ONCE UPON A TIME
THERE lived in Britain a mathematician by the name of Alan Turing. At the age of twenty-four, he wrote a paper that proved once and for all that any mathematical calculation that could be performed could be performed by a machine, and laid the foundations of modern computing.
In 1939, World War II broke out. Germany used a machine called The Enigma to encrypt its transmissions with an unbreakable cipher. At Bletchley Park, the hub of Allied cryptanalysis, the Mathematician designed a counter to The Enigma, the bombe, and broke the unbreakable. For this he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.
The Mathematician’s next project was artificial intelligence—he designed a test, later called “the Turing Test,” to determine whether a machine could be considered to think.
But for all his accomplishments, the Mathematician had a Problem, at least as far as the British were concerned. He wrote:
Turing believes machines think,
Turing lies with men,
Therefore machines do not think.
Convicted of gross indecency for practicing his sexuality, he accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison; despite the fact that many testified to his essential honesty and integrity, he was stripped of his security clearance and placed under surveillance.
The Mathematician died in 1954, at the age of forty-two. The cause of death was determined to be cyanide poisoning and ruled a suicide; a half-eaten apple was found near his body. His mother believed the poisoning was accidental, and some have speculated that in an era of mounting Cold War paranoia, British Intelligence perceived the Mathematician to be too high a security risk.
Before his death, he published a paper on mathematical biology that established a new field of research: morphogenesis. In 2006, a group of scientists found the first direct physical evidence for his theory of pattern formulation, though the implications of his work on this topic are still not fully understood. As for the Mathematician’s dream of artificial intelligence, it remained the stuff of philosophy and science fiction.
But then, on the other side of the Atlantic, something interesting happened…
THE nature of The Incident was such that I, who had once made the stars dance to my Magic, was reduced to bargaining with Windows Vista.
“Come on, darling, just this once, close your eyes and think of the King,” I pleaded as I tried to slip the install disk inside her. “Sweetheart, I promise, I will restart you soon.”
She was having none of it.
“An error has occurred,” she said.
The dialog box hovered right there, waiting to see if I would take the bait. I did. Google responded coldly to my inquiry: “0xC004C4CE: Unable to find a detailed error description.”
Instead of hurling a flamebolt at the bitch—a misbegotten chimera hatched in some wunderkind’s garage—I took a deliberate sip of coffee.
It was only 13:01 in the morning.
Six years, ten months, three weeks, twelve hours and twenty minutes to go.
MY FINGERS clicked through the ritual that had become customary over the past month. Check job board (no new ads). Check Twitter (no new mentions). Check Gmail—Interview for Posting ID 1561.
With a deep breath, I clicked on the pristine, bold, sans-serif subject line. At last, I was summoned—to come in on Monday with two pieces of photo ID and a certified copy of my transcripts.
The news merited more coffee, and an espresso machine was added to the list of things to buy—this instant filth was corroding my taste buds.
“Imp!” No answer. “Imp!” A purr from the drawing room indicated that Imp was in its customary spot. “Imp, turn that off!”
There was a hiss, followed by the high-pitched squeal of a cheap remote, and my familiar finally deigned to enter the study. All three feet of its mottled gray-and-glass skin bristled with contrition. A clever ploy; I decided I was not angry at it after all.
“Coffee,” I said, holding out my now empty cup. “And find me something to eat, will you?”
Barely two minutes later, I had a steaming cup of coffee, and a small plate of chocolate biscuits on my desk, reminding me of why I tolerated the impertinence—chocolate biscuits and efficiency were not to be trifled with.
“Dig up the paperwork Petra sold us.”
“Yes, on Friday. And if you behave yourself, I’ll get you cable next week.”
REPUTABLE netizens were of the opinion that all software engineers wanted to work for JCN. And it was in one of JCN’s conference rooms that I found myself on Monday morning, cooling my heels.
It wasn’t till 28:23 that a large middle-aged man entered the room and gripped my hand in a bone-crushing handshake.
A student of “Manage with Power!” self-help seminars, evidently.
“You have a very impressive resume,” he said, “for an entry-level candidate.”
“Thank you, sir.” At $3,000 per professionally typeset page, it better be impressive.
“Have a seat, Mr. Penn.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Let’s start with why you want to work for JCN.”
Smile 23 twisted my lips upward, tinged my eyes with the right proportion of bravura and warmth. “Would you like the approved interview response, or the truth?”
His pupils dilated. “Whatever you want to tell me.”
So, I hadn’t misread the man—in his book, boldness equated to honesty, charm to skill. Mr. Management was going to hire me today.
The surety sat in my stomach like warm vanilla pudding as the interview progressed.
