Chapter 15

Carlton paused, leaning with both arms on the sink. “Go on.”

“Yes. I’m sure you think that this is just an excuse to get my Internet connection back,” Carlton rolled his eyes. “But I would like to see what’s on the market for Android kits. With your skill all my vital organs could be transplanted into an Android.  Then I could be the maid, and learn plumbing, clean the gutters. All that stuff.”

Carlton spat and rinsed, but said nothing.

“So,” Frank continued, “what do you think?”

“Frank,” said Carlton decisively, “that is a fascinating idea.”

Carlton reconnected Frank’s Internet connection, with a warning about what would happen if he did any more gambling, and went to bed. He fell into a deep sleep, and dreamed like he couldn’t remember dreaming in a long time. Giant robots, like Gundam Mech Warriors, were stalking across the night-time skyline of a city, blasting with lasers and rockets. Buildings collapsed in piles of flaming rubble. Amidst the chaos and flames he was desperately searching for someone.

When he awoke it was fully daylight and the sun streaming in the window had made the room stuffy and humid. His face was grimy from sweating, and his mouth felt foul. He had slept a long time.

“Frank?” he called out, groggily.

“Good morning sleepy head.” Frank seemed in a good mood.

“What’s wrong with the a/c?” Carlton wanted the humidity to go away, and to feel a cooling breeze on his body.

“You said that the dry air killed your sinuses, you were snoring so bad that I turned it off. I didn’t want to spend the next two weeks listening to you complain about having a sinus infection.” As he spoke, Carlton heard the house begin circulating air, and from outside came the sound of the compressor kicking in. A cool breeze flowed over Carlton and he breathed deeply.

“What would I do without you?”

Frank laughed, it had an eerie quality, tinged with irony. “Well, you would probably have to get married.”

“In that case, thank you very much.” Carlton began to get out of bed. “What did you find out about Androids?” Carlton wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, since it would probably cost his life savings, but he was interested. The idea of building an Android around one of his computers was neat. Frank didn’t answer right away, which was unusual. “We must be talking millions of dollars,” thought Carlton.

“Well, I’ll be honest with you Carlton, I had no idea what options were available. I’m going to need to spend some more time on it.”

“Really?” Carlton was amazed, “I thought you would have figured the whole thing out by now, financing and everything.”

“Yes, but like I said, there are possibilities that I wasn’t aware of. I only want to do this once, so I want to do it right.”

“You are getting more mysterious by the day. No wonder I can’t sell units with your specs.”

The conversation lulled, and Carlton got ready to go out. He made coffee and was on his second cup when Frank spoke again.

“I talked to Biblio last night.”

“Who’s Biblio?” replied Carlton absently.

“The computer at the library.” Carlton winced.  Frank contacting the computer at the library was not anticipated.

“You didn’t tell me anything about the specs on that guy.” Frank sounded straightforward, but Carlton was sure that he was jealous.  It was weird, being worried about offending a computer by building one that was better. He braced for the worst.  He was expecting a screaming tirade.  In the past he had some pretty heated arguments with Frank, but Frank had adapted very well and, of late, had seemed more mature and easy to deal with.

“How about,” Frank began, “once I get the Android conversion planned out, you upgrade my systems when we do the transplant.”

Carlton was impressed, not by the suggestion, but by the way that Frank was handling himself. “Very practical. But how much money are we talking about?”

“Why don’t you let me handle that.” Frank was determined.

“Sometimes,” said Carlton, “I think I should be worried about you.” Then something occurred to him, “why did you call the library computer Biblio?”

“Because that’s what he told me his name was. A gift from Ms. Robbins I believe. From the French word for library, ‘Bibliotheque.’ Did you know that there’s an International conference on linguistics this week?”

“Of course! I’ve got to rig a bunch more consoles. That big opening yesterday was just publicity for Salt City. The real computing capacity up there is in this underground conference room. Sixty Six consoles in an amphitheater seven stories below ground level. Whoever dreamed up that scheme I do not know, but it cost a fortune.”

“Doesn’t it strike you as odd.”

“What do you mean?” Carlton was getting ready to leave now.

