A Cry in the MESH

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The store had been slow all day.

Not since before the toll road bypass had customers filled the aisles of the small convenience store on Highway 277 just north of Sonora. In those days, Nelson had worked for his father, manning the cash register as the old man sat in the back office and leafed through porno mags that always ended up back on the shelf. After the toll road, the old man’s health declined right along with business. Eventually, both he and the customers stopped coming to the store, and soon it was just Nelson sitting behind the counter on a stool with cracked leather padding.

Mornings in the store were quiet, with only one or two locals dropping by to fill up deisel drums for their ancient combines and tractors. Mid-day, Nelson rotated the stock in the coolers, tossing out the milk that had gone more than three weeks past its expiration date. He spent time cleaning the spotless floor, wiping down the untouched glass doors, and rearranging the undisturbed bags of chips. In the afternoon, when the sun was low enough to bounce off the 277’s blacktop, Nelson retreated to the back office to dial-up to the handful of Bulletin Board Systems he frequented. He read news stories, played a few games, and downloaded the latest celebrity nudes, all while keeping a watchful eye on the security cameras.

Evenings were the worst. The front windows turned into an oil painting of a West Texas sunset that filled Nelson with dread. The sizzle on the horizon, the pink hues streaking through the clouds, and smooth, flat desert thrown into sudden relief hinted at a deeper meaning for his life, that its true purpose lay somewhere beyond the gas station and his trailer behind it. But in his heart, he knew there was nothing out there for him and that the sum of his life would play out right there on Highway 277. He’d die in the store or in his trailer. He secretly hoped it would be in the aisles, so his body would at least be discovered before it began to rot.

Nelson stood at the front door and placed his hand on the back of the neon OPEN sign. It was well past nine o’clock, and the odds of anyone else dropping in for a newspaper or bottle of water were too low to keep him in the store. The locals knew to honk if they needed him, and he’d come running out of his trailer. Just as he was pulling the string to turn off the sign, headlights appeared on the highway. A moment of unchecked hope fluttered in Nelson’s chest. Maybe they would turn in. Maybe they’d want to buy a few sixpacks and all the FunYuns they could carry.

“Sedan,” said Nelson, to himself.

Picking out cars at a distance was one of the many games he played to pass the time away. He could only see the headlights and a single fog-light on the left side. The headlights were rectangular and not bordered by LEDs or HID enhancements. The fog light was yellow, having dimmed from its original white. It would soon join its brother.

“Late-model Acura or Toyota. Don’t get many of those around here.”

His fluttering hope took flight as the headlights slowed a hundred yards out from the station. A fast-blinking indicator turned on, and the car took a wide right turn into the parking lot. It made an immediate left and started down the row of charge stations. Bypassing them all, it pulled up alongside the lone gas/diesel pump and stopped. The door opened slightly and a boot hit the evercrete.

Over the glare of the headlights, Nelson couldn’t make out the man sitting behind the steering wheel. It wasn’t until they timed out that he could finally see the profiled shadow speaking to someone in the back seat. The man gestured to the store, shook his head, and climbed out of the car.

Nelson retreated as the man approached the doors, pretended to busy himself at the coffee maker even though he’d already emptied and cleaned it hours ago. A soft, melodic chime announced the door opening, and in stepped a rough-looking man in his mid-thirties, with a week’s worth of beard and hair that looked like it spent most of its time under a hat. His eyes were dark and bloodshot, as if he hadn’t seen sleep in a day or two. When he noticed Nelson, he gave a weak smile and motioned to the coffee pot.

“Got any fresh?”

“Let me fix you a pot special,” said Nelson. “I’ve got Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts blends.”

“Dunkin’, if you please.”

“Size?” asked Nelson, holding up a small and large cup.

“You got a pail?” The man chuckled to himself and held up two fingers. “Two large, please.”

Nelson tore open the packet of Dunkin’ Donuts-brand grounds and set the coffee maker in motion.

