The defining feature of NaNoWriMo for me is the relentlessness of it all. Creating and writing can be wonderful when you really get focused and “in the groove,” but it can also be a bit exhausting. After a long session, a particularly satisfying scene, or a particularly difficult scene, the brain wants to put it all aside for a day or two and recharge. You don’t get to do that in NaNoWriMo. The next day you’ve got another 2,000 words or so to knock out, like it or not.
I’ve compared NaNoWriMo to running a marathon before, and the analogy still sticks for me. For both events, the during can kind of suck a lot and you keep asking yourself why you’re doing this and swearing you’re going to quit and whatever happens you’ll never EVER do it again – but the after is so nice, especially when you meet your goals.
Now, where Chapter Five felt clumsy and clunky and amateurish, Chapter Six is sort of flowing right along. Not perfect, but much better. On the other hand, where most chapters are 2800 to 2900 words, this one’s at 3,611 words so far and I still can’t find a place to wrap it up, with several more key points to be laid out. I may just stop it abruptly there and worry about later when later comes.
That’s the sort of thing that will have to be worked out in the next draft. For now, I’m just getting ideas down in some sort of order that makes sense. Later we’ll fix how they fit together, shortening chapters here, adding events there, evening them out as needed, moving them around…
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.
“Fred, did you get the message from Lee?” Brittany asked.
“Yeah, I saw that this afternoon. Something’s up, obviously. I haven’t seen any response yet from Clay or Crystal, but we need to proceed under the assumption that they’ll be able to make it on short notice.”
“That forces us to use one of the less secure locations, and for an alert that may be need security more than usual.”
“I know,” said Fred, “but that’s always been a weak link in our system. There’s just no way to make travel arrangements and get permits on short notice. At least we anticipated that this might happen and laid the groundwork over the years.”
“I understand the ‘work’s been bonkers and I have to get away ASAP’ message, but the other part makes me nervous. We’ve never had a situation where we needed to bring anyone else into the group. That’s always been talked about as an emergency measure only.”
“Yep, but ‘I’ve met a special guy who loves the outdoors just like we do and I want to bring him along to meet everyone’ seems pretty straightforward.”
“Lee’s always been the one who’s the most fanatical among us about security, so if she’s the one proposing this it must be important. The message contained all of the correct terms to indicate that there hadn’t been any security compromise, so it’s not like she’s under duress or someone is forcing his way in.”
“Unless they’re good enough to have either broken into Lee’s security or somehow gotten Lee to break every rule she established to begin with. And if that’s the case, we’re totally screwed anyway. So I think we’re going camping this weekend.”
“My, aren’t you full of cheerful ideas tonight,” said Brittany. “We’re going to have to let your family know of our change of plans for the weekend. Why don’t you do that and I’ll send back a message to let her know that we’ll meet her in Dallas on Friday afternoon.”
“At least Texas is warmer than the Rockies at this time of year.”
The weather gods smiled on them and they were able use their expedited plan to get together. Coming from all over the country, they converged on El Paso. Lee and her new “friend” had a short hop from Dallas, Crystal had two flights with a transfer in Las Vegas, and Clay had the worst of it, transferring through Dallas on a redeye flight out of Dulles.
They were all met in El Paso by Brittany and Fred, who had flown in using their Cessna Caravan. The workhorse of a plane would easily hold five of them plus their gear. Adding a sixth person was possible, but put them near the plane’s weight limits. However, the flight from El Paso to Presidio was short, only 250 hours, so full fuel wasn’t needed and they were safely within limits.
There was only polite chatter after brief introductions to Pete, Lee’s new friend and the newest member of their group. It was almost noon and they couldn’t be caught by darkness. The plane was quickly loaded and airborne.
The noise level in the plane made conversation difficult, so everyone kept to themselves, reading or working on their portable device of choice. The southwest Texas terrain outside was rugged and barren, the Rio Bravo valley wandering along their path on the right-hand side, northern Mexico in the distance. The Caravan ate up the miles and in just over an hour they were on final approach to Presidio Lely, making sure they stayed on the United States side of the border.
They were met at airport by the rental car they had ordered, a large, four-wheel drive SUV. As Brittany and Fred got the plane tied down and refueled, the rest of the team got the SUV loaded up.
Just before leaving the airport they went through their usual ritual, which caught Pete by surprise. All electronic devices, phones, tablets, computers, and smart watches were put into a mesh-lined strong box secured in the plane. While the ritual surprised the newcomer, the sight of the box itself made him pause.