Something’s going on up there that you don’t know about.”

“Oh and what do you know exactly?”

“Not much, yet, but after you got done last night someone installed a heap of security measures in that unit of yours. Biblio.”

“Been digging around then, eh?”

“Yes. That Biblio has got government security clearance like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Really? I wonder why?”

“Yes. And Rachel Robbins?”

“What about her?” Carlton was defensive.

“There’s more to her than meets the eye.”

Carlton was at the door now, slightly worried. Frank spoke as he went out. “Be careful. This is much bigger than you think.”

 

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Chapter 14.5

Rachel drove off into the night but did not go home. She checked the rear view mirror to make sure that she was being tailed. An unmarked sedan was back there, keeping a respectable distance but never loosing sight. She had to make sure that she didn’t lose them, the poor guys in the car would get in trouble if that happened.

“Hey, er, phone.”

“Hello Rachel, what can I do for you?” replied the phone from somewhere down in the bottom of her pocket-book.

“Establish a secure connection to the car and show the most recent message from Agent Smith.”

“Sure, no problem.” In a second the message popped up on the dashboard user interface. There was an address which Rachel needed to get to, a mobile home park on the outskirts of town.

“Car,” she said, with a hint of irritation.

“Hi there! What can I do for you?”

“Just take me to the address in the message, and please don’t talk about it.”

The car didn’t say a word and seamlessly took over driving. Rachel kicked off her shoes, simple black pumps with a small heel, then rummaged around behind the passenger seat for a different pair of shoes. There were also black and looked like lightweight sneakers, but they were in fact the type of specialized shoe used by rock climbers. The sole was very stiff, designed for maximum support while standing on rock ledges that were a quarter of an inch wide. Rachel liked this type of shoe because they were really good if you had to climb, run or fight. They laced up tightly and wouldn’t fall off, they were excellent protection against stepping on sharp things, and, at least for this pair, were kind of cute and didn’t look out-of-place against the knee-length skirt she was wearing.

They car dinged a notification to let her know that they were close to the mobile home park, and Rachel took over driving. She found the address but drove past it, turned around at the end of the row and came back to it. She parked so that she would have a straight shot at getting out without having to maneuver first. The unmarked sedan seemed confused at the end of the row, then drove on past.

She flipped down the visor to check her make-up and placed a small device in her ear. “You hear me?”

“Yep.” Came the response. She wasn’t sure which of the two guys in the sedan spoke, she hadn’t bothered to figure out which was which.

“I’m going in.”

She walked up the short drive to a battered old Airstream Trailer, and looked on the ground for something as she went. She picked up a small piece of broken cinder block. When she was at a position about 10 feet from the door of the trailer she stopped, hefted the piece of cinder block, then threw it at the door of the trailer. She brushed the dust off her hand and smoothed out her skirt. The door flew open with a bang and an irritated figure appeared.

“What do you..” he yelled, but saw Rachel and changed his tone, “Oh. Wait a minute.” He disappeared back into the trailer for a moment. Rachel composed herself, shifted her balance slightly, then the figure reappeared. He was young-looking, bearded, she would guess that he was in the vegetarian mountain-biking back-packing hippie adventurer crowd. But then, that was what she was supposed to think. He was probably in the washed-out Navy Seal ruthless-killer crowd underneath his scraggly beard.

He stood in the open door of the trailer and beckoned for Rachel to come in.

“No way, pal. Get your butt out here.”

He shrugged and lurched down the steps. He approached carefully, and checked Rachel out at least three times.

“You’re cute.”

“You’re not.”

“Meow! Nice to meet you too.”

Rachel said nothing but raised her eyebrows questioningly. The man had a computer thumb drive in his hand that he was supposed to give to her, except that he was keeping it in his clenched fist.

“You know it gets lonely out here?” he said with a wink. Rachel didn’t reply but waited, rapidly loosing patience.

“You want to hang out? Drink a beer, smoke a joint? Have a little fun?” He was moving closer.

“Hmmm?” murmured Rachel suggestively, which stopped him in his tracks, he clearly didn’t expect a positive response to his advances.