“Anything else I can do for you, Raymond?”

“Ray, and yes, I need twenty on pump…” He turned to look for a pump number.

“On the pump,” said Nelson. He walked around to the cash register and started keying in the order. “Don’t get many folks filling up with gasoline these days. Most gassers I know are either junked or retrofitted with electric engines.”

Ray eyed the display of novelty pens on the counter. He picked one up, turned it over, and watched the clothes drain from a pinup’s body.

“It was my Pop’s. He gave it to me when the gas shortage hit.”

“This store was my father’s. He gave it to me when he couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore.” Nelson looked around at the ceiling. “I’m starting to understand how it happened.”

The cash register beeped.

“Two cups of coffee and twenty gallons of Emarat Misr’s finest,” said Nelson. “Is there anything else I can do you for?”

“How are you on meds? Some Aspirin or Aleve?”

“Sleep’s the best remedy for headaches, son. But come on, I’ll show you what I have.”

“Thanks,” said Ray, following Nelson down the aisle by the windows. “It’s not for me though. My wife’s had them pretty constant since she came down with the Bleed.”

Nelson stopped in front of the medical display and looked at Ray’s car. In the backseat, a continuous lump moved–a person writhing under a blanket. He felt around in the MESH for her, but there was nobody there except Ray.

Ray must have seen him concentrating. He nodded to the car. “We were able to buy some blockers across the border before we left. Toronto has a lot of people willing to treat the disease, but none with a cure.”

“Is that what you’ve come all the way down here for? A cure?”

“Something like that,” said Ray, picking up a small tube of Aspirin. “We kept hearing stories about a place in the MZ called Lakon. They said they’re curing the Bleed there.”

Nelson shook his head and shuffled back to the coffee pot. He’d heard the stories too. Lakon. A fountain of youth for those who had lived too long in the MESH. A veil of silence to blot out the incessent chatter.

A honeypot for the desperate.

“You’re not the first people to come looking for Lakon,” said Nelson, pouring out two large cups. He affixed the white, plastic lids, dropped a stirrer into the opening, and took them to the cash register.

Ray joined him and put the tube of Aspirin on the counter.

“That’s not going to do much.” Nelson pushed the medicine aside. He pulled a bottle from the shelf behind him. “Here’s how we treat the Bleed down in Texas.”

“My wife doesn’t drink,” said Ray, examining the bottle of Tequila.

“It’s not for her, son.”

Ray laughed. “I can’t afford–”

“It’s on me,” said Nelson. “I had a nephew who got the Bleed a few years back. My brother never would have made it without Tito.”

“And your nephew?”

Nelson shrugged. “Blew his brains out on his twenty-third birthday. Left a note saying he couldn’t take the voices anymore. Now my brother drinks for a different reason.” He pushed a photo of Trace into the MESH, felt Ray pull it in. “That’s me and him working in this very store when we were younger than you.”

The MESH pulsed, dissolving the photo into another. In his mind’s eye, Nelson saw a dark-haired woman sitting on a dock, her bare legs hanging over the side, her arm wrapped around a blond labrador. The dog was licking her face while she smiled at the camera.

“Your wife?”

“Melissa, and Gatsby. He’s no longer with us.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Nelson. “He looks like a fine animal.”

Static tore across the MESH, shattering the photo and replacing it with an out-of-focus map of West Texas.

Ray touched his head and looked to the windows. “Sorry about that. Mel can be pretty pushy sometimes. It’s not really her fault.”

“No harm,” said Nelson. “Trace’s boy used to spew profanity night and day. The MESH was downright unusable when he was around. The Bleed doesn’t just infect people, it replaces them with something else. But you want to know the God’s honest truth about it? Those people are still in there.”

“You’ve seen it cured?”

“No. But I’ve heard the same stories you have about Lakon. And maybe they are curing people down there. Maybe they’ve found a way to disinfect the MESH, but I doubt it. What I do know for sure is that people who go looking for it never come back. Once they go in, they don’t come out.”

