OK, didn’t see that coming! Which is either the worst thing a writer can say, or the best. Could go either way.
For absolutely no reason that I know of except for that mythical “author’s gut feeling” I think we need a third set of characters to get involved. If we can bust up a stereotype or two along the way, so much the better.
While I normally put in a lot of internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.
Billowy white clouds drifted across a deep blue sky. They had been slowly building as the day had passed, gradually rising from patchy puffs of cotton candy, and growing steadily into the rising cumulus towers of late afternoon. In the distance, above the highest peaks, the largest of the clouds had found an inversion layer thousands of feet above them, flattening their tops out into a classic anvil shape, the tops being whipped away by the jet stream.
The five friends made their way steadily up the side of the mountain, packs heavy on their backs. Another thousand feet and three miles of trail would lead them shelter, which would be critical if a storm cell started spitting out hail, or worse, lightning. There was no panic in their pace, but neither was this a leisurely stroll.
Two thousand feet below them the trees had started to thin and grow more stunted. Now the group hiked among ragged pine trees no taller than they were, barely scratching out a marginal existence in the cold, thin air. It had the advantage of giving them long sight lines all about, while in turn also leaving them exposed to anyone who might be watching.
“Look, over there,” the woman in the lead shouted, pointing off uphill to their left. Almost everyone looked, but all kept walking.
A flash of white appeared above the tree tops a half mile away, then another, and another. The eye tried to combine the images into one coherent whole and failed, until perspective clicked into place, revealing a herd of mountain goats hopping along a cliff face. The goats were coming down from where they had been feeding on the sparse grass and brush, no doubt seeking shelter from the incoming storm in their own way.
In the middle of the group, the one person who had not looked at the goats had his head down over a handheld instrument of some sort. To the casual eye it might appear to be a cell phone, in use by a geek totally absorbed with it while ignoring the natural beauty surrounding him.
“Clay, are we still good?” the procession’s leader called back to the man with the instrument. “You missed the goats.”
“I’ve seen goats before, Brittany,” he replied. “And yes, we’re still in the clear. I haven’t picked up anything for over two hours.”
“Good,” replied the woman behind Clay, checking her watch. “How far to the fork, another mile or so?”
“Just under a mile, Lee. We should be there in fifteen minutes,” answered Fred, following close behind Brittany. “With a little luck those clouds will keep building and make it even harder for us to be seen from above.”
“I’m still going to vote for meds being needed for all of you paranoid clowns,” said the woman at the back of the line. “No one gives a shit that we’re out here. It’s a good thing I enjoy the outdoors and believe that oxygen is seriously overrated, but if I don’t get to shelter before it rains, I’m going to be cranky all night. Wet and cranky.”
“Crystal, just try to keep up,” said Brittany. “If you get there last and all of the dry spots are taken, you’ll be sleeping in a puddle.”
“Nonsense,” said Chris, “I’ll just crawl in with your husband to keep warm!”
“Not going to happen!” called Fred from his position behind his wife. “Save your breath, we’re at the fork. Everyone put on your helmets and gloves. Clay, are we still good?”
“Still good, no signals detected at all,” said Clay. “The timing is right with the most recent Keyhole pass just five minutes ago, so we’ll have over an hour until the next one passes over.”
“Okay, people, let’s go,” said Brittany. “Stay close and watch your step.”
At the base of a steep bluff ahead of them, a brown National Park Service sign with yellow lettering pointed in two directions around the hill. As the main hiking trail continued to climb to the right toward the tree line and the shelter, a smaller and less travelled trail veered off horizontally to the left, heading toward what was advertised as a hang glider launching point.
The group paused only a moment before passing by the sign and ignoring both paths, instead climbing directly up the bluff. It was not steep enough to require ropes or complex climbing equipment, but it was more than steep enough to cause serious injury or worse if someone slipped and went over backwards.
For the first hundred yards everyone was hunched over, hugging the surface. They carefully picked their way up, sticking to climbing points in the rocks, working hard to not disturb any of the loose soil, gravel, or plants that had managed to find a niche.
Once they were high enough above the trails so that they didn’t have to worry about leaving an obvious track behind them, the bluff leveled off some. They were able to walk more upright instead of climbing, assisted by a subtle arrangement of rocks making a long stairway that could have been mistaken for natural under anything except for the closest observation. For fifteen hard minutes they climbed, breathing hard.
Still leading the group, Brittany came to a flat area and stepped into a slot between two large boulders. Pulling out a large flashlight, she played the beam around the mouth of the cave, looking for any other occupants. Seeing that the area was empty, she moved further into the cave hidden there. Behind her the rest of the group entered with their flashlights and fanned out to verify that they were alone.
Satisfied that they weren’t going to be surprised by any napping wildlife, the group started to set up their camp. The area they were in wasn’t large, nor was it completely enclosed. Rather than a cave that descended below ground, it was instead a large arc-like amphitheater, carved out of the mountainside by erosion and rock falls in the long distant past. The falling rock had conveniently fallen in a way that created a passable outside wall, with an area the size of a tennis court hidden behind it, sheltered from the elements.
In short order four tents were set up and a hot meal was being prepared by Fred and Brittany over a small propane stove. Lee and Crystal set out four battery-powered lanterns as darkness fell. As the sunlight faded it was replaced by brilliant flashes of lightning, drenching rain falling off the rock arc above them and over the bluff, leaving them dry and safe.
Periodically Clay would walk the perimeter of their shelter, checking on one of his devices for any electronic signals reaching out to them or being emitted by some forgotten item in their gear. While everyone knew that they needed to be completely free of any and all electronics for this trip, connections were built into so many items in their daily life that it was sometimes difficult to catch them all.