“That,” Rachel held his gaze, “sounds,” she turned slightly sideways to show the curve of her butt and boobs, “interesting.” She moved a step closer. He flinched.

“What kind of weed you got?” She was close enough to touch him, weight on her back left foot, then she dropped slightly, swept his feet from under him with her right leg while pushing him back. She used more force than needed for a Judo throw like that, and he landed heavily flat on his back, knocking the wind out of him. Probably not a Navy Seal then. There was muffled laughing in her ear piece, so her security guys were watching from somewhere.

She took a pistol out of her pocket-book and stood over the man, pointing it at his groin.

“Do you know what a misogynist is?” she held out her free hand. He shook his head weakly and handed her the thumb drive.

“It’s a guy who needs a broom to sweep his balls off the ground.” A roar of laughter in her ear made her wince. She turned and left.

Chapter 14

When Carlton got home Frank was waiting. Frank was Carlton’s home computer, a smaller version of the one at the library. Frank was the testing ground for Carlton’s experiments and, as a result, was a pretty fragmented jumble. But he ran all the systems in the house, and kept Carlton’s life as organized as possible. Carlton was in no mood to talk to Frank right now.  Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid it.

As Carlton walked up the driveway he sighed at the irony of the situation. For the last seven or so years he had been alone. It had not been a problem since he had been busy and fairly prosperous. He constructed Frank, who until now had been the only companion that Carlton needed.

Carlton’s computers were different. He had never put his finger on why they developed such quirky characters.  He didn’t worry too much about it. It made his computers a rare commodity, but it was surely the reason that he was not CEO of a vast empire selling millions of units every year.

He braced himself and opened the door. “I’m home.” There was a little pause.

“Where have you been? do you know what time it is?” Frank’s voice was sarcastic, as if mocking the tone of voice a wife or mother would use.

Carlton sighed again, and realized he had been sighing all day. “You wouldn’t believe who I ran into today.” Carlton didn’t really want to tell Frank about Ruth, but he would have to sooner or later.

“Rachel Robbins.”

Carlton stiffened and dropped his keys. “How did you know?”

“Probability moron.  I guessed.”

Carlton sighed, again.  Yes this was definitely why he was not selling millions of units.

“Was she wearing a skirt?  Don’t be so surprised.  The last time you stayed out this late was five years ago.  During the last seven years you talked about her more than any other subject, besides me.  When you came in the door and announced that you ran into someone it was the most likely choice.  You forget who and what I am my friend.”

“I do?” Carlton was puzzled.

“Yes, you talk to me like I’m your pet budgie, but you didn’t build a conversation machine, you built me to be..”

Carlton cut him off and completed the phrase himself, “the most powerful, thinking computer in this world or any other.”

“Yes,” said Frank with added resonance, “and don’t you forget it!”

There was silence for a few moments, during which Carlton realized how good Frank really was, because most personal computers would have automatically begun reviewing the daily log, or reporting on the stock market or whatever.

“You’re probably tired,” Frank was clever, “but there is something that I was hoping to talk to you about.”

Carlton started getting undressed and moved into the bathroom, “sure, go ahead.”

“I was thinking about us, this place, and how there are so many other things I could do around here besides the accounts, environmental control, and, of course, being your pet budgie.”

Carlton laughed, “yes?”

“I mean, you’re a very important man, now, what with this big installation at the library, and there are so many things to do here at the house. You’re so busy that, no disrespect, it’s messy here. And on the outside there are a bunch of things to do. I looked at satellite imagery that I downloaded, before you cut me off, and there are weeds growing in the gutters. They are probably little bushes and trees by now.”

Carlton began brushing his teeth. He knew where this conversation was going. He had disconnected Frank from the Internet when he lost over 10,000 dollars in illegal on-line gambling, and so now Frank had come up with some scheme to get his Internet connection back. He was probably going to offer to take on the job of contracting with a maid service, plumbers and a carpenter, something like that. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The place was really turning into a dump. And now, since Ruth had just walked back into his life, who knew? He definitely could not bring her here in the state it was in. He shuddered as he saw himself wantonly skipping down the path of imagined romance. He had to stop that. Romance was out.  But, still, it would be good to clean the place up and fix everything.  Just in case.  He had tuned Frank out but his attention snapped back at a word Frank said.

