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In a future world that is run by computer systems and that is without want, how can a man find his role? Then, if the very computers he works on to try to make them more human suddenly try to kill him, revealing a secret so vast that it affects every living soul on the planet, can that man be a hero?
These are the questions that face the stumbling, comic, and certainly flawed Simon Bank. His job is to work with the System’s artificial intelligence, making it fit more perfectly into human society so that it can keep the country running smoothly. But when the System threatens the peaceful world he knows, Simon suddenly must rush to save his own life, as well as the life of everyone on earth. Forced to reassess everything that he thought he knew, he is caught within circumstances way beyond his control.
Simon’s only hope is to rely on intellect and instincts he didn’t know he had, and on new friends, not all of them human, to change himself and all humanity. And he doesn’t have much time.
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By Peter Riva
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2015 Peter Riva
All rights reserved.
AN UPSIDE-DOWN WAY OF LOOKING AT THE SYSTEM
From the beginning, that first morning, I knew there was something wrong. The sky shouldn't behave like that; nature wasn't programmed to produce effects like those. So many people shouldn't have died. Like everyone my age who remembered a time when everything didn't work so cohesively, so perfectly, I listened with only scant attention to gossip that we were in for a catastrophe "sooner or later." It always popped up as ridicule on the Net — the same doomsday prediction made by people wanting attention, their images on the video screens, or so I thought. I was wrong; sooner had come.
The day had started much like any other. I awoke in my bedroom across the hall from my wife's, stretched my fifty-year-old, six-foot joints and ligaments until they stopped popping, washed, examined the slight pot belly I was getting in the mirror, and got dressed in the blue gear my job called for, like so many thousands of other clean-room, System employees. I stuffed my pale blue dust-cover over-shoes in my back pocket while I recorded a morning greeting to the family, my gang, who would probably get it around lunch when they checked the home net to order up dinner. Today was a fine day, gentle breezes from the west, so ordered by the System, and I rather cheerfully set off to work. It was work I liked really. We all like our work; it was the number one criteria for any job application nowadays. Mine was, well, just better suited to what I wanted currently. Like everyone, I had once wanted something else. Musician was a joke, a pipedream really, left over from days of youth when music was a common bond, not a cultural thing. Music didn't push the envelope of existence anymore, and that was a good thing, so society decided. Music was mainly a reality enhancer and I couldn't have been less interested in what my parents had once called "elevator music."
The job I wanted and applied myself to currently was to help humanize the artificial intelligence of the System, to make it fit more perfectly into the needs of society, the nation and, of course, keep all the needs of America running more smoothly.
Leaving the house, alone as usual, I keyed a simple reminder to my only real son who would be, if I remembered properly, leaving our atmosphere today. "Godspeed" I keyed in and pushed send on the reminders tablet by the door. That should make him chuckle. God indeed.
The elevator dropped me directly onto the third-floor access for my commute on the elevated high-speed conveyor-way called the NuEl running from our apartment on 3 Avenue and 123 Street to my stop midtown and then all the way on downtown to Battery Park. Manhattan had long ceased to be a town with now over sixteen million people, but residents still cling to that terminology as a badge of belonging. Manhattan still has cultural pull.
As I stood waiting to move across the NuEl to the fast lane, I looked across 3 Avenue towards the still rising sun appearing over the skyline of Queens and Brooklyn. There it was, a line of storm clouds approaching from the east. But the wind was from the west, as predicted. The conveyor edge moved beneath my toes and I stepped on, lively, and then hopped left across onto each faster moving belt, threading my way through the crowds in the morning rush. Through the glass dome over our heads, I stared at the advancing clouds against the prevailing breeze. They simply had no right to be there.
