back to tomorrowland
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by Miracle Jones
Two men, early fifties, neither of them married nor entangled, both drinking Limearita tallboys in paper bags out in front of the building where they live, hiding their drinks not out of fear that they will get in trouble, but because they don’t want anybody walking by and giving them shit for drinking beer that tastes like melted snowcones.
They both used to be college professors in other countries…now what are they?
Unemployed, first of all: Mohammad, old enough, is on Social Security and stretches it as far as he possibly can, repairing old computers when he can’t push it any further. Short money is a fractal; it can be infinitely deep but you get dizzy doing the math. Sasha does translation work sometimes. They both live in the same giant Cold War-era Jackson Heights building with a hidden garden and a nuclear fallout shelter in the basement. It’s rent-controlled; but shit is changing all over.
“Got another eviction notice today,” says Sasha, slurping down his sweet beer. “They are trying to kick me out again.”
“Hard to kick a person out in New York,” says Mohammad. “There are certain hoops. There are certain formalities. They are just trying to scare you into making a mistake. Persist. Do nothing.”
“Maybe,” says Sasha. “This isn’t the first notice, though. There was yellow tape over my door. In an ‘x.’ I need to get a teaching gig somewhere. Gotta get myself hired so I can show proof of income.”
“You have been…fallow…too long,” says Mohammad. “You could be the most accomplished Serbian historian of civil wars that there ever was…not saying YOU ARE…but even if you were, trust me, you will still be teaching Intro to American History at a state school. Is that what you want?”
“I don’t want to live on the street, my friend,” says Sasha.
“Better to live on the street than to see those blank dead pasty faces staring up at you at you every morning. Those early morning ponytails and flip-flop sandals. Children ordering academic champagne and sweetbreads, charging a banquet of education that they do not eat to their parents on the club card.”
“They are raising the rent,” says Sasha. “If I can’t figure it out, I will have to find a new apartment. Maybe the Bronx? Maybe New Jersey?”
“There are a million different laws protecting you,” says Mohammad. “You are overreacting. Upload your problem to a temporary. Takes five minutes. I can get you one right now.”
“No fucking way man,” says Sasha. “No fucking way. I can figure it out myself. I will get the law books, look up the penal codes. I have done this kind of thing before. I don’t need a temporary.”
“I have a whole bunch just laying around,” says Mohammad. “Why do you think I am not being evicted? They change the laws all the time. They have programs…there are algorithms changing the law as we speak…just to keep you confused. It works both ways. They also get confused. They have forced you into it; there’s no reason to have any kind of ideological opinion one way or the other...”
“If I get caught,” says Sasha.
“If you get caught!” says Mohammad. “Who is going to catch you? What are they going to say? Everybody does it. Don’t think you are special. They make you do it. It’s a game. You think any human beings at all left in this world understand all these laws, all these codes? People don’t even know how to walk down the street. Turn right, turn left. They check their phones to know which way.”
“I’ll get caught,” says Sasha, lighting a cigarette. Mohammad knocks back the rest of his tallboy and goes inside, knowing his friend too well, knowing what Sasha is really saying is “help me Mohammad, you are my canny and sophisticated computer friend, the brine of humanities has pickled my brain and I cannot cope with the modern world and its calculations.”
Alone, Sasha lights a cigarette, sipping his Limerarita slowly, running his fingers through his thinning hair, picking flakes from his dry scalp where the part in his hair entrenches, ready for enfilade.
Before he can finish his cigarette, Mohammad returns with two more Limearitas and a flash drive, which he holds out proudly.
“Push Systems,” says Mohammad. “Top of the line. Specifically for law stuff. You gotta scan all your documents. Just plug it into your deck or your pillar and follow the instructions.”
“I’m not using it,” says Sasha, putting it in his pocket.
“Okay man,” says Mohammad.
“How did you get so drunk?” asks Mohammad. “Never seen you this drunk before.”
“I’m not drunk,” says Sasha.
“Did you eat anything today?” asks Mohammad.
“I ever tell you about the angel glow in the battle of Shiloh?” says Sasha. “In the American Civil War?”
“I’m sure you did.”
“It was rainy, the soldiers were freezing to death, and some of their wounds started glowing with this green ghost light. This ‘angel glow,’ they called it. It made their wounds heal faster and they started rubbing against each other, trying to pass the glow on. Even though they were freezing to death out there in the rain, they weren’t dying off from infection and the bugs were even staying away.”
“You are talking such nonsense,” says Mohammad.