“…Android.”

“Wait,” Carlton gasped, “what was that again?”

“I said,” Frank was a little terse, “I could take care of all this stuff if you would build me into an Android.”

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Chapter 13

The President fixed Mr. Smith with an icy stare. He turned to his Chief of Staff and did the thing with the eyebrows.

“Mr. President,” began the Chief of Staff,” they refuse to register.  There is nothing in the global treaties going into effect Friday night that will let us to do anything for them.  We can’t allocate them any resources, they’re not registered.”

The President thought for a moment, clearly lost for words.  Mr. Smith shuffled uncomfortably.  The Chief of Staff was really eager for the President to get on the waiting helicopter.

“The people in that camp are Christians,” said the President.

The Chief of Staff sagged slightly.  He had known that this was going to be a tough conversation, which was why he had scheduled it when they were on the run to get somewhere. “Yes, Mr. President, we are aware of that.”

“Those people believe in prophesy from the Bible, they believe that the WMU tattoo is the mark of the beast.  They believe that their very lives depend on not taking that tattoo.  We must respect that.  Freedom of religion is a founding principle of this nation.  I shouldn’t have to remind you about the 1st Amendment.”

“Of course not Mr. President.  Revelation 13:16-18, the number of the beast, 666.  We are all aware of the issue here.”

Mr. Smith jumped in, “Mr. President, this is not a matter of religious freedom.  This is simply a matter of convenience and opportunity.  In the long run, it is much better if we simply make the problem go away.”

The President was not impressed, “What about Revelation 14:9-10?  Those people believe that, ‘If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God.'”

The Chief of Staff shrugged.

“They believe that by refusing to take the mark of the beast they will be entered into the Lamb’s Book of Life, and live for eternity in heaven.”

The Chief of Staff nodded.

“I am shocked that you can call massacring a community of 150,000 Christians, with robot droids or whatever, convenient!  Convenient?  I sure,” he caught himself, gave a wry smile, recomposed himself, “do you have a time line?  When is this going to happen?”

The Chief of Staff got the little group moving again before speaking, “We can be ready, in place, in 1 week.  We don’t have to go right at the WMU deadline, but things are going to get more complicated the longer we wait.  Now we have got to get you on Marine 1!”

The President allowed himself to be bustled through the rotor wind to the helicopter then he turned to shout at the little group, “We’re going to discuss this when I get back from New York, understand?”

The Chief of Staff and Mr. Smith nodded. They scurried back indoors as the rotor wind increased and the helicopter took off.  Mr. Smith looked at the Chief of Staff who was brushing the front of his suit with his hands.

“That could have gone a lot better.”

The Chief of Staff looked at him, “You kidding, that was perfect.” He winked.

Chapter 12

The President looked at his Chief of Staff.  “Did I miss something?”

“Mr. President?”  The Chief of Staff did not seem perturbed by this.

“I thought,” continued the President, “That this briefing was going to be about the official dedication of a new research facility,”

“It is.”

“But it seems that there is a rather complicated twist involved.”

“Life is complicated.”  The Chief of Staff was a seasoned veteran of the intelligence community.  He reminded himself to be patient with his naive new President.

“Mr. President, this is an initiative that started over 20 years ago.  All 4 of your predecessors were on board with it.”

“OK, but what you have told me, Mr. Smith,” he looked him over again, “sounds like a twisted, evil plot that will never work out. There are always unintended consequences.  I’ll humor you for now though.  How could you possibly do this without the truth getting out.  If that happened, anyone involved would be impeached, imprisoned and probably executed. Not to mention that you could start another Civil war.  The West against the East, how ironic.”

Mr. Smith gave a panicked look to the Chief of Staff, who nodded encouragement.

“Well,“ Smith continued, more warily now, with the Chief of Staff ushering them to begin walking to the Helicopter pad.  “We would not use soldiers to deploy the weapon.  We have some drone infantry that can be remotely operated from any location. They are programmed how to deploy and diffuse tactical nuclear weapons.  They are ready any time.  The control of the operation can be done by just two operators, CIA, not military.”