Long before I reached my step-off street, the clouds had gathered strength and color, turning an ominous pinkish green. Rain had begun to fall. The west wind rolled the dangerous mass onto its side and, almost as if by magic, I saw the funnel appear and extend down, pointed like a finger of fate at the intersection, my normal stop, less than a block away at 57. Some people outside the NuEl dome waiting to hop on looked up, others were unaware. Most were then lifted, somewhat magically, to drift away inside the funnel. Some, on the edges, were thrashed about, split, gutted and strewn across the avenue. All in silence, no bomb, nothing but the white noise of the tornado, limbs were torn from innocent people in silent screaming terror. The people it didn't take up became punching bags for its anger, debris pummeling them, people thrown against people. In terror, I aimed my feet quickly at the 59 Street exit, moving swiftly across to each slower conveyor and then off and ran down the recycled plastic steps to street level.
As I ducked into the nearest shop for cover, I was suddenly aware of a curious memory. I was eight; my father was telling me that everything was related, not relative, but related to my actions and desires. The man you saw on the street would, when you stopped watching him, vanish and re-appear when you next needed him. You think you travel by plane (back then) but God, somehow, was manipulating your reality for you; you sat down, noise and effects happened, you got up and the scenery had been changed, presto, you were in Paris. But not. There was no "there" over there. It was all here. Everything you saw was related to what you saw before. There were clues, if you looked for them, to God's theater as he called it. For years as a kid I searched and studied, often thinking he was possibly right, a face in a crowd here, a dress there, a somehow familiar landscape and always déjà vu.
Then, one day, I was stranded on an expedition and knew what it was like to be truly alone, no body, no God, nothing. Me. An asteroid. Nothingness. Void. Dad had lied. Well, not lied, he'd made up a far too-convincing fairy tale. Or was it? Looking down the street through the laminate glass of the shop, leaning over the vases of blooms, the sales' girl yelling at me not to squash the floral display, what I saw could, very possibly, have been a bad day for God. His theater props had gone awry.
As quickly as it had appeared the funnel slowed and vanished into itself. Overhead the clouds rolled back a block or so, becoming wisps and then they too were gone. The weather was back as predicted. Someone was going to lose their job over this one. WeatherGood One had always been the most reliable service in America, creating perfect weather for the System, yet today it had failed. Of course, Dad would have said there was no WeatherGood service at all ... oh, to heck with that, Dad, I thought, move on, it's over. I tried to put it behind me.
Of course, it wasn't over. The Event was only just beginning.
* * *
Why is it that reality is always measured by the very things that give us the most problems? Once upon a time it was an asset to have lots of kids because they could help you with the farm chores. Then, a hundred years ago, the population took a dive as people realized that kids were expensive, so although 1.2 per family was considered enough to satisfy primal urges, it was not enough for the country to sustain its growth or economic system. All sorts of tax and financial breaks were dreamt up, to no avail. Immigration was the only solution, which lead to strife, internationally as well. As violence goes, when the military intervened, it wasn't much of a revolution or a contest. Those that had, had less, those that really had went on having more than they needed and those that had nothing at least got a foothold. But other nations weren't happy with America and we became isolationist, defenses fully empowered. Then after the earthquakes that destroyed Los Angeles, the economy was almost in ruins. And that lead, in the dead of winter forty years ago, to the devastating Purge when the military took over the reins of government and decided to make changes nationally and internationally to "safeguard the nation for all true Americans."
At school we were instructed to consider the Purge as beneficial to people now part of America, even though so many lost their lives in the process, accidental and deliberate. The new states of old Mexico and the provinces of Canada were the worst hit as bloodshed and then their annexation stripped away any of the old political autonomy. But, all in all, things have settled down, thanks, in large part, to the likes of WeatherGood One, the FarmHands, PowerCube and the other Systems' controls, all free of course, providing you are American.
But the Purge and its aftermath of military power brought with it changes within America as well. Maybe the hardest part was the enforced sterilization program for anyone who didn't have kids by the age of 30. And if you already did have kids, the gene tests were invasive to determine if you should have more. Draconian? For sure, but the reality is that medical costs came down immediately and, since the official word was that there was no God, certainly not one to trust in, there was no need to leave procreation up to Him. Heck, I don't miss my "little swimming buddies" as the nurse sickeningly called them as she stemmed their flow. And the benefit presented to offset the sterilization? Nowadays no one is prevented from living as long as they want, science permitting. No one is kept from a job he or she wants. Everyone has total control over where they live, where they go to school, what hours they work, and what relationships they want, be it man, woman, or whatever variation of sexual proclivity that turns them on. With a fixed input of fresh workers, oops sorry, citizens, a steady climate, limitless food chain, and ample un-interruptible power, life can now be about those primal instincts, about getting on, achieving something, being an individual, and of course sex.