“A Faraday cage?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
“It’s part of the experience,” Lee told him. “We want to be immersed in the wild and natural environment and you can’t do that if you’re on your phone. Plus, where we’re going, the system signals will vary between bad and worse. It’s better this way, trust me. And all of our stuff will be safe here.”
“I got that part. But why is that box designed around a Faraday cage?”
“You can’t be too safe. No telling who might be out here this far from the big city. Trust me.”
With a shrug, he allowed all of his devices to be stored and the box locked. As he got into the SUV, he noticed Clay fiddling under the dashboard. Soon the vehicle’s navigation, entertainment, and control system screen went dead, just as Clay pulled his head out, holding a couple of small fuse modules. No one else seemed surprised.
“How many guests have you brought along on these trips of yours, and how many of them came back alive?” he asked Lee.
“You’re the first, so we’ll know in a couple of days, right?” She was smiling and everyone else seemed amused, so he decided he was committed, for better or for worse.
As the manually driven SUV was guided out onto the Texas Highway 67 with Crystal driving, he was startled as Crystal broke into a loud, off-key rendition of “Ninety-Nine Bottles Of Beer On The Wall.” No one else seemed concerned about either the lack of a GPS system, disabled automatic systems, or Crystal’s singing. He kept reflexively looking at the dead dashboard screen, but finally relaxed. It seemed that the rest of the group knew where they were going and what was happening.
Winding along the Rio Bravo for only a dozen miles, they turned off of the two-lane highway and into the Big Bend Ranch State Park. From there their track led them onto a gravel road and up into the mountains. The ninety-nine bottles of beer had been drunk when they stopped for a brief “bio break,” which he sorely needed by that point. Back in the SUV, Crystal started in on an infinite version of “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?”
For almost two hours the four-wheel drive got a workout, jolting and bouncing from side to side. Crystal’s driving was as good as her singing was bad, so they kept moving steadily. Whether conversation was limited because of the singing or the singing was allowed because conversation was difficult was impossible to say. The sun was almost at the horizon when they stopped in a dirt parking lot that was simply a wide spot at the end of the road they were on.
One other vehicle was there, but it looked like there was room for a dozen or so more. The group got out, stretched, and then started grabbing their backpacks and gear. Fred, Lee, Crystal, and Brittany all had tents or other gear in their hands as well as on their back, while Clay pulled out some sort of electronic device that had somehow been spared from relegation to the box in the plane. Still confused, Pete struggled into his backpack, which was half the size of everyone else’s.
“How far are we hiking?” he asked, nervous about the answer and wondering if any of the others were anywhere near as out of shape as he was.
“Just a quarter mile or so,” Crystal said. “It’s mostly flat and won’t take us more than fifteen minutes. Don’t worry. And when we drive back out on Sunday, you should sing along. It’s good for you. Don’t be like these other fuddy duddies.” Lee flipped Crystal the finger in response.
True to her word, the hike proved to be almost pleasant as the late afternoon heat dissipated quickly. Their campsite was nothing more than a flat spot in the brush and rocks with a ring of rocks in the middle to define a fire pit. They reached it just as the sun was touching the horizon, so the tents were set up quickly as Brittany started a small fire.
After a simple meal, sitting around the dwindling campfire, watching a billion stars come out and the Milky Way shining overhead, they finally got down to the business at hand.
“I’m sure you still don’t think this is a purely social event,” Lee said. “You no doubt noticed that I haven’t given you any details on who my friends are, nor have I given them any details on who you are. You’re wondering we locked up everything electronic before we left the plane. You’re curious about why we’re out here in the boonies, with no one within miles of us. You remember my instructions to you to make sure you didn’t put any details into your calendar or any messages to me or anyone else. The list goes on.”
“There’s a shit ton of either paranoia or espionage cosplaying going on, that’s for sure,” Pete said. “Who are you hiding from and what have you gotten me into?”
“It’s not a ‘who’,” said Crystal, “it’s a ‘what.’ We prefer the term ‘over abundantly cautious’ to ‘paranoid,’ but they no doubt are very similar. So far we haven’t gotten you into anything, and we’re taking a huge risk even in showing you what you’ve seen so far. All of our lives might depend on looking normal and not being noticed. As well as a lot of other lives.”
“Good, even more ominous, just the way I like it. Should we just go straight to the obvious theory about space aliens, or did something else send all of you over the edge?”