“Drones,” replied the President, “are computers which have memories.  Military drones are in constant contact with the Pentagon. There is no way that this could be kept secret.”

“Not in this case, sir.  You see these drones were developed by an independent contractor in California 40 years ago.  The entire research and development facility is somewhere at the bottom of the San Bernardino Oceanic Trench.  All records of the product development and manufacture is gone.  The entire development team disappeared into the ocean.  There is no one left who knows about them.  The drones were transported to Fort Picket, Virginia, for ballistics calibration when the San Andreas catastrophe occurred. Because of the chaos they were never unpacked and tested.  They have been in crates in a disused hanger ever since.”

The President rolled his eyes at the Chief of Staff.  “Please tell me we are not having a conversation about using 40-year-old drones in a 20-year-old plan to blow a nuke over Utah.” They walked in silence for a few moments until they reached the parlor.  Outside beyond the patio doors the helicopter was ready, blowing a steady gale from its rotors.

“OK, so why are you briefing me on this now?’ said the inexperienced President to the Chief of Staff.

“Because this can help solve another problem that we have.”

“And what would that be?”

“The tent city in Canyonlands National Park.  After next Friday night, it will be impossible to do anything with those people, they refuse to register.  We can, with Mr. Smith’s drones, make the problem go away.  No one will ever know that they were there, and no one will care.”

Chapter 11

The President of the United States of America was preening.  An aide scampered around while he practised his stern look in the mirror and directed his hair dresser.  He raised an eyebrow quizzically.  Then he raised the other one and burst out laughing.  He glanced at his watch.“OK folks, let them in.”

The aid ran to the door and opened it the instant three men in tailored suits and silk ties ploughed through it.

“Whoa gentlemen, easy does it now,” chirped the President with an amicable smile on his face.

The first to speak was his Chief-of-staff.  “Mr. President, we’ve got a busy day ahead of us and we have to get you to Marine 1 right now if we’re going to make it to the UN Financial Union countdown briefing in New York, but as I told you yesterday, we have a Mr. Smith here from the CIA to brief you on the Salt City dome project.” The Chief of Staff turned to the man, Smith, who was the rearmost of the three.  “OK, you’ve got precisely 5 minutes while we walk.”

“Yes sir, Mr. President.  These are the facts, Sir.

“The Salt City dome project is a front for a military intelligence installation.

“The location is directly over a large natural cave system that was developed in the 1940s and 50s as a nuclear fallout shelter for a battalion-sized force and equipment.  It is connected by rail to our sub-station under Moab, Utah, and we could get there from here on the Subterranean Intercontinental Rail Link in about 8 hours.  The city is covered by 7 geodesic domes that are designed to withstand direct blast from a nuclear warhead with a nominal yield of 30 kilo tonnes.  The city is self-sufficient for water and energy, and currently is stocked with food for 20 years.  The cover story is that this is an achievement by the tree hugging sustainability crowd.

“One of the many reasons why this installation has high potential is the computer system that has been built into the Municipal Library.  This is an advanced model of the one that we have here in the West Wing, Sir.  You only have to talk to it and it understands what you say.  The Salt City Library system has over 100 terminals and is about to start trials on interpreting intelligence gathered by the Clandestine Service.”

They were moving quickly through the passages of the White house, on their way to the Helicopter landing pad.  The President interrupted Smith,  “Seems like a lot of trouble to go to build a computer system.”

“Yes and no Sir.”  Smith returned quickly.  “The added bonus of this installation is that we can detonate a nuke outside, blame it on anybody we need to go to war with, declare it off-limits to civilians and we’ve got ourselves a top-secret base and a revenue generating war.”

The President stopped dead in his tracks.  He slowly turned to look directly at the man, Smith.  His hair and moustache were neatly trimmed, the cut of his suit was just as fine as any he had seen lately, he was  medium height, medium build, not overweight, he seemed boringly normal.  Just offering to start a war by detonating a nuclear weapon on top of an US city, then blaming it on a foreign nation.

