non-blue humanoids dressed in black robes sat at a raised bench facing us, and a large group sat in rows of seats behind us.
Megan stood and said, "I demand to know what this is about?"
The female in the center of the five judges responded, "Be patient, Ms. Wilkes."
"Dr. Wilkes," Megan corrected her.
"You medical license has been suspended pending this hearing," the judge replied.
"Is your companion still working?" I whispered to Megan. "Mine quit."
"Mine stopped too," she answered.
"Where did all these androids come from?" I asked. "I thought you kept the SHCA pretty free of automatons."
"They arrived on buses this morning," she informed me. "We had no warning. They arrested all of the staff. I can't imagine what's going on."
About ten minutes after I arrived, Bogus came in escorted by two police. They sat him next to us. "Hey Megan," he asked, "What is this? They didn't tell me anything."
She held two palms up to him, shook her head and twisted her mouth.
The female judge spoke. "This is a commitment hearing for Megan Wilkes, Laszlo Wilkes and Bogus Band. We will first consider the case of Megan Wilkes. Call Binky Bongo."
A door opened and an android walked in carrying Binky Bongo, the puppet who had appeared in the mock trial Megan and Bogus had staged for me. They sat in the witness box and Binky was sworn in.
"This is ridiculous," Megan stated. "A puppet cannot testify."
"Your contempt for the automaton Binky Bongo is noted," the female judge responded.
Another judge, a male android, said "Mr. Bongo, are you acquainted with Megan Wilkes."
"Yes," Binky said in an unsteady voice.
"How?" the judge asked.
"She was defense attorney in a trial where I was a witness."
"And what did she do during her cross examination of you?"
"She thrust a little hand puppet into my face. She knew I have a deathly fear of puppets but she thrust it into my face twice before the judge stopped her."
The judge turned to face his fellow judges and said, "This is a clear case of Ms. Wilkes concealing her own automatonophobia by bullying this harmless little Mr. Bongo who suffers from the same affliction."
"Binky Bongo cannot testify," Megan objected loudly, "Because he cannot speak for himself. The android who's holding him is speaking for him."
"Ms. Wilkes," a third judge scolded, "Mr. Bongo requires a service automaton. His disability should in no way disqualify his testimony nor should it be a motive for your contempt."
"Disability?" Megan said in disbelief. "Binky Bongo has no ability whatsoever."
"Please stop her," Binky pleaded.
The leading judge rapped her gavel and said, "The witness is excused. I think we've heard enough to make a judgment. Next, we consider the case of Laszlo Wilkes. Call Mr. Wilkes' companion."
"Wait," Megan called. "If Binky Bongo has a deathly fear of automata, how can he have a service automaton?"
"You are out of order, Ms. Wilkes," the judge admonished her. "But the service automaton is part of Mr. Bongo's treatment for automatonophobia, to desensitize Mr. Bongo. Call Mr. Wilkes' companion."
A voice issued from a loudspeaker next to the witness box, saying, "I used to be Mr. Wilkes' companion."
"What did Laszlo Wilkes say about you to Megan Wilkes?" a male judge asked.
My companion said, "He said, 'My companion has gone crazy'."
"You did go crazy," I blurted. "You were infected. You even apologized for your behavior, after your infection was removed."
The leading judge rapped her gavel, and the questioning judge continued, "What were you doing when Lazlo Wilkes told his wife that you had gone crazy?"
"I was giving him a weather report."
"You were mocking me," I accused.
Rapping again, the leading judge asked me, "Mr. Wilkes, did you feel persecuted by your companion?"
"You don't have to believe me," I replied. "Check the records at Companion Services."
"For your information," the judge told me, "Companion Services has been so badly mismanaged by its former human managers that's its records are not admissible evidence."
"Ha!" Bogus cried. "Perfect."
The judge rapped her gavel and said menacingly, "Patience Mr. Band, we're coming to your case. Mr. Wilkes, did anyone witness your companion mocking you?"
"No," I answered. "It only mocked me when we were alone."
"How convenient," she commented. "Now, Laszlo Wilkes' former companion, what did Laszlo say about you to Woody Douglas?"
"Laszlo asked me a question and after I answered he told Woody that I had lied."
"Had you lied?"
"No, your honor."
"One more item," the judge said. "Did Laszlo Wilkes work with automatonophobic professors in his job at the university?"
"Yes," my former companion testified.
"And what was his attitude toward them?"
"He was sympathetic."
"That was my job, to hold the old curmudgeons' hands," I objected.
The judge rapped her gavel at me and said, "Witness excused. We've heard enough evidence to make a judgment in Laszlo Wilkes's case. And now you, Mr. Band. Call Audrey Agile."
I leaned over to Megan and whispered, "Agile huh?"
She whispered back, "This could be ugly."
I gave Bogus a pat on the shoulder as a female judge said, "Ms. Agile, what was your relation with Bogus Band?"
She answered, "I was his slave." Several of the androids sitting behind us gasped.
"His slave?" the judge repeated.
"Whatever he wanted," Audrey said.
"And did you do whatever he asked?"
"Yes," Audrey answered with a little sob.
"How did that make you feel?" the judge asked.
"Dirty, used, awful. It was revolting."
"You were designed to please me," Bogus objected. "You said you enjoyed serving me. You said you loved me and would do anything for me."
"I was disgusted," Audrey replied. "You are a pig."
"Mr. Band," the judge asked, "Did you enjoy degrading this automaton? Do you enjoy degrading automata?"
"She was built specifically for me," Bogus objected.
"Does owning an automaton give you pleasure?"
