Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Silence: Grandchildren of the Atom

Grandchildren of the Atom

“A good friend once said we should be thankful for The Bomb,” said Red Jesus as he baptized the Geiger counter in the innocently trickling rivulet. The sparse ticking of the radiation sensor increased to a just barely noticeable sound cloud, the hand of the dial twitching past the “E”. Jesus frowned.

“Thankful? For what, giving us six-fingered piano players?” said Circuit Cid, shading eyes against rusty evening light. “Nuclear power plants? Like all the ones that fucking went Fat Man on us?” He crackled a laugh. “Oh, I get it. MAD, right? ‘Mutually Assured Destruction‘?” He laughed harder, and coughed up something the color of the sick sky.

Red Jesus cupped his hands in the stream, brought a pool of water to his mouth and drank. He retrieved a small glass phial, swiping a sample. He dabbed the tip to his index, making the sign of the cross.

“While one might cite all of those reasons, no. Do you remember the organization that was known as DARPA?” Red Jesus said.

“Oh, those robot guys, sure. What about ‘em?”

“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known for their work on robots, yes. When the Soviet Union launched their first satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957, the US realized they had to regain their technological edge, and defend against a space-based nuclear attack. President Dwight D Eisenhower created the ARPA agency in response, later renamed DARPA. In order to assure continued functionality in the event a major city was nuked, new computer technology was developed that linked university mainframes together in the first ‘network‘.”

“Right, I remember, and that network was the beginning of ‘The Internet’. What’s your point?”

“Well, some would say that if it were not for the Cold War, which is to say, the advent of the atom bomb, we would not have been forced into that arms race, and thus would not have developed the internet, as we know it. It’s easy for us to forget that so many aspects of reality, so many technologies could just have easily not have been invented, not made ubiquitous. The electric car, for example, could have been in every driveway in America in the 70’s, but it wasn’t to be, thanks to the fossil fuel oligarchy aborting it each time it entered infancy.” Red Jesus swirled the quartz tube, particulate matter dancing like zygotes latent with potential yet extinguishable with the flick of a wrist. “Do you believe that’s true, that we should be thankful?”

“No A-Bomb, no internet? I don’t know, kinda sounds like something overeducated nerds in lab coats working ten stories down in Manhattan might say to make themselves feel better about creating Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

“Of course, we all must find ways to wash our hands of the ‘fallout’ of our actions. I personally believe we would have found some other vessel of self destruction. If fission were not available, we would have filled the Hiroshima bomb with anthrax. If thermo nuclear weapons were not the Cold War poker chip of choice, we would have stockpiled Sarin, or some other unknown unknown, some other pestilent chimera born of ‘The Best Minds’. Technology is inert, it is silent. It is but an amplifier of our decisions, of our strength, and our weakness.”

“Yeah. Well I guess it doesn’t matter now that the net’s gone, we’re all out of megaphones. Welcome to Web 4.0” Circuit Cid turned his head sideways and pulled his lips into the shape of a parentheses, in a meatspace mockery of a smiley emoticon.

“Aha, is it now?” a smile tugged at the corners of Red Jesus’ mouth, crows feet framed by long luminous hair flowing like threads of light caught in a gravitational well. It momentarily reminded Cid of this little painting of Jesus his mom used to have hung in the living room. Euro-Jesus with those Photoshopped, other-worldly blue eyes. Except these eyes were a weird pink.

Circuit Cid stood, skipped a stone across the softly burbling stream, a line of ripple circles spreading out like sonar pings. “So what’s the verdict, Red?”

“About five rad, I don’t recommend taking a bath in it.” Red Jesus shook his head, packed up the Geiger counter and the tube.

“Damn, shit. Mountain Dew: Code Red again.” Cid tossed the handful of flat, smooth stones he’d collected into the water shattering his reflection with a big splash. They’d gone for almost a week and not come across anything drinkable. Cid’s throat felt scratchy, like the start of Avian flu, and his spit was pasty and tasted like chalk. “What I wouldn’t give for a Dasani. Or hell, even some of that pool water that passes for Seattle tap.” As if they didn’t have enough to deal with the EMPs sending the world back to the Dark Ages, now it was nuclear hell too. Red Jesus and Circuit Cid hiked back up the river bank to the road.


At the top of the hill was a big guy in a black leather duster, millimeter of smoky buzz cut, broad shouldered like he might have trouble getting through a doorway. But then he looked like he might not be a doorway kinda guy, either.

“T, let’s go,” Cid called to The Terminator.

The closed face, East European trimmed with Asian overtones, nodded, “Affirmative.” He picked up a large Adidas bag that looked like you could haul a team’s worth of football or basketball equipment in it. Although from the way the bag rattled, it didn’t sound like a friendly game of two-hand-touch. Cid didn’t really feel like asking him what all he was carrying, and that was fine with Cid as long as The Terminator kept doing his job. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

The trio continued south down the highway. Evergreens, mountains and evergreens, like the Christmas tree Valhalla, where all valiant Christmas tree warriors go after braving axes, tinsel, and toddlers. The occasional eagle soaring overhead, chuckling at the silly humans who’d failed to keep their X chromosomal dick-waving genes on a leash and pissed everything away, washed out into the Neolithic. They hadn’t run into anyone for days, and for the most part that was a good thing, especially while on foot, since the Chevy had broken down a hundred miles back. There had been a small group of wanderers, wearily trekking towards last known locations of family members. But the encounter before that was a close call with the raw, ugly face of wasteland Darwinism that nearly left Cid with a bowie knife in the kidney, a scenario Cid really didn’t want to repeat. Which was why he didn’t at all like what he saw coming up ahead.