Ray sighed, let his head fall forward. The MESH took on a bitter, mournful smell.

“We don’t have a choice. It’s killing her, and it’s killing us.”

When his eyes came back up, they glistened in the flourescent light.

“By all means, you have to take care of your own. Like you said, Canada’s only going to treat the symptoms, and Uncle Sam has both thumbs firmly planted up his ass, so it’s really up to you. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I tell people there’s no good reason on Earth to go into the Machine Zone. But if that’s the only place an operation like Lakon can exist, and if you’re willing to give up everything for it, then by all means. Just keep following 277 south. Once it meets up with 377, you don’t stop for nothing. Drive that beater right up to the gates of Lakon and wait for them to open. I don’t want my MESH dream interrupted tonight by a report of a decent couple being torn to shreds by some renegade soldados. Those MX synthetics have no regard for human life.”

“Thank you for the advice,” said Ray. “And for the medicine.” He slipped the flat bottle into his jacket.

“Anytime,” said Nelson. He tapped the cash register’s screen to wake it. “That’s twenty-three even.”

Ray glanced at the cash register momentarily. A green check mark popped up on the screen.

“Thank you for your business, Raymond. I wish you and yours the best of luck.”

The MESH crackled, flashed red. Graphical data flooded the network, overloading Nelson’s vision. Voices with accents he’d never heard in person bubbled up through the white noise, coming from every direction at once. He took an involuntarily step backwards. Amongst the many speakers, a feminine voice whispered across a chasm.

“Help me.”

Nelson felt his heart collapse in his chest.

“Dear God, please. HELP ME.”

Ray nodded as if unaware of the disturbance in the MESH.

Nelson watched him trot back to his car and hurriedly get inside. The beater growled unhappily as the engine came to life; its headlights seemed to wink lazily as if waking from a long nap. Ray put the car into gear and spun it around back onto the highway. The taillights flared and disappeared into the Texas night.

The noise lingered. Nelson fought the urge to put his hands to his head. He knew it would do no good.

Gradually, as Ray and his wife got further away, their MESH connection to Nelson disappated into nothing.

The voices quieted, but the echo remained in Nelson’s head.

“Help me…”

“God dammit,” said Nelson, striking the counter with his fist. He stared at the pumps outside the store.

The damn fool hadn’t even gassed up.


Photo by Gab Pili on Unsplash

A Cry in the MESH

Growing Up With Alexa – 6 months

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El Matador has never known a house (or world) without Alexa. By the time he was born, Alexa was almost two years old, and in his first half-year of life, she has been a constant companion, assistant, and soothing voice. Although he can’t interact with Alexa directly, he does hear her voice, and he hears us talking to her, which leads me to wonder how his relationship with this technology will progress.

From the day we brought Matador home, we’ve asked Alexa for help. It was simple stuff at first:

  • Alexa, turn on the bedroom. (via Hue bulbs)
  • Alexa, turn on the noise machine. (via Belkin wemo)
  • Alexa, set the AC to 73 degrees (via Nest thermostat)

Unsurprisingly, Alexa’s real contribution was allowing us to do things hands-free, since our hands are either covered in baby or holding a poop. Wait, that doesn’t sound right.

At six months, we still make use of the home automation, but now we’ve added other skills to the mix:

  • Alexa, play Caspar Babypants (via Music Unlimited)
  • Alexa, set the nursery to 20 percent (via Hue bulbs)
  • Alexa, play Paper Planes by M.I.A. (to time diaper changes)
  • Alexa, how’s the weather?
  • Alexa, pause the TV.

For the longest time, I didn’t consider how aware Matador was of Alexa, until one day about a month ago, I asked her to play Run, Baby, Run, which is Matador’s favorite song. As soon as I said the words, a mild look a recognition came over his face, but it was nothing compared to when Alexa said:

Playing Run, Baby, Run by Caspar Babypants…

Just hearing Alexa speaking causes Matador to smile. He recognizes her. He looks in her direction, which is probably confusing, since there’s no face there. Maybe I should put a face there. Huh.