Okay, so for a short time people became drones. But then they began to realize that a job was worthless, a vocation the answer; that kids were reality, their future course a task of great creativity from womb to graduation. And so, as we all changed, and I'm just old enough to remember when it was still a 9-to-5 job world, the need for the placebos of that old life melted away. Fictional movies, TV, vids, art in stuffy museums, and almost all fictional reading material — all these now seem so pointless. As part of our new life we've reached out to that which inspires us, which gives us a sense of reality not falsehood, live performance has boomed, sport too. We still need a sense of, well, who we are as beings. Everything else is provided now, the struggle is gone, and that's a reality. Somehow, the primal brain can't quite absorb it. Well, I know that mine can't.
Kids seem totally adapted straight from the womb. I remember playing with blocks and model cars, creating make-believe scenes and cities. But today's kids reach out to model exactly that which is around them, making duplicates, not fantasy. Have they stopped dreaming? Nope. Their dreams are different, they dream as a dependence of their primal past, not as a forge for their future. I know, my first and only biological kid had a foot in each camp, sometimes fantasizing, sometimes evolving intricate duplicates of what was around him. The first time I saw my Freddie, then 4, make a model of his recently discarded bottle, complete with teat and milliliter markings, I worried, but the docs assured me this was a good thing, he was evolving. Of course our later, bioengineered, SynthKids never had this duality; they are only here to provide a better sense of our reality, not theirs. Oh, there's always the whisper of their consciousness. Meantime, the wife, who I nicknamed She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed (I always liked that series — Rumpole of the Old Bailey — when I was a kid — on TV Land — when satellite still existed) forced me to accept her four SynthKids as a "psychological extension to your reality." Yes, dear. Out-voted, one to one originally. Now I get out voted, by She-WhoMust-Be-Obeyed and the SynthKids — five to one. Freddie, at least, stays neutral.
The SynthKids are nice, and we got and get on fine. Heck, I can't tell the difference, really, since they made them so they can bleed and die and stuff. But, in my heart of hearts, they're not mine; although to glance at them (or see their DNA report) you couldn't tell. But they each have a look, a quirk, that's easy to recognize. My wife dotes on them and will until they leave at 18, when they recycle themselves, their programming kicking in like an alarm clock. Arrival is free of delivery pain, Immaculate Conception. Yet for eighteen years they are hers, for a while, and when they go she can get new ones, as many as she likes. A hundred years ago we'd have been stoned to death for turning our "kids" over for recycling. Now? Welcome to reality and ain't it comfortable, cozy, coddling, cute and — above all — creepy? Nah, I'm the only one who thinks so. I don't speak of these things. Oh, there's no law against it. Speak out all you want, but life will not be worth living with She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed if I do.
Maybe, thinking all these dark thoughts I was having a middle age crisis. As I frowned I made a plan to stop in and see the doc for a shot of little happy bots, tweaking up my serotonin production rate. Maybe he'll also give me a couple of those ForgetAll pills to erase the trauma of all those people near the NuEl who got mangled by the tornado. Until then I tried, hard, to act normal. Death and trauma didn't have to be part of our lives anymore, the System's functions would bring everything instantly back to normal, seemingly with no interruption, so why mourn? Why worry for your fellow man or woman?