“Turns out there was this phosphorescent bacteria out there in the woods,” says Sasha. “It lives in the gut of some kind of prehistoric nematode, older than all human wars. Can’t recall the name. Some kind of thread worm. Ordinarily, it can’t survive in a human wound on account of the body heat. But it was cold enough in Tennessee that night that this bacteria could live inside the wounds of the soldiers who were already hypothermic. The bacteria healed ‘em up, like penicillin.”
They are silent for awhile. Mohammad dicks around on his deck.
“Photorhabdus luminescens,” says Mohammad finally. “When it infects a host, it causes them to secrete antiobiotics in the putrefaction. The mechanism for its bioluminescence is unknown.”
“That’s what I just said. How did you know?”
“I looked it up.”
“I wasn’t asking you a question,” says Sasha. “I was telling you a story.”
“Sounded fabricated,” says Mohammad. “I wanted confirmation.”
“Here’s something you can’t look up. The greatest battle of the American Civil War. Not Gettysburg, not Antietam. The battle of Memphis…a battle of…uh…the greatest human…eptitude. No temporaries fought in the Battle of Memphis. It was a human that beat those Rebels. A human Federal engineer!”
“Alright now, arm over my neck,” says Mohammad. “One foot in front of the other.”
They climb one flight of stairs, but this is where they stop.
“Hold on, I am gonna rest here for a minute. Gotta rest right here in this landing.”
He collapses at the turn of the stairs. Mohammad stands over him, stretching out his bad back.
“Why can’t you drink like a gentleman?” asks Mohammad.
“Because I am depressed and scared,” says Sasha. “So the Federals had the Rebels all bottled up except for Vicksburg and Memphis. The Federals controlled both the top of the Mississippi and the bottom. But the Rebels still had Memphis and so they were still able to smuggle supplies to their armies and also smuggle cotton out to England and France. Memphis was protected like a motherfucker. The Federals couldn’t bust it. The Rebel Navy had all these ships there. Good ships. But also shitty ships. They even had cotton barges with cannons on them that could fire big guns. The cotton bales would absorb bullets. They even had these big fucking paddle boats with cannons on ‘em; rebel gamblers working as captains.”
“Memphis…this is also in Tennessee?”
“YES man,” says Sasha. “Yes. It is where Elvis lives. So this guy…this human man…not a temporary!…this brilliant American engineer named Charles Ellett Jr. is all like: I can do it, I can win this war by myself. And so he writes letter after letter to the Navy, basically saying, force equals mass times acceleration, so what are you doing building sailboats? Stop building sailboats and let me have a bunch of money and I will build you something that actually works.
“They ignore all his letters, obviously, and then one day the Army, not the Navy, decides to take him seriously and give him some cash to see what he can do. He takes the cash and he spends it all on iron and wood and he builds what he calls a ‘steam ram.’ ‘It will go real fast right at the other ships and punch holes in them and then everyone on the other ships will surrender or drown,’ he says. ‘That is insane and ludicrous and you will die,’ says the Army. ‘No way,’ says Charles Ellett, Jr. ‘Anybody piloting a steam ram will be fine, as long as they are going fast enough. They will punch right through.’
“The Army gets boggled down with paperwork and so Charles Ellett Jr. builds a whole bunch of steam rams without anybody telling him no. But then, of course, nobody in the Federal Army or Navy will pilot them. The ship captains go on strike: never in a million years will they pilot one of these dumb rocket boats.
“So what does Charles Ellett Jr. do? He agrees to pilot the steam ram himself, and then he gets his sons and cousins and other relatives to pilot the rest of his fleet. The entire steam ram fleet will be piloted by Elletts. So now there is nothing really for the Army to lose except a couple dozen Elletts, which fine, okay, mark it down.’
“So the Elletts and their steam rams sail down the Mississippi and they come in sight of the Rebel Navy protecting Memphis. The Elletts start shoveling coal and get a good head of steam going, and they point their rams in the direction of the boats, and they let ‘em go. The rams punch right through, as advertised, ripping the hulls out of the boats. The Rebel Navy starts to sink, and the steam rams are too fast to be hit by cannons from the shore. The Rebel sailors swim away. The few Rebel boats not sunk skulk away to New Orleans.
“The Federal Army scrambles into Memphis and takes the city without one single casualty. There are no lives lost, on either side, in the massive steam ram engagement nor in the sacking of Memphis. Victorious, Charles Ellett Jr. makes his away ashore along with his sons and cousins. But a shot rings out as he stands on the banks of the Mississippi! He is plugged in the knee by a Rebel sniper. His femoral artery is severed, and he bleeds out right there, the only death in the Battle of Memphis. But he is a science hero. A human being. A permanent human being. Not a temporary…uh…artificial…intelligence.”