He hears her name so often, I wonder if his first word will be Alexa. Babies can start psuedo-talking at six months… how long before he’s able to talk to her directly?

I love technology, but I love the fact that my son will grow up in a world where he simply has to ask for something, and the audio recording of his voice will be sent to Amazon via the FBI where it will be converted into words, evaluated, and responded to.

As a child, I spent the better half of a day rigging up a pulley system that enabled me to turn on the lights in my room without getting out of bed (because monsters). Matador will simply ask Alexa to do it.

Unlike when you introduced Alexa to your kids, she won’t be a novelty to him. She will have always been there–an integrated part of his life that he will assume is natural.

I’ll be keeping an eye on how this relationship progresses. Alexa is getting smarter every day, but so is Matador. Just yesterday, he learned what a cold is. And his parents learned that babies can’t blow their noses on their own.

Alexa, suck the snot out of my baby’s nose with this tube apparatus.

Sorry. I didn’t understand the question.

Sure you didn’t, Alexa. Sure you didn’t.

 


Photo by Piotr Cichosz on Unsplash

Growing Up With Alexa – 6 months

Applied Harmonics

glen-carrie-66914To understand the scope of Applied Harmonics’ work, you have to look at the startup scene in Austin, Texas around the mid-90’s, back before the scene itself had a name. Around that time, Austin was seeing an influx of Californian money, most of it by way of rich West Coasters who fled the high cost of living for the laid back, BBQ and beer lifestyle of the Live Music Capital of the World. They took the foundations of Silicon Valley and started rebuilding it here.

Austin never achieved Silicon Valley 2 status, but we did have our share of success. Dell, which sold personal computing devices to the common man, began its life just up the road from us. The city attracted giants like Borland, SolarWinds, and Tivoli Software. AMD, Intel, and Samsung had a huge semiconductor presence as well. Couple all of this technology with the University of Texas, and you’ve got a city ripe for cutting-edge theoretical research.

Applied Harmonics (abbreviated AHI thanks to a tacked-on “Inc.”), started as a thesis project by a UT student named Arthur Rubens. One of the major shortcomings of string theory at the time was that it didn’t explain particle behavior in all circumstances. In terms of gravity, the model behaved one way. In terms of space-time, there were gaps that just couldn’t be explained. Rubens, in his own words, stumbled upon a unified string theory after a night of heavy drinking during which he overwrote his boson equations with fermion equations on the same whiteboard.

History was never the same. Our history, anyway. Evidently, you people can create technological wonders that boggle the mind, but string theory is a bridge too far.

I don’t pretend to know anything about string theory, though perhaps if I did, I could return home a la Sam Beckett. All I know is that in the fall of 2016, Rubens and his team had a breakthrough, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of countless universes.

A little about November 2016. Life as an American in my world was about separating the micro from the macro. Our media companies weren’t as pervasive (and invasive) as yours, but they were no less harmful. Owned by rich, entitled white dudes who themselves were owned by political parties and larger companies, skewed the news to push whatever agenda they deemed most profitable. And when they had the opportunity to keep a self-proclaimed bigot and sexual predator from being elected president, they failed miserably. Protests, hate-crimes, and general anxiety pervaded the landscape.

For most of us, we kept watch on things closer to home: our family, our friends, our cozy little job and cozy little car. I was never the protesting type, nor was I someone who believed a president could do much of anything except drag us into another recession, for which my positions were prepared anyway.

All of this is to say that no one was really paying attention to the things that mattered: science, technology, medical developments, etc. They were too focused on a buffoon demanding security clearance for his children, as if his nepotism was a surprise to anyone.