Walking up these damn stairs to my office, my exercise monitor clicks away. It gives off little ticks of approval like a mechanical purring cat, so maybe it won't hum disapprovingly at lunch. No rush. I can't be late, no one ever can. The workload is as you want it, the goals as you set them. Sure, there are some over-achievers, people needing that self-approval or public recognition. Why else would anyone run for elected o?ce? Corruption in all its forms evaporated when there was no want anymore. Power? Hah with less than 2% of the people not voting and referendums ruling the land — even I chose to palm as I got on the NuEl this morning: "Do you want rain on Friday?" Palmed: "No." — Who's kidding who? Control by politicians? Not in this country. People cast mandatory votes on every damn little thing and politicians only serve to make sure the System functions as it should. Coupled with the DefenseShield (Slogan: "Twelve attacks and counting — not one citizen disturbed!"), government is relegated along with the old Pentagon and ex-State Department to menial Systems maintenance, sending threatening e-mails to rogue states who think they want a piece of the American pie, and, basically, are sidelined by human whim. "Do you want America to annex Venezuela to recover the rain forest for your holiday experience? Press your palm to vote yes or no." And it's law — politicians must follow the whim of the people. No lobbying, no leverage, no government alternate say really. Government actually works for the people, perhaps the only benefit of the Purge.
Of course the safeguard to all this is the Citizens Council which has control of the great Systems. I'm on the Council sometime in the future, they'll tell me when some day. Everyone has to serve for 5 weeks at least, but nobody is quite sure how it's arranged. On the Citizens Council there is no hidden voting, everything's open, humanity exposed at its most raw between Council members. People have been known to come out of those weeks of Council seclusion half-crazed, spouting unbalanced gibberish that they were being threatened by their fellow citizens. Usually it's the ones who want to "do" something who crack up, the majority of the Council being happy to toe the line of the New Life, as we've come to call it after the Purge. Doing nothing except that which you want to do is the New Way. It's funny how quickly "want" became "do nothing or do anything." Your choice.
These stairs are becoming harder ... puff, puff, puff ... maybe I'll move our office next week down from the 45. But I will lose the view toward the Park below the 40 floor.
My wife has sometimes voiced her chagrin at not staying home with the kids and raising them herself. Admittedly, she's not really the motherly type, if she were she could do that, of course, with the other moms. But it not being her vocation, the docs think it's unhealthy for the kids to be raised by someone who's not 100% passionate about it; the kids could become unbalanced. We do get them most evenings, or if we choose to work a night shift for variety's sake, during the day. The rest of the time they are at DayCare or in school immersion in the care of those people who are, presumably, of motherhood or educational vocational bent. Hah, bent, that's how my back felt every time I used to pick our real kid Freddie up. He's an adult now, wonder where he'll be next week? Last month he started training as a SpaceElevator operator, hoping to make the full crew list on some outward trip. Today's his first ride up. Like father, like son. Except I never told him my Dad's theory, so maybe he'll like the empty cosmos. Gotta remember to call him and find out how his first ride went.
Excerpted from The Path by Peter Riva. Copyright © 2015 Peter Riva. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1. An Upside-down Way of Looking at the System,
Chapter 2. I Get Skewered by My Own Program,
Chapter 3. What I Thought Had Gone Wrong, Hadn't,
Chapter 4. The Scene of the Crime — Mine and His,
Chapter 5. I Was Sure the Baby Was Going to Get Older,
Chapter 6. A Long Way Down — Or Was That Up?,
Chapter 7. What I Was Expecting ... Or, What Was I Expecting?,
Chapter 8. And Away We Go ...,
Chapter 9. Promise It Anything But Give It Hope,
Chapter 10. Spankin' the Babe,
Chapter 11. Am I a Hero? Cramer's Eyes Don't Lie,
Chapter 12. Escape,
Chapter 13. My Fault Becomes His Fault,
Chapter 14. A Secret Shared Is a Secret Halved,
Chapter 15. The Rats,
Chapter 16. A Day At the Races,
Chapter 17. Waiting For Godot, Cuba Style,
Chapter 18. Romulus Becomes Romula,
Chapter 19. Too Many Life Forms,
Chapter 20. Damn the Torpedoes ...,
Chapter 21. Finding Purpose and Home,
Chapter 22. Tag, We're It,
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