FOOLS' EXPERIMENTS (CHAPTER 1)
The bright red ball rebounded with a most satisfying sound, although the racquet continued on its arc without any apparent impact. Doug Carey hurriedly wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his left arm, carefully keeping his eyes on the ball. Precisely as he had intended, the ball passed through a translucent green rectangle suspended in the vertical plane that bisected the court. The ball instantly doubled its speed.
Across the court, his opponent grunted as he lunged. Jim Schulz caught the ball on the tip of his racquet and expertly flipped the orb back through the green region. The ball redoubled its speed.
Doug swore as he dived after the ball. It swept past him, obliquely grazed the floor, and careened first from the rear wall and then from a sidewall. The ball winked out of existence as it fell once again, untouched by Doug's racquet, to the floor. "Good one," he panted.
Jim waved his racquet in desultory acknowledgment, his T-shirt sodden with sweat. "Pull," he called out, and a new red ball materialized from the ether. Jim smacked the ball to the court's midplane, just missing the drifting triple-speed purple zone. The unaccelerated serve was a cream puff; Doug ruthlessly slammed it through purple on his return. A red blur shot past Jim to a brown "dead zone" on the rear wall, from which the suddenly inert ball dropped to the floor like a brick. This ball, too, disappeared.
"Roll 'em." Yet another red ball appeared, again in midair, this time at Doug's invocation. He twisted the racquet as he stroked the ball, imparting a wicked spin. The serve curved across the court, rebounding oddly from the floor and sidewall.
Not oddly enough. Jim pivoted gracefully, tracking the ball around the rear corner. He stepped behind the ball as it rebounded from the back wall, from which position he casually backhanded it. The ball sailed lazily toward midcourt, aimed squarely at a foot-squared drop-dead zone floating scant inches above the floor.
Doug dashed to center court, ignoring an alert tone as he crossed the warning line on the floor. He swung his racquet into the slight clearance between the vertical brown region and the floor. He misjudged slightly: The body of the racquet swept effortlessly through the court's vertical bisection plane, but the handle struck with a thud. A loud blat of disapproval drowned out his sharp intake of breath, but not the jolt of pain that shot up his arm. All but the offending handle vanished as he dropped the racquet. "Damn, that smarts!"
"Are you okay?"
Doug grimaced, rubbing his left hand against his right forearm just below the elbow. He pressed a thumb into a seeming birthmark, and was rewarded with a subcutaneous click. Through clamped teeth, he forced out, "That's it for today. Don't watch if you're feeling squeamish."
He grasped firmly with his left hand, and twisted. The right forearm popped off, to be placed gently onto the court floor. Doug massaged the bruised stump vigorously. "To coin a phrase, ouch."
Jim walked to center court, beads of sweat running down his face and glistening in his lopsided mustache. He sported possibly the last long sideburns within Western civilization. "Anything I can do?"
"Uh-uh." The answer was distracted.
His friend pointed at the numerals glowing on the ceiling. "Twelve to ten, pretty close. Why don't we pick up there next time? I'll call you tonight. Abracadabra." The last word was directed at the court, not Doug. Jim disappeared as thoroughly as had the out-of-play balls earlier, but with the added touches of a soft "poof" and a billow of swirling white smoke.
"Abracadabra," Doug agreed. Jim's half of the room promptly vanished, revealing at what had been center court the wall that had so rudely interrupted the game. Doug peered at the shallow gouge in the plasterboard that calibrated by how much his depth perception had failed him. Virtual racquetball with real divots: Maintenance would just love that.
Sighing, he reached for the Velcro buckle of his game goggles--and missed. Look, Ma, no hand. He was more successful with his left arm. The colored regions floating about the room, the glowing scoreboard, the lines on the floor--all the ephemera--disappeared. Stark white walls now surrounded him, interrupted only by glass-covered inset minicam ports and the thin outline of a tightly fitting door.
Doug carefully laid down his computer-controlled goggles, although its LCD eyepieces and stereo speakers weren't all that fragile, then wrestled himself back into the prosthetic forearm. He hoped the impact of racquet on wall hadn't injured the limb. He would find out soon enough.
Doug glanced at his wristwatch, and it was as late as he had feared. The more conventional part of work called.
Doug strode from the virtual-reality lab to his office, whose laser-carved wooden nameplate announced him to be Manager, Neural Interfaces Department. He paused beside his secretary's desk to check his tie. He'd be amazed if it didn't need straightening.
No surprises today.
The sidelight to his office door reflected more than his tie. His most prominent feature, a nose too large for his taste, stared back at him. Aquiline, Doug reminded himself, aquiline. Like an eagle. A hint of a mischievous smile flashed and was gone. What eagle had a bump like this on its beak? His hood ornament had come courtesy of a long-ago pickup football game gone a tad too enthusiastic.
He tugged the knot into something closer to symmetry before entering his office. A visitor waited inside, scanning titles on his bookshelf. "Sorry to keep you waiting," he said.
