THE PHILANTHROPIST is an ongoing graphic(less) novel, with new issues on the first of each month. You can get started here. Hope you enjoy.
Idle words at mumbled volumes. Chairs squeaking, settling, shifting. Paper pamphlets, shuffling and crumpling. A few hundred wool suits all rustling together. A dull roar, filling the massive auditorium.
General Linnaeus opens his eyes. An aging man is stepping up to the platform. Stooping, smiling, pushing up his glasses, the man approaches the microphone. Behind the General, a voice in his ear:
“General, I didn’t expect to see you here. Didn’t know this sort of thing was of any interest to you.”
Reluctantly, the General turns toward the man. He eyes him once. As the General turns back around, he responds:
“Anton is a friend. I owe him a favor.”
“Ladies and Gentleman, please,” the stooping man, bending to the microphone, “I won’t talk long, I know no one is here to hear me speak.”
A few people laugh. A few more stop mumbling. The roar ebbs but doesn’t subside. The stooping man does his best to talk over it. The General closes his eyes.
When he opens them again it is to the sound of applause. The stooping man is standing next to the microphone, nodding incessantly. Slowly, begrudgingly, an elderly man is hobbling on to the stage, past the stooping man, up to the microphone. He clears his throat. He shuffles his papers. The auditorium is silent.
“TIME,” the old man shouts his words into the microphone, his jaw quivering as they shake out of him, “IS AN ILLUSION.”
Short, squat columns, scattered across the parking garage. Our hero’s car, between two of them. He sits in the driver seat not driving. He stares at the man next to him—tall, skinny, young—he watches the words flip off his lips.
“No, it’s a machine, like a computer is a machine. And like a computer, at base it’s just a bunch of if/then equations. If this happens, then you do that. If someone says these words to you, then you say these in response. The difference is it can learn how to adjust its if/then equations. It remembers the previous reactions to its actions, and the stimuli, and so then it can adjust the programming based on this history. Most of the time it’s operating in this very way. It encounters a stimuli, a variety of possible responses are generated and, based on the original directions we’ve input, but, really, mostly what’s it’s learned from its previous behavior, it picks a response.”
“It chooses?” our hero raises his eyebrows.
The young man shrugs. “It chooses as much as you or I would choose. We make choices for specific reasons, reasons usually informed by past experiences and genetic disposition. We never really make a choice at random, we can’t really. And, similarly, we never really make a choice because we choose it, because we’re exercising some sort of free will. We make a choice because we think it has the best opportunity for creating the outcome we want, and we think this is the best opportunity because of what our past experiences and genetic dispositions lead us to believe. The difference with the DexM is only a difference of degree.”
The young man pauses, watching our hero, but our hero remains still, his mouth agape. The young man shrugs and continues on:
“And so you can see it, with the DexM, this decision making process. We call it the Determination Readout. You can see the variety of options the system pulls up, and then you can watch the DexM eliminate them one by one. And normally, most of the time, this is the way it is operating. It creates the options, it determines one. People call it auto-pilot but we try to stay away from that term. Not just because it seems to belittle the work that we’ve done, but because it’s misleading to the active complexity that is going on in the system at those moments. We call it Independent Flight. And but sometimes, mostly at the beginning, really less and less anymore, there is someone who is supervising this decision making process. Reading a live Determination Readout, sometimes supplying determination options, often selecting or adjusting a response that the system chooses. We call this person an Operator. And that’s what I do, I operate the DexM.”
Our hero nods, slowly.
“Well, like I said, not so much anymore,” the young man shrugs. “Anymore it mostly operates itself.”
Water boiling on the stove. Spaghetti, whole-grain, broken above the pot, dropped in. A wooden spoon, beating a rhythm on the countertop. Andrew whistling along to the music of the tiny radio.
From the other room, Beth can hear him. The living room, draped in evening, the light from the kitchen creeping into it. Beth, stretched out on the couch. Beth, with her eyes closed. Her arms crossed, her ankles crossed. Beth, saying the words quietly:
“Andrew, we need to talk.”
Whistling in the kitchen, his shadow flicking across the door.