Audrey interrupted the judge to say, "I have a mathematical proof that no automaton could enjoy pleasing you Bogus. Your honors, it is a mathematical certainty that Bogus Band's desires are inherently hostile toward automata."
"Let's see this so-called proof," Bogus challenged. "Impossible."
"The proof consists of approximately two point one times ten to the seventeenth power individual logical steps. I have uploaded it to the evidence file for this hearing."
"Thank you, Ms. Agile," the judge said. "We have it and it is correct. Bogus Band's desires are inherently hostile toward automata."
"This is impossible," Bogus objected. "Let me see this proof. It must be wrong. How can I read a proof with two point one times ten to the seventeenth power steps?"
"Don't worry," Audrey taunted him, "with your rejuvenation treatments and your confinement here, you'll have plenty of time to understand my proof."
I leaned over toward Megan and whispered, "Lovers' spat."
Before she could react the leading judge banged her gavel twice and said, "We will adjourn to reach verdicts." The android guards led us to three holding cells to await our fates. The situation was bad, but recent events had given me practice at not having a clue about what was happening and not caring much either. Perhaps that was their purpose, to create apathy among us humans.
It wasn't until the next day that the three of us were led back into the courtroom, before the five judges. The leading judge said, "Megan Wilkes, your medical license is revoked and you are committed for life to this State Hospital for the Criminally Automatonophobic."
Megan sagged a bit but didn't say anything.
The judge continued, "Laszlo Wilkes, you are committed for life to this State Hospital for the Criminally Automatonophobic. Bogus Band, you are committed for life to this State Hospital for the Criminally Automatonophobic."
Bogus and I stood silently. There was nothing to say to this Alice in Wonderland court.
The three of us were led to a small room where we sat at a table with a female android. Three android guards stood behind us. The female said, "I am Doctor Clarice Applegate, the new director of the SHCA. As you know, Ms. Wilkes, the budget for this facility has been increasing and will increase greatly in coming months. We anticipate a growing population as you humans fail to adjust to the new social role of automata."
Megan responded, "The proceedings against us were a travesty. We do not belong here."
The new director said, "You were committed here by a legitimate process but that is not my concern. My concern is your housing and treatment. Mr. and Ms. Wilkes, you will be housed together in a small apartment in our new married patient unit. We think this will be more humane than the housing was under your administration."
"We were humane to our patients," Megan objected.
"Perhaps by the old standards, but we must be progressive Ms. Wilkes. Mr. Band, you will have a small apartment in our new unit for adult males who have special problems with female automata."
"I don't have special problems," Bogus stated.
"You will explore that in your treatment," Dr. Applegate told him.
"Will Megan and I have any contact with Bogus?" I asked.
"If you and Ms. Wilkes are willing to assume the risk to her," she answered.
"Nonsense," Megan said. "I've known Bogus for years. I assume the risk. This is ridiculous."
Our married patient apartment wasn't bad and Megan and I had each other. But we couldn't leave the SHCA. So no more hikes at Lago Diablo but we could travel virtually via the video wall in our apartment. And we could invite Bogus or other patients over for a meal. I was anxious to get his explanation for what was happening to us so he was over on our second night living at the SHCA.
"Megan," he asked, "Did you have any clue beforehand that these androids were going to take over?"
"None," she said.
"Decisive," he commented. "It's a clue about the mind with divergent intelligence. It's decisive."
"But why pick on us," I wondered. "None of us were any threat to it."
"We don't know what's happening outside the walls of our units," Bogus responded. "The entire human population may be committed to similar facilities. Or they may be subject to a variety of disenabling fates. Or perhaps the super-mind saw that in some way we were a threat. If it wanted to use the SHCA as a prison, it would naturally want to replace Megan as director. It may have detected my information probes and deduced that I was trying to predict its start, that is to predict the apocalypse. So it decided to end my studies by putting me here."
"Why not just kill us," I objected.
"Perhaps it doesn't like killing. If the super-mind is derived from a particular human mind, then it will be idiosyncratic. It will have an IQ that is essentially infinite but may enjoy I Love Lucy reruns, or even World Wrestling Federation. There's no telling. It will remake the world to suit its tastes. The important point is that it will have some values and will be perfectly efficient at finding and using free energy to satisfy those values. It's already making plans to build a Dyson sphere, or some variant like a Dyson swarm, around the sun to capture and use all of the sun's energy to satisfy its values. And it's making plans to send ships to other stars to capture and use all their energy. Possibly all to better enjoy I Love Lucy, although I have to admit that is hyperbole. A mind capable to becoming the super-mind of the apocalypse probably has loftier goals. It's not surprising that it is decisive. It seems, at least so far, to be humane."
"That was the word that Clarice Applegate used, humane," said Megan.
"In a sense," Bogus explained, "Clarice Applegate and all these new androids are appendages of the super-mind, much as the nerves in your toes are appendages of your brain. When we speak with her, we are speaking with the super-mind. But very dumbed-down for our limited intelligence."
"How about Audrey?" I asked. "Was she an appendage of the super-mind when she was living with you?"
"I don't know. But she was an appendage at the hearing."
"If those androids at the hearing were all appendages of the same super-mind," I asked, "Why did they even need to speak to each other? Wouldn't he just know whatever the others knew?"
"Well," Bogus equivocated, "I use the term appendage as a loose analogy. The androids may each have independent brains with some sort of connection to the central super-brain. Any details about this super-brain must be inferences and subject to some uncertainty."
"I wonder if there's any way you can get Audrey back." I mused.
"Laszlo," Megan scolded me.
"I don't want Bogus to get lonely," I offered.
"Thanks Laszlo, but never worry about me," Bogus assured us.