That year, I’d been married to Maisie for about five years, and had worked at AHI for more than ten. My focus had been on her, on our attempts to start a family, and our never-ending quest to lose weight. At work, Monroe and I kept busy writing scripts to parse the massive amounts of data Rubens was pulling in from what he called other “shades” of universes. These shades had to be compared to ours on the atomic level, which meant our best computers (tinker toys compared to yours) needed to be told how to make that comparison.

Monroe had only been with the company about four years. He’d replaced a sharp guy named Han who quit to move back to Korea to take advantage of their burgeoning tech scene (of which I was completely unaware). Monroe and I became fast friends, mostly due to our hatred of Austin drivers and mutual love of the Dallas Cowboys football team. That year, they had been on a hot streak behind two new rookies, which meant Monroe and I would spend most of Monday reliving the highlights from the previous day’s play.

A little about Monroe. He’s the coolest black dude I’ve ever met, and though he prides himself in being a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody, he looks like a strong gust of wind might carry him off at any moment. I guess that’s why he wears his gold chains, to weigh him down. None of that matters though, because Monroe always has a smile for everyone. He’s a genuinely nice guy in front of the suits.

But in the lab? When the doors are closed? He’s just as depraved as the rest of us.

It was Monday, November 14, if I recall correctly. The week before Thanksgiving. Maisie and I had been dreading the holidays since both of our families were getting a little too pushy with their demands of grandchildren. The Cowboys had just pulled off an insane back-and-forth victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers and I couldn’t wait for Monroe to get in.

It was after nine before he finally rolled in complaining about the traffic.

“She saw me put my blinker on,” he said, dropping his backpack onto his desk, “and she sped up anyway. What the hell is wrong with people?”

“At least the Cowboys won,” I replied.

“Hells yes!” Monroe leaned over for a high five. “My man Zeke is killin’ it!”

I won’t bore you with the specifics of the conversation, but suffice it to say it ended with us agreeing that Jason Witten was the best thing since sliced bread. By the time we’d watched all the replays and discussed the playoff picture, it was close to ten.

“I’m gonna get some coffee before the data pushes,” he announced. “You want anything?”

“I’m good,” I told him, turning my attention back to my computer. I had a bunch of browser tabs open to various sport sites, so after one more replay of Ezekiel Elliot slicing through the Steeler defense, I closed the entire browser and launched SecureCRT.

Buried deep under the rolling Lakewood hills, AHI’s server cluster churned in the LED twilight. Environmental systems kept the cavernous data center at a brisk 64 degrees. The racks were protected by steel cages, and only a small team of engineers were allowed physical access. Everyone else had to go through multi-factor authentication to get command-line access.

I typed in my various passwords, consulted my keyfob a few times, and eventually got access to Pylon 18, which was due for a data push at exactly 1000 hours.

When I joined the company in 2006, Rubens and company were running tests manually, compiling the data by hand, and then offloading it to the software devs for analysis. Ten years later, the tests were all automated, and ran 24/7 but favored the evening hours when electricity was cheaper. Sometimes, Monroe and I could hear the Tuner in the next room popping on and off as it pushed particles from our universe into the infinite void.

They came back changed, and it was up to us to figure out exactly how.

Pylon 18 was running slower than usual that morning, though “top” didn’t show anything out of the ordinary. I finally figured out it was the disks. Despite having SSDs in a RAID array, the network throughput was overwhelming the file system, slowing down the entire server. I changed into the newest directory and watched a tar.gz file grow with every refresh.

Tests typically generated between 6 to 8 gigabytes of data per Pylon, but the archive file I was watching was already well over three hundred gigs. At five hundred it split (what developer saw that scenario coming?) and began writing a new file.

By the time Monroe returned with his coffee, Pylon 18 had sixteen archives, comprising just over 7.3 terabytes of data.

“Sweet Lady Gaga,” said Monroe, as an alert flashed on his screen. “You seeing this? Pylon 17 just absorbed an 8 terabyte dump. I didn’t know it could take a punch like that.”