“Red, we’ve got a Hyondei Echelon a hundred yards up. One individual, a woman. Looks like she’s stalled.” Cid handed the binoculars over to Red Jesus. Normally, Cid would be creaming his jeans at the sight of an Echelon. The car was the apex of alternative-energy vehicles, just before things went to hell after The Big Silence. Funded by Google, Twitter, and a dozen other Silicon Valley magnates with half the tech-sector GDP of Korea and Japan brain-drained and funneled into a research complex the size of a US state capitol. The result was a near-indestructable luxury electric vehicle that did 0-60 in 2 seconds flat with extra light weight nanofiber body and supercapacitors allowing near-zero energy loss, which meant it could go seven hundred miles on a single charge. Cid had even heard of some Echelons going over a thousand in good conditions. But the fact that there was someone there on the road leaning on the hood of this chariot of the gods quickly curdled the excitement into anxiety.

“I don’t like this,” Cid said.

Red Jesus handed the binoculars back. “Looks like it’s just a stall. If you can help them out, we could get to the next town before sundown.” It was getting dark, the sun had already hunkered down behind the tree line trench, the only light was the dimming blood-red glow of air pollutant, and hopefully none of the pollutants were radioactive. They were caught between a car and a dark place.

“I still don’t like this,” mumbled Cid. They approached the vehicle cautiously. Cid’s hand sought the Beretta at his waist, thumbed off the safety.

The woman waved and called to them, “Hey! Like oh-em-gee! Wow, your guyses timing is full of awesome!” She sounded like a character from one of those overwritten white collar metro sit-coms before they all turned into net-streamed reality TV shite. Early 20’s at the latest, maybe herself an aspiring Reality Tube star running around with daddy’s bottomless credit card. The fake blonde with an inch of brunette was wearing cutoff jeans and a bright, low-cut halter top. Cid noticed a little too hard, mentally slapped his libido and forced himself to focus.

“Car trouble?” asked Red Jesus, gaze dipping toward the glossy hood that looked like it was stolen from the set of a Sci-Fi Channel mini series. Which it literally might have been. Just before the silence, there had been more than one Clancy-esque techno thriller featuring Echelons dodging bullets and babies in strollers, product placement nestling deep into the Bondian subconsciouses of 25-55 year old male marketing analysts with repressed senses of hubris. He’d be surprised if some grip paid a Benjamin a day to shuttle chai lattes hadn’t gone Grand Theft Auto with the merchandise when hell broke loose.

Blondie bit her lip, “Mhmm. Yeah, about half an hour ago. One of the red lights came on and I was like ‘wtf?’ then the hood started smoking like an LA morning so I pulled over. I waited a bit then tried starting it again, but it went craptastic on me. I would’ve just run Google Diagnostics and had my i-Repairman fix it, but you know… interwebz all dead and all. EMPs for the lose! Lol.” A too-high giggle bubbled out, tainted with hysteria. The nervous tic in her smiling cheek gave away her IDS, the “offline shakes”. It hit so many when the online world vanished, in varying degrees of severity.

It was a bit unusual to find a working vehicle after The Silence, since the EMP took out computerized cars, which most were, but this one might have been out of range or shielded. The vehicle was pulled over into the grass, tire marks where she’d probably freaked out and braked too fast. Circuit Cid looked at Red Jesus and half-rolled his eyes. Red gestured toward the car. The Terminator stoically scanned the area like a well-oiled leathery sentinel. “Just watch my ass,” Cid whispered to them.

“I’m Kaytie, with a ‘y’. In the middle. By the way. Although you won’t really need to worry about that since we won’t really be typing out tweets or anything anytime soon, lol.”

“Right, Kaytie. I’m Cid. Nice to meet you, let’s have a look.” Cid checked around, underneath the car, the back seat and the trunk, all clear. The doors were unlocked so he opened the drivers side, slowly. The back-to-the-future style door slid open like liquid metal. The keys were still in the ignition, so he gave it a try. Some lights flashed on, but no sound. The red light shaped like the platonic ideal of a computer chip stayed on. Cid pulled himself back out.

“Looks like you’ve got a dead energy regeneration chip. I might be able to do a bypass on it. It won’t operate at one hundred percent but at least you’ll be able to drive it.” Cid shrugged, popped the hood and shut the door.

Kaytie’s eyes perked up further, if that was possible. “You mean you can fix it? Will you marry me!?”Cid couldn’t hide a little grin of pleased-with-myself. That’s right, Circuit Cid, playa playa of the post-apoc playgirls. Red Jesus gave Cid a little tip of an imaginary hat as he came around to pop the hood. Nanowire Li-ion batteries all looked intact, deceptively powerful little electric motor, transmission all mint.