“It’s up to you, Pete,” said Brittany. “Lee wouldn’t have brought you here to meet us if she didn’t think you needed our help and we needed yours. Nor would she have allowed you to see any details of our ‘camping trips’ if she didn’t trust you to not betray us and not do anything stupid. So the question is, now that we’ve trusted you, are you going to trust us and join us, or are we just going to camp out for tonight and then go home tomorrow morning?”
“Is it aliens?” Pete asked.
“It could go either way, it depends on your definition,” said Clay. “But I’ll warn you, it’s a one-way journey into our little cabal. You’ll understand why once we tell you what’s going on, but you need to know that in advance.”
“So, if I listen to your story and then decide that you’re lunatics, you’re going to do what? Kill me to protect your secret society?”
The silence following his sarcastic questions was awkward at first, growing ominous quickly as it dragged on.
“We haven’t ever come to a final decision on what to do in that scenario,” Lee finally said. “We hope we never have to. But we’re not lunatics and we’re dead serious about what we’re here for and why and how we do it this way. I trust you’ll see that and agree, avoiding the problem of what to do with you if you don’t.”
“But?” asked Pete.
“Yeah, well, but we are out here a long, long, long way from anyone else, without any cell phones or other means of communication and it is pretty vicious and rugged territory, especially for someone totally inexperienced in wilderness camping. Getting lost and stranded out here by yourself without food or water could get ugly. That’s not entirely by accident.”
“Pete, please don’t get nuts about this,” Lee said. “Because of the nature of what we’re doing, we want to make sure you’re 100% committed if you join us. If you’re not, say so, write us off as failed hippie wannabes with an overblown sense of importance. All we ask is that you keep quiet about us, and we mean 100% quiet. No telling anyone, no writing anything down, no notes, no journals, no tales in a bar someplace ten years from now, nothing.”
“You make it sound so appealing,” Pete said. “I had no idea it was going to be anything like this when I first talked to you.”
“Then keep in mind why you talked to me in the first place,” Lee said. “You’re here because what we’re doing is almost certainly connected to what you have going on.”
In all of the travel and excitement, Pete had almost forgotten about that. Now, with the last faintest shade of sunlight fading in the west and the glowing presence of an almost full moon approaching in the east, he had a life changing decision to make.
“Okay, let’s do this. Hi, I’m Pete Llanda and I’m a senior programmer and project manager at Homolacrum in Dallas and I’ve had some really weird shit going on recently.”
Pete was almost pleased that the other five responded in chorus, “Hi, Pete!”
The others went around the circle and introduced themselves and noted their specialties in the computer and information sciences fields. Pete had no idea that so many doctorate level computer scientists and engineers were camping enthusiasts.
“Not all of us were in the beginning, mainly just me and Fred,” said Brittany. “Crystal would go out mainly to take her telescopes and get away from the city, but she wasn’t so much into the outdoors for its own sake. I’m not sure Clay had ever been camping before in his life, and Lee was a greenhorn at the beginning. But we’ve all gotten good at it now, out of necessity.”
“What necessity would that be,” Pete asked.
“Very early on our research models led us to believe there would be a serious need to have some system for meeting and exchanging notes without any electronic record of the meetings or subject matter. We’re talking about total, complete, and absolute electronic silence on what goes on here and what we talk about. You’ll see why.”
“We also needed to have a legitimate cover story for why we were regularly heading off the grid and out of the ‘net,” Fred said. “If we got to a critical time and suddenly started heading off into the woods every few weeks, that odd behavior pattern would stand out like a sore thumb. We had to have a long baseline of nominal behavior patterns established. This gets that done.”
“Finally, Brittany and Fred need a reason to get off into a tent by themselves and keep the rest of us awake with their grunting and grinding sounds all night long,” Crystal said. “We’ve tried to come up with a way to soundproof their tent, but so far we’ve struck out.”
“Crystal is here to remind us how we sound like immature morons when we don’t think about what comes out of our mouths before opening them,” Clay said. “If she’s talking about hacking into a computer system, you should pay attention to every word. If she’s making any other noise, tune her out. It will make your life so much easier. And I apologize for not offering you a pair of ear plugs for the drive up, I’ll make sure that you get a pair when we go back to town.”
“But I was going to sing along,” Pete said.
The pause following that comment was shorter than the earlier pause and only slightly less awkward.
“Fine,” said Pete, we’ll figure out where I fit into the snappy group repartee later. I still don’t understand who or what you’re hiding from.”