“Yeah,” I told him. “18 just got the same. What the hell happened overnight?”

Monroe had no idea, and there was nothing in the logs, but as we began to comb through the data, certain anomalies began to emerge. We shared the same general library of scripts, but Monroe and I were always trying to outdo each other when it came to making a discovery. I ran my scripts, setting off a dozen of them in unison now that the server was running faster.

“Offset,” said Monroe.

I tabbed through my screen session until I found the offset script. It was generating a rudimentary scatter plot with standard deviations showing all of the harmonic offsets from previous tests.

Harmonic offsets aren’t hard to understand if you think of them in terms of piano keys. In the middle of the keyboard, A is defined at 440 Hz. One half-step up is B-flat at 466.2 Hz. Think of the keys as universes. A tone in universe A vibrates at 440 times per second. In universe B-flat, it vibrates at 466.2 times per second. If you could reach into a grand piano and deform the string, you could push the A key into the B-flat range.

That’s essentially what the Tuner does. It deforms the harmonic frequency of matter, pushing it from our dimension to another.

“Someone keyed this in wrong,” said Monroe. “I thought offsets were supposed to be plus ones.”

We’d figure this all out later, but what we were seeing at the time was a scatter plot of harmonic offsets between 1 and 1,000. On the very left of the graph, as an obvious outlier, was the offset from the previous night’s test.

“That’s…” I had to pause to do the math, but I wanted to start talking before Monroe shouted out the answer. “Two by ten to negative sixteenth power. That’s almost nothing.”

If it helps, you can think of a tiny–nearly microscopic–key between the A and B-flat key on the piano. You can’t see it, and God only knows how you’d press it, but it does produce a tone that is distinct–at some level–from the A.

I looked over at Monroe; he was staring back at me, some kind of freakish smile on his face.

“I want to send the email,” he said.

“We don’t even know what we have yet,” I reminded him. “Just because someone fat-fingered the offset doesn’t mean the experiment worked. It could just be an anomaly.”

Monroe stood and walked to the interior window. He stared at the Tuner in the other room.

“No, it’s not an anomaly. It’s like just like I said. The offset was too high. They were pushing too far too fast.”

That got me laughing. “Like you knew.”

“I’m the smartest motherfucker you know, and I saw this shit coming a mile away. White people and their manifest destiny mindsets can’t settle for anything less than a grand slam. But you know what, man? Sometimes a single is all you need. Bunt that shit, and go from there.”

“We should really wait for the scripts to run. Let the computers tell us if there’s anything worth passing on to the suits.”

Monroe shook his head. “Thirty-six Pylons. Six to eight terabytes each. Two hundred and fifty terabytes total. That’s gonna put us into overtime. What are we gonna tell them when their results don’t show up in their inboxes at COB?”

He had a point. If Rubens had truly broken through to a new dimension, it wasn’t something we wanted to sit on. The prospect of raising a false alarm was nil in the face of the greatest discovery our universe had ever known.

“Let’s see where we are in a couple hours,” I said. “If anything looks promising, you can send out the email.”

“Fuck yes. I’m gonna bring the other Pylons online.”

I left him to his work and started thinking about the day to come. I’d been too excited from the football game the day before to get any real sleep, which meant I hadn’t worked out in the morning like I’d wanted to. My body was tired and already achy.

Sensing a late night, I texted Maisie to let her know she might be on her own for dinner tonight. She wrote back that if I ordered food in, I should get something healthy. I sent her an emoji of pizza and fried chicken.

“The Monroe-Ortega Offset,” muttered Monroe. “Discovery of the century.”

I backed out of the conversation with Maisie and found the thread with Elena below it. I asked her if Angel had watched the game yesterday and whether she finally understood why men loved Jason Witten. She wrote back and implied that I was a homosexual.

On the screen, output from my scripts scrolled in thin columns.


Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Applied Harmonics