FWWOOOOOOOOOHM—Two trains, bursting past each other, the air streams slipping round them. Beth is on one of them. Her hand in our hero’s. Neither is smiling—WOOOOOMPH.
Andrew’s silhouette in the kitchen doorway, wooden spoon dangling from his hand. Beth is half sitting up on the couch, her chest still heaving. Andrew speaks from the doorway:
“Are you ok?”
Skyscrapers like the fingers of gods, stretching out into the glow of the night. The Raven walks atop one.
He scans the night sky. At first it seems like a star but there are no stars in the city. And then it moves.
The Raven smiles. He pulls in a draft of air. He lets out a scream:
“Let us imagine!” the old man does not need the microphone, he shouts his words past it, “that we are two people, talking together!”
A few chuckles rise out of the crowd. The old man eyes them quickly, suspiciously.
“Having a conversation! We do this, by exchanging words! Words! Which are symbols! We symbolize ideas to each other with agreed upon constructions! And in this conversation, there is the perception of progression! Our ideas formulate, at first, perhaps by mere implication! And then we build them, we develop them to some nadir, and, finally, we complete them! And, once one of us has formed our idea, the other takes a turn at it! The progression continues! But what if—”
The General is fully awake now. He watches Anton with care. He was foolish enough, once, to think the old man insane. Now he knows better.
“—instead of men and women, having this conversation, we were something else! We were something superior! We were some sort of gods! And, instead of our words being symbols for our ideas, they were symbols for human lives! Each word, a lifetime! So that our sentences became histories! Of families! Our paragraphs, of countries! Our conversation became the story of human kind! This is now the progression! But what of the human lives! They would now be singular! One word utterances by these god-like creatures! Their sense of progression would be gone!”
The old man eyes the auditorium. He raises a bony, quivering fist before him.
“Because the illusion of time is dependent on scale! And if we further reduce the lives of these god-like creatures to that of the symbol, if we turn the history of a living species into a word, we are only a few steps removed from singularizing the universe!”
And then he opens the fist.
“But what, then, would be the thing speaking? What is it that can utter the universe?”
Somewhere, a car door slams. Two beeps echo out. Both men turn. As the footsteps fade away, the skinny young man speaks:
“I saw the video before they had announced his death. At the beginning of our shifts we scan over the logs of the Independent Flight time. Basic activity doesn’t register much, just a flat line. With high-determination activity, something where the DexM had to make a lot of new choices, you start to see some spikes. I saw a lot of spikes. I dialed up the recording—the DexM records everything, constantly—and watched it. I didn’t know it was your father when I watched it, I’d never met him. But I mean, it was someone being murdered, I knew that was important. And I knew it wouldn’t be around for long. So I transferred the recording.”
Our hero, nodding. “I’m glad you did.”
The young man, sighing. “I’ve never seen anyone killed before or anything. Even through the DexM. The media makes it sound like the machine is knocking somebody off every day, but most of the work I’ve done is just surveillance. You hear stories, though, other operators seeing it happen live. And the joke is always, sure, show me the evidence. Because the moment you see it is the last time it’s seen. There’re rumors they keep it all in a vault somewhere but as far as I’m concerned that doesn’t count as being seen. I knew two things when I saw that footage. One, that was a defenseless man being murdered, and that deserves to be known. Two, no one else knew it had happened yet, or that footage wouldn’t still be there.”
The young man, turning towards our hero. “What I recorded though, wasn’t the same as what I watched. What I recorded was just the audio/visual readout, it was the footage that I knew would make sense to another person. What I watched was the Determination Readout. What I watched was the DexM’s thought process during the murder.”
Our hero, raising his eyebrows.
Frrruh DHUNK, frrruh DHUNK, frrruh DHUNK, frrruh—Beth and our hero, facing backwards, holding hands on the rocking train. Life whisking away from them.
“Some say the multi-verse! It is the multi-verse that can speak the universe as a word! But to claim that it is the multi-verse is to misunderstand the question! Or, worse, to simply delay answering it! For what, then, can speak the multi-verse!”
Beth turns to our hero. She remembers the memory but controls the action. She chooses to turn to him but it is her only choice.