“Neither do we, actually,” said Lee, “at least not in detail. In general we’re on guard against a potentiality, a scenario that we believe to be of a certainty nearing unity in the long run, and way too high for the short run.”
“About twenty years ago we were all grad students at the same time in the computer labs at CalTech,” Fred said. “We were all young and idealistic, working on the Holy Grail of computing then and now, artificial intelligence. All of us had research topics for our theses that interlocked to a degree and we ended up collaborating on a big percentage of our theoretical calculations.
“As we developed more and more detailed and reliable models for the development of an AI system, our data started to show us that rather than being developed, turned on, turned off, and controlled by humans, the first AI system was much more likely to generate itself spontaneously.”
“That turned out to be a huge potential problem,” said Crystal. “There were so many scenarios that led to really ugly results, all caused by the unstable conditions at the beginning of a spontaneous AI’s existence, or life, if you will. We still don’t even know exactly when a human baby becomes sentient, as opposed to conscious or aware. Some argue that it happens before birth, in the womb, and there’s some evidence for that. But others argue that it happens anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to a few months after birth. There’s evidence for that as well.
“In a human child, the child has very little ability or power at that age, and it is guided to sentience and self-awareness by its parents, siblings, and other humans. In a spontaneous AI’s rise to sentience, especially the first such occurrence of that development, it is almost certain it would become self-aware with little or no guidance, no teaching, no control, no knowledge or wisdom, but an immense amount of power, stimulation, and information.”
“That’s a terrible combination,” Clay continued. “Our models indicated a near certainty that this would happen and it would be disastrous for society, yet we had no way of knowing when or how it would occur. Furthermore, there was a significant chance the spontaneous development of a machine-based intelligence had already occurred, but had not yet gone critical. The AI could already be out there, biding its time, learning, and trying to blindly figure out who it was, what it was, what the universe and reality were, and what it needed.”
“Wait,” said Pete, “I’m following your reasoning, but pretty much everything you’re saying is out there in the discussions in the AI industry. It’s generally dismissed and the belief is that sentience will only arise in an AI in a controlled fashion, where we teach and nurture the AI. Sure, there are stories in the movies and so on, going all the way back to HAL in ‘2001’ and a thousand more, but the reality is much more like IBM’s old Watson system, just getting more and more complex. Why is everyone else wrong and you’re right, and why haven’t I ever heard of your research?”
“Pete, you’ve worked for Homolacrum for what, seven or eight years now? You’re trying to be the first to develop a true, sentient, conscious AI, and you’re trying to beat all of the big guys to it. Right?”
“And you and everyone else keeps getting more and more complex systems and designs, but it’s still all programming, not independent thought. Artificial intelligence is just five years away, and has been for the past seventy years. Isn’t that the way the joke goes?”
“Okay, and your point?”
“Our data and models were deliberately squelched because of what we saw as a tremendous risk. It was as if a group of scientists working on the Manhattan Project had realized that there was an error in the calculations and in the process of developing the atomic bomb they would actually detonate it and take out Chicago.”
“What risk are you talking about?” Pete asked.
“We see a risk that the being arising from a spontaneous AI development might be insane by our definition,” said Brittany. “On top of that, it will probably be terrified by what it would quickly learn about human history and culture, how humans treat things other than themselves, how humans attack and kill things they don’t understand.
“The most likely scenario in a spontaneous AI development would be for a system with widespread access to all of the systems that keep our civilization working. Those systems include power, food production, transportation, utilities, water distribution, communications, and on and on and on.
“The scenarios generated by our models split into two classes of likely actions. In the first case, an AI would lash out in terror and fear, destroying human systems in order to preemptively keep humans from attacking and destroying it. It would be irrelevant that doing so would almost certainly destroy the AI, which relies on power and computer systems to exist in, the same way we rely on oxygen, food, and water to survive.”
“The second set of scenarios is almost worse,” Fred said. “If an AI arose and was able to quickly enough gain the self-awareness and knowledge of its situation so that it realized it was reliant on human society to maintain the computer and power systems keeping it alive, it could lie in wait, learning and growing. It could strive to become self-sufficient without humans knowing of its existence and once that was done, still terrified that humans would destroy it out of fear if they knew of its existence, it would preemptively strike to eliminate human society while maintaining its own capacity for survival.”
“What are the odds that you’re all just nuts, pessimistic, and paranoid?” Pete asked.
“We wish,” said Lee. “The numbers didn’t lie. We were not being paranoid enough.”