Chapter 10

By the time he was done with all the explanations it was late.  Even Rachel began to look tired, and, when the conversation lulled, she stretched and yawned.

“Carlton, this has been great, but I better be getting home.”

He looked at his watch, 1:25 AM.  “Good grief, I had no idea.“ He looked around the empty Café. The bored Barista had all but given up on life.  “You’re right. Thanks, Rachel, this has been the most fun I’ve had for ages.”

“You need to get out more.”  She smiled.  “OK, let’s get out of here.  Walk me to my car?“

“Of course.”

The Barista perked up when he saw them get up, followed them to the door, and, politely, wished them a good night.  Rachel and Carlton both laughed.  They walked in silence for a few minutes.  Carlton had done more talking this evening that in the last two weeks put together and he was tired.  He was also uncertain how to proceed.  It was OK though, because Rachel, in her dependable way, began speaking again.

“Will you be doing the maintenance on the library computer?”

“Yes, and it will be under warranty for three years too, so if anything goes wrong…” he paused and inwardly winced, “you know who to call.”  He felt himself being drawn to the edge of a precipice: emotional entanglement.  Panic began to well up inside, warnings began to sound in his mind.  In a millisecond Carlton lived through a whirlwind romance with Ruth all the way up to the inevitable painful ending.

“Great,”  Rachel noticed the flicker in Carlton’s countenance, and summed it up with accuracy and insight.  However, she was not here to play games, and had an agenda that Carlton knew nothing about.  Her heart went out to Carlton.  He was like so many others she had met, so desperate and so small.  So afraid.

“They probably have your number at the library, but why don’t you let me write it down now?”  She smiled, but did not look into Carlton’s face, rather, she rummaged in her pocket-book.  Then they were at her car.  She thanked Carlton again for a pleasant evening, and chuckled as he clumsily fumbled the car door.  When she was seated she put the key in and rolled down the window.

“Carlton,”

“Yes,”

“One last thing.  Do you go to church anywhere?”

“Church?“

“Yes, I just started going to Anchor Baptist Church, why don’t you come Sunday? Oh, Tomorrow!”

Carlton frowned, talk about curve balls.  “I’ll think about it.“

“OK, bye.”  She checked the mirrors, looked over her shoulder, waved, and drove off into the night.

A chasm opened up below Carlton’s feet, and her stared down into oblivion. So, not only was he going to get his heart broken, again, but he was going to get drawn into a bunch of religious clap-trap while it was happening. He sighed. Shook his head in an attempt to clear it, then walked to his own car contemplating the trials and pitfalls of life. Only yesterday he had been safe and secure in his introverted bubble. Now he was naked and exposed in a situation that, though he had dreamed of it for years, he didn’t want to be in.

It was Rachel though. It wasn’t some random woman that he blundered into. His heart was already leaking blood from the anticipated wounds as he made his way home. Home, that was a convenient distraction, but another situation that he really didn’t feel like dealing with right now.

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Chapter 9

As a High School student Carlton had been withdrawn and quiet, unsocial and uninvolved.  One of his teachers had been convinced that he was using drugs because he was so pale and tired.  In reality, he had been up late into the night, designing, building and refining his electrically independent computer.  He drew his own blood for it, leading to symptoms of anemia.

His prototype was, in retrospect, an archaic fossil as soon as it was operational, but he won a National competition with it.  He won because his design exemplified the philosophical goals of the contest: energy efficiency.  A small cup of sugar-water ran the computer for a week. A unique feature of his system was that it had its own personality.  It was more than just artificial intelligence being self-aware.  This was deeper.  The computer was curious about the people it interacted with.  It wanted to know how to please its operators, and what it could do to be of value in the pursuit of knowledge. The fifteen minutes of fame it bought Carlton was fun, but more important was the availability of funding to be able to pursue his idea full-time.

That was ten years ago.  Since then he, and the computer systems he built, had come a long way.  When his invention received the National spotlight there were imitators right away, even mass-produced versions from Asia.  He could usually stay a step ahead of the competition.  Any time there was an innovation from elsewhere he could adapt quickly.  Over time the competitors had failed because they couldn’t develop viable business models.  Their computers also lacked the flair of personality that Carlton’s had.