Cheryl Stern turned to face him. It was her first time at BioSciCorp, and Doug found himself taken aback. Cascades of wavy brown hair framed a face graced by wide-set hazel eyes, an upturned nose, and a sensual mouth. Her brief smile seemed forced and out of practice. She was slender and, he guestimated, about five foot four. All in all, very attractive.
The memory of Holly instantly shamed him.
Cheryl looked surprised when Doug waved off her outstretched hand. She would understand soon enough. He offered her a guest chair, shut the door, and hid behind his desk.
Her application sat in a manila folder in front of him. He got his mind back on the interview and the résumé. The résumé, he reminded himself severely, that had earned her his invitation. "Thanks for coming in, Cheryl. I hope you didn't have any trouble finding us."
"Your secretary's directions were great. I gather she gets to give them out a lot."
Implying the question: Against how many people am I competing? He also couldn't help noticing that she perched just a bit too far forward in her seat. He tried for a friendly grin. "There's no opening per se. You obviously know how few people there are in the neural-interfacing field. When a résumé as impressive as yours crosses my desk, I make a point of talking to its owner. If this looks like a fit, I'll make a spot."
She relaxed a bit at his answer but said nothing.
"Let's start with one of those open-ended questions candidates hate. I try to get those out of the way early. That way, Cheryl, you'll actually get to eat when we go to lunch. So, why don't you tell me a little about yourself?"
It was quickly clear she didn't intend to volunteer more than was on her résumé. "Excuse me please, Cheryl. What I'd like to hear is more along the lines of what you're looking for in a job. For instance, why did you contact BioSciCorp?"
It took a few tries, but he eventually got her to open up. ". . . And the field of neural interfacing fascinates me. Still, when I consider the potential of linking the human brain directly with a computer, my imagination can't quite handle it. Sure, I know the standard predictions: speed-of-thought control of complex machinery, immediate access to entire libraries, mind-to-mind communications using the computer as an intermediary. What I don't believe is that any of us can truly anticipate the full implications. When we pull it off, neural interfacing will have as big an impact as did the industrial revolution and the Internet."
When, not if. That was the attitude Doug wanted to see. "I agree: It will be astonishing. That's not exactly what we're working on here."
"One small step along the way," he conceded. "Mind if I do a quick overview of what we're up to here in my little corner of BioSciCorp?"
"Yes, I'd like that."
"Okay, then. Metaphorically, we're trying to walk before we run. The human brain is the most complex piece of neural engineering that we know, right?" She nodded to fill his pause. "The truth is, we--humans--don't begin to understand how the brain works. We're not even close to cracking the code. That's why BSC is trying to connect a computer to a much simpler structure of nerve cells."
Cheryl tipped her head in thought. "Say you do interface a lower life-form to a computer. How could you know if any communication was taking place, or how well it worked?"
"Who mentioned lower life-forms?" He took a moment's glee from her puzzled expression, then relented--sort of. He lifted his right arm off the desk, thinking hard about his hand. The microprocessor-controlled prosthetic hand slowly rotated a full 360°, the wrist seam hidden behind a shirt cuff. In the suddenly silent room, Doug heard the whirr of the motor by a freak of sound conduction through his own body.
"You've connected to the peripheral nervous system." Her eyes were round with wonder. "That's so astonishing." Then the personal aspect of his demo struck home, and she cringed. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Excuse me. I just get too wrapped up in technology. I don't mean to make light of your, uh . . ."
"No need to feel uncomfortable, Cheryl." He arched an eyebrow. "In the land of the prosthesis manufacturer, the one-armed man is king."
Cheryl laughed--behavior he could not help but find endearing in a prospective employee. The current staff knew all his material.
She said, "Um, but seriously, how did you do that?"
"My stomach alarm went off ten minutes ago. What do you say BSC springs for lunch and we pick up the discussion afterward?"
"You've got a deal."
After beef fajitas and the completion of Cheryl's interview, Doug did some management by walking around.
There had been a virus attack during lunch. They had been semilucky. On the one hand, the invader was not benign. On the other hand (an expression from which Doug could not break himself), the malware was clumsy and well understood. Well understood, that was, according to the web site of the Inter-Agency Computer Network Security Forum, the federal crisis-management organization that strove valiantly, if with mixed success, "to stem the rising tide of malicious software and computer break-ins." The press release announcing the forum's formation had brought unbidden to Doug's mind the image of King Canute drowning in a sea of hostile data. A far-from-bitsy bit sea.
The virus was brand-new that day, and hence unknown by and invisible to the company's Internet firewall and virus checkers. The forum's web site already listed hundreds of attacks. Behind a cute pop-up window (Dyslexics of the World Untie) hid a cruel, if apt, intent: randomly scrambling the hard drives of the invaded computers. It had to be a new infestation, since BioSciCorp's backup files were all uninfected.
In short, they had had a close call. He wondered if they would be as lucky the next time.
FOOLS' EXPERIMENTS. Copyright © 2008 by Edward M. Lerner.