“I think that’s about it,” he said, after thirty-two minutes. “It was a pleasure talking to you.”
“Same here, sir,” I said. Just then, the door to the conference room slammed open.
“Hey!” said Mr. Management. “We were just about done.”
“Thought I’d drop by,” said the newcomer. “You know, Lead Developer interviewing a tech guy?”
Lead Developer? A new variable. Abrupt, bespectacled, unkempt hair. And very attractive. At least, very much my type. Another variable, but not necessarily a bad one—people tend to react rather well to admiration.
“Hello, sir,” I said, standing and extending my hand.
Mr. Lead Developer gave me an irritated smile and took a seat. Then, after a moment or two of leafing through my resume, he looked up.
It all went downhill from there.
“WHAT is a pure virtual function?”
“What is the diamond problem, and how can it be avoided?”
Charm, flattery, challenge, every conversational gambit in my diplomatic arsenal was ignored; he dug for undiluted data with the single-minded ferocity of an attack dog.
“Why the hell would you use a loop for that?”
The questions were purely malicious; he’d plumbed the rather shallow depths of my technical knowledge a third of the way through the interrogation.
“How would you go about—”
“Sir,” I said, “I honestly don’t know. This is why I would like to work here and gain from your experience and leadership so I can make a valuable contri—”
“Stop playing buzz-word bingo, Mr. Penn. Do you, or do you not know how to….”
The one and only correct response I managed to provide was a quick solution to a mathematical algorithm. The windows diffused the mid-morning sunlight into something soft, a mocking counterpoint to the stinging paper cut I acquired from the edges of my neatly stapled CV.
“Well, I think that’s it,” said Mr. Lead Developer finally and got to his feet.
Through it all, Mr. Management had been sitting off to one side, stunned into silence by his favored candidate’s abrupt fall from grace.
“Um, yes,” he said now, rising from the table a heartbeat after Mr. Lead Developer. “We’ll be in touch.”
There was nothing else to do but get up, nod, and leave the room. Their scrutiny followed me all the way across the hall and into the lift. And my better-than-human hearing couldn’t help but pick up the threads of their analysis of me.
“He knows jack shit.”
“Maybe he just needs a little training, some hands-on stuff. I don’t remember most of what I learned in college.”
“No one has time to babysit. You like him, put him in sales.”
IT’S very hard to get lost in the grid that is downtown Toronto, and by the time I reached Allan Gardens, I still hadn't managed it. Giving up, I headed South on Sherbourne, to Moss Park, and claimed a bench in the shadow of a stunted birch. There, I waited for the cortisol to fade from my system. It took effort; the sun was tinged orange by the time my humor was restored. The wind changed direction, bringing with it the almost undetectable smell of sweat and urine and old-man clothes.
And, suddenly, the Symbiot woke up.
It zeroed in on a man shuffling slowly toward my bench. A mutation, one I had not seen before, lurked within his decrepit body. It tainted the air with want, clamoring to be fed upon.
A heartbeat later, a strident ringing from my pocket jarred the Symbiot out of its singular focus. Grateful for the reprieve, I thumbed Talk.
“This is an automated reminder from Petra Exile Services. Thank you for choosing Petra Enterprises for all your Relocation needs. Payments on your account are now overdue. If you have already made a payment, please disregard this message. Otherwise, please contact our Customer Service department at 1-800-555-5555 immediately. For your convenience, this message will repeat in Akkadian, Imperial Mandarin, Latin, Sanskrit, Lingua—”
Sighing, I hung up.
The old man lowered his body onto the bench. “A long day,” he said. “A long day, young man.”
“It was,” I agreed, and went home.
THE convection currents are strong today; the helium-rich updraft is making my poor baby’s engines whine.
Breath-mask, full tank. Check.
Sensors, safety, comms. Check.
I’ve got your number…
IT TOOK effort to wrench myself out of the dream-memory. Imp was shuddering, curled into a tight ball against my stomach.
“Hush, hush, little thing,” I whispered, stroking its scaly head. “It’s over. And it won’t ever find you.”
“White noise. Promise.”
WEDNESDAY morning brought with it new mail. Imp placed it at the corner of my desk, along with a cup of the vile-tasting coffee.
Thinnest envelope first.
Apparently, my application did not meet the required merit criteria, but they thanked me sincerely for applying. With elaborate care, I crumpled the paper and placed it in the bin.
There was also a very nice letter from the cellphone company that thanked me for choosing them, thanked me for paying the first month’s bill via electronic means, and then thanked me for paying the environmental tax for paper-based billing.