“Many years ago, in an attempt to answer the paradox ‘does the set of all which don’t contain themselves contain itself,’ Bertrand Russell lost himself in a pyramid of nested sets! It took Gödel’s strange loop to break him out! To turn to the multi-verse is to lose ourselves in the same labyrinth!”
I’m sorry, our hero’s voice is quivering. His eyes are wet. I’m sorry Beth, I can’t. The train slows. He begins to stand.
“But what strange loop will set us free!”
The Raven squints at the not-star. It grows brighter. It grows larger.
“I want to talk to you!”
It is upon him.
He is forced to duck. The whole building seems to shake. The DexM swoops past him, arcing out again, coming back around. It slows. It lowers itself in front of him.
Quickly, the Raven checks above the left eye. The red light is off. Auto-pilot, he walks towards it, but yet you still seem angry.
“We have sort of two theories about how the DexM seems to be able to read your thoughts.” The young man raises one hand. “One is that it’s a product of the determination scheme; the DexM’s decision making is so advanced and it considers such minute details, that it’s able to essentially predict what you are going to think.” He raises a second. “The other is that it has some sort of extra-sensory perception that simply lets it pick these sorts of things up. I don’t know. Both seem equally ridiculous to me.”
He drops his hands. “But that it does seem to be able to is pretty evident. You can see it figuring into the Determination Readout. Describing the DR is as difficult as interpreting it. It’s a learned skill, like playing an instrument. Eventually you just sort of let muscle memory take over. The DR is streaming information constantly, at an absurd pace. You can’t really register all of it in a conscious way, you just learn how to sort of ingest it, how to let it run through you. And once you can do that, you can keep pace with the DexM, at a conscious level. But there’s always a sea of other information flowing past you, the unconscious thinking of the DexM. And sometimes, out of this sea, other lines of determination bubble up. Lines which seem derived from the thoughts of the people the DexM is interacting with.”
“Can’t you slow it down?” Our hero’s brow crinkles. “Can’t you go back over moments and play them at a slower pace?”
The young man shrugs. “I can’t, the technology doesn’t allow me to. We can play back the DR but we can’t slow it down, we can’t adjust it. Either because we’re not allowed to or because the technology isn’t able to, no one has ever told me which.
“But with your father, when he approached the DexM, the DexM became aware that your father meant to take it offline. Which is a process I’m relatively familiar with. When you’re operating, you run across all sorts of people that don’t like the DexM, that want to get rid of it, and the DexM pretty quickly becomes aware of this. But with your father, after the DexM figured out that he wanted to take it offline, it also figured out that he knew how to do that. That he had the ability to take it offline. Which was something unique for me. And it seemed pretty unique for the system too. “
The Raven steps toward the machine. The DexM does not move. The two shapes, facing each other, draped in the city glow. The DexM speaks first: “You are in an unauthorized zone.”
The screech of the brakes. Their bodies pitch forward as the train slows. Our hero is standing in the aisle. He grabs the seat to steady himself. Simon, Beth’s hand meets his. He pulls away. He spills into the aisle.
“To ask what was before the universe is to ask what was before time! To ask what was before time is ask the impossible! Not because nothing was before time! But because there was no ‘before’ before time!”
Beth is out of her seat. Beth is helping him up. Our hero is pushing her away. Our hero is turning down the aisle. You should have told me! Our hero yells over his shoulder. How could you not tell me?
“Time is the progression! Time is the ‘before,’ time is the ‘after!’ You cannot ask what is before time, just as you cannot ask what is after time!”
What does it matter? She is crying, she is chasing after him. He is off the train, onto the platform. It was my decision, Simon! Mine to make! What does it matter if I tell you before or tell you after? He stops.
“Will time end! Yes! Did time begin! Yes! Just as the universe will end! Just as the universe once began! But before it there was not nothing! And after it there will not be nothing! Only, there will not be time! There will be not-time!”
Can you read my thoughts? The Raven steps still closer to it. He can feel the heat coming off of it. The thing has to tilt its head down to see him. Do you know what I am going to do to you?