“I get your point,” says Mohammad.
“A human being did that,” says Sasha.
“I get it,” says Mohammad.
“Not a temporary,” says Sasha.
“Okay,” says Mohammad.
“A human being saved the city of Elvis from the Rebel scum,” says Sasha. “A human being…with a human heart…and human feelings…saved rock and roll. Not a temporary. Not one of your fucking temporaries.”
Sasha spends the whole next day researching his situation and trying to find a loophole that will let him keep his rent-stabilized apartment. There are moments when he feels a stab of hope, only to find on some legal github that his theories are bullshit, that a million sad people have already tried using the same dumb ideas and have failed. And hey HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT USING A TEMPORARY? YOU PROBABLY WON’T GET CAUGHT AND EVERYBODY DOES IT.
After lunch, Sasha gets on the train and goes down to the Mid-Manhattan library and looks around at the old dusty law books, but he has no idea where to even begin. The librarian is lost in the feed, ignoring even children who come up to ask questions, and so eventually Sasha leaves, uncertain which area of the law he even needs help with…is it contracts? Is it…litigation?
Sasha pours himself a beer in his hot, cramped, shitty apartment–the hot cramped shitty apartment that he loves–and gets back on the feed, looking up lawyers who he obviously cannot afford to pay.
After the sun goes down, he walks over to yesterday’s pants where they lay crumpled on the floor of his bathroom and he stares down at them.
“Okay,” he says. “You win. You temporarily win.”
He pulls the flash drive out of the pocket of yesterdays’ pants and takes it over to his desk, where his phone and console pillar are all set up. He plugs the temporary into his deck and waits for the world to explode; the police to bust in his windows. The world does not explode.
Instead, the temporary is sucked out of the flash drive and into the computer. There is a polite ding and a dialog box asks him if he is ready to proceed with the growth, cultivation, and culling of a disposable, temporary, artificial intelligence.
“WARNING: YOU WILL ONLY HAVE THREE MINUTES TO ASK QUESTIONS. PLEASE CLICK YES IF YOU UNDERSTAND AND ARE READY WITH YOUR DOCUMENTS AND STATEMENT OF PURPOSE.”
He clicks no.
Sasha looks around his apartment. He scans all the documents he has been sent by his landlord--along with his bills, rental agreement, bank statement, and latest tax return. Now that they are in digital form, he puts them all into a folder on his desktop. He drafts a short precis of his situation and what he hopes to accomplish. He puts the precis in the folder, too.
“I am summoning a demon,” he thinks to himself. “I can’t just do this with no protection. I’ve got to make a circle to keep the demon in, obviously.”
He opens a paint program. He makes it interface with his desktop background. He draws a white circle around the folder on his desktop with his finger. He drags the icon with the flash drive…the demon temporary… into the circle, too.
“Not good enough,” he thinks.
He moves his tiny kitchen table into his tiny living room to make an empty space and he searches his cupboard until he finds a nearly full bottle of Morton’s salt. He sprinkles the salt in a circle on his kitchen floor and he puts a single chair in the middle of the circle. He turns off all the lamps and instead lights saint’s candles from the drug store leftover from the last hurricane.
“Music,” he thinks. “And vestments.”
He puts on Bruce Haack’s “Electric Lucifer.” He rummages around in his closet until he finds his Civil War reenactment gear; a Union cavalry officer’s uniform complete with peaked cap. He puts on the uniform, spending a good thirty minutes shining up his boots and buckle. He pours himself a glass of bourbon and sits down in the kitchen chair in the center of the circle of salt.
He switches on his deck and puts it on the floor. The screen projects up in front of him, sensing where his eyes are. He clicks the flash drive icon once again, pressing buttons in the air.
“WARNING: YOU WILL ONLY HAVE THREE MINUTES TO ASK QUESTIONS. PLEASE CLICK YES IF YOU UNDERSTAND AND ARE READY WITH YOUR DOCUMENTS AND STATEMENT OF PURPOSE.”
He clicks yes.
“ARE YOU READY TO PROCEED? WARNING: PUSH SYSTEMS IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DAMAGE DONE TO YOUR COMPUTER WHILE USING A TEMPORARY ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. PLEASE DISABLE YOUR CONNECTION TO THE INTERNET AT THIS TIME.”
He unplugs his router.