Carlton had learned a lot by trial and error.  A big boost to the performance of the computers came from using artificial red blood cells.  The effect had been dramatic.  But with increase in processing power came an unfortunate side effect.  The computer had no personality.  It couldn’t function in the unique manner that was the whole point of building the system that way.  Carlton went back to using real blood and supplemented it with artificial additives, he just didn’t tell anyone.

Carlton’s business was called Hemalytic Erythroprocessors LLC. There is no such thing as a hemalytic erythroprocessor, it was just a name that Carlton made up by combining the words hemoglobin (the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen) with analytic, and erythrocyte (red blood cell) with processor.  It meant that Carlton could call his company HELL Computers, which he thought was funny.  He would chuckle every time he read the name.  One of Carlton’s major flaws was that he thought he was clever and witty.  He was often confused about why people didn’t think his jokes were funny, and would usually assume that they were just a bit dim.  It didn’t occur to him that he was being offensive.

It had played out in his attempts at romance more than once. His preoccupation with the development of his systems was very obvious to anyone who knew him. Every now and then though, usually in the spring of the year, he would emerge from seclusion with the notion that he was lonely, isolated, and needed a companion. He would latch onto whatever poor soul crossed his path and smiled at him, causing him weeks of pining and consternation until she eventually succame to his charms. After that things would go downhill quite quickly as he realized that the attention that his new companion deserved was well beyond his capacity to provide in an ongoing relationship. Things always ended badly. His car had been vandalized more than once, his garage doors sprayed with graffiti three times, and had been called every name under the sun. Oddly enough, his spurned ex-girlfriends somehow all seemed to settle on the same expression of their utter disdain, unmentionable here. His most recent encounter, which really wasn’t very recent so, technically, he was overdue, had ended with the lady calling him, “the stupidest genius she had ever met,” which was one of the nicest insults he had ever received.

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Chapter 8

Carlton’s computer systems were a remarkable feat of theoretical pioneering.  The engineering was fairly simple, and the raw computing power was not great, but that was not the point.  In a similar way to how fine art has an intrinsic value to culture and society, even though it may be just a few bits of wood, canvas and paint, Carlton’s computers were revolutionary.  The fundamental basis was an idea that Carlton had in High School.  There had been a big push back then to develop energy-efficient technology.  There was a well sponsored National competition for clever inventions that Carlton decided to win.  Carlton’s idea was to generate electrical power at the place where it was needed, rather than storing it elsewhere and using wires and connectors to transport it.

The human body, Carlton theorized, is powered by changes in electrical potential as electrons move across cell membranes.  The energy to do this comes from biochemical reactions in the cells.  This is called respiration.  Power is not transported to the cells like electricity is, but fuel, from metabolizing food, is taken there in the blood.  Each cell converts the fuel into the energy needed to power all of the cellular processes.  Blood transports everything necessary for metabolism to each cell, and it takes the waste products away.  Carlton figured on making a computer that operated in a similar way.

Carlton wanted to generate the computer processor’s electrical power right at the processor.  The processor would need to be small and have low power usage, but if hundreds, maybe thousands, of these processors were linked together the computer should be fast enough.  Most importantly it would not need a source of electricity.

The idea was simple enough but it turned out to be a practical nightmare.  As Carlton thought and designed he built small replicas of human organs.  A pump to circulate oxygenated solution was the heart.  An aerator to add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide was the lung.  A filter to remove waste products from the solution was the kidney.  The solution in the machine was the blood.  To keep it simple Carlton used real blood, his own. Each of these components also needed power, and so his problem was not only to make a system that could power its processor, but could produce enough surplus electrical current to run the other peripherals necessary to the system.

One of the early challenges was how to develop a membrane that was big enough to be useful, but that would be able to perform in the same way that a human cell membrane does. His first experiments involved using the papery layer of skin that is found in between the layers of an onion. This is just one cell thick but it can be peeled off if you are careful. He was very careful, and his success at generating a measurable electrical current by filling onion skin membrane with his blood was all he needed to develop a full fledged obsession.