“Let’s get down to business,” said Lee when dinner was finished. “Crystal, can you start?”
“Okay. My system continues to plant back doors and monitoring software into any large system it can access, which is all of them. We’ve had a handful of systems discover my software, mostly by accident, but they all are taking the bait that’s left behind and blaming various foreign military organizations.”
“Nice work,” said Lee.
“It’s quite elegant if I do say so myself, since almost every system actually has been compromised by the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the South Koreans, the French, the Saudis, or any one of a dozen other countries. If my software gets caught, it rats out the foreign code, sets a timer to reboot after the dust settles, and erases itself. The Feds and the IT folks always assume they found what they’re expecting to find and never think about why they’ve found it.”
“Is anyone making any progress?” asked Fred.
“No breakthroughs, just lots of drudge work trying to eliminate ideas that don’t work. As we’re seeing the civilian 9G terabit systems becoming commonplace, as well as new operating systems, hardware, and applications, the Fifth Generation digital assistant market is exploding. Of course, it’s the big boys in Cupertino, Seattle, Hawthorne, and Redmond that are dominating due to sheer market share, but we’re finally starting to see some true innovation coming from smaller companies and startups.
“Some of that work is interesting, but we’ve got an ear in all of those systems and nothing yet indicates that anything spectacular has been done. My best bet is that we may see a few of the startups merging when they find they complement each other. That could create some synergies capable of reaching the next intellectual critical mass.”
“Thanks, Crystal,” said Lee. “Clay, what have you got?”
“Activity on the DoD front has been unremarkable,” said Clay, “more of the same from them. There are multiple projects going on in all branches of the military, as well as at the CIA, NSA, and at least two agencies that don’t actually exist. They’re throwing a ton of money into their research, but as always they’re their own worst enemies. No one is making much real progress.”
“What about that Navy project you told us about last time?” asked Brittany.
“UDIL? It turns out the program was shut down about five years ago. They’re still funding some small research facility in Hawaii, but that seems to be more to kiss the ass and grease the palm of the honorable Representative from the great state of Hawaii.
“The main program showed some promise, working with a group of linguists using dolphins to see if they could establish any kind of communications breakthrough. But the only breakthrough they had was someone breaking into their facility and smashing up their equipment and support facilities. Most of the dolphins were freed, although several dozen were killed as tanks were breached.
“Heads rolled, blame was assigned, and the Navy moved on. The activists who did it were smart enough to kill only dolphins, not people, especially military personal type people. They also realized that bragging about a break-in to a top secret military facility might be bad for their health, so they kept very quiet. I can’t find any sign that they were ever caught. I guess it’s possible that they were simply disappeared, but that’s usually not the way the Navy works. It’s more of a CIA thing.”
“Anything in the other military branches?” asked Crystal.
“The Army still wants to see if it can put a human brain in direct control of a tank or rocket launcher, but that idea’s just as much of a dead end as it would be a public relations nightmare if it ever actually succeeded.
“The Air Force has done some simple work with training and educating birds, particularly crows and other species which have shown some potential in the past. There’s still a reason for the term “bird brain,” so there’s not much progress. They’re also putting some money very quietly into a couple of the private SETI programs, but that’s the longest of long shots.”
“Thanks,” said Lee. “Brittany & Fred?”
“Everyone from one end of Silicon Valley to the other is at least playing with this problem, but none have made much progress. The bottom line is the almighty dollar – the days are long gone where you could create a startup and use tons of venture capital and other people’s money to play with ideas that were cool to teenage geeks. If you’re not making a profit, you’re in trouble.
“That said, they know that a functioning AI in the real world could be worth billions. That is, billions if they can be first, if they can do it right, and if they can get people to trust it and use it. Oh, and if they can control it.”
“That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?” asked Lee. “We can assume that the military and government wouldn’t have any qualms at all about considering an AI to be property, a created slave. We’ve known for years what we may have to do to prevent that.”
“Sometimes I really hate that we did that freakin’ project to begin with,” said Crystal. “Life would have been so much simpler the last few years if we had done our theses on basket weaving, or even advanced basket weaving.”
“Yeah,” said Clay, “but look at all of the great times you would have missed out, freezing your ass off in some long-forgotten cave. Not to mention the joys of looking over your shoulder constantly.”
“In addition to being paranoid,” said Crystal, pointing at Clay, “don’t forget our arrogance in assuming that the thing we are trying to prevent hadn’t already happened. Or our belief that we would somehow be able to tell if it had happened or not. That’s some world-class circular reasoning there, driven by at least two of the Seven Deadly Sins if I recall my Catechism correctly.”
“The logic still holds,” said Clay. “Our models were pretty solid in predicting what the consequences might be at the birth of the first true, sentient, conscious artificial intelligence. None of those consequences failed to suck. But if it had already been born, any and all electronic and monitored communication could and would be compromised and available to the AI in question.”
“So instead of having a nice pint in a comfortable pub,” said Brittany, “we get to find places to talk that are so far off the grid that God couldn’t find them.”
“And here we are!” Crystal said. “S’mores, anyone? Sleeping bag roulette tonight?”
“Just pass the marshmallows and stay in your own tent,” said Fred. “I would hate to have to use the pepper spray on you again.”
“Hey, that was an honest mistake. After that skunk sprayed me I couldn’t see a thing, so how could I know it was your tent and not mine? And the pepper spray smelled so much better than the skunk, it was a win-win all the way around.”
“You’re incorrigible,” said Lee.
“So don’t incorrige me,” said Crystal. ”Shall we tell ghost stories now?”