“Here we go.” Cid located the busted chip, whipped out his multi-tools and got to work.


Super Cid

Cid was one of those kids who had always liked to take things apart, to trace the inner lives
of objects. Clocks, radios, TVs, notebooks, PDAs, software, you name it, he’d probably disembowled it at least once. Unfortunately, Cid was a wrench in an education system wherein real creativity and intelligence that resulted in deviation from conveyor of the assembly line classroom, coloring outside the SAT bubble, was treated as a clinical defect. When he took apart another boy’s graphing calculator, stripped it down and reprogrammed it into a Funstation Portable that played Space Invaders: Attack of The Plus Signs, they suspended him, made him lie on a couch and tell a kiddie shrink what was keeping him from “focusing”. Kids at school mostly avoided him, he didn’t get to join in any reindeer games. After seeing Contact in the 6th grade, he hacked into NASA’s servers, used the Hubble telescope as his personal spyglass. When the scary men with wires in their ears asked him what he was doing, he told them he was looking for aliens like him to be friends with.

After escaping high school with his ulnar arteries mostly intact, he met a fellow techno outcast Mike, who helped get him a job at a hole-in-the-mall computer repair place. Through Mike, he started playing in an eclectic avante electro band, creating unearthly instruments from the remains of discarded electronics. Mike introduced him to like minds, a place to call home, the growing neon ocean of the internet. He was an ugly duckling who’d finally been reunited with the swans.

And the digital was quickly becoming the water in which everyone was swimming. First everyone was just checking their email, looking for bargains on 1972 Gibson Les Pauls. Then there were schools of Myspace fish eating up blackberries and iPhones. Geeky computer hackers became Hollywood action film co-stars, counterhacking terrorists, diving from explosions, learning kung fu with the click of a mouse, soaring through matrices in mirrorshades, oilskin trenchcoat flapping like the cape of a goth-superman. It seemed like geek was becoming the new cool, but at the same time, the definition of geek seemed to be shifting away from someone who knew the ins and outs of technology to someone who just had the latest shiny toys. And the toys were taking over every function of daily life. First there were just apps for finding a good Thai restaurant or movie times. But soon, answer engines got so good that people were getting everything from their healthcare to homework answers to investment advice from a handheld device. And once they figured out how to make cheap, efficient robotics, there were apps for taking out your trash, fixing your car, Cid had even heard of apps that literally wiped your ass for you.

Cid couldn’t and didn’t want to keep up with this techno-consumerism arms race / moneymaking scheme. His friends ribbed him about how lame his phone was for not having a retractable toothbrush, insulted his E-eyes for not having the tribal LED plumage of the moment, laughed away for having ringtones not rendered in virtual THX surround. And then Mike, who’d finally hooked an Apple worshipping girlfriend with his iEverything. It was like his childhood hell inverted: the swans had turned into vultures. For the most part he didn’t let it bother him but there was one stint in his life Cid referred later to as “The Dark Times” when he retreated into his basement of tweaked remote controls and modded calculators. There in his cave he gave birth to an elitist image of self, cultivated it with a contempt for the mainstream and all it’s posery, reptilian, 140 character attention span shallowness. Cid learned a lot of internet intelligentsia-chic Latin and French words, aped critic-speak, became that bane of the interweb: Trollus Irritatus. He began trolling internet message boards, starting flame wars, became a slave of his own addiction to the hot endorphinal rush of anonymous self-righteous indignation. And then he realized he was just getting himself down being a pretentious hypocrite and cut that shit out.


But in this new, unwired world, Cid was an invaluable archangel of technology, a bringer of bytes to the byteless. Circuit Cid, the electrical tape wielding superhero in that great cosmic comic book whose chapters were separated by days of trekking a half-dead landscape, pages counted in half lives of uranium 235.

“Hey guys, I’m going to need a hand over here.” Cid was reaching down beneath the motor trying to patch a wire through, unscrewing bolts here and there to make room. Red Jesus and The Terminator walked over and stood on either side, awaiting orders.

“Ok, Red, just hold this battery up against here like this, and T, I need you to lift this engine up when I say so, ok?” Almost there, all he needed to do was just set this wire and the chip would be good to… Something was wrong. Red spinning lights and alarm sounds went off in Cid’s head. His subconscious was screaming at him something but the sound was muffled by that membrane between the lower and higher brain, like someone yelling through a closed window that the building is on fire.

“Alright, one, two, three, lift!” The chasis lifted an inch as the Terminator hefted the motor and Cid got the wire hooked up to the chip. Something Kaytie had said… smoking…

“Ok, I think that should do it.” She had said the hood was smoking up a storm. But there wouldn’t have been any smoke involved with the dead chip. Oh shit…


Click, clack, clickety-clack click.

Cid felt a ring of cold aluminum alloy nudge the base of his skull.

“Sorry Cid, thanks for fixing the car. We’ll be taking your things now. I hope this doesn’t come between us. We could totally be BFFs.” Kaytie giggled, but it wasn’t so hysterical this time.


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