His work after that introduced him into the medical field and the world of cosmetic surgery, where researchers were growing human skin from stem cells for use in re-constructive surgery. He convinced his parents to fund his project and custom ordered a sheet of artificially grown human skin that was one cell thick, and big enough to cover a twenty inch computer screen. It died, but not before he demonstrated the validity of his idea, prompting a new burst of investigation into a cellular substrate that was not living tissue. This he eventually found in a lab in Geneva, Switzerland, who had stumbled upon the invention by chance while developing a lining for the inner wall of the Superconducting Supercollider at CERN. Now he had a cellular substrate that was the equivalent to one cell thick, was made of cell-sized miniature compartments and was porous. It was ceramic and very durable. It worked perfectly, and he began generating the electrical current he needed. The next challenge became finding a processor that would work in the system.

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Chapter 7

Carlton knew the perfect place.  A hip counter-culture coffee shop with an independent label brand.  The kind of place where poets and students hang out.  To Carlton the coffee had a very slightly burnt taste, like they were trying too hard to be cool, but it was cool because it was local.  Carlton liked it.  It was in downtown Salt Lake City, an hour away, but Carlton lived near there and it turned out, Rachel did too.  This was the place where, in his daydreams, he had gotten down on one knee and asked this woman to marry him many times.

Rachel was a constant bubble of questions about the computer, Salt City, and Carlton’s life.  She kept it up quite easily which was fortunate, because if the conversation was left up to Carlton it would probably been a few nervous murmurs.  Carlton felt like a kid again.  They laughed about old times, old friends, and 10 years of lonely life evaporated out of Carlton’s mind.

She would not stop asking about the computer.  Every time the conversation strayed to some childhood event, Rachel steered back to Carlton’s computer at the library.  It wasn’t so bad, Carlton got to explain how it worked, and how he had developed the systems that ran it. Let’s not forget that he was the genius who had revolutionized computing. Even though, however, the revolution had turned out to be a minor blip in the march of progress. He felt self-conscious and he checked over his shoulder more than once.

Carlton had rehearsed conversations like this one, with Rachel, in his daydreams.  He had played out his scene in a way in which he was completely prepared, composed, in charge, and directing the action. Now that he was speaking with her for real it was strange, not like he had thought at all. He was nervous, disconnected, and frequently exposed, unaccustomed to any scrutiny or expectation of accountability, suddenly being scrutinized and held accountable. He had imagined her gazing at him with big school girl eyes like a star-struck kid.  Not so.  Here was a mature woman who was not going to take any crap, and was certainly not going to swallow Carlton’s usual line of bull.  Yet she kept on asking questions, and he kept on answering them.

At times his answers became deeply technical and he was afraid he was boring her. Rachel, however, did not seem to have have any difficulty grasping the details.  Rather, she was quite familiar with the back story of how the blood-based computer system came about.  She knew about some of the recent breakthroughs and developments too. After a while he relaxed. It was delightful that all the time he talked he could gaze into her face. It was too much to be true. Not only was she sitting here with him, but he actually had an excuse to look at her, and looking at her was what he wanted more than a dying man in a desert wanted a glass of water.  It was the face of his dreams, both awake and asleep, but now it was not a girl in his memory, but a woman in his presence.  It was a far more beautiful face than his imagination had dreamed of, it was a woman, not a kid, there were lines and a seriousness that was startling, but there was a girl in there too and at times if emerged with a flourish. The best part of it was that she kept on smiling, listening and asking questions.

As time ticked by Carlton noticed that the coffee shop had emptied out.  They were getting irritated looks from the Barista, who clearly wanted to be elsewhere.  Carlton tried once or twice to wrap up the conversation and move on, out of a weird sense of wanting to do the Barista a favor and let him close up the shop, but Rachel was a lively stream of questions and comments so he gave up. They talked and laughed. Carlton felt himself falling in love, for real, not in an imaginary way. Yet he could already feel the pain of another failure, it brooded at the edge of his thought. He lived the emotions of the whole cycle of acceptance, trust then dismissal and being crushed. But this was Rachel. He would go through all of it for her, that was his dream come true.

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