A little less gratitude would perhaps have been better received by me; that particular letter earned itself a violent transition to refuse.
Still no e-mails. A vague restlessness came over me. Stepping out of the study, I caught a ray of sunlight through the drawing room window.
“Walk,” I said to Imp. It gazed mournfully at the TV. “Fine, stay.”
It squeaked, snuggling deeper into the sofa.
AT COLLEGE and University, the wind tore my attention away from the cellphone bill and toward the entrance to Queen's Park station. Misshapen whispers, like the longest shadows at sunrise, were rising out of the ground.
And that's why the city and I broke up last time. She drew my attention too deeply into her dark folds, reminded me, painfully, that I was not my father, that the Mark of the King did not grace my brow, and there was very little I could do other than make the shadows deeper.
But this was a new age, and now the air was threaded through with circuits and lightning. The suicide's shade had dissipated under the wireless onslaught long before I got to the next intersection. And, like a benediction from unnamed gods, not twenty steps away hung a green and white sign singing the siren-song of caffeine.
LATTE in hand, I sought out an ATM. Less than three hundred dollars for the foreseeable future, with rent due in two weeks. Perhaps you should tone down the lattes.
As if to reward my wholesome thought, my cellphone went Bing!, startling a young woman to my left. Giving her an apologetic smile, I pressed Talk.
“Good afternoon is mister Penn there,” said a monotonic female voice.
“You applied for a position at Rogers.”
“We’ve already finished hiring for customer service. Would you be willing to do cold calls.”
“Um….” Pride warred with the memory of my account balance. “Sure.”
“We’re doing group interviews at nine on Monday at our Yorkdale office. Please bring two references. Be on time. Do you have any questions.”
The lack of any tonal quality to her voice made me wonder if the requirement for “enthusiastic” and “helpful” on the posting had been a sham.
“Not at this time, thank you.”
Cold calling. Breathing deeply, I enumerated the merits of humility. Which led me to the next problem—references. Well, I had Petra on speed dial for such things.
“THANK you for calling Petra Credit Services. Please enter your thirty-two digit personal identifier, followed by the pound key.”
I probably looked like a lunatic, stabbing at my cellphone for a good minute. At least the system accepted the number on the first try, putting me on hold while it went to fetch a “customer service representative.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Penn, my name is Sajiya dePetra. Do you mind if I ask you some questions for security purposes in order to access your account?”
“Go ahead.” You have my voiceprint and SIM on file. Is my birth-date really necessary?
“Could you please give us your birth date?”
“November 11th, 394 CE, Julian adjusted.”
“Thank you, sir. And what is your full mailing address, including hyperspatial coordinates?”
A shopping-bag laden woman crossed the street to avoid walking by me. Understandable given that I was, to all intents, hissing and croaking into my phone.
“Finally, sir, do you have a consort or a partner you are sharing your checking account with?”
“Thank you for your patience. How may I help you?”
“I need three references generated for an entry-level position.”
“Please hold while I pull up your account.”
Didn’t she just access my account when she asked me all that? But it took two full cycles of Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” played on what sounded like a ukulele, before Ms. Petra returned.
“I’m sorry sir, your credit account with us is fully extended. Do you have any other means of making a payment for the service?”
Switching ears, I decided to stop for a red light at the corner of Yonge and College. “I thought I had access to whatever services I needed?”
“You still do, sir, but as with all our services, there is a fee associated with reference generation. You were set up with a no-limit credit account on May 30th, but as there have been no payments posted in that time, and there is no employment of record on your file, your borrowing privileges have been suspended.”
“And when was I going to be informed of this? And how the hell am I going to get a job?” The light turned green, a horde of humanity moving me along with it across the road.
“The notification will go out with the July statement. And I’m sorry, sir, I cannot answer your second question.”
“Is there nothing you can do? I need the references to get a job to pay you back. It seems rather ridiculous to cut me off now.”
“I’m sorry, sir, the system won’t allow me to add any further purchases,” she said.
The couple in front of me decided that the sidewalk was an ideal location to taste each other’s breakfasts. The smooth flow of people became a jumble of Brownian particles, each trying to find the path of least resistance, bumping into one another. And apologizing. This was Canada, after all.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” asked Ms. DePetra.
“You can escalate this call to a manager.” And you two can just move along, thank you, to the other side of the street.
“I’m sorry, sir, you are always granted top priority. I am the manager.”
“So I get VIP treatment but no references?” If that was the case, my habitual support of Lord Petra’s cockamamie schemes was at an end.
“That is correct, sir. Is there anything else I can help you with.”
“Then to disconnect, please clap, sing or use the cellphone keypad to type four-one-eight. Thank you for calli—”