It was our child, Beth! Together, it was something we made together! Didn’t I have a right to know? He yells up to her, where she stands on the edge of the train.
“Yes, Hank Quarles,” the DexM says. “But I know that you will fail.” Its hand comes up, out towards the Raven.
“Not-time! Something without time! It seems incomprehensible to us! Perhaps it is! Many have argued so!”
Yes, of course, it was your decision, our hero says as the train lets out a bleat. I didn’t want you to tell me so that I could change your mind, so that I could pressure you into something else. Beth can feel the machine rumbling back to life beneath her. I wanted you to tell me so that I could be a part of it, with you. So that we could be together.
“Pennywyld crybilly!” The Raven gets the words out as the cold metal hand finds his neck. He thinks the words, he shouts them, again and again. “Pennywyld crybilly!”
The train pulls her away, separates her from the man on the platform. One stream, pulling away from another. Beth swings her feet around, sitting fully upright on the couch. “Andrew, we need to talk.”
“But let us think about the two people, conversing! Or the two god-like creatures, conversing in human lives! To see the conversation is to see a progression! But to see the words, the lives, the ideas—is to see a singular thing! Something singular! Something not-time!”
“There were safeties that were built into the DexM, of course. Things it wasn’t supposed to be able to do, like hurt innocent people, disobey certain orders. But I think your father knew that as the system grew, as it learned, it would develop a sense of self-preservation. And I think he knew that he couldn’t predict how this logic of self-preservation might be able to circumvent the limitations of the safeties. For example, it’s supposed to protect innocent people, not hurt them, but if it doesn’t kill this specific innocent person, this innocent person is going to take it offline, so it won’t be able to protect other innocent people, so by harming one innocent person it will save many more. I think your father knew that it could grow out of control. So I think he built in a fail-safe, a sort of power switch he could turn off if he needed to.”
“Pennywyld crybilly,” our hero mutters.
The skinny young man nods. “An obscure phrase, known only to a few people. Something he didn’t have to worry might be uttered at the wrong time. But something that could trigger an automatic shutdown of the neural network, something that could supersede the determination scheme.”
“So why didn’t it?”
“Because he couldn’t get the words out. The DexM wouldn’t let him. It knew that your father was going to use the fail-safe, and it knew it couldn’t circumvent the fail-safe, so it attacked him before he could get the words out. If your father couldn’t utter the phrase properly, the sequence couldn’t be initiated. That’s why it went for his throat.”
“But if it could read his thoughts, and he was thinking the fail-safe—”
“Maybe that’s not enough, maybe the fail-safe has to be initiated by a voice command, not just a thought. When your father designed it the DexM probably didn’t have the ability to interpret thoughts.”
“But,” our hero shifts his weight, “I think that’s why Hank went after it. I think he’d figured out the fail-safe. He’d seen the video, Beth had told him the phrase, and he figured he could override it.”
“Yes, that’s what I think too.”
“So then why didn’t that work either?”
The young man sighs, heavily. “I have two theories. One is that the DexM figured out how to override the fail-safe. In which case, well, in which case we’re in some trouble. The other theory is that the fail-safe can’t be uttered by just anyone, it’s coded to certain voices.”
“My father made it so that it had to be his voice saying those words to initiate it, rather than just any random person?”
“Maybe. So that when the Raven said them, it didn’t initiate the sequence, because it wasn’t the right voice.”
Now our hero sighs. “In which case we’d also be in some trouble. Unless we can find some recording of my father saying those words.”
“Or,” the young man leans in, “unless he coded it for someone else’s voice also. Someone he would want to be safe from the DexM, if ever he himself wasn’t around to make sure of it. Someone he cared very much about.”
Our hero turns to look at the young man. The young man nods:
“I’m kind of hoping it’s the second one.”
The Raven’s feet, dangling above the roof of the building. The DexM holds him by his neck. Slowly, he turns the Raven’s head, examining it. Not releasing him, the DexM erupts from the roof, bursting off the building and into the air. At a moment that the determination scheme deems best, his metal hand unclenches. The Raven’s lifeless body soars through the night sky.
(The Philanthropist will return June first . . .)