He clicks yes.
“PLEASE DRAG ANY DOCUMENTS TO BE ANALYZED INTO THE PUSH SYSTEMS ICON”
He does as he is instructed, moving the folder with one hand, taking a sip of bourbon with the other.
“ANALYZING” says the dialog box.
There is a ping and then three more pings all in a row.
“ANALYSIS COMPLETE. TEMPORARY INTELLIGENCE IS NOW ONLINE. PLEASE SPEAK IN A CLEAR, LOUD VOICE WHEN ASKING QUESTIONS.”
A three-minute countdown hovers in the air in front of him, projected up from his deck. He looks at the countdown sideways, watching the numbers fall.
“Hello computer demon,” says Sasha.
“Hello,” says a voice from the speakers in his phone at his feet.
“You see my situation? You see how I am going to get kicked out of my apartment?”
“Yes,” says the voice from the floor. “I have developed a five point solution plan for you, which has been added to the situation folder on your desktop. I will summarize. Step one: file a Form 56-CX with the state of New York (I have already prepared the paperwork). Step two: write your landlord a cessation of rent payment and cessation of harassment letter using the template I have provided. Step three: document your living conditions for the next three to five days, photographing all level 4 hazards on the premises as you have already noted in your statement of grievance. Step four: retain one of the five pro bono rental attorneys I have flagged (and who have already won successful judgements against your landlord). I have already sent letters of arrangement to each of them and they are currently awaiting further instructions. Step five: move your checking and savings account into an encrypted “panic” account with your bank, citing an ongoing violation of Section 11B of the New York City Property Rental code.”
Jesus, he thinks.
Was that all?
Would it be enough? Would it really be enough?
Of course it would be enough. It is exactly what he should do. If he does anything less or more, he would be making a mistake. This is the correct answer for his life. The computer has told him.
Sasha looks at the countdown clock. He has a minute and a half left to ask the temporary more questions before the temporary shuts down, killed by its built-in protocols to keep it from getting too smart, from taking on too much processing power.
There are plenty of giant permanents that would gladly murder this temporary, or at least acquire it, if it were to worm its way onto the feed…but the processing power of such an encounter, not to mention the expense and usage spike, would get him caught.
“What job should I have?”
“PLEASE SPEAK LOUDER”
“I need a new job.” Sasha asks. “I am a history PhD.”
“There is a company called TalkSpace,” says the voice from the floor. “It is a chat-based therapy website, where people type in their problems and designated on-site professional helpers respond to the queries with messages of support and basic advice. As a phD, you automatically qualify to be a TalkSpace chat therapist. In theory, you can retain an unlimited amount of clients, and you will make $12 a day from each client. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, however, you can send each message you get from a client to remote workers in India, in the American South, in Eastern Europe, asking these workers to respond in a human way to each query. You can pay these remote workers a dollar per response, pocketing the profit, and you will therefore be able to engage with a near-infinite amount of TalkSpace clients. If you wish to maintain your current lifestyle, liaising with Mechanical Turk will take you fifteen minutes each day, and then you will want to spend another half hour or so editing the responses you get before you send them out, ensuring that you are not fired for incompetence or for encouraging self-harm. The amount of money you can make scales up significantly from here, depending on the amount of time you are willing to spend.”
There are thirty seconds left now. On a sudden whim, he drags his phD thesis into the circle, into the Push Systems icon.
“ANALYZING” says the dialog box. The counter continues to fall.
The dialog box disappears.
“Was there any way for the Federals to have taken Fortress Monroe?” mumbles Sasha. “Was there any way for the Rebels to have persuaded England to ally with them publicly and permanently and therefore gain the tactical, moral advantage in the war? Was Abraham Lincoln gay or just bisexual?”
“PLEASE SPEAK LOUDER,” says the box.
Sasha takes a long slow sip of bourbon, closing his eyes, conjuring red arrows and blue ones on a map thick with decorative cross-hatching.
“Have I wasted my life?” whispers Sasha.
“PLEASE SPEAK LOUDER.”
I am a permanent, he thinks, not a temporary. I can answer questions or not; I can teach or not; I can help or not: I can make shit up and pass it off as the truth and the story of it will trump the facts every time.
But he is no longer so sure anymore.
He hangs his head. His shiny reenactment cavalry boot kicks out involuntarily, scuffing the edge of the salt circle, breaking it. He watches the countdown fall to zero. He almost drops his glass of bourbon as he feels the life squeezed out of the demon he has summoned, but catches it just at the last moment and holds it tightly.
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